InterVarsity Press (Downers Grove, Illinois) has given the church some of the finest academic resources, and they are often quite accessible to serious (non-technical) readers. Their various dictionaries on the disciplines of biblical theology come to mind, as does the well-established and surprise best-seller, the multi-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. There is an observable hunger for serious Christian scholarship and this hunger portends for better days to come. If we are commanded to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37) then such a recovery of scholarship for the people of God is a time for celebration. Several Christian publishers have very intentionally fed this growing hunger for solid, readable academic resources; e.g. Baker Academic and Brazos Press, Zondervan Academic and Eerdmans come to mind. But InterVarsity may lead the way, at least in terms of early church resources.
The most recent series of early church books that InterVarsity has published is the five-volume Ancient Christian Doctrine series, now complete with this final addition to the series. This final volume is: We Believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (2010). The series editor for these five volumes is the highly esteemed Methodist scholar, Thomas C. Oden. Oden, as many of you will know, moved from 1960s liberalism (both political and theological) to ancient-future faith several decades ago. This “conversion” has brought untold blessing to the entire church. The editor of this particular volume is Angelo Di Berardino, the president and professor of patrology at the Augustinian Patristic Institute (Augustinianum) in Rome. This series, like all that my friend Tom Oden has undertaken, unites Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant scholarship in a consensus effort to rediscover the real contributions of the early church, thus making these books an academic model of what I call missional-ecumenism in my book Your Church Is Too Small.
The Ancient Christian Doctrine series is unique. It expounds the Nicene Creed and gives contemporary readers, from the resources of the entire catholic church, an opportunity to study for themselves the key writings of the early church writers. Short of doing serious doctoral work in early church studies (patristics) a series like this provides interested readers the opportunity to discover for themselves how early Christians actually thought about this greatest of all our Christian creeds. By this means the living voices of the past speak to the shallow condition of the present church. In the words of my friend Timothy George, “The Ancient Christian Doctrine series allows us to think with the church about the deepest issues of the Christian faith. . . A treasury of learning and faith for all followers of Jesus today.” I could not agree more.
My Catholic friends often appeal to the fathers of the church in their conversations with me online and in person. My Orthodox friends do the same. But most evangelicals know next to nothing about the church fathers. (By the way, some very conservative Catholic apologists use the church fathers in ways that should be challenged but you have to be familiar with the landscape in order to make an intelligent and loving challenge!) When someone quotes “the church fathers” as their authority the first thing you will know, if you have spent any time in their writings, is that sweeping general claims are very often questionable. Solid consensus is very often there and can be found by for those who spend the necessary time digging into the writers (whole and in context) and who remain truly open to the insights of these earliest Christian thinkers and theologians. One way to do this is to buy and read volumes like We Believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (2010).Every serious library should have this book in it if you want to know what the fathers said about the church.
Jesus only spoke twice about the church in the Gospels (ad loc. Matthew 16 and 18). Scholars agree that he makes little reference at all to a new religious community, or a distinct group of Jesus’ followers banded together in some permanent form until the end of this age. But after the resurrection the followers of Jesus gathered together in obedience to his commands. This gathering, at first, was very Jewish. In a short time it included people from all nations. Within a few years the formation of the church at Jerusalem had taken place and this infant community became fairly large. As the gospel spread the concept of beginning new (similar) communities spread with it. Several centuries later the earliest statements of faith (e.g. The Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed) spelled out the core understanding of this new community in simple, clear and important ways. Thus these creeds gave four marks to the church. It was: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. In time the central question became: “What do we mean when we confess this about the church?”
This volume provides 316 pages of response to this question, all taken from the primary sources of early Christian exposition. It ends with a consideration of baptism (the traditional point of entrance into the community) and the two central features of the church in the future: the expectation that all of God’s people will enjoy the resurr
ection in the day to come an
d the life of the world to come.
I believe that my own vision of missional-ecumenism will not flourish without theology. Critics will say my vision undermines theology. I argue that without deep, biblical and patristic theology missional-ecumenism cannot work as it should. This is why much that passes for theological fad in our time will not last but the best will endure and bless for a long time to come. We must intentionally go back to the earliest sources and only then address the present age and what lies ahead of us. The current growing interest in the church fathers is a positive sign that a small, but significant, number of reading Christians realize that we must not isolate ourselves in the 21st century as if something very important did not come in the first six centuries of Christianity. The faith that we hold now must be the same faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), not something that we made up in the midst of a brain freeze during a minor debate over some non-core issue that is a doctrinal truth genuinely irrelevant to the health and integrity of the Christian faith. This volume will assist any serious reader in finding out what really matters about the church and why. I highly recommend it.