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Reading the Fathers

Excerpt from a Sermon by Bishop [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos

The voice of the Fathers rings out everywhere in our Faith. It is to the voice of the Fathers that we turn to confirm, in living form, the Faith which we preserve in our confessions, our statements of Faith, and our theological traditions. The core of an inner understanding of the Orthodox Faith lies always in our grasp of the consensual theology—that golden chain of common thought and spiritual experience—that binds the Fathers together, so that they speak with one mouth and with one heart.

It is important, then, that we read the Fathers in a proper way. Firstly, we must make ourselves familiar with the confessional dogmas of our Faith, so that we know what it is that the Fathers hold in common; for, indeed, it is the consensus of the Fathers that constitutes the oneness of the Patristic witness in Orthodoxy. Those things about which the Fathers differ, at well as those matters in which some Fathers inadvertently erred, are not our concern. We must draw on their commonality of thought—expressed in the dogmas and doctrines which the Church has codified—, since in that commonality is to be found the mystical "phronema," or mind, of the Fathers, a mind which, in turn, is one with that of Christ. Modern scholarship—"punk Patristics," as I call it—which prides itself in finding the differences between the Fathers is not only fruitless, but it violates the spirit of Patristic study as I have described it.

Secondly, one must understand that the Fathers build on one another. They consciously draw on each other, just as a scientist builds on the evidence and data provided to him by his predecessors. One must read the Fathers, therefore, with the spirit of a scientist, not that of an artist.

As a case in point, in an otherwise interesting article on St. Gregory Palamas, a clergyman recently noted that "Gregory Palamas" defended the Faith of the Fathers "not simply by repeating and parroting their ancient formulas and words, but by 'incarnationally' re-defining and reinterpreting their message" [see Daniel Rogich, "Homily 34 of Saint Gregory Palamas," The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 33(2), 135-156].

In fact, St. Gregory Palamas very carefully points out in a number of his writings that he is "imitating" those before him, "speaking in their words," and following in their steps. We must not succumb to fancy defenses of the Fathers, based on a fear that they might be accused—and this is often the accusation of Western polemicists—of a lack of creativity. If we look at the Fathers as scientists, their creativity rests on their ability to follow the formulas and words of their predecessors and to attain the common mind of the Fathers. Their creativity is not in redefinition, whether "incarnationally" or otherwise, hut in the application of truth to themselves, the appropriation of that which the Fathers before them held in common, and their contribution to the process of passing down unchanged truth—an unchanged truth on which we must draw and which we must attempt to pass on ourselves. We must always keep this in mind.

Thirdly, we must read the Fathers with awe. They are not, as some silly observers have put it, "just like us." The Fathers have always striven to stand in the place of those who healed the sick, conversed with Angels, and even raised the dead. The holy men and women who constitute the Patristic witness are precisely what we are not, since they have succeeded in uniting themselves to the holy men and women before them who, transformed in Christ, served as their models, taking them from darkness to light. The Fathers are what we must become in a similar transformation. They are not the "guys next door." They are not to be measured for their "human qualities." They are now the Saints "above," and we must draw on those divine qualities which they developed by restoring in themselves the image of sanctity. If we have anything in common with the Fathers of the Church, this will be revealed only when we, too, have attained to holiness—a holiness measured not by our mundane abilities, but by what is added to us by Grace in our ascent toward spiritual perfection.

Next, we must approach the Fathers, not with the rubrics of scholarship—which often lead one to misinterpretation and error—, but with those of "spiritual" investigation. If the scholar looks for "information," the spiritual seeker looks to the Fathers for "guidance." And bound up with this notion of spiritual investigation is a care for authenticity and truth unknown to scholarship. A scholar can treat a Father superficially, offer a few profound comments about his teachings, and then move on to another pursuit. Only his ego or academic recognition are at stake. However, a spiritual seeker, since his soul and eternal life are at stake in his study, read the Fathers with extreme care, often taking years to elucidate even a simple point.

Again using St. Gregory Palamas as an example, let me make some comments on this point. The writings of St. Gregory Palamas are complex beyond description. They are summaries of some of the most profound teachings of the Fathers before him, as St. Gregory himself states, and they are expressed in a Greek which is unmatched in its complexity. Indeed, I have met few writers who, despite their many articles and treatises on this great Father, can actually pass my acid test, as I hand them a volume of the yet uncompleted collection of St. Gregory's writings and ask them to translate a paragraph at random, either from the original Greek or the modern Greek text.

Many in the West unfortunately begin their study of St. Gregory Palamas with a book written some years ago (originally in French and, fortunately, somewhat revised in later English editions) by Father John Meyendorff. His book is plagued by mistranslations of St. Gregory, whom he rendered into French. They lead to some very fundamental distortions of St. Gregory Palamas' teachings, as Father John Romanides has pointed out in a brilliant commentary on Father Meyendorff’s book [see esp. "Notes on the Palamite Controversy," The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, 9(2), p.238], and these distortions have been repeated by writers who, in keeping with the rubrics of scholarship, are more fascinated by a "new thinker" than by the meat of spiritual life offered to the souls of those who look to St. Gregory Palamas as a model for spiritual growth and enlightenment. In short, they perpetuate Father Meyendorff's errors and fail to read St. Gregory himself.

Finally, we must not let political ecumenism distort what the Fathers have written. The Orthodox Fathers write what they do with a true concern for the truth, and thus words like "heretic" and "defiler of the Faith" are to found in their writings. They do not use these words in the spirit of hatred that marks so many misled Orthodox zealots today, but out of a deep and abiding concern for the protection of their readers—their spiritual children—from wrong teaching. There is nothing embarrassing about this aspect of the Fathers for mature Christian thinkers, and we must heed the message in these harsher words of the Fathers with care. We are not free to pick and to choose.

St. Gregory Palamas begins one of his essays on the Holy Spirit with comments about the Latins that would shock an ecumenist. He dismisses the Latins as heretics and denies all of the political formulas by which, in our hypocritical age, what is not Orthodox is suddenly made so. Had Father John Meyendorff, again, heeded this point, his book on this great Father might have been more loyal to the teachings of St. Gregory.

Barlaam well may have been, as St. Gregory Palamas believed and intimates, a Latin who went East to foster compromise and dissent, so as to provoke a political union between the Orthodox and Rome [cf. Romanides, supra, 6(2), p. 193]. And St. Gregory Palamas may well have been a champion of the same kind of resistance which we Old Calendarists are waging today against the machinations of Rome in attracting Orthodox ecclesiastical politicians into a union based on ecclesiological relativism and a betrayal of the Orthodox Church's claim to primacy. Perhaps this is why the Uniates (Greek Catholics) still celebrate the second Sunday of Lent, dedicated in the Orthodox Church to St. Gregory Palamas, as the Sunday of the Holy Relics. And perhaps Father Meyendorff's insensitivity to the less edifying side of ecumenism hid from his eyes the wisdom of St. Gregory's warnings against Latin intrigue as they apply to our own days!

If we are to learn from the Fathers, we must turn from the emptiness of scholarly egotism, snide doubt about things sacred, and superficial tomes praised by the world but disloyal to the teachings of those about whom they are written.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. VI, No. 3.