Perspectives Resources

A Protestant Resourcement: Why Theological Education Must Include the Fathers

Jackson Lashier

Despite the ressourcement movement in twentieth-century Catholicism, the writings of the Church Fathers remain largely understudied and under appreciated in the majority of Protestant seminaries. The reason for this, I think, lies with the center point of Protestant theological education, namely, the exegesis of Scripture. While exegesis as a center point is certainly not a negative aspect, the methods of higher criticism that still dominate Protestant exegesis are somewhat at odds with the methods of the Fathers, resulting in at best a mistrust and at worst an outright rejection of the Fathers themselves. Consequently, seminarians graduate with a strong knowledge of the Scriptures and, perhaps, the orthodox doctrines, but with little knowledge of the rich tradition that drew those doctrines out of Scripture. This is unfortunate because that tradition holds the key to unlocking many of the problems that currently plague theological education. I want to offer three reasons why a strong theological education must include a guided study of the Fathers.

An Alternative to Higher Criticism

With the onset of higher criticism of Scripture, a subtle shift occurred in the location of meaning from “in the text” to “behind the text.” Modern commentaries are dominated by questions about authorship, audience, context, and the like to such an extent that the commentary on the text becomes almost an afterthought. The practical implications of this are evidenced in theological education. The OT is now commonly referred to as the Hebrew Bible. The Pentateuch is parsed up into so many sources that the continuous story of God’s interactions with Israel is of secondary importance. The nonexistent “Q” source is often the subject of entire courses. Although no one can deny the positives that have come from the methods of higher criticism, the brass tacks is that these methods “don’t preach,” to use a common phrase. The jump from “what it meant” to “what it means” is of no concern in these methods and, as a result, are often of no concern in the sermons seminary graduates preach.

The study of the exegetical methods of the Fathers would help balance this critical approach to Scripture. In contrast to the assumptions of higher criticism, the Fathers believed that the Scriptures were ultimately the work of one hand: God’s hand. Moreover, the Fathers believed that they themselves, as the people of God, were the primary audience of the Scriptures. These convictions led to many of what we now perceive as odd exegetical methods. Allegory, to take the prime example, was employed by the Fathers in order to reveal the inherent unity of the Scriptures they believed existed due to its single, divine authorship. Allegory provided a means of reading some problematic OT texts (e.g., Ps 137) as coming from the God revealed by the NT, thus supplying the unity often missed in literalistic interpretations. More importantly, allegory expressed the Fathers’ conviction that there was a deeper, spiritual meaning to all of Scripture that precluded any modern distinction between “meaning” and “significance.” The Fathers did not read Scripture to understand what Paul was saying to an ancient congregation and then attempt to interpret the significance for themselves. The Fathers read Scripture to understand what God was saying directly to them. The notion of a deeper, spiritual sense provided this easy transition, a transition of which higher criticism is devoid. Although we should not seek to return to a precritical age of exegesis, the methods of the Fathers can balance the somewhat overcritical approach of modern methods and can offer resources for students seeking to transfer their exegesis to their sermons.

Many works of late have attempted to describe the Fathers’ rather elusive exegetical methods. The best I have read is Henri de Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis I: The Four Senses of Scripture (Eerdmans, 1998). A somewhat more accessible work is John O’Keefe and R.R. Reno’s Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (The John Hopkins University Press, 2005). Unfortunately, the Fathers themselves did not write manuals on how they did exegesis. The closest are probably Origen’s On First Principles, particularly Book IV, and Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine. But the best way to understand their sometimes quirky exegetical methods is simply to read their exegesis of texts. Chrysostom’s sermons provide nice test cases, as does Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho.

The Logic of Doctrine

At the twilight of modernity, the winds of theological change blow often and mightily. Every generation witnesses the birth of several new theological movements, such as feminist theology, process theology, queer theology, and the like. Although there is much that is positive in some of these movements, a prevalent and rather destructive theme runs throughout them, namely, the persistent attack on the orthodox doctrines cherished by the church for centuries. The claim is often made that these doctrines are the product of an imperial, power-hungry church and that they have little basis in Scripture. Though most mainline denominations, including United Methodism, still officially affirm the classic, orthodox doctrines, many mainline Protestant seminaries give more time in their theology classes to studying the tenets of these relatively new movements than they do to the formation of the orthodox doctrines. As a result, seminary graduates might know more about the arguments of these movements than the arguments or logic behind the doctrines that they were ordained to teach, preach, and defend.

Implementing the study of the Fathers would help to alleviate this problem. To use the Trinity as an example, those who study the Fathers will be able to follow the organic process whereby monotheism and the worship of Christ as divine, both beliefs endorsed in the NT, flowered into the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Irenaeus’ Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching or Tertullian’s Against Praxeas reveal that the raw materials for the doctrine of the Trinity are already fully present at the end of the second century, though Irenaeus wrote just twenty years removed from one of the worst outbreaks of persecution in his own city. (The argument that the Trinity is the work of an imperial, power hungry church falters when one knows the Fathers.) Moreover, those who worry that the doctrine of the Trinity subjugates women because of its casting God in solely male terms will find in the Fathers much room for emphasizing the feminine aspects of the divine. The Spirit is frequently referred to as female in the Patristic age by such notable authorities as Gregory Nazianzen and the Macarian Homilies, the latter of which had a significant influence on John Wesley. But a thorough grasp of the Fathers, one which goes beyond prooftext knowledge, reveals that these texts are not a carte blanche for speaking of God in any terms we choose. Athanasius’ Orations against the Arians, for example, reveals the dangers of abandoning the traditional Trinitarian nomenclature of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. His argument turns on the idea that Fatherhood is inherent to the nature of God. This scriptural appellation not only confirms God’s love for his creation (an attribute not inherent to the title Creator), it is also the basis for the eternal nature of the Son—if God has always been a Father, then there has always been a Son. New movements in theological thought are not to be discouraged because they can help us to see biblical truths in a fresh light and can help remove harmful blind spots, as has happened time and again. Yet it is precisely an understanding of the theology of the Fathers that will enable the theological student both to glean from these movements what is helpful and to sidestep what is not.

Histories of dogma are helpful tools in introducing the reader to the work of the Fathers in developing doctrine, though the reader should be aware that these grand narratives sometimes make things look tidier than they actually were. Jaroslav Pelikan’s series The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (5 vols.; The University of Chicago Press, 1971-1989), particularly volume one, is standard. A somewhat more recent work that better emphasizes the Fathers themselves as personalities is R.L. Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale University Press, 2003). Important Patristic texts addressing crucial doctrinal developments, in addition to the ones already mentioned, include Gregory Nazianzen’s Five Theological Orations, Gregory of Nyssa’s On Not Three Gods, and Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ.

The Marriage of Academia and Spirituality

Most seminaries today emphasize the importance of both academic rigor and vivid spirituality. The practical implementation of this desire, however, poses a particular problem. With all of the skills required of today’s pastor, viz., languages, exegesis, theology, history, counseling, missions, etc., most M.Div. degrees already require close to 100 semester hours. Spirituality, therefore, is often left to the responsibility of the student. Consequently, at many seminaries, the sad fact is that class attendance is high, chapel attendance paltry. The lack of spiritual growth in theological students is perhaps the most concerning factor facing theological education today. This factor has the most lasting effect, for better or for worse, on both the student and his or her future parishes.

The study of the Fathers in a theological program is a practical way to unite academics and spirituality, for the Fathers were churchmen primarily concerned for the health of their flocks. They would not have comprehended the divide between academics and spirituality that marks our theological education, and their academic treatises reveal this integration. Irenaeus argued that the Gnostics could not properly read Scripture because they did not possess the Spirit. Clement and Origen of Alexandria argued that if a person was living in sin, he or she would not be able to grasp God’s Word, for their judgment would be clouded. Cyril of Jerusalem’s works were extended lectures on the liturgical rites. Gregory Nazianzen wrote poems on the Psalms. Chrysostom wrote sermons. Ephrem the Syrian wrote hymns. Augustine’s Confessions, a study of metaphysics the likes of which has rarely been equaled, is essentially an extended prayer. The Fathers did not engage in abstract, disconnected philosophical debate. They were deeply devoted men with a passion for God and a passion for their people. They wrote passionate treatises on doctrine because they desired to know God better and to lead others along in that knowledge. As such, they are models for any student who desires to be a pastor. It will not be the sermons or the letters or the visits, but the example of a life lived in faithfulness to God, that will most affect his or her flock.

Though there are several secondary resources addressing the spirituality of the Fathers, the only way truly to grasp this important aspect is simply to read their works. Augustine’s Confessions is unrivaled in this aspect. Others that are worth reading, and a bit shorter in length, include The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius’ Chapters on Prayer, and Ephrem’s Hymns on Paradise.

Our Wesleyan and Protestant heritage is crucial to our theological formation. But we must realize that church history did not start with the Reformation or John Wesley. Wesley and the earlier Reformers were born from within a deep tradition of faithful men and women who lived devoted lives and often left written accounts of their thoughts and practices. Despite today’s common Protestant practice, this rich tradition is not the property of the Catholics or Orthodox alone. Therefore, it behooves us as theological students to retrieve this tradition for our own edification, as John Wesley modeled so well for us. It behooves us to study the Fathers’ writings, to learn from their theology and to emulate their lives, for a strong knowledge of the Fathers has the potential to enrich every aspect of our theological education.

Posted Nov 01, 2009