Patristics: Fr. Nichols’ astonishing Singing-Masters
The great Dominican theologian Aidan Nichols has written yet another book for which we may all be grateful. Nichols has selected eight pivotal Church Fathers from the East and eight from the West and summarized their contributions to the explication of the faith of the “great Church” (the Catholic Church) in its first eight centuries. Expending from fifteen to thirty pages on each figure—or, actually in one case, a group of three closely-related figures, the Cappadocian Fathers—Nichols unpacks the particular challenges, strengths, and enduring achievements of the philosophers, theologians and apologists who contributed most to the Church’s self-understanding in the post-apostolic era. The book, released recently by Ignatius Press, is entitled The Singing-Masters: Church Fathers from Greek East and Latin West.
As the title emphasizes, Nichols calls these men “singing-masters”, a name which neatly captures not only the clarity of their thought but its beauty, and not only its beauty, but its ability to transform and uplift the mind and heart in praise of God and all His works. For God’s works are often distorted and sullied by false ideas—ideas rooted in the worldly concepts and sinful attachments which so frequently lead to error and sin. Moreover, while this study is itself a work of scholarship in the service of Faith, and so the author generally contributes to our theological and historical understanding rather than engaging us in today’s battles, Fr. Nichols alludes to present problems just frequently enough to let us know that he understands how intensely the battle for clarity in Catholic teaching continues today. He has always shown sympathy for Catholics who find their own defense of undiluted Catholic authenticity unwelcome, which also reflects the fairly common experience of the Church Fathers themselves.
In the Patristic period there were, of course, numerous resurgences of various pagan and otherwise faulty philosophical and theosophical notions in the long struggle to bring clarity to the Catholic acceptance of the mysteries of Christ, the Trinity, and the nature of evil (which so often at least seems to have an origin, a life, and a power all its own). Moreover, despite the decisive historic settlements of many questions of Faith, especially through the great ecumenical councils which explored the reality of Christ and of the Trinity, we continue to stumble over similar questions today—the “natures” of Christ, the “persons” of the Triune God, the origin and “substance” of evil, and the faulty philosophical outlooks (materialism, for example) which make it so difficult to think clearly about God, Creation and Divine Providence—and so easy to “re-interpret” the eternal truths to fit worldly schemes and worldly goals.
All of these issues—the perennial repetition of pagan philosophies, personal temptations, genuine human confusion, and the struggle to validate one’s own ideas—have presented constant challenges to both the Church and those who have sought to explain and defend her teachings, during the Patristic era no less than our own.
The Joy of Study, and its Relevance
There can be a great joy in the reading and study of the Fathers of the Church, but it is also an eye-opener for those who tend to think we are unique in living in a period of self-serving (and usually degrading) intellectual turmoil. The Fathers dismiss from our minds any conviction that our era is uniquely plagued by intellectual failures within and around the Church. It is a joy to see how great Catholic thinkers from the earliest period overcame very similar obstacles to contribute to the Church’s self-understanding, including the understanding of Christ, the Trinity, the nature of evil, and the operations of grace.
The errors these great Catholic thinkers sought to correct—and the opposition they experienced both in the social order and within the Church herself—put our own problems into perspective. Nobody who studies the Fathers can regard the turmoil of the Church in our own time as unique, or even unusually difficult. Nobody who has read the Fathers can for a moment regard our twenty-first century after Christ as unusual in either its propensity for error or its ecclesiastical upheaval and division. Between human stupidity and vainglory on the one hand, and the cleverness of the Devil on the other, it is remarkable that any great questions get settled even temporarily, let alone in ways that have guided the Church (if not all who claimed the Catholic name) ever since. The malleability of human culture alone makes so much difficult that should be easy—and so much easy that should be difficult.
Learning more about the Fathers of the Church, then, reinforces in our minds not only the intellectual and spiritual beauty of their achievements but the unlikelihood that the intellectual turmoil of our own day should be so very different from the intellectual turmoil and heated controversy which marked their own times and places in the progress of the “great Church” (as the universal or Catholic Church was often called in the early Patristic era to distinguish it from all the divisive sects). The achievement of Nichols’ treatment is that it highlights both the challenges faced by each of the Fathers, and the main contributions each made to the development and defense of a proper Catholic understanding of what God has revealed.
The Church’s Book and Fr. Nichols’ Book
In our own time, we have not only lost the long historical context of Catholic controversy, but we have also lost the Patristic understanding of Scripture itself as a book that belongs completely to the Church. It is commonplace now to regard Scripture as some sort of independent source of data, which can be turned this way and that by anyone who chooses to use it. But this was never the attitude of the Church Fathers, who fully recognized that Scripture is precisely the Church’s book…and that those who had broken from or never adhered to the Church had no claim whatsoever to interpret it, let alone to use it as their own. Granted that Scripture is a gift to any who receive it, the Patristic understanding was very clear on the point that only the “great Church” can claim any authority over its interpretation, just as only the “great Church” can determine which texts are inspired and which are not. This was the secure belief of the Fathers of the Church, as indeed it is a touchstone of orthodoxy. It is another point which makes Fr. Nichols’ book particularly valuable.
Fr. Nichols has written eight chapters on the Eastern Fathers: St. Irenaeus, Origen, St. Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers as a group (St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory Nazienzen, and St. Basil the Great), St. Cyril of Alexandria, Denys the Areopagite, St. Maximus the Confessor, and St. John Damascene; and eight chapters on the Western Fathers: Tertullian, St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Leo, St. Gregory the great, and St. Bede the Venerable. For each of these intellectual giants, Nichols recounts what is known of their lives, explains the controversial context of their labor as Catholic writers and teachers, and highlights their principal contributions to the ever-increasing precision of the Church’s doctrine and self-understanding.
While this is a scholar’s work, it is designed to be an introduction, highlighting the particular achievements of each figure under consideration, and also demonstrating some significant differences between the achievements of the Eastern and the Western Fathers. The author’s superb organization, clarity, measured pace, and genius for selecting and emphasizing the most important contributions of each figure combine to make this wonderful book a warm, lively, and spiritually rich introductory course in Catholic Patristics.
I have called attention to many of Fr. Nichols’ books over the years. Back in 2012, I provided a partial list in Aidan Nichols: Chalice of God. More recently, Nichols has expressed concerns about the doctrinally-confusing nature of the leadership of Pope Francis, but he has also continued his important scholarly service to the Church. In writing a series on the marks of the Church in 2014, I took advantage of his book Figuring out the Church (start with The Church’s Mark of Unity, and How It Works). In 2019, I took particular note of his brilliant exposition of the eight most important documents of Vatican II, in this review: Toward a deeper understanding of Vatican II. And most recently I praised his intellectual biography of Sigrid Undset (see Aidan Nichols on Sigrid Undset: Readers of the heart).
Every subject Fr. Nichols touches turns to gold. If you are ready to learn more about the Fathers of the Church, start with The Singing-Masters: Church Fathers from Greek East and Latin West.
Aidan Nichols, O.P., The Singing-Masters: Church Fathers from Greek East and Latin West. Ignatius Press, 2022. 343pp. Paper $19.95; eBook $12.97.
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