On the “Patristic” Age

Fr. Georges Florovsky 1893-1979

It is misleading to single out particular statements of the Fathers and to detach them from the total perspective in which they have been actually uttered, just as it is misleading to manipulate with detached quotations from the Scripture. It is a dangerous habit “to quote” the Fathers, that is, their isolated sayings and phrases, outside of that concrete setting in which only they have their full and proper meaning and are truly alive. “To follow” the Fathers does not mean just “to quote” them. “To follow” the Fathers means to acquire their “mind,” their phronema.

Now, we have reached the crucial point. The name of “Church Fathers” is usually restricted to the teachers of the Ancient Church. And it is currently assumed that their authority depends upon their “antiquity,” upon their comparative nearness to the “Primitive Church,” to the initial “Age” of the Church. Already St. Jerome had to contest this idea. Indeed, there was no decrease of “authority,” and no decrease in the immediacy of spiritual competence and knowledge, in the course of Christian history. In fact, however, this idea of “decrease” has strongly affected our modern theological thinking. In fact, it is too often assumed, consciously or unconsciously, that the Early Church was, as it were, closer to the spring of truth. As an admission of our own failure and inadequacy, as an act of humble self-criticism, such an assumption is sound and helpful. But it is dangerous to make of it the starting point or basis of our “theology of Church history,” or even of our theology of the Church. Indeed, the Age of the Apostles should retain its unique position. Yet, it was just a beginning. It is widely assumed that the “Age of the Fathers” has also ended, and accordingly it is regarded just as an ancient formation, “antiquated” in a sense and “archaic.” The limit of the “Patristic Age” is variously defined. It is usual to regard St. John of Damascus as the “last Father” in the East, and St. Gregory the Dialogos or Isidore of Seville as “the last” in the West. This periodization has been justly contested in recent times. Should not, for instance, St. Theodore of Studium, at least, be included among “the Fathers”? Mabillon has suggested that Bernard of Clairvaux, the Doctor mellifluous, was “the last of the Fathers, and surely not unequal to the earlier ones.” [4] Actually, it is more than a question of periodization. From the Western point of view “the Age of the Fathers” has been succeeded, and indeed superseded, by “the Age of the Schoolmen,” which was an essential step forward. Since the rise of Scholasticism “Patristic theology” has been antiquated, has become actually a “past age,” a kind of archaic prelude. This point of view, legitimate for the West, has been, most unfortunately, accepted also by many in the East, blindly and uncritically. Accordingly, one has to face the alternative. Either one has to regret the “backwardness” of the East which never developed any “Scholasticism” of its own. Or one should retire into the “Ancient Age,” in a more or less archeological manner, and practice what has been wittily described recently as a “theology of repetition.” The latter, in fact, is just a peculiar form of imitative “scholasticism.”

Now, it is not seldom suggested that, probably, “the Age of the Fathers” has ended much earlier than St. John of Damascus. Very often one does not proceed further than the Age of Justinian, or even already the Council of Chalcedon. Was not Leontius of Byzantium already “the first of the Scholastics”? Psychologically, this attitude is quite comprehensible, although it cannot be theologically justified. Indeed, the Fathers of the Fourth century are much more impressive, and their unique greatness cannot be denied. Yet, the Church remained fully alive also after Nicea and Chalcedon. The current overemphasis on the “first five centuries” dangerously distorts theological vision, and prevents the right understanding of the Chalcedonian dogma itself. The decree of the Sixth Ecumenical Council is often regarded as a kind of an “appendix” to Chalcedon, interesting only for theological specialists, and the great figure of St. Maximus the Confessor is almost completely ignored. Accordingly, the theological significance of the Seventh Ecumenical Council is dangerously obscured, and one is left to wonder, why the Feast of Orthodoxy should be related to the commemoration of the Church’s victory over the Iconoclasts. Was it not just a “ritualistic controversy”? We often forget that the famous formula of the Consensus quinquesaecularis [agreement of five centuries], that is, actually, up to Chalcedon, was a Protestant formula, and reflected a peculiar Protestant “theology of history.” It was a restrictive formula, as much as it seemed to be too inclusive to those who wanted to be secluded in the Apostolic Age. The point is, however, that the current Eastern formula of “the Seven Ecumenical Councils” is hardly much better, if it tends, as it usually does, to restrict or to limit the Church’s spiritual authority to the first eight centuries, as if “the Golden Age” of Christianity has already passed and we are now, probably, already in an Iron Age, much lower on the scale of spiritual vigour and authority. Our theological thinking has been dangerously affected by the pattern of decay, adopted for the interpretation of Christian history in the West since the Reformation. The fullness of the Church was then interpreted in a static manner, and the attitude to Antiquity has been accordingly distorted and misconstrued. After all, it does not make much difference, whether we restrict the normative authority of the Church to one century, or to five, or to eight. There should he no restriction at all. Consequently, there is no room for any “theology of repetition.” The Church is still fully authoritative as she has been in the ages past, since the Spirit of Truth quickens her now no less effectively as in the ancient times. (St. Gregory Palamas and the Tradition of the Fathers)

Comments

  1. You know I like certain things about this argument but I dislike others. I see how easily this could be used to justify all manner of crazy modernistic renovationism, all on the basis of the Church’s great authority– an argument not unlike the one behind Roman Catholicism and especially behind the humanistic triumph of Vatican II.

    I’m not a theologian and don’t really know how to properly articulate a meaningful response to Fr. Georges, here. He’s right that the Church has the authority to bind and loose for the salvation of the faithful, and that She has done so in various councils and by various hierarchs throughout the ages, changing particulars in worship and discipline when necessary but never changing the Orthodox dogmatic faith in Christ and the Way of salvation as taught in the holy Gospels.

  2. Crazy modernistic renovationists use every means to corrupt Tradition. Scriptures, Councils, Fathers, etc. If that’s their aim they’ll latch on to anything. This statement is more about realizing the the Spirit’s abiding presence in the Church so we’re not always looking backwards and confining ourselves to a “Patristic Age”.

    I take it in the same way as St. Symeon’s statement here: http://classicalchristianity.com/2011/12/09/the-new-heresy/

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