Many evangelicals know little or nothing about the Church Fathers (and in a few cases Mothers). These ancient writers were the early Christians who taught and wrote about Christ and the sacred truths of the faith in the first centuries after the death of the apostles. I was asked once, in a public dialog with Catholic peers, why this was so. I answered, “Because we think that citing the Fathers is a Catholic practice and, furthermore, we think that trusting in the authority of the Scripture means we don’t need to read these Fathers.”
I still think that response is warranted, at least in general. But more recent developments, which are now beginning to spill over into the wider church among non-professional readers, is to place increasing value on reading and understanding the patristic writers. We can thank scholars like Thomas Oden, Christopher Hall and Daniel Williams, among others, for these developments. I believe reading and using the Fathers is important for personal reasons. It is also extremely productive for missional-ecumenism.
Pope John Paul II said, “There can be no true formation of Christian understanding without constantly drawing on the tradition of our Fathers in the faith . . . . The Fathers of the Church did not cease to meditate upon the Mystery of Christ and seek to transmit to their contemporaries what they themselves received. . . . They were the first theologians, for they were able to examine the Mystery of Christ by drawing on ideas borrowed from the thought of their time, formulating them with no hesitation to give them universal meaning.”
Whether or not your view of authority begins and ends with the canonical Scripture, and mine does in a very carefully and narrowly defined way, you should read and honor the writings of the Fathers. Why?
1. The Fathers were the first Christians after the apostles to comment on biblical texts in a context still like that of the original writers. We should listen to all faithful teaching rooted in Scripture. These were (generally speaking) faithful teachers in every way that is important to our faith today. And they inspire and encourage true faith, writing as they do out of the context in which they lived.
2. The earliest Fathers knew some of the apostles and for several generations this knowledge impacted the lives of leaders who had a “living memory'” of what the earliest churches and teachers were really like and how they understood the life of Christian faith under trial and the nature of the church.
3. The Fathers were martyr theologians. Martyr theologians are generally the best theologians! I was reminded of this recently which Dr. Richard Pratt reminded me that America has not done theology in the context of martyrdom for well over two hundred years. I have to believe this is one reason why we can use theology as a club to land blows on our Christian opponents.
Why do so many evangelicals not receive the Fathers as sacred teachers of the faith?
1. They are reacting, often in prejudice alone, to the practice of non-Protestants because Catholics and Orthodox Christians both use them fluently and regularly.
2. They do not know the Fathers from reading them, thus they fear them in some odd way and see no spiritual and formative value in reading them. Ironically, they know the sermons of a few modern pastors and writers and assign overwhelming value to them, the living. I am reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s comment about the “democracy of the dead.” (These writers should at least get to vote on what we believe and why.) In some cases these modern teachers are rigid fundamentalists, thus biblical literalists. They speak against the Fathers out of this understanding. Again, few of them have really read and studied the Fathers at all.
3. They are completely unaware of how important these Fathers were to the magisterial Protestant Reformers; e.g. Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Melancthon, etc. The Reformers knew the writings of the Fathers, in Latin, and routinely cited them in scores of contexts in their struggle for reforming the church.
For most fundamentalists they have traded a pope in Rome for a pope in their pulpit or on the radio. In the end the trade is not healthy at all. Any abuse of power, Roman or Protestant, is an abuse of power. We have a lot of spiritual and emotional abuse in our Protestant churches today. Most of it is done with proof texts and great fanfare but it still ends up being abuse. “A rose by any other name is still a rose!”