Reading the Fathers

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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.

Comments

  1. Benjamin says

    Thank you, Father, this is helpful. Related to this, I am reading St. John of Damascus’ works on the defense of icons at the moment (via the SVS Popular Patristics Series edition), and finding it very clear and helpful, and very lively.

  2. Fatherstephen says

    Doubtless when I pick the post back up, St. John will have to be at the top of the list!

  3. says

    I find instead of quoting, I like to point people in the direction of a particular father and let them read for themselves or I direct them here to this blog and this or that post and say, “I found this helpful.”

  4. says

    What we hve of Origne’s writings are primarily scattered quotes. But I wasn’t thinking about controversial “Fathers” so much as controversial contemporary writers and their stuff on the Fathers. There are a few such about. But I’d prefer not to get into names.

  5. says

    Father,

    Thank you for this advice. I recently read St. Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition and Tertullian’s Prescription on Heretics. Both were very helpful, t hough I know Tertullian isn’t always considered a “father,” at least in the full sense in light of his later defection.

    On a slightly related note….. considering the view that the age of the fathers is still continuing…. I have benefitted greatly from Fr. Schmemann’s books, but I’ve heard a few Orthodox say that he is “surrounded by controversy.” Is this so? For me, a new Orthodox and very much a novice, is he a trustworthy source of Orthodoxy for me?

    Thank you.

  6. says

    Anyone who wants can read virtually the entire corpus of the major and secondary Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers in English in Hendrickson’s multi-volume print editions or on a couple of CD-ROM offerings. If you search high and low, either format can be had at under $300. The Roman Catholic translations often has an easier-reading prose style, but do occassionally exhibit polemic bias in regarding a few critical texts. In contrast, the work of the 19th century Anglican scholars is just that, very scholarly, thereby leading to fair but a bit ponderous translations for the contemporary ear.

    Of course, a lot of the obscure, tertiary Greek, Syriac, and Coptic texts have never been translated into English. But we are talking about icing here, not the cake.

    As for secondary works faithfully capturing the gist of Fathers, I hear good things about Fr. John Behr’s multi-volume set published by Saint Vladimirs Seminary. For an even more succinct approach, the gold standard is still the first couple of volumes from Pelikan’s Development of Christian Doctrine series, which is deadly accurate. And, for an easy reading, one-volume summary of patristic thought in English, J.N.D. Kelly has yet to be topped. In fact, I wouldn’t even venture directly into the Fathers without having gotten a good overview from one of these sources first. Finally, I wouldn’t even bother with Augustine at all — even if you can understand what he says, and believe you me it ain’t easy reading him even in the most contemporary friendly translations — it is quite often the case that he venturing original speculative theology that is not in step with the consensus patrum.

    As an interesting aside, InterVarsity Press does the neat “Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture” series, which quotes biblical exegesis verbatim and in English from the consensus patrum. This makes for the ultimate Patristic study bible, though it is in a pricey multi-volume series.

  7. says

    I’ve benefited quite a bit from Bp. Ignaty’s advice in the Arena, to read the Gospels with Bl. Theophylact’s Explanation (now available in English for Matt-John). Longer homilies by St. Chrysostom and others are great, but if you don’t have time to read several pages on a given Scripture passage, I don’t know of any source more helpful than Theophylact. A good collection of patristic citations on Scripture is also available in the extensive notes of the Orthodox New Testament (2 vols), published by Holy Apostles Convent. Personally, I find their Scripture translation painful to read, but it’s worth the price for the notes.

  8. says

    Fr John Behr’s work has been immensely helpful to me – I second the above recommendation. Also, Fr John Anthony McGuckin on St Cyril of Alexandria and Fr Andrew Louth on St John Damascene. Very helpful guides!

  9. says

    Thanks for the article.

    I posted a blog entry that has a link to it, but I don’t know how the Trackback function works. When I clicked on the statement at the end of your post:

    “You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.”

    all it did was take me to the page/URL for this post. I think I’m dense when it comes to doing this with WordPress or Blogger (my host), because when I read the “Help” info on this, it isn’t clear to me what I am supposed to do – if anything.

  10. Handmaid Anna says

    Your info on reading the fathers is so very helpful. This is only part of the “fullness” found in Orthodoxy. How can one ever get bored or think, “Is this all there is to Christianity?”

  11. Joseph says

    Father Stephen,

    I too found it rather difficult to read straight through Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, but mainly due to his hairsplitting analysis of every conceivable form of Gnosticism around at the time. I would highly recommend that at least books 3 and 5 be read in their entirety, since these deal more specifically with Christian doctrine and praxis. It is some of the best reading I have ever come across.

  12. says

    Interesting, this is the second discussion on reading the fathers I’ve read in as many minutes – and the previous one also talked about “prooftexting”!

    Let me repeat a remark I made in that discussion: It was Ian Paisley of all people who said (he might have been quoting someone else, I don’t know) – a text taken out of context becomes a pretext!

    This is the same for the Fathers as it is for Scripture – and any other piece of writing. In my opinion, prooftexting is the result of a modernist, materialist mindset.

    What we need is humility in reading, and also some context. The fathers are good for exposing our own blind spots – after all, each era tends to develop different blind spots. Knowing the context is important therefore – nobody writes in a vacuum.

  13. says

    I have recently spent some time reading more recent saints like St. Theophan’s Path to Salvation and this has helped tremendously as a bridge to understanding those who are more distant in time and culture.

  14. says

    Let me repeat a remark I made in that discussion: It was Ian Paisley of all people who said (he might have been quoting someone else, I don’t know) – a text taken out of context becomes a pretext!

    As best as I’ve been able to determine, it was Evangelical scholar D. A. Carson’s father (a minister in Canada) who said: “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” Carson mentions this in one of his books.

  15. StSusannatheMartyr says

    “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.”

    Father, while I’m grateful for all the good suggestions on reading the Church Fathers, I’m especially appreciative of this statement of yours. I think our eager but already overly satiated Western minds gravitate toward the familiar of reading, thinking, studying and discussing as the primary substance, the way of faith. But it’s our starving hearts that need the most nourishment through the means you’ve identified.

  16. says

    Scylding,

    There were (and probably still are) florilegia, collections of various statements of the Fathers on various topics. These were famously used in debates (particularly between Rome and Orthodoxy) and were almost completely useless as a patristic study device. Your context point is very well made.

  17. Pi says

    Evlogeite,

    One can only agree with this post. However, one small bone to pick.

    “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”

    The above words leave open two distinct possibilities. However, one could never take the first option seriously. That would be tantamount to claiming that the living Body of Christ stopped producing Fathers. This view reminds one of that other widely used (and seriously incorrect) statement that Orthodoxy is the “Church of the Seven Ecumenical Synods”; as if no synods of an equal ecclesiastical importance took place later (cf. e.g. http://oodegr.com/english/dogma/synodoi/oik_syn1.htm ff.). The Living Body of Christ never stops convening Synods that have to deal with important issues in the life of the Church; the Living Body of Christ never stops producing Fathers who become theumens for Synods, as well as shining lamps for all of us.

  18. says

    Pi,

    I would agree, which is why I noted the second opinion. I think those who hold the former are meaning by their contention that those who are frequently cited authoritatively by later synods run through about that century. But even this would not be entirely correct.

  19. says

    I like what you said about prayer, almsgiving, and forgiveness. Since I”m not very good at those things yet, I think I will continue somewhat neglecting the reading of the Fathers in favor of the abovementioned pursuits.

    But it’s nice to know they might be there waiting for me just the same. Good list, too. Much appreciated.

  20. says

    “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.” Very good reminder for me. Thank you.

  21. Wan, Wei Hsien says

    Father,
    Thank you for this wonderful post, to which has been added so many helpful comments about reading the Fathers. You wrote that “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”. As one who has often given in to hunger of expertise and authority, I especially appreciate these words. I’ve been inspired to read St. Athanasius’ _On the Incarnation_ this Nativity Fast.
    Gratefully,
    W.H.

  22. says

    Father Stephen, Thank you for contacting me. I was unfamiliar with the term, Secondary Sources, and so I didn’t know who you were referring to, bloggers or magazines or books or what.

    I like that we all have so much to talk about in Orthodoxy, not just the Bible or secular science, but we have the wealth of the Fathers and the Spirit embodied Church. I’m sure we are all off individually to varied extents, and I pray that our mistakes will be corrected. Thanks for taking the effort to correct mine.

    I deleted my once again hyper-defensive comments. Please don’t mind me.

  23. says

    Thank you for the note, Andrea. I hope I wrote positively about secondary sources for I meant to highly recommend them. Primarily I would look at a book by anyone “on” a particular father (s) which some use of their material which helped explain it to the reader, and thus made it more readable. I use such sources frequently and definitely mean to recommend them. There are, as well, good sources on the Net of both a primary and secondary nature and would encourage others to share what they have found to be of use.

  24. Martha says

    Father, bless.

    Let me preface my remarks by affirming what others have written many times, Father: the content of your blog is blessed in it’s timeliness and relevance to me personally. Each day that I read the offerings here, I feel humbled.

    As I noted previously under a different topic, when I came to the Orthodox church thirteen years ago, I read a lot of the books given to catechumens. A very well-educated man who was instrumental in my conversion to Orthodoxy commented many times, how important it was to read The Fathers. Wanting to take advantage of every opportunity for growth available to me, I purchased a set of The Fathers – Ante Nicene, Nicene and Post Nicene. It is a beautiful set of hard cover books with a prohibitive price-tag but I figured I would have my whole life to read them and pass them on to my children …

    A few days ago, I was having a rather heated conversation with my teenage daughter who has come under the influence of some of her Protestant friends who belong to the “Church of Christ.” In trying to defend the faith she has grown up with, I pointed to the books on our shelf and said, “We have the church Fathers to explain scripture to us!” My daughter asked dryly, “Have you read them?”

    I responded truthfully: “No. I have read small bits of three of them.”

    Children are a gift from God is so many ways – particularly when they teach us humility.

    I understand that worship, prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the daily work of Orthodox Christians and that our journey to God lasts a lifetime; but it is so hard to avoid being provoked to an intellectual defense of our beliefs (even a miserably uninformed one!) when we see our children slipping away from the faith.

    Since that conversation, I pulled out a volume of St. John Chrysostom and began reading. I have only gotten through his biography in the preface (which was really fascinating, by the way.) As I randomly leafed through the other volumes, I felt overwhelmed, defeated and … let me be honest: stupid.

    Your list provides me with a starting point and structure and I appreciate the advice offered by others regarding commentaries. I feel like I can keep trying.

    Thank you for your ministry, Father Stephen. — Martha

  25. Jeff says

    Martha,

    If I may be so bold, I think you have read the Fathers. As Fr. Stephen said:

    “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.”

    As a still recent convert (slightly more than a year) with a long history in catechesis in my previous church, I’ve had to force myself to stop reading books on dogmatic theology, or the direct readings of the Church Fathers and spend more time reading things like lives of the Saints (such as St. Silouan, which is a wonderful but painfully challenging book). In addition, I try to force myself to spend more time in prayer, and need to spend more time in the hymns of the Church.

    At any rate, the Fathers are so reflected in the prayers of the Church (in particular Holy Week – but also the weekly Orthros services), that I would be surprised after 13 years that you haven’t read more of the Fathers than you would think. Your daughter has, as well. She probably just doesn’t know it.

  26. says

    Martha,

    I am blessed by your comments. Our experience with our children has also been challenging at times – but mostly very rewarding. Our two oldest daughters are married to priests and the others are firmly anchored and active in the Church.

    I think the most important things we did with them along the way was to pray. We prayed daily before the icons (even sang some) and worked at letting our home be permeated by the life of the Church.

    Orthodox Camps and youth retreats also played a very healthy roll. It’s hard to raise an Orthodox child when they’re surrounded by evangelicals. Evangelicalism can be quite simplified (which is easier to present to a young person). You are in my prayers. We all must find ways to do more to present the fullness of the faith to our children. May God protect your child. Sounds like God used her to protect you too!

  27. Martha says

    Father Stephen, Jeff … thank you both so much for your kindness and encouragement. — Martha

  28. says

    As a new convert, I found the following to be extremely beneficial in understanding the faith: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the writings of several of the Apostolic Fathers (Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus), and most of all, my Orthodox Prayer Book.

    The Desert Fathers were extremely beneficial because, to me, they really understood complete detachment to the ways of this world. Their sayings and lifestyle go against everything we learn growing up in wealthy America and remind me so much of the Beatitudes: they turn the world upside down.

    The Apostolic Fathers were beneficial because I wanted to see if the Orthodox Church really was who they claimed to be. Justin Martyr’s First Apology blew my mind as well as the epistles of St Ignatius of Antioch.

    The most important thing that really brought me to Orthodoxy though was a free Orthodox Prayer book I got on Amazon (it is similar to the Jordanville Prayer Book). I can attest to what Fr Stephen has said about the need for “increased prayer, fasting, alms giving, and forgiveness of our enemies.” My life has changed because of prayer.