(June/July 1999)

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 94 (June/July 1999): 2-7.

Fighting About the Fathers

If asked to list current Roman Catholic patristic scholars with whom I have the deepest affinities and the highest respect, surely Robin Darling Young of Catholic University of America would be on that list and near its top. I have increased my respect for her over the many dialogues in which we have shared over the years. It seems ironic, therefore, that the first critical review of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS) would come from Professor Young. As in the knotty insider struggles between Jerome and Augustine, later between Whitefield and Wesley, and more recently between Brunner and Barth, it seems that those with whom we stand in closest proximity as theological partners are often our strongest critics. This is why I wish to take most seriously a wide range of issues raised by Prof. Young, and answer them respectfully (the longer response to this review can be found on the ACCS website:

Far from a "collapse of 'classical Christian' theology" that Young imagines, there is around the world an emerging ecumenical recovery of classic Christian teaching grounded anew in the history of ancient exegesis. This renewal is rediscovering that the texts of orthodoxy are multicontextual due to the Great Commission, and that their polyvalency is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit so as to put bounds on interpretations unfitting to the canonical text. This is the post–critical moment in which we exist now ecumenically. Since the 1970s I have been describing this post–critical, postmodern orthodoxy as a movement profoundly shaping evangelical theology today, which itself is being proximately reshaped in gradually growing dialogue with Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholic magisterial teaching. Accordingly we specifically insist that the ACCS is "not opposing historical–critical inquiry." "We invite it and encourage it," and only hope that it becomes more germanely critical.

While the Drew University–ACCS project is wildly charged with concocting a single mind of the fathers, Prof. Young has actually concocted a Drew–ACCS project that does not exist, one that supposedly admits evidence of patristic writings only when they fit into some imagined doctrinal concurrence. She imposes upon this vast array of texts a simplistic view of the ACCS that assumes no disagreements and no variety. On the contrary, our central purpose is to put on display that rich and complex pattern of ecumenical varieties of interpretation. We have selected over two thousand patristic texts on Romans and over one thousand on Mark. Any reader of these volumes can easily see that many of the arguments of writers as different as Augustine and Pelagius, Origen and Jerome, Tertullian and Ephraem stand in dialectical tension within ecumenical boundaries; in many cases, they overtly conflict. Does the ACCS pretend to present "a univocal patristic interpretation of the Bible that never existed"? That is contrary not only to our intent but to the vast variety of textual selections that are made newly accessible, mostly in fresh translation.

When concord occurs among patristic interpreters, is it only accidental or "occasional"? That would be to deny the unifying work of the Holy Spirit in the Church as constantly asserted by the patristic exegetes themselves (see Mark 9:38–41, Romans 12:1–8). When we speak of consensual exegesis, we are saying only that we are not focused on constantly quoting the heretical views of Valentinus or Marcion or the Gnostics or the Arians. If we did this it would delegitimize our project among the many Orthodox and Roman Catholic readers we hope to attract.

No other patristic inquiry has yet set out systematically to use computer technology to locate raw references in Greek and Latin texts to all canonical scripture texts and the Apocrypha using Boolean search techniques. There is, to my knowledge, no similar effort in the planning stage anywhere else. The group with which Prof. Young is working, which has discontinued cooperation with the ACCS, is highly averse to using computer searches to locate verse references, which is one of the major reasons they insisted on going their own way despite our many invitations to bring their efforts into harmony with ours. Our focus methodologically is upon making digital searches into the vast database of Latin and Greek texts that refer to a particular text, and it is the unique strength of our project. This is what makes our textual base far more varied, ecumenical, and irenic than previous efforts.

We invite the distinguished contributors to The Church's Bible, the project with which Prof. Young is associated, and which we hope to soon see in print from Eerdmans, to engage not in an abrasive polemic against their partners in the rediscovery of patristic exegesis, but to join us in a broader search that includes a broader database than twentieth–century stereotypes of a "commentary." The ancient Christian writers themselves break that stereotype. We hope it will not be univocally perpetuated. The ACCS does not regard The Church's Bible as "a rival," as Prof. Young suggests, but as a companionable attempt to do something very different from the purpose of ACCS: to focus only on those scripture texts that have a substantial history of line–by–line patristic commentaries.

The ACCS consistently presents itself as post–critical, not anti–critical. One wonders how Prof. Young could have missed the fact that the project quotes Pelagius and Origen and Tertullian frequently, aware of their tenuousness within the tradition of orthodoxy. How could she have missed the fact that there are broad varieties of interpretation in each particular pericope offered, and no predisposing attempt whatever to press them into a single–minded mold? Would a careful reader erroneously assert that "existing translations were used in most cases"? When the reasons why Mark was chosen as the leading volume were so clearly stated, how could she have ignored them? It is hard not to derive the impression that she may have read tendentiously, or perhaps only a few snippets of selections to confirm her initial judgments that the project is not ecumenical, not scholarly, not realistic, and not post–critical. (Incidentally, the number of volumes is twenty–seven, not twenty–five.)

Oddly enough, when Prof. Young states her own vision of the legitimate authority of the fathers, she repeats virtually the same points made in Christopher Hall's book, and in almost the same words. We assert no other authority for the fathers than Prof. Young asserts when she speaks of "their witness to the early apostolic tradition and their proximity, therefore, to the person of Jesus, [and of] the continuity between their exegesis and that of the New Testament authors."

Why did not the profundity of patristic exegesis itself convince her that Mark remains a significant theological contributor rather than a writer "not distinguished in theological insight"? If Mark's theology is faulty, then the rest of the New Testament memory of God's saving action in Jesus Christ is seriously put into question. The premise that Mark is not worthy of comment by the ancient Christian writers is belied by the texts actually presented. We chose Mark as a challenge to demonstrate how even a book with virtually no formal commentary tradition has a diverse array of comments written about each of its narratives in the form of homilies, letters, poetry, prayers, and theological essays. Those who wish to publish a patristic commentary with different premises are invited to do so, and we welcome this. But we are pledged to remain faithful to our original purpose, which is stated clearly: "The original and continuing ACCS vision of the task has been to use newly available computer search technology to look for all references in all types of patristic literature—letters, sermons, hymns, doctrinal writings, as well as specifically exegetical works, eschewing the much easier procedure of working more intensively with fewer texts or preferring complete printed texts to extensive digital searches."

Is the Drew University–ACCS project anti–critical? For my part, I can only reaffirm what I have written previously: "It is unwise to reject prematurely historical method in defense of faith, even where historical method has been grossly abused. . . . Historical method must be better protected from abuse and extended to include forms of inquiry able to take seriously the assumptions of pre– and postmodern Jewish and Christian orthodoxy. Post–critical Christology need not imply a disavowal of historical–critical study."

Prof. Young's central complaint is more about the conception of the series than the outcome. She does not cite a single deficit in patristic exegesis among our selections, only in our packaging and delivering of the selections. Her concern is directed not against the substance of the exegetical arguments, but against the very idea of collecting comments in chains (catenae) from a broad variety of patristic sources within the arena of classic Christian teaching on a single passage of Scripture. She apparently wishes that we had written an entirely different series.

One can only wonder what predisposition might have caused Young to jump to the premature conclusion that the Drew University–ACCS project has used existing translations "in most cases"? A huge proportion of Gerald Bray's Romans was translated by Bray himself. In the edition of Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians edited by Mark Edwards of Oxford, just now being published, virtually everything in Greek and Latin has been translated by Edwards himself. Our promise in the series is that we will use existing translations only when they are adequate. In most cases we have found them inadequate, often archaic, and in need of either de–archaizing or complete retranslating.

One who characterizes a fellow scholar as nostalgic has the burden of proof to show how the writing is sentimentally bent toward idealizing the past. There is no effort made by Prof. Young to demonstrate this, only to charge it. The ACCS composite texts are analogous to the talmudic writers only in the modest, specific sense that we have carefully stated: "Christians from the late patristic age through the medieval period had documents analogous to the Jewish Talmud and Midrash."

The Drew–ACCS project is not addressed primarily to an evangelical audience, as Prof. Young suggests. If that were the case we would hardly think of including the Apocrypha in our series. Prof. Young seems almost entirely unaware of the remarkable renaissance of patristic studies today among evangelicals the world over. Primary evidence for this is the fact that it is not a Roman Catholic or Orthodox press that has taken the risk of publishing these patristic collections but InterVarsity Press and Eerdmans. But that does not indicate that they are intended solely for a Protestant audience. The Roman Catholic audience is at least as hungry as the Protestant audience for these varied efforts.

When I wrote that "we were duly forewarned by some that this volume on Mark probably could or should not be attempted," I did not mention that Prof. Young was one of those who offered such a caveat. Given the warm reception from pastors and lay readers internationally, and the prospective translation of the entire series into the languages of more than half the world's population, I now feel justified in my earlier statement that "this volume is a demonstration that Mark has an ample history of commentary to be presented in the form and tradition of a catena."

Thomas C. Oden
Drew University
Madison, NJ

In her review of the first two volumes of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS) series plus Christopher Hall's general introduction to the series, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Robin Darling Young focuses almost exclusively on Hall's book, charging that his portrait of the Church fathers is seriously flawed through the "intellectual and spiritual vice of nostalgia." According to Professor Young this so–called vice stems from "the delusion that a former age, usually the age of primitive Christianity, was far superior to all subsequent ones, perhaps most especially the one now experienced." Those afflicted with the above delusion are, claims Prof. Young, likely to "succumb to the illusion that the fathers of the Church spoke with one voice or that they should have the last word." Thus she concludes that "the overarching problem with the ACCS, a problem probably not solely attaching to that series, is that it seeks a univocal patristic interpretation of the Bible that never existed."

There is an overarching problem with this line of criticism, however: the ACCS shows no indications whatsoever of seeking any such mythical univocal patristic interpretation. Prof. Young has, unfortunately, formed her impressions from Hall's introductory book rather than from the published commentaries (on Mark and Romans) themselves. This is not to say that interpretive consensus over particular texts, where it occurs, is not evident from the selections. However, the editors have also made a point of noting significant disagreements in the overviews to the various pericopes (passages). To quote from Gerald Bray's introduction to Romans: "Each group of verses is preceded by a short overview that gives the reader some idea of what the following discussion is about. Where there are notable differences of opinion among the fathers or where one of them has presented a particularly significant argument, this is also noted."

Interpretive differences between the fathers are made clearly evident, and are often highlighted in the overview discussions. Had Prof. Young paid more attention to the actual commentaries she was reviewing (instead of focusing her attention on Hall's introductory book) this would have been evident to her.

A second major charge that Prof. Young levels against Hall's portrait of patristic exegesis (and, given her conflation of his book with the ACCS series, by implication against the series itself) is that it is combative. She cites this feature as evidence that Hall's picture is "wrongheaded," but since when is combativeness itself evidence of wrongheadedness? I would hate to see the implications of that thesis drawn out and applied by those holding editorial powers! The specific evidence of Hall's combativeness that Prof. Young cites is that he attacks modern biblical criticism and modern Western thought generally. Personally I find Hall's points against both of the above to be cogent and well argued. Prof. Young is, of course, entitled to disagree; however, if she wants to make a substantive point against Hall she needs to show where and how Hall's critical comments are misguided. This she has failed to do; she has not even made the attempt.

Paul A. Sauer
Lindenhurst, NY

Translators of the Church fathers are the most wretched of mortals. They devote many years of perpetual study to acquiring the liberal arts in order to be able to fill out the footnotes of their translations with obscure references no one is ever going to read. They lose the best part of their existence in unceasing labor, memorization, and mental anguish. They torment themselves for weeks in painstaking research on an arcane text, trying to explain a confusing reading with plausible conjectures, only to find that their efforts have been completely wasted, since the reading was faulty to begin with. They endeavor to clear the field of rocks, boulders, and immovable stumps, so that English readers, who will never know how long the translator racked his brain to make that field smooth, can run freely and without obstacles. Their only reward is ill health, failing eyesight, white hair, premature senility, back pain, stooped posture, gaunt figures, pale faces, and bloodshot eyes. What does it matter when men and women of this sort die, since they can't properly be said ever to have lived?

They devote their best efforts to restoring the monuments of ancient and true literature, a task of incomparable difficulty and supreme merit, hoping to see renewal come to the Church as the hearts of their readers are set on fire by the fathers' (consensual) faith and love for God. Their translations are published, and First Things' book reviewer tears their whole program to pieces, accusing them of combative idealism with a vengeance, of being refuge seekers, disciples of Schleiermacher, fantasizers, framers of a project of doubtful value, men gripped by the vice of nostalgia, and deluded absolutists.

Better to be deluded in the arms of the ancients than sane in the company of post modernists.

(The Rev.) Tom Scheck
Evangelical Free Church
Alma, NE

I can't help speaking in defense of Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall in their grand Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS). Far from being the nostalgic and idealistic project of Robin Darling Young's censorious review, these commentaries reveal the variegated coloring of Christian teaching by the Church fathers. The commentary on Romans shows the many positions taken on the contribution of human free will in justification, the attempts to explain away predestination, and the varying opinions about how natural law interacts with the Mosaic law. Modern commentaries are largely arid and pseudoscientific; the ACCS, bringing to us the interpretation of Holy Scripture at its initial budding, is illuminating and practical. Modern biblical scholarship, like modern culture, is obsessed with form; the fathers took their bets on the substance of the words. They, like us, did not always agree. Perhaps by studying the Church fathers we can cut through the recycled wisdom of twenty centuries and gain spiritual insight into our own differences.

(The Rev.) Jerome Deister
Immanuel Lutheran Church—Netawaka, KS
Trinity Lutheran Church—Holton, KS

Robin Darling Young raises a number of important and interesting issues related to the Drew University–Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS) and my book, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. However, I was surprised and amused to find my ideas the center of attention in Professor Young's essay. My understanding of patristic interpretation and modern biblical criticism, Prof. Young avers, is "combative." Perhaps even worse, I manifest "the intellectual and spiritual vice of nostalgia." I have fallen prey, Prof. Young believes, to the "illusion that the fathers of the Church spoke with one voice or that they should have the last word, a nostalgic delusion." As the review continues my sins expand. Prof. Young appears particularly concerned that I succumb to the temptation "to concoct a single mind of the fathers," a vice that apparently ripples through my book. What is one to do?

Perhaps the best course to follow is to direct interested readers to the text of Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers itself. Do I present the unified, idealized, nostalgic picture of patristic exegesis that Prof. Young portrays? Hardly. Instead, I offer hermeneutical samplers of the eight great doctors of the Church, hopefully allowing fathers such as Basil or Augustine to speak for themselves. In the process the agreement, disagreement, coherence or lack thereof, and occasional quirkiness of patristic exegesis readily present themselves. I have no interest in concocting an artificial unity among the fathers and don't believe the reader will find such in the book. I also devote two chapters to interpretation in Alexandria and Antioch, for the most part offering samples of patristic exegesis and purposely limiting my own comments. Again, exegetical contrasts appear as brightly as comparisons. The reader will struggle, I think, to perceive the nostalgia and idealism in my work that Prof. Young finds so troublesome.

I do confess to the importance, though, of listening well to other texts, ages, and people. I do think the fathers are worth listening to, not because they represent a unified voice on all exegetical and theological questions and issues, but for many of the reasons Prof. Young lists in her essay. As she puts it, patristic authority is grounded in the fathers' "witness to the early apostolic tradition and their proximity, therefore, to the person of Jesus." Additionally, Prof. Young comments, we have "the continuity between their exegesis and that of the New Testament authors." I could not agree more. Indeed, I discuss the continuity between the fathers and New Testament authors at some length, coining the term "hermeneutical proximity" to describe this important relationship. My discussion seems to have slipped Prof. Young's eye. She also mentions the fathers' "participation" in key "ecumenical conciliar decisions," the "stature" of certain fathers "within the Christian tradition," and "the authority intrinsic to great holiness" as significant reasons to pay heed to patristic exegesis. All are points I develop and which remain strangely absent in Prof. Young's review. Maybe she wasn't paying attention.

In the ACCS as well, the initial volume demonstrates the rich variety and complexity of exegesis the fathers often display. I believe, however, that one can discern a fundamental consonance within the diverse exegetical efforts of the fathers. This consonance, dare we say it, might well be linked to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, just as the Spirit has also guided exegesis in other periods of the Church's history, including the modern era. I wonder whether Prof. Young is herself nostalgic for the continued hegemony of a view of the fathers that privileges discontinuity and discord over continuity and consensus.

Christopher A. Hall
Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies
Eastern College
St. Davids, PA

Robin Darling Young replies:

The hazards of launching a swift fusillade are, first, that the gunner goes deaf; second, that he cannot see through the smoke; third, that he misses his target. If Professor Oden had not been so quick on the draw, he would have noticed what I now repeat as the obvious meaning of my review of the ACCS and its accompanying handbook by Christopher A. Hall. Now, in the post–critical moment, for those devoted to a careful and receptive understanding of the Word, there lies an enormous opportunity for regaining its full and complex meanings in our own time.

The historical–critical method, regnant for over a century (half a century for Catholics), has lost its monarchial rule in the scholarly and literate discussion of the meaning of the Bible. There is a new and learned interest in the views of the tradition that developed as commentary on those books. Scholars now consult and publish views representing the religious communities in which the Bible resided, as distinguished from the parliaments of scholars whose responsibility to a religious community began to slacken already in the thirteenth century with, e.g., Abelard. For instance, James Kugel's recent book The Bible as It Was exemplifies an approach that is geared to the public, fully contemporary, and also curious and respectful toward the views of ancient Jewish and Christian interpreters of the Old Testament. Kugel describes the disparate interpretations of these commentators as a kind of "second authorship," and temperately promotes these interpretative traditions. He shows that they have a weighty claim on our attention.

The greatest recent scholar of early Christian exegesis and theology, Henri de Lubac, knew that traditional interpretations did not lend aid to antimodern ideologies; rather, they were a source of hope and élan:

Tradition, according to the fathers of the Church, is in fact just the opposite of a burden of the past: it is a vital energy, a propulsive as much as a protective force, acting within an entire community as at the heart of each of the faithful because it is none other than the very Word of God both perpetuating and renewing itself under the action of the Spirit of God. (The Motherhood of the Church)

Precisely this force is required for those who love the Church to be able to sustain the effort to understand the Bible in the contemporary situation and to present their always incomplete conclusions "to all nations." But craft is also a prerequisite: the prior tasks are numerous and complicated. The first is a thoroughgoing philosophical understanding of the interpretative process, of which a good example can be found in the works of the late Ben F. Meyer (e.g., Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship). The second is an expert knowledge of the languages of Bible and tradition; the third a knowledge of those traditions themselves; the fourth a level headed assessment of the needs of our own contemporary situation. The fifth is a willingness to engage in dialogue with the contemporary world and its clash of minds and voices. The sixth is the whole armor of Christ—those virtues that make the character of the exegete receptive to the truth as he or she apprehends it in the Church and for the world.

Surely Prof. Oden knew that the review of his work was not a deceptive, partisan attack from a representative of another series. Such a sally accomplishes little. Far from being "an abrasive polemic," my review asks all similar presentations of patristic exegesis to weigh carefully their procedures and goals, not least the series edited by Robert L. Wilken, in which I participate. Since neither series can do more than provide a taste of patristic exegesis, though, it is of no little importance to provide a good taste to the potential reader.

It would be as tiresome to reiterate the inherent difficulties, even stumbling blocks, in the approach of the ACCS as it is to read potted attacks on the Enlightenment or to wade through a jumble of unconnected snippets hastily assembled. Both are unhelpful in the present moment, where after the fall of the historical–critical monarch there is an opportunity for those as sagacious as the serpent and as spiritedly realistic as the dove to salvage the good legacy of the monarch and show the way forward.

None of the other respondents—Paul A. Sauer, Tom Scheck, Jerome Deister, or Christopher A. Hall—could reasonably interpret my review of ACCS as an attack upon patristic biblical interpretation per se, or upon the reexamination of that massive, ancient labor. But likewise, none seems ready to appreciate the enormous erudition and philosophical acumen required for Christian thinkers to learn from the fathers and to move beyond them.

Faith and Knowledge

In "Thomas Aquinas: A Doctor for the Ages" (March), Romanus Cessario raises an issue that is central to Christian theology and ethics.

Father Cessario rightly describes Aquinas and his followers, ancient and contemporary, as "metaphysical realists." Fr. Cessario writes, "The desire to know the truth that God has placed in the human heart will not disappear, nor will the two wings of faith and reason on which the human spirit rises to contemplate this truth." The problem lies in the term "to know" in the first clause, and in the parallel of "faith and reason" in the second. This makes belief a species of a priori knowledge, which usurps the role of faith.

The Christian is called upon to believe, not to know (John 3:16). (I thought Kierkegaard made this clear through his examination of the situation of Abraham.) The arrogant assurances of "knowing" were at the core of the fratricides between those Christians committed to "revelation," on the one hand, and those committed to "rational Christianity" on the other, with both sides insistently "knowing" what could only be believed. Both were oblivious to the difficulties born of dubious epistemological certainties. Such certainties constitute a permanent danger for Christians. A "knowing attitude" is a risk to faith.

From this obsession with "knowledge" came everything from the Crusades, the Reformation, and imperialism down to those modern American fundamentalists who seem bent upon reinstituting the imperium Christi.

Gilbert N. M. O. Morris
Professor of the History of Systems of Thought
George Mason University
Fairfax, Virginia

Romanus Cessario, O.P., replies:

Allow me to refer Professor Morris to my Christian Faith and the Theological Life (1997), where I explain in detail Aquinas' theology of faith and its act, belief. In short, Aquinas rejects the view that every truth of faith can be known after the manner of a probative, philosophical argument (see Summa Theologiae IIa–IIae q. 1, art. 5). Demonstration eliminates the need to rely on the word of another. At the same time, Aquinas affirms and passes on the ancient Christian tradition that faith affords a true knowledge of both God and the world that human wisdom or philosophy is unable to attain. To deny that the articles of the creeds instruct about divine truths will not eliminate human conflicts, but rather will lead the Christian believer to that state of anguish–ridden perplexity that Søren Kierkegaard so eloquently illustrates in his writings. By contrast, Aquinas' outlook is serene. He holds that the person who assents in faith to revealed truth possesses not only a representation of that truth (the proposition or article) but, in a manner appropriate for the wayfarer, Truth itself. Among the blessed in Heaven, this same trusting faith gives way to loving vision. Let me add that Aquinas would have considered Prof. Morris' appeal for a contentless faith self–refuting. Why? In order to believe, as Prof. Morris himself reminds us, a person would have to know at least that "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).