How the overemphasis on Christian mysticism from the sixteenth century onwards, and the reaction to it, removed Patristic literature from the public conscience.
Contemporary study of ecclesiastical literature has delegated most records to 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 story begins with the emergence of the Renaissance era, especially so in Italy. The Renaissance is a fundamental movement that started in fourteenth-century Europe and spread throughout the western world. Indeed, it is the framework we live by today. The revitalization sparked a renewed interest in classical learning, languages, science, and literature.
The invention of the printing press, the fall of Constantinople to Muslim invaders which led to the emigration of Greek teachers and their valuable manuscripts, and the insatiable thirst for acquiring manuscripts, even by force, by luminaries such as Poggio Bracciolini, allowed for a greater expression of intellectual curiosity.
This intellectual freedom not only was found in some catholic circles such as Dante, and Erasmus, but became a cornerstone, and influenced the burgeoning protestant faith, especially those of Germany and England whose christian traditions and ways of thought have deeply influenced the English speaking world for centuries.
The correction against mystic rule
The ecclesiastical and political authorities during the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries were occupied with the works of the devil and intent on cleansing their society of any perceived evils. The ideal world was one that pursued holiness; questions of science, and explanations behind the forces of nature were matters of little importance. 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 the following works are recommended:
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.
Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) through his idea of miracles and it is hard to decipher a clear position because of his semantics and wordiness. He does reaffirm the mantra that miracles had ceased. Partly out of the abuses that he had witnessed, and the other was because most miracles, if examined with the proper apparatus and intelligence, would be found to be a natural phenomena.
The great philosopher and physician John Locke (1632–1704) didn’t reject miracles altogether, but recognized the need for certain criteria to be met.
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.
The deletion of Patristic literature as a reliable source
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 and 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 entering 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 a 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 changed towards 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.
This evolution leads to Germany and the example of Erwin Rohde who authored one of the greatest works on the pagan Greek religion called Psyche: The Cult of Souls and the Belief in Immortality among the Greeks. He was a great classical scholar and monumental writer in the latter half of the nineteenth-century.
However, when one peruses his literary masterpiece the reference to ancient christian literature is noticeably absent. But then, 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 doctrine of tongues, which is based on the Greek word γλῶσσα, glôssa, the source-books severely limit the Patristic references to only seven. These seven 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 different epochs.
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.”
Mark Pattison, a Church of England priest who served as a rector at Oxford’s Lincoln College opined similar sentiments in the late 1800s:
In this protestant delineation, the church starts in the apostolic age in perfect purity, and is perverted by a process of slow canker, till it has become changed into its opposite, and is now the church not of Christ, but of anti-christ, an instrument not for saving men but for destroying them.
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.
Click on the link to go to Part 2 More on the Historical Rejection of Patristics