Why should evangelicals read the Fathers?

The first reason I would like to consider within this topic is one given yesterday — so many of the core tenets of Christianity were forged, formulated, and developed in the first five centuries. If it is true, as DH Williams has put it (and as at least one friend of mine), that evangelicals have amnesia, then recovering the Fathers is an important step in recovering from this amnesia.

Let us consider simply the basic, basic issue of the Bible. It seems fairly straightforward to many of us — there’s the Old Testament, and there’s the New Testament.

Evangelicals all believe in the Bible as the authoritative revelation of God in the written word that demonstrates to us all that we need to find salvation and come to a living knowledge of him. Well and good. Yet if we look at the development of the collection of writings called the New Testament, we will find that the people who organically and through their own worship of God and prayer and seeking to work out the problems of the Faith were all, in fact, patristic — the Fathers.

People such as Irenaeus or Athanasius or whoever wrote the Muratorian Fragment or Justin Martyr or Tertullian were all alive and involved in the Church’s discernment process over which books claiming apostolic authority were truly authoritative. Others, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, the text called the Didache, Hermas and his Shepherd, Polycarp of Smyrna (the Apostolic Fathers), are all from the same period as some of the later texts in the New Testament such as Revelation and 2 Peter.

These are people worth listening to, n’est-ce pas? Some of them may have known Apostles. Others of them were only one or two generations of leadership removed from the apostolic age. As interpreters of Scripture, can we get any closer to the apostolic age than the Apostolic Fathers?

Indeed, once we have an idea of what exactly is in the canon (the list of authoritative writings), how do we interpret it? Some evangelicals think that this is a very simple process that is solved by providing a solid historical-critical methodology. According to Moore College in Australia, with their method, even unbelievers can come to the right interpretation of Scripture.

Certainly, a framework for reading Scripture is needed if we to have some sort of agreement about it. The statement, ‘It clearly says in Scripture,’ is a hard one to say confidently. Irenaeus and Tertullian knew that we need a little more than Scripture for those moments when it is the interpretation of Scripture that is under consideration.

Whose interpretation do we take? The Gnostics’? The Montanists’? The Jehovah’s Witnesses’? The Prosperity Gospel’s? The Arians’? From at least as early as the second century (I would argue from the Apostolic Age), there has been a regula fidei that has helped guide us in the interpretation of Scripture. This is the core of the tradition of the Fathers, and is a fluid formulation that closely resembles the creeds (esp. Nicene and Apostles’).

The Fathers, read with the hermeneutic of love (discussed here) as well as with a critical yet prayerful eye can help us come to a healthy interpretation of Scripture. Read Athanasius on the Psalms or Origen on John or Chrysostom on Romans. You will get three notably different ways of reading, but each of them can enrich our understanding and use of Scripture in our lives.

As with the Reformers, the Fathers are to draw us back to Scripture and to the Triune God in His glory.

So why should evangelicals read the Fathers? Because evangelicals love Scripture, and so do the Fathers, and the Fathers can help us make sense of Scripture and deepen our knowledge and appreciation of it. That’s why.

Much of this post inspired by D H Williams, Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism.

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7 thoughts on “Why should evangelicals read the Fathers?

  1. I wish I knew the Hebrew and Greek languages.
    Then I wish I could read the scrolls myself.
    How else are we to really know? Except by
    learning from those who could, or can. Is that you?

    Just wondering…

    • Alas, I know not Hebrew, although I do know Greek and Latin. If my work takes me from Ecclesiastical History and text editing, I think I’ll have to pick up Hebrew as well. For some reason, Hebrew does not tempt me much, although Coptic and Syriac do; but if I were to choose any dead language to learn next with no reason other than pure enjoyment, I’d go for Anglo-Saxon and then read Beowulf for myself.

      Because reading a translation is always reading an interpretation (18th-century Latin for translation: interpretatio). This is what I tell my Latin students whenever the going gets tough — if you can read Latin and Greek, you can read what the ancient authors themselves thought and examine it for yourself. Then it will be Virgil’s poetry, not Fagles’; it will Plato’s philosophy, not Cornford’s; it will Augustine’s theology, not Chadwick’s.

      This is why good, accurate translations of philosophical and religious texts are vital. I like Fagles for poetry, but the licence he takes would unsettle me with philosophy. I’d rather have Lattimore’s or Allan Bloom’s literalism for Scripture, theology, philosophy. Alongside these, a useful introduction and commentary are always welcome. This is why I am enamoured with the work of patristic scholars like Andrew Louth and John Meyendorff and Kallistos Ware and others like them who provide us with translations and introductions and commentaries of ancient texts. I wish to produce a translation and commentary on the decretals of Pope Leo the Great before too long, myself.

  2. If anyone’s interested in reading the Fathers, there’s a lovely little book called Drinking From the Hidden Fountain that I dearly love.

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