The Church Fathers and the Rationality of Christianity: An Interview with Dr. Sara Parvis

The Church Fathers and the Rationality of Christianity: An interview with Dr. Sara Parvis

Conducted by Chris Hauser

Dr. Sara Parvis is a Senior Lecturer in Patristics at the University of Edinburgh’s Divinity School. Beyond the publication of her book, Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy 325-345, Dr. Parvis’ research activities include studying the development of orthodoxy and heresy, examining the sources of authority in the early Church, and considering the role of scriptural exegesis in Patristic thought.


Who were the church fathers?

The church fathers are the teachers and theologians (including one or two women) from the period after the New Testament was written to the period when the East and West went their separate ways. People have different ways of defining who the last church father is. For example, many of the Orthodox churches include the time of the Byzantine Empire as far as the fifteenth century and have Gregory Palamas as last. In the West, the common definition is to finish with Gregory the Great in the sixth century.

Many people today think of religious beliefs as something unintellectual and childish. As someone who studies the church fathers, what do you think of this view?

The first thing I would say is that the great faith-reason divide did not exist in the ancient world. The people who were interested in science were also the people who were interested in what we call religion. This goes back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—long before the rise of Christianity. There essentially was no problem between faith and reason in the ancient world. I generally do not worry about there being a problem, for it is a question of how to understand reality. In the ancient world—and this is true of classical writers as well as Christian writers—what is real is actually what we cannot see. For Plato, what were real were the Forms, the imperishable, immaterial things of which the things in this world are perishable copies.

In today’s world dominated by a scientific – and in some ways materialistic – worldview, can we appreciate a Platonic vision of reality that says that what is real is what is not visible?

I think that we are experiencing a hangover in philosophy from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Now, cosmologists and a large number of other scientists spend their time with things that are not real. String theory and many other modern scientific theories are completely untestable. Likewise, some of the most exciting practices of mathematics use powerful computers and models to deal with things that are unreal. So, the idea that what we cannot see can be real is not as much of a problem now as it was one hundred years ago. I think that this idea will start working its way into more popular thought and philosophy in the years to come.

Where there is a problem, though, is that Christians come across as anti-intellectual by appearing to be uninterested in establishing facts. To be fair to Christians, I think that it is often because they get excited about what they find and stop their studies too soon. For example, they discover what cosmologists, astrophysicists, and other scientists largely agree upon—that life looks as if it has been designed with intention. They then clap their hands with excitement and stop their argument there, thinking they have proved the existence of God. The scientists feel that the Christians have not taken full heed of their arguments and do not have a real sense of what they are arguing. The Christians think that the scientists are being deliberately abstruse and are ignoring the evidence in front of their eyes that creation must be designed. To solve this problem, Christians need to be talking to colleagues on their own intellectual level. The media loves to turn these debates into big boxing matches. It loves to pit the people with the strongest opinions against each other, rather than to foster discussion between people who really know what they are talking about. The people in this second category— on both the Christian and the secular scientist sides— will always express a degree of nuance and a degree of recognition of the complexity of the questions. The media, though, often does not want to hear the complexity. What it wants to hear is the disagreement, which is more fun and interesting to report.

How do you think we have moved from the position of the church fathers to a position where Christians feel a strong need to try to reconcile their beliefs with what is being done in science?

It would be worth saying that among early Christians there was some nervousness about philosophy. For every theologian like Clement of Alexandria or Origen, who actively wanted to debate the great questions of existence with pagan philosophers, there were many other Christians who were afraid of philosophy. We have anti-philosophical comments from the early Christians, such as Tertullian, who famously said, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” This shows that at the very least, people spoke a rhetoric that Christians do not need to and should not engage with the classical philosophy of the day. On the other hand, though, Clement of Alexandria complained that his fellow Christians thought of philosophy as some kind of ogre and ran screaming when they heard it. You can imagine he probably gave some talks that were not well received.

I think one of the big and often ignored subtexts both then and now is the level of education. One of the things early Christianity struggled with but was very good at was bringing together people from different levels of education. This, in general, was very difficult to do in the greater Roman world. Having a certain level of education was a cultural currency in the ancient world and opened many doors, and people who did not have that education were despised. It seems that ordinary Christians were better educated on the whole than people from equivalent communities, partly because Christianity involved knowing the Scriptures. There were also a lot of people who were attracted to Christianity—like slaves or women—who were too intelligent for their situation in life and had capacity and time to study questions of Christian philosophy. In early Christianity some theories of the Holy Spirit said that the Spirit would overcome any education gap and would give you words to speak on the day you were called to defend Christianity. A lot of the attraction of contemporary Pentecostal Christianity comes from the same sense that God can communicate to you via the Holy Spirit directly through the reading of the Scriptures. Consequentially, you do not have to engage in complex forms of scientific and philosophical discourse. Of course the other side is that some feel very resentful of those who suggest that the Holy Spirit is not enough. They find it liberating to think “you are just as good as anybody else if God calls on you, if the Holy Spirit talks to you.” When people start suggesting that “No, on this topic you don’t know as much as scientists because you don’t have a PhD,” some people find that it takes away what they considered very good news to them, and they find that very hurtful. Today, I think there is often an unspoken sense that some scientists are not taking seriously people who come from lower backgrounds than their own and who have not had the same educational opportunities that they have had.

Do you think that part of Christianity’s defensive position on science might come from the Enlightenment? And are we starting to realize that the polarizing opposition of reason and faith was misguided from the beginning?

I would certainly agree with that. I think the Enlightenment was in some ways the teenage-hood of philosophy. The Enlightenment was a very exciting moment in history for people across Europe—but I think things that might seem self-evidently true at a moment and have a large impact can eventually come to be seen as less than the full story and perhaps even as an obstacle to further knowledge. I think that is what happened to the Enlightenment, especially with regards to the Enlightenment’s elevation of the autonomous acting subject.

Americans rightly are proud of the role the Enlightenment has played in setting up the United States, its Constitution, and its intellectual ideals, but many people—including scientists and Christians— are now starting to be worried about the autonomous acting subject making its own moral judgments. We see that this might lead to the destruction of the planet and to the destruction of the human race. We can see that there are serious moral reasons why the autonomous acting subject will not work in the future and that we have to return to a collective agreement on things. Religion is asking What would Jesus do? or What does God want? or What are we before eternity? I think these are questions that will become more important and that scientists are going to be the first ones asking them. They might not ask them in religious terms but in terms of What are our obligations to our children, our grandchildren, humanity, and life in general? or What are our obligations to the universe? Scientists and philosophers will ask how we are going to move beyond the autonomous acting subject making its own autonomous moral judgments to some kind of agreement whereby we avoid the dangers of individual moral systems.

How did St. Irenaeus of Leon approach the relationship between faith and reason, Christianity and science?

Irenaeus argued that the supreme God created the universe deliberately. Irenaeus’ difference with his contemporaries—both the Gnostics and some classicists—was whether a god or gods purposefully created the world for good or whether the created world was the byproduct of something happening in the eternal realm. The Gnostics and many classical philosophers could not expect the supreme being of the universe to be involved in creating, because creating is an unsatisfactory thing to do—the world is too messy. Irenaeus argued that the same God who created the world also sustains it for good. That is a huge jump even now, and I think a lot of scientists would find it hard to argue. They would be reasonably happy to posit an uninvolved First Cause or an uninvolved Gracious Being in the universe, but they are always careful to distinguish it from the Christian God. The idea of a God who cares for creation, wants it to flourish, and designed it with the idea that it should flourish is a step beyond that, and I think it is a step that you can only take in faith. Irenaeus, though, thought that it was patent from the world—that you should be able to tell from the world and its beauty that someone who means good for all creation created it.

The modern scientific equivalent to Irenaeus’ argument is to say that the universe is well made. This is certainly something we say now. The more people in all branches of science study—especially with computers in the last twenty years—the clearer is has become how wonderfully made the universe is in all its different parts. This wonder that has come back into science in recent years is something Irenaeus expected us to see in the universe and expected to lead us back to God. I think science does lead us back to God, because even though scientists are very afraid of being used to justify religion or used to justify a Christian God, they frequently come back to a level of astonishment at creation and the beauty in the world.

How did another church father, Justin Martyr, see the relationship between nature and grace, faith and reason?

Justin Martyr is an absolutely fascinating character. In some ways he is the person who brought Christianity in the second century out of darkness into light. He became a leader of the persecuted community. He was prepared to write to the Emperor to say that what he was doing was wrong, for the Emperor was putting Christians to death because they were Christians, rather than for any actual crimes they had committed. It did not make legal sense—you would not treat burglars the same way, pardoning them if they said, “I was a burglar but I’m not anymore.” Neither did it make philosophical sense, for it is not just. The emperor called himself just—disposed toward doing the right thing—and pious—acting with a sense of morality—yet what he was doing was not worthy of the philosophers. So, Justin Martyr tried to engage his peers on their own terms as philosophers.

Justin’s chief idea as it emerges from his apologies the Emperor is that the Word of God, the Logos, the Christ, is the rational principle that gives order to the universe. Plato has something similar, but he calls that which gives structure and order to the universe the Light rather than the Logos. We also have this idea in pre-Christian Jewish philosophy with Philo of Alexandria, who saw the Word of God as a differentiable entity from God. The only other place we find this idea before Justin is in the prologue to John’s gospel, which takes Philo’s Word of God and says the Word of God has been made incarnate among us. Justin uses this terminology, but otherwise he expresses a very Platonic view that all knowledge comes from the One who makes the world intelligible. All knowledge comes from the organizing principle of the world, which is the Word of God, which is the Logos, who is Christ, the Son of God.

For Justin, that meant Socrates had access to real truth because the Word of God sows the seeds of knowledge in people everywhere, and all that prevents them from reaching the truth—from reaching God—is demons. Justin was quite the demonologist; he picked up a lot of Jewish Old Testament demonology. For him, there exists a fight between the demons, who try to confuse the truth, and the Logos, which reveals the truth. Some people like Socrates get close to the truth are persecuted for that by the demons, but Christians have access to the full truth through Jesus Christ.

Many people today think that creeds or statements of doctrines of the early church are too intellectually sophisticated or unjustifiably complicated. Can you help us understand why they are sophisticated?

One thing I want to say about creeds is that they are intended to be simple and intended to be for everyone. The early Christians had to think about and crystallize their beliefs more than most people, since they were constantly defending themselves in the dock. They needed clear answers regarding what they believed about Christ. They had to have thought very carefully about what they were prepared to confess to and what they were not.

An amusing syndrome developed where governors tried to acquit Christians because they did not want to put them to death, they did not want to give Christians publicity as martyrs, or they felt that the system was unjust. So, governors began to try to find formulae to which Christians could confess but which did not require a guilty verdict. We have examples of provincial governors saying, “Do you believe in the most high god?” to which a Christian could say, “Yes.” The governor could legally pardon the Christian, and the Christian did not have to compromise his beliefs. One core of these creedal confessions is confessing Jesus Christ and the historical details surrounding his life and death. The early Christians said that “Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate,” which was a historical detail. They quickly started to add other historical details, including the birth form the Holy Spirit and Mary, the death, the resurrection, and so on. To that they added the great commandment, “Go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This became the mark of being a Christian.

The question then became what these statements meant. This is what we see Irenaeus discussing—What does it mean to have the Father? Irenaeus argues that having the Father means that you believe the Almighty God is everything that is and that God is the Father who loves and cares for us. Already, we have specific statements describing God, the Father Almighty. They then moved to Jesus Christ—and this is what the Nicene debates were about—wondering if they should say he is God as the Father is God or that he is a created thing like us. The decision they came to was that he is God. Athanasius argued that it would not be possible for someone who was not God to save us. They then looked at the Holy Spirit, asking if it were possible for the Spirit to sanctify people if he were not truly God. Thus we see the origin of many debates. The conclusions of these debates were crystallized in the creeds, in a form that was meant to accessible by all and readily intelligible.

We still see behind the creeds, though, the sophistication of the prior philosophical debates over how to interpret and understand Scripture. One of the most important debates of all, about the nature of Christ, comes from a famous passage in Philippians 2.

“Though he [Jesus] was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” i

This sparked many debates about what it meant for Jesus to have the form of God and the form of a servant, whether this meant he had two natures, how those natures related to each other, and what it meant to say that Jesus humbled himself. Although people used philosophy to make sense of that, they did so because they were debating very central Christian tenants about the content of Christianity—what it means to be saved and how we are meant to relate to Jesus.

In closing, I want to include something about history and the importance of not throwing away everything from the past. The creeds preserve for us the great historical debates of Christianity. Their content has been the faith of the church for 1500 years, and they are something we should think through in every age. Having a strong historical sense of where Christianity is coming from and the different forms it has taken throughout the ages is our best defense against the ahistorical decision that we can throw everything out and start again. Every age tries to throw out church history—it inevitably lives in its own ideology and has a hard time moving beyond it. I think historical creeds are Christianity’s best defense against a blackout sense of history.



i. Phillipians 2: 6-11 (ESV).

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