Why Read the Church Fathers?



The following is by the Very Rev. John Breck, an Orthodox priest who writes the online column, “Life in Christ.” Fr Breck reminds me of Fr Georges Florovsky’s claim, “This theology could only be ‘preached,’ or ‘proclaimed,’ and not be simply ‘taught’ in a school-manner; ‘preached’ from the pulpit, proclaimed also in the word of prayer and in sacred rites, and indeed manifested in the total structure of Christian life.”

One of the most insightful biblical interpreters of our day is Frances Young, a Methodist theologian who taught for many years in a noted British University. In her book, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge, 1997), she speaks about the current world-view that hinders interpreters of the Bible in their attempts to uncover its true message. She notes that a culture “receives” a text in such a way that the meaning of the text is accepted or contested depending on the “plausibility structures” of that culture. Then she adds: “A culture which can conceive of the material universe as interpenetrated by another reality, which is transcendent and spiritual, will read the reference of scripture in those terms” (p. 139).

Where the “plausibility structures” of a particular mind-set do not allow for that interpenetration of transcendent, spiritual reality, then the ultimate criterion for what is true will be “facticity”: that is, whether the matter in question is objectively real and therefore historically determinable. And the biblical narratives will be considered true to the degree that they can be shown to recount such “historical realities,” accurately. To acquire the “mind of the Fathers” is to adopt and interiorize “structures of plausibility” that see beyond historical facts to the transcendent, divine Presence revealed in and through those facts. The Exodus, like the Exile into Babylon, is grounded in historical occurrence; some such liberation from Egypt actually happened. If it became the founding myth – the powerful, saving metaphor – of Israel’s identity and spiritual destiny, it is because God was at work through that occurrence, but also through its interpretation in Israel’s sacred literature. The same may be said for the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ, which we affirm without qualification to be historical events. Yet for those events to have meaning for us – to work their saving power in our life – they must first be interpreted for us by the biblical authors, then received by us in faith. Our world-view must be marked by a profound “plausibility,” a bedrock conviction that the material universe is indeed interpenetrated by another reality, a reality that is God – transcendent divine Life – who is present and active in every aspect of material reality, in order to lead us through this world and into His eternal embrace.

Why read the writings of the Holy Fathers? Because those venerable elders perceived what each of us needs and longs to perceive. Firmly anchored in “historical reality,” their spiritual vision enabled them to open the eyes of mind and soul to the beauty and glory of divine Reality, as it reveals itself and makes itself accessible in and through Scripture and Tradition, as well as in and through the most mundane aspects of our daily existence.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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