How the overemphasis on Christian mysticism from the sixteenth century onwards, and the reaction to it, removed Patristic literature from the public conscience.
It is now assumed that ancient ecclesiastical literature is in the realm of myths and legends; it is not reliable for any historical pursuit. Therefore any serious study of the subject has been popularly abandoned.
How did this happen?
The ecclesiastical and political authorities during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were pre-occupied with the works of the devil and intent on cleansing their society of any perceived evils. Their imagination ran wild with witches who flew on brooms during the Sabbath, demonic influences, possessions, exorcisms, people transforming into wolves, and hexes to name a few extravagances. This enthusiasm encouraged the authorities to rid themselves of such evils through tortures, and trials. These commonly led to purging by fire, or strangulation.
For more information on this, read William Lecky’s great work, History of the rise and influence of the spirit of rationalism in Europe, Volume 1  and Paul Carus’ work, The History of the Devil or The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries by Hugh Trevor-Roper.
Lecky described a world where miracles and superstition had become seriously ingrained within the towns and cities:
“Nothing could be more common than for a holy man to be lifted up from the floor in the midst of his devotions, or to be visited by the Virgin or by an angel. There was scarcely a town that could not show some relic that had cured the sick, or some image that had opened and shut its eyes, or bowed it head to an earnest worshipper.”
He saw no difference in the attitudes between either the Protestants or the Catholics on the subject.
Church authority and leadership, which was often the government at the time, was established through the confirmation of miracles. If God so sponsored such a divine activity in a person or institution, how could the general population or individuals question such an institution or person? It was as if going against God.
Mysticism on a personal level is not a problem, but a whole society cannot operate being run by mystics or mystical guidance. It was a source of severe psychological, emotional, and social damage with everyone involved; a tyranny of fear. The only way to bring about correction was to sever the connection with the foundation of miracles and the supernatural. In order to accomplish this, the ancient ecclesiastical texts had to be removed from their high authority.
The eighteenth century English philosopher David Hume was one of the first to make such a clear attack against the abuse of miracles. He introduced a new structure based on reason in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He included a methodology on defining miracles with little representation to that of religion. This was followed by John Locke who integrated religion with that of Hume’s conclusions — though Locke didn’t reject miracles altogether, but recognized the need for certain criteria to be met. For more information on supernaturalism, religion, and reason in England see Joseph Waligore’s The English Deists and Miracles.
When Conyers Middleton published Free Inquiry, he brought a death-blow to Patristic miracles and their authority. Middleton rallied that the miracles by the Church Fathers were dubious:
“. . . and knowing no distinction between faith an credulity, take a facility of believing, to be the surest mark of a found Christian. Their arguments are conformable to their principles: for instead of entring into the merits of the cause, and shewing my opinion to be false or contradictory to any truth subsisting in the world, they think it a full confutation of it, to prove it contrary to the belief of the primitive ages, to the testimony of the ancient Fathers, and to the tradition of the Catholic Church: by the help of which venerable names, they insinuate fears and jealousies, of I know not what consequences, dangerous to Christianity, ruinous to the faith of History, and introductive of an universal Skepticism. Terrors purely imaginary; grounded on error and prejudice ; which if suffered to prevail, would produce consequences more to be dreaded ; subversive of all true religion, as well as of every thing else, that is rational and virtuous among men.”
William Lecky described how deep the cultural shift was in regards to the Patristic writings after the conclusion by Middleton:
“It is manifest that an attack of this kind opened out questions of the gravest and widest character. It shook the estimate of the Fathers which had been general, not only in the Church of Rome, but in a great degree among the ablest of the Reformers. In the Church of England especially, the Patristic writings had been virtually regarded as almost equal in authority to those of the inspired writers.”
“. . . if the Fathers were in truth men of the most unbounded credulity and of the laxest veracity ; if the sense of the importance of dogmas had, in their mind, completely superseded the sense of rectitude, it was absurd to invest them with this extraordinary veneration. They might still be reverenced as men of undoubted sincerity, and of the noblest heroism ; they might still be cited as witnesses to the belief of their time, and as representing the tendencies of its intellect ; but their pre-eminent authority had passed away. The landmarks of English theology were removed. The traditions which it rested were disturbed.”
From this point onwards the Church Fathers were either ignored entirely or were reduced to a collection of stories, and legends.
Middleton’s arguments rested on a number of Patristic writers. Five in particular were prominently displayed: Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Irenæus, Clemens of Alexandria and Tertullian.
He noted some inconsistencies with the texts:
“There is such an uniformity in all the primitive accounts of them, tho’ given by different Fathers and in different ages, of the Devils being scourged, burned and tortured by the Christian Exorcists ; and of their howlings, discourses and confessions, that they all seem to have been cast in the same mould ; and to have been the copies of an original story, transcribed by the later writers from the earlier than the natural descriptions, of what each of them had severally seen, at different times, and in distant places.”
The Rationalists were more structured in Germany, seeking to supplant such dogma and replace it with common-sense, intelligence and science without removing religion altogether. Johan Gottfried von Herder in Religion und Lehrmeinungen, produced such a sentiment and this was similarly promulgated by Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher in his Reden über die Religion an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern. Otto Pfeleiderer summed it up best in his 1890 publication The Development of Theology in Germany Since Kant and its Progress in Great Britain since 1825 and was convinced that both von Herder and Schleiermacher found that religion is a personal conviction than one of institutional social control. It cannot be forced. People must be allowed to express their religious identity.
“The object of the two books was essentially the same ; they protested against religion being confounded with the opinions of the schools, whether theological or philosophical, and against its being mixed up with politics ; in word, against dogmatic and politico-ecclesiastical Christianity. They insisted, on the other hand, of the inwardness of the religious life, the immediateness of religious feeling, and especially on the free play of religious individuality.”
The decline of the study of Patristics cannot be restricted simply to the rise of rationalism but reduced also because of anti-Catholic bias. For this reason it was a diminished genre in Protestant circles. For example, Isaac Taylor wrote in 1842 that the Nicene miracles should be rejected because they “were wrought chiefly, or exclusively, in attestation of those practices and opinions which the protestant churches have rejected as popish”.
The question arises, what replaced Patristics in historical criticism? It is philosophy, which to many scholars meant classical Greek philosophy. David Hume made his case from philosophy in the late 1700s with his publication, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. and it evolved a century later to Germany where Erwin Rohde produced his highly praised work, Psyche: The Cult of Souls and the Belief in Immortality among the Greeks. He along with many others supported Greek classical philosophy as the solution because it was untouched by religious dogma, institutions, subservience to myths, and allowed free inquiry. On this subject Rhode wrote:
“This was the direction pursued by these earliest pioneers of philosophy ; and they pursued it unhampered by any subservience to mythical or religious modes of thought. . . . And in fact, the foundations were now laid of that tremendous structure of free inquiry, which finally succeeded in weaving out of its treasure new worlds of thought, where even those who had quarelled or were dissatisfied with the old religion (now inwardly falling into decay for all its outward appearance of being at the most brilliant zenith of its powers) might yet find a refuge if they would not fall back upon sheer nothingness.”
“. . . Religion on its side was not represented by any priestly caste which might have been led to take up arms for religion and for what it believed to be its own interest alike. Theoretic contradictions might the more easily remain unobserved when religion depended so little upon fixed dogma or upon a world-embracing whole of opinions doctrines ; while Theology, wherever it accompanied the worship of the gods (εὐσέβεια), which was the real core of religion, was, just as much as philosophy, the business of individuals and their adherents gathered together outside the limits of the official religion of the state. Philosophy (except in a few special and unrepresentative cases) never sought open war with religion–not even with the weakened and diluted religion of the masses. In fact the juxtaposition of philosophy and religion (with theology itself by their side) sometimes went beyond the external conditions of the time, and affected the private intellectual life of certain thinkers. It might seem as if religion and philosophy were not merely different but dealt with different provinces of reality, and thus even strict and philosophically minded thinkers could honestly and without imagining disloyalty to philosophy, adopt particular and even fundamental conceptions from the creed of their fathers, and allow them to grow up side by side and at peace with their own purely philosophical ideas.”
In fact, Rohdes work is an historical essay with no regards to Church history or its writings — even to the point of ignoring the Greek philosophic elements of the first four centuries of the Church which would be naturally part of his specialty work.
Rohde is not the only one to ignore the Patristic writers. This approach can be found in commentaries, theological works, and Greek dictionaries produced in this period onwards. For example, in a study to determine the ecclesiastical dogma of tongues, which is based on the Greek word γλῶσσα, glôssa, the source-books severely limit the Patristic references to only six. These six are not the best selections from the corpus of works available on the topic. It makes the ecclesiastical writers appear silent on the topic. Instead the majority of the source-books concentrate on finding a definition from Greek classical sources, sparingly utilizing any Patristic works to validate the classical claim. They do not let the term stand on ecclesiastical usage.
This rejection of ancient ecclesiastical literature has gone to excess. A better balance in coverage is required. The ancient Church Fathers should not be considered infallible or their records sacred, but should be valued as key-pieces of literature reflective of a different age.
One must keep in mind too that Patristics have been so badly neglected in the last two hundred years or so that it is a historical researchers gold-mine. There is likely an ecclesiastical writer’s narrative that can create a new perspective on any given topic.