Patristic Symphony

Theology is not a sequestered discipline rather the conglomeration of several formative factors. John Macquarie, an influential theologian of the 20th century, in his book Principles of Christian Theology identifies six formative factors of theology viz. Experience, Revelation, Scripture, Tradition, Culture and Reason. It is the collective effort of all these factors that sustains the integrity of theology. To suppose that one of the formative factors exhausts the scope of theology is not only fallacious but also fatal. Orthodoxy is vindicated in this regard for it does not bestow sole allegiance to any one of the elements as its theology is informed by significant and diverse tributaries of Apostolic Tradition (both written and unwritten) which encompasses Scripture, liturgy, patristic heritage, iconography, canonical corpus, decrees of ecumenical synods and the like that subsume the spirit of all the formative factors of theology.  St. Basil the Great comments on this;

“Of the dogmas and proclamation that are guarded in the Church, we hold some from the teaching of the Scriptures and others we have received in mystery as the teachings of the traditions of the apostles. Both hold the same power with respect to true religion…For if we attempt to reject non-scriptural customs as insignificant, we would, unaware, lose the very vital parts of the Gospel, and even more, we would establish the proclamation merely in name. For instance – I will mention the first and most common – who has learned through the Scriptures that those who hope in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ are marked with the sign of cross? What sort of scriptural text teaches us to turn to the East for prayer? Which saint has left us a scriptural account of the words of the epiclesis at the manifestation of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing?…Does it not come from this secret and unspoken teaching, which our fathers guarded with a simple and unprying silence, since they were well taught that the solemnity of the mysteries is preserved by silence?” (On the Holy Spirit 27.66)[1] 

The apostolicity of the Church rests not just on the hierarchical succession but more strongly and vividly on the apostolic kerygma. We are called to proclaim not our own idiosyncratic faith but the faith of the apostles taught by our Lord Jesus Christ. The probable digression of faith was warned by St Paul;

“Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” (2 Tim 4:2-4).

Thus apostolic kerygma becomes the decisive hallmark that determines the apostolicity of the church. One of the major pathways to discern the apostolic kerygma is to engage with the patristic heritage. It is quite disconcerting that the contemporary academia relegates patristics to a historical epoch between classical antiquity and early middle-ages instead of the theologically informed reference to the Church Fathers. Whenever we use the term ‘Fathers’ there is a deep etymological and ontological reality associated with it. Augustine Casiday elucidates;

“When we use the terms ‘patristics’ and ‘fathers’, we are not referring to a remote period in the past; nor do we apply it indiscriminately to people who lived in the past. Instead, those terms are used selectively. We are collectively looking back and acknowledging our debts to certain people who have gone on before…When we refer to some people as Fathers, what happens is that we identify them as standing in a parental relationship to us. We are, if you like, adopting them as our parents. This family relationship, like all relationships, is dynamic.”[2]

Theology is intrinsically an exegetical endeavour leading us to confess Christ as “My Lord and my God” and not an abstract academic discipline which subjects God to human scrutiny – as if God could be objectively reduced to our rational and verbal finitude. Therefore, without understanding how the apostles and the early Christians, especially our Holy Fathers and Mothers, theologized Christ, our pursuit would be in vain. Fr. John Behr comments;

“For the Fathers of the early centuries, the writers of Scripture, such as David, are “theologians” (Athanasius, Against the Pagans 46) and the apostles such as Paul, “who speaks of the Saviour himself,” are also “theologians” (Athanasius, On the Incarnation 10) especially the evangelist John, “the Theologian” (Athanasius, Against the Pagans 42). They are theologians in a unique and unrepeatable manner, for they spoke and wrote about Christ, and those who “theologize” Christ thereafter do so on the basis of their accounts.”[3]

Theology has its own language and it cannot be extrapolated to the signs of time without comprehending its emergence and contours. As Rowan William notes; “Theology…is perennially tempted to be seduced by the prospect of bypassing the question of how it learns its own language.”[4] Thus we engage with the Patristic heritage to learn this language so that we could internalize its essence and vision so as to transform as well as transcend it. We join the symphony of our Holy Fathers and Mothers so that the apostolic harmony and melody is not disturbed. Fr. John Behr remarks;

“Speaking theologically, moreover, this diachronically and synchronically polyphonous symphony is not, therefore, constructed by any individual voice or all the voices together, but is governed by its own rhythm and rules, so that, to use Irenaeus’ words, it is God who ‘harmonizes the human race to the symphony of salvation’ (Against Heresies 4.14.2). Reading the Fathers ‘symphonically’ in this way, then, attunes us to the melody that is theology…There is indeed no reason simply to repeat what certain Fathers have said, but if one is not going to rehearse, with care and accuracy, particular movements of this symphony, then one must provide an account of what it is one is in fact doing.”[5]

The 20th century witnessed a time of renewal for Orthodox scholasticism and pietism prompted by Orthodox diaspora and ecumenical dialogues. The two most prominent maxims proposed were “return to the Fathers” by Fr. George Florovsky’s Neo-patristic synthesis[6] and “beyond the Fathers” by the Russian school of theology. These two propositions become problematic if they are considered mutually exclusive and exhaustive in themselves. For instance, ‘return to the fathers’ should not be understood as an invitation to return and stay in the saccharine nostalgia of the past; that would be morbid and deplorable. Rather, it should be a critical and creative return to acquire the mind of the fathers – ad mentem Patrum so as to grapple with the challenges of the future informed by the present. Furthermore, ‘beyond the Fathers’ should not be understood as a wayward severing from our Fathers but a journey forward with them rather than without them. So the two propositions should be interpreted as mutually interdependent. We return to gain a momentum to move ahead and not to move away. This is what makes the tradition ‘living’[7] in the purest sense. As Gustav Mahler beautifully puts it, “Tradition is not to preserve the ashes but to pass on the flame.”

It is good to meditate on Walter Benjamin’s painting entitled “Angel of Progress” where history is depicted as an angel being blown backward into the future.[8] So is our journey in time. We are moving backward into future and it is our past that helps us navigate. A better analogy would be of an oarsman rowing a boat. To use the words of T.S. Eliot, “a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but also of its presence.”[9]     

While we engage with the patristic heritage we need to take cognizance of the fact that the Fathers do not possess answers to all questions posed by modernity. In fact when we foist the questions of our times on them we actually make the patristic tradition docile and malleable and also put forward an erroneous message that they mark the boundaries of theological credibility and legitimacy. In other words implying that what cannot be traced back to the Fathers is theologically illegitimate.[10] This sort of uncritical and constant invocation of Fathers is what Aristotle Papanikolaou calls “patristic fundamentalism” and Alan Brown calls “patristicism”. We need to bear in mind that the Fathers are not ipso facto infallible and saintliness is not akin to inerrancy. The purpose of reading the Fathers is not to garner quotations to justify our prejudices but to understand how they exegete the Scriptures and thereby appropriate theology.  

Patristic heritage is not an inert deposit of the treasury of faith handed down to us to like or loathe; it is indeed living but it is our mode of reception which makes us experience its aliveness. If we are passive in receiving this heritage then we experience only a static body of propositions. The fidelity to this heritage is exhibited not in its uncontaminated preservation from the world but in its organic embodiment and transformative transmission; it is in the continuation from where our Holy Fathers and Mothers left. To acquire the mind of the Fathers does not mean the mechanical reiteration of their sayings but to inculcate their legacy of confrontation and dissent to critically assess the society rather than supinely succumb to its endorsements. It is honing the prudence of redeeming and re-orienting the resources of our age by putting it to the service of God just as the Israelites used the gold of the Egyptians to build a tabernacle for God and our Fathers used the pagan Hellenistic philosophy and philology for the exposition of Christian faith.[11] This is the patristic legacy; a legacy of confrontation, redemption and transcendence. Professor Petros Vassiliadis eruditely writes;

“Modern Orthodox theology has now reached, in our times, a critical and decisive crossroads in its historical development. For the Orthodox, the 20th century was essentially a period of redefining its self-consciousness through a process of re-discovering the power of the “patristic” tradition. Having discovered the quintessence of its uniqueness in its “liturgical” – i.e., its ecclesiological, trinitarian, pneumatological, iconological, cosmological, and above all eschatological dimension, it is now called to take the next step, i.e., to dare to go beyond the traditional “patristic” theology, precisely as the patristic tradition essentially went beyond the primitive Christian tradition, and as the primitive Christian tradition went beyond the Judeo-Christian one. Of course, this does not mean abandoning the spirit or even the style of the patristic era, nor does it involve the rejection of the contemporary Greek philosophical categories of thought that they adopted, but rather it means dynamically transcending them. Indeed, this is the legacy of the great Fathers of the Church.”[12]

In Christ

Dn. Basil Paul


[1] Stephen Hildebrand trans. St Basil the Great: On the Holy Spirit (New York: SVS Press, 2011), 104-105.

[2] Augustine Casiday, Remember the Days of Old: Orthodox Thinking on the Patristic Heritage (Yonkers, NY: SVS Press, 2014), 36.

[3] John Behr, “What are we doing talking about God? The Discipline of Theology” in Aristotle Papnikolaou and Elizabeth H. Prodromou eds. Thinking through Faith: New Perspectives from Orthodox Christian Scholars (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2008), 67-86 at 70.

[4] Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 131.

[5] John Behr, “Reading the Fathers Today” in J. Mihoc and S. Aldea eds. A Celebration of Living Theology: Festschrift for Fr Andrew Louth (London: T&T Clark, 2014), 7–19 at 15.

[6] “It should be more than just a collection of Patristic sayings or statements. It must be a synthesis, a creative reassessment of those insights which were granted to the Holy Men of old. It must be Patristic, faithful to the spirit and vision of the Fathers, ad mentem Patrum. Yet, it must also be Neo-Patristic, since it is to be addressed to the new age, with its own problems and queries.” Andrew Blane, Georges Florovsky: Russian Intellectual, Orthodox Churchman (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1993), 154.

[7] “Orthodoxy is not a thing which can be kept simply by inertia. No tradition can survive unless it is continued in a creative effort. The message of Christ is eternal and always the same, but it must be reinterpreted again and again so as to become a challenge to every new generation…We have not simply to keep the legacy of the past, we have to do everything we can in order to present it to others as a living thing…” Andrew Blane, Georges Florovsky, 93.

[8] Harry Zohn, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Vol. 4:1938-1940 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 392-93.

[9] T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” in The Waste Land and Other Writings (New York: Modern Library, 2002), 99-108 at 100.

[10] Augustine Casiday, Remember the Days of Old, 154.

[11] “This perceived connection was stated clearly by Origen of Alexandria in a famous letter to St Gregory Thaumaturgos (or “the Wonderworker”). Origen exhorts Gregory to “extract from the philosophy of the Greeks what may serve as a course of study or a preparation for Christianity, and from geometry and astronomy what will serve to explain the Sacred Scriptures” so that those intellectual resources can be put to use in furtherance of Christianity.” Augustine Casiday, Remember the Days of Old, 165.

[12] Quoted in Pantelis Kalaitzidis “From the “Return to the Fathers” to the Need for a Modern Orthodox Theology” in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 54:1 (2010) 5-36 at 33.

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