Arthur Middleton on seeing beyond the real and tragic present, and the value of immersion in tradition

On the flyleaf of a modern translation of On the Incarnation it says, ‘when it looked as if all the civilized world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius, into one of those ‘sensible’ synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended to-day and which then, as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen, the glory of St Athanasius is that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, like all others, have passed away.’

‘Reading old books’

The introduction by C.S. Lewis stresses the importance, in an age obsessed with trendiness, of ‘reading old books’. He advised his English students to keep in touch with the classics, ‘the bloodstream of our culture’, by reading formative original texts, alternating between old and new books. For Lewis this is more important when reading theological books.

Coming late to a discussion results in missing the drift of what is being said because of being absent from the conversation’s early stages. In thinking about faith ‘the only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.’ This standard can be acquired only from the old books. ‘With awareness of the long theological tradition, the reader has a chance, at least, of seeing beyond the real and tragic present divisions and confusions within the Christian family to ‘something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible’, running through every age, something that expresses for us a still more fundamental unity in faith and moral vision.’

Brian Daley sj, in “Old Books and Contemporary Faith – the Bible Tradition and the Renewal of Theology” [Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future], shows that Scripture and the theological interpretations of the early Church constitute a necessary basis for the renewal of theology and the Church. He argues that for the Fathers it is only within a ‘worshipping, discerning, interpreting, preaching church that Scripture becomes Scrip ture – is received as a canon and generates the rule of faith’; hence the importance of reading the theology of the Church Fathers.

Athanasius did not approach the Bible as a naked text to be interpreted by autonomous individuals. The lens through which the Fathers read the Scripture was broader and deeper than issues of background, grammar and authorial intent. They employed the Church’s rule of faith and tradition as interpretive tools to help them expose the fractures in the Arian model of Christ. Athanasius used the theology and practices of the Church in worship to criticize Arius’ refusal to acknowledge Christ as God. If Athanasius worshipped Christ as God, daily pray ing to Christ, feeding on Christ in the Eucharist like many Arian Christians, how could Arius be correct in his reading of Scripture? The communal practices of the Church in worship, habits and discipline were grounded on the apostolic testimony and practices contained in Scripture and these guided its interpretation.

Combating distortions

Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine and Vincent of Lérins affirmed and utilized authoritative summaries of the Apostles’ teaching that had shaped and guided the Church across the years as it interpreted the meaning of the Bible’s apostolic testimony.Theyaidedthemincombating distorted and revisionist views of the Christian faith. Doctrine and Scripture belong together because there can be no disjunction between Bible and Church since the true Church of Christ teaches the Gospel, since the Bible is the sacred and canonical witness to the Gospel. Therefore, any church claiming apostolic legitimacy must assert that her public doctrine is in accord with the content of Scripture.

Larger than summaries such as the Rule of Faith is the Church’s great tradition. Tradition is a way of being educated, trained and formed in the virtues necessary for Christian life and good theologizing.

In ancient Christianity orthodoxy and orthopraxy are inseparable. Ecclesial practices encountered each week, often in the context of worship, informed how the Fathers thought about the Gospel. To practise the way of Jesus in the postmodern world entails a lengthy apprenticeship toJesus under the tutelage of those who have known him well. Immersion in tradition is the presupposition for excellence and originality. It is the way of artists who first learn by copying someone else’s style. Imitation is the way to excellence and originality. ND