Having set the stage by talking about the very real *need* for Fathers in the Faith, let me now start to outline why Rome’s view of fathers in general, and the Fathers in particular, is at best only a half-truth, and so is unable to actually fill that void you may be feeling as someone not currently “connected” in any significant way to the deep and wide patrimony of our Faith.
In the sense that we’re dealing with here, fatherhood has a certain “mystique” hovering around it. There’s no doubt that we live in a time when fatherhood has fallen on hard times. Broken families are the norm for far too many children growing up, and they carry the burdens of the emotional and intellectual and relational damage from their earthly fathers’ failures for the rest of their lives. Yet still, something within craves a proper father figure, one who (mostly) always says the right things, (mostly) always does the right things, and (entirely) always keeps the “child” safe from all the monsters he never learned how to fight by way of a proper earthly father’s example.
How much more, for those who come from whole families, with good, strong fathers, must the example of such a figure weigh on the consciousness! If those from broken families find themselves as adults desperately wanting something they were, in essence, owed by their failures-of-fathers, how much more must those who had excellent dads admire and desire more of the same even once they are no longer children?
This mystique surrounding fathers is powerful, and I think it is a design-feature of the world, made as it was by the Heavenly Father who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16) and so naturally draws our minds and hearts upward to Him.
And so, what is true in the earthly realm turns out also to be true in the spiritual realm. Because we human beings are composites of bodies and souls, the mystique of biological fathers easily maps onto spiritual fathers, creating a built-in attraction to, and in no small way, deference to, those who preceded us in the Faith and introduced us to it.
For many of us, this may only be people in the here-and-now: the good friend from work through whose testimony oneself came to Jesus; the kind, always-approachable family pastor who has been a fixture in our lives from earliest childhood; the foreign missionary who inspired us to take up our cross, too, and follow Him. Well and good.
On the other hand, when one begins to become aware of the very long, fantastic history of the Christian Faith for the last 2,000 years, it often becomes clear that the word father really does need to be given a vastly more rich connotation. One may have before simply glossed over 1 Cor. 4:15-16, in which Paul says, “Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me”, content with a bare “literal” reading of it. But such glossing may no longer seem sufficient in the light of such elementary facts as that the very existence of the Bible itself is due entirely to a lengthy historical train of Christians whose work in innumerable ways small and great led right up to one’s own conversion.
What of these “fathers”? Don’t they deserve the same admiration – and perhaps even submission – as fathers on a more mundane sort of level? Hebrews 11, the famed Scriptural “Hall of Faith,” quite interestingly weaves together stories of such “fathers” that are explicitly told within its own pages and stories of such “fathers” not explicitly told within its own pages (compare most of the chapter with verses 36-38: some mentioned there are not “biblical” heroes, yet they are commended to us for our example anyway). The more history one becomes aware of, the more one comes to realize that one has many, many more “fathers” than at first seemed obvious.
Thus does the natural, God-made, essentially healthy mystique of fathers provide, for many, a compelling rationale for expanding their spiritual horizons by digging into the history of the Church, particularly the several centuries of theological and practical writings produced by the broad class of post-Apostolic writers called “the Church Fathers.”
The question may quite easily and naturally arise that, if 1 Corinthians 10 deliberately recounts negative theological history for us with the admonition, “these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did,” might it just not be proper and God-pleasing for us to get to know the numerous positive examples in Christian history “as examples urging us to set our hearts on good, true, and noble things as they did”?
For both those who had awful earthly fathers and for those who had good ones, the deep and wide patrimony of our Faith can – and, I think, should – become an important way of drawing the heart further up and further in toward God, since, after all, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). The mystique of fathers leads easily and naturally to the Mystique of the Fathers, and it will be to that topic that I turn in the next segment.