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Dr. Father Michael Azkoul
In his introduction to A Handbook of Patrology, J. Tixeront writes that "Christian literature is the name given to the collection of writings composed by Christian writers upon Christian subjects." "There seems to be a tendency (among historians) to reduce the history of Ancient Christian literature to a history of the writings of the Fathers of the Church (Patrology)." "The title Father of the Church, which has its origin in the name 'Father' given to bishops as early as the second century, was commonly used in the fifth century to designate the old ecclesiastical writers — ordinarily bishops — who died in the faith and in communion with the Church."
"Ancient Christian Literature," Tixeront continues, "is that of the early centuries of Christianity or Christian antiquity. Authors generally fix the limit at the death of St John of Damascus (c. 749) for the Greek Church, and of the death of St Gregory the Great (604) or, better, of Isidore of Seville (d. 636) for the Latin Church." No reason is given for the limit placed on the history of the Greek Fathers, but for "the Latin Church," the seventh century seems to be "the time when new elements, borrowed from the barbarians began considerably to modify the purity of the Latin genius."
According to "modern theologians," the title applies only to those writers who have the four qualifications of antiquity, orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, and ecclesiastical sanction. "Practically, however," it is given to many others who possess only the mark of antiquity. "No one would dream of eliminating from the list of the 'Fathers' such men as Tertullian, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, (St) Faustus of Riez, etc.. Errors may have been laid to their charge, but these mar their works without making them more dangerous than useful; whilst they are wrong on a few points, there is in them much that is good. At all events, they eminently deserve the title of Ecclesiastical Writers."
Thus, patrology "is the study of the life and works of the men designated by that name. As a science, then, it is part of the History of Ancient Christian Literature, since it excludes from the field of its labors both the canonical writings of the New Testament and all writings that are strictly and entirely heretical. On this latter point, however, most authors exercise a certain tolerance." The knowledge of heretical works is very often useful, even necessary, Tixeront argues, for understanding the refutations of them written by the Fathers; therefore, most patrologies include a description of the principal ancient heresies. He intends to follow this method.1
Tixeront's "preliminary remarks" about the Fathers and the nature of patrology is burdened with a host of gratuitous assumptions, largely the result of his Western religious and secular education. Before we can answer the question of this chapter and identify the Fathers of the Church, we need to examine Tixeront's not untypical statements about "patrology."
First, before we may describe the "literature" and the man who writes it as Christian, we must know what the word denotes. There is no doubt, especially if we ask the Fathers, that a "Christian" is one who belongs to "the one, holy Catholic and Apostolic Church." Thus, a "Christian writer" is anyone, who being in communion with her, writes in her behalf; and Christian literature is the product of their efforts. He is one who "observes all things whatsoever" Christ "commanded" the Apostles to teach (Matt. 28:19-20); one who "stands fast and holds the traditions" which the Apostles bequeathed the Church (II Thess. 2:15).
The "given" of this present work is that "Christian" is the equivalent of "patristic" and "the Church" is "the Church of the Fathers." Moreover, the Christian Faith to which they are true and inspired witnesses, did not "develop" in their hands, each theologian making a small contribution to the evolving whole. I will not hesitate to repeat that this Faith, "which in other ages was not made known (οὐκἐγνωπίσθη) unto the sons of men" was "revealed unto the holy apostles and prophets of the Spirit" in Christ (Eph. 3:5). The Fathers merely gave their individual testimonies to it, each with his own style, each with his own perception of the Church's immediate needs; but none of them presumed to add or subtract from the Faith given "for the perfecting of the saints, for the edifying of the Body of Christ" (Eph. 3:12).
In other words, if Christianity is "revealed religion," "the great mystery of godliness," then, God is the Source of it. What are these revealed teachings? The answer to this question defines the words "Christian" and "orthodox" — and "Father" — which, in fact, are all synonymous. The Scriptures distinguish between truth (orthodoxy) and falsehood in doctrine (heterodoxy), affirming thereby that advocates of the latter, whether apostates or sectarians, have no membership in the Church (Acts 24:14; I Cor. 11:19; Gal. 5:20; II Pet. 2:1). Hence, "Christian literature" is the exposition of the Christian Faith left by Christ to His Spirit-guided Apostles, whom He personally charged to deliver unadulterated to the nations.
"Therefore, we confess," writes St Gregory of Nyssa, "the teaching of the Lord which He taught His disciples, delivering to them 'the Mystery of godliness' as the foundation and the root of right and sound faith, denying, too, that we believe anything to be higher or safer than this tradition. The teaching of the Lord is summarized in the words, 'Go, teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit' (Matt. 28:19)" (Ep. ad. Seb. PG 46 1029D-1032A). In a word, "the holy and God-inspired Fathers" are the guardians of the Apostolic Tradition. "Remember the holy Fathers," Gregory writes to his friend, Eustace, 'Which the grace of God has made us worthy to succeed. Remove not the boundaries established by our fathers; neither treat lightly what is ours for the sake of some more subtle proclamation, but walk strictly according to the ancient rule of faith, and the God of peace will strengthen you in both soul and body" (Ep. III ad Eust., PG 46 1024C).
Thus, if an "ancient writer" is to be called "Christian," he must be a member of the Church and committed to the Apostolic Tradition; but a heretical writer, by virtue of his doctrinal innovations, can be called neither "Christian" nor "Father." He cannot speak for the Church to which he no longer belongs and in whose Faith he no longer believes. Nevertheless, as Tixeront notes, the study of heretical works is often useful, "nay even necessary," in understanding Christian orthodoxy by the forces which oppose it. If nothing else, the heretic occasioned the formulation of the divine Faith which "ought to be kept in the silent veneration of the heart" (St Hilary of Poitiers, De Trin. II, 2 PL 1051).
Second, Tixeront is also correct that the title "Father" customarily is given to bishops, because they are "the teachers of the Faith," and as the Orthodox Church sometimes describes her hierarchs, "icons of Christ:" the visible heads of their flocks, which are each, "in a particular place," the Body of Christ. But, as we know, the universal Church has anointed many Christian writers beneath the rank of bishop as "Fathers of the Church," such as Sts Justin Martyr, Macarius of Egypt, Hesychius of Jerusalem, Maximus the Confessor, Ephraim the Syrian, John of Damascus, John Cassian, etc.. In truth, then, any man can be a Father of the Church if his life is characterized by holiness and his doctrine by apostolic orthodoxy.
Furthermore, since the Fathers of the Church are the supreme expositors of the Holy Scriptures, "the conscientious keepers of the apostolic traditions;" "God-mantled blessed Fathers" who were "enlightened by the Holy Spirit," enabling them "to establish doctrine revealed from on high,"2 then, it is unthinkable that the impious and the heretical may be found in that "blessed fraternity." And, for that reason, too, it is quite "thinkable" that such men as Augustine of Hippo, Lanctantius, Tertullian, Clement and Origen of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, Didymus the Blind, Evagrius Ponticus, etc. are left off the list of the Fathers — whatever may have been their contribution to the defense and understanding of Christianity.
Tixeront insists that, although "errors have been laid to the charge of some writers, these mar their works without making them more dangerous than useful; while they are wrong on a few points, there is in them much that is good." His defense of such writers might carry some validity, if under discussion were savants and philosophers and not "confessors of the faith," "revealers of God," who "have no private doctrine, none but the common Faith of the Catholic Church," as St Maximus the Confessor declared. "They did not draw from their own resources, but learned these things from the Scriptures and charitably taught us... They spoke only by the grace of the Holy Spirit which entirely permeated them" (Rel. Mot., 6-9 PG 90 120CD; Op. theol. et. pol., 28 PG 91 320BC).
Again, the "errors" — in Greek, πλὰνε has the double meaning: going astray (i.e., error) and satanic delusion — which blemish the works of these "ecclesiastical writers," the "few wrong points" which Tixeront seeks to trivialize, the Church considers "blasphemy.3 The "ancient literature" expresses a very definite point of view concerning those who would defile "the Faith which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached and the Fathers preserved," to quote St Athanasius (Ad Serap., I, 28 PG NPNF). Not without good purpose did St Paul exhort the Christians of Ephesus 'to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace: there is one body, one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, Who is above all and through all, and in you all" (Eph. 4:4-6).
Third, the "few wrong points" of these ancient theologians were indeed "dangerous," a threat to the Apostolic Tradition, traditio veritatis, whose every "jot and tittle" is necessary to salvation; whose source is the Holy Spirit. "Ultimately," writes Fr Florovsky, "tradition is a continuity of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, a continuity of Divine guidance and illumination."4 Right belief, then, is not the discovery of some abstract truth; it is the saving verity which is delivered by the Holy Spirit, "the Spirit of Truth" (John 14:26; 16:13), Who abides in the Church, the New Israel, as His Temple. For the majority of Christians, at least, one who departs from the revealed truth and teaches others to do the same, is surely "more dangerous than useful." These "ecclesiastical writers" profane the truth by which they might have been saved.
Shall we address Tatian and Tertullian who left the Church (whatever good may be found in their writings) as "God-mantled Fathers?" Is Origen, condemned by a general Council of the whole Church, a "spiritual trumpet" of Orthodoxy? Was the Hellenizer, Clement of Alexandria, a "confessor of the Faith," with "no private doctrine, none but the common Faith of the Catholic Church?" Perhaps, the semi-Arian, Eusebius of Caesarea, was a "revealer of God?" Is the Nestorian, Theodore of Mopsuestia, a teacher of true Faith? Indeed, is Augustine of Hippo, author of the filioque, predestination, irresistible grace, inherited guilt, etc.. to be called "holy Father?" In the Orthodox Church, whatever their theological accomplishments and even their high moral character, such writers have no authority as Fathers and accounts for the lack of cultus, local or ecumenical, of temples called after them, traditional Orthodox Christians taking their names. Having distorted "the faith once delivered to the saints," the Church refuses to honor them as doctors of the Faith.
Fourth, it is the Church, not modern theologians, which determines her spokesmen. Surely, if the Church is divided spiritually and doctrinally; if we count every "Christian writer" in the history of the Church as her doctor; if we may speak of an "Alexandrian or Antiochian heritage" or a "Cappadocian legacy" or a "Latin theological patrimony" — rather than "a flood of witnesses" to a universal and infallible faith, "a river of faith, flowing from the Throne of God;" and if it is true that every "ascetic and theologian," eclectically, capriciously, picked ideas and principles from the treasury of pagan philosophy in order to construct and promote personal views of Christianity, then, the argument of this book is nonsense.
To be sure, if the Christian Tradition is no better than a "mosaic of human opinion," there is no "one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:4); and there is no "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church;" and, consequently, we have no way of knowing whether Christ has spoken to us or not. Even the New Covenant rests on the testimony of the Apostles. Moreover, if that Tradition has been continually adapted to the vagaries of the intellectual, social and political climate; or, if it may be judged by strangers and enemies, of what value is the Church and what meaning the struggle for salvation? Again, if there is no infallible and holy Tradition, how do we understand the Scriptures, since there is no way to authoritatively interpret them? If the truth cannot always be distinguished from error on the basis of an immutable "canon of faith," whose origination and guarantee is the Holy Spirit (not fallible man), how shall we know the divine Plan by which we are saved? And if we have no certainty, it is as if God had never spoken to us.
But the Fathers professed "one Lord, one faith, one baptism," "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church," the guiding and protective presence of the Holy Spirit — for which reason there is a patristic consensus, East and West, on every doctrine delivered to the Church of God by Christ through His Apostles, in whatever form or language, or under whatever historical circumstances, the Catholic Faith may have been expressed. How else could St Polycarp have reached an agreement with the Bishop of Rome on the date of Pascha? How else could his disciple, St Irenaeus, a Greek, have become bishop of Lyons in Gaul? How could St Firmilian of Caesarea have strengthened St Cyprian in his struggle with the Pope over the question of "heretical baptism" if they did not share a common Faith? St Athanasius fled to Rome where he inspired the organization of Western monasticism. The Italian hieromartyr, St Autonomus, became a bishop in Bithynia. St Jerome, the Westerner, built monasteries in Bethlehem. The Roman, St John Cassian, a disciple of St John Chrysostom, learned asceticism from the monks of the Egyptian thebaid, and built monasteries in Gaul.
St Hilary of Poitiers, St Martin of Tours, St Paulinus the Merciful have always been revered in the East. There is no Greek or Russian Menologia without the hagiography of St Ambrose of Milan. The Greek, St Theodore of Tarsus, became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. St Benedict the Italian was indebted to St Basil the Cappadocian for his monastic Rule. St Gregory the Great lived comfortably in the theological and ascetical atmosphere of Constantinople for six or seven years. Most of the Popes during the seventh century were Greeks. Hymns, such as Christos aneste, are found in the medieval Polish liturgy, etc.
The unity of the Fathers is a oneness of mind, which does not outlaw individual style and personal perception and insight. Historical and cultural circumstance often dictate approach and emphasis, exaggerated and wrongly formulated as they might sometimes be; but the "mind" is always the same, a "mind" based in spiritual knowledge (γνῶσις) and experience. The distinctive mark of patristic theology (part of the "Christian philosophy") is θεωρία, not as the continuation of the pagan vita contemplativa, not as "philosophical speculation," not as "self-induced meditation and pondering on this or that aspect of God's majesty...," but θεωρία as "divine vision."5 To use the words of St Gregory the Theologian, the Fathers "theologized in the manner of the Apostles, not of Aristotle" — ἀλιευτικῶς, οὺκἀριστοτελικῶς (Hom.,23.12), because Christian teachings, although often explained plausibly, defended logically, and supplied with intellectual arguments, had originated in heaven and were received by men with "divine vision."
In other words, the Fathers never conceived the beliefs of the Christian religion to be a subject for academic debate, quarrels in the market place, or casual after-dinner conversation; it does not belong on the college curriculum. Moreover, theology, contrary to Tixeront, is not a "science," examined according a rational methods; and the truths of theology are not acquired by dialectics and speculation, not even assiduous research, but only by the askesis of those initiated into "the Mystery of godliness," that is, "only the pure in heart may see God." There is no greater theologian in the Church than the Ever-Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, ἀειπάρθενος θεοτόκος. God allows only those who are becoming like Him, in body and soul, through grace to approach Him. The "noble spirits among the Gentiles" were enlightened in "preparation for the Gospel," but their insights were meager and ultimately useless. Only Christ could proclaim, "And this is life eternal, that they might know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, Whom Thou hast sent" (John 17:3).
To know God presupposes "dispassion" (ἀπάθεια) — the corrupting desires of our flesh (σάρξ) . Dispassion is a condition of soul and body acquired only in the life of Christ, in the Church, wherein dwells the Spirit of God. This Person of the Holy Trinity, ever present with the Son, dwells in the Temple of the Church, that He might be "acquired" by her members, to quote St Seraphim of Sarov. The Spirit of God brings the knowledge of God (θεογνῶσις), for He is the source of holiness. No wonder Christ declared, "Be ye holy even as your heavenly Father is holy... Be ye perfect even as God is perfect... Blessed are the pure in heart for they see God." The Creator is holy and none may "know" Him, and none may share His eternity unless he is like Him, that is, a "god."6
With the process of our purification and renewal comes a new vision, the vision of "a new heaven and earth," whose complete transfiguration has already begun in the Church. It is the vision of a creation whose head is Christ, the God-man, who is Himself "the Form of creation," to borrow a phrase from St Gregory Palamas. On account of Him, the Uncreated and the created, the Invisible and the invisible, spirit and matter are linked "without confusion, division or separation." The Incarnation is, among other things, the knowledge that the cosmos was patterned after Him Who became flesh for our salvation (deification). Put in other terms, the creation, imitating the Incarnation, is monodual, meaning that everything visible or material intrinsically and directly presupposes the superior spiritual world which upholds it: the two orders of creation united as the two natures in Christ: He is the living mediator between time and eternity.7
Furthermore, if the creation imitates the Incarnate Lord, and He is "the alpha and the omega" (Rev. 1:11), then, we "know" the secret of history. The presence of Christ/Church signifies that the past and the future are mysteriously now, for He is the "second" or "last Adam" (ἔσχατος Ἀδάμ). Aside from becoming the anti-type of the first man He created, He is also the fulfillment of all the types and antitypes in ancient Israel (Moses, the Red Sea, Jericho, etc.); and among the Greeks and "barbarians" (e.g., the Logos, phoenix, etc.)8 prepared for His Advent in the last days (έπ' ἔσχατον ἠμέρον τοῦτον), as the Prophets declared. "In the fullness of time," the revelation of a "mystery" which "in ages past was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed to His holy Apostles and Prophets by the Spirit" (Eph. 3:5).
In His Person, too, the resurrected Christ was the type of every person who will share the Age to Come with Him. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity "was made flesh, and tabernacled Himself among us, and we behold His Glory, the Glory of the Only-Begotten Son" (John 1:14), the Glory which He shared with His Father and the Spirit, the Glory of the eternal Kingdom. This connection between time and eternity, established not only in the Redemption of Christ, but in His theanthropic Existence, is "the ground and pillar" of the Christian philosophia, the highest expression of which is monasticism; indeed, the monk stands on the very boundary of time and eternity. His vision of spiritual realities, the reward of his sanctity, is beyond the comprehension of the unbeliever and the unitiated.9
In other words, the resurrected Christ, alias the mysterion, is the "second man" (I Cor. 15:47), the "new Adam." He is the "form" or eidos of the initiated, His "brethren," the elect. But the "last" (ἔσχατος) is the "first" (πρότος), "the alpha and the omega, the beginning (ἀρχή) and the end (τελός), says the Lord, which was, and which is to come, the Almighty (Rev. 1:8). The future is σήμερον, hodie, today: Christ is the nexus of what was and what will be. He is what His members will become. What has happened to Him is happening to them. No word better summarizes the divine Economy of the Lord than today.10
Consequently, the Fathers viewed history in terms of this christological eschatology, a history to which the Church is central — she who is today "the Kingdom of God" (βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ), "the City of God" (πόλις τοῦ θεοῦ): by whose way of life (πολιτεία) and culture (παιδεία) its citizens, the Faithful, are formed into the "new man" where dwells "the Mystery of godliness;" and, therefore, whose home is not this world but the Age to Come. To quote St Macarius the Great of Egypt, "Christians belong to another age, children of the heavenly Adam, a new race, children of the Holy, shining brethren of Christ; even as their father, the heavenly shinning Adam! To that city, that age, that power, they belong and not to this world. As the Lord Himself said, 'you are not of this world, even as I am not of this world' " (Sp Hom. XVI, 9 PG 34 618D-620A).
The Church is linked to the future, to the Age to Come — the Eighth Day, the everlasting Day, after the seven periods of current history expires — by the Mysteries: especially the Eucharist, sacramentum ogdoadis, the mysterium redemptoris, to use the words of Pope St Gregory the Great. The Sunday Eucharist — the solemn ritualization of the mysterion, as Dom Odo Casel observed11 — is "the icon of the Age to Come," "the eighth Day" (St Basil, De Spir. Sancto, 66 PG 32 192B). For this reason, the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom asserts, 'Thou hast done everything to bring us to Heaven and to confer on us Thy Kingdom which is to come" — καὶ τὴν βασιλείαν Σοῦ ἐχαρίσω τὴν μέλλουσαν (cf. Heb. 2:5).12
If, then, the Church has denied the title, "Father," to certain "Christian authors," she has done so because of their conception of the mysterion or, put in other terms, of the Incarnation. Necessarily, a false christology leads to a false understanding of the Church, the Sacraments, the Scriptures, history and the whole divine scheme of salvation.13 The common life of the Body of Christ finally answers the question "Who is a Church Father?" And, somewhat ironically, renders the question unimportant. One comes to "know" that a Church Father is whoever the Holy Spirit anoints as her spokesman, whoever the consciousness of the Church recognizes as her champion. Undoubtedly, his doctrine and his piety will be apostolic; he will have ecclesiastical cultus, even if only locally. His errors, if any, are errors of logic, formal and lingual errors, implying no loss of the patristic phronema.
This brings us naturally to the final point of difference with Tixeront and "the modern theologians," the question of the periodization of church history, in particular the so-called limit to the "age of the Fathers." Although "the age of the Apostles" is unique, ending with the death of the last Apostle, St John the Theologian, there is no reason to close "the patristic epoch" at some specific time. The Orthodox Church has not. To end "the patristic era" with St Cyril of Alexandria or St John of Damascus in the East or with Pope St Gregory in the West is wholly arbitrary. Neither is there any reason to agree with the opinion that it has been succeeded by "the age of the schoolmen" which many interpret as an essential step forward. Of course, if such periodization implies a difference between the Fathers and the Schoolmen ("the Scholastics"), we concur.14
There is no "age of the Fathers;" or, better, the historical life of the Church is the "age of the Fathers" — hence, the names of St Photius the Great, St Symeon the New Theologian, St Gregory Palamas, St Gregory of Sinai, St Symeon of Thessalonica, St Gennadius Scholarius, St Nilus of Sora are found on the patristic roll; or, in modern times, St Nectarius of Aegina, Alexi Khomiakov, Archbishop Anthony Khrapovitsky, Fr Justin Popovich, Archbishop Hilarion Troitsky, etc. have been honored as spokesmen for the Church. Christ will raise up Fathers for His People until His Return. They will offer the same witness, because they have the "Mind of Christ." Whatever the language, whatever the style, whatever the challenge, the "mind" of the ancient, medieval and modern Fathers will never change, for "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever" (Heb. 13:8).
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