In a time of blockbuster television specials about the discovery of “lost” gospels, Jesus seminars, and a steady stream of theological fads designed to make celebrities out of seminary professors, the thought of compiling a collection of patristic writings on the practice of good works seems slightly out of the mainstream, if not countercultural. But that is exactly what Thomas C. Oden has done with The Good Works Reader, a book that succeeds as an introduction, a guide, and a refresher course in the daunting task of living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the here and now.
Oden, who has led the Protestant “paleo-orthodox” movement toward deeper appreciation of the early church, is the Henry Anton Buttz Professor Emeritus of Theology at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and general editor of the multivolume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. The Good Works Reader serves as a companion to Oden’s The Justification Reader (Eerdmans, 2002), which was, as he described it, “an effort to show a worldwide consensus on salvation teaching among two thousand years of Christians of extremely varied historical and cultural memories.” Read together, the readers aim to “give balance in the correction of a single error: the displacement of faith by works or works by faith. This balance is expressed in the scriptural teaching of faith active in love.”
Oden is convinced that the Fathers are “profoundly in accord” with core Lutheran and Reformed teachings on good works from Luther to Calvin and beyond. “The Protestant fantasy that patristic writers paid little attention to scripture is easily corrected simply by reading their probing scriptural exposition. Every issue classically contested was settled by appeal to scripture. Every pertinent passage of scripture received careful critical examination on philological, linguistic, moral, philosophical, and liturgical grounds.”
The Good Works Reader, Oden hopes, should also remind those Catholics who may be fixated on modern post-Vatican II teachings to return to a deeper appreciation of the Fathers. And Orthodox Christians, who historically have paid little heed to the Latin Fathers, will expand their horizons.
The goal of The Good Works Reader is to “allow the ancients to speak for themselves, and let their relevance be judged by those who wish to put their vision into actual practice. The aim of this exercise is changed behavior, not theoretical insight alone.” Indeed, the Fathers were not strictly speaking “theologians” as we would understand that narrow professional path today. They were also preachers, bishops (many but not all of them clergy), saints, tireless evangelists of the Gospel who in many cases gave their lives for the faith.
“A wide consensus on moral teaching emerges in the central stream of ancient Christian teaching,” Oden asserts. This consensus “was well established a thousand years before modernity” and was visible in the work of the ecumenical councils that relied on these Fathers in settling the great questions of the faith. Most familiar to readers will be the eight great doctors of the church: Athanasius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom in the east, and Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory in the west. There are many here who will be new to the reader first approaching the Fathers—from Egiria, a fourth century nun living in what is today Spain to the sixth century Bede the Venerable (the Father of English History) to Theophylact of Ohrid, the eleventh century Bulgarian exegete.
Oden broadly, and rightly, covers the span of the undivided church in the first millenium to include the Apostolic Fathers (those in closest contact with the apostles of Jesus Christ), through the Desert Fathers and beyond, and ranges from Britain to North Africa, from Gaul to Syria. (The Eastern Orthodox would add Gregory Palamas, the fourteenth century champion of hesychastic prayer, to this list). The church was also gifted with great teachers who might be termed “Church Mothers” but whose works were regrettably and too often lost to posterity.
The sayings of the Fathers in The Good Works Reader are arranged topically: the poor; food and hospitality; reaching out for the outcast; the imprisoned and the persecuted; the least of these; philanthropy; and deeds not words.
When the Fathers speak out of the depositum fidei (deposit of faith) of the early church, they speak clearly:
God never asks his servants to do what is impossible. The love and goodness of his Godhead is revealed as richly available. It is poured out like water upon all. God furnishes to each person according to his will the ability to do something good (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Christian Mode of Life; Mark 9:41).
Grace is given not because we have done good works but in order that we may have power to do them, not because we have fulfilled the law but in order that we may be able to fulfill it (Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter 16, Rom. 11:6)
And, consistent with Scripture (Ephesians 2:8–10), the Fathers avoided a false opposition of faith and works. Instead, they understood faith and works as a unity, enabled by grace through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Care should be taken in reading the Fathers (although not in the selections provided by Oden in the Reader) not to approach them uncritically and toss around their sayings as “proof texts” for one position or another. Many of the works of the best known Fathers were marred by error or outright heresy and in this the consensus of the church on what is good in them, and should be preserved, is to be followed.
Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky wrote: “It is a dangerous habit ‘to quote’ the Fathers, that is, their isolated sayings and phrases, outside of that concrete setting in which only they have their full and proper meaning, and are truly alive.” That “concrete setting” was the active life of faith, he said, one guided by the “simple message” once delivered and deposited by the apostles.
Oden tell us that the aim of The Good Works Reader “is changed behavior, not theoretical insight alone.” And that is, indeed, the difficult path. “The heart of the Gospel is God’s good work for us,” Oden writes. “What we do in response is a story every believer lives out. It is the story of faith becoming active in love.”