Engaging with the Church Fathers

I recently got Hendrickson Publishers’ 38 volume collection of writings of the Early Church Fathers (pictured here on my desk stand). These will be reference works to have in my library for the rest of my life, but I’ve started dipping into the first two volumes just to get a feel for how the books operate, and to keep expanding in my knowledge of historical theology in preparation for my studies at Fuller this fall. So I’ve plowed my way through the introductions, and skimmed a bit the writings of Polycarp, Ignatius, Mathetes (the name given to an unknown author of a letter to Diognetus), Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, the Epistle of Barnabas, the fragments of Papias, the Shepherd/Pastor of Hermas, Tatian, Theophilus, Athenagoras, and Clement of Alexandria. Tertullian is next. I’ve also dabbled a bit in John of Damascus and Gregory the Great, because they are the two early Christians whom I find most fascinating, along with Augustine. Some miscellaneous thoughts:

1) Its interesting the extent to which early Christianity was Greek. Latin Christianity seems to emerge slowly throughout the second century, especially with Tertullian in the late second century, but for a good chunk of time there early on, Christianity was almost entirely Greek. Even theologians in the far West (like Irenaeus in Gaul) wrote in Greek and seem to anticipate theological tendencies of the later East. Coxe, the editor of the Ante-Nicene volumes, quotes a historian named Milman as saying “all the church of the West were Greek religious colonies. Their language was Greek, their organization Greek, their writers Greek, their Scriptures and their ritual Greek” (2:166). Coxe also notes that when Latin Christianity does appear, it is primarily African, not Roman (1:309). No, my Orthodox friends, I don’t think this amounts to the East “scoring a point” against the West, for the significance of the historical record here depends on one’s view of the role of tradition in the life of the church. But it is interesting to see that what emerges so starkly in the 3rd through 11th centuries – a Latin tradition in the West and a Greek tradition in the East gradually drifting away from each other until at long last a breaking point is reached – was not present from the start. The Latin tradition developed later, especially with the great African theologians, Tertullian and Augustine. The more I study early church history the more I am struck by the massive influence especially of Augustine in shaping the course of what followed him, but particularly in the West. That would be an interesting article: the role of Augustine in the split of 1054.

2) A big issue that I am continually returning to is what it means to engage with the church fathers as a Protestant. It seems to me that Protestants, to differing degrees, often neglect pre-Reformation church history, except for Augustine. We act like the important stuff skipped from the 1st to the 16th century, except for some important battles in relation to Christology and Trinitarianism, and Augustine’s writings, and sometimes Anselm’s doctrine of the atonement – with the occasional poem of Bernard of Clairveaux or sermon of Johh Crysostom or nod to Athanasius for his defense of the deity of Christ thrown in there, too. But this was not the view of the Reformers themselves, and I think we need to recognize that we can see ourselves as fundamentally connected to early church history without abandoning our Protestant distinctives. In volume 2 there is a statement by an African poet that goes: “I am a Christian, and nothing which concerns Christianity do I consider foreign to myself” (quoted on 2:87, italics his). I think this statement captures exactly what our attitude should be in engaging with the fathers: this is part of Christianity, and therefore this is part of my family history. This is part of my heritage, my identity. While there is much that I disagree with in what I read among the fathers, I find that I am seeing what C.S. Lewis talks about in his introduction to Athanasius: that at the bottom of it all there is a distinct, recognizable core, a mere Christianity that subsists throughout each generation of church history.

3) Its interesting to see how the early Christians grappled with Christ vs. culture issues. We think much today of what it means to be missional, what it means to contextualize. I feel strongly that these conversations would be enriched by a more thorough engagement with how Christians faced these issues, say, in the 2nd century. My initial feeling is that the early Christians were far more separatist and “Christ vs. culture” (to use Neihbur’s category) than we are – and yet they still took the Roman Empire by storm. The tone of Theophilus’ letter to the pagan Autolycus, to mention just one example, is scathingly militant. But while we may have some criticisms to make of the fathers on these issues, I think we also have a lot to learn from them. We tend to think of cultural relevance in terms of earning a hearing from the world, but I think sometimes we downplay the real friction that exists between the church and the world within a healthy contextualization. Perhaps at times “relevance” means a willingness to offend the world and then bravely face the lions because of it, like so many of the early Christians did. I like the dictum of Athanasias (or is it from someone else?): “against the world, for the world.” This one of Mathetes is also interesting: “what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world.”

4) An hour perusing these volumes blows to smithereens a lot of the liberal, revisionist scholarship concerning the early church, whether it be the Dan Brown idea that the deity of Christ was decided at Nicea but largely undetermined till then, or all of Bart Ehrman’s stuff on the plurality of early Christianity (or as he would put it, early Christianities). Its amazing how consistent and clear even the early/mid second century writers were on the essentials of the faith. I think, for example, of Justin Martyr’s affirmation of trinitarianism (cf. 1:164, contrary to what I’d been told, that he defended the deity of the Son but not the Spirit), or Tatian’s mid-second century book seeking to harmonize the four gospels (indicating the exclusive place these four books held among Christians from a very early date), or the creedal-like assertions about the basic elements of the Christian faith that come up again and again, as early as Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians or Clement’s to the Corinthians. Again, from very early there is a discernible core of “mere Christianity” which has never vanished from the earth.

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  1. Hey Mike, overall I would have to go with Augustine, and then after that Gregory the Great and John of Damascus – both are fascinating.