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by Thomas McGovern
It is not without significance that the Holy See felt it necessary to publish recently an instruction on the study of the Church Fathers, with special reference to the formation of future priests. This is a fine document which deserves to be studied by anyone with a concern for the future of theology in the Church. It comes at a time when theology, perhaps dazzled by the prospect of a new beginning after Vatican II, seems to have severed its points of anchorage with its patristic heritage.
Vatican II urged that the formation of seminarians would give particular importance to the study of the Fathers of the East and the West. In addition, the constitution on Divine Revelation drew specific attention to the importance of the patristic writers for the interpretation of Scripture today. Nevertheless, twenty-five years on, in spite of some encouraging signs, the Congregation for Catholic Education draws little comfort from its survey and analysis of the place of the Fathers in theological studies at the present time:
What often passes as theology today is little more than "Biblicism" on the one hand, or sociology on the other, because it has been cut off f'rom the vital stream of Tradition, and no longer draws on the clear, deep, theological well-springs of the Fathers.
The Instruction draws attention to another negative consequence of the neglect of the Fathers, this time in the area of' biblical exegesis.
the Instruction affirms,
This is a view which, thankfully, is beginning to find greater acceptance among
More recently John Paul II pointed out how the Church has always been aware that
The Fathers, according to John Paul II, have a permanent value for the Church in the sense that any developments in its teaching must always be consistent with patristic doctrine.
To illustrate how the study of the Fathers, approached from this perspective, can achieve bountiful theological fruits, it is instructive to consider the case of the great English cardinal, John Henry Newman.
As a schoolboy he read a volume of early Church history, with the result that he acquired a deeply-felt attraction for the Fathers, who were to be a constant source of nourishment for his spiritual life, as well as providing a solid doctrinal foundation for his immense output of theological writing all during his life.
One can see in Newman's writings the progressive influence of the teaching of the Fathers on him. Men like "Origen, Tertulian, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Augustine, Jerome and Leo" are for Newman, "authors of powerful, original minds, engaged in the production of original works."
During the years of the Oxford Movement, Newman tried to justify the apostolicity of the Anglican Church from his study of the Fathers and thereby establish it as the Via Media between Rome and Protestantism. He saw that it had a certain validity as a theology, but no counterpart in reality. The theory itself collapsed when he came face to face with the augustinian principle of Church government - "securus iudicat orbis terrarum." In a compelling passage in the Apologia, he describes his reaction at this critical stage in his conversion:
And so, many years later, he could write to a former colleague of the Oxford Movement who did not convert,
One of the reasons for the neglect of the Fathers of the Church is simply an attitude of mind which considers that anything old is by definition irrelevant from the point of view of progress or penetration to new horizons. It is also linked to a deep ignorance of the perennial values inherent in patristic literature.
To assimilate the doctrinal and spiritual riches of the Fathers requires regular and continual effort on the part of the student — the Instruction reminds us that real commitment is required "to cultivate them seriously and lovingly," and provides the motivation for this study by identifying three very important reasons why knowledge of the Fathers is so necessary:
The Magisterium has in the past given importance to the study of the Fathers for several reasons. However, the fact that they are privileged witnesses to Tradition is to identify their most important role:
Some of them, like St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp, were disciples of St. John the Evangelist, and thus witnesses of the apostolic tradition itself.  And so, rightly,
A few years ago, John Paul II, in an outstanding address on St. Irenaeus of Lyons, drew attention to the contemporary relevance of the theology of this great second century apologist.  Irenaeus initiated a theological method which took due note of the interdependence of Tradition, Scripture and Magisterium in the theological enterprise, the full implications of which were articulated by the Vatican II constitution on Divine Revelation. Among other things, the early Fathers defined the canon of Scripture;  they composed the basic credal professions of faith, and defined the depositum fidei in response to heresies and the needs of contemporary culture, thus giving rise to theology.  There was unity in variety as evidenced by the plurality of spiritual traditions, and theological schools such as Alexandria, Caesarea, Antioch, etc. As the Instruction eloquently points out,
Down through the centuries the decrees of councils have constantly referred to the witness of the Fathers as definitive. It was precisely for this very reason that the Fathers of Vatican II were able to give expression to their understanding of the Church itself with a clarity and incisiveness not previously attempted.
For Newman, too, the Fathers are primarily witnesses of Tradition,
The strength of the Catholic Church by comparison with the Protestant communion is that
The Fathers being "witnesses" bring before us all the living truths of the Catholic faith which ever have been, and are accepted as realities by all in the Church.
The second reason suggested by the Instruction as to why we should study the Fathers is because of their theological method. This exemplifies particular approaches and attitudes which are equally valid for contemporary theology and biblical exegesis. The Fathers were primarily and essentially commentators on sacred Scripture. While clearly they lacked the philological, historical and other resources available to modern scriptural scholarship, yet "they are still true teachers for us and superior in many ways to the exegetes of the modern era." The Instruction goes on to point out that the example of the Fathers can
It is precisely because modern exegesis frequently neglects these two principles
of scriptural interpretation — the religious one, and
the specifically Catholic criterion of exegesis in medio Ecclesiae — that its results are often theologically impoverished, when they
are not at variance with the norm of Catholic doctrine.
Newman's attitude, on the other hand, is much more in keeping with the mind of the Fathers. This perspective, he says,
And what should we do if we find what seems to be a clash between human science and the content of Scripture? Again Newman points the way:
These are the spiritual dispositions required to approach the Bible fruitfully, attitudes which are in faithful continuity with those of men like Origen, Jerome or Augustine.
The Instruction reminds us that the exegesis the Fathers
There is thus a wholeness about the theology of the Fathers which contrasts with the often narrow selective approach of the contemporary theological enterprise; there is an integrity of perspective in exegetical style which shows up, by comparison, the atomization of the biblical text resulting from modern hermeneutical studies.
Since the Fathers received the Scriptures from the Church, they read and commented
on them in and for the Church "according to the rule of faith proposed
and illustrated by ecclesiastical and apostolic Tradition." This is another aspect of patristic theology
which was reaffirmed by Vatican II in the constitution on Divine Revelation: "Sacred
Tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church."
Thus a valid hermeneutic of Scripture can only be achieved by respecting the intimate relationship which exists
between it and the living Tradition of the Church.
The early Church, as mediated by the Fathers and which Newman came to love, was in his eyes "a Revelation of the Blessed Spirit in a bodily shape, who was promised to us as a second Teacher of Truth after Christ's departure." She represented the greatest possible identification with God's Revealed Word, and, inasmuch as she was a kind of embodiment of the Holy Spirit, she was constituted as the definitive and only authority on that Word. This perception of Newman's helps us to understand more clearly the rich theological implications of another hermeneutical principle articulated by Vatican Il — that Scripture has to be interpreted with the same Spirit by which it was written.
Newman consistently insists on the necessity of being led both by Scripture and
Tradition in order to attain to the whole of revealed truth. It was more than evident to him that Scripture cannot,
and does not, "force on us its full dogmatic meaning."
Therefore Scripture could never be used alone, i.e., without Tradition. But once this is accepted, then Scripture,
the written word, serves as a powerful and clear indicator of the Truth. With Athanasius he considered Scripture,
as interpreted by Tradition, to be "a document of final appeal in
One of Newman's great preoccupations was to provide a rational basis for the faith as a bulwark against the attack on religion from the rationalism of the day. In one of the Tracts of the Oxford Movement which he wrote in 1835, he outlines the dangers of the rationalist approach:
On the other hand he underlines clearly the just claims of reason in the theological enterprise:
This is a strikingly eloquent and prophetic passage, describing with uncanny accuracy
the thrust of much of contemporary biblical exegesis.
It has been criticized on a number of grounds, but Newman himself was the first to admit that the Gramnar did not presume to say the last word about anything; he had stated a problem and mapped out some of the answer, which in itself, he felt, was something. It was Newman's personal contribution to the ongoing dialogue between faith and reason, initiated by Clement and Origen in Alexandria, the cradle of the Catholic intellectual enterprise.
And so Pope John Paul II can say:
Because patristic literature is also distinguished for its great cultural, spiritual and pastoral values, after sacred Scripture the Fathers are one of the principal sources of priestly formation. Their cultivation is recommended by Vatican II as ongoing spiritual nourishment for priests during their whole lives. Many of the Fathers were men of immense human culture, totally conversant with the Graeco-Roman philosophical and literary heritage. As the Instruction points out, "by imprinting the Christian stamp on the ancient classical humanitas, they were the first to make a bridge between the Gospel and secular culture." To mention but one example of this influence we need look no further than St. Augustine and the extraordinary impact he exerted on the Christian civilization of the West during the whole of the Middle Ages.
Newman responded to this very attractive characteristic of the Fathers with immense delight and with an enthusiasm which was to remain with him all during his life. This dimension of patristic literature struck a deep chord in Newman because his own intellectual interests, indeed the very cast of his mind, found a deep resonance in the writings of the Fathers. He is profoundly affected by them because they are saints who come alive in their writings and he is thus able to establish a very personal relationship with them. It is this very humanitas which makes him "exult in the folios of the Fathers."
Newman nourished his soul, intellect and will, on all of these early Christian writers. However, he does not deny that St. John Chrysostom has first claim on his affections. The cardinal is rightly regarded as a master of English prose, yet it would be difficult to find anything in his writings which surpasses, in quality and style, the words evoked by his reflections on the personality of John Chrysostom:
Why, he asks, has he such empathy with Chrysostom, when so many other great saints, although they command his veneration, yet "exert no personal claim" upon his heart? After comparing him with a number of the other great Fathers, Newman's considered response is that Chrysostom's charm lies
Newman is particularly taken by Chrysostom's approach to the Bible, his "observant benevolence which gives to his exposition of Scripture its chief characteristic." Having been trained in the School of Antioch, he approaches it primarily from the point of view of the literal meaning, and it is his capacity
which characterizes his biblical commentaries. We are reminded here of what Cardinal Ratzinger said in his recent Erasmus lecture in New York about the current crisis in the historico-critical methods of biblical exegesis. If this hermeneutical approach is to be effective, an essential pre-condition is that there should be "sym-pathia" between the exegete and the biblical text. This is precisely the quality which Newman picks out as fundamental in the exegesis of St. John Chrysostom.
Because Newman studied the Fathers in the original Greek and Latin languages, he had access to all the nuances of their literary and theological riches. Their sure doctrine brought him unerringly to the fullness of the Faith in the Catholic Church. By means of the light of grace, and as a result of his great fortitude in search of divine truth, Newman was ready to make all the sacrifices which intellectual honesty demanded in pursuit of his goal.
As John Paul II has pointed out, the mystery of the Church was always "the great love of John Henry Newman's life."
His experience of the weaknesses in the human fabric of the Church did not undermine in any way his deep supernatural
vision of her origin, purpose and effectiveness in the world.
It is also worth noting that when he started his research into the heritage of the Fathers, patrology had not yet acquired any significant profile in Catholic theological formation. He had, in a very real sense, anticipated the mind of the Church in this regard. The Fathers were everything, and more, for Newman, which Vatican II and the recent Instruction recommends them to be for the mind and heart of every theologian, for the life and work of every priest.
1. Congregation for Catholic Education, Instruction on the study of the Fathers of the Church in the formation of priests, 10 November 1989, published in L'Osservatore Romano (English edition), 15 January 1990.
2. Cf. Flannery, A. (ed), Vatican Council
II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Dublin 1981, "Decree
on The Training of Priests" (Optatum
3. Cf ibid., Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), no. 23, p. 763.
4. Instruction, no. 8. c).
5. Cf. ibid.
6 Cf. ibid., no. 9. d.
7. In this context, cf. the article by I. de la Potterie, "Reading Holy Scripture 'in the Spirit': Is the patristic way of reading the Bible still possible today?", in Communio, 4 (Winter 1986), pp. 308-325.
8. It refers to the documents: Ratio Fundamentalis institutionis sacerdotalis (1985), and The Theological formation of Future Priests (1976) of the Congregation for Catholic Education.
9. Paul VI, Letter to His Eminence Cardinal Michele Pellegrino, for the Centenary of the Death of J.P. Migne, I May 1975, AAS 67(1975) p. 471.
10. Instruction, no, 2, quoting John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Patres Ecclesiae, 2 January 1980, AAS 72 (1980) p. 5.
11. Cf. ibid., p. 6.
12. Cf. Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching (subsequently referred to as Difficulties), London 1872, p. 324.
13. Cf. Ker, I., Newman the Theologian, London 1990. In the introductory essays to selected texts, Ker gives a fine analysis of Newman's theological development and his dependence on the Fathers. Ker also communicates vividly the patristic influence on the English cardinal in his superb biography of Newman (John Henry Newman: A Biography, Oxford 1988). However, to appreciate fully the extent of this influence there is no substitute for reading some of Newman's own works such as Select Treatises of St Athanasius, The Arians of the Fourth Century, Historical Sketches, Vols. I and II, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Apologia pro Vita Sua, etc.
14. Historical Sketches, Vol. II, London 1876, p. 475.
15. Newman's own free translation was: "The universal Church is in its judgements secure of truth"; cf. Ker, Newman the Theologian, p. 35.
16. Apologia pro Vita Sua, London 1886, p. 117.
17. Difficulties, p. 357.
18. Ibid., p. 376.
19. Cf. Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, London 1920, pp. 97-98.
20. Cf. ibid., page x.
21. Cf. Instruction, no. 17.
22. Cf. ibid.
23. Ibid., no. 18.
24. Cf. for example, St. lgnatius of Antioch, Letter to the Christians at Smyrna, III, 1-3.
25. Instruction, no. 19.a.
26. Cf. Address to the Faculté Catholiques de Lyon, 7 October 1986 (AAS 79 (1987) 334-340).
27. Cf. Flannery, ibid., Dei Verbum, no. 10, p. 755-756.
28. Cf. Instruction, no. 20.b, and Dei Verbum, no. 8
29. Cf. Instruction, no. 20.b.
30. Instruction, no. 22.d.
31. Instruction, no. 23.e.
32. Cf. Flannery, ibid., Dogmatic Constitution on The Church (Lumen Gentium), pp. 350-423; cf. in particular nos. 1 to 8.
33. Historical Sketches, Vol. 1, London 1878, p. 385.
34. Difficulties, p. 190.
35. Cf. ibid., pp. 242-243.
36. Instruction, no. 26.1.
38. Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. II, London, pp. 22-23. 1 am indebted to Louis Bouyer's study, Newman's Vision of Faith, Ignatius Press (San Francisco 1986), for this and the following reference.
39. Ibid., p. 208.
40. Instruction, no. 27.2.
41. Ibid., no. 28.3.
42 Flannery, ibid., Dei Verbum, no. 10, p. 755.
43. Cf. Griffin, P., Revelation and Scripture in the Writings of John Henry Newman, University of Navarre, Pamplona 1985, pp. 280-291.
44. Lectures on the Doctrine of Justfication, London 1874, p. 121.
46. University Sermons, London 1970, p. 17.
47. Cf. Flannery, ibid., Dei Verbum, no. 12, p. 758.
48. Essays Critical and Historical, Vol. 1, London, 1901, p. 115.
49. Select Treatises of St Athanasius, Vol. II, p. 51.
50. Instruction, no. 37.1,
51. Ibid., no. 33.1.
52. Ibid., no. 32.3.
53. Tract no. 73, as quoted in Newman the Theologian, p. 75.
54. Ibid., p. 76.
55. Cf. Ker, A Biography, pp. 618-650 for a discussion of its central themes.
56. Flanagan P., Newman: Faith and the Believer, London 1946, p. 15.
57. Cf. Ker, Ibid., p. 650.
58. Address to Newman Centenary Symposium, 27 April 1990, in L'Osservatore Romano, 30 April 1990.
59. Cf. Instruction, no. 41. This is the third reason suggested by the Instruction as to why the study of the Fathers is so worthwhile (cf. no. 17).
60 Cf. Flannery, ibid,, Decree on the Life of Priests, no. 19, p. 897.
61. No. 43.b.
62. Historical Sketches, Vol. II, p. 221.
63. Ibid., p. 234.
65.Cf. ibid., p. 284.
66. Cf. ibid., pp. 284-285.
67. Ibid., p. 285.
68. Ibid., p. 288.
69. ibid., p. 289.
70."Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today," was the title of the Erasmus lecture given by Cardinal Ratzinger in New York, on January 27, 1988. It was subsequently published in Origins, February 11, 1988 (Vol. 17, no. 35), pp. 595-602, under the somewhat mutated title: "Foundations and Approaches of Biblical Exegesis." Ratzinger says that the exegete's approach to the scriptural text should not be dictated by presuppositions "of a so-called modern or 'scientific' worldview, which determines in advance what may or may not be." Rather he should be prepared to "open up to the inner dynamism of the word. This is possible only when there is a certain sym-pathia for understanding, a readiness to learn something new, to allow oneself to be taken along a new road" (p. 600). Also, exegesis, if it wishes to make a contribution to theology, "must recognise that the faith of the Church is that form of sym-pathia without which the Bible remains a closed book" (p. 601).
71. Cf. Historical Sketches, Vol II., p. 289,
72. Cf. John Paul II, address, ibid., 27th April 1990, in L'Osservatore Romano, 30th April 1990.
Copyright ©; Fr Thomas McGovern 1992, 2003. 2019