I. Why Do We Care What the Fathers Think?
In his second letter from prison in Rome, Peter warns at length against false teachers: “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:19-21) Already in Peter’s time, the Early Church was being infiltrated by gnostic-sounding, antinomian teachers claiming that faith alone saves, quite apart from repentance, works or virtue.
One of the striking features, perhaps the most striking feature, of the Early Church was its preoccupation with what today might be called its narrative. This narrative came in two parts. The first of these was the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Law and the Prophets. Our Old Testament. Remember that whenever Scripture is referred to, as it is by Peter in his letter, it is a reference to what today’s Christians identify as the Old Testament. There was no New Testament until the 4th century, after the persecution had stopped and centuries after the Apostles were dead.
The second part of the Christian narrative involved the interpretation of Christ’s teachings and Passion. This part was addressed almost entirely by the illiterate men whom Jesus called to be His disciples and by other Jews of the same generation, most notably Paul, who mingled with the disciples and claimed a first hand experience with the Christ. Their gospels and letters did not come off their pens with the authority of Scripture, and their veracity was judged, no doubt, against the witness of others with firsthand accounts as well as against the witness of the prophetic Scriptures.
In other words, the first part of the early Christian narrative informed and played a decisive role in validating the second. During the more than three centuries in which various gospels and epistles were being circulated among the churches, holy men we now call the Fathers of the Church were delving the Scriptures to find evidence of the narrative Christ told, as well as evidence of Christ in the narrative told by the Old Testament writers. That Church, beset by pagan enemies without and by false teachers within, heeded the warnings of the apostles Peter and Paul and sought the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit by cleaving to the interpretations of the Holy Fathers and the doctrines enunciated by the Church Councils, the same councils, I might add, that in the 4th Century defined for all Christians the Holy Scriptures that we call the New Testament.
Are the Fathers now out of date and the decisions of the Councils irrelevant? Are Christians no longer in danger of being led astray by false teachers? 2500 denominations later, is “private interpretation” no longer an issue in the Church? Are Christians two thousand years removed from those who were the Master’s students now in a better position to understand the meaning of His lessons? Is it the holiness of our teachers and preachers that impresses us, or their “relevance” and creative theology? Is the Holy Spirit now divided against itself, speaking through so many with contradictory messages? Before offering a summary of the Fathers’ teaching on the Genesis account of creation, I want us first to consider the reasons why we should take seriously the opinions of these holy men who lived so long ago and whose opinions may challenge our cherished assumptions or even offend our modern sensibilities.
First, let us admit that they were in a better position than we are to interpret the Christian narrative. Not only are we at a great distance in time and space from the pivotal events of the 1st Century, but even our best scholars struggle to understand the nuances of the languages of that time and place. The Fathers, on the other hand, lived in that culture and spoke those languages. They sometimes knew the apostles personally and were taught by them. They wrote and spoke every day under the threat of death, and their writings achieve a remarkable coherence, aligned not only with the Scriptures from which they copiously quote, but with one another. Second, one can’t help but be struck these days by how often we hear Scriptures quoted by those finding fault with others or excusing the faults in themselves. Is this not the very behavior of the Pharisees that infuriated our Lord? Somehow, the Scriptures that Paul refers to as a sword, “piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and . . . of the thoughts and intents of the heart,” (Hebrews 4:12) these same Scriptures are now a blanket offering warmth and comfort and all manner of self-serving interpretation.
We should read the Fathers because they wield this sword against us to our benefit. They understand that it is not the Scriptures that forgive, but the Lord. They send us to the Scriptures not so much for solace and support as for a bracing criticism of our secularized assumptions and worldly lifestyles. Then, of course, there is what John Stuart Mill referred to as “the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling.” Nothing in our time embodies this tyranny more than the philosophical naturalism of the scientific community. We shall have more to say about this later, but let us be clear that a serious reading of the patristic view of Creation could not find an audience in a modern American university or a popular scientific journal. Scientists do not read the Fathers to seek corrections for their theories or cautions against their hasty assumptions.
Another reason to read the Fathers, even when they seem dead wrong, perhaps especially when they seem dead wrong, is to defy the tyrant of prevailing opinion and feeling. It is important to have a firm grasp of, and to teach in our schools, what science is and what sort of knowledge it is capable of offering. Surely you have noticed the extent to which science has replaced Scripture as the arbiter of truth in our society. Science is the religion of the secularized world and the academic and media elites who govern the public square and control the conversation and the flow of ideas. Unless we offer our students a vantage point, like the Fathers’ interpretation of the Scriptures, from which to judge prevailing opinion and feeling, how can we expect them to defy this tyrant? IN PART 2: Are We Talking Science Or Philosphy?