When the Fathers Disagree
Dr. Clark Carlton · October 6, 2008
The title of today's episode begs the question: Do we mine the Scriptures and the Fathers to get information or food?
Hello, and welcome once again to Faith and Philosophy. Today’s topic is “When the Fathers Disagree.” Going back through all the topic suggestions I received over the summer, I discovered an email asking me to comment on the fact that the fathers often give conflicting interpretations of biblical passages. The writer mentioned different views on the Lord’s Prayer, in particular.
I know that this is an issue that causes some concern to folks, so let’s consider today what is going on when the fathers disagree with one another, and what that means for us today. I want to begin by pointing out that the very way we have posed this question makes certain philosophical assumptions, in particular, assumptions about the nature of theological language.
If you have grown up in the West, you have probably heard theology referred to as a science. In the Middle Ages, it was known as the Queen of the sciences. To be sure, Orthodox writers, such as Father John Romanides and Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos, have occasionally referred to Orthodoxy as an empirical science. But they were referring to Orthodox praxis and method, not to language. I am concerned, rather, with the notion that theological language is, or is supposed to be, scientific.
Scientific language is descriptive. Moreover, it is descriptive in the most literal way possible. There is a reason why lab reports are not written up in iambic pentameter or in haiku. The language of science is Spartan and precise. “I poured so much of this substance into a beaker, with so much of that substance, and measured a temperature change of positive 2 degrees celsius.”
Perhaps the most thorough treatment of this kind of language was given by the enigmatic Austrian wunderkind, Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. There, he argued that the purpose of language is to give us a word picture of reality. This language consists of statements that either do or do not match reality, and are, therefore, either true or false.
One could say, then, that Wittgenstein’s view of language was binary. Statements picture facts, and as such, are either true or false. Statements that do not picture facts are simply meaningless. Wittgenstein’s mistake here, and he realized this himself, was in assuming that he had just described language, itself, not simply a part of it.
Finally, realizing the impossibility of ever creating a logically perfect language that would admit of no ambiguity or confusion whatsoever, he turned his attention to the way people actually use language in their daily lives.
This led him to conclude that language, itself, is made up of a plethora of what he called language games, each of which has its own syntax and grammar, and arises out of a concrete life situation. Using the analogy of a toolbox, we choose the kind of language we are going to speak based on what we need it to do for us.
Certainly, the kind of language Wittgenstein described in the Tractatus has its place, in the laboratory, for example, although I should mention that even here there are problems, for example, when physicists try to describe quantum events, which challenge all attempts at logical description. But this sort of language simply will not do if you are writing a love letter to your beloved, or trying to comfort a mother who has just lost a child. We need a language that is suitable for the task at hand.
Now, with this philosophical detour out of the way, let’s go back to the original question, which, frankly, presupposes that the fathers were, or should have been, using scientific language in interpreting the scriptures. This question assumes that the scriptures are an artifact, and that the fathers were examining this artifact as any scientist would. The fact that we consider the fathers to be inspired only adds to the problem. How could, for example, two different scientists, inspired by God, no less, look at the same rock, and one declare it a diamond, and the other, an emerald?
But this is to miss the point entirely. The fathers were scientists of a sort, but they were scientists of the human soul and its relationship with God. They were not archeologists, or anthropologists, or even literary critics. So then, if the scriptures were not written to be scientific texts, in the modern sense, and if the fathers did not treat them that way, and they certainly did not, why does it always have to be either/or?
Let’s use The Lord’s Prayer as an example, since our writer brought it up. Our English translation of “Give us this day our daily bread,” is questionable. The Greek word we render as “daily” is epiousion. The old Latin translation of the gospels renders this word as quotidianum, which does, indeed, mean “daily.”
Jerome, however, rendered epiousion, in the Vulgate, as supersubstantialum, which is a more literal Latin translation, but does not necessarily make English translation any easier.
The problem is, what does epiousion mean? It appears that the gospel writer simply made the word up, which means we have no other previous or contemporaneous usages of the word to help us figure out a meaning. This is what has led to various interpretations of the verse, not only among modern scholars, but among Church fathers, as well. Are we asking for our “daily bread,” that is, for physical nourishment? Are we asking for the Eucharist, as some have interpreted the verse? Or, are we asking for a less precise kind of spiritual nourishment? Different fathers have chosen different interpretations.
My question today, however, is, why do we have to pick just one? Why not all three? You see, we moderns read the scriptures and the fathers looking for information. We are assuming that they intend to describe reality, and that we can understand and evaluate their descriptions as we would any other descriptive statement. We are forgetting, however, that the words of the Lord are life, itself. Instead of mining the text for information, we should be mining it for food which will feed our spirits. We must read the scriptures and the fathers prayerfully, allowing the words to speak to us in our own particular situation.
With the economy heading for the tank, some of us may find ourselves praying for our daily bread with some earnestness. May God hear our prayers. But as our Lord, Himself, said, “Man does not live by bread alone.” To ask for our daily physical bread, without asking for spiritual nourishment, is madness. And of course, as often as possible we should seek the nourishment of the Lord’s table. Surely, on the Lord’s Day, we are asking for all three.
This is not to say that the fathers never made mistakes about matters of fact or grammatical interpretation. Of course they did. As we have said time and again, sanctity does not confer infallibility. But even when a father misquotes the scriptures, and this is quite common, you will find that there is a spiritual purpose behind it. This, however, is for those who have, as the scripture says, “Ears to hear.“To hear the true meaning of the scriptures and the fathers, we must not listen with the ears of the modern scientist, or linguistic philosopher, or textual critic. We must learn to listen with the ears of faith.
And now may our great God and savior, Jesus Christ, who is the provision of our daily needs and the satisfaction of our deepest hunger, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska, and of the Blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov, have mercy upon us all, and grant us a rich entrance into His eternal kingdom.