Reading the Church Fathers for the Scholar's Soul and for Equipping the Church
The scholarly realm is filled with word studies, literary studies, systematic studies, and any other study one can think of. The multiplicity of studies can often be to the detriment to the scholar’s soul. In practice, theological studies is often divorced from the end to seek after the living God. This is where reading patristic exegesis can be fruitful for the soul. Claire McGinnis says that “Christian scholars of the Bible ought to read patristic exegesis because it offers an important antidote to the deadening effects 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. By seeing the way the early Church read the Bible we can “desire to recover and nurture ways of reading the Bible theologically.” 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. Theological academics and writing for the church were one in the same. By reading the Patristics we can immerse ourselves in a different type of theological writing that can shed new light on our own exegesis. It will shed new light precisely because it is foreign to us. 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.
At the recent Scripture and Hermeneutics seminar Craig Bartholomew stated that Christian scholarship is likened to the back lines of an army that is arming the front lines for war. We are arming the front lines, who are the pastors and teachers of the Church. If scholars can better read/write theologically then we can better supply the front lines in the battle. In Christian scholarship our end goal should not merely furthering of theological academics but the strengthening of the Church. Just as doctors in universities study biology, chemistry, anatomy etc. and write in journals for equipping other doctors with the knowledge and methods for fighting disease and injury for their patients, so too should Christian scholarship equip pastors with rigorous theological writing for the advancement of the Church.
An excerpt from one of St. Chrysostom’s homilies 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:
“‘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 Christian scholars, we can take heed to his exhortation, not using theological study for the praise of other men but for the praise of God.
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 ↩︎
ibid, 19 ↩︎
ibid, 16 ↩︎
Chrysostom, Saint John. Fathers of the Church: Saint John Chrysostom : Homilies on Genesis 18–45. Catholic Univ of Amer Pr, 1990, 93 ↩︎