09 June, 2009

Should the Scriptures be understood in the context of the teaching of the Church fathers

Understanding the writings of the Church fathers is not difficult if we consider similar hermeneutical principals to the interpretation of Scriptures. The same scholarly approach should be taken in understanding the works of the Church fathers.

First of all we are all relying on a translation of what the Fathers said. While translations from Latin into English are certainly more reliable than translations from Greek or from Hebrew there are still difficulties in conveying what the authors mean to say and liberties are often taken to convey what the translator believes the author is trying to convey. Most often one must rely on context just as responsible exegetes would in interpreting Scriptures.

Second of all one must consider the culture and time that the author wrote his statements. In the case of the fathers they were followers of certain theological philosophies as described in the three schools of the early fathers, Alexandrian, Antiochian and Western. Without exception these three schools of thought placed great emphasis and were devoted to what St. Augustine coined "regula fidei" in his work "De Doctrina Christiana"; "regula fidei" means "rule of faith". To the fathers this meant that all interpretations of Scripture is done in light and tested by apostolic Tradition. If there is initially a lack of harmony between the two parts of Tradition then the interpretation was considered false and the harmonious solution and interpretation was sought, for no truth in Scriptures and in apostolic Tradition can stand in contradiction. In other words, one can not exist free from the other and neither can stand alone as truth for they each must confess to the world and to the faithful that their harmony is truly the Word of God and the "regula fidei" each making up the fullness of truth.

If the fathers are taken out of context for the purpose of proving a point or a doctrine that the fathers did not and would not support is totally disingenuous. It is using the fathers falsely and attributing to them beliefs which they certainly did not nor would not share. This would be wrong also if we were speaking of interpreting Scripture and taking it out of context or harmony with the body of text and using it to support our own theological presuppositions. As any Biblical scholar will instruct, we are to come to the Scriptures predisposed to be instructed instead of coming to Scriptures to glean from them what we already supposed. Can the ignorant come to these Scriptures with only the ability to read and understand perfectly what the author is trying to convey? Probably it is not, because the perspicuity of Scriptures is dependent on the partnership between the laity and the scholar. Too often Sola Scriptura adherents gloss over this fact but this concept was a part of the original authors of Sola Scriptura. If one ignores scholarship, indeed things may appear to be plain language to one viewing it through the lens of their own presuppositions without the aid of responsible scholarship and error is almost a certainty and can even fool the most intelligent among us who fail to be diligent.

The Bible clearly says that we all see through a glass darkly whether laity or scholar. I believe that the Scriptures and the fathers are a mystery and the full knowledge is illusive for anyone faithful or otherwise. I do believe that understanding the Bible requires scholarship but I am in good company, so did the Reformers who coined the phrase Sola Scriptura. As I said before they viewed Sola Scriptura as a partnership between scholars and the faithful. Without that partnership Scriptures are just a incubator of false teaching waiting for the heretic to pick and choose those Scriptures that appear to support their views, displaying a total disregard for the Word of God and using it as a tool to their own destruction. We are living in an age of cafeteria Christianity when people are deceived into creating their own God with the Holy Scriptures instead of humbly seeking the divine knowledge within.

I understand the Protestant perspective that places the Bible at the center of their faith, so much so that to some it approaches idolatry in extreme cases. Surely the fathers believed in the Bible but they certainly did not believe in Scriptures so much as to lose their perspective as to what is the Word of God and from whence it comes. They understood the value of scholarship and responsible understanding following hermeneutical principals very early in the history of the Church in training clergy. They knew that the kerygma would be lost if they failed to ensure ongoing sound scholarship. While the fathers and the authors of Scriptures did not write to fool men, men are often fooled by their writings believing that their truth is the only truth wallowing in their self deception to destruction.

In Christ
Fr. Joseph

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