We so often approach the Church Fathers with trepidation. Even the name seems unhelpful – are these people in some way our spiritual superiors? Are we to be children before them? Whilst the posture of childlike learning is a good one – we shouldn’t be put off by a name. The ‘Church Fathers’ is merely a traditional title for the key thinkers and writers of the first few centuries of Christian history. As someone who studies the Church Fathers in an academic context (my PhD is focussed on the writing of Clement of Alexandria in particular) I find the term somewhat unhelpful, but it is what it is. So let us look beyond the name, and answer the question that perhaps underlies our hesitancy in approaching these ancient authors: Won’t a reading of these texts lead to a loosening of our reformed, evangelical commitments?
Elsewhere on this blog I have given a very introductory answer to the question that the Early Church was the Catholic Church, and that question will not be explicitly addressed in this post.
A traditionless tradition?
Many see the evangelical tradition as, ultimately, traditionless. Those who ‘convert’ from reformed backgrounds to Rome or the Orthodox faith often cite a lack of historical grounding as a key reason for leaving the evangelical expression of the Christian faith. Evangelicals are seen as a product of the last few centuries, and this feeds a narrative that there is no historical basis for this Bible-based, Gospel seeking Christian faith.
But as Brad Green, a professor in theology at Union University in Tennessee, writes in his introduction to the 2010 book Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians (14) “I wonder if certain evangelicals who make sweeping generalisations about some deficiency in the evangelical tradition have immersed themselves in the tradition.”
If we accept Green’s implied challenge and immerse ourselves in the tradition of evangelical Christianity, we find an historical church stretching back to the New Testament times. Of course there are notable ‘Christian’ figures who taught heresy and untruth, and there are many more with whom the evangelical mind would be at odds. But the history of the Christian faith is an incredible record of God’s faithfulness, and His mercy at working out His plans through weak and fragile human beings. As we explore it we find a long record of faithful brothers and sisters living out their hope in Jesus Christ, from whom we can take encouragement.
This tradition starts with the Church Fathers. The likes of Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Cyril, Athanasius, Augustine, Basil and many more wrote faithfully as they reflected on their Christian faith. Evangelicalism is not a traditionless tradition. Don’t treat it as such until you have first explored the richness of it.
Confidence in our Predecessors
The Reformation is rightly seen as a time when God worked powerfully in His church. Through His kindness, the truths of the Gospel were rediscovered and embraced by many. As a result, the writings of Luther, Calvin and other key reformers continue to be widely read. Another period of rich spiritual writing is found in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the likes of the Puritans and early Methodist writers. just a few hundred years after the dawn of the Reformation. These texts are increasingly mined for their spiritual insight, godly wisdom, and biblical interpretation.
These works are popular, and new editions, translations and revisions seem to be produced on a regular basis. Yet many of these writers relied heavily on their spiritual predecessors as they sought to cling to the truth of Scripture. The famous methodist evangelist John Wesley was famous for plumbing the riches of Clement of Alexandria, for example.
Calvin offers a helpful summary of the place of the Fathers in reformed thought. In the preface to his Institutes, addressed to the King of France, Calvin writes as follows:
It is a foolish to represent us as opposed to the Fathers (I mean the ancient writers of a purer age), as if the Fathers were supporters of their impiety… there is much that is admirable and wise in the writings of those Fathers… Then, with dishonest clamour, they [opponents of the Reformation] assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages. Still, in studying their writings, we have endeavoured to remember [1 Cor. 3:21-23; see also Augustin. Ep. 28], that all things are ours, to serve, not lord it over us, but that we are Christ’s only, and must obey him in all things without exception. He who does not draw this distinction will not have any fixed principles in religion; for those holy men were ignorant of many things, are often opposed to each other, and are sometimes at variance with themselves.
Calvin, Institutes, Preface 4.
Calvin clearly sees a great worth in studying and exploring the writings of the Church Fathers. He himself admits to studying their writings, seeking to learn of Christ from them. His argument more broadly is that the Reformers are not opponents but supporters of the teachings of the Fathers. For they share the same doctrines, teachings and Lord. He recognises that these are not divinely inspired teachings: there are errors and contradictions. But Calvin sees them as helpful tools in equipping contemporary believers with the truths they explore.
So if we are apprehensive of reading the Fathers, then we would do well to learn from the likes of Wesley or Calvin. These ancient Christian authors may have been writing in a different world, and well over a millenium ago, but many were faithful believers, and their extant works have much to teach us.
So how should we approach the Fathers? The answer is simple. Take a good translation of their works (or the original, if your ancient languages are up to it!) in one hand, and the Bible in another.
Be Berean in how you read them. The Bereans are recorded in Acts 17 as those who listened to Paul and Silas intently, took in their teaching, and then “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Acts 17:10-12.) The Fathers are not Apostles, but this is a helpful approach to any teaching we hear on God’s Word, be it Sunday morning sermons, contemporary Christian books, or the writings of the Church Fathers. Explore what they wrote, but do so with a Bible, ready to see if what they teach is in accordance with the Scriptures. You might just find that much of it is.
One such example of the richness of the Fathers is seen in the writing of Theophilus. Theophilus was a second century church leader in Antioch, and his sole undoubted surviving work is an apology addressed to a man named Autolycus. As he defends the faith, he provides a beautiful description of God, taken from several passages of Scripture. I explore this description further elsewhere, but even a short quote serves to illustrate just how captivated Theophilus is with his God. “For in glory He is incomprehensible, in greatness unfathomable, in height inconceivable, in power incomparable, in wisdom unrivalled, in goodness inimitable, in kindness unutterable.” (Ad Autolycus 1.3.) Theophilus was in awe of his Heavenly Father, and we would do well to meditate on the description he provides, one rooted in Scripture, capturing a glimpse of the greatness of our God.
A healthy fear of embracing false teaching is a good thing, but an unhealthy avoidance of the tradition and history of the Christian faith can lead to unhelpful insecurity in what we believe. The Christian faith is an historical one. There are nearly two millennia of Church history and historical theology to explore. We rob ourselves of the intellectual, spiritual and theological riches of countless generations when we assume that as evangelical believers in the twenty-first century, we stand outside the tradition of the true Church.
Many of the Church Fathers wrote helpful treatises that explore issues of faith, life and doctrine that are still relevant to believers today. We would do well to shake off our disinterest and begin to explore them.
Want to read the Fathers but not sure where to start? I have reviewed a couple of works by Early Christian authors on this blog, and will continue to do so throughout the year. Have a look at the links below.