Thursday, June 13, 2013

Matter matters (learning from the Church Fathers)

In recent years there's been a revival of interest in the church fathers among evangelical Protestants. This is a great thing in my opinion for it reconnects us to the writings and practices of the generations of saints that came immediately after the apostles. As part of a Christian tradition that sprung out of the 16th-century Reformation it would be very easy for me to go back only as far as Martin Luther and John Calvin, but that would be to neglect the fact that no less than Calvin quoted the Patristics constantly, and saw himself as leading the church in a course correction back to the path blazed by Augustine and his predecessors.

Contributing to the revival of interest in the fathers is a series of books by Christopher Hall, chancellor of Eastern University in St. Davids, PA. I've been enjoying the third volume in that series Worshiping with the Church Fathers.

At the outset Hall acknowledges one of the biggest hurdles to the typical evangelical reader -- the fathers' sacramental worldview, or what he calls "sacramental realism". To them the elements of worship -- water, bread, wine, oil -- were much more than symbolic. Hall suggests that they had a more balanced view of the material stuff of worship than later generations who drifted in the direction of ascribing magical qualities to such as bread and wine, or those at the other extreme who tended to see these as merely symbols. Against the Gnostic philosophies of the day that taught a radical dualism between the spiritual and the physical, the church fathers believed that God had blessed physical matter, and was using it to accomplish our salvation. When common elements such as water, bread and wine were consecrated they became conduits of divine grace. Something actually happened in the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist (the Lord's Supper). In this belief they had to look no further for confirmation than the Incarnation.

I really like this quote from John of Damascus for the way it illustrates their balanced approach.

I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked. . . . I reverence the rest of matter and hold in respect that through which my salvation came, because it is filled with divine energy and grace.

Does that fall strangely on your ears? It does mine. But this is one of the values of reading the church fathers noted by Hall -- they force us to confront potential theological blind spots. We may find ourselves disagreeing with them, but disagreement should only come after we've listened carefully and self-critically to what they have to say.

Quote from p. 23 of Worshiping with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity, 2009)


Matthew said...

Great article Stephen, thanks for posting! Being Catholic, that sacramental view - which resists both gnostic dualism and materialism - is in my DNA and central to my faith, and so to see evangelical Protestants having a growing interest in the Patristic period is very inspiring to me. I need to do more homework on the Church Fathers, but from what I've read (and as you indicated with that quote - which falls on my ears like Bach by the way!), that sacramental view is there, although in an inchoate form. It's wonderful to think that their writings are a potential point of contact between us - or at the very least, an opportunity to, as you said, better understand where we disagree and why. Thanks again for the post, it made my night!

Stephen Ley said...

Matt, thanks for the kind comments and thanks for reading! Like you I love finding points of contact between our various Christian traditions. This book is definitely filling in a gap in my knowledge of church history and theology.