Voices From our Past Speaking into our Future
A proverb heard during my time in Cambodia advised “Don’t take the straight path or the winding path. Take the path your ancestors have taken.” It challenges our modern western insistence on esteeming the latest, most recent and new above the past, the older and familiar.
Entering the world of theological study and writing has proved challenging for me with a lifetime of study, research and work in the education sector. The field of education is suspicious of anything written more than 10 years ago and students preparing as teachers are advised to make sure their essay reference lists has nothing older than 10 years! Imagine my consternation and urgent need for re-orientation when, as a theological student, I encountered material written centuries ago which I was required to consider and use in my papers! This reorientation has been challenging as well as powerful as I explored and wrestled with the writings of (mainly) men from ages past. One contemporary writer I recently encountered challenges us modern Christians to step back from our culture’s primacy for the new, the trendy and instead to listen to voices from our past for what they offer us in our time and place. I offer his challenge to us all, church communities and individuals as we move into 2020.
These [church] fathers force me to listen continually to other voices that I might too quickly overlook or ignore, voices that have proven themselves over hundreds of years to be reliable guides. The benefit of listening to them will be at least threefold for the modern readers.
First, interaction with these voices might actually strengthen our present perspectives and convictions…
Second, learning theology with the church fathers continually rebukes the fallen human inclination toward theological and spiritual pride, an exaggerated and overblown appreciation and advocacy of what we perceive the truth to be. For instance, as we read the fathers we will quickly realise that we do not need to reinvent the wheel. We are not the first Christians to read scripture … and those who have come before us have much to offer, if only we will open ourselves to their advice and insight. In fact, I am increasingly convinced that the task of theology is the constant, nuanced, prayerful reappropriation of the heart of the Christian faith and its careful and sensitive communication to the modern world in which we live…
I am not arguing that there will never be progress in comprehending or communicating Christian truth, but as Thomas C. Oden puts it, “true progress is not change. True progress is an advance in understanding of that which has been fully given in the deposit of faith.”
Third, the fathers will consistently prod us to focus on the heart of the matter. They themselves were forced to pray and think through communally the meaning of the gospel, frequently in response to other teachers who were exaggerating, ignoring, distorting or undercutting important aspects of Christian truth.
Let’s not scorn or ignore the wisdom of our Christian elders. Accepting Hall’s challenge will change and grow us.
Ref: Learning Theology with Church Fathers. Christopher A. Hall, 2002, IVP, 27-28