(Desmond Birch is one of the foremost living Eschatologists in the Church. He is, perhaps, best known for his great eschatological work, “Trial, Tribulation and Triumph: Before, During and After Antichrist.” Though meticulously detailed, it is a very accessible work for those who want to know what the Church formally teaches on this enigmatic subject. Birch does not entirely banish speculative prophecy from the book, but he takes great pains to separate what the Church formally teaches – what we know to be true – from what is not confirmed and also not condemned, material that we are free to consider. We became fast friends several years ago. Though we often disagree – which makes for lively dialogue – we deeply respect and enjoy each other’s very serious approach, respect for, and dedication to the authentic faith. Birch is one of the two or three most deeply knowledgable people I have ever met on the faith. He has been a distinguished lecturer at various seminaries and has conducted seminars at Dioceses around the world. Once he was looking for a passage to quote to me, found it in a Latin tome, and translated it on the spot in his study for me. I chose the picture above for this article because it follows naturally from the subject, but also because it amusingly reminds me of Birch’s study.-CJ)
By Desmond A. Birch
Charlie [and all],
I’ve taught and tutored ‘The Fathers’ now for over 40 years. Getting a basic feel for the lives, general thrust, and writings of the ‘Fathers of the Church’ per se is a daunting task. It is difficult at best even with the direction and advice of solid Patristic scholarship from your teachers/Profs.
The list of books recommended in James McAuley’s article isn’t bad at all – with one kind of caveat to be found below.
[Mind you, in what I’m about to write – I’m NOT trying to discourage anyone from trying to wade through the writings of the Fathers. But for the beginner, there is a COMPANION way to learn which I always recommend to students beginning study of the Church Fathers. I’ll cite this series a little later].
Here is the main problem for the non-professionals: For a professional teaching Patristics, it takes approximately 20 to 30 years to studiously get through the vast majority of the subject material. By the time they finish, they discover that they remember much of what they have read in a general manner – but they still often need a good reference library [private or one to which they have ready access] from which to refresh their memories and flesh out their thought.
Now, my intent here is not to denigrate anything recommended in the article above.
HOWEVER, I NEVER refer people to the writings of Origen without a gentle warning that, parts of Origen’s writings were condemned by several General Councils of the Church for containing material which is incompatible with the teachings of the Church – [as you will find referenced below in the words of Pope St. John Paul II].
Two examples are;
1) Origen’s teaching of a ‘Final Apocatastasis,’ some point at the end of salvation history at which all will be ‘regenerated reconciled with God.’ A number of Origen’s contemporaries chided him with questions as to whether Satan and the fallen angels will be released from hell at the end of time.
Of course – as those Councils, and John Paul II point out in his ‘Crossing the Threshold of Hope’,
“The problem of hell has always disturbed great thinkers in the Church, beginning with ORIGEN and continuing in our time with Mikhail Bulgakov and Hans Urs von Balthasar. In point of fact, the ancient councils rejected the theory of the “final apocatastasis,’ according to which the world would be regenerated after destruction”, and every creature would be saved, A THEORY WHICH INDIRECTLY ABOLISHED HELL [*emphasis mine*]. But the problem remains. Can God, who loved man so much, permit the man who rejects Him to be condemned to eternal punishment? AND YET, the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s Gospel He clearly speaks of those who go to eternal punishment (cf. Mt. 25:46).” [Crossing the Threshold of Hope, by His Holiness John Paul II, Pub. Alfred E. Knopf, New York, 1994, p.185.]
John Paul II’s condemnation of these ideas in Origen could not be clearer. The Church has always condemned, the idea of Universal Salvation which Origen taught, as She does so to this day.
Additionally, here is just one of the paragraphs from the Catechism of the Catholic Church which teaches this with absolute certainty vis-a-vis the eternity of hell:
– *1035 * The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.
Origen also taught the pre-existence of souls, i.e., that God pre-created the souls of all those who will ever come to life – and that those souls in some manner lay dormant till the creation of a human body here on earth – at which point God takes one of them out and joins it with the newly created body. [That is a crude explanation of Origen’s theory on the prior creation of all souls – but it essentially covers the subject.] The Church of course refuses this explanation, and holds that God creates the human soul of a human being “at the moment of conception”.
These theories of Origen were not formally condemned by the Church till after the death of Origen. Therefore, such heresies in Origen’s case were ‘material’ ones – not ‘formal’. In other words, his errors were in ignorance of the Church’s eventual formal teachings on such matters.
Never-the-less, I always pre-warn my students of the fact that there are some dangerously grave concepts and ideas to be found in the writings of Origen. I do that just before I recommend certain of Origen’s writings to them, such as his commentary of the ‘Song of Songs’ [amongst others]. I always try to have them read a reasonable number of selections from Origen’s commentary on that Book, before I have them read St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on same. (In 1830, P. Pius VIII declared St. Bernard to be a Doctor of the Church, with the title ‘Mellifluous Doctor’.)
Many of the Fathers made mistakes here and there. Therefore, amongst other works at hand in the library, I recommend the 3 vol. set of Fr. William A. Jurgens, ‘THE FAITH of the EARLY FATHERS, selected and translated by Rev. William A. Jurgens, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN., 1979. IT HAS AN EXCELLENT DOCTRINAL AND TOPICAL INDEX. This can be invaluable in ascertaining where a quote from one of the Fathers stands, within the body of the Church’s full teaching.
One final observation, as Pope Pius XII observed that, besides being a Doctor of the Church, St. Bernard of Clairvaux was chronologically speaking, the last Father of the Church.
Bernard, in large part, represents ‘large’ the great Monastic Tradition of scholarship – and thought on and explication of the writings of earlier Church Fathers. There is an excellent hard bound edition covering a vast amount of those writings of Bernard – with truly fruitful introduction and commentary on said writings. … [If anyone wishes to know where to get that edition, ask Charlie, and he will pass that request on to me and I can send any inquirer the salient information].
Why do I recommend Bernard’s writings so highly? Because, in fact, he integrates the best thought of the other Fathers, (as one example, of Origen) without any of the doctrinal errors some of them made.
All that having been said, I wish for all a most spiritually prosperous New Year, filled with God’s blessings and our recognition of them as such.
All my love in Christ