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.

Evangelical Ressourcement (To the Sources!)

I have written previously about the Roman Catholic Ressourcement as well as the related monastic ressourcement present in the publications of Cistercian Press. There is also transpiring in these transitional days from ‘modern’ to ‘whatever comes next’ (postmodern or hypermodern or post-postmodern or what-have-you) an evangelical ressourcement.

I am particularly interested in the evangelical ressourcement as someone who worships with the Free Church of Scotland (at a congregation that lists ‘Evangelical’ on its sign) who grew up in the charismatic, evangelical wing of the Anglican Church (complete with weekly Eucharist, beefy sermons, renewal meetings, youth camps, contemporary worship, classic hymns, and the Alpha Course) and who has a long association with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (including one year of actual employment by said organisation).

This particular manifestation of ressourcement tends to say that the theological heritage of at least the first five centuries of Christianity — if not the period ending with the death of Bede (+735) or of John of Damascus (+749) — is the common heritage of all Christians, and not just of the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholics. As Protestants, we believe in the Most Holy Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the authority of the Scriptures for life and doctrine, the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection for human history, and other important doctrines — all of which were forged and formulated in the Patristic age.

I first encountered this ressourcement through the ‘paleo-orthodox’ camp that strives to revitalise the mainline through a return to the Fathers as well as the historic practices of prayer and worship found in the church’s tradition. The term was coined by Thomas C. Oden, and his paleo-orthodox vision is set out in his book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. In this book he calls mainline Protestants to rediscover the riches of the Patristic theological legacy and heritage common to all believers; he believes that only thus will we see a blooming of orthodox theology in mainline Protestant churches. Around the time I read that book, I also read Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century, a collection of essays in honour of Thomas C. Oden, one of which started to revolutionise my thinking, although now that I’m a (sort-of) scholar I (of course) take issue with the author’s representation of Pope Leo I’s Christology.

I also went in search of evidence that I was not alone. Through Googling ‘paleo-orthodoxy’, I came across the blog Gloria Deo: Wesleyanglican ramblings. There you can read the musings of a United Methodist minister who is seeking to live faithfully the tradition that has been handed down to us through the Fathers, the Anglican tradition, and the tradition that grew out of Anglicanism via the Wesley brothers. From him, I found the Post-Evangelical wilderness of the late Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, who is well-worth a read if you find yourself feeling a bit ‘Post-Evangelical’ and searching where to find land, air, and drinkable water.

The term ressourcement I first found in the IVP volume collecting conference contributions Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, a collection of essays that seek to find wisdom in the Fathers to apply to today’s situation, seeking to help us escape from some of the wanderings and traps of this age. It is encouraging to see evangelical leaders seeking to find timeless wisdom in ancient texts. As a Classicist, I think this is a most sensible action!

IVP, under the watchful eye of Tom Oden, has produced probably one of the biggest aids to the Evangelical ressourcement, and that is the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Consisting of 29 volumes, two of which cover the OT apocrypha, it is essentially a patristic catena on the whole Bible — that late-ancient and mediaeval form of Bible commentary where a series of short musings from the Fathers is arranged following the pertinent passage of Scripture. Now it is easy for pastors, Bible study leaders, as well as the average Christian with the money or access to a good theological library, to find out a lot (Oden would argue the mainstream) of patristic exegesis and thought on Scripture.

This series has companion volumes for this with smaller wallets and less ambitious designs — the Ancient Christian Devotional series. This is a three-volume set that gives the thoughts on the Fathers following the lectionary readings for years A, B, and C in the Revised Common Lectionary as well as two ancient/early mediaeval prayers for each week. I have used that for Year C and I quite liked it! I am using Year B right now, and it is also good, although sometimes I fail to see how the patristic commentary lines up with the passage at hand.

A few more things from IVP related to the Ancient Christian Commentary: Ancient Christian Doctrine and Ancient Christian Texts. The former is a five-volume series covering mainstream patristic thought on major doctrines of the Faith; the volumes are We Believe in One God, We Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ, We Believe in the Crucified and Risen Lord, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, and We Believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Ancient Christian Texts series makes available entire patristic commentaries, with a focus upon texts as yet untranslated into English, although I would argue that some texts, such as John Chrysostom on Romans, are due for a re-translation!

IVP has also published three volumes by Christopher A Hall about the Fathers: Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (my review here), and Worshiping with the Church Fathers. These three together make an excellent popular-level introduction to the world of the Church Fathers.

Not that IVP is alone or even necessarily the frontrunner in the Evangelical ressourcement — these are merely those texts I am best acquainted with. Baker Academic has a series called Evangelical Ressourcement, and I am currently reading a sourcebook by DH Williams of patristic passages called Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation. Williams also has the volume of that series called Evangelicals and Tradition, and I am reading his book Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism as well. Whereas Oden is a United Methodist and Hall an Anglican, Williams is a Baptist, and is thus a very welcome voice in the midst of Evangelicals calling for a return to the theology and thought-world of the first five centuries of Christianity.

There is also Robert E. Webber’s Ancient-Future movement, and I know from glancing through iMonk’s commenters that many people have found his book Ancient-Future Worship very helpful in their walk as they find contemporary expressions of evangelical faith hard to deal with. I quite enjoyed Ancient-Future Faith as well, and hope that many will read that text which is inspired by Irenaeus of Lyons and seeks to bring Christus Victor into evangelical theology alongside (not instead of) more traditional western atonement theology as well as turning Cyril of Jerusalem for catechetical ideas.

I would include The Church’s Bible (reviewed by First Things here), akin to IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary but including longer passages and incorporating mediaeval commentary as well, but Robert Louis Wilken is now a Roman Catholic — I guess his project falls under the Catholic ressourcement instead! Yet it is still welcome and will no doubt be of great use to evangelical readers.

Of course, so far all we have here in this 1125-word post is a list of books with brief thoughts on them from me. A flurry of print is not necessarily a sign of activity in the Church. Nevertheless, I know of a few pastors who have made use of these resources in helping them think through the Scriptures and wrestle with the theology of the Church. I imagine there are more! 🙂