The Church Fathers On Creation (Part 1)

Aug 1, 2012

I. Why Do We Care What the Fathers Think?

In his second letter from prison in Rome, Peter warns at length against false teachers: “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”  (2 Peter 1:19-21)  Already in Peter's time, the Early Church was being infiltrated by gnostic-sounding, antinomian teachers claiming that faith alone saves, quite apart from repentance, works or virtue.

One of the striking features, perhaps the most striking feature, of the Early Church was its preoccupation with what today might be called its narrative.  This narrative came in two parts.  The first of these was the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures, the Law and the Prophets.  Our Old Testament.  Remember that whenever Scripture is referred to, as it is by Peter in his letter, it is a reference to what today's Christians identify as the Old Testament.  There was no New Testament until the 4th century, after the persecution had stopped and centuries after the Apostles were dead.

The second part of the Christian narrative involved the interpretation of Christ’s teachings and Passion.  This part was addressed almost entirely by the illiterate men whom Jesus called to be His disciples and by other Jews of the same generation, most notably Paul, who mingled with the disciples and claimed a first hand experience with the Christ.  Their gospels and letters did not come off their pens with the authority of Scripture, and their veracity was judged, no doubt, against the witness of others with firsthand accounts as well as against the witness of the prophetic Scriptures.  

In other words, the first part of the early Christian narrative informed and played a decisive role in validating the second. During the more than three centuries in which various gospels and epistles were being circulated among the churches, holy men we now call the Fathers of the Church were delving the Scriptures to find evidence of the narrative Christ told, as well as evidence of Christ in the narrative told by the Old Testament writers. That Church, beset by pagan enemies without and by false teachers within, heeded the warnings of the apostles Peter and Paul and sought the protection and guidance of the Holy Spirit by cleaving to the interpretations of the Holy Fathers and the doctrines enunciated by the Church Councils, the same councils, I might add, that in the 4th Century defined for all Christians the Holy Scriptures that we call the New Testament.

Are the Fathers now out of date and the decisions of the Councils irrelevant?  Are Christians no longer in danger of being led astray by false teachers?  2500 denominations later, is "private interpretation" no longer an issue in the Church?  Are Christians two thousand years removed from those who were the Master's students now in a better position to understand the meaning of His lessons?  Is it the holiness of our teachers and preachers that impresses us, or their "relevance" and creative theology?  Is the Holy Spirit now divided against itself, speaking through so many with contradictory messages? Before offering a summary of the Fathers' teaching on the Genesis account of creation, I want us first to consider the reasons why we should take seriously the opinions of these holy men who lived so long ago and whose opinions may challenge our cherished assumptions or even offend our modern sensibilities.

First, let us admit that they were in a better position than we are to interpret the Christian narrative.  Not only are we at a great distance in time and space from the pivotal events of the 1st Century, but even our best scholars struggle to understand the nuances of the languages of that time and place.  The Fathers, on the other hand, lived in that culture and spoke those languages.  They sometimes knew the apostles personally and were taught by them.  They wrote and spoke every day under the threat of death, and their writings achieve a remarkable coherence, aligned not only with the Scriptures from which they copiously quote, but with one another. Second, one can't help but be struck these days by how often we hear Scriptures quoted by those finding fault with others or excusing the faults in themselves.  Is this not the very behavior of the Pharisees that infuriated our Lord?  Somehow, the Scriptures that Paul refers to as a sword, "piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and . . . of the thoughts and intents of the heart," (Hebrews 4:12) these same Scriptures are now a blanket offering warmth and comfort and all manner of self-serving interpretation. 

We should read the Fathers because they wield this sword against us to our benefit.  They understand that it is not the Scriptures that forgive, but the Lord.  They send us to the Scriptures not so much for solace and support as for a bracing criticism of our secularized assumptions and worldly lifestyles. Then, of course, there is what John Stuart Mill referred to as "the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling."  Nothing in our time embodies this tyranny more than the philosophical naturalism of the scientific community.  We shall have more to say about this later, but let us be clear that a serious reading of the patristic view of Creation could not find an audience in a modern American university or a popular scientific journal.  Scientists do not read the Fathers to seek corrections for their theories or cautions against their hasty assumptions.

 Another reason to read the Fathers, even when they seem dead wrong, perhaps especially when they seem dead wrong, is to defy the tyrant of prevailing opinion and feeling. It is important to have a firm grasp of, and to teach in our schools, what science is and what sort of knowledge it is capable of offering.  Surely you have noticed the extent to which science has replaced Scripture as the arbiter of truth in our society.  Science is the religion of the secularized world and the academic and media elites who govern the public square and control the conversation and the flow of ideas.   Unless we offer our students a vantage point, like the Fathers’ interpretation of the Scriptures, from which to judge prevailing opinion and feeling, how can we expect them to defy this tyrant? IN PART 2: Are We Talking Science Or Philosphy?

David  Hicks

David Hicks

David Hicks is the author of the book Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education and The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of The Meditations. ​He is the winner of the 2002 Paideia Prize, given by the CiRCE Institute for dedication to classical education. He and his wife live in Montana. 

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Okay, so you think he's saying someone that doesn't think repentance is necessary? Of course, I think repentance is necessary--in fact, I think it's daily. Although, I don't think that James saying "faith without works is dead" equals that we are saved by works. That can also mean that works are a sign of faith. I do, however, believe I am saved by Christ's works (i.e. imputed righteousness), but I have a feeling that this is another theological point that we are not going to agree on. Thanks for the response, though!

Certainly I think Hicks is saying that many of the anti-nomian Gnostics of the early Church thought that. To what degree he would try to draw parallels with any modern believers, I can't say.

Of course St James doesn't mean that we are 'saved by works' in the sense that we can somehow earn our way into heaven. But I don't think he would say they are merely 'a sign of faith', but rather that they are the necessary consequence of any real faith. In other words, there is no faith without works. And yes, I quite agree that we are saved by Christ's works, but I would add that we shouldn't stop there. It is the grace that flows from Christ's works that enables us to do our own works.

Also, don't forget when comparing St James with St Paul's epistles, that when St Paul speaks of 'works' he's usually talking about 'the works of the Law' (keeping Sabbath, kosher diet, circumcision, etc.), whereas St James is clearly talking about things like works of mercy, renunciation of our wills, etc., in other words those works that are commanded by Christ in the Gospels. No one would claim that we earn our way to heaven by such things, but neither can they be dispensed with if we are to be saved.

I understand, David. I can appreciate the fact that you don't censor your contributors. And I know that you have contributors from all walks of the theological spectrum. This is still one of my favorite blogs on Classical education out there.

"There was no New Testament until the 4th century, after the persecution had stopped and centuries after the Apostles were dead."

This is an attept to win an argument by definition, and as such is unsatisfyingly circular. There was no New Testament until a 4th century church council said so: we know there was none because the canon is whatever (and only what) the church defines. Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion has a very different perspective, arguing that the church did not define the canon by her authority as much as she acceded to it in her obedience; the canon is recognized as self-authenticating, and therefore any church council can only add its witness to the witness of believers stretching back to the very first recipient's of Paul's letters--letters which by the way are called "graphai" by Peter, a word he uses to refer to the rest of the scriptures in the very same breath (so to speak) in 2 Peter 3:16. Therefore there is good scriptural evidence that your claim that there was no recognized New Testament in the 1st century is demonstrably false.

That there was no NT canon universally recognised by all orthodox churches in the 1st-4th centuries seems to me like a pretty good basis for the claim that 'there was no recognised NT in the 1st century'. Hicks's statement is potentially misleading without some qualification (obviously all of those books were in existence by the 2nd c., and obviously they were believed to have authority), but I don't see how it is 'demonstrably false'.

As for the role of the councils, I'm not sure that Hicks and Calvin are really all that different here. What's the difference between saying that the canon is defined by the Church and saying that the canon is recognised by the Church as self-authenticating or that the witness of believers stretching back to the 1st c. recognises the authority of the canon. The 4th-c. Fathers never claimed to be saying anything new, nor did they believe that their authority was anything but a recognition of the Holy Spirit's guidance. In the words of the Council of Jerusalem, 'It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us...'

The citation of 2 Peter 3:16 is irrelevant unless you think Hicks is saying that no one AT ALL in the 1st c. recognised the inspiration of ANY of the Gospels or Epistles. This seems highly unlikely to me.

Thinking again about the statement 'the church did not define the canon by her authority as much as she acceded to it in her obedience', I still think these are two sides of the same coin. The authority of the Church in defining the canon DERIVES from her obedient accession to it. The witness of believers, particularly the Fathers, founded on their obedient submission to the inspired books (a submission made possible only by their own inspiration), becomes normative. We recognise authority in their recognition of those books.

Saying there was no universally acknowledged canon is different, I think, from saying there was "no New Testament until the 4th century." Of course there was a New Testament; had it been defined as "canon" by a church council? Perhaps not. But that doesn't mean the documents which existed where in some sort of authoritative limbo until a church council cleared the matter up.

Right. I don't think you and Hicks are disagreeing too much here. But surely it was the case that for the average believer on the ground, things must have seemed a little bit uncertain before the 4th c. What must it have been like to be in a local church where Revelation or II Peter was accepted as Scripture, and then find an otherwise orthodox church 20 miles away where they hadn't accepted these? Nevermind the fact that until the 4th c., no one seems to have created a codex that collected all of these things together into a unified 'New Testament'. Again, like I said before, I think it was potentially misleading of Hicks to say there was 'no NT until the 4th c.', but I don't think he meant anything more by it than what I've suggested.

David,

Thank you for the encouragement! But I think Tommy might be right that it might be more fun for the two of us at least to continue on my front porch with Whiskey!

Andrew,

Tommy is actually a close personal friend of mine, and likely found this page through my link to it on Facebook. He is an atheist, an amateur (in the best sense) student of science, and a fairly intelligent fellow (not to mention one of the funniest people I know). We have talked many times over the last 15 years or so about faith/science issues, and I have a fairly good guess what he means.

It's likely that Tommy is saying that the statement is a common thesis, somewhat accurate but misleading, articulated by embattled Christians. On the one hand, it is correct in his view insofar as faith really is on the wane and science on the rise, but misleading because it may be taken to suggest that both are equally based on faith. I take the 'Yawn' to mean that he finds it boring in the first sense because long-recognised, and boring in the second sense because a tired old canard.

In my response I was trying to emphasise the context and audience of the talk. In the first sense, the statement is an important reality check for some Christians prone to triumphalism, and in the second (as I understood Hicks) it is a qualification of his emphasis on the importance of studying science (i.e., we mustn't forget the distinction between 'science' and 'scientism'). I took the talk to be underlining the need for Christians to read the Fathers and study science, both of which it seems like Tommy would think are likely to win converts to his side!

Of course, as I also mentioned, I wouldn't have expected someone with Tommy's views to be interested in the average lecture on the Church Fathers anyway! But for a Christian audience, it was much needed.

Cheers,
Aaron

Sorry for just dropping in and commenting like I thought I was on YouTube or something--Aaron is basically correct in explaining my comment. I've known Aaron for a long time and I was surprised to read an article he recommended and find that the author was saying the same tired old nonsense that I would expect to hear from an evangelical. Aaron knows I am never trying to convert anyone. There are believers and non-believers alike who claim that science and religion are incompatible. My argument is that we can none of us afford to behave as if this were true (and must absolutely not ever give this impression to our children). I will wait to read the rest of the transcription before forming an opinion, but so far I find many of the author's comments about science very troubling. "Modern Science" would be nowhere without the work of many scientists throughout history who were also theists. We should all feel very lucky that these people apparently did not waste too much time worrying if their work would someday replace "scripture as the arbiter of truth". Also, I hope I am confused by which society Hicks is speaking about when he mentions the extent to which science has become this arbiter of truth. He can't be talking about the US where almost half of the population claims to believe that Earth is less than ten thousand years old.

Concerning Hicks's characterisation of what he calls 'our society', I'd say he's probably built into his comment the cultural marginalisation of 'Young-Earth' Creationists. In other words, they may be a large group (though, is half the population really an accurate statistic?), and they may be capable of organising politically, but it seems to me they are not taken seriously by the American cultural or educational establishment.

By the way, I much appreciated this acknowledgement: 'There are believers and non-believers alike who claim that science and religion are incompatible. My argument is that we can none of us afford to behave as if this were true (and must absolutely not ever give this impression to our children).' I think you and Hicks are in agreement here.

Concerning the late inclusion of Revelation and II Peter (as well as a few other books) in the canon, it's a pretty standard point in scholarly accounts of canonical development. Unfortunately, I don't have access to any detailed monographs on the subject just within reach (it's been years since I studied this stuff seriously), but Andrie B. du Toit's article on the canon in the 'Oxford Guide to the Bible' says:

'In the wake of the...anti-Montanist reaction, many Eastern churches now began to question the position of...Revelation, a question sporadically recurring until the Middle Ages. In the West...the authenticity of the letter to the Hebrews became a matter of dispute which lasted until the fourth century. Uncertainty still existed in various quarters over some of the Catholic letters....

'In the East the uncertainty was cleared up by the 39th Paschal Letter of Athanasius,...written in 367 CE, which listed all the books of the present NT....In the Western church the canon of Athanasius was probably approved at the Synod of Rome in 382 CE and definitely confirmed by a papal declaration of the year 405. Under Augustine's influence the N African church followed suit at the Synods of Hippo Regius (393) and Carthage (397), and, owing to persisting uncertainties regarding Hebrews, James, and Jude, reiterated its decisions at Carthage (419). By now the NT canon, with its 27 books, was almost universally accepted as the second part of the Christian Bible. The one exception was the Syrian National Church where the popular Diatessaron of Tatian, a 2nd-c. harmonization of the Gospels, had held sway for centuries at the cost of the 4 "separate gospels"< and where initially strong resistance existed against some general epistles and Revelation....' [103-4]

The conclusion is that Revelation and various epistles were considered dubious by various churches in the East until after 367, and even then it took some time for them to come around. In the West it took various councils from 382 to 419 to convince all of the churches to accept all 27 books. Concerning the orthodoxy of these churches, note that ironically it was animus against heretics that made the churches suspicious of Revelation and Hebrews.

Jaroslav Pelikan, in 'Whose Bible Is It?', is more specific than du Toit about which epistles were under dispute:

'The Epistle to the Hebrews...seems to have been accepted in the Eastern section of the church but disputed in the West, for it does not appear in the Muratorian canon and is also questioned by other writers. The Epistle of James was in doubt among even more writers. Although 1 Peter is almost universally acknowledged, it is not listed in the preceding paragraph because of its absence from the Muratorian catalog. 2 Peter, on the other hand, was questioned by many early Christian writers who accepted 1 Peter. The Epistle of Jude appears in the Muratorian canon but was rejected elsewhere. 2 John and 3 John sometimes were included with 1 John as one book, but they did not receive the universal support that it did. The Book of Revelation probably was the object of more antagonism than any other of the books eventually canonized, partly because apocalypticism acquired a bad name through its association with heretical and schismatic movements very early in Christian history and partly because some did not believe that the same man who had written the Gospel of John was also the author of Revelation.' [115-6]

If you'd like more on this and aren't just being argumentative, I'd be happy to dig it up. But trust me, it gets repeated in every serious treatment of the canon that I've seen.

Do you have specific evidence to support the claim that there were "otherwise orthodox" churches in the 4th c. that did not accept Revelation or II Peter as scripture?

I thought Circe tried to keep discussions of theology to "mere Christianity". I believe that I am saved by faith alone, but I know that I am neither gnostic nor antinomian. As St. Paul writes:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2: 8-9)

Notice what Hicks says though: 'teachers claiming that faith alone saves, quite apart from repentance, works or virtue'. Surely you don't believe we are saved without repentance? And since James says 'faith without works is dead', one can't say faith saves apart from works. Hicks is not disagreeing with Ephesians or Romans--if anything, he's insisting that we read them in the whole context of Scripture.

Also, Courtney, as an ecumenical organization part of our goal is allow for the free flow of conversation and ideas. We're interested in the contemplation.

Aaron--it was halfway through the third paragraph of my response when I became aware of a nagging suspicion that we're cluttering an otherwise handsome webpage in a manner for which it was not designed. While part of me really thinks this may be the right time and place for this discussion, maybe a change of venue to your porch with Whiskey the moderator would be more appropriate.

Gentlemen, As the moderator of this "otherwise handsome webpage" (thanks, by the way), I can affirm that this is exactly the place for the conversation should you wish to continue it. Don't let us stop you!

Hey, surely you think it's a good thing for Christians to study science! Part of the point Hicks goes on to make is that we should, like the Church Fathers, be thoroughly educated in the science of our day. Obviously, the sheer volume of learning and the phenomenon of specialisation make it impossible that most clergy would be as knowledgeable about modern science as St Basil was about 4th-c. science. This is an important point for a modern Christian audience, and Hicks is arguing for familiarity with the Fathers (who are little read in most churches these days) as much as he is for familiarity with science. But you're right, I wouldn't think you would find this lecture very interesting.

By the way, the 'Obviously' was meant to be an aside. The 'important point' is the necessity of studying science in emulation of the Fathers. I accidentally deleted an important 'But' before posting!

Tommy,

Do you mean you hope the whole talk gets better or just this one sentence? Do you radically disagree with this sentence or is it so obvious you think there's no point making the statement?

I'd be interested to know more fully what your concern is with this statement.

The first paragraph says it all - simple but powerful at the same time. I guess that's why Jesus picked Peter!
Thank you CiRCE for publishing this. Mr. Hicks, once again, bravo!

Thank you so much for the transcription! I will be waiting anxiously for the rest!

Oh, I'm so excited that you're transcribing this!

Yawn. "Science is the religion of the secularized world..." I hope this gets better.

Thank for doing this. Mr. Hicks spoke so eloquently and I couldn't possibly capture how beautifully he uses language even with taking copious notes.