Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Does a meaningful study of the ancient Church "Fathers" necessarily lead a person away from Protestantism?

I have a friend whose religious journey took him from the Assemblies of God, through the Vineyard movement to Anglicanism, and now he is affiliated with Eastern Orthodoxy. Somewhere along the line, my friend picked up an antipathy toward Protestantism. Recently, in a somewhat typical comment, my friend proclaimed on Facebook: "You can't read the fathers in any meaningful way and remain protestant"

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 Stamps
The first respondent was Dr. Luke Stamps, Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University. Luke wrote his dissertation as a defense of dyothelitism, and this work required him to do extensive research in early Church "fathers" leading up to Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-13 August 662). More recently, Luke co-wrote and presented a paper on "Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church" for the Evangelical Theological Society. This paper was focused on better situating "Baptist faith and practice within the historic Christian tradition". Luke's response was short and sweet: "Read Calvin."

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:

Gregg Allison
My first response is that the Protestant Reformers read the fathers in a meaningful way, and that patristic legacy became fuel for the Reformation. While those Reformers recognized that they could not embrace the patristic fathers as authoritative tradition in a Catholic sense (that is, of equal authority with Scripture), they embraced many of their writings and the early creeds (e.g., Nicene-Constantinopolitan, Chalcedonian, Apostles’). To take one example, when defending the doctrine of the Trinity against anti-trinitarians (like Michael Servetus), the Reformers concurred with the early church’s trinitarian formulations. A second example: in the Lord’s Supper debates between Zwingli and Luther, each man accused the other of being guilty of an early church heresy (Nestorianism, Eutychianism), and each denied the other’s charge and claimed accord with the Chalcedonian consensus.

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:

Shawn Wilhite
First, I'd point to Luther, Calvin, and Bucer for the insistence on reading the Fathers. Calvin critiques those who have fallen into unorthodox readings from the result of not reading the Fathers. Carl Trueman overly simplifies the Reformation by saying it boiled down to which party has the more correct reading of Augustine.

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
Dr. Michael A.G. Haykin has written an entire book on the Church "fathers" and so (understandably) his response to the question "how would you respond to someone who claims, 'You can't read the fathers in any meaningful way and remain protestant'?" was an appeal to that book:  "Tell them to read my Rediscovering the Church Fathers, and then we can talk. In essence, I would say how can you read the Fathers and be a Roman Catholic!"

Coleman Ford, the other co-founder of the Center for Ancient Christian Studies,
Coleman Ford
wrote most helpfully:

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.

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