Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. Matthew 13:51
The following is an excerpt from chapter 1 of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: A Vital Need for Evangelics by Michael Haykin.A few years after I had completed my doctoral studies in fourth-century pneumatology and exegesis and had started teaching at Central Baptist Seminary in Toronto, I came to realize that I would have to develop another area of scholarly expertise, for very few of the Baptist congregations with which I had contact were keenly interested in men like Athanasius (c.299–373) and Basil of Caesarea (c.330–379). At a much later date, when I had developed a keen interest in British Baptists and Dissenters in the “long” eighteenth century and was giving papers and lectures in this subject, I was increasingly conscious that while fare from this second area of study was quite acceptable to Evangelical audiences, a cloud of suspicion hung over the whole field of the Ancient Church.
The truth of the matter is that far too many modern-day Evangelicals are either ignorant of or quite uncomfortable with the Church Fathers. Certain strains of anti-intellectual Fundamentalism have discouraged an interest in that “far country” of church history. And the strangeness of much of that era of the Ancient Church has proven a barrier to some Evangelicals in their reading about the early centuries of the Church. Finally, an ardent desire to be “people of the Book”—an eminently worthy desire—has also led to a lack of interest in other students of Scripture from that earliest period of the Church’s history after the Apostolic era.
Past Evangelical interest in the Church Fathers
We who are Evangelicals are beginning to grasp afresh that Evangelicalism is, as Timothy George has rightly put it, “a renewal movement within historic Christian orthodoxy.” We have begun to rediscover that which many of our Evangelical and Reformed forebears knew and treasured—the pearls of the Ancient Church. The French Reformer John Calvin (1509–64), for example, was a keen student of the Church Fathers. He did not always agree with them, even when it was a case of one of his favorites, like Augustine of Hippo (354–430).
In the following century, the Puritan theologian John Owen (1616–83), rightly called by some the “Calvin of England” was not slow to turn to the experience of the one he called “holy Austin,” namely Augustine, to provide him with a typology of conversion. Yet again, the Particular Baptist John Gill (1697–71) played a key role in preserving Trinitarianism among his fellow Baptists at a time when other Protestant bodies were unable to retain a firm grasp on this utterly vital biblical and patristic doctrine. A casual perusal reveals at once Gill’s indebtedness to patristic Trinitarian thought and exegesis, for he quotes such authors as Justin Martyr (died c.165), Tertullian (fl.190–220), and Theophilus of Antioch (fl.170–80).
Who are the Church Fathers?
In an entry on “patristics” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church the Church Fathers are described as those authors who “wrote between the end of the 1st cent. …and the close of the 8th cent.,” which comprises what is termed the “Patristic Age.” There are at least four characteristics that denote those meriting the title of Church Father: their orthodoxy of doctrine, their being accepted by the Church as important links in the transmission of the Christian Faith, their holiness of life, and their having lived between the end of the Apostolic era (c.100) and the deaths of John of Damascus (c.655/675-c.749) in the East and Isidore of Seville (c.560–636) in the West.
There is no doubt that feminist concerns have highlighted the way in which much of church history has been taught from an exclusively male perspective. But the problem with this category of “matristics” is that there are very few women in the Ancient Church who can be studied in similar depth to the Fathers since they left little textual remains. Though I wish we had more detail about these fascinating women, any examination of them is bound by significant textual limitations.
Reading the Church Fathers for freedom and wisdom
First, study of the Fathers, like any historical study, liberates us from the present. Every age has its own distinct outlook, presuppositions that remain unquestioned even by opponents. The examination of another period of thought forces us to confront our innate prejudices which would go unnoticed otherwise.
Then, second, the Fathers can provide us with a map for the Christian life. For this a map is needed—a map based upon the accumulated experience of thousands of voyagers. Experiences are fine and good, but they will not serve as a suitable foundation for our lives in Christ. To be sure, we have the divine Scriptures, an ultimately sufficient foundation for all of our needs as Christians (2 Timothy 3:16–17). But the thought of the Fathers can help us enormously in building on this foundation.
Consider the landmark that has been set up on the landscape of church history by the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, commonly called the Nicene Creed. This document, while by no means infallible, is nevertheless a sure guide to the biblical doctrine of God. It should never be dismissed as being of no value. To do so shows a distinct lack of wisdom and discernment.
Reading the Church Fathers so as to understand the New Testament
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 (c.315–387) 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. 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.
Again, in recent discussions of the Pauline doctrine of salvation, it has been asserted by the proponents of the so-called “New Perspective” that the classical Reformed view of justification has little foundation in Paul or the rest of the New Testament, but is more a product of the thinking of Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin. Yet, in the second-century Letter to Diognetus, which we have already referred to, we find the classical Reformed view of justification argument that sounds like it has been lifted straight from the pages of Luther.
Reading the Church Fathers because of bad press about the Fathers
We also need to read and know the Fathers since they are sometimes subjected to simply bad history or bad press. For example, in Dan Brown’s monumental best-seller The Da Vinci Code the hero Robert Langdon “discovers” that contemporary expressions of Christianity, especially that of the Roman Catholic Church, have no sound historical basis. The novel expresses the view that it was at the early fourth-century Council of Nicaea (325), which was astutely manipulated by the power-hungry Constantine for his own ends, that Jesus Christ was “turned…into a deity” and became for the first time an object of worship.
Brown clearly intends these claims to be more than key aspects of the conspiratorial ambience of his novel. As Greg Clarke, Director of the Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education at New College, University of New South Wales, has rightly noted, Dan Brown’s book has “evangelistic intentions” and “is meant to change our lives.” Since Brown makes clear references to the Patristic era to support his theory, it is necessary that any response involve accurate knowledge of what actually did take place at Nicaea and what the second- and third-century Church did believe about Jesus.
Reading the Church Fathers as an aid in defending the Faith
The early centuries of the Church saw Christianity threatened by a number of theological heresies: Gnosticism, Arianism, and Pelagianism, to name but three for example. While history never repeats itself exactly, the essence of many of these heresies has reappeared from time to time in the long history of Christianity. For instance, Postmodernity’s interest in spirituality, though it rages against Christianity, has numerous similarities to the lengthy battle against Gnosticism that occupied the Church during the second and third centuries. Knowledge of the way that Christians in the past defended the Faith against Gnosticism would provide helpful ways of responding to Postmodern spirituality today.
What about the challenge, one of the greatest of today, posed by Islam’s attack on the Trinity and the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ? Broadly speaking, Evangelicals are woefully inadequate in their ability to respond to such an attack for they rarely ever hear sermons on the Trinity and the Incarnation. Here, the Fathers can help us enormously, for in replying to the Arians and then later to the Muslims they hammered out the biblical details of these two key doctrines.
Reading the Church Fathers for spiritual nurture
Christians, like all human beings, are historical beings. Their lives are inextricably tied to the past, their own immediate past and that of other humans. As Gilbert Beers, a past editor of Christianity Today, has noted, “We owe much to many whom we have never met.” In times past, when there was a reverence for the past, this reality was acknowledged gratefully. The study of the Church Fathers, like the study of Church History in general, informs Christians about their predecessors in the Faith, those who have helped shape their Christian communities and thus make them what they are. Such study builds humility and modesty into the warp and woof of the Christian life and as such can exercise a deeply sanctifying influence.
In Hebrews 13:7, the author of this portion of Holy Scripture urges his readers to “remember” their past leaders, those who had spoken God’s Word to them. In the confessors and martyrs of the pre-Constantinian era, for example, we have many models of what it means to be a Christian in a hostile society, a situation that faces many believers today around the World today, and increasingly so in the West.
There is no doubt that generations of believers have found in the writings of men like Basil and Augustine soul-nourishing food, of which Evangelicals in the past have been well aware. Wesley, for example, published a fifty-volume collection of spiritual classics, The Christian Library (1750), for his lay preachers including a number of Patristic spiritual classics. Evangelical believers need to recapture the wisdom in this regard of our spiritual forebears.
This book on the Church Fathers
There are certainly other reasons for studying these ancient authors which may be more obvious or even more important. But the reasons given above sufficiently indicate the need for Patristic studies in the ongoing life of the Church: to aid in her liberation for the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century; to provide a guide in her walk with Christ; to help her understand the basic witness to her faith, the New Testament; to refute bad histories of the Ancient Church; and to be a vehicle of spiritual nurture.
About the Author:Dr. Michael Haykin
Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin (Th.D., M.Rel.) is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. His research interests include Ancient and Late Antique studies, Patristic theology and exegesis, and Baptist and Andrew Fuller studies.
Allen C. Guelzo, “John Owen, Puritan Pacesetter”, Christianity Today, 20, no. 17 (May 21, 1976), 14. ↩
See Pneumatologia: A Discourse concerning the Holy Spirit in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (1850–53 ed.; repr. Edinburgh/Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), III, 337–66]. ↩
“Church fathers” in Bowden, ed., Christianity, 244. See, however, Patricia Cox Miller, Women in Early Christianity. Translation from Greek Texts (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2005). ↩
An earlier version of the next two sections of this chapter has previously appeared as “Why Study the Fathers?”, Eusebeia: The Bulletin of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, 8 (Fall 2007), 3–7. Used by permission. ↩
Catechesis 4.25. ↩
Gene Edward Veith, “The Da Vinci phenomenon”, World, 21, no.20 (May 20, 2006), 20–21. The edition of The Da Vinci Code being used is The Da Vinci Code (New York: Anchor Books, 2006). ↩
Is it worth believing? The spiritual challenge of The Da Vinci Code (Kingsford, New South Wales: Matthias Media, 2005), 25. ↩
A good example in this regard is a D.Min. thesis by Rev. M. Todd Wilson of Munford, Tennessee that I am currently supervising: “Back to the Future: Irenaeus as a Pastoral-Preaching Model for Answering Encroaching Neo-paganism in the Contemporary Evangelical Church” (D.Min. thesis, Knox Theological Seminary, forthcoming). ↩
For this point, I am indebted to a conversation with a close friend and my one-time student, Mr. Scott Dyer of Burlington, Ontario, July, 2010. ↩
Trueman, “The Fathers.” ↩