Doing history is a difficult business, and the difficulty increases as one moves further back into history. It requires knowledge of texts, languages, art, sociology, philosophy, and economics (just to name a few), and the ability to weave this information into a coherent and (hopefully) interesting narrative. It is also made difficult by gaps, sometimes very large gaps, in the available information. In facing these gaps, the historian should use caution in asserting what was or was not the case. So far, much of what I said goes, well, without saying. But often when reading secondary literature in patristics, I run across statements that claim too much for the information available. They often run like this: “While there is very little evidence concerning what person X thought about topic Y, it is obvious that he/she thought Z.”
Really? Obvious to whom?
Now, early church historians who make such claims and then ground them with evidence from other examples of a writers corpus may be excused (generally speaking) from this critique. It’s those who draw “obvious” conclusions without arguing their case who are suspect here. Anytime you see the word “obvious” (or similar terms), be alert for some sleight of hand. It may be obvious to the author, but we the readers do not follow his/her logic (for none has been presented to follow), and indeed the patristic author himself (and sometimes herself) may not even follow the historians indubitable logic. And this should be a warning to all: what we may find to be a necessary conclusion by no means necessarily determines the meaning of an ancient writer. People, I am afraid to admit, are much less logical than we give them credit for, and history much more contingent.