Arthur Middleton on the connection between prayer and orthodoxy


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 today 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.’

In the introduction, C.S. Lewis as an English teacher stresses the importance, in an age obsessed with trendiness, of ‘reading old books.’ He advised his students to keep in touch with the classics, ‘the bloodstream of our culture,’ by reading formative original texts, suggesting that after reading a new book we read an old book in between the new ones. For Lewis this is even more important when reading books on Christian subjects. Using the analogy of conversation, he says that 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 a sense 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, ‘Old Books and Contemporary Faith—The Bible Tradition and the Renewal of Theology’ in Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future.] He 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 ‘worshiping, discerning, interpreting, preaching church that scripture becomes scripture—is received as a canon and generates the rule of faith.’ Hence the need to read the theology of the church fathers.

Christopher A. Hall in ‘Tradition, Authority, Magisterium’ (also in Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future) points out that heretics like Arius and Sabellius were committed to the authority of scripture and were convinced that the Holy Spirit guided them in biblical interpretation. Today the anti-historical revisionist liberal/feminist/human sexuality Gnostic ideologies that disregard the common biblical and theological legacy of the ancient church, use scripture to justify their conclusions in contradicting and relativizing the church’s traditional teaching on faith, order and morality. They use the notion of political correctness as their hermeneutical principle.

Athanasius did not approach the Bible as a naked text to be interpreted by autonomous individuals. The lens through which the Fathers read the scriptures 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’s refusal to acknowledge Christ as God. If Athanasius worshipped Christ as God daily praying 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.

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. They aided them in combating distorted 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, and 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 mere 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. It’s like learning to be a musician or scientist: you don’t just learn a bunch of theories; you learn to become a kind of practitioner. As a result you perceive the world differently, make different kinds of judgments and live differently from someone who is unmusical or scientifically illiterate.

In ancient Christianity, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are inseparable. It was the ecclesial practices they encountered each week, often in the context of worship that informed how the Fathers thought about the gospel. For them, how a person lives out the gospel shapes her ability to believe well in terms of the content of the faith. To practice the way of Jesus in the postmodern world entails a lengthy apprenticeship to Jesus 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.