It is safe to say that conservative evangelical Christians have, for the most part, ignored the writings of the church fathers in recent generations. For much of my Christian life I have been no different than my fellow evangelicals in this respect.
I vividly recall my experience 30 years ago this fall when I entered Emmaus Bible School in Oak Park, Illinois (it’s now Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa) and encountered its library’s complete set (38 large hardbound volumes) of the Philip and David Schaff edition of the Ante-Nicene (i.e., before the writing of the Nicene Creed in A.D. 325) Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers. I remember thinking something like, “Who’s ever gonna read all that?” I also remember thinking something along the lines of, “Aren’t those the dudes that got us into all the trouble in the first place, and forced us to have a Reformation and everything?”
I took one of the heavy tomes into my hands and began leafing through its dense, two-columned pages. “Ain’t there anything about the Rapture in here?” I couldn’t help but think that a few Jack Chick-type illustrations might have helped, though I figured ancient dudes didn’t know anything about God projecting scenes from our lives onto huge screens while angels were going out for popcorn. But if what these guys wrote was so important, why isn’t there an endorsement by J.I. Packer on the cover, and why aren’t their articles reprinted in Moody Monthly?
Besides, didn’t Jesus tell us that we should call no man “father?” Where do people get off putting these guys on such a pedestal? Then I realized, however, that the Lord actually said, “Do not call anyone on earth your father,” (Matthew 23:9, NASB; cf. vs. 8-10; emphasis mine). If we take those words with wooden literalness we’ll be forced to conclude that we can’t even refer to our biological fathers as “father” and we’ll end up missing the Lord’s point, which is that we should not put anyone in a place or allow anyone to assume a role that belongs to God alone. It may not have been the greatest idea in the world to refer to ancient Christian teachers as “church fathers,” but we’re pretty much stuck with the designation, and we might as well use it if we want people to understand who we’re talking about.
And to be perfectly honest, my excuses for not wanting to read them probably had more than a little to do with the fact that I was put off by the sheer volume of the literature. Years later I was startled to discover that Schaff & Son had only published a fraction of what the church fathers actually wrote. The Patrologia Graeca (writings of the Greek fathers) occupy 161 volumes, plus an index, while the Patrologia Latina (writings of the Latin fathers) fill 217. But back in Bible school I was having a hard enough time getting through assigned textbooks like the slim, 192-page Balancing the Christian Life, by Charles Ryrie. (The recent revised edition is longer.) I was a new Christian with a short attention span and lots of questions and I wanted quick answers. (By the way: I haven’t changed much in 30 years.) The idea of plodding through literally thousands upon thousands of pages simply to familiarize myself with stuff a bunch of DMGs (Dead Mediterranean Guys) wrote more than a thousand years ago was about as appealing as the thought of having a root canal (of which I have since had three) or watching a month-long marathon of Lawrence Welk Show reruns (which, ironically, I think I would now actually enjoy).
But the consequence of ignoring something is…well, ignorance. And when we ignore something because we’re looking down our noses at it and finding it, for whatever reason, somewhat contemptible, we call that “despising.” As a community, our tendency in evangelicalism lately has been to despise the church fathers. I don’t want to sound too harsh here, and I’m not saying that this is true of each of us equally, but to whatever extent it is true, to that extent we are a community of ignorant despisers. And this shows just how far we have come from the attitude of the 16th century Protestant Reformers. You know them: they’re the guys who were on the front lines of the battle for the supreme authority of Scripture.
In the middle of the 1500s the Protestants wrote quite a few statements of faith (they called them “confessions”). One of the more important of these was the Second Helvetic (Swiss) Confession of 1566, which was endorsed by nearly all the Reformed churches of Europe at that time, and part of which reads as follows:
Wherefore we do not despise the interpretations of the holy Greek and Latin fathers, nor reject their disputations and treatises as far as they agree with the Scriptures; but we do modestly dissent from them when they are found to set down things differing from, or altogether contrary to, the Scriptures. Neither do we think that we do them any wrong in this matter; seeing that they all, with one consent, will not have their writings matched with the Canonical Scriptures, but bid us allow of them so far forth as they either agree with them or disagree. 2. Proinde non aspernamur sanctorum Patrum Græcorum Latinorumque interpretationes, neque reprobamus eorundem disputationes ac tractationes rerum sacrarum cum Scripturis consentientes: a quibus tamen recedimus modeste, quando aliena a Scripturis aut his contraria adferre deprehenduntur. Nec putamus, illis ullam a nobis hac re injuriam irrogari, cum omnes uno ore nolint sua scripta æquari canonicis, sed probare jubeant, quatenus vel consentiant cum illis, vel dissentiant, jubeantque consentientia recipere, recedere vero a dissentientibus. And in the same order we also place the decrees and canons of councils. 3. Eodem in ordine collocantur etiam conciliorum definitiones vel canones. Wherefore we suffer not ourselves, in controversies about religion or matters of faith, to be pressed with the bare testimonies of fathers or decrees of councils; much less with received customs, or with the multitude of men being of one judgment, or with prescription of long time. Therefore, in controversies of religion or matters of faith, we can not admit any other judge than God himself, pronouncing by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided. So we do not rest but in the judgment of spiritual men, drawn from the Word of God. 4. Quapropter non patimur, nos in controversiis religionis vel fidei causis urgeri nudis Patrum sententiis aut conciliorum determinationibus, multo minus receptis consuetudinibus, aut etiam multitudine idem sentientium, aut longi temporis præscriptione. Ergo non alium sustinemus in causa fidei judicem, quam ipsum Deum, per Scripturas Sanctas pronunciantem, quid verum sit, quid falsum, quid sequendum sit, quidve fugiendum. Ita judiciis nonnisi spiritualium hominum, ex verbo Dei petitis, acquiescimus. [“The Second Helvetic Confession,” II.2-4, in Philip Schaff and David S. Schaff, eds., The Creeds of Christendom, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Book House, reprinted 1985), 833-834.] [“Confessio Helvetica Posterior, A.D. 1566,” II.2-4, ibid., 239.]
I daresay that these are words to which every conservative evangelical could respond with a hearty, “Amen!”—except, perhaps, for the first clause: “Wherefore we do not despise the interpretations of the holy Greek and Latin fathers.” Although it’s been much to our benefit that we have followed the Reformation principle of yielding to Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) as our final authority for matters of faith and practice, it has been much to our loss that we have departed from the Reformation practice of not despising the writings of the early church.
I say this because, generally speaking, our departure from the early Protestants’ appreciation of the church fathers has spread like a cancer in the body of Christ. As a result, for quite some time now our neglect has not been limited to the church fathers, but has included just about every major Christian writer up to the 20th century. Again, I’m brushing with broad strokes here, but to talk to some Christians—certainly not all, by any stretch of the imagination, but some—it’s as if we believe that Christianity has reached its apex in us, and we are free to look down on all who preceded us in disdain.
Going back to my days at Emmaus, I vividly remember a conversation I had with one of our older students who explicitly expressed that very attitude. We were discussing the progress of doctrine (although I don’t think we called it that), and how fortunate we were to be living in a day when we, out of all the previous eras of church history, had finally gotten all of God’s truth nailed-down, freeze-dried, shrink-wrapped, bar-coded, freshness-dated, and inventoried (to expand on the sarcasm of Brian McLaren). Well, that’s not exactly what we were saying. We weren’t claiming those things for ourselves personally or else we wouldn’t have been taking classes in a Bible school. But it’s an apt summary of what we were claiming for the doctrinal teaching that was available in places like evangelical Bible schools. And I’ll never forget how one of the fellows there said, “We are the church fathers!” I wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by that, but whatever he meant it sounded okay to me at the time.
Well, if we think we are the church fathers, then why would we bother reading the ancient writers who are called by that name? I sure didn’t. And if no generation has ever been as doctrinally pure as ours, then why bother reading anything that was written in previous centuries? For the most part I’d have to say my attitude was ditto on that for the first several years of my Christian life. I have found that one small step for a man who regards himself too highly quickly leads to one giant leap of disregarding the rest of mankind. The same applies to groups, movements, and denominations and I’ve been no exception to that rule.
The attitude I’m describing here has been so pervasive that in many quarters it has led directly to a self-conscious ignorance even of the writings of most who came long after the church fathers, including some of the greatest evangelical Christians of all time. James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries once debated a fellow evangelical on a doctrinal matter, and at the beginning of the debate White challenged him with the fact that the Protestant Reformers were on White’s side of the argument. White wanted to know whether this man thought the Reformers were just plain wrong, but instead of directly answering that question he gave a far more telling reply:
Well, first of all, James, I’m very ignorant of the Reformers. I have not had time to read them. There are truckloads, I guess, of their writings. I like to just kinda’ pretend that we’re back there in the days of the apostles before all of these things were written. And I like to go to the Bible. So whether the Reformers said this or that, I don’t know.
Now, it cannot be considered scandalous simply to disagree with the Reformers. The Reformers themselves would have been the first to object to anyone placing their writings on a par with Scripture. One of the mottos of the Reformation was “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda”—“The church reformed and always to be reformed.” In other words, the Reformers assumed they weren’t the final word in theology, and that they themselves were not above correction from Scripture. But they also would have dismissed the notion that we can “pretend that we’re back there in the days of the apostles” as a naïve fantasy.
I want to stress that this is something I’ve been as guilty of as anyone else, but I’ve since come to see it as more than a bit arrogant to assume we can blithely dismiss the carefully-formulated conclusions of previous generations without even examining them. Ironically, many people who believe this way are the first to scream bloody murder when a new generation comes along and dismisses their opinions.
This brother was by no means the first evangelical to try to sell the liability of being ignorant of historical theology as if it were an asset. We repeatedly see this as a common theme in much of our own literature over the past few generations. Even the great Lewis Sperry Chafer figured that he was somehow a better theology professor for having never studied the subject formally himself.
Dr. Chafer himself said that “the very fact that I did not study a prescribed course of theology made it possible for me to approach the subject with an unprejudiced mind and to be concerned only with what the Bible actually teaches.”
Ironically, Chafer was in the business of providing precisely what he felt himself to be better off without—“a prescribed course of theology”—to hundreds of students. Equally ironic are the words with which his biographer described the written product of Chafer’s personal studies: “This independent research has resulted in this work which is unabridged, Calvinistic, premillennial, and dispensational” (ibid., 6). The last three of those adjectives are not found in Scripture, and are unintelligible apart from a knowledge of historical theology. Perhaps Chafer had the time and resources to acquire an extensive library for his own study prior to teaching, as his biographer indicates, but for most people the most efficient way to be introduced at least to such knowledge is to have someone guide you through the relevant concepts and literature, and one widely recognized way of obtaining such guidance is in a formal classroom setting, and this was the way Chafer himself encouraged others to learn it, particularly his own students. But no matter how you go about it, neither pretending to be back in the days of the apostles nor avoiding an educational setting will make it any more likely that you will gain an unbiased understanding of Scripture. In fact, when we assume an attitude that insists on being completely self-taught we’re more likely to repeat the mistakes of the past and have nothing to fall back on but our own biases and prejudices.
Of course, not everyone is able to receive formal theological instruction, except perhaps in a Sunday school class, but the irony I want to highlight from Chafer’s biographer here is that even outside the classroom Christians usually access the concepts contained in Scripture through a vocabulary that the apostles never used, which is nowhere to be found in Scripture, but which was developed through centuries of church history. Words and phrases like “Trinity,” “penal substitution,” “Second Coming,” and even “Bible” are handy shorthand terms not only for important doctrines, but for extensive discussions that took place about those doctrines which are preserved for us in writings bequeathed through church history. To become familiar with those discussions, or at least to be able to summarize their outcomes, will go a long way toward helping us avoid confusion and error.
We cannot escape church history because we are in it, but thankfully God decided quite some time ago that we in the 21st century should not have to start from scratch in order to understand and explain Scripture. In His providence he has provided the vocabulary of church history—words that Christians coined in order to more easily deposit and save the wealth of biblical truth for future generations. But just as children learn the values and denominations of coins and paper money, we should familiarize ourselves not only with the meanings of the Christian words we’ve inherited, but occasionally with the events that shaped them as well.
Our first reaction might be a daunted complaint: “You mean I not only gotta study the Bible but all that church history stuff too?” Obviously not all Christians will become church historians, but at the very least we should not despise the subject, because through it we inherit the experiences of church history—the experiences in which God’s people struggled with, clarified, and fought for the truth of God’s word—and this provides today’s church with more wisdom than we usually appreciate or take advantage of.
Even so, a lot of people get nervous when they hear an evangelical recommending the church fathers, and that’s a nervousness to which I can relate. It’s usually caused by the fear that Christians will begin to consider them as authoritative as Scripture, which is a very real risk because church history provides numerous examples of it actually happening. But this is no reason to avoid reading them, any more than the fact that some people treat study Bible notes as inspired Scripture is a reason to avoid all study Bibles.
In any case, if we were to treat the writings of the church fathers as if they were inspired Scripture, and if the church fathers themselves were here to see us doing it, they would be very upset with us. Notice the first paragraph of my quote from the Second Helvetic Confession above, where concerning the church fathers it states, “they all, with one consent, will not have their writings matched with the Canonical Scriptures, but bid us allow of them so far forth as they either agree with them or disagree.” In other words, as a rule, the church fathers esteemed Scripture as highly as we do. Instances of this are not hard to find in their writings. Here is an example from one of the Greek fathers, Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-387):
For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.
[Lecture IV.17, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem,” translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford, in Philip Schaff., ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 7, (Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishiers, Inc., reprinted 2004), 23.]
Undoubtedly the most famous Latin father of all time was Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430). He wrote to another famous father, Jerome, who translated the Latin Vulgate, and when he did he expressed his doctrine of Scripture in terms that sound a lot like those used by conservative evangelicals today:
For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the MS. [manuscript] is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. As to all other writings, in reading them, however great the superiority of the authors to myself in sanctity and learning, I do not accept their teaching as true on the mere ground of the opinion being held by them; but only because they have succeeded in convincing my judgment of its truth either by means of these canonical writings themselves, or by arguments addressed to my reason. I believe, my brother, that this is your own opinion as well as mine. I do not need to say that I do not suppose you to wish your books to be read like those of prophets or of apostles, concerning which it would be wrong to doubt that they are free from error. Far be such arrogance from that humble piety and just estimate of yourself which I know you to have, and without which assuredly you would not have said, “Would that I could receive your embrace, and that by converse we might aid each other in learning!”
[Letter LXXXII (82) to Jerome, “Letters of St. Augustin,” translated by J.G. Cunningham, in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 1, (Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., reprinted 2004), 350.]
Here in the writings of Cyril and Augustine we are not only relieved to discover that these men bowed only to the Scriptures in matters of faith and practice, but we also receive apologetics resources for us today. As I write these words the doctrine of sola Scriptura is under attack from various quarters, including who want to be called evangelical. Some try to undermine it by arguing that it’s a new doctrine that didn’t come along until the Reformation. More than one of the church fathers would have a bone to pick with them on that score.
The church fathers were a mixed bag, but at least they knew it. They disagreed with each other from time to time, and were keenly aware of how fallible they were, so they would not allow anyone to substitute anything for the authority of Scripture, including their own writings. When you consider this and how much else we are indebted to them for, it is little wonder that the Protestant Reformers, who occasionally rejected their positions on various matters, nevertheless held them in such high esteem. We should do no less.