Listening to the Church Fathers: An interview with Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P.

“Only by remaining in the truth of the Fathers,” says Fr. Nichols, author of The Singing-Masters: Church Fathers from Greek East and Latin West, “can the Church continue to be rooted in the faith of the Apostles.”

(Images: Ignatius Press/Ignatius.com)

The influence and importance of the Church Fathers cannot be overstated. Some of the earliest Fathers sat at the feet of the apostles, learning directly from their mouths the teachings of Our Lord. Through their own writings and their own students, they passed on the faith, and many of their works have come down to us today.

There are many books that examine the era of the Church Fathers, which can serve as wonderful introductions to their lives and works. The latest book by Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P., is one such resource, titled The Singing-Masters: Church Fathers from Greek East and Latin West (Ignatius Press, 2022).

Fr. Nichols, a native of the United Kingdom, is a former lecturer at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and the author of many books, several of them published by Ignatius Press. He has written books on a wide variety of topics and subjects, including the author Sigrid Undset, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the relationship between Rome and the Eastern Churches, the liturgy in its contemporary form, the marks of the Church, and more.

The Singing Masters brings together his astute understanding of the Church’s history, the development of theological principles and of Christian doctrine, and his love for the Fathers of the Church.

Fr. Nichols recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his new book, the importance of the Church Fathers, and how studying the Fathers is what keeps the Church authentically apostolic.

Catholic World Report: How did this new book come about?

Fr. Aidan Nichols: Like quite a few of the things I’ve written the book came about fortuitously – as a result of somebody’s illness, in fact. A dear and very well-qualified confrere at Blackfriars Oxford who would normally give the patristics course there, fell sick with a debilitating condition which made it impossible for him to guarantee that, on any given day, at any given time, he would be well enough to lecture. So I was asked to step in at short notice.

It was, for me, a marvelous opportunity to take more seriously a topic I’d dabbled in for years – not that, lacking Father Richard Finn’s training in the classical languages and ancient history, I could ever be more than an amateur – though I hope an amateur who embodies both senses of the word, a non-professional who, however, loves the subject.

CWR: The book features eight Greek fathers, and eight Latin. As you note in the book, it is not a comprehensive guide, but you selected the fathers who “have the best claim to the attention of modern theology students”. What is it about these fathers that gives them that draw, that other fathers lack?

Fr. Nichols: Oxford University Terms are trimesters which means that the maximum number of lectures in any given course is eight. A two-term course could only, then, manage a total of sixteen Fathers – if one were to have any chance of doing justice to the individual figures, that is.

Actually, by compressing the trio of St Basil, St Gregory of Nyssa (his blood brother) and St Gregory of Nazianzus (his great friend) into a single lecture under the corporate heading of the ‘Cappadocian’ Fathers, I was able to stretch a point and extend this to eighteen Fathers all told.

My criterion of selection was to profile those figures who had contributed most effectively to the contemporary and subsequent doctrinal consciousness of the Church – those who would be the most important (in other words) for dogmatic theology. It’s dogmatic theology that explores the heartland of divine revelation: the saving outreach of the Father through his consubstantial Son, humanized as Jesus Christ, who by their common Spirit enters into our lives through the instrumentality of the Church. It would be perfectly possible to make a different selection which privileged those Fathers who contributed most to the history of Christian spirituality – so Cassian and Benedict, say, in the Latin West, and, in the (Coptic and) Greek East, the Desert Fathers and other writers who appear in the Philokalia, the great Orthodox anthology of the spiritual masters.

But spirituality, however essential to a vibrant Church life, is really a corollary of Christian doctrine, so that alternative approach – in itself, quite legitimate, indeed desirable – seemed to me of secondary importance. In any case, many of the Fathers I discuss (such as St Augustine and St Maximus the Confessor) are major figures for later spiritual theology as well.

CWR: In a general sense, what distinguishes the Greek Fathers from the Latin Fathers (apart from the obvious points of language and geography)?

Fr. Nichols: It’s often said, to the point of being a commonplace, that the Greek Fathers, reflecting the speculative gifts of Hellenic culture, provide the most meaty dogmatic treatment of the faith, whereas the Latin Fathers, indebted to the more pragmatic ethos of Roman civilization, are chiefly preoccupied by moral questions, among which the relation between grace and human freedom is the single most crucial topic.

It’s true that, as the principal Trinitarian and Christological debates of ancient Christianity took place in the Hellenophone Church, there is an immediacy about the defense and further exploration of orthodoxy in the East that is less obvious in the West – except when, as with Arianism in the Milan of St Ambrose’s day, the controversies spilled over into imperial politics. But no one could possibly regard St Augustine as anything other than a profound dogmatic thinker, and the same is true, in the more restricted genres of homilies and letters, of St Leo the Great (while, by contrast, St John Chrysostom, whom I reluctantly omitted from my choices, is mainly a moral commentator who, like the Westerners involved in the Pelagian controversy, was essentially a pupil of St Paul).

What the Latin Fathers lack is a late figure who could synthesize and summarize their doctrine in the way that St John Damascene (sometimes called the ‘Last of the Fathers’) did in the world of Greek-speaking Syria. One could venture the suggestion that this project was the principal task that awaited the High Scholastics in the Western tradition, above all St Thomas.

CWR: Why is it significant that the empty throne of Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica is held aloft by two Greek Fathers and two Latin Fathers? (Three are featured in the book, with the exception of St. John Chrysostom.)

Fr. Nichols: I think that the sculptured iconography of the throne of St Peter in Bernini’s basilica is of particular importance at our present juncture in Church history.

I take it that the form of the ornamentation of the throne was decided upon for characteristically Counter-Reformation reasons – to present by way of art the claims of the Roman Papacy, disputed by Lutherans and the Reformed, to patristic legitimacy. The scholars and apologists of the Protestant Reformation had renewed the historical objections posed by the Byzantine Orthodox at several stages in the making of the Eastern Schism: objections, that is, to the Petrine office as Western Orthodox (i. e. Catholics) had come, by the sixteenth century, to understand it.

Today we are faced with a rather different question: namely, is the claim of the Roman pope to leadership in the Christian world based on his ability to attune the people of God to the more respect-worthy aspirations of civil society, in its global development? Or, is that claim based, rather, on the fidelity of the Roman church (the local church of Rome under its episcopal heads) to the apostolic deposit, as transmitted over time by the Fathers in a definitive fashion summed up in the patristic Creeds, which, along with the drawing up of the Canon of Scripture, and the formation of the historic Liturgies, deliver to us the once-for-all, time-transcending, message of divine revelation.

CWR: Some might ask: Why study the Fathers? What can we learn from them directly, that we can’t learn from others who came later, or “just” reading the Catechism, for example?

Fr. Nichols: We can certainly receive much from the patrimony of the Fathers indirectly (and even unconsciously) through other media of the tradition. The High Mediaeval writers who were formed on the Fathers, through such instruments as the Glossed Bible as well as the ‘library resources’ of original texts available to them (though these were limited and often in the reduced form of anthologies), can also be regarded as channels of patristic instruction for the later Church. To present, say, St Thomas or St Bonaventure in that light is a very profitable way to read them and one that is far more current at the present time than it was a hundred or even fifty years ago.

The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, like, for instance, Aquinas’ Summa theologiae, both cites the Fathers explicitly and also communicates implicitly the substance of their doctrine. But to be formed in the ethos of the Fathers normally presupposes first-hand exposure to their writings – which is one reason why the corpus of texts provided by the contemporary Roman Rite Liturgy of the Hours – which does precisely that for most of the time in the second lection of the ‘Office of Readings’ – is so valuable a resource. The movement of ‘going back to the [patristic] sources’ in twentieth century Catholicism was supposed, among other things, to put the texts of the Fathers in affordable vernacular versions in the hands of the clergy and laity. The great French series Sources chrétiennes began with this admirable intention – but was soon hijacked for a quite different purpose: namely, the production of expensive scholarly bilingual editions for academic use.

The original idea has chiefly been taken up, so far as I can see, by the English-speaking Orthodox, in the admirable series of popular patristic classics produced by St Vladimir’s Press in New York. One can also of course, with the benefit of modern technology, look online for works of the Fathers not sheltering behind a paywall. But for the most part the result will be Victorian translations in English that is not user-friendly, and deprived of the benefit of expert introductions.

CWR: In the conclusion, you write “only by being ‘Patristic’ is the Church continuously ‘Apostolic’” (quoting Georges Florovsky). Can you unpack the meaning of this for us?

Fr. Nichols: Florovsky is always worth quoting since he was both a great champion of returning to the Fathers and a modern intellectual with a good grasp of the importance of such themes as historicity and personality which have a decent claim to be the two most valuable contributions of modernity to the Greco-Roman and biblical civilization of the West.

But the saying I quoted is, as you imply, rather cryptic. I think the best commentary I can offer is one drawn from the writings of the late Pope Benedict. Benedict XVI – still at this point Joseph Ratzinger – asks why it is, from the viewpoint of fundamental theology, that the Fathers have such authority in Christian theology, an authority so exalted that the Council of Trent (going beyond, in this respect, the view of the ‘common doctor’, Thomas Aquinas) deemed the consensus of the Fathers to be the supreme litmus test in evaluating the sources of revelation.

Benedict’s answer is that only with the Fathers is the apostolic revelation actually received by the Church – as distinct from (merely) offered, through the apostles, for her potential corporate reception. A revelation cannot be said to be fully given until it has been fully received, and this is what the Fathers do. So Florovsky’s dictum is vindicated.

Only by remaining in the truth of the Fathers can the Church continue to be rooted in the faith of the Apostles.

CWR: What do you hope readers will get from the book?

Fr. Nichols: I hope readers will get some further enlightenment about the teachings of the Christian faith, and a sense of the role of the Fathers in the establishing of those teachings. Then they can go on and study the Fathers for themselves, hopefully more fully and fruitfully than I have.


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About Paul Senz 113 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

3 Comments

  1. A straight polished arrow in Christ’s quiver, Aidan Nichols continues to guide the Church. Always informative, insightful.
    An interview on the Fathers, here the importance of the Eastern quite appropriate to the times. Gregory Nazianzen developed the essential doctrine Synderesis, which Thomas Aquinas incorporated in his own doctrine of identification by intuitive apprehension [realization of the natural law within] of the singular, the act, a first principle, the act to be done. Synderesis is the quasi auto reflective scrutiny by the universal that confirms the correctness of the singular. An essential feature of Thomas’ moral doctrine that separates it from a false, esoteric intuition ballyhooed during the 20th century.
    A well explained reason given by Nichols to review the ‘singing’ Eastern Fathers. My guess is singing refers to the practice of singing the tenets of the faith in Eastern liturgy. The Psalms as well as Augustine frequently refer to practice of the faith as a song.

  2. I was blessed intellectually and spiritually to have read Nichols OP in the seminary. This article is very accessible and can be used by pastors to guide a class on patristics.

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