Thursday, 12 September 2013

Modern Patristic scholarship

I thought these words by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna from a recent book review were a wonderfully pithy description of modern patristic scholarship, and something to keep in mind when reading the works of even Orthodox scholars from secular academic institutions, where such a presumptious and agenda-driven approach is not only favoured but required.
One of my misgivings about contemporary Patristic studies is that, while we pious Orthodox seek to find the common mind of the Fathers (the φρὸνιμα τῶν Πατὲρων) and study their writings by climbing the lofty peak of their spiritual insights and experience, secular Patristic scholars often mine that peak for predetermined thought deposits, sifting through the literary gravel of the dust that they thus collect and reducing it to rubble. They then arrange the surviving detritus into a peak or, more often I fear, a molehill of their own making, having lost the heights from which the Fathers write and missing the spiritual concord that allows us, in the first place, to speak of a common Patristic corpus as something more than a collection of writings compiled in historical sequence or according to some thematic scheme. 

That Orthodox scholars also navigate comfortably through talk about ”Chrysostomos,” ”Basil,” and ”Gregory,” et al., studying them with amateurish psychoanalytical imprecision and eschewing any appeal to their spiritual eminence, for fear that the ”objective” secular scholars who prevail today may ridicule them for ”religious tendencies,” is simply deplorable. These poor, insecure seekers after the approbation of the scholars du jour have rushed to be as fashionable as possible. Indeed, to the point of appearing comical in their efforts, they avoid with assiduity the one unpardonable transgression: referring to the Fathers with the title ”Saint” or any honorific designation, lest we attribute to them, in an egregious deviation from academic objectivity, anything but base and wholly mundane motivations in their lives and writings. Praeiudicium objectivum.

Orthodox Tradition, XXX:3 (2013), pp.17.


  1. I was once impressed with some Western scholar who wrote an article peppered with quotations from the Fathers, until I discovered that someone had compiled a book of such excerpts, taken out of context, which the article had then wrenched even further out of context to make a point that was probably far from the minds of the fathers concerned.

  2. What I can't understand about so many academic works about the Fathers is that EVERYTHING they say and do is always assumed to be driven by power, politics, and personal ambition. Scholars seem unable to grasp the notion that a bishop, priest or monk would do something simply out of love for God and a desire to safeguard the Truth in the face of falsehood.

  3. Miklagard,

    Thieves always think that everyone else is out to steal. Therefore, people dominated by the passion of vainglory will think that the Fathers were as well.