The Consensus of the Fathers

How can you be sure what the Bible teaches?  I get this question a lot from enquirers and catechumens.  Most of them come from Protestantism, where their experience has taught them that the Bible is not self-interpreting and that appeals therefore to sola scriptura are in vain.  Indeed this was not a recent lesson; from the early days of the Reformation it became apparent that Scripture needed a lens through which it could be read—hence the famous fight between Luther and Zwingli and between the Anabaptists and everyone else.  The Pope then said, of course, that he was the lens, a conviction echoed later in the Roman Catholic assertion that an official Magisterium is needed if chaos was to be avoided. Classic Protestantism, while rejecting the Pope and the traditions he embodied, were quick to produce their own lenses through which to read the Bible—lenses such as the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, and the Dordrecht Confession.  While not precisely a “confession” like those others, even the Church of England produced its Thirty-Nine Articles to set the boundaries for what was and was not an acceptable way of reading the Scriptures regarding certain topics.

How then can we Orthodox be sure what the Bible teaches?  What is our lens?  We have no “confession” or document authoritatively pronouncing on controversial issues as early Protestantism had.  And the Seven Ecumenical Councils did not claim to offer a complete compendium of teaching on such things as sacraments, Scripture’s authority, saints, the fate of the soul after death, or other details of Orthodox doctrine and praxis.  Rather the Councils dealt exclusively with the controversial matters that concerned them, especially questions of Christology.  For help answering such questions as, “How are we to interpret certain Old Testament passages and what is the proper use of typology?  What happens to us immediately after we die?  Does God predestine individuals to eternal damnation?” we cannot turn to the Seven Councils.  Something more is needed.

That “something more” is the consensus of the Fathers.  Here however we have to be careful and see the Fathers as they really were.  In an age of chaos and uncertainty like ours, when everything around us seems to be coming unglued, the temptation to fundamentalism can be particularly strong. By “fundamentalism” I mean an approach to Scripture or history that ignores nuance, complexity, and historical context.

One can treat the Fathers like this too.  In this non-historical reading of the Fathers, one seeks and finds total unanimity among the Fathers in everything because, it is asserted, the Fathers were completely inspired by God.  Here the Fathers are almost superhuman Spirit-bearers, and their authority resides in their individual sanctity.  It is thought inconceivable that one could dwell so close to God and yet make theological mistakes.  So, since all the Fathers walked with God in this way, the teaching of each Father must be completely correct in all details and must therefore agree with all the other Fathers in all details.

This approach to the Fathers is disturbed when discovering that the Fathers had weaknesses as well as virtues.  I remember, for example, one such hagiographical approach to the famous conflict between Saint John Chrysostom and Saint Epiphanius, who clearly had little time for each other.  One story, anecdotal but accurately expressing the mutual rancor, reported that when Epiphanius left Constantinople for his native Cyprus, he sent John a message saying, “I hope you will no longer be a bishop when you die,” to which John responded, “And I hope you will not set foot in your city again.”  Ouch!  How could two holy bishops and Spirit-bearing saints become so exasperated that they traded such barbs?  Therefore one hagiographical account presents them not as trading barbs but prophecies:  “Chrysostom wrote Epiphanius a letter: ‘My brother Epiphanius, I hear that you have advised the Emperor that I should be banished.  Know that you will never again see your episcopal throne.’  To this Epiphanius wrote in return, ‘John, my suffering brother, withstand insults, but know that you will not reach the place to which you are exiled.’ And these two prophecies of the two saints soon came about.”  Such holiness!  Such untroubled harmony!  Here history with all its gray shading, complexity, and variety gives way to fundamentalist ideology.  A better approach would be to recognize that both saints had their gifts which enriched the Church, as well as their weaknesses, and that they were canonized because of the gifts. Finding a consensus among the Fathers does not involve sandpapering away all their differences.

So then what does it involve?  In a word, the recognition that the Fathers share a tremendous amount of doctrine and practice, and this was the result of them having received it from the apostles before them.  The amount of agreement shared, though general, is wide, and the diversity of patristic temperament and geography makes this large area of agreement all the more impressive.

We see this same reference to the Fathers as authoritative in some of the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils.  Thus the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 acknowledged, “We further declare that we hold fast to the decrees of the four Councils, and in every way follow the holy Fathers, Athanasius, Hilary, Basil, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Theophilus, John [Chrysostom] of Constantinople, Cyril, Augustine, Proclus, Leo….”  Thus too the Second Council of Nicea in 787 regarding the use of icons proclaimed, “Thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which is from one end of the earth to the other….  Thus we follow Paul who spoke in Christ, and the whole divine apostolic company, and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received.”  In these citations we also see that the Fathers were viewed in antiquity as an identifiable and authoritative source of orthodoxy, and that one could appeal to their teaching.

Moreover this consensus came to include new questions that arose as well—things such as the legitimacy of Christian involvement in the State and in military service, the divinity of Christ, and the legitimacy of icons.  The Church believes that ultimately it is guided by the Holy Spirit so that when it reaches a settled consensus and the majority of its members eventually agree about a considered controversial opinion, this represents the guidance of God.  One here stresses the word “eventually,” for it took time before a consensus finally emerged, and a majority of the faithful reached agreement.  The process was all lengthier and messier than the Emperor usually wanted.  But ultimately we believe that the Church as a whole was guided to the truth, as Christ promised in John 16:13.  If this were not so, how then could one be sure that the Church was right about anything and that (for example) the Arians were not correct after all?

A belief in the reliability of the Church’s received doctrine as the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) is the foundation for a belief in the consensus of the Fathers, for we access the former through the latter.  God may indeed guide all the Christians so that it is the consensus fidelium that really counts.  But most of the faithful live and die without leaving written records; their consensus therefore lives in the consensus of those who did leave written records—namely the Fathers.  Through the broad agreement which the Fathers share we can discern the faith of the Church.  To do otherwise is to cast any ultimate certainty to the wind.  In the absence of a patristic lens for reading the Scripture we Orthodox are left at the mercy of the loudest voices—either the voice of the latest popular author writing the latest best-seller, or perhaps the voice of the scholar whose theories happen to be currently ascendant in the academic world.  But all such popularity fades, as best-sellers are relegated to the dusty shelves of second-hand bookshops, and as one academic theory succeeds another.  Contemporary popularity is thus a very poor lens through which the read the Scriptures.  So, if we Orthodox reject the consensus of the Fathers, when someone asks us the question, “How can you be sure what the Bible teaches?” we are reduced to answering, “Actually, when it comes right down to it, we haven’t a clue.”