Letters to a Church Father

I tried something in class yesterday with wonderful results. In an upper level theology letter writingcourse we came to the end of several days grappling with writings from a handful of early church figures on the topic of Christology: Irenaeus, Arius, Athanasius, Apollinarius, Gregory of Nazianzus,  Gregory of Nyssa, and Cyril of Jerusalem. We had walked through these readings together, and along the way I  sprinkled our conversations with background information, pointed out doctrinal connections they might not have seen, and drew their attention to particularly salient points.

Yesterday, as we pulled the threads together, I asked my students to write a letter. “Chose one of these ancient figures and reach back across the centuries” I told them. “They, like us, sought to contend for the Gospel – can you express to them how their Christology benefits you today? And they, like us, did so imperfectly – even if you disagree with their Christology, could you receive them as a legitimate conversation partner?”

Their letters were immensely encouraging and showed theological maturation on many different levels. The points of agreement and disagreement between the ancient figures did not go unnoticed, and many were able – without being asked in the assignment – to articulate the rationale which motivated the arguments. They drew wisely upon relevant biblical material, were sensitive to their place within the tradition of faith, and showed surprising maturity related to the pastoral issues connected to the doctrinal debates. These are all good and show the development of the technical skills required for theologians, but, frankly, more encouraging to me was the tone of the letters.

“Bravo!” I said to them today, “My young theologians, you sought to genuinely hear from these figures, to enter into dialogue with them, and not merely stand over them.” For instance, many more than I expected wrote to Apollinarius,and while they acknowledged their disagreement with his Christology they thanked him for his partnership with Athanasius during the Arian controversy before Apollinarius’ views came under greater scrutiny. Another letter took Gregory of Nazianzus to task for handling doctrinal controversy in  ways they felt harmed the church’s mission. What is going on here? They are thinking about the pastoral implications of doctrinal difference and the manner in which such disputes are negotiated, and this gives me great hope for the church of their generation.

I love this first one because they asked Cyril a sincere clarifying question:

Cyril of Alexandria, … the section about Jesus suffering brought a question to my mind. I was wondering if you could expound on your thought that the divine part of the Word of God does not suffer. Though I understand that Jesus, as you put it, suffered “blows or piercing with nails” because he had a human body, would he still not have suffered in another ways such as emotionally and mentally?

This one thanks Gregory by sharing how his Christology served her spiritual development:

Gregory of Nazianzus, … Your writing has allowed me to dig deeper and that has allowed me to view myself in a new way. My abilities are far greater than I thought. I am a carefully crafted (though still imperfect) model of the perfected image of God, who is Christ Jesus. Each day I am being molded further into that perfected image. It’s so awe-inspiring to think that the Father sent the Son to take on flesh to be the example of how to love, how to do outreach, how to operate in faith. He was PERFECT. Such a thing can only come from God. It is true divinity within humanity.

I admire this one, because, though they see the error in Apollinarius’ Christology, they nonetheless thank him for his service to the church.

Dear Apollinarius, I appreciate so much your work in defending the divinity of Christ in the Arian controversy.  Without your faith and hard work, my faith might be different today.  There is a long chain of events that have happened since you walked the earth.  However, the traditions of faith that you and others have passed down to me have helped me believe in Jesus Christ. While we would have been friend, we would have disagreed on some issues.  This would not break our friendship, but would probably cause us to have many lively debates.

I could list more, but the point is this: letter writing caused my students to reach across the centuries and engage these figures as human persons. Church fathers became “friends,” of sorts. And those whose views the early church deemed heretical became what they are: not merely false teachers but humans made in the image of God.

I don’t doubt that my young theologians will stand for the truth of the Gospel, but I am more encouraged than ever that they will do so after the pattern of Christ: with sacrificial love for their neighbors, even those, or perhaps especially those, with whom they disagree.

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6 thoughts on “Letters to a Church Father

  1. Once again your post has matched the discussion that I have been involved in concerning how we can come together in collaborative ministry within a community of Christians in a community of non believers. The issue often being raised is that of a difference in “doctrine” brought along side of “Theology” in that the path we teach our congregations separately must be defined clearly as to what is “tradition”, “hertitage”, “doctrine” and “theology”. Today my discussion included yet another area of concern as I work with a group ministry for addictions recovery and the use of “mindfulness.” I have introduced, not created, but introduced a practice of Christian Devotional Meditation. I will not break it down here, but to mention that some of my ministry collegues are opposed to observing the lentin season. I maintain as a stodgy old Nazarene that it is more than useful, it is productive in our understanding of Christianity even doctrinal thought if not in our theological development.

  2. But what about a letter to a Church Mother, or the Goddess, or a woman who had or has fully incarnated the Feminine Principle, a Woman Clothed in the Sun.
    Which is to point out that any religion that does not understand and simultaneously incarnate the Feminine Principle is only half-baked, and one step away from being no different essentially atheistic.
    Assuming that some of your students are females, has anyone ever wondered out loud about the absence of (early) church mothers?

    • The Christian tradition of faith is full of significant women and many made lasting contributions. For the topic this section of my course was concerned with, however, the main players happened to be men. I lament that. The patriarchal nature of the church’s early centuries (some would argue this hasn’t changed) sidelined many women who could have contributed. They were neither trained nor would their voices have been heard, and that was tragic. That being said, there are a host of Desert Mothers (ammas) from the 4th and 5th centuries worth looking up and certainly a long line of female mystics from the medieval era (Catherine of Sienna for instance), and contemporary theology is full of wildly astute female theologians (Sarah Coakley, Karen Kilby, Kathrine Tanner, Morwenna Ludlow, and Frances Young come to mind). I suspect you and I differ on our views about the “Feminine Principle” as you called it, but I agree that one’s cloud of theological conversation partners should definitely include women. This is a good reminder for me to be more intentional with that on the appropriate topics.

  3. Lovely. Thanks for sharing, Kent! I appreciate your intentionality in stretching your students and pushing them beyond mere thought. Theology is so much more when it is done over the breadth of centuries, embodied in person and community. Cheers!

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