In Prince Caspian, the third volume of C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, a modern young prince has rediscovered Old Narnia. He tries to restore the damaged realm, but the power of the wicked usurper, his uncle, is too great, and Prince Caspian's motley army of true believers is forced to retreat. Facing final defeat, Prince Caspian turns to his last hope: a magical horn that, it is said, always brings help to Narnia. The call of the horn sounds back through the ages and into a far world, summoning to Narnia her ancient kings and queens. They return and reverse the tide of battle.
Lewis intended his story of Prince Caspian as an allegory for the Church and its struggles against worldly powers. The magic horn that Prince Caspian blows symbolizes the promise Jesus makes that the gates of hell will never prevail against the community of faith. But there is also a narrower, more precise symbolism that sheds some light on our current situation. These days, the faithful are fervent, but we sense that we are as disarrayed as the Old Narnians—and we seem to be blowing the magical horn that calls back the great figures of the Christian past. Who would have thought that, in the early years of the twenty-first century, the most vibrant and serious field of Christian study would be the Church Fathers? But it is true. They are returning.
We certainly need their help. I teach at a Catholic university that employs hundreds of professors, and the evidence is plain to see. Only two or three scientists seem willing or able to speak about the relation between the truths of faith and the hypotheses of science. Nobody studies or teaches Dante. The extensive modern tradition of Catholic social teaching has no role to play in political science. The history department employs no one to teach the Middle Ages. Administrative initiatives consistently emphasize “diversity,” and the practical effect, whether intended or not, is a slow reorientation of faculty and curriculum away from a collective focus on the Western Christian intellectual tradition. The retiring professor who specialized in Dryden and Pope is replaced by a young Ph.D. whose interests run to gender studies and postcolonial theory.
If this is happening at a self-consciously Catholic university, imagine what the situation is like at Yale and UCLA. Intellectual life is now dominated by the first truly post-Christian generation. A friend of mine at Yale two decades ago wrote his senior paper on James Joyce. He was fascinated by Joyce's use of trinitarian language. Ignorant of Christian doctrine, he set out to find a faculty member who might provide guidance. I remember his dismay when he told me that he could not find anyone who could explain to him the classical Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
The situation has only gotten worse in the intervening years. A student at Princeton and Harvard—or Georgetown and Boston College, for that matter—now studies with teachers who have no knowledge of Christianity other than the crude caricatures long retailed by progressive illuminati. Christianity no longer exists as an integrated worldview that shapes the education and mental habits of modern people in the West. The loss is significant: None of us can reinvent a Christian literary imagination, political theory, scientific culture, or systematic theology on our own, because a Christian intellectual culture is a collective, multigenerational project.
It is not the case, however, that we must live alone in the ruins of Christendom. The poverty of the present need not cut us off from the wealth of the past. One of the most important new facts about Christian theology in North America is the sudden popularity of the
theologians and pastors, monks and bishops, martyrs and missionaries, who first fashioned a Christian culture nearly two thousand years ago. The Church Fathers are returning as agents of renewal, guiding us toward the biblical source of a truly Christian culture.
We see the return of the Fathers in unexpected places. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, edited by Thomas Oden and published by InterVarsity, has been remarkably successful. Across twenty-eight projected volumes (eighteen or so are now out), the series presents a selection of patristic interpretations, organized around the verses of the Bible. The result is a grand catena, a style of commentary in which the Bible is illuminated by a selection of short passages from such ancient interpreters as Augustine, Origen, Chrysostom, and Basil.
Popular in the centuries following the debates that culminated in the great ecumenical councils and creeds of the fourth and fifth centuries, catenae were used to reinforce and pass on the authoritative interpretations from the age of the Church Fathers. In this way, the imaginations of biblical readers were socialized into the patristic consensus about God, Christ, salvation, the Church, and sacraments. That a twenty-first-century evangelical press has gone forward with a project committed to this mode of retrospective, consensus-building biblical commentary—and that the project has met with striking success—says something important about our time.
The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture is not unique. Robert Louis Wilken's account of the great patristic intellectual synthesis, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, is widely read. In The Beauty of the Infinite, David Hart argues for the superiority of patristic metaphysics over the latest postmodern fashions. Graduate students at universities such as Notre Dame, who thirty years ago would have written dissertations on Karl Rahner and transcendental philosophy, are now more likely to focus on the speculative system of Origen or the Christian Platonism of the Cappadocians.
The professors have made similar changes. The Paul Tillich Society may soldier on, but at the large annual meetings of scholars in religion, sessions on the Church Fathers (especially their biblical interpretation) have increased manyfold. David Tracy, a perceptive reader of theological trends, no longer refers to Bernard Lonergan but instead frames questions of theological method in terms of the mysterious negative theology of the elusive ancient figure referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius. Even biblical scholars, the last Enlightenment rationalists in the now postmodern universities, have taken notice. Researchers are interested in how the early Church read the Bible, and the history of interpretation is a growing focus of scholarly inquiry.
What is striking about these developments is that they should not be happening. Weren't we told that aggiornamento-renewal through modernization—was the watchword of the Second Vatican Council? Hasn't the Catholic Church embraced historical study of the Bible and left behind the embarrassment of the old, credulous methods of the Fathers? And aren't evangelicals suspicious of church tradition, fearful that official doctrines and fanciful ancient allegories compromise the purity of the Word of God? For that matter, isn't everybody supposed to embrace feminist theology, liberation theology, and doing theology from the margins? And now, the Church Fathers! The patriarchs of orthodoxy are reascendant. The very voices of authority, men concerned about God and not difference, about Christ and not the Other, salvation and not revolutionary praxis, are back.
To some degree, the new scholarly interest in early Christian biblical interpretation was born from the senescence of modern biblical study. One cannot dredge forever the same dull channels of modern source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism. Fresh Coptic and Syriac manuscripts promise opportunity free from the deadening weight of scholarship on the scholarship of the scholarship of the New Testament.
Then, too, postmodern academic trends encourage this turn toward the Fathers. Instead of trying to discern the facts of the matter (Did the apostle John really write the Apocalypse of John? What did Jesus actually say and do?), postmodern humanistic study wants to analyze the process by which texts come to function as mechanisms of authority that shape our notions of truth. The Church Fathers and the arguments that come to define Christian orthodoxy provide a case study in the project of producing and policing a discourse of truth in Western culture. Spiritual discipline, interpretive consensus, ecumenical creeds—these defining features of the patristic project are (rightly) seen as so many instruments active in the formation of Christian identity. Postmodernism is fixated on authority, and because it is study of the patriarchs of the Church, patristics fascinates our patricidal age.
Whatever the pull of academic tides, the deeper reason the Fathers have returned is religious. John Paul II often spoke of the need for a “new evangelization” in the Western countries that once were at the center of Christendom but now are in a pronounced trajectory of de-Christianization. The need for a new evangelization continues to be emphasized by Benedict XVI. Neither John Paul II nor Benedict XVI, however, had illusions about returning to the pre-Vatican II mentality and its tendency to throw a great deal of energy into reinforcing the remaining fragments of Christendom.
In fact, as a young theologian, Benedict was part of the reforming consensus that thought the defensive pre-Vatican II mentality had contributed to the de-Christianization of Europe. Christendom could not be defended point by point, nor could it be buttressed by extrinsic ecclesiastical authority. This insight has led Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council to a more direct engagement with the post-Christian consequences of modernity in the West.
Similar trends appear to animate the evangelical world. Figures such as Francis Schaeffer have convinced many that Christian faith has philosophical, literary, artistic, and political consequences. The old tools of neo-Calvinist dogmatics, Darbyite dispensationalism, and inductive Bible study seem unable to make sense out of the culture-creating reality of Christ. The recent turmoil over so-called “open theism” suggests that some evangelical theologians are putting themselves into barrels and going over the Niagara Falls of liberal theology. But most seem to see the futility and danger, and there are today many evangelicals who seek renewal of Christian witness with knowledge of the failures of modern Christianity in both its conservative and liberal guises.
For Catholics and Protestants alike, the Fathers now return because they were the original agents of evangelization. They did not solve all the problems of theology, and they did not achieve a final conversion of culture. Nor did they produce a single, monolithic system of ideas. Instead, through innumerable treatises, homilies, debates, meditations, councils, and ecclesiastical rulings, they wove a fabric of arguments that thickened the truth of faith. They constructed Christendom, not as a particular arrangement of imperial power working in concert with church authority (though at points that was part of the process), but much more broadly as a way of life and habit of thinking that gave a satisfying Christian focus to the artistic and political, moral and intellectual, concerns and ambitions of their day. Struggling to find a voice after Christendom, contemporary Christianity is now slowly, haltingly calling for the help of those who first gave a culturally vibrant voice to faith.
The Church Fathers return, but what do they bring with them? Any student who picks up a treatise by one of the Fathers cannot but notice the intensely scriptural focus. Textbooks will tell us that one of the important figures of early Christianity, Irenaeus of Lyon, articulated the idea of apostolic succession; affirmed the threefold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon; and promoted the authority of a rule of faith that eventually took an important form as the Nicene Creed. A first-time reader, however, will find these ideas embedded in what seem endless arguments about how to read specific biblical passages. Heresy is not, finally, about doctrine; it is about reading the Bible in the wrong way. Or perhaps, more precisely, heresy is about doctrine because doctrine organizes our minds and shapes our reading of the Bible. At the end of the day, Irenaeus refutes his adversaries by showing that the doctrine he inherited from his teachers (who, in turn, inherited it from teachers who were taught by the apostles) allows for the fullest possible entry into the scriptural text.
Early Christian figures differ widely in style and emphasis, but the fundamental project remains the same. Arguments about the doctrine of the Trinity, elaborate treatises on the nature of language, signification, and metaphysics, as well as homilies, sermons, and practical exhortations to spiritual purification—all these dynamic and developing features of early Christian theology were organized around the singular goal of maximizing the grip of Scripture on the imagination of the early Church.
Origen of Alexandria illustrates the way in which the Bible exercised gravitational force at the center of the patristic project. His great speculative treatise On First Principles provides an account of God, creation, the nature of our humanity, sin and the fall, redemption, and the final consummation of all things. The idiom of Origen's thought was Platonic. Not a few readers ancient and modern have accused Origen of restating the primitive affirmations of faith in a philosophical manner and, in so doing, making Athens supreme over Jerusalem. Eusebius of Caesarea, who lived a century after Origen, records the opinion of the pagan philosopher Porphyry: “His manner of life was Christian . . . but in his opinions about material things and the deity he played the Greek, and introduced Greek ideas into foreign fables.”
Yet this was not Origen's own description of his project. At the beginning of On First Principles, he explicitly states that all his reasoning and conclusions have “no source but the very words and teachings of Christ,” by which he means not only the precise words of Christ in the gospels but the entire witness of the apostolic writings, as well as the teachings of “Moses and the prophets” that were written to prepare for and proclaim Christ.
Origen was a brilliant and creative thinker, but on this point he was entirely typical of the early Christian project. It is not the case, for example, that Origen places Christian ideas of creation into the horizon of the Platonic view of the emanation of reality from a singular beginning or source as rays from a great cosmic sun. He does exactly the opposite. His complex account of the origin of the soul and body in On First Principles functions as a radical subversion of the Platonic view, making Plato's scheme of emanation a subordinate moment in a larger scheme of creation that is governed by the first chapter of Genesis. Origen consistently places the dominant theories of antiquity into the horizon of “the very words and teachings of Christ.”
Origen's particular speculative theology was largely eccentric to the subsequent development of Christian thought, more rejected than affirmed. And yet, more than one hundred years later, when the Cappadocians—Basil and the two Gregories—produced a more lasting Christian view of metaphysics, their method was the same. Gregory of Nyssa emphasized the importance of theoria, a Greek word that suggests not only a body of overarching teachings but also the movement of the mind toward that which is finally and fully true. According to Gregory, abstract and general philosophical doctrines are subordinate to biblical reading. Metaphysical statements are justified by their capacity to maximize the power of Scripture to draw all things into its witness to Christ.
The Fathers not only absorbed speculative thought into Scripture; they did the same with what we are inclined to call “experience.” Living in the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem gave a series of lectures designed to prepare adults for baptism. He did not appeal to a general account of religious conversion or expound a philosophy of New Being. Instead, Cyril used the Exodus account of the Passover and crossing the Red Sea as a type or figure into which the newly baptized were to place their own deliverance from sin through the cleansing waters of baptism. Those listening to Cyril were encouraged to see themselves as participants in the pattern of divine redemption encoded in the scriptural text. Just as the Israelites were delivered through water, so also had they been delivered through water.
The same pattern is at work in Augustine's Confessions. Plato records that Socrates pursued a philosophical way of life because he wished to follow the Del-phic commandment to “know thyself.” Augustine organizes his Confessions around this imperative, asking, “Who am I, and what is my nature?” Our modern fascination with personality can blind us to the way in which Augustine answers the question. He does tell us about his inner thoughts, his desires and intentions, his struggles and failures. But more often than not, the words he uses come from Scripture, and time and again his account of his own life is interwoven with exclamations drawn from the Psalms. And this must be so, for Augustine describes conversion as an invasion of divine speech into the soul: “You had pierced our heart with your love, and we carried your words thrust through our guts.”
The basic patristic project was simple: to take all things captive to Christ. The Fathers did so by saturating their ideas, their lives, and their communities with Scripture. But as they return, they do not simply bring us Scripture as an undifferentiated mass of text, nor do they thrust the Bible into our hands without instructions for its use. All the power of Christian truth may reside in the biblical text, but, as the Church Fathers recognized, we need to organize our minds and sanctify our lives so that the Word of God might live in us. This requires the discipline of the rule of faith.
In his refutation of heretical readings of Scripture, Irenaeus likened the biblical text to a mosaic. In late antiquity, a wealthy landowner could order mosaics for his entry hall or banquet room. A workshop specializing in made-to-order mosaics would color the tiles and then send the pieces out for assembly. According to Irenaeus, his adversaries read the Bible with no regard for its original design. Like workmen who ignore the enclosed instructions, the heretics “destroyed the figure of a man in the authentic portrait of a king, carefully created by a skillful artist out of precious stones, and rearranged the stones to make the image of a dog or fox.” To read accurately involves assembling the mosaic of Scripture according to the divine plan. Readers must consult the rule of faith in order to arrange properly the many tiles of discrete scriptural episode, verse, and individual words.
Neither Irenaeus nor any other figure in the early Church thought a human being could possess God's plan as a workman might consult a handy instruction sheet or schematic drawing. The rule of faith was not an easy-to-read plan folded into the front covers of the Bible. Modern scientists are similarly modest. They do not believe that they possess “laws of nature” that can be inscribed into textbooks as the final word. But in neither case are uncertainties the same as aimlessness. Like modern scientists, Irenaeus and the rest of the Church Fathers endorsed the rule of faith as the preexisting body of theory that must discipline biblical interpretation.
Later councils and creeds give precision to aspects of the rule of faith, but its overall shape remains fluid. Yet this no more hinders the patristic project than the lack of a unified field theory limits modern science. For Irenaeus, the rule is a necessary framework for reading. One can no more invent Christianity from inductive Bible study than read modern physics off the movements of the stars, and a contemporary Christian who wishes to engage the Scriptures in their “purity” is as foolish as an undergraduate who refuses to take a class in physics because it will corrupt his ability to interpret nature. Under the guidance of the rule of faith, Irenaeus argues (and shows in endless, detailed exegetical digressions), we can avoid childish errors and simplistic solutions. The rule allows us to assemble the mosaic of Scripture “with a harmonious adaptation of its members, and without any collision,” and thus do we enter more fully into the truth of Christ that Scripture reveals.
Seeing the truth and cleaving to it is not just a matter of having and following the right theories. Puzzling out the mosaic of Scripture is not simply a mental exercise. The patristic enterprise and the Christian culture it created shaped entire lives and not just minds. The rule of faith disciplines the whole person.
In modest ways, our present academic culture acknowledges the role of personal discipline broadly understood. Sloppy thinking stems from laziness, boredom, and the attractions of easy, convenient, and conventional conclusions. Thus, objectivity is a virtue we must learn through a discipline that is as much moral as intellectual. But the role of character in normal academic study pales in comparison to the patristic approach. The sacred texts of the Bible do not just provide data to be treated objectively. Fragrant with the aroma of the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, they must be engaged by minds prepared by prayer, fasting, and self-control.
In his account of biblical interpretation, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine gives an especially clear account of the need for spiritual purification. He likens us to lost travelers, “miserable in our wanderings and desiring to end it and return to our native country.” But we cannot make progress, because we take delight in specific aspects of the finite world and become “entangled in a perverse sweetness.” Our desire to return to God shifts and turns back upon itself as we devote ourselves to finite things for their own sakes. In this way, Augustine continues, “men are driven back to their country by evil habits as by contrary breezes.” Elsewhere, he shifts the image from sea to land. “We are on a road,” he writes, “which is not a road from place to place but a road of affections, which [is] blocked, as if by a thorny hedge, by the past malice of our sins.”
According to Augustine, the problem is not that we have bodies and live in a finite world. Sin is not ontological, as if being a finite, embodied creature were the root of our problem. Instead, the problem rests in our will and personality. We can either love and enjoy finite reality, taking it to be the sum total of what makes life worth living, or we can use that reality in such a way that we make spiritual progress toward the infinite and eternal truth that is the Holy Trinity. The latter is the way of sanctification, for it requires us to discipline our finite loves so that they might serve rather than impede a crowning love of God. “The mind should be cleansed,” as Augustine writes, so that we can see the divine light. This cleansing is not speculative or abstract. It involves the specific moral and spiritual disciplines of the Christian life.
As historical critics like to tell us over and over again, the Bible is an embodied, historical text, conditioned by the finite realities of cultural context and shaped by real human authors, editors, and audiences. For this reason, the need for spiritual discipline is pressing. Only as we allow ourselves to be subjected to the discipline of apostolic prayer and practice can we imagine ourselves capable of handling the finite, human reality of the biblical text properly. A worldly, vain, grasping, and venal person cannot be trusted to interpret scientific data accurately, as the recent and undoubtedly continuing scandals in the money-soaked and fame-intoxicated world of bioengineering illustrate. One need be no prude to insist that a functional scientific culture requires moral standards. How much more should we prize spiritual discipline in our biblical interpreters?
Thus, in the first of his famous Theological Orations, when Gregory of Nazianzus meditates on the nature of theology, he gives priority to spiritual formation over the intellectual. Theology “is not for all men, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sure footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at least are undergoing, purification of body and soul.”
In 411, Alaric sacked the city of Rome. Through the next three centuries, the western Roman empire was shattered by invasion after invasion. It was a hard time dominated by fierce men as cultural fragmentation and turmoil gave the upper hand to cunning and strength. Yet the warriors who so dominated the affairs of men were not, finally, in control of their future. For it was during this time that a young man named Benedict rallied the power of love. Benedict was a son of Old Narnia, a noble Roman by birth. He was born to assume a position of power and responsibility in a world both civilized and Christianized. But that world was being destroyed, and, instead of trying to find a fragment or piece to hang on to, Benedict retreated to a cave outside Rome in order to purify his soul and dwell more fully in the way of Christ.
Holiness is a powerful magnet, and others came to Benedict for guidance and inspiration. He eventually came out of his cave with a small force of men and founded a monastery on Monte Cassino. He wrote a rule for the community, the Rule of St. Benedict. Shorn of metaphysics, shorn of classical rhetoric, shorn of the glories of a great culture Christianized, the Rule was the pure essence of the patristic project. Plain, direct, and simple, it organized life around unending daily prayer and prepared the souls of the monks for obedience. The Rule and its life of discipline impaled generations of monks upon the sword of Scripture. In this way, their hearts were, to recall Augustine's image of his own and his friend's conversion, pierced by God's love.
The issues preoccupying editorial pages and the evening news are not trivial or unimportant. We have a duty to fight for moral truth in a Western culture increasingly committed to a velvet barbarism. This will certainly involve defending and buttressing fragments of a Christian culture now being eroded. The libraries of the great monasteries that sprang from the renewing power of St. Benedict's Rule preserved the intellectual and literary achievements of antiquity, and the vision of mutual submission and cooperation given flesh in the working communities of monks gave a bloody world hope of peace. We owe our own age nothing less.
But we should not confuse what we must do for the defense of life and social sanity with the deeper task of renewing Christian culture in the West. St. Benedict's Rule did far more than any battle or palace coup to shape the future of what was to become Europe. We must do what we can to limit the damage done by the barbarians of our time, but the renewal of the culture they now control will require the revolutionary power of people whose lives are immersed in Scripture. Men and women saturated by Scripture are as explosive as rags soaked in gasoline, but, unlike Molotov cocktails, the fire of divine love transforms and perfects rather than destroys and consumes. This the Fathers knew, and this they teach us as they return.
R.R. Reno is professor of theology at Creighton University.