Does a meaningful study of the ancient Church "Fathers" necessarily lead a person away from Protestantism?
I was especially interested in this comment, because-through the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary-I've become acquainted with several scholars who have done a great deal of study in the "fathers"(the influential pastors and theologians from the earliest centuries of Christianity) and these scholars remain committed to Protestantism. So I posed this question to a group of Protestant scholars of patristics: how would you respond to someone who claims, "You can't read the fathers in any meaningful way and remain protestant"?
The following post details the responses I received.
Luke's appeal to Calvin was echoed and expanded by another response that I received, that from Dr. Gregg Allison, Professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Among other works, Dr. Allison is the author of Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine and Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. Dr. Allison wrote:
My second response is to point to the growing number of Protestant scholars who are patristic experts and convinced Protestants. If you want my own perspective on this issue, please see my chapter in the recently released Revisioning, Renewing, Rediscovering the Triune Center: Essays in Honor of Stanley J. Grenz (chapter 16 is mine).
My friend and co-worker Shawn Wilhite (who is a co-founder of the Center for Ancient Christian Studies) also appealed to the Reformers, while expressing concern that current Protestants are too quick to become anxious over or even dismiss the early Church "fathers". Shawn wrote:
Second, much of "Christianeese" is from early Fathers. For example, the Trinity is a Latin term from Tertullian.
Third, read with a discerning open ear. They are right in a lot of places (Didache, Hilary of Poitier, Tertullian, even Cyprian). Why are we dependent upon their theology, especially orthodox creeds and essential theology, but then panic once we read them? I would suggest it is our modernism. Also, because they are closer to the apostolic era, I'm more inclined to want to listen to them quicker than dismissal.
|Michael A.G. Haykin|
Coleman Ford, the other co-founder of the Center for Ancient Christian Studies,
I would ask what does "meaningful" mean in this question? I feel like sometime people are looking for things in the fathers that simply aren't there. Too often people come to the fathers with their own questions/positions without letting them speak on their own terms.
That being said, the fathers certainly challenge me in my reading of Scripture and help me to think deeply about my theological commitments. The fathers don't belong to any one group, they belong to the Catholic Church, that is, those who hold to classic orthodox Christian commitments. I don't understand why some feel they should become RC or EO once they read the fathers. All the Protestant reformers were intimately conversant with the fathers, and they all came to the same conclusion—the fathers are on the side of the reformation.
Certainly I don't read the fathers uncritically. They were fallible men seeking to understand infallible scripture and the infinite nature of our triune God. We owe much to them in establishing many of our theological categories, but we also have the benefit of 1500 years of church history following them. We can't simply approach the fathers without appreciating this fact. With that in mind, we are able to reflect on the trajectory of their thought, learning from their strengths and flaws. I see no reason why one needs to jettison Protestant (and evangelical) commitments when reading the fathers. In fact, my evangelical Protestantism is thoroughly strengthened by my reading and interaction with the fathers.