When I posted ‘Why Should Evangelicals Read the Fathers?’, I got some feedback to the very question from friends on Facebook. Scott, a pastor with the Church of the Nazarene, gave two answers I quite liked: ’cause they’re awesome and because they say things that are relevant to people today. Frank, formerly a pastor and now a PhD student in the field of New Testament studies, gave the challenging response: So we can learn how not to do exegesis.
I thought it would be fun for me to give my musings off these three springboards. You, too, can join in on the comments!
The topic now is thus the awesomeness of the Church Fathers.
This is probably one of the best reasons to read the Fathers. I suppose there is a certain utility in the Fathers — drawing us nearer to God, exhorting us to holier living, clearer theological thinking, a more spiritual understanding of Scripture, an appreciation of the history of doctrine. But why do anything save the sheer … greatness of it?
I was once in a van with some IV people back in high school. One of the university students wanted to know why I wanted to study history. I gave all the pious, useful reasons. He said that the best reason to study history was because one liked it and found it interesting.
This is true of many fields.
Evangelicals should read the Fathers because the Fathers are awesome. And don’t just take my word for it. Take that of Prudentius:
Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!
At His Word the worlds were framèd; He commanded; it was done:
Heaven and earth and depths of ocean in their threefold order one;
All that grows beneath the shining
Of the moon and burning sun, evermore and evermore!
There we have one of the most theological, poetical Christmas carols. Written by M. Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, a Latin poet who lived from 348-413. Ancient Christian poetry is among the wonders of the ancient world, writing down the wisps of knowledge grasped by human minds in the meters and images of their cultures (Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic), the honey of poetry as the honey on the cup of theology. Read Prudentius or Ephraim the Syrian or Gregory of Nazianzus.
If theology stirs you, I refer you to my translation of bits of Leo’s christology for Christmas yesterday, or to Clement of Alexandria from December 4. Amongst the Fathers we find the keen minds of Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, of Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil of Caesarea, of Origen and Evagrius — men who had both the keen philosophical parsing of words, phrases and syllogisms as well as the mystical insight of hours spent at prayer before the Triune God.
Then we come to the prayers of the Fathers, such as the following by St. Clement of Rome:
Almighty God, Father of our lord Jesus Christ, establish and confirm us in your truth by your Holy Spirit. Reveal to us what we do not know, perfect in us what is lacking; strengthen us in what we know; and keep us faultless in your service; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.
St. Paul exhorts us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Is not this plea of St. Clement’s in keeping with the apostolic exhortation? The Fathers call us to deep lives of prayer through their liturgies, found in Hippolytus, or their practices of prayer as found in the Desert Fathers and the ascetic works of Basil of Caesarea. The classic Evangelical call has been to lives soaked in prayer, as we see in John Wesley rising at four o’clock in the morning to prayer for two hours before breakfast. It is a practice heartily recommended by the ancient Christian witness.
The Fathers inhabited a different thought-world than ours. These men and women were to sort of people who have visions, to dream dreams. Their philosophy was more than the keen exercise of the logical aspect of the mind, but a force of will, of prayer, of contemplation, of imagination, of ethical behaviour. The mystical call of Evagrius, Cassian, Origen, the Cappadocians — this is awesome, if foreign to far too many Evangelicals.
The Fathers are awesome. They are not perfect in ethics or in morals or in theology or in prayer or in mysticism or in asceticism. But they are awesome, even if more than a little odd upon first acquaintance. I hope you will make your acquaintance with them a long one and deep.