The usual answer given to the title of this article is that the Church Fathers provide us with invaluable spiritual guidance, based on their own faith and experience. They interpret Scripture and other elements of Holy Tradition in such a way as to educate us in the Way that leads to the Kingdom of God. And by the witness of their own life, which often ended in actual martyrdom, they offer us a model of the Christ-centered, self-sacrificing love we are all called to emulate.
These are certainly important reasons that make regular reading of patristic sources not only advisable, but essential. Without the Fathers’ guidance and witness, we would find ourselves adrift in the sea of doctrinal confusion and moral ambiguity that characterizes so much of Christian as well as secular culture today.
Yet there’s another, equally significant reason for studying the ancient patristic writings. It is to acquire the world-view of the Fathers, which most people today seem to have lost. This includes a way of looking at “history” as well as physical reality. If “biblical literalism” poses for many of us as much of a problem as do certain forms of “historical criticism,” it is because both are predicated on notions of history, and of reality itself, that are misleading if not false. The presupposition behind both “right wing” and “left wing” readings of Scripture is that truth is revealed only through history, and that history is made up only of facts. Historiography—the writing of history (including biblical history)—thus aims to tell us “what really happened”: it focuses on events that, theoretically at least, are empirically verifiable. If an event or person depicted in a given body of literature could not in principle have been photographed or tape-recorded, then the narrative account of that event is relegated to the category of fiction.
Jesus’ parables obviously fall into that category. They were never intended to recount events that actually occurred. Rather, they are stories that use familiar details of everyday life to convey some moral or spiritual message. Since Jesus’ miracles, and particularly His resurrection, cannot be verified objectively, the accounts of those events are also generally dismissed as fictitious. Or at best, they are considered to be “parabolic”: they are seen as mere illustrative stories, told to make a point. Since their details are unrepeatable and thus unverifiable, the argument goes, they fall outside the realm of determinable “fact” and cannot be taken as historically accurate, that is, as “really true.”
From the biblical perspective, as in the view of the Holy Fathers, truth cannot be limited to mere fact, to what is historically verifiable. In the first place, we need to recognize that all “history” is a matter of interpretation. Whether we are talking about Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War, or Churchill’s account of World War II, or a lead article in Newsweek, what we receive as “history” is always colored by the author’s own perspective. The same is true even of a photograph. As much as it may capture “reality,” that reality is always shaped by the photographer’s own perspective, aims and interests. A photograph or history book always gives a subjective representation of reality, rather than an objective rendering of what “really is” or “really was.” There can be no historiography that is free from interpretation.
Then again, “truth” (alêtheia, practically synonymous with “reality”) is vastly more comprehensive than what falls into the realm of “history.” This is evident from modern physics, just as it is in human relationships. Specialists in relativity theory and quantum mechanics explore dimensions of reality whose existence no one would deny. Yet their investigations not only fall outside the domain of “history”; they produce scientifically valid results that are nevertheless contradictory (a photon cannot be both a particle and a wave, yet it functions like both; parallel lines cannot meet, yet on the macrocosmic scale they do…). In the domain of personal relationships, love is objectively “real.” Yet it defies any attempt to define or even describe it, other than by the figurative language of poetry. Neither the movement of subatomic particles nor the movement of the amorous heart is, properly speaking, historical.
If St Basil the Great or St Gregory of Nyssa could approach the Genesis creation stories as they did, it is because they discern in, through and beyond the “historical” account other levels of meaning. If St Ephrem the Syrian and St Andrew of Crete could interpret persons and events of the Old Testament as images of Paradise and of the human soul, it is because they, too, discern in, through and beyond the biblical text transcendent reality and meaning. If a literal, “historical” reading of the biblical text is necessary yet inadequate, it is because Scripture is iconic, sacramental. It images and gives actual participation in divine reality, as that reality enfolds and transfigures every aspect of our daily life.
One of the most insightful biblical interpreters of our day is Frances Young, a Methodist theologian who taught for many years in a noted British University. In her book, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge, 1997), she speaks about the current world-view that hinders interpreters of the Bible in their attempts to uncover its true message. She notes that a culture “receives” a text in such a way that the meaning of the text is accepted or contested depending on the “plausibility structures” of that culture. Then she adds: “A culture which can conceive of the material universe as interpenetrated by another reality, which is transcendent and spiritual, will read the reference of scripture in those terms” (p. 139).
Where the “plausibility structures” of a particular mind-set do not allow for that interpenetration of transcendent, spiritual reality, then the ultimate criterion for what is true will be “facticity”: that is, whether the matter in question is objectively real and therefore historically determinable. And the biblical narratives will be considered true to the degree that they can be shown to recount such “historical realities,” accurately.
To acquire the “mind of the Fathers” is to adopt and interiorize “structures of plausibility” that see beyond historical facts to the transcendent, divine Presence revealed in and through those facts. The Exodus, like the Exile into Babylon, is grounded in historical occurrence; some such liberation from Egypt actually happened. If it became the founding myth—the powerful, saving metaphor—of Israel’s identity and spiritual destiny, it is because God was at work through that occurrence, but also through its interpretation in Israel’s sacred literature. The same may be said for the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ, which we affirm without qualification to be historical events. Yet for those events to have meaning for us—to work their saving power in our life—they must first be interpreted for us by the biblical authors, then received by us in faith. Our world-view must be marked by a profound “plausibility,” a bedrock conviction that the material universe is indeed interpenetrated by another reality, a reality that is God—transcendent divine Life—who is present and active in every aspect of material reality, in order to lead us through this world and into His eternal embrace.
Why read the writings of the Holy Fathers? Because those venerable elders perceived what each of us needs and longs to perceive. Firmly anchored in “historical reality,” their spiritual vision enabled them to open the eyes of mind and soul to the beauty and glory of divine Reality, as it reveals itself and makes itself accessible in and through Scripture and Tradition, as well as in and through the most mundane aspects of our daily existence.
The Fathers were not more objective than biblical scholars and theologians are today. They, too, gave subjective interpretations to events in the writings they have passed on to us. What makes their witness so unique and so valuable is their capacity to see, precisely in and through “historical reality,” the actual—the utterly real—presence of the living, loving and life-giving God. They beheld, encountered, worshiped and served God in the fallen material world, in the very midst of everyday life. And they invite us to do the same.