Constructing Modern Theological Thinking: What can we learn from the Early Church?
It is just over a century since H B Swete published a small book called Patristic Study (Longmans,1904), one of a number of volumes in a series entitled Handbooks for the Clergy. The aim of his little book, wrote Swete, was ‘to draw the attention of the younger clergy of the Church of England to the vast store of wisdom which has been bequeathed to them by the ancient Catholic Church.’
Reading the Fathers, Swete tells us, is not only stimulating but also of great practical value, for ‘the parish priest of the twentieth century will find in the greater writers of the Ancient Church much direct help for his daily work; sermons, catechises, pastoral intercourse, personal life will be enriched by converse with the pastors and teachers of other times.’ Indeed, he tells us, ‘There are few departments of theological research in which the Fathers can fail to render valuable help to those who know how to make yield up their treasure’, and he gives as examples biblical textual criticism, the history of the canon, the history of biblical interpretation, the progress of Christian thought and the study of liturgy.
‘Nor’, he continues, ‘is it only to students in the stricter sense that the Fathers can render service; they may be turned to practical account by the working parish priest. The preacher will find in their pages the grand models of ancient pulpit oratory; the pastor may look to them for guidance in problems which are common to all ages of the Church.’ Thus the benefits of patristic study to which Swete directs his readers are practical as well as academic, if such a distinction may be sustained: ‘If a knowledge of the Fathers may be of value to the clergy in forming an opinion on disputed points of ritual and Church order, it will help them even more surely on the side of pastoralia -- the practical conduct of the parish priest’s life and work. The majority of the Fathers were not only writers and preachers, but diligent and experienced guides of souls.’