I mentioned in a comment to a recent post that more people talk about the Fathers of the Church than actually read them. I also noted that good translations are hard to find. I wanted to offer some thoughts on reading the Fathers as well as some suggestions on how to begin that important task.
First, you should understand that you will never read all the Fathers, or understand all that they write.
Second, the Fathers should not be read as though they were Scripture, nor should we read them as a source of “proof texting” various doctrines or understandings.
The “Fathers” is a very large category of writings. They are by no means even in their quality or their importance. They are an integral part of the Tradition and it is within the Tradition that they should be read and understood.
Third, there is no shame in reading the Fathers primarily in trusted, secondary sources. The larger context of history and culture does not come attached to the writings of the Fathers, per se. Thus, a vitally important part of their interpretation is not available to most readers. Even Patristic Scholars (those whose specialty is the writings of the Fathers) will not be equally comfortable or competent in every period of Patristic history. In Orthodoxy, that period can be said to have lasted up until at least the 14th century, and some would say that we have never left the period of the Fathers.
By good secondary sources, I would mean writings on the lives and teachings of the Fathers by very solid, respected Orthodox writers. If an Orthodox writer is himself (or herself) surrounded by controversy, then you would do well to read their works with a grain of salt, or not at all. There is more than enough good material to be read without indulging ourselves in controversial figures.
Finally (at least of these preliminary suggestions) I would suggest that the most important Patristic legacy is the liturgical wealth of the Church. Read the services and think about what they say. When something raises a question that seems important, pursue the question.
Now for some suggestions for reading:
The Apostolic Fathers(those in the first generation immediately after the Apostles) are very accessible and easy to read. Generally, their works sound much like the New Testament itself. The Letters of St. Ignatius, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and others (you’ll generally find them published in a single volume) are all worth reading.
Who else? St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word is of singular importance. I would add to that St. Irenaeus’ On the Apostolic Preaching. Both bear witness to how the early Church thought on many significant questions.
The later in history (as in the further removed from the New Testament) the more necessary a guide becomes and the importance of good secondary works. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press carries a number of good titles in this area.
But, as noted, without scholarly training, much of the body of Patristic writing, if read without an interpreter, will either be ill-used or simply misunderstood. It is not easy reading.
Another important thought – reading the Church Fathers is something that should be done generally for personal edification and not as a means of gaining expertise, much less authority. If they are read with one eye on God and the other on your heart, then you will have done well. But too much knowledge, unsupported by prayer and a grounded ascetical life, is not only unhealthy, it can become a positive danger to those around you. We have too many self-appointed authorities in the Church already.
One of the most singular bodies of Church writing are the Holy Canons. I cannot remember ever having suggested to anyone that they read the canons and I have yet to see any good come from such reading by any other than those who have the responsibility to apply them (which sometimes means priests, and most especially Bishops). There are again, any number of self-appointed authorities who read the canons and then set about attacking the Bishops of the Church or their local parish priest on the grounds that they are not using the canons properly. This is rarely an activity that is inspired by God. Anyone who engages in it should look very carefully at themselves and be sure they are not living in delusion. Who called you to be a judge? The few in the Church who have been called to such positions accept them (I hope) only with great fear and trembling seeing that they will bear the greatest judgment of all. I rejoice that I am not a Bishop (for many reasons) and find many things about being the Rector of a parish absolutely terrifying. An abbot of a famous Orthodox monastery whom I know, said that his greatest fear was any occasion when he had to give someone an obedience. Those who delight in such authority, should again examine themselves for delusion (or let someone else examine them).
By all means read the Fathers – or at least read those who are familiar with the Fathers and will glean from them their treasures and share them with you. Beware of those who constantly quote the Fathers on all matters and are full of opinions (which, of course, means please read this blog with a grain of salt as well). Especially beware of those who quote the Fathers frequently and are constantly critical of other Orthodox. This is rarely a gift sent to us from God.
Most of the Church Fathers are saints – they are not writing to us from some dead zone. When you read patristic writings (just as when you read the New Testament) ask the author to pray for you and help you in your understanding.
A quick listing (off the top of my head) of important Patristic material:
St. Ignatius of Antioch – important particularly for his understanding of early Church order and the sacraments.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons – his grasp of the role of Tradition in the Church is seminal. Trying to read through his Against the Heresies is impossible or will at least make your hair hurt.
St. Athanasius – his De Incarnatione Verbum is among the most important of all early Church writings. It is basic to our understanding of what salvation means.
St. Basil the Great – On the Holy Spirit is a short, but important work. Secondary writings on his work can be extremely helpful.
St. Gregory the Theologian – a friend of St. Basil’s. Many of his homilies are at least as good as St. John Chrysostom’s.
St. Gregory of Nyssa – harder to read than his brother, St. Basil. Read him with help if at all.
St. Cyril of Alexandria is worth reading, at least in secondary writings.
St. John Chrysostom – for me his sermons serve as an outstanding commentary on the New Testament. Always a good read.
I will have to add to this list in another post. I would welcome suggestions in the comments on various secondary works on the Fathers some of you may have found helpful.
I will close with the observation that Orthodox Christians should have some familiarity with some of the Fathers and a deep respect for them all. But our growth in Christ will not come largely as a result of increased reading but increased prayer, fasting, alms giving, and forgiveness of our enemies. If you would have the “mind of the Fathers,” then seek to have the “mind of Christ” as described in Philippians 2:5-11. They are the same thing.