Saturday, August 1, 2015

On not ossifying the fathers

I am trying to take a more positive, constructive role in theology.  This post is akin to an autobiographical manifesto.  Part of it is how I came to the church fathers and ultimately my critical-appreciation of them, and the other part is how to use the Fathers to kill souls.

I left seminary disillusioned.  While I had made a lot of intellectual mistakes there, academically it was not the best (in terms of actually doing scholarship).  I didn't want to say that the Reformed faith was wrong, despite RTS's best efforts to make it so, but I knew there was something more.

For reasons I don't entirely remember, I was reading Thomas Aquinas as I left seminary.  I had one foot in the door for medieval and patristic theology.  I am not sure how I first heard of John Milbank.  I do remember reading about him in James K. A. Smith's Introducing Radical Orthodoxy.  This was late 2006, early 2007.

There is a lot wrong with Radical Orthodoxy, but there is a lot right--and a lot that is just plain fun.  So what that they over-interpreted Aquinas as a Neo-Platonist?  They got all the right people in academia angry, and that is good.  For me they introduced me not only to a wider world of theology but also to ask different--deeper--questions of church history.

I dove right in.  And made mistakes.  But I also latched on to key points: how Christology shapes everything.  (Some Eastern Orthodox guys played that card as a front to justify going to Eastern Orthodoxy when in reality they wanted smells and bells, but that is another story).  Anyway, I realized that Systematic Theology didn't have to follow the outline of Berkhof (Berkhof is useful but limited to a certain context, namely a seminary classroom).

Before continuing on the RO line, I should probably address a common criticism:  Did RO read Reformation metaphysics correctly, namely that Western theology took a nominalist turn with Scotus and the Reformation crystallized it?  Obviously, anyone who advances that reading today will be laughed at. So we can say RO was definitely wrong on that point.  Further, not all of Milbank's criticisms in "Alternative Protestantism" hold water (or at least they might attack Reformation ontology but not where Milbank thinks they do).

This was around 2008-2009.  I was able to read the Father without pretending that the Fathers were a complete deposit who taught a unified, identifiable theology across time and space.  Moreover, I was able to honestly say, "St ______ is wrong here.  That's okay.  I can still benefit from what he says elsewhere."  Side note:  Remember that stupid facebook meme that has the Nicene Fathers pictured and the caption reads, "So these guys are right about the canon but wrong about everything else?"  The epistemological howlers in that statement are too painful to mention.

Back to the Fathers.  Since I didn't (at the time) believe the Fathers taught a unified, ahistorical body of truth, that meant I didn't have to play East and West against each other.  I could say guys like Anselm, Aquinas, and Wycliff were good guys.  And I could benefit from the modern John Wycliff, Oliver O'Donovan.  While some Ecumenist Orthodox guys will speak kindly of the aforementioned gentlemen, technically speaking they are heterodox (or heretics!), so good luck with that one.  The harder-line folks will say that they (and by extension, you and me) are deprived of grace.

Towards the end of 2010 I moved into a harder, Eastward direction.  I never officially became Orthodox.  It wasn't viable for a number of reasons.  While this meant I accepted Orthodox doctrines like anti-Filoque and icons, the main problem is I had to cut off my theological past.  Another problem is I had to place the Fathers within the received tradition of the church.  This implied a number of cognitively dissonant positions:
  • The Fathers are part of Holy Tradition but I must interpret which Fathers are speaking Orthodoxically by Holy Tradition.  I couldn't square the circle.  All of the Orthodox problems with Sola Scriptura would come crashing down on Tradition.
  • This meant that the Fathers probably didn't disagree about "big stuff."  
  • So what was I supposed to do when I came to issues where the Fathers sounded "Western" or were plain wrong?  
The dissonance was building up.  Move on to the end of 2011. I was beginning to be more "Western" in terms of cultural outlook.  I just didn't feel right "negating" my Western heritage.  I know that no one was "making" me to do that, but the cultural enclave mentality among a certain denomination is just too overwhelming.  I was by no means Protestant, of course, but possibly Western.

My daughter was born in 2012.  My life was turned upside down and I really had to put theology on the side.  And life was hard--all of which made me reevaluate everything.

By May of 2012 I was firmly in the Protestant, even Reformed camp (again).  From 2012-2015 (now) I have been in the Protestant camp and plan to stay there.  There are problems with Reformed theology--some big ones actually.   But there are also key gains that outweigh the problems and the Reformed tradition can be the Reformational Tradition.

So how do we use the fathers?

  1. Protestant liturgy is about to come to a crisis-point and the Fathers offer insight.
  2. Obviously, you have to sit at the Fathers feet when it comes to triadology and Christology.
  3. Some of the early church historians are quite fun.
  4. Recent developments in Continental philosophy and phenomenology make Maximus, Pseudo-Dionysius (and stop pretending he was Paul's traveling companion) and to a lesser degree Origen quite relevant today.
How do we misuse the fathers?
  1. Pretending that they are "infallible," either individually or corporately.
  2. Pretending that they have good advice on married sexuality.
  3. Pretending they exist outside of time and space.


  1. This was an interesting read. It helped to get a bit of a background on your thoughts.

  2. Thanks, this was an interesting post.

  3. What are the major problems you have with reformed theology?

    1. I don't have any major problems with Reformed theology. I have some slight differences of emphasis.
      1. I think one can easily prove that bishops were part of the church's praxis very early on. I reject the idea that these bishops mediate grace to the people.
      2. I think the language of imputing righteousness is over-read into the Scriptures. I think it is a legitimate second-order reflection.
      3. I think the RPW is strained.

  4. I'd be curious to hear more about your thoughts on the early practices of 'bishops' and what that might mean ecclesially now. That's an issue I've been considering as of late. Of course, Bishop, biblically or post-Apostolic Church history, never meant the rich priceling of medieval Europe. But I'm wary of rejecting it wholesale too, especially as Presbyterianism is a failed and fraudulent model of Church government (though that's my humble experience with the PCA).


    1. 1) The fact of bishops is that you can find them VERY early on.
      2) However, you cannot make a connection between Scriptures and Apostolic Succession. You have to read it back in.
      3) Which means that I hold bishops to be part of the bene esse of the church, not the esse.
      4) Accordingly, the "overseer principle" is a fact of life. Someone is going to rise to the top, all other things equal.

      I know Reformed people say that presbuteros and episkopos are used interchangeably. So they are, but even Reformed people will hold one presbuteros as a little bit higher. We call him Moderator of the General Assembly to be Rotated Every Year. You really don't see that in Scripture.

      Ideally, it's a principle of good order and I'm fine with it.

    2. Those are similar insights I've drawn. Plus, Apostolic Succession in its rudimentary beginnings was not unanimously decided as the mechanical process of hand-laying. Irenaeus and Tertullian constructed a prototype around the idea of continuity of teaching.

      I wonder how Episkopos would fit under designation of 'chief-elder'. But that sounds rough and contrived. I'm much more episcopal now then I use to, but as you say, it's an issue of bene esse.

      Do you have any idea about how this would ideally take place in the 21st century? Are the episcopal communions ossified in their understanding? Certainly there's a lot of baggage, with royal privilege, wealth, power (which many orthodox dissenters pointed out).

    3. When I flirted with EO I simply read up on justifications for episcopacy. I never messed with the details. I consider myself convinced historically of its primacy. I'm iffy on the exegetical details. As to what it would look like now, I'm still open.

    4. What are some of the better arguments for episcopacy that you've encountered?

    5. Or if you'd rather not list them here, or it's too nuanced a topic, could we correspond via email?

    6. jacob DOT aitken AT gmail DOT com