THE FATHERS AND HOLY SCRIPTURE
The Fathers of the Church were men of the Bible. For them, as for the apostles before them, our modern notion of Scripture and Tradition would have been unthinkable; nor would they have considered the possibility of ‘traditions’ in the plural.
Their perspective on the Word of God was wholly eschatological God had created man in his own image with the capacity to receive from God a revelation concerning himself and his purpose for his creation. Faith alone can assure us that this is so; and the apostles and Fathers of the Church were first of all chosen and enlightened by God to serve as men of faith for the transmission of the faith.
We can doubt this, and the negative side of modern biblical criticism is evidence of such doubt. However, when the arguments of these critics are approached critically, it becomes clear that their judgements about authenticity are based upon one or other ‘seed of doubt’ concerning what the Lord could or could not have said or done. Naturally, the ‘seed of doubt’ about authenticity produces its own harvest of doubt as the argument proceeds.
However, if we begin on the firm ground of faith, as did the New Testament writers and the Fathers of the Church, our confidence in the Scriptures will increase accordingly. Our ‘seed of faith’ is a firm trust in God the Word as able to reveal himself by the work of the Spirit through his chosen messengers, first in the Old Testament Scriptures, and then in the New. God himself confirms our faith when the Son of God becomes Man in Jesus Christ, thereby taking to himself the human capacity (which he had created) of communication through the amazing gift of language.
Advocate and Guide
It is St John in his Gospel who passes on to us those words of the Lord which show us how to enter into God’s own process of revelation. ‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth… He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ (John 16.13,14.) And even more radically: ‘When the Counsellor comes, he will convince the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgement: of sin, because they do not believe in me; of righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no more; of judgement, because the ruler of this world is judged.’ (John 16.8–11)
The Evangelists did not have tape recorders, therefore we cannot expect to read precisely the same words as spoken by the Lord. That is to our advantage! Confident that they were being guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit himself, they selected, interpreted, and set in order what Jesus said and did for the use of Christians who in every age would read and hear by the inspiration of the same Spirit of truth. The other New Testament writers followed the same course of inspiration in regard to building up the faith and love, and correcting the failings, of the church communities they were addressing.
Pattern of Sound Words
Since there is only ‘one body and one Spirit’ (Ephesians 3.4), which in the age of the Fathers meant just one Church, the authentic Fathers could be recognized by their consensus. They were wholly committed to ‘Follow the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus’, and to ‘Guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.’ (2 Timothy 1.13–14) For them there was no tension of meaning between ‘the pattern of sound words’ as presented by Scripture and their pattern of life and liturgy, sacraments and ministry, along with their regular teaching which carried forward the spiritual life of the people of God. Scripture and Tradition comfortably interpenetrated one another, being united in the Holy Spirit.
Because the unstable minds and wills of fallen humankind were forever constructing new patterns of thought and behaviour which disrupted this symphony of Scripture and Tradition, the Fathers were inspired at such times to propose new words and phrases to serve as barriers against falsehood and to guard the truth. The definitions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils set the seal on the verbal formulae. In acting in this way the Fathers did not see themselves as involved in any ‘development’ of the faith, as that word might now be understood. They were rather ensuring that the faith of the Church on earth remained identical with that of the saints in heaven, whose minds had become wholly assimilated to the mind of Christ himself.
In a divided Church it is increasingly important that we too, along with the Fathers of the Church who have gone before us, realize that we have access to that unity of believing minds, which exists for us in the communion of saints. The heavenly City descends into our midst with Christ the Bridegroom and High Priest of the Church in every Eucharist we celebrate. In one faith and one Spirit we join with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven as we worship in truth the one Holy Trinity.
Father Gregory is Father Superior of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God.