Phil at hyperekperissou has a nice article about Protestants reading the early church fathers. The article grows out of an attitude that I also sometimes encounter: Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christians of a certain bent seem offended that a Protestant would show any interest in the fathers, or accuse them of cherry-picking the bits we like and leaving the rest behind. In for a penny, in for a pound?
Even if I were not personally offended by this, it would strike me as counter-productive. Have these detractors not considered that many Protestants who have begun to take the fathers seriously have ended up crossing the Tiber (or the Bosphorus)? If I were Catholic or Orthodox and I knew an evangelical who was interested in patristics, I would stock her up with all the best resources I could! I would applaud her baby steps toward the fullness of God’s revelation. I would ask, “What have you learned lately? Where is your study taking you?” and listen respectfully to the answers.
But I’m not Catholic or Orthodox (in the capital-letter sense). I can only speak for folks like me. So let me first acknowledge that Protestants, especially free-church Protestants, and especially evangelical free-church Protestants, have brought some of this surprise and suspicion on ourselves. We have largely forgotten that the early Reformers—Luther, Calvin, and the like—all knew their patristics! Their argument against Rome was not that the fathers were irrelevant but that Rome had misread them!
For Luther et al., the fathers had to be read in light of Scripture, which holds the final authority. Still, they are valuable examples of how people read the Bible in earlier days, and they do carry genuine authority (of a secondary, derivative sort) in settling matters of faith and practice. As my seminary church history professor would say, we believe in sola scriptura, not nuda scriptura.
That is why I celebrate the fact that many Protestants are coming around to rediscover the fathers. In so doing, we are discovering not only our ancient but our Protestant roots. We are sorting out what is the core of our faith and what is a passing fad.
The Reformers would be proud!