From Sic et Non, 1120
There are many seeming contradictions and even obscurities in the innumerable writings
of the church fathers. Our respect for their authority should not stand in the way of an
effort on our part to come at the truth. The obscurity and contradictions in ancient
writings may be explained upon many grounds, and may be discussed without impugning the
good faith and insight of the fathers. A writer may use different terms to mean the same
thing, in order to avoid a monotonous repetition of the same word. Common, vague words may
be employed in order that the common people may understand; and sometimes a writer
sacrifices perfect accuracy in the interest of a clear general statement. Poetical,
figurative language is often obscure and vague.
Not infrequently apocryphal works are attributed to the saints. Then, even the best
authors often introduce the erroneous views of others and leave the reader to distinguish
between the true and the false. Sometimes, as Augustine confesses in his own case, the
fathers ventured to rely upon the opinions of others.
Doubtless the fathers might err; even Peter, the prince of the apostles, fell into
error: what wonder that the saints do not always show themselves inspired? The fathers did
not themselves believe that they, or their companions, were always right. Augustine found
himself mistaken in some cases and did not hesitate to retract his errors. He warns his
admirers not to look upon his letters as they would upon the Scriptures, but to accept
only those things which, upon examination, they find to be true.
All writings belonging to this class are to be read with full freedom to criticize, and
with no obligation to accept unquestioningly; otherwise they way would be blocked to all
discussion, and posterity be deprived of the excellent intellectual exercise of debating
difficult questions of language and presentation. But an explicit exception must be made
in the case of the Old and New Testaments. In the Scriptures, when anything strikes us as
absurd, we may not say that the writer erred, but that the scribe made a blunder in
copying the manuscripts, or that there is an error in interpretation, or that the passage
is not understood. The fathers make a very careful distinction between the Scriptures and
later works. They advocate a discriminating, not to say suspicious, use of the writings of
their own contemporaries.
In view of these considerations, I have ventured to bring together various dicta of the
holy fathers, as they came to mind, and to formulate certain questions which were
suggested by the seeming contradictions in the statements. These questions ought to serve
to excite tender readers to a zealous inquiry into truth and so sharpen their wits. The
master key of knowledge is, indeed, a persistent and frequent questioning. Aristotle, the
most clear-sighted of all the philosophers, was desirous above all things else to arouse
this questioning spirit, for in his Categories he exhorts a student as follows:
"It may well be difficult to reach a positive conclusion in these matters unless they
be frequently discussed. It is by no means fruitless to be doubtful on particular points.
" By doubting we come to examine, and by examining we reach the truth.
From: James Harvey Robinson, ed., Readings in European History, 2 Vols. (Boston:
Ginn & Co., 1904-06), Vol. I: From the Breaking up of the Roman Empire to the
Protestant Revolt, pp. 450-451.
Scanned in and modernized by Dr. Jerome S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State
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© Paul Halsall June 1998