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Ancient Christian Writers or Fathers of the Church? Parsing The Peculiar Patrology of Fr. John Behr

By Ben Jefferies

In episodes of the podcasts OnScript and Church Grammar, the inimitable Fr. John Behr has recently offered a vista of his own reading of the Church Fathers: how he was trained, what he has learned, and how he now teaches patristics.

His new recommendation for a course of patristic study is consistent with the renaissance cry of ad fontes: “To the sources.” Instead of reading earlier Fathers through the fourth- and fifth-century lens of the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon, Behr encourages the would-be student to go straight to the raw theological sources: the trail-blazers of the second century, like Irenaeus and Melito and, chief of all, Origen.

When these early fathers are read without the “straight-jacket” of later dogmatic formulations, their brilliance and inter-disciplinary genius can be more fully experienced; that is, they are doing exegesis and dogmatics and moral theology, all at the same time. Behr posits that these great teachers of the church have had their unique genius unduly stifled by the constraining effects of dogmatics-based readings that have imposed uniformity, rather than allowing a polyphonous harmony (to use Behr’s own guiding metaphor).

This is a fair point, but in Behr’s presentation it perhaps lands in the wrong field. As readers of the Church Fathers know, two of the great scholarly editions of these early theologians published in recent decades are Ancient Christian Writers (Paulist Press) and The Fathers of the Church (Catholic University of America).

While there is significant publication overlap in these two series, the titles of them reveal two different paradigms for engaging with the content: Whether the texts are offering a view of how ancient Christians viewed God (Ancient Christian Writers), or whether they are still speaking about the Living God today, as having authority in the present (Fathers of the Church). If we want to learn about historical theology, we can study the ancient writers. If we want to learn about God, we sit at the feet of a Church Father, who can give us his instruction. These two paradigms are not mutually exclusive of course, and often benefit from cross pollination. Still, attention must be paid to which paradigm is at play, if we desire to honor texts in the right way within the household of faith.

It seems to me that what Behr is suggesting is an excellent way of reading ancient writers — beginning at the beginning, and tracking with the development — but perhaps not the best way of learning from the Fathers. Indeed, there is something wild and exciting about reading Irenaeus and Origen. These early pioneers are hacking their way through the forest of knowledge with the bright sword of revelation, so recently given.

Origen especially is a daring and original thinker. As Hans Urs Von Balthasar so memorably put it, all later theologians “burned merely with a borrowed flame” with which Origen himself was aglow. Behr cautions against what he refers to as the “work your way through Quasten” method (referring to the field-standard four-volume Patrology by J. Quasten). When studying the Fathers, Behr would have us skip the “lesser”, later lights, and head straight for the first fire. Certainly, if we want to see the late second century in all its brilliance, we need to refrain from imposing later “neater” theology. But if we are coming to these writers to learn about God, the imposition of later dogmatics may actually prove to be a feature and not a bug.

It is the historical peculiarity of Behr’s approach that prompts me to think this. Prior to the last 80 years or sothe received way of reading the Fathers was the very way that Behr deprecates — prizing later Fathers over earlier ones, and, when seeking to learn theology, reading the Fathers through the lens of dogmatic clarifications that came later. This method was not one created by accident, rather it was the synthetic formulation of centuries of seeking to read the Fathers well.

A clear, strong defense of this “old way” of reading the Fathers is given in an essay “On the Use and Authority of the Fathers” which appears at the end of A Digest of Theology written by the Episcopal priest Henry Percival in 1893, and which was a standard textbook at Nashotah House Theological Seminary for many years in the early 20th century.

Now it is manifest that… the later Fathers had all the advantage, for they could read the thoughts of those that had gone before them, combine their opinions, and correct their errors… The later Fathers are the more trustworthy and the rather to be followed… I have said that the earlier writers when left to their own devices often went wrong and needed to be corrected by the later Fathers (295–96).

We may also consult them [the Fathers] for their views and deductions; but when consulted for this last purpose, their antiquity gives them no superiority, but often clearly the reverse (301).

The old way (essentially what Behr calls the “Quasten” method) is much less exciting for the reader than Behr’s method, but is certainly morally and theologically much safer. I do not doubt the rectitude of Behr’s own reading of the Fathers, but I wonder if he has sufficiently evaluated how much his own “old school” formation renders his reading of the earlier Fathers safer; a formation that the new patristics student does not have. There is much in the witness of the Fathers of the first two centuries that does not readily harmonize with the catholic witness of true theology.

Origen in at least one place refers to Jesus as a second God (deuteros theos, e.g. Contra Celsus 5.39). This fact illustrates well how wild and conception-shattering the fact of the incarnation is, and reveals the difficulty the early Christian philosophers faced in synthesizing the facts of revelation. Comprehending this can lead us into an even greater appreciation for the later Cappadocian formulations. But it would be a sore mistake to think that “ditheism” remains an earnest theological option within the household of faith. But if we are coming to Origen as a Church Father, and not just as an ancient Christian writer, and are not sufficiently grounded in catholic faith and morals, we might be tempted to make such a mistake.

In this and in all matters of theological controversy, later, more careful Fathers, building on the works they inherited, took greater pains to be clearer. They strengthened what was good, discarded what was less useful, and were continually revisiting the Scriptures and the wider witness of other theologians to clarify the Faith for the Church. “Second God” was not developed as normal theological language because of its manifest prima facie issues with Judeo-Christian monotheism, and this was not a loss to the Church of today as we seek to understand God.

The process of writing theology might be compared to the making of a fine distilled spirit: All of the raw ingredients (apostolic witness, Scripture, philosophy) are thrown into a giant mash to ferment (this corresponds to the first two centuries of the Church), and the resulting brew is ripe with a wild assortment of chemicals and flavors. But this liquid gets put through a still (provided by the holy leisure that a post-Constantinian world afforded), and the poisonous “heads” (the first 10% of the distillate) and most of the tails get cut out, so that the delicious ethyl alcohol can remain. The distilling process is a benefit, not a detriment, to the enjoyer of fine spirits.

It’s the same way with theology. It is the case that there are some “heads” and “tails” in the writings of thinkers like Origen that get excised along the way; rejected by the continuous thread of orthodox theologizing that runs from Athanasius, through Gregory Nazianzus, Augustine, Leo, Aquinas, and others. Sure, these odd “heads” get picked up and tasted by a few theologians here and there: Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus, and others, but the excised ideas themselves remain clearly apart from faithful theology. Certainly, in the witness of the Fathers there remains an element of diversity in the midst of their consensus, just like a fine spirit has a complex bouquet. But does this warrant the new student of theology going behind the distilling process back to the raw mash with which it began?

To come a little closer to shore: Origen is famous for his proposal of apokatastasis – the teaching that all will be saved in the end. It is interesting that John Behr is a back-cover endorser of David Bentley Hart’s new book commending the doctrine, and even more interesting that Behr’s next academic pursuit may be toward Eriugena, who is also a Christian Universalist. Might Behr’s suggested patrology, exciting as it is, perhaps lead to a magnification of what have historically been intentionally excised minor themes in theology? In other words, might Behr, in leading the student of the past to Origen as a Father of the Church, be conflating ancient Christian writing with approved orthodoxy of the kind we would hope our fathers to have?

Lastly, at the risk of using too many metaphors, I think a picture that holds the whole contention together would be the progression of Western Art between 1000 and 1700. If we put the question to Western Art: “What does a human look like?” There is something vital and vibrant and thrilling about the large-eyed figures that adorn the Bayeux Tapestry or the stolid figures of Ottonian sculpture. But then these representations get sharpened and staged by Giotto and the early Florentines, and in their art we can see a more accurate likeness of humans as they really are. This process continues to develop through Raphael and Titian and then finds an even deeper expression in the northern continuation of the Renaissance that culminates in Rembrandt and the later Dutch School. Through this progression, it is fair to say that some things get lost, that there is an early vibrancy that gets subdued along the way (hence the 19th century desire of the pre-Raphaelites), but on balance, the very depths of our humanity are on display in Rembrandt in a way that makes Giotto look like a cartoon by comparison.

In like manner, I don’t want to merely listen to writers, give me Fathers, give me the later Fathers, that I might see God more clearly.

The Rev. Ben Jefferies (M.Div, Nashotah House) is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, serving The Good Shepherd Anglican Church, Opelika, Alabama. His hero and guide to the Fathers is the Rev. E.B. Pusey


  1. While I am not one unequivocally to praise Behr’s reading of the Fathers at all points, as a scholar of the Bible and Early Christianity, I certainly see the value of reading the earlier sources without letting the later Fathers color one’s reading from the outset. When one, as a 21st century reader, encounters the early Fathers or the Scriptures and reads them straight through, yes there is a rough and ready character to them that is not tempered by the scholasticism of later Greek [Maximus and beyond] or Latin [Thomas and beyond] reading. However, in this roughness there is also an otherness that lacks the finer points that scholasticism and later interpretation put onto things. This otherness may at times have a tendency to excess that did need correction in the light of later doctrinal challenges these early Fathers did not foresee or address, but in their naivety to the later, unforeseen doctrinal battles they also have a wildness to them of which Behr does well to remind us. Irenaeus or Origen are far more than preludes to the Cappadocians. To read them simply as an appetizer to the later Trinitarian or Christological formulations shields us from the light and heat their teachings offer. This may indeed be instructive to our own time as well, because their time was in many ways more similar to ours: The Scriptures were circulating but not canonized, the church was operating in the open, but had not cultural ascendency. I think it is important to let later doctrinal development and clarification have its day, but to attend to the words of the Scriptures and the early Fathers invites us to a world that is quite different than our own in many ways, but also similar to ours in a way that Thomas’ Paris [or Augustine’s Hippo, or Maximus’ Constantinople, or what have you] is not. We do well to hear them with their own voices as best we are able.

  2. I am unpersuaded by this essay. I believe that the author confuses/conflates the purpose of dogmatic theology (which could legitimately prioritize later formulations of doctrines) with historical theology (which can legitimately explore earlier or alternative formulations of doctrine). I am also uncertain that Anglicanism unreservedly endorses the Whig theory of the development of doctrine; to the contrary, Article XIX provides – without reference to a “preference for the recent” – that “As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.” If my recollection serves me, the author has also argued against the development of doctrine in connection with images – why a different perspective with Origen’s teachings?

    • Dear Will —
      I think that *philosophical explanation* and *the content of The Faith* are two distinct things. I think the latter remains unchanged through the ages, and I think that the former improved through the patristic period. I do not believe the Whig Theory, but I do believe that great minds benefit from the great minds that came before them.


    • I concur, from the perspective of the historian; but as students of the Faith, is it the best way to learn the *truth*? that is the distinction I was trying to make.

  3. Does this idea have implications for our study of Scripture? If we are to take the later Fathers over the early, does that rule out going back to the (true?) root of both?

    What if the earlier Father, closer to context of Scripture, understood something that the later Fathers missed (or were misled by their own context)?

    Seems like an a priori “‘later’ first” position might cause us to miss some buried theological insight.

    • I suppose I constitutionally don’t believe that the fullness of the Faith ever got lost in transmission. That true theology (the seeing-of-God) was handed down by the Apostles to their congregants, and that the Spirit of God has always been alive and well in the Church. Therefore, there is no need to go excavating for possible “lost” insight. The Faith existed before Scripture (NT) was written (between a.d. 33 and 50) and it existed in places prior to their receiving the fullness of all 27 books (in some places as late as 300). The Fathers are witness to the lived Faith, as well to the faithful, submissive exposition of Scripture.

      • Excellent insights and an excellent essay.
        Orthodoxy has no room for novelty intrusions into the Faith.
        Fr. Behr’s works are littered with un-Orthodox, trying-to-be clever, departures from the received Faith of the Holy Fathers. This move of his to perhaps favour the earlier writers over the Cappadocian precision is just such an example. The Cappadocian Fathers are the lens through which the entire Orthodox Church views the Apostolic revelation and deposit of Faith, including the writings of their preceding forbears.


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