Three common mistakes when consulting the Fathers

While looking through Google Books, I came across a valuable footnote in Paul A. Hartog, The Contemporary Church and the Early Church: Case Studies in Ressourcement (Wipf & Stock, 2010). There seem to be no page numbers in the preview, but the note is linked to here.  The underlining is mine.

88. … To his credit, Bercot does list several “common mistakes” in his Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: first, the danger of proof-texting; second, to assume that early Christian writers “were making dogmatic theological pronouncements every time they spoke”; third, “We also must be careful not to read technical or post-Nicene meanings into theological terms used by the pre-Nicene Christians.” Bercot, Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, xii-xiii.

This struck me as a beautifully brief summary of some obvious pitfalls.

Dr Bercot actually wrote at more length (p.xii):

Perhaps the most common mistake would be to employ this resource as a database for proof-texts. It would be tempting to sift through it, noting quotations that bolster our personal beliefs and discarding those that do not fit. Such an approach, however, inevitably misuses the early Christian writings. By selectively choosing quotations, we make it appear that the early Christians believed exactly as we do (which is sometimes not the case). In short, instead of learning from those close to the apostles in time and spirit, we simply use them for our own designs.

Another common mistake is to read the early Christian writers as though these writers were making dogmatic theological pronouncements every time they spoke. Generally, the pre-Nicene Christian writers were not attempting to define precise points of dogma for the rest of the church. Most of their theological discussions come up in the context of either (1) explaining to outsiders what Christians believed or (2) contrasting the tenets of particular heretics with what the general body of Christians believed. They were not normally trying to convince other “orthodox” Christians what to believe.

We also must be careful not to read technical or post-Nicene meanings into theological terms used by the pre-Nicene Christians. Very rarely did “orthodoxy” (itself a fifth-century term) in the early church turn on the issue of using this word instead of that word. The early Christians understood orthodoxy in terms of general concepts, not meticulous theological definitions. As Clement of Alexandria put it, “Those who are particular about words, and devote their time to them, miss the point of the whole picture” (ANF 2.347). Although theology was important to the early church, it took a back seat to living the Christian life.

Well said.

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5 thoughts on “Three common mistakes when consulting the Fathers

  1. Well said indeed.
    I should only add one more, which unfortunately the author commits: citing a Father’s work not by its title (with chapter and verse as it were), but by the volume and page number of the collection he found the English version in. Here is an instance of it:

    ‘As Clement of Alexandria put it, “Those who are particular about words, and devote their time to them, miss the point of the whole picture” (ANF 2.347).’

    Was this the Paedagogus? the Stromata? What? Only if you have the ANF series handy will you find out. If you have the vastly superior Sources Chrétiennes version, you’re out of luck.

  2. Certainly wise warning about such pitfalls. I have recently been reading some of Origen of Alexandria’s writings. Origen when he writes about something says it’s the revelation if he thinks that the opinion expressed is divine, but quite often he contemplates and expresses his reasoned opinion as he understood, and says clearly that this is only his opinion and not a devine fact. Many who came after him condemned some of his opinions as if they were expressed as theological facts. I really believe, had Origen survived to a post-Nicene age, and attended the great Christological debates he would have, through theological discussions with others, explained his positions to the extent that they would not be considered heretical.

  3. There was a lot of deliberate messing around with Origen’s work and opinions by both his putative “followers” later on, and his enemies. It’s very messy.

    OTOH, I think Origen’s work was speculative enough that he never would have fitted comfortably into the category of a teaching Father, so it’s not necessarily bad that he gets classified as an ecclesiastical writer instead. He’s the R&D department, way out there.

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