Christian Reconciliation Carnival:
The Question of the Month

Phil Snyder at hyperekperissou is hosting the last carival or Christian Reconciliation this month. The format of the carnival admits at least two entries, one written in response to a question, the second an entry of general interest on the topic of ecumenical movements and possibilities in the greater Church. The prior link is Mr Snyder’s essay on his question:

How does our understanding of Early Christianity (here defined as the apostolic period to the end of the patristic age c. 750 AD) help or hinder our efforts at Christian Reconciliation?

For my answer I hope to attempt to reflect both on this question and the prior essay linked above (and quoted below).

Mr Snyder both notes the problems references to the patristic era have had, namely:

  1. In the battles royale between Cathlic and Protestant, references to patristic writing have been “owned” and used by both sides against the other (and the middle?).
  2. Likewise between Catholic and Orthodox, both whom independently see themselves as properly holding to patristic ideals (and that the other does not).

His hope is that the recent movement called ressourcement will open a new era in which patristic writings will serve as a common source from which ecumenical motion might occur.

Part of the problem with patristic writings and it’s hope for ecumenism, is a double ended hermeneutical problem. There is the hermeneutic of how we interpret and use the patristic writings themselves and the second problem is that the particular hermenuetical methods that the patristic fathers themselves used is very often foreign and uncomfortable for many.

A simple example of the second might be the following. One of the common practices followed by patristic writers was that in the early centuries after Christ, Scripture was searched fervently for signs and portents of the Gospel events. The parting of the Red Sea, for example, was seen as pre-figuring and signalling the perpetural virginity of Mary. Specifically the parting of the waters and the salvation of Israel by traveling through the sea on dry ground was seeing as symobolizing the birth of the Savior (Christ). The restoration of the waters to their former state was likewise seen as the restoration of Mary to virginal status after her childbearing. Protestant Marian doctrine and teachings, it seems to me, would reject this patristic hermeneutic and tradition outright, while it is a standard Orthodox (and I think Catholic) teaching.

In this example, the hermeneutic methods of the patristic fathers is (as I suspect likely) rejected out of hand as foreign and primitive by the Protestant reader.

The ordination of women was put in place recently by various denominations. In part, this was based on a reading (the first hermenuetic above) of some patristic reports on the wives of bishops and presbyters in the patristic era. The particular hermenuetic and interpretation of these texts, is argued by the Orthodox for example, as being out of line with a reasonable reading of the text (as reported by my priest recently at Bible study as gleaned from an SVS quarterly).

Thus the patristic writings hold two barriers to ecumenism. First, our contentious interpretation of those sources we have been left by the patristic fathers. The second, is that in many cases the many patristic traditions and their hermeutics have been rejected out of hand by many Protestants. What this results in is a sanitized version of patristic writings that is used or released as supporting whatever particular axe is being ground. Patristic writings will not be useful or helpful in ecumenical movement until the patristic writings and teachings are seen holding some authority. Sola Scriptura (especially when assigned a particular hermeneutic) defeats this.

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  1. Phil Snider says:


    I think you’re right about the double hermeneutical problem about the Fathers on this issue. Quite clearly, reading the Fathers is an excercise in discomfort for any modern Christian, not just Protestants. That discomfort can be good or simply too disturbing, but it certainly keeps things lively.

    That said, I think we have to recognize that Protestants who are turning to the Fathers tend also to be uncomfortable with a naive sola scriptura hermeneutic. That is one reason why we see this shift because many evangelicals are seeing the effect that sola scriptura is having on our understanding of church and the Christian Life, so are looking for something to broaden our understanding. This shouldn’t be seen as a movement away from Scripture, but rather a shift from a sola scriptura postion to a scriptura prima position in which Scripture remains the fount of our theological and devotional understanding, but we use the Fathers as a running commentary on Scripture which sometimes illuminates Scripture, but also sometimes confuses it. That might just prove your point, mind you, about Protestants merely selecting the bits they like, but, if it does, I think it makes it slightly less arbitrary.