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The Fathers Are Back

Yesterday Pope Benedict XVI resumed his audience talks on the Fathers with a gem on St. Gregory Nazianzen. The Vatican has not yet published full text in English. But Italian is up, and so is the English summary:

Today I want to reflect with you on Saint Gregory of Nazianzen, a great theologian, preacher and poet from fourth-century Cappadocia. A friend and admirer of Saint Basil, Gregory was inspired to seek Baptism and to enter monastic life, devoting himself to prayer, solitude, and meditation. He loved to leave behind the things of this world and enter into intimate communion with God, so that the depths of his soul became like a mirror reflecting the divine light. Reluctantly, but in a spirit of obedience, he accepted priestly ordination. He was sent to Constantinople, where he preached his five Orations: beautifully reasoned presentations of the Church’s teaching. Known as “The Theologian”, he stressed that theology is more than merely human reflection: it springs from a life of prayer and holiness, from wonder at the marvels of God’s revelation. Gregory was elected Bishop of Constantinople and presided over the Council that took place there in the year 381, but he encountered so much hostility that he withdrew once more to lead a life of solitude. His spiritual autobiography from this final period includes some of his most beautiful poetry. As we admire the wisdom with which he defended the Church’s doctrine, let us be moved by the love that is conveyed in his poetry.

You’ll find Catholic News Service’s coverage here.

You’ll find a fine edition of St. Gregory’s poetry (shamefully low-priced) here.

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Intro to the Fathers, Part 2

Through much of Christian history, the study of “the Fathers” meant the study of all our theological ancestors — no matter how remote or recent. In the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, often cited the ancients — both the Greek and Latin Fathers — and indeed he committed some of their works to memory. But he also counted as “Fathers” the great teachers of the generation immediately before him.

With the fifteenth-century Protestant Reformation, however, scholars and churchmen in the West began to narrow the scope of their study of the Fathers. It was a necessary consequence of the nature of the Reformation. Martin Luther and John Calvin claimed that their movements were not novelties, but retrievals of the most ancient faith — the faith of the New Testament. Both men often cited texts of the Fathers to buttress their arguments. But Luther especially was ambivalent about the Fathers. He charged that they “often erred,” and he acknowledged that some of his own doctrines could not be reconciled with a consensus of the Fathers. For the first time in history, a theologian was arguing that Scripture opposed the collective witness of all his ancestors in the faith.

Yet the Fathers themselves claimed only to be passing on the interpretation of Scripture that they had received from the apostles. So the argument was really about biblical interpretation, and the Fathers provided a valuable witness, a perspective that was closer to the time and culture of Jesus Christ than any speculation of the late Middle Ages. At first, both Protestants and Catholics hoped to marshal the Fathers as evidence for their theological positions. Erasmus — Luther’s sometime foil and sometime friend — published translations of Ambrose, Augustine, Basil, John Chrysostom, and Jerome.

Before long, the study of the ancient Fathers became a thriving academic specialty, called “patrology” or “patristics,” from that same Greek word used in the New Testament, pateres.

In the nineteenth century, the English-speaking world enjoyed an abundant harvest from the field of patristics. There arose in the Church of England another retrieval movement, this time including the Fathers in its purview. They called themselves the Tractarians, after the controversial religious tracts they published. They would eventually become known as the Oxford Movement, for the university where many of them taught, and their influence extended far.

At mid-century, some of the movement’s leaders converted to Catholicism, most notably John Henry Newman. Newman’s last work as an Anglican, An Essay on the Development of Catholic Doctrine, really details how the Fathers led him to the fullness of Catholic faith: “of all existing systems,” he concluded, “the present communion of Rome is the nearest approximation in fact to the Church of the Fathers … Did St. Athanasius or St. Ambrose come suddenly to life, it cannot be doubted what communion he would take to be his own.”

Reading the Fathers has led many other patristic scholars and Protestant clergymen to the same conclusion — and to the same communion. In Newman’s lifetime, there were many, including Thomas W. Allies and Henry Wilberforce. In the twentieth century, there were many more, including Louis Bouyer and, very recently, the dean of America’s Church historians, Robert Louis Wilken.

In the last fifty years, there has been a great flowering of patristic scholarship in the United States. It began, really, when some of the great European scholars fled here from Nazi and communist persecution. From their academic work came a wealth of publications. There are currently three extensive series of translations of the Church Fathers available in English. Two arose simultaneously at mid-twentieth century and continue to publish volumes every year: the Ancient Christian Writers series (currently published by Paulist Press) and the Fathers of the Church (published by Catholic University of America). Two Protestant series from the nineteenth century — the Ante-Nicene Fathers, and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers — are available in a reprint edition from Hendrickson, an evangelical publisher. A smaller set, the Popular Patristics series, is published by the Orthodox St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Two Protestant publishers have recently launched series that focus exclusively on the Fathers’ biblical interpretation. The first out of the gate was the Ancient Christian Commentary, edited by Methodist scholar Thomas Oden and published by InterVarsity Press. The second, called The Church’s Bible, is published by Eerdmans and edited by Robert Louis Wilken.

The literature about the Fathers is simply too vast to mention. And there’s no shortage of good books aimed at ordinary Catholics who are put off by scholarly tomes.

* * * * * * * * *

Over the past twenty years, hundreds of Protestant clergy, in the United States alone, have experienced the “catholicizing” influence of the Fathers and entered full communion with the Catholic Church. High-profile converts include Scott Hahn, Marcus Grodi and Alex Jones, among others. Grodi’s apostolate, the Coming Home Network, has made patristics the bedrock of its apologetic efforts. And his own catch-phrase, “Deep in History,” is straight out of Newman.

Sooner or later, every thinking Christian discovers the duty to study the Fathers. It presents itself as a matter of religious literacy, if not a debt of family honor. They fought the first culture wars; we should at least learn from them. Many of them died to preserve and preach our faith; we should at least remember them with gratitude.

Non-Catholics turn to them increasingly for insight into Scripture — but then it’s hard to ignore the Fathers’ biblical reflections on the Mass, the papacy, veneration of the saints, and other Catholic distinctives. They are indeed — as the Catechism put it — “always timely witnesses” to Catholic tradition, and their witness is invaluable today.

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Archeologizing the Areopagite

I’ll bet you can’t say that headline five times fast.

Israeli archeologists have discovered a sixth-century Byzantine villa with mosaic floors, 15 kilometers south of Jaffa. The area was, at the end of the fifth century, “home to a monk known as Peter the Iberian — a charismatic bishop of Georgian origin who gathered around him a circle of intellectuals. His biography, ‘The Life of Peter the Iberian,’ provides a glimpse into the nature of the community.” Some scholars tag Peter the Iberian (an anti-chalcedonian rebel) to be the real genius behind the works of “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite.”

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Mystagogy for the Masses

I cannot count the number of times I’ve recommended The How-To Book of the Mass: Everything You Need to Know but No One Ever Taught You, by Michael Dubruiel. I’ve lost count of how many copies I’ve given away. I recommend it to Catholics who want to know why they do the things they do every Sunday. I recommend it to Protestants who are just dropping in, or who are dating Catholics and bewildered by the unfamiliar round of sit-stand-kneel.

The book does for modern Christians what Cyril and Ambrose did for our ancient forebears. It’s a modern-day mystagogy — an easy-to-follow step-by-step walk through the ritual, revealing the meaning of all the words, gestures, postures, furniture, and vestments. Dubruiel also gives you the history and doctrinal significance of the various parts of the Mass. He draws testimony from the abundance of patristic material on the liturgy — the Didache, St. Justin Martyr, the Apostolic Constitutions, Cyril of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose of Milan. He’s also careful to lay the scriptural foundation for all the important prayers and actions.

And now Dubruiel has followed up with a pocket version — one you can carry to Mass with you. A Pocket Guide to the Mass doesn’t have anywhere near the detail available in The How-To Book of the Mass, but it’s a handy little cheat-sheet that can be carried in the pocket or pocketbook.

Both books are highly recommended for Catholics, the significant others of Catholics, seekers, and the merely curious.

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Cyril on Divinization

From Oxford University Press I received a gem: The Appropriation of Divine Life in Cyril of Alexandria, by Daniel A. Keating. The author, an American theologian at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, examines the classic texts on divinization in Cyril of Alexandria (fifth century). One of history’s greatest biblical theologians, Cyril presented salvation in terms of sanctification and divinization, the appropriation of divine life. Keating develops these ideas, for the most part, as they appear in Cyril’s volumes of biblical interpretation. Keating pays close attention to Cyril’s exegeses of the accounts of Jesus’ baptism and resurrection as well as the institution of the Eucharist. Among the key scriptures considered is 2 Peter 1:4: “that you may become partakers of the divine nature.” Cyril’s biblical approach can be especially helpful for Protestants who wish to understand Orthodox and Catholic doctrines of salvation. Keating also applies Cyril’s thought effectively to “perceived east-west differences.” This is an important book for ecumenically minded Christians. The writing is extraordinarily lucid, making difficult ideas accessible even to us non-professionals.

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Intro to the Fathers, Part 1

Through this week, I’ll be posting bits of my article introducing the Church Fathers that appeared in a recent edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.

Almost every Wednesday since March 7, Pope Benedict XVI has been greeting large audiences of pilgrims with brief sketches of the lives and works of individual saints — saints, in fact, who have been dead for more than a thousand years, and who lived their lives in cultures remote from our own.

He’s talking about the early Christians, the so-called Fathers of the Church, and he’s telling their stories as if they should be of universal interest to his audiences. To give a point of comparison: At the same point in his predecessor’s reign, Pope John Paul II had just launched his own series of 129 audience talks on the subject of sex.

Pope Benedict, it seems, is betting that the Church Fathers have powerful appeal.

It’s a good bet. For the Fathers — teachers like Clement, Justin, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine — have exercised a mighty influence on the Church’s life, not only in their own day, but down to our own. The Catechism describes the Fathers as “always timely witnesses” to the Church’s tradition (n. 688).

And there’s further reason to bet on their appeal. Consider how often, in recent years, ancient Christianity has proven a draw at the box office and the bookstores, in offerings as varied as “The Passion of the Christ” and the Gospel of Judas, “The Da Vinci Code” and the so-called “Family of Jesus” tomb.

People have demonstrated a powerful curiosity about early Christianity, and the giants of the early Christian era were the Fathers of the Church.

* * * * * * * * * *

Indeed, Christians have always honored their ancestors with the title of “Fathers.” They did this in imitation of Jesus and Jewish custom (see Jn 6:31,49). St. Peter uses the same Greek word, pateres, to describe the first generation of Christians (see 2 Pt 3:4). Those who held authority in the Church, from the very beginning, considered themselves to be “Fathers” to their congregations. We find this idea in St. Paul, who reminds the Corinthians that he is their “father in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 4:15), as well as in St. John (3 Jn 4). Those who later inherited the office of the apostles — the bishops — would also inherit the paternal role in God’s earthly family. They would be Fathers of the Church.

And one of the marks of the Fathers is their reverence for the doctrine passed on from the apostles. The Fathers preserved, preached, and passed on the rule of faith — the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the moral counsel of the apostles, and the sacred rites of the Church, the sacraments. They viewed this body of doctrine as a patrimony, a sacred trust. Thus, they were not given to experimentation, and they looked askance at innovation. “Whoever interprets [the Scriptures] according to his own perverse inclinations,” wrote St. Polycarp about the year 110 A.D., “Is the firstborn of Satan. Let us dismiss the vanities of the crowd and false doctrines, and return to the teaching given to us from the beginning.”

Polycarp speaks with powerful authority, for he was himself a hearer of the apostles, a disciple of St. John. Polycarp was also the master of the most illustrious teacher of the next generation, the brilliant and prolific bishop St. Irenaeus of Lyons. Irenaeus wrote of his teacher: “he only taught what he received from the apostles, what the Church transmitted and what alone is true.”

Irenaeus’s influence extended to St. Hippolytus in the next generation and then on to many others. At the end of Irenaeus’s life, we have not yet arrived at the year 200. And yet the Church’s pattern of invoking, studying, and honoring the Fathers was already well established.

When a bishop or a council made a public statement about a doctrine or practice, it often included an appeal to precedents in the witness of “the holy Fathers.” Sometimes, churchmen would make a chain (Latin, catena) of such precedents, with quotations representing every generation between their own and that of the apostles. Thus, they would demonstrate the pure pedigree of their own teaching.

The study of the Fathers grew increasingly important, then, as the decades and the centuries wore on. The churches took care to preserve the paper trail of their own heritage. Some, like the Syrian city of Edessa, created vast archives. The historian Eusebius, conducting his research in the late third century, was able to take advantage of several of these collections. In the fourth and fifth centuries, monastic communities would also begin to preserve the traditions of their “Fathers” in writing; and so we have inherited many anthologies of the lives and sayings of the so-called Desert Fathers.

Around the same time, at the end of the fourth century, St. Jerome set out to write a biographical encyclopedia of ancient Christianity. He called it On Illustrious Men; and with his profiles of individual writers, he included bibliographies as well. Jerome’s book, like Eusebius’s, became a standard reference work for later study of the Fathers.

In the year 434, a monk in Gaul (modern France), set down rules for the study of the Fathers. His name was Vincent of Lerins, and he would himself one day be honored as a Church Father. His guidelines have become a byword in theology. They are known as the “Vincentian Canon.”

“Now in the Catholic Church,” writes Vincent, “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all …We hold to this rule if we follow universality, antiquity, and consensus. We follow universality if we acknowledge that one faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no way depart from those interpretations that our ancestors and fathers clearly proclaimed; consensus, if we keep following the definitions and opinions of all — or nearly all — the bishops and teachers of antiquity.”

Stay tuned. I’ll be posting more of the article later this week.

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Audio Update

If you haven’t visited Maria Lectrix in a couple of weeks, then you need to get caught up. She’s posted new audio of St. Irenaeus, St. John of Damascus, and St. Athanasius since I left for vacation. (The folks at Defending the Faith, btw, totally freaked when I told them about the podcasted Fathers. And who wouldn’t?)

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The Doctor Is In

A dear friend and close colleague recently launched a surreal and satirical blog, DR. BOLI’S CELEBRATED MAGAZINE. In this venture he writes as Dr. H. Albertus Boli. Think of it as Tristram Shandy on wi-fi.

The Doctor will surely get a laugh out of patristics nerds when he parodies the literature of late antiquity in the regular feature, Dr. Boli’s Library of Lost Books.

One of my favorite recurring bits is Dr. Boli’s Encyclopedia of Misinformation. Let’s see how long it takes for these things to end up on Snopes.

Ink, invisible. A very fine invisible ink may be made from ethyl alcohol, carefully evaporated before use. There is no means known to science of making the resulting writing visible.

Istanistan. Yaks outnumber people three to one in Istanistan, yet until 1998 no yak had ever been chosen prime minister….

Ketchup. Ketchup was originally invented as an industrial lubricant.

Lake Erie. Lake Erie is the only one of the Great Lakes to have had its own television situation comedy, which ran for thirteen weeks on the Dumont network in 1952.

Latin. That certain Latin nouns are regarded as “indeclinable” simply shows a want of effort on the part of the grammarians.

Legal pads. So-called “legal pads” were illegal until 1913.

Leibniz. The philosopher Leibniz believed that he could see monads, and frequently pointed them out to his puzzled acquaintances….

Napoleon. Napoleon kept a supply of Necco wafers, to which he was notoriously addicted, in the left inside pocket of his coat.

Newspapers. Newsprint paper in its natural state is completely black; newspapers are printed with a cheap and grainy off-white ink, with the black paper left showing through to form the letters.

Old Testament. In the original Hebrew, the entire Old Testament is one long palindrome.

Opera. In the early nineteenth century, when opera was still against the law, underground opera companies effectively controlled most of Sardinia.