Interruption: On the Fathers and the Elders
I mentioned the Fathers in my last post without explaining who they are and why they are important, especially to this blog, so let’s do that now.
Anyone who reads early church history will find that a select group of men are constantly referred to as “the Fathers.” At the very sketchiest, we may say that they are the movers and shakers of the Orthodox faith.
Less sketchily, the Fathers are those men who “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). On one front, they defend the faith against heretical tampering and so “guard the deposit” (I Tim. 6:20); on another front, they “make money” (Luke 19:13), i.e., define or amplify the deposit. Many were bishops, others were respected for their learning and piety. This definition is by no means airtight, but it captures most of the men who are so called.
The Fathers often had to maintain or define the faith against emperors and bishops; a lot of the Fathers were therefore persecuted in some way. For example, if we look at three famous fathers, we find that St. Athanasius (a bishop) was exiled several times, St. John Chrysostom (another bishop) was walked to death in exile, dying finally in central Asia and St. Maximus the Confessor (a learned monk) was tortured, and had his right hand and tongue amputated.
One amazing thing about the Fathers is that their writings rise so easily above the controversies and details of their day. For example, I have seen people with no academic training bowled over by St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letters. They responded immediately because he, like most Fathers, speaks directly to the reader and only about the essentials of the faith. This is largely because the Fathers knew what was important (defending or explaining the faith) and wasted no time with what the learned pagans of their day valued (showing off their learning, observing the socio-literary conventions of the day, making inside jokes), so when we read them centuries later, they are as accessible and vivid as they were when the ink was wet.
A broader use of the expression “the Fathers” is often used to include men and women who were simply influential in the church, often monastics who did not enjoy learning. The Desert Fathers are the prime example. Many of them only survive in sayings recorded in the various collections, like the Anonymous or Alphabetical collections.
The Elders of medieval and modern times are the heirs of the Desert Fathers. The authors of their lives often refer to the wastelands they typically sought out for solitude as “deserts,” their log cabins as “cells” and so forth. The Elders of, say, Russia and Greece, are rarely illiterate; many of them (like St. Theophan the Recluse) wrote books or letters, but others (like St. Leonid of Optina) survive like the Desert Fathers in the testimonies of their disciples or admirers. Elders typically do not weigh in on dogmatic or political issues; they console, instruct, correct or enlighten their pilgrims. I say typically, since St. Seraphim of Sarov’s conversations with Motovilov are nothing if not an amplification of the faith, and his letter to Tsar-Martyr Nicholas counts as political involvement.
Whereas the Fathers weigh in on dogmatic issues and the application of the faith, the Elders take dogma for granted and focus on how to apply the faith. Therefore, for many people it is easier to start by reading the Elders. Of course, the lives of the saints are for most of us more important than anything else.
An important role played by the Fathers and Elders is that they define the Orthodox unity of faith. People can read the Bible and walk away with the most amazing variety of opinions, so the Bible is no guarantee of the unity of faith. The unity of faith can only come from the Holy Spirit, not the Bible. If the Bible were sufficient for the unity of faith, Christ would have not talked about the Holy Spirit leading us into all truth (Jo. 16:13); he would have said the Scriptures would lead us instead. Anyone who reads the Fathers is guided toward that unity of faith; if we are guided by the Fathers, we enjoy the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The purpose of this blog is to help believers understand and set aside their doubts about the faith. My conviction is that what we find in the Fathers and Elders is enough to do this; I hope that my readers will eventually realize that they do not need to read a blog as badly as they need to read the Fathers.
Nevertheless, like the Fathers I will also refer to philosophy—mostly logic—when that seems to be the shortest path to the truth. I do this because logic is the faculty God gives us to make sense of things and ultimately to survive. “Facts,” said C. S. Peirce, “are hard things which do not consist in my thinking so and so, but stand unmoved by whatever you or I or any man or generations of men may opine about them. It is those facts that I want to know, so that I may avoid disappointments and disasters. Since they are bound to press upon me at last, let me know them as soon as possible, and prepare for them. That is, in the last analysis, my whole motive in reasoning.”1
However, logic does not help us by telling us what to think; it can only tell us how to think once we have settled on what we think. When Louise Jefferson asked Mr. Bentley why he as an interpreter couldn’t straighten out the world at the United Nations, he might have been describing logic when he responded, “I can’t tell them what to do; I can only tell them what they’ve said.”
To round off this discussion, the reader deserves to know how I select which Fathers, which Elders and which philosophers to guide my thoughts. The only possible answer is given by Charles P. Curtis, Jr., and Ferris Greenslet, the editors of that remarkable book, The Practical Cogitator. Against the charge that they have depended too heavily on “some few” authors for their anthology, they say, “It is not for us to be more egalitarian than the uneven bounty of nature.”2 I have been reading the authors cited in this blog since junior high; if I find more plunder in Aquinas or more treasure in St. Maximus the Confessor, it is due to just this “uneven bounty.”
At the end of the day, if the reader finds fault with my choices, he may console himself that I, like the aforesaid editors, work “on the firm basis of personal choice.”3
- Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, ed., The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, NY: 1931; 3rd printing, 1974), vol. II, Elements of Logic, p. 173.
- Charles P. Curtis, Jr. and Ferris Greenslet, ed., The Practical Cogitator: The Thinker’s Anthology, 3rd ed.; rev. and enlarged with an introduction by John H. Finley, Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962), p. xxi.