"Having read Holy Scripture very carefully, you should also read the holy Fathers who interpret the Scriptures. You will receive no less delight from reading the Fathers than you do from the Scriptures. The Fathers develop the hidden meanings in Scripture and with their own writings help us to understand what we did not before. Because of that philosophic axiom that all men by nature seek knowledge, we must say that great delight follows naturally when we learn about hidden and unknown matters. This is why there will be ineffable joy and gladness that will come to your soul from the interpretations and the words of the holy Fathers. You too will be shouting, as did David, those enthusiastic words in the Psalms."
-- St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, A Handbook of Spiritual Counsel
I've been noticing a number of comments and articles on the internet that discourage 'cherry-picking' the Fathers, by which the authors mean that we shouldn't proof-text whatever we want to argue using the Fathers out of context. I agree with this, but those articles also seem to undermine the importance of the Fathers and can dissuade people from reading them at all.
Andrew Klager and I were chatting about this today and he suggested that we should run an idea by you [Fr. Michael Gillis]. The idea is a two-fold question: If we wanted to encourage people to really read the Fathers, without just cherry-picking, but actually absorbing how they thought:
a. What reading list would you suggest ... which foundational books or works might give readers a good start. For example, core readings that I might include are Athanasius, On the Incarnation; Chrysostom, Divine Liturgy and Paschal Homily; Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ, Maximus the Confessor, Four Hundred Chapters on Love. I also like people to compare and contrast Gregory's Homily on the Beatitudes with Chrysostom's, to get a sense of the depth and variety. I'm getting asked about this more and more, so a list from you would be grand, and especially for my own sake!
b. But Andrew also mentioned that you would have good suggestions or principles on how to read them, so that we aren't just proof-texting. He gave the example of consensus: some things are one-timers, but other truths come out over and over (e.g. the defeat of death). Do you have a short-list in mind for such interpretations?
Many thanks, if you have time to help,
Brad / Ireneaus
Father Michael Gillis
I think the bigger problem is our culture’s tendency to establish “rightness” in texts. If we are not proof-texting the bible, then it’s the fathers. I think people need to be retrained to look inwardly for truth and then to have it confirmed by authoritative texts. The fact that St. John Chrysostom, or even St. Paul, says something has no meaning out of context—not the context of the text, but the context of my life. Truth cannot be objectified (and remain very true). The truth in the text must enlighten the truth already in one’s heart, thus confirming and strengthening it.
So if I say, “St. Porphyrios says…”, The actual authority of the statement lies not so much in St. Porphyrios' authority to establish objective correctness (as if because St. So and So said it, the discussion is over). The authority of the statement is established by its alignment with what is true and my alignment with that truth. This is particularly the case in matters that seem to be easily objectifiable (like what one should wear or eat or say or do or not do). Here by proof-texting we merely replace the Law of Moses by another law, but not the Law of Christ.
On the one hand, there is the matter of consensus; which helps us deal with error. It helps us say “no, that is not in the main stream of what the Church has said or thought.” However, consensus may have little meaning in helping me find Grace, help and strength in the words of a particular Father for my life and my struggles to walk with Christ right now. Perhaps an excellent example of this is St. Isaac the Syrian, whose universalist-like love for all creatures is not absent from some of the other Fathers of the Church, but neither is it mainstream. So, my biggest problem is the cultural tendency to look too much to the authority of texts to establish matters of theology that are principally matters of heart, which must rather be confirmed by the texts of the Church.
Having said this, as you know, I am a fan of texts. I think everyone should read the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch and the stories around Polycarp. The Rule of St. Benedict was very influential in my journey and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Life of Anthony, and bits of Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, and certainly homilies of Chrysostom and Basil (on social justice). I also like Augustine’s Confessions (it’s accessible to everyone). Then I would also include some more contemporary fathers like “Wounded by Love” by St. Porphyrios or the Life of St. Nektarios of Pentopolus by Soto, and of course some St. Silouan of Athos.
You know, I noticed that most of my suggestions have to do with my journey and my personality. I’m not very interested in theology—Athanasius’ On the Incarnation was boring to me. However, I find spirituality quite encouraging. God “speaks” to me through writers who only depress some others. So, another part of the puzzle of coming up with a patristic reading list is that what will speak profoundly to one person may be only boring or even depressing to another. (I wonder if Murray Dueck would get something out of Shepherd by Hermas—being the dream interpretation fellow he is).
Anyway, I always encourage people to start somewhere and read widely—not feeling like they have to pretend to be getting something out of what they are reading when they are not. Sooner or later they will probably stumble across writers that will speak to them.