Do You Have to Read the Fathers to be Orthodox?

The First Council of Nicea (Soumela Monastery)
The First Council of Nicea (Soumela Monastery)

I recently posted the following on Facebook and thought I might put it here, as well:

I have sometimes seen the sentiment expressed that authentic Orthodoxy means everyone reads the Fathers (perhaps “graduating” out of everything else). But that’s really a historical impossibility. Access to the writings of the Fathers for most people is a recent phenomenon that is only due, ironically, to the philological work of mainly Catholic and Protestant scholars.

I love the Fathers and refer to them often. I have quoted them in sermons and in most of my published writing. But even the Fathers have never dogmatized reading the Fathers. How could they? Most of them didn’t even have access to the corpus that has only quite recently become available. And most of that corpus was not even written for public consumption but was often private letters and debates.

In terms of Christian instruction, most Orthodox Christians throughout most of history have only ever had access to the Scriptures as presented in the services, the services themselves, and whoever their local teachers were. Based on that reality, and given the premise that “everyone must read the Fathers in order to be truly Orthodox,” we have to conclude that Orthodoxy is itself a recent invention.

Worse yet, it is an invention that is only available to a relative few people, since the Fathers are still not translated into most languages. And much still remains untranslated and therefore only accessible to readers of ancient Greek, Latin, Syriac, etc.

Although I do not believe in Sola Scriptura, I would be much more at ease if these people insisted that you had to quote the Scripture in order to be reliable. And they would therefore sound like the Fathers themselves, who quite often spoke in terms of authenticity being proved from the Scripture.

By all means, read the Fathers. Soak up their teachings. They are true and reliable guides and fathers in Christ. But don’t turn them into idols.


Update: If, as several commenters here and there have indicated, your takeaway from this post is “Damick says you shouldn’t read the Fathers” or “Damick says that the Fathers don’t say you should read the Fathers” or “Damick says it’s not important to read the Fathers,” I respectfully suggest you very closely read the post again, especially the last paragraph.

But in case it’s still not clear, I’ll say this: Everyone who is capable of reading the Fathers and has access to them should read them as much as he can. They’re awesome and super-edifying. If you need some suggestions about where to begin, I highly recommend the collection usually called The Apostolic Fathers. My personal favorite is St. Ignatius of Antioch. He’s the best.

And if your takeaway is “Damick says that the Scripture and the Fathers and the divine services are opposed to each other” or “Damick says that the church services aren’t patristic” or “Damick says that you don’t get anything from the Fathers in the services” or any other permutation on changing definitions around to form some sort of “gotcha,” I respectfully suggest that you are just making stuff up.

And if your takeaway is “Damick says you should just live the life of the Church, which means he’s a clericalist” or “Damick thinks he’s above criticism,” I respectfully suggest that you need a new hobby.

And if you don’t believe the claim that the Fathers quote Scripture far, far more than they quote other Fathers, well, all I can say is that I don’t believe you’ve read the Fathers. You can pick almost any random patristic passage to prove it to yourself. The Fathers are obsessed with quoting the Scripture. They also sometimes quote other Fathers, but nowhere near as often.

Oh, and if your takeaway from that is “Damick says you should read the Scripture without the Fathers,” then I really am starting to question whether you’re actually reading what I wrote.

And finally, if you think that this post doesn’t address anything that you actually think or say, well, what are you so worried about?

Another update: I’ve had a few folks ask exactly who it is I’m talking to or talking about with this post. It’s not about anyone in particular, but even if it were, my purpose is to discuss ideas, not to call out anyone.

69 comments:

  1. …and what was available from the Fathers for us to read was , until recently, often in Latin or Greek or another language other than english.

    I love the Fathers’ writings, too, but Scripture is still the core writing and foundation of much of our Christian doctrine. As a Roman Catholic, we, like you, have found a good balance between Scripture and Tradition handed down from Church Fathers, Popes and Councils.

        1. Actually, Fr Andrew (I think I made a mistake and used Stephen in another post), is this:

          Who wrote the Gospel of John? Who wrote the letters of Peter and Paul?

          Is it not the Fathers? Are John, Peter, and Paul *not* Fathers themselves?

          You can not read Scripture and *not* be reading the Fathers. That is an absurd dichotomy.

          1. Distinction and dichotomy are not the same thing. Making a distinction between the Scripture and the Fathers who follow it is a pretty standard thing to do. We cannot collapse the two together. We do not, for instance, solemnly carry copies of the writings of St. Gregory Palamas in processions and read from them as a critical component of the Divine Liturgy.

            Yes, I suppose one may call the Apostles “Fathers” in a sense, but the fact that they are Apostles is rather more important. They are eyewitnesses to Christ. He chose them, and they even have an eschatological role in sitting on twelve thrones and judging the tribes of Israel. That’s not something He did for everyone.

  2. Fr Stephen,

    Do you not realize that reading the Fathers helps one rightly divide Scripture? Is it not obvious that Scripture is the *most* complicated to understand, and that, by reading the Fathers and acquiring their mind, we correctly understand Scripture?

    Isn’t your proposal for Scripture first the exact same impetus which lead Protestants into error? Doesn’t that lead to multiple, and many individual, interpretations?

    How is what you advise in your blog, such as this piece above, any different from the Fathers? Should people reading your blog take your word over that of the Fathers?

    It seems this is your position.

    1. Do you not realize that reading the Fathers helps one rightly divide Scripture?

      Of course I do. That’s why I love the Fathers.

      Isn’t your proposal for Scripture first the exact same impetus which lead Protestants into error? Doesn’t that lead to multiple, and many individual, interpretations?

      Where did I put any proposal forward?

      But since you mention it, what is wrong with reading the Scripture first? If it’s read within the Tradition of the Church (which includes the Fathers’ witness but a lot more), I don’t see what the problem is. The Scripture isn’t a dangerous book.

      How is what you advise in your blog, such as this piece above, any different from the Fathers? Should people reading your blog take your word over that of the Fathers?

      It seems this is your position.

      Not at all. Where did I suggest anyone believing me rather than the Fathers? This post strongly encourages people to read the Fathers.

      I think perhaps the difficulty here is that you’re addressing questions that my post doesn’t address. My post is addressing one question only: Do you have to read the Fathers to be Orthodox?

      It is not addressing whether one ought to read the Fathers (of course one should if one can). It is not addressing whether the Scripture is better than the Fathers (the Fathers themselves would agree that it is).

      It is only addressing the question of whether reading the Fathers is a sine qua non for being an Orthodox Christian. That is, if someone is not reading the Fathers, does that make them non-Orthodox? If it does, then that means that most Orthodox Christians throughout most of history were not actually Orthodox, because they didn’t even have access to the Fathers—and that would include most of the Fathers themselves.

      1. Fr Andrew, did you not write:

        “Although I do not believe in Sola Scriptura, I would be much more at ease if these people insisted that you had to quote the Scripture in order to be reliable.”

        Yet now you say, “where did I put forth this proposal?”

        You also say:

        “But since you mention it, what is wrong with reading the Scripture first? If it’s read within the Tradition of the Church (which includes the Fathers’ witness but a lot more), I don’t see what the problem is. The Scripture isn’t a dangerous book.’

        If you do not read the Fathers, how can you know what the Tradition even is? This is the problem. And this is exactly why I assume, perhaps falsely, that you desire to subvert the Fathers with your blog as something the Faithful should read.

        Let us be frank: your title is shocking. Maybe this is how one has to get viewership these days in modern world. In some ways I could honor that position. But from the overwhelming blog posts you make, and as seen above continue to make, it paints a much more obvious picture.

        1. Fr Andrew, did you not write:

          “Although I do not believe in Sola Scriptura, I would be much more at ease if these people insisted that you had to quote the Scripture in order to be reliable.”

          Yet now you say, “where did I put forth this proposal?”

          But that isn’t the “proposal” that you suggested. It is merely to say that quoting Scripture is more important than quoting the Fathers. The Fathers themselves demonstrate this by quoting the Scripture far, far more than they quote other Fathers.

          If you do not read the Fathers, how can you know what the Tradition even is?

          By going to church, by listening to your bishop and priest, by hearing/reading the Scriptures, etc. Remember: Most Orthodox Christians have never had access to the Fathers. That is a critical point here. So if we accept the idea that you must read the Fathers in order to know Holy Tradition, then we can only conclude that most Orthodox Christians have never known what Holy Tradition is. And that would include the Fathers themselves, most of whom never had that access, either.

          1. I strongly disagree with your assumption that most had no access to such Fathers. Many heard them face to face. That’s access!

            And what I’m trying to figure out is, since we are blessed to have the writings of the Holy Fathers in our times, why do you point to that which is inferior? We have the ability, and I’ll state ‘responsibility’ strictly b/c now that we do have access to them and they are translated we have *no* excuse not, to read the Fathers.

            Orthodoxy may be defined as the clear perception and grasp of the two dogmas of the faith, namely, the Trinity and Duality. It is to know and contemplate the three Persons of the Trinity as distinctively and indivisibly constituting the one God, and the divine and human natures of Christ as united in his single Person – that is to say, to know and profess that the single Son, both prior and subsequent to the Incarnation, is to be glorified in two natures, divine and human, and in two wills, divine and human, the one distinct from the other.

            ~ St Gregory of Sinai, Phil Vol 4, Commandments and Doctrines #26

            Just as those in the before the Incarnation are not held to such a responsibility as those who are after the Incarnation, for those before did not have access to as much Light, so too we, in our age, having access to such great light in the Fathers, will have no excuse.

          2. I strongly disagree with your assumption that most had no access to such Fathers. Many heard them face to face. That’s access!

            On what are you basing this claim that most (“most” is what I said, not “many”) Orthodox Christians have heard the Fathers face to face?

            And even if this were true, just because, for instance, you might have heard a sermon or two by St. John Chrysostom (who mainly preached in only two places–Antioch and Constantinople), does that mean you have access to the whole of patristic teaching? Even the decrees of the ecumenical councils (which were explicitly addressed to the whole Church) weren’t something that most Christians could just find at their local library.

            Sorry, but you’re going to have to give some evidence here. That’s a really big claim. Most Orthodox Christians have never had the opportunity to meet one of the Fathers, much less to hear him speak. And even if they did hear him speak, they didn’t therefore have access to the whole of patristic teaching on every subject.

      2. The only path to salvation is the unwavering following of the instructions of the Holy Fathers

        ~ St Ignatius Brianchaninov

    2. Is it not obvious that Scripture is the *most* complicated to understand, and that, by reading the Fathers and acquiring their mind, we correctly understand Scripture?
      —————————————————————

      Spoken by someone who has clearly only read St. Maximus in translation. Which is fine, but part of what Fr. Andrew is pointing to, I think, is that we as modern, English-speaking Orthodox Christians ought to be incredibly thankful for the Patristic riches we have available to us rather than taking them for granted, or using them as a faux-intellectual shibboleth.

      The Scriptures are hard to understand for people like me who are corrupt and sinful. But an illiterate holy monk who has spent his life in prayer and devotion to God can hear them in the liturgy and correctly understand them immediately, because the Scriptures all speak of Christ, and that monk has spent the time to become acquainted with Him and can recognize Him.

      1. This idea of illiteracy is portrayed and blanketed. How about both you and Fr Andrew defend this claim. Literacy was wider spread throughout the Roman Empire.

        And I do not understand your slight of my ability to only read St Maximos in English. I can only read the Gospel of John in English too. Does this mean it is somehow less than?

        If anyone is taking them for granted, it is Fr Andrew! Saying you don’t *need* to do something, is very weak and misleading at best.

        1. Literacy never even reached 50% in the Roman Empire: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Empire#Literacy.2C_books.2C_and_education

          Fr. Stephen’s point about reading in translation is this: Translations of Maximus in particular are always going to be much easier to read than the original. Even St. Photius the Great, who was a renowned scholar, complained that Maximus was very difficult to understand.

          Saying you don’t *need* to do something, is very weak and misleading at best.

          Where did I say that anyone doesn’t “need” to read the Fathers? I encourage everyone to read the Fathers! Read them! Go crazy!

          My point is that not reading the Fathers doesn’t make someone non-Orthodox. Why? Because most Orthodox have neither read the Fathers nor even had access to most of their writings (in most cases, to any of their writings).

      2. I’ve read a lot of the Fathers (not enough yet!) and all of the Scripture. I would not make any claim to a full understanding of either, but in terms of even basic, literal comprehension, I would have to say that, on average, the Scriptures are easier to access than the Fathers.

        There are of course difficult passages in Scripture that are tough to sort out even at the grammatical level, but the rhetorical style of the Bible is — overall — easier than most of the Fathers.

        The Church seems to realize this, too, giving people constant, direct exposure to Scripture in the divine services, often without any commentary. That does not mean that no explanation is needed, but if it were the case that you should never read the Bible without first reading in the Fathers (and what about those pesky passages for which I cannot find a patristic comment in English?!), then we really need to rethink how we do church services.

        1. Fr. Andrew: There are of course difficult passages in Scripture that are tough to sort out even at the grammatical level, but the rhetorical style of the Bible is — overall — easier than most of the Fathers.
          Rdr. Daniel: Spot on, as far as the Greek Fathers goes. My introduction to Greek was Homer and Xenophon; when I started to read the Bible, it was very painful. Still, the NT is generally pretty easy, once you have made your peace with flagrant violations of style and the bizarre, new words and the bizarre new meanings of old words. In my limited experience, the easiest Father to read is The Shepherd of Hermas. After that, it can get pretty tough pretty fast. E.g., I decided 25 years ago that St. Ignatius of Antioch was among the Fathers tops in every category. (Now I am inclined to give the epithet Primus Inter Pares to Chrysostom.) I sat down to read his Greek–and choked. He is for me monstrously difficult to read. Even with the help of Lightfoot, he is challenging. I am now making another effort to slog manfully through St. Ignatius, but somehow I keep slipping back into Xenophon to refresh my mind and allow fine diction to wash away the tension created by ghastly grammar.
          The moral of the story: The Bible is easier to read.
          The Toulminian rebuttal: At least in Greek.

  3. I been reading up on the christological controversies as of late and it is interesting to note that St. Cyril is often credited as one of the first fathers of the church to use and cite the fathers as an authority. In the council of Ephesus he seems to have brought along with him many quotes from letters of the fathers that would help him make his case for a single subject Christology. I would think that most of the fathers probably had more access to the writings of their former predecessors as opposed to have equal access to all the fathers,. Ex. Cyril, being patriarch of Alexandria, had more access to the writings of his uncle, Athanasius, Peter, etc. than almost anyone else.

    1. In one Facebook thread, someone mentioned that the Venerable Bede was said to have a big library at Jarrow—200 volumes! And yet most of them were works of secular history. Compared to him, I have a library that would rival an emperor’s. We have to have some perspective.

      Whenever contemplating a rule for what constitutes “true” Orthodoxy, we really need to ask whether it is a reasonable rule for all Orthodox throughout history. We don’t want to inadvertently anathematize most of our fathers in the faith.

      1. St Basil cites the Fathers and the Liturgy in his defense that the Holy Spirit is God, in “On the Holy Spirit.”

        St Gregory the Theologian states that he will keep and hold to that which has been given to him, i.e. the Faith from the Fathers.

    2. Tony, your observation on St. Cyril of A. can be turned around to make the same point. Let’s take St. Ignatius of Antioch as our test case. Which Church Fathers did St. Ignatius cite? Yet who denies his orthodoxy or his Orthodoxy?
      To some extent, one challenge which the fathers pose us is found in an admonition of Dr. Johnson that we should gain “knowledge of the world, fresh from life, not strained through books.” Sometimes I feel that there is a temptation to imagine that having read the church fathers, one has done all.
      In a similar vein Arthur Schopenhauer, to whom I usually do not turn for wisdom, remarked that “thinkers and men of genius are those who have gone straight to the book of nature.” Schopenhauer makes an argument that is mutatis mutandis very relevant to our discussion. St. Ignatius had no church fathers to cite, but he did not need to. St. John of Kronstadt cited very few church fathers in _My Life in Christ_, but who is complaining about it?
      Praying and keeping the commandments are perhaps the best places to start if we want to go straight not to the book of nature but of grace. Even Orthodox daily prayers contain enough light and majesty to guide the most wretched of sinners.

  4. How then did the Fathers receive the truth that we look to today?

    I’m guessing in at least one way that it was their lives of piety and love of God and participation in the Sacraments of the Church attracted God’s grace to themselves and truth was revealed.

    So, if we don’t emulate that same piety and love of God we will not get anything more from reading the Fathers than we will from reading Scripture.

    Just a thought that I hope makes sense.

    1. The Fathers mostly received it the same way any other Orthodox Christian would—by worship, repentance, and by learning from the teachers they had access to. Some of the later Fathers had a lot more access to various patristic texts than the earlier ones. But none had the access that now exists.

      And you make a great point about how to live. St. Athanasius makes the same point:

      “But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven. Of that reward it is written: ‘Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, .neither hath entered into the heart of man the things that God has prepared’ (1 Cor. 2. 9) for them that live a godly life and love the God and Father in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom and with Whom be to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit, honour and might and glory to ages of ages. Amen.” (On the Incarnation, IX.57, emphasis added)

  5. This also really begs the question: what is happening in the Liturgy?

    Why, listening to the Holy Fathers! The liturgies were composed by the Fathers, and the hymnography that we listen to in the services, especially the daily services, were written *by* the Fathers.

    You can not go to the liturgy and not be “reading” the Fathers, not be instructed by them. And we all know that we must carry the Liturgy into the rest of our lives. We don’t just go to Church on Sunday and ignore it the rest of the week.

    1. But that’s not what I’m addressing. I’m talking about digging up copies of patristic writings and sitting down and reading them (something I very much endorse, but not something I will cast someone out of the Church for failing to do).

      Of course there is patristic material in the church services (lots more Scripture, though, most of it read or sung without comment). I serve at least six services every week, so I’m quite familiar with it. But even if you go to every single service for a year at a monastery, you still would miss the vast majority of patristic writings, which are not incorporated into the services enough so that you get them all.

      1. As already stated, the liturgy *is* the Fathers; the hymnography *is* the Fathers. The Scripture *is* the Fathers.

        There is a real dichotomy here being protrayed between the Tradition and the Fathers. Sad really.

        1. Drawing distinctions is not setting up dichotomies—that is basic to Orthodox metaphysics. Tradition includes all those things. But those things are not all identical. You do not, for instance, get to hear everything written by St. John Climacus just because you go to church all the time.

  6. As a patristic scholar, I’ve dedicated my life’s work to reading the Fathers. But this is the work of a specialist, not the average believer. The Fathers themselves were specialists of their time. They were bishops and theologians, entrusted with passing on the rule of Faith in its fullest form. Oftentimes laypersons read the Fathers and proof text then incorrectly because they are not trained thelogically. I agree with this blog post because many people are incapable of understanding the Fathers. But, like the laypersons in the time of the Byzantium, they should trust the specialists who do understand the Fathers. Thus, we should learn from our great theologians and bishops who interpret the Fathers and the Scriptures for our benefit. This was exactly what was done in antiquity and should be done now.

    Furthermore, the Fathers teach us that the Creed is the surety of rightly reading the Scriptures. It becomes the lens through which proper understanding prevails. In addition, other doctrinal statements, such as Chalcedon, help us to rightly divide the word of truth. Lastly, but perhaps preeminently, our ascetic and liturgical life provides us with proper understanding.

    Like Fr Andrew, I do not discourage people from reading the Fathers, but even that should be guided by someone with a sound understanding, such as a trained priest. It is no different than any other aspect of the Orthodox faith, where spiritual guidance is fundamental.

    1. What exactly is a Patristic scholar? Is it someone with a Degree from St Tikhon’s who teaches God did not die on the cross? ( A clear theological error and something I *will* be writing to Dr Christopher Veniamin about)… or is it the monastics who read the daily services, sing and chant the hymnography *every day*, and in a real and accurate sense, having given up their lives to the service of the Church and the Faith?

      1. Jonathan, do not make threats against other commenters on this site. You also need to end your disrespectful tone, or you will be banned from commenting.

        Fr. Joseph is indeed a patristics scholar, working on his doctoral degree under the direction of the eminent Fr. Andrew Louth.

        1. Father, you owe Jonathan a debt of thanks for making your point so beautifully. The millions of Orthodox Christians through the centuries were and are shaped by the liturgical life of the faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

          The pressing of my eyes to a page didn’t create the character of Christ within me while a Protestant and the pressing of my eyes to a page won’t make me Orthodox. Only a more well read Protestant.

      2. You’re right, Jonathan, so its a good thing that while Fr. Joseph was at St. Tikhon’s he walked across the street to the monastery every day to read, chant, and sing the hymnography. I was there. I saw it.

  7. It is certainly true that most Christians could not personally own a collection of the writings of the Fathers, and even if they could, most of them would have a hard time working their way through such a collection. How most Christians have had access to the Fathers in the history of the Church has been listening to them in the teaching of their priests and bishops, and listening to their teachings in the hymns of the Church. So yes, it is not necessary for everyone to be a patristics scholar, but most Orthodox Christians can learn what the Fathers taught, even if they never crack open one of their books. They simply need to attend the services and pay attention.

    1. Of course, that would require that the Liturgy be in a language people can understand without significant education, which, for a majority of Orthodoxy Christians throughout history, that has not been the case.

    2. Exactly, and I think this is Fr. Andrew’s main point: To be an Orthodox Christian, one must simply immerse one’s self in the life of the Church. By doing so, they will acquire and mind and spirit of the Fathers through the services, prayers, scripture readings, mysteries, and even one another.

  8. I believe that this argument is based on past and present people. In the past, most people didn’t have access to the Fathers writings because the Fathers didn’t exist yet. But, they had witnesses of the Faith (Jesus Christ is the Son of God in the Second Person and our Saviour).

    They understood that before the Nicene Creed came into existence. They were taught by the men who were taught by the Apostles. Then over time, men (who became saints) preached about the Word of God and referred to other men’s writings (who were saints). But, most people like peasants didn’t have access to written documents.

    Now, there were many folks that never read what these saints wrote, but the life of the Church was certainly established in a concrete way that became the life of humble (illiterate) people. There are many martyrs who will attests to that. They didn’t need to read the Fathers in order to live the Orthodox faith. But, no doubt, their bishops and priests had access to their writings and were educated in the Faith. But, it is true that many people didn’t read the Holy Fathers and yet knew what it meant to be a true worshipper of Christ.

    Now, in the present, we converts absorb everything we can about the writings of the Holy Fathers. And that is good too, because we come from very disillusioned places, like I did with the RC. I learnt a lot of truths of the Faith by reading the Holy Fathers.

    So, for my two cents, I’d like to say that I see that in the past the Holy Fathers were not necessary to read because there was definitely concrete faith in the lives of the everyday person (peasant) attending services. But, in our times, people (converts and cradle) need to read them to understand what is what. We are a messed up generation and I think falling fast.

    Basically, it comes down to the mindset of our times. We are too intellectually and rationally-minded. We need to be drawn out from the forces of this society and we need to find a connection with the Holy Fathers.

    Perhaps, that is why Jonathan is so adamant about his view. I respect that. I too, always look for answers from the Holy Fathers because they express everything that we respect since they are from the past. And I compare my views with what they say to check myself. This is the mindset of our times.

    All that Fr. Andrew is saying is that not everyone could have had access, in the past, to the Holy Fathers’ writings but they still lived in the true Faith of Orthodoxy (as opposed to heresy). He is looking at the mindset of those past times.

    I hope that all will be settled in the spirit of mutual understanding. Life is too short and we need to focus on our salvation. Is this argument really worth it?

  9. Reading the Fathers is not a prerequisite to being Orthodox.

    Rather, listening and obeying your Bishop, who has been entrusted with carrying down to the faithful, the patristic understandings of the faith (including interpretations of the Scriptures) is what makes one Orthodox.

    Thus, whether one is a well studied Orthodox theologian who has read volumes of the Fathers or an illiterate village Orthodox in any century or any country, the mark of being Orthodox is obedience to the faith taught by their bishop and the humility to put the understanding and interpretations of greater men over theirs. Being Orthodox means not conforming the Scriptures, the faith, or the Church to oneself, (which is actually the mark of Protestantism), but rather conforming oneself to the Church which is the pillar and foundation for truth.

  10. From Fr. Florovsky:

    Following the Holy Fathers… It is not a reference to abstract tradition, to formulas and propositions. It is primarily an appeal to persons, to holy witnesses. The witness of the Fathers belongs, integrally and intrinsically, to the very structure of the Orthodox faith. The Church is equally committed to the kerygma of the Apostles and to the dogmata of the Fathers. Both belong together inseparably. The Church is indeed “Apostolic.” But the Church is also “Patristic.” And only by being “Patristic” is the Church continuously “Apostolic.” The Fathers testify to the Apostolicity of the tradition. There are two basic stages in the proclamation of the Christian faith. Our simple faith had to acquire composition. There was an inner urge, an inner logic, an internal necessity, in this transition from kerygma to dogma. Indeed, the dogmata of the Fathers are essentially the same “simple” kerygma, which had been once delivered and deposited by the Apostles, once, for ever. But now it is this very kerygma—properly articulated and developed into a consistent body of correlated testimonies. The apostolic preaching is not only kept in the Church: it lives in the Church, as a depositum juvenescens, in the phrase of St. Irenaeus. In this sense, the teaching of the Fathers is a permanent category of Christian faith, a constant and ultimate measure or criterion of right belief. In this sense, again, Fathers are not merely witnesses of the old faith, testes antiquitatis, but, above all and primarily, witnesses of the true faith, testes veritatis. Accordingly, our contemporary appeal to the Fathers is much more than a historical reference—to the past. “The mind of the Fathers” is an intrinsic term of reference in Orthodox theology, no less than the word of the Holy Writ, and indeed never separated from it. The Fathers themselves were always servants of the Word, and their theology was intrinsically exegetical. Thus, as has been well said recently, “the Catholic Church of all ages is not merely a child of the Church of the Fathers, but she is and remains the Church of the Fathers.”

  11. Orthodox Christians have always had access to the Fathers, mainly in the Divine Liturgy (oral and written) and in the Life of the Church (unwritten).

    The Scripture is not dangerous book, it is our fallen and corrupt mind that is dangerous.

  12. The Saints measure the Bishops, not the other way around. Without controversy the lesser swears by the greater.

  13. Anna Comnena comments somewhere that her mother loved poring over the writings of St Maximos the Confessor but she herself couldn’t make heads or tails out of the saint. My wholly uninformed hunch is there were collections of various beloved saints that were widely disseminated and widely read — for example, St Basil’s Philokalia based on Origen’s writings, St Gregory’s collected sermons (highly edited by St Gregory himself), St Dionysios the Areopagite, and so on. Of course, these weren’t critically edited texts but the received versions of the Areopagite.

    In the Christian West, the two most highly quoted Christian sources in St Thomas are St Augustine and St Dionysios the Areopagite. However, the St Augustine that Thomas read wasn’t the Augustine as lovingly reconstructed by Peter Brown. The Augustine we know wasn’t the Augustine St Thomas knew. I get the impression that the medievals weren’t nearly as enthralled by The Confessions as we are. Plus, the received corpus of Augustine’s writings included much content that wasn’t actually Augustine’s own work. Here we have to distinguish the “reception history” of Augustine versus the critical versions we’re more familiar with.

    I can’t resist one more St Thomas anecdote (maybe dubious, maybe not), where he said that he’d trade all of Paris for a copy of St John Chrysostom’s commentary on one of St Paul’s epistles. But once again, you wonder what version of Chrysostom he’d actually end up reading!

    Please forgive any demonstrable lapses in judgment or fact.

    1. Re: the Aquinas anecdote — I think it was actually for Chrysostom’s commentary on the Gospel according to Matthew. Anyone who reads it will concur.

  14. Fr. Andrew,

    Forgive me, but this post seems to be problematic for several reasons.

    First, who ever actually says authentic Orthodoxy means that everyone must read the Fathers in order to be truly Orthodox? To be frank, this appears to be a strawman. No one actually holds this view, and if some do, then who?

    Second, what would it even mean for the Fathers to “dogmatize” the reading of the Fathers? It is enough that the Fathers counsel us to read spiritual literature appropriate to our present situation in life. This includes the Holy Scriptures, the Sacred Canons, and the Neptic Fathers of the Philokalia. Of course it requires discretion and spiritual guidance, but the point is that they do recommend it.

    While it is true that most Orthodox Christians throughout history have not had access to the Patristic corpus we have today, and that even many today do not have access to this corpus, that simply is not the case with your target audience who consist of well-educated middle-class Americans for whom there is no excuse not to read the Fathers.

    Not everything is translated, but 1) we can read what is translated, and 2) this should motivate all the more to translate the Fathers into many languages. St. John Chrysostom, for his part, did not leave his hearers with any excuse not to study the Scriptures: even if you are blind, he says, you can still have someone read the Scriptures to you.

    Third, though the writings of the Fathers contain many private letters not originally meant for public consumption, the writings of the Scriptures also contain many private letters not originally meant for public consumption. Does that mean “one does not have to read the Scriptures in order to be truly Orthodox”? Perhaps not; but would you counsel a literate, well-educated Orthodox Christian with disposable income that it is unnecessary to read the Scriptures because it contains many things not originally meant for “public consumption”?

    It just confounds me: To what purpose this was written? It is unclear who you are actually addressing or if anyone is really turning the Fathers into “idols”; your audience seems to be the type that have no excuse not to read the Fathers; and even the Fathers themselves counsel the reading of spiritual literature relevant to our way of life. So for what reason do you think it was necessary to write this?

    Forgive me and pray for me, a sinner.

    1. To your points, in order:

      1. Here is a selection of quotations I have read, for instance, on Facebook:

      “I won’t believe anyone who talks about Orthodoxy without quoting the Fathers.”

      “…whenever I am reading something by an Orthodox writer that is not one of the Fathers, I do so knowing that not everything I am reading is the authoritative teaching of the Church.”

      And I’ve seen other stuff like that. That’s the kind of thing I’m responding to.

      2. It would mean the kind of thing I mention in #1. That is, if you don’t quote or read the Fathers, there’s no way you’re really teaching Orthodoxy. Along with them, I also recommend reading the Fathers. You note that I did so in this post — several times.

      3. You took the wrong point from my point there — I simply meant that a private letter cannot have been intended by a patristic author to be a sine qua non for Orthodoxy. But the point was really just an expansion on my main point, which is that most Orthodox have not had access to most of (in most cases, all of) the Fathers for most of history, and one of the reasons is that many documents weren’t written in such a way as to provide easy access to everyone.

      4. You don’t number this one, but I make no assumptions about who my audience is. Everyone’s welcome to read. I wouldn’t say that any of my posts are “necessary” (I don’t have that high of an opinion of myself), but if you’re asking why I chose to write this, see #1.

      Finally: If anything in my post is construed to mean that I am in any way discouraging people from reading the Fathers, I would respectfully suggest a closer reading of my text, especially the several places where I highly recommend reading the Fathers.

      1. I would agree that you don’t have to read the fathers to be Orthodox. But you really ought to read the fathers of you plan on TEACHINGS Orthodoxy than you really ought to read the fathers.

      2. Father,

        It is difficult to say what the author(s) of those quotes meant when their words are taken in isolation, but it seems they could be glossed the same way as the quote from St. Symeon posted by John Willard: that we should measure the words of modern Orthodox writers by those of the Holy Fathers. I do not see why these should be construed to say everyone must read the Fathers in order to be truly Orthodox. The same sentiment is expressed by Fr. Irenei Steenberg when he says:

        “The only voice with which any Orthodox Christian is entitled to speak is the voice of the Church.”

        As to your second point, again, as hyperbolic as the language of those quotes seems, they can easily be contextualized to mean, as one of the canon commentaries of St. Nikodemus says, that those who speak about Orthodoxy must speak with words drawn from the Fathers, and must not “make things up” as they go along. In no way do they convey the notion that the Fathers made a dogma of reading the Fathers; but, given that they themselves counsel us to read the Fathers, I am not sure what point there is in saying it’s not a dogma, since nobody argued it is. Rather, the point is to test all things against the Fathers.

        Granted, the Fathers did not intend for their private writings to become the sina que non of Orthodoxy, but again, no one has suggested this. St. Paul may never have intended his letter to Philemon to make it into the canon, but it did. So I can hardly see what you’re getting at, here. Besides, some private correspondences (I think of the canonical of St. Basil the Great to Amphilochius) actually *did* become touchstones for Orthodoxy.

        Not to make assumptions about who your audience is, it does seem that you regularly communicate with well-educated, literate American Orthodox Christians who probably have disposable income or at least Internet access. This is why your post confounds me. You seem to be arguing against comments like those above, which emphasize the necessity of speaking with the voice of the Fathers and do not necessarily make the point that you construe them as making. But, really, the problem seems to be the opposite: many people are lazy and are ignorant of the Fathers, especially in our culture. It seems far less threatening for someone to insist on quoting the Fathers to lend support to your point, than does the fact that so many people are so unrightfully ignorant of the Fathers. The overzealousness of a few seems to be less harmful than the apathy of the many.

        I do not think you are actively discouraging reading the Fathers. But I think your post, as stated, could mislead a reader to think “I do not have to read the Fathers to be Orthodox; I can just go to church, sing the hymns, etc. and still be Orthodox.” This strikes me as a dangerous boobytrap for people to think they can simply acquire an Orthodox phronema by osmosis, as if reading the Fathers were ‘optional.’ Not that I think you mean to say reading the Fathers is ‘optional,’ but I do not see how such an implication could possibly be avoided by those prone to that type of reductionist thinking.

        1. Forgive me, but it seems to me that “reductionist thinking” is precisely what most of the criticisms of this post are based on. Even if they’re not, though, “reductionist thinking” can ruin anything, even if it’s the words of a saint. Abusus non tollit usum.

          That said: The overzealousness of a few seems to be less harmful than the apathy of the many.

          Is it? I’ve seen a lot of people turned away from the Church because of the Pharisaism I am criticizing; indeed, one critique I’ve seen is that Orthodoxy is being presented online as a religion for “upper middle class book clubs.” An Orthodoxy which is not also available to the uneducated is not the Church which Christ founded. In any event, one should pursue Christ to the fullest with whatever gifts he has — some people do not have the gift of being able to read and/or understand the Fathers. They should never be kept out of the Church because of that or even given the impression that they might be. Some really are getting that impression.

          Apathy is also very dangerous, mind you, but the apathetic don’t tend to actively drive people away.

          1. Fr. Andrew – I very much agree with this and have seen the same thing myself. I was confronted by one person who stated that any catechism that leads to baptism or chrismation before the catechumen has finished the first two volumes of the Philokalia is inadequate! People do think that way. The phrase I use is that they believe you can read yourself to Orthodoxy. Reading can be good and it can be illumining and edifying, but it is not the faith. This is no straw man argument that you posit. It is a real faction that is increasingly loud (and prideful IMO). Thank you for this post.

        2. And just as a follow-up comment on the issue of apathy: It’s a topic I’ve addressed many times, actually, especially in sermons. That I happen to be addressing this particular topic with this one post doesn’t mean it’s the only thing I care about (pun very much intended).

  15. The fathers don’t tell us to read the fathers?

    “Implore God with prayers and tears to send you a guide who is dispassionate and holy. But you yourself should also study the divine writings – especially the works of the fathers that deal with the practice of the virtues -so that you can compare the teachings of your master with them; for thus you will see and observe them as in a mirror. Take to heart and keep in mind those of his teachings that agree with the divine writings, but separate out and reject those that are false and incongruent. Otherwise you will be led astray. For in these days there are all too many deceivers and false prophets.” – St. Symeon the New Theologian

    1. That is a wonderful quote with which I entirely agree. It is also an excellent refutation to the claim “The fathers don’t tell us to read the fathers.”

      But I didn’t write “The fathers don’t tell us to read the fathers.” I wrote “But even the Fathers have never dogmatized reading the Fathers” (emphasis added).

  16. A section from St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain’s Introduction to the Philokalia:

    Come, therefore, come. Eat of the bread of knowledge and wisdom contained in it. And drinking wine that spiritually gladdens the heart, and draws attachment to the objects of the bodily senses, owing to the theosis which that ecstasy produces. And be intoxicated with a really sober intoxication. Come, all who are participants in the Orthodox call, both laymen and monks, all who are seeking to find the Kingdom of God which is within you, and the treasure which is hidden in the field of your heart. And this treasure is sweet Jesus Christ. Thus, free from the captivity of this world, and the wandering of your mind, and with your heart purified from the passions, with the unceasing awesome invocation of our Lord Jesus Christ, together with the other cooperating virtues taught by this work, you will be united with one another. And thus united will all be united with God, according to the entreaty of our Lord to His Father, Who said: “that they may be one, as we are one.”

  17. Someone upstream asked:

    “Are John, Peter, and Paul *not* Fathers themselves?”

    No, they are apostles. The apostles (and the prophets before them) received their words — their Gospel — directly from Christ. Everyone else, including the Fathers receive the Gospel from them. The Fathers then, are those who nurture children in the Faith of the Gospel received from the Apostles.

    The final ground of authority for the Fathers is always the teaching, the word, of the Apostle. And we never call a Father an Apostle. The closest Orthodoxy comes to it is with the title “Equal to the Apostles” but this refers only to the actions of those who furthered the preaching of the Apostolic teaching — the Gospel.

  18. Great article. I understand why people have misunderstood it and seem to think that Fr Andrew is advocating not reading the Father’s, but I believe that his replies as well as the update makes it clear that a careful reading of the article does not warrant that idea.
    I was told once that Fr Seraphim Rose said that tradition is that which is taught to you by your priest (spiritual father, father confessor…) I think that this is a great point, in as far as it goes. Most people are not going to read “The Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith” in their free time. They count on their Bishops to “rightly divide the word of Thy truth” and their Priests to teach it. Likewise, reading the Fathers does not gain one salvation if they do not live what they read.
    I, too, encourage people to read the Fathers, but with proper guidance. The Fathers are no different than Scripture. There is no “simple understanding” of the Fathers anymore than there is of the Holy Scriptures. People use the Fathers to support their own misguided beliefs all of the time.
    One more thing. I often hear people say “the Fathers say…” or “the Chruch teaches…” and then say something that is more in line with theologumina than dogma. This was pointed out to me years ago and is something that I have sought to be very careful about. St Paul was explicit in his letters when he was writing his opinion. I believe it is incumbent upon us to do so as well.
    Anyway, thank you Father Andrew for this article.

  19. Dear Fr. Andrew,

    Forgive me for coming into the conversation after it has run its course, and for going off on a bit of a tangent, but — for someone who wants to dig in and really study the Fathers, where should one begin? As has been alluded to, there is a wealth of writings from a number of Fathers (even when limiting oneself to English translations). It can be intimidating to try and find not only a starting point but also a path to trace.

    I have read some things (well, mostly listened to audiobooks, but still), but I’m just going off what I have access to that is interesting and/or most convenient. St. Justin Martyr’s Apologies, Martyrdom of Polycarp (I think), On the Incarnation, etc. are the first ones that come to mind as ones I’ve already been exposed to. Currently, I’m making my way through OCRB’s audiobook of Blessed Theophylact’s Explanation of St. Matthew’s Gospel.

    Of course, I’m not asking you to give me some kind of lesson plan or anything. I do need a road map, but I don’t know where to find one (assuming one exists somewhere out there). I’d go to seminary if I could, but it’s impossible. What I am looking for (I have asked elsewhere and was basically told “just pray the Jesus Prayer”, which is excellent advice, but is not the answer to my question) is simply where to begin and what are some essentials. Indeed, I have a lot of stuff (for example, the ANF and NPNF collections), but would it be better if I started elsewhere? I have the Philokalia, but I’m certain that that’s not square one! It would be nice if there were an “Introduction to the Fathers” website or something, that would have some tips/suggestions for somebody like me who would really like to study the Fathers, but is utterly clueless.

    I know you can’t be that for me, but my goal in asking is trying to find out where that guidance can be found.

    In Christ,
    Phil Harwell

    P.S. If you feel this comment is inappropriate, my feelings would not be hurt at all if you moderated it.

      1. Thank you Fr. Andrew!

        I have a collection by Michael W. Holmes by that name. If that’s the one you’re referring to, I’m familiar with it, though I haven’t read it all (certainly not the Greek/Latin versions). As mentioned above, I’ve heard parts of it as audiobooks. If you would, please say a prayer for me as I venture into reading it again/further, as reading presents a particular challenge for me, for reasons I’ll not go into here (let’s just call it a “disability”).

        Thank you for the other recommendation. I haven’t heard of that one. I’ll go look on Amazon.

        Again, thank you so much for the recommendations. It’s great to have a starting point!

  20. Most troubling for me is the attitude one frequently sees with respect to the Fathers and the Bible. I remember proposing that the sequence of events in Exodus 14 recapitulates, day-by-day, the seven days of Genesis 1 so as to present the crossing of the Red Sea as a new creation for Israel. I was promptly asked “where this is in the Fathers”- well, I’m not sure whether any particular Father ever proposed that, but I don’t know of one who commented on Exodus 14 without noting that it is a baptism and new creation. I dare say that they would be quite happy to discover that Exodus 14 recapitulates Genesis 1.

    That’s symptomatic of a broader problem- an insistence by many on the Internet of a theology of repetition in the worst sense of the phrase.

    1. Right, exactly. This approach actually undercuts the Fathers themselves, who sometimes do indeed say new things that other Fathers haven’t said before. That doesn’t mean they’re making up new dogma, but there are certainly always going to be new ways of reflecting on the faith theologically that are wholly consistent with the Church’s dogma.

      Part of the problem here is that theology, doctrine and dogma are all being collapsed into one category of “What the Fathers Say.”

  21. Concerning some of the comments above that want to make the New Testament simply the earliest set of Fathers- I think this is damaging to one’s hermeneutic. I’ve seen a strong tendency among contemporary Orthodox to pull the Bible into its individual books and then consider each individual book or passage with respect to the tradition. But this isn’t a Patristic approach- the Holy Fathers were insistent that the Bible is a single book with its own integrity. One ought to consider each book of the Bible first in its canonical context, and then one ought to consider the whole Bible in its canonical context, namely, the tradition of the Church.

    Of course, it’s impossible to perform such “steps” systematically, but I think it captures a balanced approach to what the Bible is from within the Church.

  22. I could be mistaken, but it kind of seems to me like the attitude in this article isn’t all that similar to that which I see in reading the fathers, and the services of the Church. I mean, I could understand if the fathers were referred to as particularly enlightened teachers of Orthodox doctrine, but what I’ve read by such elders as St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, St. Just Popovich, St. Nikolai Velimirovich, and Elder Gerasimos much more resembles, dare I say, a religious devotion. The fathers are spoken of as a standard of virtue, a rule of faith, and an object of piety more often than not. If you’d like, I can provide some quotes that give me this impression, and we can discuss them. Before we do though, I’d like to say that I think it would be kind of dishonest to explain away what these saints and elders have to say as an issue of translation, or as them ‘meaning’ something that is radically different from the words imply, as if they’re speaking in secret code. I think that’s just a cheap way to avoid confronting an idea. ‘You’re too dumb to understand’.

    1. I’m not sure how your comment critiques what’s in the post. Could you help me?

      “Religious devotion” (veneration but not worship) is most certainly the normal Orthodox posture toward the Fathers. We celebrate them as saints, ask for their prayers, love them, etc. I would definitely describe my own sense of them with that language. They’re not just teachers. They’re far more.

      As for their speaking in a “secret code,” I’m totally lost there. Who is saying that?

      My only real point with this post is that the Fathers can’t be held against someone as though we have not only canonized them but dogmatized them. Certainly, some of the things they say are indeed dogmatized, but most of it is not. That doesn’t mean it’s not true or reliable, etc., but it does mean that, just because someone isn’t steeped in their writings that he’s not Orthodox. It also doesn’t mean that everything that is not just a patristic quotation is unreliable. To support that point, I add the historical observation that most Orthodox Christians, including most of the Fathers, never had the kind of access to patristic writings that now exists for a certain subset of the world population.

      I’m actually reminded here of the attitude that St. Ignatius of Antioch was dealing with in his epistle to the Philadelphians. They kept complaining at him that his teachings were not found “in the archives,” i.e., the Old Testament. He responds that they are indeed to be found there, but ultimately, “To me the archives is Christ.” If what a teacher is saying is consistent with the revelation of Christ, as witnessed in Scripture and elucidated in the rest of Tradition, it does not matter if what he’s saying is not simply a citation or repetition from the Fathers. Ideally, he would know those sources well so as not to go astray, but if what he’s saying does not contradict them, then “to me, the archives is Christ.”

      1. It’s also very clear that many Saints, including recent ones (the example of Elder Sophrony, disciple of St. Silouan the Athonite, comes to mind) explicitly developed doctrine- doctrine in harmony with the tradition, yes, but developments nevertheless. Elder Sophrony, for example, applied the idea of kenosis to the inner life of the triune God. This is part of the long tradition of allowing the incarnation to reveal to us the character of God, but I don’t believe it had ever been articulated in that precise fashion before- it’s a development, not a slavish repetition, and that is a good thing.

  23. I agree with the original post. For egg-head types interested in church history and development of doctrine, and who have the time and money for it, yes reading the writings of the heroes of our faith is a very nice thing. But that’s just one type of person in the “body of Christ” so to speak. There are workers of Christian mercy who are too busy helping the poor and their faith would be ten times the faith of the person who knows the philokalia, whatever that is. There are prayers. There are people with wonderful gifts of grace and forgiveness and encouragement, etc. It can lead one to pride if one’s faith gloats about knowledge of the fathers.

    I have a set of the Hendrickson publishing fathers and, to be honest, it’s totally overwhelming, and there is truly some weird, odd, boring stuff in it. I guess there was no shortage of paper in the late antique world, as I originally thought. But there are many gems. My favorite latin writer in the set is probably Cyprian, e.g. his discussion of the Lords Prayer. My favorite greek writer, well, Ireaneaus books 3 4 and 5 against heresies are wonderful. It is wonderful to see the Christian faith set out basically exactly the same as it exists now, from 1700 years ago. Justin Martyr’s dialogue against trypho was pretty good talking about the Old Testament pointing to Christ, and to the trinity, etc. And if you’re reading your Bible, and want to understand a passage, these volumes have nice biblical indexes, so e.g. if I’m reading genesis 1:26 “made in the image of God” I can see references to it by the Fathers, so here is Gregory of Nyssa’s wonderful (also partly odd) discussion of the Making of Man. That’s probably the best use of the Fathers, no? To use them to interepret scripture. Also, in how they defend the Nicene faith against heresies or help to explain why a doctrine is important for the faith.

    Lastly, I actually really like Jerome’s letters and treatises when he talks about the frustrations of bad or corrupted translations of the Bible, and how he basically is prompted to make his own, from the original hebrew. Jerome is hot tempered but what an amazing hero of our faith, to put together a whole bible for the west, basically. But man that guy was over-the-top with his endless exhortations to virginity … He has such a low and mean opinion of marriage, too.

  24. I have to say I really enjoyed your whole post and even your comments at the end protecting my brain from playing tricks on me and possibly deriving things from your post that you didn’t say : ) …not that I think that would have happened, but now it sure won’t : )

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