Sunday, January 14, 2007

Claiming Paternity or Why the Church Fathers belong to Protestants too.

I've been thinking about this post for a couple of weeks now since a Patristic Roundup in which a post asked why Protestants wanted to quote the Church Fathers anyway. The gist of the comment is that Protestants aren't willing to listen to the clear testimony of the Fathers on the papacy (sic!), so why are they bothering?. I've been wanting to respond, but I decided that I also wanted to take my time to think out what I wanted to say. So, I'm going to slap on some Taize music (which is oddly appropriate) and get down to it.

To some degree, the surprise expressed by many Roman Catholics and Orthodox about the recent revival of Protestant interest in the Fathers is understandable. The Reformation slogan emphasizing sola scriptura as the basis of authority in Protestant theology did have the effect of stifling Protestant interest in the Fathers. Ultimately, in a Protestant theology, the Bible is perceived as the only necessary basis of authority in the Christian church, so it is less important to know what the Fathers have to say. In the more free church Protestant tradition, this emphasis on sola scriptura has led to a complete rejection of any writer after the Revelation of John as being unnecessary and, in fact, dangerous examples of the corrupted church which arose after the glories of the apostolic age. This has led to a kind of historical myopia and the attempt to create an ahistorical faith which most Roman Catholics and Orthodox associate with Protestantism in general.

Yet, it is interesting to note that most of the Reformers knew their way around the Fathers. Luther, Calvin and even Menno Simmons (representative of the early free church tradition) quoted the Fathers reasonably regularly. This makes sense because most of the early reformers (and many later ones) had a standard theological education through the universities which included a significant dose of patristics. Besides, in their controversies with their Roman Catholic opponents, they needed to challenge a particular view of the history of the Church, so the Fathers were part of that battleground.

Nor was this attention to patristics considered out of step with the larger principle of sola scriptura. The reality of this principle is not a rejection of anything outside the Bible (which is how it has often been read), but that anything outside of the Bible simply doesn't have the same authority. Sometimes those extra-biblical ideas are pernicious because they are in open conflict with what the Bible tells us, but, just as often, these extra-biblical ideas are simply speculative and, hence, not binding on the Church as a whole. This conditions Protestant views on the Fathers because it means that Protestants are always testing even the most revered Father against Scripture. This is contrast to the Roman Catholic or Orthodox tendency to emphasize continuity of apostolic teaching through the Fathers.

Yet, even granting this different attitude, I would argue that it is not inconsistent for Protestants to read the Fathers; only that they read them rather differently. What makes the Fathers so compelling to me is that, at their best, the Fathers, like the Reformers, are primarily concerned with what Scripture has to say. In Christian theology, it is an ever present temptation to allow secular learning to determine how we read the Bible in our attempt to make it relevant to the culture in which we find ourselves. In our own time, many theologians use their modernist or post-modernist education to reach our culture, sometimes to the point of allowing these philosophies to trump the Bible. In the patristic period, it was Greek philosophy (especially that of Plato) or rhetoric which served to trump the Bible. What makes the Fathers as good biblical exegetes as they are is that they resisted this temptation to greater or lesser extent. Even Origen, who by all accounts was heavily influenced by Platonism, could say that every word of Scripture had a meaning. Even when they indulged in allegory or typology, they took Scripture very seriously.

More important than this, the Fathers present a valuable alternative in how to write theology today. Unfortunately, for the last few hundred years, we've been too much in the habit of separating out our thinking from our praying, our theology from our spirituality. I honestly think that much of the unsound theology of the last centuries can be traced from this disconnect. The Fathers, in their very methods, refused to consider this division. Indeed, it never occurred to them. Theology was as much an expression of the Spirit as prayer or worship, if rightly guided. It is this desire to use the intelligence and discernment granted to us by God in a prayerful way which presents a rather different approach to the intellectualized, modernist faith which has characterized much Protestant theology in its various manifestations.

It isn't that Protestants need the Fathers more than anyone else does. All of us, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant, need to hear their wisdom and their teaching. It just happens that it has taken us Protestants this long to remember that we need that help from these early Fathers. We need encouragement, not incredulity, to continue our studies in the Fathers. They are, after all, our Fathers too.



Timothy said...

As a Catholic, I for one am happy to hear of protestants discovering the Church fathers.

Nothing brings home the truth of the Church like reading the fathers. As more non-Catholics read the fathers and alter their interpretations of the scriptures accordingly, the world becomes a bit more Catholic everyday.

Christ is bringing his Church together and homeward. Amen.

Anonymous said...

Phil - Great topic. I agree with you that it is not inconsistent for Protestants to read the early Chuch fathers. In fact, I think it is decidedly inconsistent for them not to read them.

I read them as a Protestant (but not as much as I do now).

Unknown said...

"Unfortunately, for the last few hundred years, we've been too much in the habit of separating out our thinking from our praying, our theology from our spirituality. I honestly think that much of the unsound theology of the last centuries can be traced from this disconnect."


Patrik said...

From an existential point of view, I think the growing interest among protestants for the Early church comes out of a longing for greater unity in the church, and therefore from a seeking to gains a better understanding of the common heritage of all Christians.

JimB said...


I think the link between our prayer and our thinking is critically important. A very good point.

On others, hmmm.... I recall reading somewhere that the great failure of the reformers was their devotion to the early church was so great while their knowlege was so small. I think of that as I read some radical evangelicals including our friend on another site.

As to the authority of the bishop of Rome, it is perhaps relevant to recall that when the fathers were writing, that office was nothing like what it became when Martin the 13th and others held it later.


Phil Snider said...

Thanks for your comments and support all. Just a couple of comments.

First, to Patrik, I agree with you that much of the recent interest in the Fathers among Protestants, especially evangelicals, is that they have recognized the effects of the Protestant disease (if you don't like your church, find another or split) and see the catholicity of the Fathers as an anitidote to that. I know that is partly true of me.


The Reformers did have a tendency to create images of the early church, some of which were problably correct in ways that they didn't realize. It is, however, the almost Golden Age and decline quality to them which worries me sometimes. There is always a time when everything went wrong (after Pentacost, in the immediate post-apostolic period, at Nicaea, the establishment of the papacy). I'm not sure that is quite true because I do think that the church has always had something wrong with it. Why not? It invited sinners to join the saints. Yet, that is how it is to help bring in the Kingdom. Interesting that.


Kyle said...

That's a great point about the gift of premodern Christians. I appreciated your point about sola scriptura, as well!

Al Shaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Al Shaw said...

Thanks for your post.

I particularly appreciated your reminder that theology is an act of devotion - a fact captured as you say in the method of some of the Patristic writers. It reminded me of Jonathan Edwards whose writings seem to be in a similar spirit.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

A whole lot of the Patristic excerpts being slung back and forth between Luther and the other Reformers on the one hand and the Roman Catholic writers on the other hand were particularly pointed toward their particular positions. (From the Catholic side, see the OT and NT prefaces to the Douai-Rheims Bible, which I recently updated to more modern English.) A truly holistic approach to Patristic authors was something surprisingly lacking on both sides for centuries (though I do think, not to be partisan, the Orthodox tradition maintained a closer relationship with the Patristic writings throughout). It was only after the massive collections of Migne were published that Patristic interest began to grow in the West, and interest became so acute that by the late nineteenth century we find that massive set of Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translated into English and still selling well. That various modern Evangelical concerns have come to notice Patristics can only be welcome, of course, like the really neat Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture by Intervarsity Press, one of the Evangelical publishing houses par excellence.

I think part of the animus felt on the part of some Orthodox and Catholics regarding Protestant interest in the Church Fathers is precisely that the former both hold the Fathers integral to Tradition, as preservers of the Way through the centuries. And I'm sure all are aware that "tradition" has often been a dirty word to Protestants, particularly with a capital T. This antagonism toward Tradition, in the mind of the Catholics and Orthodox, can't be squared with an interest in the Fathers. You can't have one without the other, is how we see it.

But I, for one, will always rejoice that others come to an interest in, which will prayerfully lead to a love of the Fathers!

Phil Snider said...


Well, that is high praise to be compared with Jonathon Edwards. Thanks for your comments.


I take your point on the slinging of quotations (barely understood, perhaps) of the reformers and their RC opponents. Almost certainly, many of these quotes came from catenae and what not. Actually, this is a little funny because it has always struck me that this is what the Ancient Christian Commentary series actually is. Not that that is bad, I just hope that people don't just stay there and get up to read the whole works.

I think, however, that the new-found Protestant interest in the Fathers is reflective of the wider interest in tradition as well. It is not coincidental that these two interests emerge at the same time. There are plenty of people who want to snip at both ideas in Protestant land, but there is a growing number of Protestants who are getting worried that we can't seem to stay in unity with each other. Tradition and patristic theology seem to promise a way to escape the 'Protestant' disease of schism (to name one beneficial effect).


Anonymous said...

Two things that could be different with Protestants reading the writings of the Church Fathers this time is are:

1) The discussion is not taking place in a survivalist mode where to concede your opponent might have a point on a certain issue is to endanger your own movement's very existence. A Protestant can now say "OK maybe communion should be every week" and still disagree with Rome.

2) There are a lot more writings available now that paint a much broader picture. At the time of the Reformation, the influence was mainly St. Augustine and other Western writers who give a far more pro-Roman view than the Fathers taken as a whole. With the inclusion of a wider sampling of writings and a better understanding of the historical situation, a far more balanced view is possible.

Still, there are the thorny issues of the role of tradition, the episcopacy, and the matter of Mary to consider. Protestants (save traditional Anglicans) are bound to be just a little nervous reading the Fathers on these topics.