Sunday, August 12, 2007

Towards a Protestant Patrology

One of the things I've been amused to notice in my ten month career as a patristiblogger is the surprise I get from my Orthodox and Catholic readers that a Protestant is interested in the Fathers at all. I don't blame their surprise because I know that many Protestants have rejected the need to look at the history of the Church between, say, the apostolic era and Luther hammering the 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg (or, in more extreme cases, the establishment of one's own particular sect). Patristic authors, in this view, mark the beginning of the corruption of the Church in late antiquity and the Middle Ages.

I am, however, an Anglican, which, in itself, should explain my interest in the Fathers because we have a long tradition of considering ourselves both Protestant and Catholic. What that means varies according to the particular Anglican being addressed, but, for me, it means that I am Protestant to the Reformers had the right idea in their ideas about many things including their subordination of tradition to the authority of Scripture. And I'm just Catholic enough to think that tradition is an important aid in helping to read Scripture properly. For me, the Fathers represent a recovery of tradition, but one which must be subordinate to Scripture.

Now, I'm not arguing sola scriptura strictly here, but rather something closer to prima scriptura. That is, Scripture is uniquely authoritative, offers a unified worldview and can be interpreted within its own confines without the medium of outside authorities. Any theological proposition, whether our own or that of the past, must be referred back to Scripture in order to discern whether it is, in fact, appropriately considered a Christian position. That has led to some Protestants rejecting the Fathers (and anyone else before the Reformers), but I don't think it needs to. So, what I want to do is set out some points about what a Protestant Patrology might justify itself or look like.

The Reformers were influenced by the Fathers

The fact that many of the Reformers knew their way through the Fathers and were willing to use that knowledge comes as a surprise to many non-Protestants. I understand that, but the record is clear that many Reformers, including Luther and Calvin, not only recognized a debt to the Church Fathers (especially Augustine), but used their understanding of these Fathers as a tool to cut through what they perceived as the tangle of late mediaeval tradition. Some of this came out in biblical scholarship, but, by far the most popular use of the Fathers, was the polemical use in the characterization and appropriation of the values of the early Church, in establishing precedents for Reform practices such as priesthood of all believers, rejection of the episcopal system of church government, even infant baptisms and in trying to establish just when the Church slide into corruption. Now, whether one agrees with their conclusions or not (I apologize to my Roman Catholic readers for the tone of the above argument, but I was trying to give a sense of the tone of the Reformers on these issues), we can see the Reformers were interested in patristics, even if only for polemical purposes. That does suggest to Protestant today that, perhaps patristics isn't an un-Reformed interest, after all.

The Fathers are relentlessly Scriptural

Contrary to that strong Protestant trend to dismiss as human tradition any non-Biblical writer, my reading of the Fathers has brought me to see how intensely steeped in the Fathers were in Scripture. Just read a Father or two and what one carries away is the impression of a way of writing theologically whose expressions and images constantly allude to and appropriate Scripture in the way they argue and are constantly concerned with interpreting Scripture in such a way that make a direct connection to one's own life. The Fathers had a high view of Scripture and tended to view it as intelligible, often through interpreting particularly difficult passages by reference to other more sure passages of Scripture. This should sound vaguely familiar to any Protestant reader because this seems to be what Luther was driving at when he declared his slightly hyperbolic slogan, sola scriptura. For the Fathers, Scripture was authoritative and coherent on its own, even if they used tools (drawn from the same source, the apostolic tradition) such as the Rule of Faith) to guide the interpretation of it.

BUT: The Fathers can be wrong

At this point, I may have shocked some of my Roman Catholic and Orthodox readers for a moment, but, I hope, that if they think about it, they have to recognize that this recognition of the fallibility of the Fathers has been understood in their own tradition by referring the teachings of the Fathers to the magisterium (for Catholics) or the patristic consensus (for Orthodox) before deciding on the orthodoxy of a given statement. Sometimes a Father is insufficiently precise, given later doctrinal formulations, because he hasn't been challenged by heresy or schism to speak more precisely. Sometimes a Father is just out and out says something that is wrong, when it is tested against Scripture or tradition. Thus, we get Fathers like Tertullian and Origen who say a lot of right things, but must be handled with care because they also say some just wrong things.

For the Protestant, the filter to decide whether a particular statement is right or wrong is, ultimately, Scripture. Implicit in this statement is a belief that, while the meaning of the Bible is always static, our understanding can be affected by our sin or sloth and sometimes something that a culture or cultures decide is okay is suddenly recognized as not truly supported by Scripture. Mind you, this is proven by reference to Scripture, not through outside standards like experience. In a sense, this is what another Reformation slogan, semper reformanda, is getting at because there is a recognition that we, as Christians, have to continually challenge our own reading of Scripture to make sure that we aren't engaged in a case of self-delusion in our (mis-)reading of the Bible. The Fathers can help us in that because they are reflective of a culture without the same assumptions or blindnesses as ours (they had plenty of their own), but their own statements are subject to the same evaluation before we accept them in their entirety.

I'm quite sure that I haven't plumbed the depths of this topic, but this seems a good place to stop and ask for feedback. What other issues should a Protestant consider in his or her patrology?



Mark said...

Take my response with a grain of salt, I was Anglican (ECUSA) for a long time (longer than I've been Christian as an adult actually), and recently (this year) converted to Orthodoxy because in part the closer connection to patristic thought (ascetic tradition was the other part). With that caveat (that is, my relative lack of expertise), I'll offer a few remarks.

Vladimir Lossky in the introduction to An Introduction Icons finally ties Scripture and tradition in a horizontal and vertical means. Horizontal tradition is scripture and those oral teachings transmitted by the apostles and through the early church. Vertical transmission is the development traditions. He also identifies the horizontal with Christ (from his teaching) and the vertical with the Spirit. If you can get a hold of the book, I'd recommend it, for his writing is careful and complex and I certainly didn't do it justice with the above remarks (that means if you disagree the fault is likely mine).

One thing common with the patristic writings is that they viewed earlier ages as "less corrupted/wrong" than their own. That is, the past practices were closer to God than theirs. Today we have more a view which is the opposite, tending to dismiss older ideas by virtue of their being older.

Several modern Orthodox theologians I've read identify two currents of thought in the patristic writings. One which influenced the West more, and the other the East. If I remember correctly for example, Clement -> Augustine -> Anselm is a Western train, Iraeneaus (sp?) -> Cappadocian fathers -> pseudo-Dionysius -> Maxiums -> Palamas is the Eastern.

All I'm saying is it makes sense to understand the heritage and context of the particular writing.

John said...

Phil, thanks for a really fine post.

Have you ever looked through my series on canon, and note the debate that ensued, with Peter Kirk, Kevin Edgecomb, Doug Chaplin, and myself as chief participants? Similar issues came up. You might enjoy it.

John Hobbins

Phil Snider said...


Thanks for your post. I have read some Lossky, although I'm not sure that I've read that one. I'll look it up sometime. The comment on streams is a helpful one.

I think I'd see something in the canon series, but I was either on vacation or buried in work when it came out. I'll have a look at it.


mike said...

I'm surprised that anyone's surprised. Protestant presses are doing more in patristics than any Catholic presses, at least in the States. IVP has the multi-volume Ancient Christian Commentary, and Eerdmans has The Church's Bible. Hendrickson is bringing out an excellent Patristic Greek Reader and will soon have Drobner's Patrology.

Catholics agree with you that the Fathers make mistakes. They are neither inerrant like Scripture nor infallible (even in the limited way of the popes). We hold (with Trent and Vatican I) that when there is a consensus of the Fathers in a doctrinal matter or scriptural interpretation, that consensus must be held as true. It's the position staked out by Vincent of Lerins way back when.

Phil Snider said...

Hi Mike;

I hadn't actually thought of it that way, but, now that you point it out, it is interesting how much patristics is coming out of the Protestant side of things, especially out of the evangelical tradition. Really, that is how I got into it, having picked up rather randomly Christopher Hall's Learning Scripture With the Fathers almost ten years ago. That was a part of my whole shift from Classics to Patristics which has led me rather interesting places the last few years.

Still, in my rovings while compiling the Roundups and Carnivals, I keep see discussions among Catholics and Orthodox expressing surprise at this Protestant interest in the Fathers. I hope that that surprise will lessen over time.


mike said...

The surprise is probably conditioned by the ambivalence that the Protestant world has shown toward the Fathers. Not everyone has been as sanguine toward the early centuries as Calvin and Luther were. It's interesting to note where some contemporaries draw the line in patristics. Michael Green seems to believe that things went very wrong in the very generation of the Apostles -- the same point, in fact, where Harnack saw things going right. Eberhard Arnold placed the bright line at 170 A.D. Of course, the accession of Constantine is the most popular place to draw the line.

Evangelicals have come to a keen appreciation of the value of the Apostolic Fathers in their apologetic response to liberals and extreme historical critics. Only good can come of this, as the publishers are already showing us!

TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Excellent post.

Catholics believe in a sort of prima-scriptura as well. It is uniquely authoritative/inerrant in some sense just not the sense that the reformers believed in.

The Scriptures are God breathed - that is unique in comparison to infallibility.

The Church does not have the "authority" to contradict Scripture either. Such a term is circular anyway, it's like asking "does God have the authority to contradict Himself"? Well God isn't the sort of person who contradicts Himself and Church isn't the sort of entity which contradicts the sacred Scriptures which she was entrusted.

So asking who has top authority Church or Scripture is really a failure of a question to begin with. You've gotten the answer wrong before the end of the question leaves your lips.

Calvin and Luther both used patristics extensively but they misread the fathers just as bad as they misread the Scriptures. Their doctrines simply haven't held up under scrutiny.

How is it that the doctrines of those who hold the bible has the sole authority are more biblically incompatible than those who hold that sacred tradition also has infallible authority? Is this, in itself, not evidence against the young belief?

If you wouldn't agree of your own denomination (and theres no reason why you should) you must concede that the center of biblical interpretation is much further away from Scripture within those who hold to Luther's 'sola scriptura' than those who hold to the apostolic doctrine of sacred tradition.

Sorry if any of this reply doesnt make sense. I'm writing it while I'm on a really boring conference call!

Joseph said...

On a conference call! You lazy, cheating... um... wait... I'm a work too.

Phil Snider said...


I'm agree that trying to figure out where the Church went wrong has been a bit of a past-time for many Protestants. I'm not sure that it has been a particularly helpful one, mind you, but it is common. My own opinion is rather more catholic; that the Church, as a school for sinners, has always mixed both saints and sinners, so it shouldn't be surprising to find evidence of corruption and sanctification side by side in almost all historical periods. I think Augustine's concept of the mixed church agress with this.


I agree that the question about whether the Church or the Scriptures have more authority is a non-question. It, however, was not the question I was asking in this post. Rather, what I was driving at is that Protestants have a very different way of reading Scripture and, thus, the Fathers than Catholics, which I think is demonstrable, even in our own interactions. I'm not pronouncing one or the other as wrong so much as noting that this will lead Protestants to ask different questions of the Fathers than Catholics or the Orthodox. That is, of course, one of the rationales for this post.

Second, I'm confused by your last point in which you state "How is it that the doctrines of those who hold the bible has the sole authority are more biblically incompatible than those who hold that sacred tradition also has infallible authority?" Really, this question begs two questions: What do you mean by biblically incompatible? and by whose standard? What I'm concerned about is that you are about to spring a tautology on me because you seem to be assuming that a Catholic reading is the only way to read the Bible and that, by that standard, Protestant readings of the Bible are incomptabile to this Catholic understanding. You can say that, of course, but it strikes me as rather circular, besides rather obvious. As a Protestant, I expect that my reading will look incompatable to your Catholic reading. My question is how do we, as we write from different theological traditions, figure out which reading (or combinations of readings) is the right one? How do Catholic and Protestant readings relate?


TheGodFearinFiddler said...

Phil - at some level everyone has to make their own judgment. My judgment is that the Catholic Church is right.

To be blunt, a great deal of Protestant ways of reading Scripture have seemed ridiculous to me. How you can get "we are justified by faith alone" from "you are not justified by faith alone" is completely beyond me.

There comes a certain point at which one is forced to say - yes I understand that both sides think their way is right and who can really judge?? etc... but in so far as words mean anything at all - certain ways of interpreting Scripture are nonsense. In my estimation, Protestants crossed that line about 500 years ago. Your estimation is obviously different.

At any rate, it isn't my estimation (or yours) that matters but rather the Church's. Fortunately she has made herself quite clear on the subject. Those who disagreed with her tried in vain to reinvent the very term "Church" but an arbitrary redefinition of a 2000 year old foundational doctrine of Christianity carries little eternal weight save for the excuse it (hopefully) offers for those who were deceived by its error.

Phil - I get the impression that you and I could debate for 100 years and neither of us budge an inch! Hehe. But it's good stuff. I always look forward to our discussions - always in charity (you know me I'd never be un-ecumenical)

Let's keep it up!

Phil Snider said...

Well, one of the virtues of the Roman Catholic Church is its clarity. I say that with affectionate humour, but I find I just cannot get made at the Pope or Catholics who just say what they think. I'll argue with them, but I just can't quite take offense.

Yes, you are right, we can (and probably will) argue ourselves in circles for a very long time. I was just curious to see what you thought about my little thinking experiment.


Nicholas Jesson said...


Firstly, nice blog!

Secondly, have you read D.H.Williams' "Evangelicals and Tradition" from Baker Academic? Or anything else from Williams, actually? He is a Baptist patristic scholar from Baylor. He has been encouraging evangelicals to retrieve the patristic tradition, not only as a historical source but as a guide to reading scripture. He deals with some of the difficult questions related to the authority of tradition, etc... He gives prominence to the first 600 years or so. Unlike others who stop before Constantine, or at 100 AD, he is prepared to accept the ecumenical councils and the whole patristic tradition. His decision to stop at the end of the patristic tradition and thus reject medieval insights seems to beg the question: why stop there? It seems pretty arbitrary.


Phil Snider said...

Thanks, Nick, for your comments and your reading suggestion. I've seen the Williams book, but haven't got it out of the library to read. I'll have to do that sometime soon.

As for your final question, I think we have to remember that the Reformation was primarily reacting to scholasticism, so it shouldn't be a surprise that, when they do read the Fathers, they stop there because to Protestant minds, the reasons for the corruption in the Church at the time of Luther as, in some part, the result of its theology. Aristotle particularly gets a rough ride as does Aquinas. I'm not sure I would say the mediaeval inheritance is useless, but I think the Reformers had a point in their criticisms.


Roger Pearse said...

It is rarely remembered that John Wesley translated long sections of the apostolic fathers and Macarius for his "Christian Library", as a service to early Methodists.

In every Christian revival before now, an interest in the fathers has followed. Indeed my own interest in Tertullian goes back to his name being mentioned on the very bible camp at which I became a Christian!

Unfortunately there have been rather too many TV programmes (here in the UK, anyway) invariably using 'theology' as an excuse to attack Christianity. This seems to have killed off any possible market for these type of books among Christians. Among the casualties has been the translations of the fathers that should exist now. In the same way Bart Ehrman's Apostolic Fathers will do harm, I think.

SlimBil said...

Blessings in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Pardon my party-pooping, but what if this discussion of ancient doctrines is a. neo-Platonist, b. Gnostic and c. an escape from the much harder work of preaching the Gospel? {What is the Spirit saying to the Church today? Beware of Binitrianism!

How about a discussion of ecumenism and missiology.

There's a lot of widows and orphans out there.

Mt 25: 31-46

Just call me an ancient missiologist looking for
youthful hearts and hands -