The church fathers for Evangelical exegesis
by Tony Reinke
Recently I received some long-awaited and very beautiful volumes from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series. I’m interested in the idea – take quotes from the church fathers and assemble them into a 28-volume, verse-by-verse commentary on the whole Bible. As I prepare to dig into these volumes, I eagerly await learning from men relatively unknown to me.
But the arrival of these volumes actually presses me to consider a bigger question that has gone unanswered in my own mind for some time: How (or where) do the church fathers fit into my Reformed faith and expositional research? A simple browse through the index of Calvin’s Institutes shows frequent references to patristic authors. Calvin obviously was indebted to Augustine, and often mentions Athanasius, Cyprian, Irenaeus, Jerome and Tertullian. But this fact alone does not help me with my questions.
So recently I set out to answer two questions: Where do the church fathers fit in my theology? Where do they fit in my exegetical research?
This question over the church fathers has led me in a number of interesting directions. The first was to consider the church fathers’ emphasis on Mariology. So recently I picked up a new book titled, Mary For Evangelicals: Toward an understanding of the mother of our Lord, by Tim Perry. Surely this will help me think through the issues (and besides I was intrigued by the idea that Evangelicals had missed a proper understanding of Mary).
In short, the book was a disappointment. The author writes, “While Mary does not figure highly in the New Testament narratives or Epistles, to conclude that Mary is therefore insignificant is wrong” (268). Perry argues throughout the book that Evangelicals must return to a Patristic theological system. The church fathers, “carry a real, if secondary, authority for theological construction,” and are necessary because to “pass over Mariology altogether inevitably leaves other central Christian doctrines underdeveloped” (119, 268). In other words, without an exalted Mariology, we will not fully understand soteriology, ecclesiology, Christology, etc.
Here is the problem: If the theological system of the early church determines Evangelical theology then we’ve lost our Evangelical basis for theology (Scripture). So I don’t buy this argument. Mary does not find a prominent place in Reformed theology because Mary herself (while certainly being elected to be blessed) does not find a prominent place in biblical soteriology, ecclesiology, Christology, etc.
McGrath on the Reformation
Next, I turned to Alister McGrath’s Historical Theology (Blackwell: 1998). And in the chapter on the Reformation I came across the following quote.
“One of the reasons why the reformers valued the writings of the fathers, especially Augustine, was that they regarded them as exponents of a biblical theology. In other words, the reformers believed that the fathers were attempting to develop a theology based upon Scripture alone – which was, of course, precisely what they were also trying to do in the sixteenth century. Of course, the new textual and philological methods available to the reformers meant that they could correct the fathers on points of detail – but the reformers were prepared to accept the ‘patristic testimony’ as generally reliable” (p. 183).
The Reformers set a pattern we can emulate: Stand on the shoulders of the church fathers and correct them when necessary. This helps to confirm my own personal conviction about how to use the church fathers. This clarification about the “patristic testimony” is helpful theologically.
But the second question was not fully answered here. Where do the fathers fit into my expositional library?
Finally, I came across John Owen’s thoughts on the use of the church fathers. Owen, one of my Puritan heroes, shows a broad knowledge of the church fathers in his own writings. He argues that the church fathers are not interpretive guides because they disagree so often on interpreting certain texts. “But the pretence of the authoritative determination of the fathers in points of religion hath been so disproved, and the vanity of it so fully discovered, as that it is altogether needless farther to insist upon it” (4:227). In other words, the church fathers cannot be relied upon for a consistent interpretation of Scripture, therefore their conclusions cannot be held authoritative. Discernment must be used when reading the fathers (or any author for that matter).
The church fathers wrote helpful commentaries that were “followed, used, improved, by others innumerable, in succeeding ages” (4:228). And then Owen reminds us that “the best, most useful, and profitable labor in the Lord’s vineyard, which any holy and learned man can engage himself in, is to endeavor the contribution of father light in the opening and exposition of Scripture, or any part thereof” (4:228). So Owen seems to say that the fathers have been greatly improved upon. Beware, lest the fathers become the “authoritative determination” of Scripture. Pray for the Spirit’s further illumination of His Word and seek to build the church further.
Overall, Owen gives me less confidence that a study of the church fathers will really benefit my expositional research of Scripture today.
Where honor is due
What I love about the church fathers was their commitment to doctrinal purity. They climbed into the ring to fight — and even die! — for the divinity of Christ, the Triunity of God and the nature of sin. If we take these doctrines for granted, it’s because we are standing on the shoulders of men long ago. So, I want a healthy respect for the church fathers and how God used them in the formation of doctrines. Systematic theology, historical theology and obviously church history will rightfully contain much of the church fathers. But this does not help me to understand where the church fathers fit into my expositional study of Scripture.
With the Ancient Christian Commentary Series on Scripture, I see new opportunities to become acquainted with the fathers that previous generations did not have. As a bible student there are new questions that we must consider. While I’ve found some answers recently, I still have many questions.
1. How useful are the church fathers’ comments upon Scripture? Would our time be better spent focusing on contemporary commentaries? This will be answered in the coming weeks as I dig into the Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture. I know from reading Augustine’s commentary on the Psalms that he deviates from the text frequently. Again, I’m thankful for Augustine in the history of the church, but where do patristic commentaries fit into an expositional library? If I did not study the church fathers in my exegetical research, what would I miss?
2. Have centuries of bible commentaries made the expositions of the church fathers obsolete? Again, this is not a question of disrespectfulness towards the fathers but a very real question. Where would my time be better spent? Should we/How do we balance the use of contemporary commentaries and patristic commentaries?
3. What major theological problems surface in the church fathers? Obviously, this is not a concern for those who see the fathers as authoritative themselves. But we hold them to the touchstone of Scripture and need to be honest about the errors tainting their exegesis. Which fathers are most/least exegetically reliable?
4. How do I cultivate a respect for the accomplishments of the church fathers? Maybe I don’t use the church fathers exegetically, but where then do they fit into my ministry. Todd Rester’s words caught my attention: “Clement of Rome according to tradition was drowned at sea with an anchor tied to him, Polycarp was burned to death in the Roman arena, Ignatius was torn apart by wild beasts in the Colisseum at Rome … what sort of Christ would these men die? … The only acceptable answer is a Christ who is God and Man.” These are men of noteworthiness.
5. To what extent did the reformers use the church fathers for historical continuity? The reformers did not want to look like a new schism out of left field, so they tied their theology to longstanding Christian authorities. Contemporary Evangelicalism of course is not fighting for legitimacy. Would the reformers use the fathers differently today?
6. In what ways is our culture like the culture of the church fathers? This is one of the more interesting questions that arises in this discussion. Nate Shurden writes, “we should take note of the astonishing similarity between our own culture and that of the early church. The similarities are conspicuous, and not merely coincidental. The opening up of the world to communication and travel is unprecedented in our time as it was in the age of the early church. The proliferation of philosophical ideas and religious beliefs and practices (due at least in part to such advances in communication and travel) are as widespread in our day as then, even more so due to technological advances like the Internet. The reality of multiculturalism and the religious pluralism that often accompanies it is as alive today as possibly ever before in human history.” What can we learn from the exegetical ministry of the church fathers for our culture today?
7. Why the growing interest in the church fathers? We can assume that publishers see a growing trend in churches towards ancient traditions, but why? What is driving this new openness? One church historian writes, “whether its emergent Christianity or Celtic spirituality, the pick ‘n’ mix attitude to the past is a classic example of the imperialism of the modern present combined with the aesthetic sensibilities of consumerism. For both groups, history is really only useful as a source of precedents for the present; and the recovery of history is simply the highly selective appropriation of those bits of the past which meet with approval and fit the world we want to make – or justify – for ourselves.” How do we watch our own hearts in this? If the church fathers are not furthering our understanding of Scripture, why are we drawn to them? What are we seeking to justify?
8. What drives us to want to quote patristic authors? It seems that I see pride in my own heart in this. I want some new interpretation of Scripture that comes from Chrysostom just so I can tell some listeners, “The other day I was reading through Chrysostom’s Against the Anomoeans and came across the following…” That, for me, is pride. Maybe I do place a higher authority on the fathers than contemporary commentaries? I may not say the church fathers are “authoritatively determinative,” but my actions may prove otherwise.
9. To what extent is the push to revive the church fathers an ecumenical push? Clearly Tim Perry in Mary for Evangelicals is using the church fathers for an ecumenical purpose. In the introduction to the Ancient Christian Commentary, Thomas C. Oden writes, “Such an endeavor is especially poignant and timely now because increasing numbers of evangelical Protestants are newly discovering rich dimensions of dialogue and widening areas of consensus with Orthodox and Catholics on divisive issues long thought irreparable. The study of the Fathers on Scripture promises to further significant interactions between Protestants and Catholics on issues that have plagued them for centuries: justification, authority, Christology, sanctification and eschatology” (xxi).
With these questions I feel like I’ve just stepped into a new world of possibilities and dangers. If you can help me think through any of these questions, I welcome your input in the comments.
I want to be open to God’s work that preceded the Puritan/Reformed tradition, motivated out of a love for God’s Word. I want to know God more and experience more of Him through the Word. I want ears to hear ancient voices and discernment to be biblically faithful.
Whether or not I find answers to these questions, they are at least causing me to rest more fully in the illumination of the Holy Spirit. I am increasingly aware that I could fill a library with books and never know God. The Spirit must awaken, confirm, teach and lead me into all truth (John 16:13, 1 John 2:27).
9 thoughts on “The church fathers for Evangelical exegesis”
Tony, I’ve had many of the same questions about the church fathers generally and these commentaries specifically. Thanks for doing the legwork on this one. I look forward to your thoughts.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and compelling questions concerning the Church Fathers. I rejoice to see another Reformed pastor opening up these treasured tomes with an open mind and desire to know more of God and the faith.
I bought the big 38-volume Hendrickson set from CBD a couple years ago and have been challenged and stretched by reading these great men who shared and in many ways shaped our faith. Too many evangelicals think Christian history began at the Reformation, but as you’ve shown Calvin knew and respected the Fathers and is greatly indebted to St. Augustine. In fact, I’m reading Augustine’s “Anti-Pelagian Writings” knowing I’m treading where Calvin once trod and am all the more convicted of God’s sovereignty for it.
Reading the Fathers does indeed open up a whole new world and I’ll be eagerly watching for your impressions.
Thanks for the comment, Gary. Yes, I too will be interested to see if I can find answers to these important questions. I really enjoy Augustine’s writings and have a growing respect for Chrysostom. It will be interesting to see where these interests lead me in the coming weeks and months. It’s good to know there are Reformed pastors out there wrestling with these same questions and concerns.
The early church fathers are important for one because they have the historical connexion going back to the apostles, and we Christians are not much familiar with the history of the Christian church. There are brothers and sisters to connect with and to learn from, mistakes and victories.
It is also good and salutary to be connected to the development of Christian doctrine on God and Christ, which was given to us in the Scriptures, and yet the church wrestled with the matter of God, and Christ and His nature(s), as well as the impact upon salvation, and reading these things helps us to sort out our minds. For those who minister, it may be helpful to enable some identification with young people, or adults who wrestle with who Christ is, and how He can be God, while God is One. Many people, including young folks wrestle with these things, and we will not be impoverished by this reading. It may help us to have more love if we see so many people who are convinced of their point of view, and yet are calling each other heretics, all while they are professing faith in Jesus as their Saviour.
The development of the primacy of Rome may be seen as an historical development, also, which would be salutary exposure for some.
It seems to me that we may obtain and have pride in all kinds of ways, but reading the early church fathers should help to be a corrective in this.
You have raised some good questions, in asking what place do the early church fathers have. The church came to have some odd views on baptism, for one, and some held off on being baptised for concern that they would sin, and thus no sacrifice would be left for them. I think St. Peter, a well as Paul would have had good words of instruction for the church had they lived in later centuries. So we cannot just quote someone as a determining authority. It is helpful to hear other voices who loved Jesu, however, and appreciate them.
Leonardo, Excellent insights into the nature of how people struggle to understand the doctrines the church fathers wrestled with. This is very helpful to keep in mind. The fathers are very helpful on theology and and especially the historical development of the church. I’m still at a loss for many of my questions centered around how the fathers fit into expositional ministry today. I guess the only real way to find out is to approach their writings/commentaries in light of biblical exposition of my own to see where they land and how developed their exegesis of the text was. Thanks again for your comments! -Tony
Dear Brother Tony,
Thank you for providing this opportunity to share these thoughts with you. Please bear with me as I may tend to get a little long winded…
Even from within the earliest worshiping groups of the NT we see clear evidence of the working of what Jesus called the “spirit of antichrist”. Paul and the other writers of the scriptures were in a constant WAR with the devil, the father of lies, continually correcting not only the behavior of believers but the ideas being tossed about the church. The further on in time one goes the more we see evidence of corruption of the original message of our Savior by the syncretism with the society and institutions of the first few centuries of the “Christian Era”. At fault were the perverse powerful forces which were attempting to manipulate the masses with a universally appealing philosophy which was at the same time unifying and mollifying, though having little or no regard for the truth. Also to blame were those puffed up with their vain imaginations attempting to impress the naive with false piety and convoluted philosophies all the while courting to the powerful elite to be included in that group.
How different some of the later theologians are in character from the apostles and martyrs of the true NT church. They are actually persecutors of the Godly, deluded and drunk with their own self importance to the point where they believed that they were doing good by murdering any who disagreed with them. They have from the beginning been poisoning the truth with their lies to make an ever deadlier and seducing concoction. The crusades and the inquisition were the inevitable result of their coercive religion, so different from Jesus’ admonition to be as harmless as doves and to turn the other cheek. Even those who later saw through some of the abuses were none the less still “putty in the hands” of Satan, having been so thoroughly engulfed in a society of error. Little did they realize the depth of the depravity which western civilization and they themselves had sunk. Today we may look back somewhat condescendingly and excuse them for their violent infighting, antisemitism and bigotry, “after all they were our spiritual fathers” and “without them where would we be?” We had better beware lest we follow any of their examples or any of their ideas blindly. These reformers and protesters may have had a twinge of conscience and an inkling of “something not quite right” but they fell far short the definition of what it means to be truly Godly or enlightened. So much was lost, hidden and purposely altered during the intervening ages since our only perfect teacher walked the earth, it may seem a hopeless endeavor to try to separate out the truth. We have however an “ace in the hole”, that is, the promise “Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened”. Let’s therefor be wise as serpents when we read what does not come directly from the mouth of God. The early church “fathers” were not immune from human fallibility nor are we. Though if we are at the same time humble enough to admit this at all time, the Holy Spirit will not abandon us to the snares laid for us.
After having said all this in preparation, please let me share my own experience in studying these early theologians. Though these writings have been helpful in my search for the truth they have only been so in a totally unconventional and unexpected way.- By reading the ideas they present and analyzing how these ideas changed and “developed” over the first couple of centuries, conforming more and more to the culture of the time, it has given me a clearer insight into the true meaning of the scriptures. This I did by a process akin to mathematically extrapolating backward in time. I was able, with God’s guidance and help to overcome some of my preconceptions and previous indoctrination by removing these “developments” in theological thinking from the way I read the Bible and hence was able to see it with a whole perspective, hopefully much closer to the way first century christians saw it.
I have purposely omitted any theological conclusions I have come to in my personal search for the truth so as not to cloud my comments here with unnecessary controversy, though I may be persuaded to share these at a later time. My hope is that you will consider the simple observations and arguments I have presented and be blessed by them.
My conclusion on the topic of the “church fathers” is this: When it comes to the ideas first given to us in the Bible, we cannot “BUILD on the shoulders of giants” we can only tear down. When the foundation is God and His Word, Any and ALL further “developments” or alterations are nothing more than deceptions and lies. Though we may be able to systematize the doctrines of the Bible to better understand them, it will do us little good if our hearts are not changed, and worse yet, we court our own destruction when we dare to defy the curses of Rev 22:18,19 by trespassing on the territory of the Truth which God has in his infinite wisdom and perfection given to us.
As I read your post I could not help but notice quotes such as – “my reformed theology” and “my exegetical research”. Individualism will never lead to a proper understanding of the Fathers, to understand the fathers is to understand the centrality of their authority in helping us to understand scripture and not the other way around. We should not ask the question – “What is the Fathers role in my theology” , rather we should ask – “How does my theology differ from the Fathers.”
Enjoy your studies, but note as a reformed protestant, you are entering into deep waters and may not return the same as you went in.
Blessings In Christ!
Chris, I appreciate your comment, though heresy has existed since the NT times and so Scripture will continue to interpret the Fathers not the other way around. See my interview with Ligon Duncan, “Patristics for Busy Pastors” for more helpful info on patrology.
Thank you for your work on this site. I have only been here for about two weeks and continue to return daily to learn more. My recurring question is how deep can I go into the water with Tony? I have been a Christian since 10 years old, studying, being placed in leadership, sitting in the back pew for many years to now being the youth leader of my church and finally answering the call I received many years ago.
Studying the church fathers is I think necessary to understand the development of our faith. Also, to learn of the devotion those early men and women had so that we too will be encouraged and willing to face this world.
I do not know if we should elevate their writings as authoritative only because if they have erred we will follow them in their error. We should read them for inspiration, expand our understanding of the text, but only in light of our own study and prayer.
I hope I expressed myself correctly. Keep up the great work. God bless.