Category Archives: Church fathers
Newly released edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology is devoted to the study of the early church preachers and writers (patrology). Nick Needham, a gifted church historian, publishes a fascinating article on why we need to read Augustine today. In part he writes,
“Augustine wrestles endlessly with the most fundamental questions of existence. What can the human mind truly know? What is God? What is truth? What is beauty? What is time? What is history? What is the soul? What is memory? What is faith? What is reason? What is the relationship between faith and reason? What is justice? What is human destiny? What are the proper limits of political action? Where does evil come from? How can we reconcile evil and suffering with a belief in a good and almighty God? Augustine sets the example par excellence of a Christian thinker determined to view the whole of life in the light of his faith, rather than give a little private corner of it to Christ, leaving the rest to be squeezed into the mold of contemporary non-Christian culture.”
-Nick Needham in the journal article, “Augustine of Hippo: The Relevance of His Life and Thought Today.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (vol. 12, No. 2, Summer 2008 ) p. 39. [download the article as PDF here].
“The real history of Christianity is the history of a great spiritual tradition. The only true apostolical succession is the lives of the saints. Clement of Alexandria compared the Church to a great river, receiving affluents from all sides. The great river sometimes flows impetuously through a narrow channel; sometimes it spreads like a flood; sometimes it divides into several streams; sometimes, for a time, it seems to have been driven underground. But the Holy Spirit has never left himself without witness; and if we will put aside a great deal of what passes for Church history, and is really a rather unedifying branch of secular history, and follow the course of the religion of the Spirit and the Church of the Spirit, we shall judge very differently of the relative importance of events from those who merely follow the fortunes of institutionalism.”
-W. R. Inge, Things New and Old (1933), p. 57. As quoted on page 161 of F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame: The Rise and Progress of Christianity from its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English (Paternoster, Wipf & Stock), 1958.
Perhaps next week, I’ll be posting the full interview I was privileged to conduct Thursday night with Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III. Duncan is a patristics scholar and pastor so it was an interesting opportunity to connect the value of patristics (the church fathers) to the life and ministry of a pastor (especially a busy one).
Here is an excerpt to the question: Why should a busy pastor read patristic literature in the first place?
“When we go back to the church fathers we see them defending the important Christian doctrines that are very basic to us, those doctrines that—if we’ve been Christians for a long time—we may well take for granted, doctrines we don’t question, or have any qualms about. Sometimes as important as they are, we don’t think about them much, and we don’t weave them into our teaching, nor do we express the passion for the importance of them to our people as we ought. When we go back to the patristic period and we see the church fathers defending the reality of, for example, the incarnation of Christ and showing the importance of it, we may—who have fully embraced the incarnation of Christ and never questioned it in our Christian experience—suddenly have a new sense of the significance and the absolute essentialness of the doctrine of the incarnation in a way we hadn’t before.”
And the questions I asked Dr. Duncan …
- Define for us “patristics” or “patrology.”
- Why should a busy pastor read patristic literature in the first place?
- What hurdles do pastors face in reading and benefiting from patristic writings?
- For the beginner, recommend a few specific patristic titles covering history, biography, and primary sources.
- What contemporary debates align themselves with controversies addressed by the patristic authors?
- Our culture seems to be growing increasing secular (some would say increasingly secular with a corresponding increase in robust Christian faith in some circles). If this is growing secularism is true, what can we learn from the church fathers on how to engage a “pagan” culture?
- In reading the patristics a pastor will be faced with thoughts or practices of the early church fathers that were incorrect. What concerns do you have for a pastor getting his feet wet in the patristic writings?
- Would you agree that in patristic writings we see a stress on ethics over and above the gospel?
- Dr. Duncan, you are a gifted patristic scholar, have been pastoring at First Presbyterian in Jackson for over 12 years now, and preaching on a regular basis. How do your preaching and pastoral ministry reflect the impact of patristic authors?
I’ll keep you posted when the audio is ready for download.
I enjoy reading. I enjoy devotional works, some biographies, systematic theologies, and technical commentaries (some of which I have read cover-to-cover!). But unlike a good systematic theology, church history books — even the best ones — never grabbed me with two-hands on the collar, pulled me to my feet, looked me in the eye, and captured my attention.
Often “church history” books contain too little personal information to understand the characters or too little theological development to understand the contemporary importance of the ancient debates. Sometimes church histories include too many loosely-connected people that they become a mess of names, dates, and cities far disconnected from my Christian experience and theology.
But over the past year I think I’m growing in my appreciation for church history through a growing interest in historical theology. Historical theology being the discipline of tracing events, controversies, personalities and books over the centuries that have shaped the church’s theology.
Historical theology is hard on the collar.
But excellent books on historical theology are a rarity. The most commonly recommend is the standard work by Alister McGrath’s, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Wiley-Blackwell: 1998 ). And there are some systematic theologies with an awareness of historical developments (like Culver and Akin). But my radar is always on the lookout for other volumes.
Enter Carl Trueman. Recently, I listened to Trueman’s lectures on church history from the Fulwood Conference (Nov. 8-9, 2007; Christ Church Fulwood, U.K.). At the beginning of his second conference address, Trueman recommended some books and I scratched them down in a notebook. I’m glad I did.
Here’s what Trueman said:
“There was one question that I was asked. Could I recommend a book to read alongside the historical theology module run by Moore College? Two things I would recommend there: (1) The series being written by a guy named Nicholas Needham. It’s called 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power (Evangelical Press) and is proving to be a very good, comprehensive, but easy-to-read account of church history. It comes in several volumes. (2) And the other book I recommend to students – the best single-volume on the history of theology – written by a Scandinavian Lutheran named Bengt Hägglund, titled simply, History of Theology (Concordia: 2007). It’s a single volume that takes you from the early church almost down to the present day in terms of the history of theology. So those would be the two books I would recommend.”
These would prove to become fruitful recommendations. Here are more details:
History of Theology by Bengt Hägglund (Concordia: 2007). The fourth revised edition of this volume was published in the Spring of this year. I’m awaiting a copy of Hägglund’s volume and I’ll pass along more detailed information soon.
But in this post I want to focus more on the 2000 Years of Christ’s Power series by N.R. Needham (Evangelical Press). The series will total five volumes, and to date three have been published.
Part One: The Age of the Early Fathers (Evangelical Press: 1998)
Part Two: The Middle Ages (Evangelical Press: 2000). Paperback, 460 pages.
Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation (Evangelical Press: 2004). Paperback, 624 pages.
I’ve read through several chapters in Needham’s two newest volumes (Part Two: The Middle Ages and Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation). Here are my preliminary notes:
- Rev. Dr. Nick Needham is a Baptist pastor and teaches church history at Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland. His series of writings are written for a popular audience of modern Christian readers. The back cover notes this series was written “in a style that will appeal to the non-specialist and any modern Christian will find it challenging and stimulating.” I agree. Needham is a lucid author that presents a great amount of detail while keeping me engaged. His masterful use of frequent section breaks, clearly numbered outlines, boldly-fonted names, and visual aids keep me reading long sections very comfortably. These volumes excel in readability.
- In the beginning of Part Three: Renaissance and Reformation, Needham states he is “Reformed by theological conviction” (3:12). On the same page he goes on to say, “I have little sympathy with that form of ‘ecumenism’ which relativises, and thereby trivialises, the convictions for which men and women lived and fought and died in the 16th century. That isn’t to say I disapprove of deeper understanding among the different religious traditions that claim the name of Christian; I approve heartily. But sometimes, deeper understanding will lead us to appreciate just how deeply we do differ on not a few issues, despite surprising measures of agreement on others. Papering over the cracks in the interests of some ecumenical ‘happy family’ game, in which sincerity is more highly prized than truth, is not this writer’s agenda, either as a historian or a Churchman.”
- The publisher plugs these volumes as a series on church history not explicitly a historical theology although it’s pretty obvious these volumes simultaneously cover the historical and theological development of the church. Probably, I find myself engaged by the content because of the author’s obvious interest in theology. Remember Trueman recommended Needham in answering a question about books on historical theology. A fitting recommendation.
- Needham clearly and concretely explains the broad political, social, and economic climate, then weaves in the specific writers, preachers, leaders, and books that shaped the theology. The volume covering the theological developments during the Middle Ages was fascinating, probably because I have previously dissed the era as a theological trifle. It was not. Especially noteworthy was Needham’s chapter on the global rise of Islam and its impact on Christian theology (2:15-45). I was surprised to learn John of Damascus (675-749) ministered under Islamic rule and even acted as a Prime Minister to the local Islamic rule! Within these medieval debates over Islamic theology opened controversies on the Trinity, incarnation, God’s sovereignty, and the nature of worship. These debates were handled by men like John of Damascus and Thomas Aquinas. My point is: Needham’s scope of content expands beyond the walls of the church to provide necessary historical background in the theological developments within the walls. [In contrast, note McGrath's Historical Theology makes no mention of Islam].
- Each chapter concludes with a well-selected sampling of original source material to reinforce the chapter contents.
- Each volume includes a very detailed glossary, an extensive index of names and (best of all) an extensive subject index.
- The covers make for an odd marriage. The bottom 1/3rd is nice, featuring a line of portraits. The upper 2/3rds however are not so attractive. If the bottom appeals to a reader of cultured artistic tastes, I would say the top will catch the attention of roughly the same folks that pack a NASCAR race in the hopes of witnessing an explosion.
- Permit me to construct a hypothetical. What if the title of these volumes was swapped out for something like — The History of the Church and Her Theology — or something to highlight the excellent historical theology? What if they were reprinted as hardcovers with clean and classy dustjack design? Perhaps some light ornamentation on the cover like Eerdmans’ Machen or Yale’s Gombrich? What if the pages featured the torn, antique paper edge like you see in popular historical volumes 1776 and Alexander Hamilton? And what if the text font was reformatted from the lifeless Times New-Roman to a graceful Garamond? These volumes may not carry the narrative and dialogue intrigue of books like 1776, but with the rising interest in historical non-fiction volumes, a new format would more accurately capture the content of these volumes and would perhaps appeal to a larger audience. I would love to see these volumes in the feel and smell of the history books so popular today. You know what I’m talking about (and that’s my point).
In the end, these volumes by N.R. Needham are a nice find for the historical theology buff! I’m glad Carl Trueman recommended them, because likely in my search for good historical theology I would have shrouded them under my suspicion of anything “church history.”
by John Chrysostom
Let there be an armament composed of infantry, cavalry, and marines, and let a number of triremes cover the sea, and phalanxes of foot and horse cover most of the plains, and the ridges of the mountains, and let the metal of their armor reflect the sunshine, and the glitter of the helmets and shields be reflected by the beams which are emitted from them; let the clashing of spears and the neighing of horses be borne up to the very heavens, and let neither sea nor land appear, but only brass and iron in every direction. Let the enemy be drawn up in battle array opposite to these, fierce and savage men, and let the time of the engagement be now at hand. Then let some one suddenly seize some young lad, one of those brought up in the country, knowing nothing but the use of the shepherd’s pipe and crook; let him be clad in brazen armor, and let him be led round the whole camp and be shown the squadrons and their officers, the archers, slingers, captains, generals, the foot and horse, the spearmen, the triremes and their commanders, the dense mass of soldiers in the ships, and the multitude of engines of war lying ready on board. Let him be shown, moreover, the whole array of the enemy, their repulsive aspect, and the varied stores and unusual quantity of their arms; the ravines also and precipices of the mountains, deep and difficult.
Let him be shown further on the enemies’ side, horses flying by some enchantment and infantry borne through the air, and sorcery of every power and form; and let him consider the calamities of war, the cloud of spears, the hailstorm of arrows, that great mist and obscurity that gloomiest night which the multitude of weapons occasions, eclipsing the sunbeams with their cloud, the dust no less than the darkness baffling the eyesight. The torrents of blood, the groanings of the falling, the shouts of the surviving, the heaps of slain, wheels bathed in blood, horses with their riders thrown headlong down, owing to the number of corpses, the ground a scene of general confusion, blood, and bows, and arrows, hoofs of horses and heads of men lying together, a human arm and a chariot wheel and a helmet, a breast pierced through, brains sticking to swords, the point of a dart broken off with an eye transfixed upon it. Then let him reckon up the sufferings of the naval force, the triremes burning in the midst of the waves, and sinking with their armed crews, the roaring of the sea, the tumult of the sailors, the shout of the soldiers, the foam of the waves mixed with blood, and dashing over into all the ships; the corpses on the decks, some sinking, some floating, some cast upon the beach, overwhelmed by the waves, and obstructing the passage of the ships. And when he has been carefully instructed in all the tragedy of warfare, let the horrors of captivity and of slavery be added to it, worse than any kind of death; and having told him all this, bid him mount his horse straightway, and take command of all that armament.
Dost thou really think that this lad would be equal to more than the mere description, and would not, at the very first glance, lose heart?
Do not think that I have exaggerated the matter by my account, nor suppose that because we are shut up in this body, as in some prison house, and are unable to see anything of the invisible world, that what has been said is overstated. For thou wouldest see a far greater and more formidable conflict than this, couldest thou ever behold, with these eyes of thine, the devil’s most gloomy battle array, and his frantic onset. For there is no brass or iron there. No horses, or chariots or wheels, no fire and darts. These are visible things. But there are other much more fearful engines than these. One does not need against these enemies breastplate or shield, sword and spear, yet the sight only of this accursed array is enough to paralyze the soul, unless it happen to be very noble, and to enjoy in a high degree as a protection to its own courage the providential care of God.
And if it were possible by putting off this body, or still keeping it, to see clearly and fearlessly with the naked eye the whole of his battle array, and his warfare against us, thou wouldest see no torrents of blood, nor dead bodies, but so many fallen souls, and such disastrous wounds that the whole of that description of warfare which I just now detailed to thee thou wouldest think to be mere child’s sport and pastime rather than war: so many are there smitten every day, and the wounds in the two cases do not bring about the same death, but as great as is the difference between the soul from the body, so great is the difference between that death and this. For when the soul receives a wound, and falls, it does not lie as a lifeless body, but it is thenceforth tormented, being gnawed by an evil conscience; and after its removal hence, at the time of judgment, it is delivered over to eternal punishment; and if any one be without grief in regard to the wounds given by the devil, his danger becomes the greater for his insensibility. For whoever is not pained by the first wound, will readily receive a second, and after that a third. For the unclean spirit will not cease assaulting to the last breath, whenever he finds a soul supine and indifferent to his first wounds; and if thou wouldest inquire into the method of attack, thou wouldest find this much more severe and varied. For no one ever knew so many forms of craft and deceit as that unclean spirit.
By this indeed, he has acquired the greater part of his power, nor can any one have so implacable a hatred against his worst enemies as the evil one against the human race. And if any one inquire into the vehemence with which he fights, here again it would be ludicrous to bring men into comparison with him. But if any one choose out the fiercest and most savage of beasts, and is minded to set their fury against his, he will find that they were meek and quiet in comparison, such rage does he breathe forth when he attacks our souls; and the period of the warfare indeed in the former case is brief, and in this brief space there are respites; for the approach of the night and the fatigue of slaughter, meal-times also, and many other things, afford a respite to the soldier, so that he can doff his armor and breathe a little, and refresh himself with food and drink, and in many other ways recover his former strength.
But in the case of the evil one it is not possible ever to lay aside one’s armor, it is not possible even to take sleep, for one who would remain always unscathed. For one of two things must be: either to fall and perish unarmed, or to stand equipped and ever watchful. For he ever stands with his own battle array, watching for our indolence, and laboring more zealously for our destruction, than we for our salvation … How shall I be able to help, how to profit thee under so great a burden of office (pastoring)? But since this is pleasant to thee, take courage, dear soul, for at any time at which it is possible for thee to have leisure amid thine own cares, I will come and will comfort thee, and nothing shall be wanting of what is in my power.
- John Chrysostom, taken from book 6 of his Treatise Concerning the Christian Priesthood (translated with introduction and notes by the Rev. W. R. W. Stephens).
Beckwith and the Patristics
In the past I have asked the question, what place do the Patristic authors play in our understanding of Scripture? Should preachers and teachers invest in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series or not? This has been a theme for the past few months, drawing a range of responses. At a recent leadership conference Mark Dever voiced his appreciation for a few Patristic theological works but an overall hesitancy to the importance of Patristic exegesis for the preacher. Since, various writers have responded on the topic and a growing discussion over the Patristics has ensued. The May edition of the Reformation21 magazine has a feature story by Michael A G Haykin titled, “Why Study the Fathers?” The current theme at Reformation21 blog is “What profit is there in studying the Church Fathers?”
Amidst all this, the Evangelical community was surprised on Saturday when Francis Beckwith (the current President of the Evangelical Theological Society) announced his ‘conversion’ to Roman Catholicism. There were a number of factors for his decisions but in part, he writes:
“The past four months have moved quickly for me and my wife. As you probably know, my work in philosophy, ethics, and theology has always been Catholic friendly, but I would have never predicted that I would return to the Church, for there seemed to me too many theological and ecclesiastical issues that appeared insurmountable. However, in January, at the suggestion of a dear friend, I began reading the Early Church Fathers as well as some of the more sophisticated works on justification by Catholic authors. I became convinced that the Early Church is more Catholic than Protestant and that the Catholic view of justification, correctly understood, is biblically and historically defensible. Even though I also believe that the Reformed view is biblically and historically defensible, I think the Catholic view has more explanatory power to account for both all the biblical texts on justification as well as the church’s historical understanding of salvation prior to the Reformation all the way back to the ancient church of the first few centuries. Moreover, much of what I have taken for granted as a Protestant — e.g., the catholic creeds, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the Christian understanding of man, and the canon of Scripture — is the result of a Church that made judgments about these matters and on which non-Catholics, including Evangelicals, have declared and grounded their Christian orthodoxy in a world hostile to it. Given these considerations, I thought it wise for me to err on the side of the Church with historical and theological continuity with the first generations of Christians that followed Christ’s Apostles.”
Carl Trueman responded by writing:
“As to patristic writings being more Catholic than Protestant, I would be the first to concede that modern evangelicalism has not been strong in its study and use of patristic authors, unlike the great founders of Protestantism such as Oecolampadius, Calvin, Owen etc. This is a great and serious fault and places evangelicalism in serious danger of not being catholic in the best and true sense. But to argue that the patristic authors are more Catholic than Protestant is arguably to impose anachronistic categories upon the first five centuries.”
So Beckwith argues, to read the Patristic authors is to be more convinced of Rome’s exegetical and theological consistency. Trueman and others argue we must read the Patristic authors to reinforce the Reformed theology. So amidst this confusion, how should common Christian readers and pastors respond?
I return to a quote from John Owen, a man who read widely in the Patristic authors (as Trueman notes). In his book, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein (4:117-234), Owen writes the following:
“The joint consent of the fathers or ancient doctors of the church is also pretended as a rule of Scripture interpretation [in Roman Catholic interpretation]. But those who make this plea are apparently influenced by their supposed interest so to do. No man of ingenuity who hath ever read or considered them, or any of them, with attention and judgment, can abide by this pretense; for it is utterly impossible they should be an authentic rule unto others who so disagree among themselves, as they will be found to do, not, it may be, so much in articles of faith, as in their exposition of Scripture, which is the matter under consideration. About the former they express themselves diversely; in the latter they really differ, and that frequently. Those who seem most earnestly to press this dogma upon us are those of the church of Rome; and yet it is hard to find one learned man among them who hath undertaken to expound or write commentaries on the Scripture, but on all occasions he gives us the different senses, expositions, and interpretations of the fathers, of the same places and texts, and that where any difficulty occurs in a manner perpetually. But the pretense of the authoritative determination of the fathers in points of religion hath been so disproved, and the vanity of it so fully discovered, as that it is altogether needless farther to insist upon it. … Of those who designedly wrote comments and expositions on any part of the Scripture, Origen was the first, whose fooleries and mistakes, occasioned by the prepossession of his mind with platonical philosophy, confidence of his own great abilities (which, indeed, were singular and admirable), with the curiosity of a speculative mind, discouraged not others from endeavoring with more sobriety and better success to write entire expositions on some parts of the Scripture: such among the Greeks were Chrysostom, Theodoret, Aretine, Oecumenius, Theophylact; and among the Latins, Jerome, Ambrose, Austin, and others. These have been followed, used, improved, by others innumerable, in succeeding ages. Especially since the Reformation hath the work been carried on with general success, and to the great advantage of the church; yet hath it not proceeded so far but that the best, most useful, and profitable labor in the Lord’s vineyard, which any holy and learned man can engage himself in, is to endeavor the contribution of farther light in the opening and exposition of Scripture, or any part thereof” (Works 4:227-228).
Owen understood several important points: (1) There was a lack of cohesive consent of the Patristic authors (contra Beckwith’s statements). (2) The Patristic authors lacked exegetical clarity and required a further illumination of Scripture. (3) The Reformation period was a great boon in biblical understanding. (4) We should be weary of those who make the Patristic authors authoritative. (5) We can be thankful for the exegetical work of Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine while also seeking to make Scripture’s content clearer through contemporary commentaries. The Patristic authors have been “improved” by “innumerable” authors in later generations. Owen makes it clear that those exegetical works arising from the pens of the reformers are especially illuminating. (6) Owen understood the pull of antiquity would contend for the hearts of those that should be committed to exegetical clarity and progress. Indeed contemporary commentators are “the best, most useful, and profitable labor in the Lord’s vineyard.” (7) By principle, neither should we stop with John Calvin, John Owen or other Puritan/Reformed expositions! Although our exegetical understanding of Scripture has been “improved, by others innumerable, in succeeding ages” we will always be in need of “farther light” upon God’s Word. Owen here is humbly submitting his own works to future improvement. Encouraging Bible scholars, not Patristic scholars, is for Owen the greatest pursuit of the church.
For Owen to say we should focus our attention especially on the exegesis of the Reformed and Post-Reformed period will draw criticism. It will be considered “intellectual snobbery” toward Patristic exegesis. Some will say Owen’s statements are only concerning false Roman Catholic authority (contrary the general scope of the volume). But I’m more thankful for men like Dever who are willing to cut the grain and voice an Owen-like hesitancy. In light of Owen’s old caution and Beckwith’s recent action, reformed Evangelical readers and preachers have every right to show caution towards Patristic exegesis and a greater interest in Reformation and Post-Reformation exegetical contributions.
Please join me today in prayer that God would shed the further light of His Word on the soul of Dr. Beckwith. Especially that Scripture, not the Patristic or any other tradition, would be the authoritative source of truth. We can take this opportunity to pray for our own souls. May God help us to bear great fruit in the Lord’s vineyard.
Michael A. G. Haykin argues the Patristic authors are exegetically significant today in his new article (“Why Study the Fathers”) at reformation21. He writes,
“… the Fathers may also, in some cases, help us to understand the New Testament. We have had too disparaging a view of Patristic exegesis, and have come close to considering the exposition of the Fathers as a consistent failure to understand the New Testament. For instance Cyril of Jerusalem in his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:5, which concerns temporary abstinence of sexual relations between married couples for the sake of prayer, assumes without question that the prayer is liturgical and communal prayer. Cyril may be guilty of an anachronism, for he was a leader in ‘the hallowing of the time,’ that is, the observance of holy seasons. Nonetheless, there is good evidence that such communal observances, in some form or other, are quite early. The liturgical life of the Church of Jerusalem in the fourth century was not that of Corinth in the first, but nevertheless there were links. Possibly it is the Protestant commentators who are guilty of anachronism when they assume that Paul meant private prayer; such religious individualism is more conceivable in the Protestant West than in first-century Corinth.”
The church fathers for Evangelical exegesis
by Tony Reinke
Recently I received some long-awaited and very beautiful volumes from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series. I’m interested in the idea – take quotes from the church fathers and assemble them into a 28-volume, verse-by-verse commentary on the whole Bible. As I prepare to dig into these volumes, I eagerly await learning from men relatively unknown to me.
But the arrival of these volumes actually presses me to consider a bigger question that has gone unanswered in my own mind for some time: How (or where) do the church fathers fit into my Reformed faith and expositional research? A simple browse through the index of Calvin’s Institutes shows frequent references to patristic authors. Calvin obviously was indebted to Augustine, and often mentions Athanasius, Cyprian, Irenaeus, Jerome and Tertullian. But this fact alone does not help me with my questions.
So recently I set out to answer two questions: Where do the church fathers fit in my theology? Where do they fit in my exegetical research?
This question over the church fathers has led me in a number of interesting directions. The first was to consider the church fathers’ emphasis on Mariology. So recently I picked up a new book titled, Mary For Evangelicals: Toward an understanding of the mother of our Lord, by Tim Perry. Surely this will help me think through the issues (and besides I was intrigued by the idea that Evangelicals had missed a proper understanding of Mary).
In short, the book was a disappointment. The author writes, “While Mary does not figure highly in the New Testament narratives or Epistles, to conclude that Mary is therefore insignificant is wrong” (268). Perry argues throughout the book that Evangelicals must return to a Patristic theological system. The church fathers, “carry a real, if secondary, authority for theological construction,” and are necessary because to “pass over Mariology altogether inevitably leaves other central Christian doctrines underdeveloped” (119, 268). In other words, without an exalted Mariology, we will not fully understand soteriology, ecclesiology, Christology, etc.
Here is the problem: If the theological system of the early church determines Evangelical theology then we’ve lost our Evangelical basis for theology (Scripture). So I don’t buy this argument. Mary does not find a prominent place in Reformed theology because Mary herself (while certainly being elected to be blessed) does not find a prominent place in biblical soteriology, ecclesiology, Christology, etc.
McGrath on the Reformation
Next, I turned to Alister McGrath’s Historical Theology (Blackwell: 1998). And in the chapter on the Reformation I came across the following quote.
“One of the reasons why the reformers valued the writings of the fathers, especially Augustine, was that they regarded them as exponents of a biblical theology. In other words, the reformers believed that the fathers were attempting to develop a theology based upon Scripture alone – which was, of course, precisely what they were also trying to do in the sixteenth century. Of course, the new textual and philological methods available to the reformers meant that they could correct the fathers on points of detail – but the reformers were prepared to accept the ‘patristic testimony’ as generally reliable” (p. 183).
The Reformers set a pattern we can emulate: Stand on the shoulders of the church fathers and correct them when necessary. This helps to confirm my own personal conviction about how to use the church fathers. This clarification about the “patristic testimony” is helpful theologically.
But the second question was not fully answered here. Where do the fathers fit into my expositional library?
Finally, I came across John Owen’s thoughts on the use of the church fathers. Owen, one of my Puritan heroes, shows a broad knowledge of the church fathers in his own writings. He argues that the church fathers are not interpretive guides because they disagree so often on interpreting certain texts. “But the pretence of the authoritative determination of the fathers in points of religion hath been so disproved, and the vanity of it so fully discovered, as that it is altogether needless farther to insist upon it” (4:227). In other words, the church fathers cannot be relied upon for a consistent interpretation of Scripture, therefore their conclusions cannot be held authoritative. Discernment must be used when reading the fathers (or any author for that matter).
The church fathers wrote helpful commentaries that were “followed, used, improved, by others innumerable, in succeeding ages” (4:228). And then Owen reminds us that “the best, most useful, and profitable labor in the Lord’s vineyard, which any holy and learned man can engage himself in, is to endeavor the contribution of father light in the opening and exposition of Scripture, or any part thereof” (4:228). So Owen seems to say that the fathers have been greatly improved upon. Beware, lest the fathers become the “authoritative determination” of Scripture. Pray for the Spirit’s further illumination of His Word and seek to build the church further.
Overall, Owen gives me less confidence that a study of the church fathers will really benefit my expositional research of Scripture today.
Where honor is due
What I love about the church fathers was their commitment to doctrinal purity. They climbed into the ring to fight — and even die! — for the divinity of Christ, the Triunity of God and the nature of sin. If we take these doctrines for granted, it’s because we are standing on the shoulders of men long ago. So, I want a healthy respect for the church fathers and how God used them in the formation of doctrines. Systematic theology, historical theology and obviously church history will rightfully contain much of the church fathers. But this does not help me to understand where the church fathers fit into my expositional study of Scripture.
With the Ancient Christian Commentary Series on Scripture, I see new opportunities to become acquainted with the fathers that previous generations did not have. As a bible student there are new questions that we must consider. While I’ve found some answers recently, I still have many questions.
1. How useful are the church fathers’ comments upon Scripture? Would our time be better spent focusing on contemporary commentaries? This will be answered in the coming weeks as I dig into the Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture. I know from reading Augustine’s commentary on the Psalms that he deviates from the text frequently. Again, I’m thankful for Augustine in the history of the church, but where do patristic commentaries fit into an expositional library? If I did not study the church fathers in my exegetical research, what would I miss?
2. Have centuries of bible commentaries made the expositions of the church fathers obsolete? Again, this is not a question of disrespectfulness towards the fathers but a very real question. Where would my time be better spent? Should we/How do we balance the use of contemporary commentaries and patristic commentaries?
3. What major theological problems surface in the church fathers? Obviously, this is not a concern for those who see the fathers as authoritative themselves. But we hold them to the touchstone of Scripture and need to be honest about the errors tainting their exegesis. Which fathers are most/least exegetically reliable?
4. How do I cultivate a respect for the accomplishments of the church fathers? Maybe I don’t use the church fathers exegetically, but where then do they fit into my ministry. Todd Rester’s words caught my attention: “Clement of Rome according to tradition was drowned at sea with an anchor tied to him, Polycarp was burned to death in the Roman arena, Ignatius was torn apart by wild beasts in the Colisseum at Rome … what sort of Christ would these men die? … The only acceptable answer is a Christ who is God and Man.” These are men of noteworthiness.
5. To what extent did the reformers use the church fathers for historical continuity? The reformers did not want to look like a new schism out of left field, so they tied their theology to longstanding Christian authorities. Contemporary Evangelicalism of course is not fighting for legitimacy. Would the reformers use the fathers differently today?
6. In what ways is our culture like the culture of the church fathers? This is one of the more interesting questions that arises in this discussion. Nate Shurden writes, “we should take note of the astonishing similarity between our own culture and that of the early church. The similarities are conspicuous, and not merely coincidental. The opening up of the world to communication and travel is unprecedented in our time as it was in the age of the early church. The proliferation of philosophical ideas and religious beliefs and practices (due at least in part to such advances in communication and travel) are as widespread in our day as then, even more so due to technological advances like the Internet. The reality of multiculturalism and the religious pluralism that often accompanies it is as alive today as possibly ever before in human history.” What can we learn from the exegetical ministry of the church fathers for our culture today?
7. Why the growing interest in the church fathers? We can assume that publishers see a growing trend in churches towards ancient traditions, but why? What is driving this new openness? One church historian writes, “whether its emergent Christianity or Celtic spirituality, the pick ‘n’ mix attitude to the past is a classic example of the imperialism of the modern present combined with the aesthetic sensibilities of consumerism. For both groups, history is really only useful as a source of precedents for the present; and the recovery of history is simply the highly selective appropriation of those bits of the past which meet with approval and fit the world we want to make – or justify – for ourselves.” How do we watch our own hearts in this? If the church fathers are not furthering our understanding of Scripture, why are we drawn to them? What are we seeking to justify?
8. What drives us to want to quote patristic authors? It seems that I see pride in my own heart in this. I want some new interpretation of Scripture that comes from Chrysostom just so I can tell some listeners, “The other day I was reading through Chrysostom’s Against the Anomoeans and came across the following…” That, for me, is pride. Maybe I do place a higher authority on the fathers than contemporary commentaries? I may not say the church fathers are “authoritatively determinative,” but my actions may prove otherwise.
9. To what extent is the push to revive the church fathers an ecumenical push? Clearly Tim Perry in Mary for Evangelicals is using the church fathers for an ecumenical purpose. In the introduction to the Ancient Christian Commentary, Thomas C. Oden writes, “Such an endeavor is especially poignant and timely now because increasing numbers of evangelical Protestants are newly discovering rich dimensions of dialogue and widening areas of consensus with Orthodox and Catholics on divisive issues long thought irreparable. The study of the Fathers on Scripture promises to further significant interactions between Protestants and Catholics on issues that have plagued them for centuries: justification, authority, Christology, sanctification and eschatology” (xxi).
With these questions I feel like I’ve just stepped into a new world of possibilities and dangers. If you can help me think through any of these questions, I welcome your input in the comments.
I want to be open to God’s work that preceded the Puritan/Reformed tradition, motivated out of a love for God’s Word. I want to know God more and experience more of Him through the Word. I want ears to hear ancient voices and discernment to be biblically faithful.
Whether or not I find answers to these questions, they are at least causing me to rest more fully in the illumination of the Holy Spirit. I am increasingly aware that I could fill a library with books and never know God. The Spirit must awaken, confirm, teach and lead me into all truth (John 16:13, 1 John 2:27).