The Thoughts and Adventures of Sarah Harris

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Are the Church Fathers Even Relevant?

ImageC.S. Lewis would say they are. In fact, he recommends that for every modern book we read, we should also read one ancient book.[1]

And yet, within society, Lewis often finds that the lay people shy away from the ancient texts because they think they are for the professionals. This apprehension towards the old texts is even greater within the subject of theology.

“Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or M. Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.”[2]

Lewis gives a variety of reasons as to why even the common person such as I should read the ancient texts. One reason is that modern texts must be “tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages” and the only way this is possible is to have a plain Christianity that puts modern controversies within “their proper perspective.”[3] The way this is done, is by reading the old books. Mistakes within our own age can only be discovered by reading the perspective of another age. We must learn to see things through another lense.

Another reason to read old texts, according to Lewis, is that the different ages each present an unvarying presentation of Christianity. There is Christian unity throughout the ages. Lewis expounds:

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then.[4]

In the very little bit I have read of the Patristics (On the Human Condition by Basil of Ceaserea and various excerpts from Tertullian, John Chrysostom, Ireneaus, etc.) I have found another reason to read the patristics as well as other ancient texts. They are surprisingly relevant. I can read Tertullian and St. John Chrysostom and find advice for my own marriage some 1700 years after they have written.[5] We find that the same marital controversies of today were the same controversies of the Christians long past.

In Gregory of Nyssa we are able to read what he thinks about infants dying and whether or not they will be in the Kingdom come.[6] This topic is of great importance to someone like myself with a mentally handicapped sister or to parents who have lost a child. He also speaks on baptism and converses over the very puzzling question of why the Lord said in John 3:5: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”[7] Why did he say both water AND Spirit – why not simply Spirit? This is a question asked by many in this age who are contemplating the meaning of Baptism.

Commentary upon commentary are written on the books of the Bible. Insights into the culture, history, and prophecies from the Old and New Testaments can be found within the Patristics that are far more helpful than most modern commentaries on Scripture.

These are the men who decided upon what books and letters would be in the canon. They are the men who took part in creating the Nicean Creed. And while reading something old seems daunting, in the end it always seems to be easier than one initially thought.

I remember hearing about the philosopher, Plato, when I was in high school and thinking that someone with such a grand mind as he could only be read by the brightest of the bright. But when I read my first book by Plato, I found that he was easy to read, his concepts could easily be grasped, and most odd of all – I found him to be so very relevant. He was, in fact, asking the very questions about life that I, as a young adult, also found myself asking.

The entire introduction by C.S. Lewis on reading ancient texts can be found here.

[1] C.S. Lewis, introduction to On the Incarnation, by St. Athanasius (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1996).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See St. John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimirs Seminary Press, 1986) and Tertullian, Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage: To His Wife, an Exhortation to Chastity, Monogamy (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1978).

[6] See Gregory of Nyssa, “On Infants Early Deaths,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, vol. 4, ed. Phillip Schaff (New York, NY: Cosimo Classics, 2007).

[7] See Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Baptism of Christ,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series, vol. 4, ed. Phillip Schaff (New York, NY: Cosimo Classics, 2007).


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2 thoughts on “Are the Church Fathers Even Relevant?

  1. Holmes Bryan on said:

    You’re not a common person! Thanks for the reminder, Sarah. I started reading the ancients before you got married, but the book I was reading by Augustine (loaned by you) got buried under a pile on my nightstand. I’m gonna dig it out and start reading again. I was originally motivated by the same comment you quote from Lewis in your first paragraph. I’ve got some catching up to do if I’m going to make it a 1:1 ratio this year.

    • I’m glad you’ve been re-motivated. The best part of that Augustine book is the beginning, so it’s okay if you don’t get through it all. I honestly don’t think I’ve read all of it. There are plenty of other possibilities to chose from. I think I have Anselm, Aquinas and Plato on my shelf – and you can read any of the Patristics online (though I prefer having a hard copy). I’m glad to have a library where I have access to all these books! I doubt the little Highland library would have any…

      Another option would be reading the book that quote was from – I think it’s C.S. Lewis’ translation of “On the Incarnation” by St. Athanasius – an early church father.

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