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They’re My Fathers, Too!

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!


technorati tags: church fathers, patristics, protestant, reformers


  1. PS says:

    I read somewhere that some of the modern denominations/sects seem to project the sense that there were no true Christians or Christian thinkers before that particular group or group leader was somehow devinely given the Real Truth at a particular time during the 1900’s.

    It is refreshing to read your words that take this long view of Christian thought into account. Perhaps this comes because of your education.

    It seems that sometimes when people See the Light and change from a rather bad lives to more Christian lives, these people (over)react by becoming quite conservative. They don’t have the advantage of a longer Christian life nor of Christian schooling, not that schooling is necessarily liberal, whatever that means. But having only the Bible Alone means that they haven’t read the Church Fathers, however you define that. Then their new sect/church has a foundation in Jesus but not in the continuity of Christian thought.

    I’m thinking here of what seems to be the trend of some preachers having started their own churches and organizations. It seems to be that so many of the very public preachers aren’t under a denomination.

    Am I confusing two issues?


  2. Anne says:

    Funny you should be blogging on this. I’ve got one in the hopper … though I wasn’t planning on til next week but may try to finish this week so we can get some continuous conversation going … I was reading a biography of Chesterton and found the (caustically anti-Protestant) biographer taking such pot-shots at Protestants as to actually say we were thieves / had stolen the things we held from the ancient faith. Naturally, he also thought, where we didn’t hold to Rome’s teachings, we were lamentably historically ignorant. I’m not saying you can’t find instances to support either view, but he puts forward a very much a “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” approach to Protestants.


  3. D. P. says:

    PS: I think you’re right that a lot of the newer groups (ca. 1800’s and later) went through a phase of exaggerated sectarianism (“we’re the only ones who’ve gotten it right”). Almost all of these hold to a very shallow, wooden understanding of sola scriptura. Some of them are blatantly unorthodox (Jehovah’s Witnesses, anybody?). I’m not sure how this relates to the growing trend of non-denominational churches, but I’m sure it does. The same (or similar) dynamics are in play: we’re just going to follow the Bible, we don’t bow to any earthly authority, tradition is bad so we’ll just make it up as we go along, etc.

    Anne: I look forward to what you have to say. I may even have a second post on the subject forming in my head as well.


  4. I find the pre-Constantinian fathers especially helpful. I am also glad that we are slowly rediscovering the Church Mothers!


  5. […] [This post is cross-blogged at Dr. Platypus.] […]


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