Why Read the Church Fathers?

In my inaugural post here at the Philomythois blog I want to lay the foundation of one of the topics I will be focusing on many of my future posts. The Church Fathers provide fruitful writings that will enrich the soul and provide a more integrated way of approaching Holy Scripture. By integrating our story with theirs we enter into a world that is uknown to us that causes us to rethink and reshape our approach to the Bible.

Often times the approach to Holy Scripture becomes a false dichotomoy: either a devotional reading that seeks only to enrich our spiritual lives or a more studious reading, which we try to enhance our knowledge about the scriptures. Many of us know that this is a false dichotomy but often times we are fighting between the two and are not sure how to bring them together. This is one area that I believe the early Christians serve as an example to imitate in this integration of the two. In a recent essay by Claire McGinnis, she focuses on the academic realm but I believe that her analysis is easily be applied to the Church as a whole. When Holy Scripture becomes a source for only information we mimic the “deading effects of scholarly training.” She says[1],

Christian scholars of the Bible ought to read patristic exegesis because it offers an important antidote to the deadening effects of scholarly training can have on the ability to hear in the pages of Scripture the Word of God, and a unified Word at that.

The early church saw no separation between study of Holy Scripture and seeking after Christ. By reading the Church Fathers we can be awakened to the full unity of the Bible and seeking Christ at every step of the way. When we look through the eyes of the Church Fathers we can “desire to recover and nurture ways of reading the Bible theologically.”[2] The Bible is not just an ancient text but rather the living Word of God (Heb 4:12).

For the Church Fathers, the purpose of rigorous study was to read and exegete the Bible in a way that lead them to Christ. Study of the scriptures and a transformational reading were one in the same. By reading them we can immerse ourselves in a different type of reading that can shed new light on our own understanding precisely because it is foreign to us.[3] It presents to us a new way of thinking that is different from current hermeneutical methods today. It gives us time to pause and reflect of the Christological interpretations of our Christian forefathers. Reading the four senses of scripture they often employ may make us uneasy but the four sense’s end goal was to see Christ in all the Bible.

An excerpt from one of St. Chrysostom’s sermons on Genesis 6:8–9 will provide a helpful example of the value for the soul in reading the Church Fathers. In this homily Chrysostom has been commenting on the virtue of Noah amidst of the wickedness of the world that he lived in. Chrysostom finds it amazing that Noah was the only righteous person in the world and God found favor in Noah. Chrysostom says[4]:

‘Noah,’ the text says, remember, ‘found favor in the sight of the Lord God.’ Even though he was not the favorite or darling of any of the human race of the time through his refusal to follow the same route as theirs, nevertheless he found favor in the eyes of the one who haunts the heart, and to him his attitude was acceptable. What harm, after all, tell me, ensued in this case from the mockery and ridicule of his peers, considering the fact that the one who shapes our hearts and understands all our actions proclaimed the man’s deeds and rewarded him? On the other hand, what benefit would it be to a human being were he the object of admiration and praise of the whole world while being condemned on that dread day by the Creator of all and the Judge who is proof against all deceit? Understanding this, therefore, dearly beloved, let us set no store by people’s commendation nor seek praise from them in every way; instead, with him alone in mind who examines heart and entrails, let us practice the works of virtue and shun evil.

Chrysostom exhorts us to be like Noah, living a life of virtue, not seeking the praise of men but seeking the praise of God. Noah was living amidst of wickedness but did not try to please man but to please God. As Christians, we can take heed to his exhortation, not using theological study for the praise of other men but for the praise of God.

  1. Claire Mathews McGinnis, “Stumbling over the Testaments: On Reading Patristic Exegesis and the Old Testament in Light of the New,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 4, no. 1 (Spr 2010): 15–31, 18  ↩
  2. ibid, 19  ↩
  3. ibid, 16  ↩
  4. Chrysostom, Saint John. Fathers of the Church: Saint John Chrysostom : Homilies on Genesis 18–45. Catholic Univ of Amer Pr, 1990, 93  ↩
Brian Brian (3 Posts)

Brian is currently a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary finishing his Masters of Divinity. He then hopes to pursue a PhD in New Testament. His interests include New Testament studies, hermeneutics (especially theological interpretation (TIS) and early Christian interpretation), and Greek. He is married to his wonderful wife, Jen, who is a constant encouragement and support. Brian is also a student member of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the North American Patristics Society (NAPS).

2 Comments Why Read the Church Fathers?

  1. Brett VadenBrett Vaden

    Glad to partner with you on Philomythois, Brian, and great “foundation” post. I recently read three of the fathers in depth in preparation for my PhD comprehensive exams. What a blast! You are exactly right about them: they “enrich the soul and provide a more integrated way of approaching Holy Scripture.”

    Regarding Chrysostom’s quote–and boy, what a man that golden-mouth–I really value how he takes me into my relational life with Christ, the one “who haunts the heart”, as he says. I do take some issue with Golden-Mouth, however, with some of his beefs against culture and some of the ways he presents his hearers with application, usually near the end of his sermons.

    In the quote you gave, he’s spot on about God’s praise and man’s praise. We need to be wise, however, and understand that man’s praise is not always bad; it can’t be, since some human beings have been united with Christ. Sometimes, it is wrong not to accept and receive praise from others–that is, when they are kin in Christ. Christ lives in such people, and his praise may be spoken to us through the mouth of his servant. I think you’d agree. Just wanted to share my perspective here.

    Bless you, brother Brian! You are a good writer and encouraging man of God.

  2. Pingback: Recommended Reading (01.24.2013) | Near Emmaus

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