The Patristic Approach to Theology

(This is Neil.) I happened to be paging through an edited collection about the Oxford Movement, and read a concise article by the Orthodox priest and theologian Nicholas Lossky, the author of a book on Lancelot Andrewes and one of the editors of the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement. Fr Lossky is writing about the Oxford Movement and patristic theology. He grasps that “it is certainly true that the Fathers are not always in full agreement among themselves,” but identifies a “patristic approach to theology” that the Oxford Movement “received from the Fathers.” I thought that it might be interesting to my reader(s).

What is this patristic approach? Fr Lossky writes:

One of the first and main characteristics of this patristic approach to theology is that it is “practical,” not speculative. This, of course, is not to say that there is never any speculation in the writings of such theologians; but the speculative developments always aim at redirecting people’s attention to the essential truth of the Christian faith which is Christ Himself and the salvation offered in Him. Patristic theology is “practical,” one might even say “utilitarian,” in that it is salvational. Now, the sense of urgency in calling people to rediscover the salvational aspect of forgotten traditions and means of grace is, in my opinion, very strongly felt in the “Advertisement” introducing the first Volume of Tracts for the Times (1833-34, reprinted in 1839; this can also be said of Volume II, 1835, and III, 1836, and of the early Tracts themselves).

Another outstanding feature of patristic theology, closely linked with the previous one, is the fact that for the Fathers, theological thinking is no mere intellectual exercise. Certainly, the intellect is called upon to play a part in the process – it is also believed to be God’s creation – but the intellect is incapable of turning to God without experience. Patristic theology is profoundly experiential. One of the best expressions of this is to be found in the famous “Text” of Evagrius Ponticus: ‘If you are a theologian, you pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” This means that the theologian must necessarily be constantly seeking the experience of life in Christ. It is a form of permanent conversion which concerns all aspects of life.

But this conversion, Lossky says, is not to be understood in an “individualistic sense,” in which a “self-sufficient being” discovers a “purely vertical” relationship to God. Instead, it is a conversion to “personhood,” which carries heavy ecclesiological significance:

In the patristic perspective … “personhood” does not belong to the natural experience of the human being. (By “natural” I mean a human being in his or her autonomous self, without reference to God.) Personhood for the Fathers – and this is what the Tractarians rediscovered – is revealed by God to humankind. The revelation comes from Jesus Christ where He speaks of his relation with the Father and with the Spirit (in particular in the Gospel according to John: 14-17). The three Persons of the Trinity, as many Fathers have said “share the unsharable,” i.e. divinity; they abide in eternal communion, being both absolutely inseparable and absolutely distinct, which is a perfect paradox or a philosophical absurdity, or again a “crucifixion” for the Christian believer’s mind (I am paraphrasing Gregory of Nazianzus, also known as “the Theologian” because he spoke of the Trinity). God, in his Trinitarian life, thus becomes the perfect prototype of unity in diversity, of personhood. For in this perspective, a “person” is by definition a being-in-communion, a relational being who cannot be saved by himself alone.

Personhood is not given once for all, like individuality. It is a call and is to be achieved through a baptismal-Eucharistic life. Such a life – and this is precisely what the Tractarians discovered and taught – is a life to be lived as a community (since it must needs be in communion), to be lived as Church (which is communion with Christ and in Christ with all creation). The Church is the community of the People of God, that is a community of persons (or rather of individuals striving, with the help of the grace of God, to grow in personhood), co-responsible for the purity of the faith, each one in his or her capacity, according to the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

The “deeply incarnational apprehension of the reality of the Church” is related to the Tractarians’ “taking very seriously the reality of the incarnation and of all its consequences for salvation.” They thus also recovered the patristic approach to salvation, which imagines that “believers are called to become by grace what Christ is by nature”:

How central the doctrine of “theosis” (or deification) is to the Oxford Movement will appear to anyone who reads the very remarkable book of a modern English theologian, Canon A.M. Allchin who writes among other things:

No less central to the concerns of the Oxford Movement is the subject of this book, the reaffirmation of the doctrine of theosis, seen as an immediate consequence of the doctrine of the incarnation, and the foundation of a new and transformed vision of the calling and destiny of man. For man is lifted up into participation in God by the loving movement of God’s coming to share in the very nature and predicament of man. […] This doctrine, which was at the heart of the Christianity of East and West in the first millennium of the Christian era […] suddenly came to new life with unexpected power in the middle of nineteenth-century England. It was as if there were a veritable epiphany of patristic spirituality and theology in the midst of our divided western Christendom.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to The Patristic Approach to Theology

  1. Pingback: The Ecumenical Patriarch on the Eastern Fathers and Theology « Catholic Sensibility

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