Beckwith and the Patristics
In the past I have asked the question, what place do the Patristic authors play in our understanding of Scripture? Should preachers and teachers invest in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series or not? This has been a theme for the past few months, drawing a range of responses. At a recent leadership conference Mark Dever voiced his appreciation for a few Patristic theological works but an overall hesitancy to the importance of Patristic exegesis for the preacher. Since, various writers have responded on the topic and a growing discussion over the Patristics has ensued. The May edition of the Reformation21 magazine has a feature story by Michael A G Haykin titled, “Why Study the Fathers?” The current theme at Reformation21 blog is “What profit is there in studying the Church Fathers?”
Amidst all this, the Evangelical community was surprised on Saturday when Francis Beckwith (the current President of the Evangelical Theological Society) announced his ‘conversion’ to Roman Catholicism. There were a number of factors for his decisions but in part, he writes:
“The past four months have moved quickly for me and my wife. As you probably know, my work in philosophy, ethics, and theology has always been Catholic friendly, but I would have never predicted that I would return to the Church, for there seemed to me too many theological and ecclesiastical issues that appeared insurmountable. However, in January, at the suggestion of a dear friend, I began reading the Early Church Fathers as well as some of the more sophisticated works on justification by Catholic authors. I became convinced that the Early Church is more Catholic than Protestant and that the Catholic view of justification, correctly understood, is biblically and historically defensible. Even though I also believe that the Reformed view is biblically and historically defensible, I think the Catholic view has more explanatory power to account for both all the biblical texts on justification as well as the church’s historical understanding of salvation prior to the Reformation all the way back to the ancient church of the first few centuries. Moreover, much of what I have taken for granted as a Protestant — e.g., the catholic creeds, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, the Christian understanding of man, and the canon of Scripture — is the result of a Church that made judgments about these matters and on which non-Catholics, including Evangelicals, have declared and grounded their Christian orthodoxy in a world hostile to it. Given these considerations, I thought it wise for me to err on the side of the Church with historical and theological continuity with the first generations of Christians that followed Christ’s Apostles.”
Carl Trueman responded by writing:
“As to patristic writings being more Catholic than Protestant, I would be the first to concede that modern evangelicalism has not been strong in its study and use of patristic authors, unlike the great founders of Protestantism such as Oecolampadius, Calvin, Owen etc. This is a great and serious fault and places evangelicalism in serious danger of not being catholic in the best and true sense. But to argue that the patristic authors are more Catholic than Protestant is arguably to impose anachronistic categories upon the first five centuries.”
So Beckwith argues, to read the Patristic authors is to be more convinced of Rome’s exegetical and theological consistency. Trueman and others argue we must read the Patristic authors to reinforce the Reformed theology. So amidst this confusion, how should common Christian readers and pastors respond?
I return to a quote from John Owen, a man who read widely in the Patristic authors (as Trueman notes). In his book, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein (4:117-234), Owen writes the following:
“The joint consent of the fathers or ancient doctors of the church is also pretended as a rule of Scripture interpretation [in Roman Catholic interpretation]. But those who make this plea are apparently influenced by their supposed interest so to do. No man of ingenuity who hath ever read or considered them, or any of them, with attention and judgment, can abide by this pretense; for it is utterly impossible they should be an authentic rule unto others who so disagree among themselves, as they will be found to do, not, it may be, so much in articles of faith, as in their exposition of Scripture, which is the matter under consideration. About the former they express themselves diversely; in the latter they really differ, and that frequently. Those who seem most earnestly to press this dogma upon us are those of the church of Rome; and yet it is hard to find one learned man among them who hath undertaken to expound or write commentaries on the Scripture, but on all occasions he gives us the different senses, expositions, and interpretations of the fathers, of the same places and texts, and that where any difficulty occurs in a manner perpetually. But the pretense 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. … Of those who designedly wrote comments and expositions on any part of the Scripture, Origen was the first, whose fooleries and mistakes, occasioned by the prepossession of his mind with platonical philosophy, confidence of his own great abilities (which, indeed, were singular and admirable), with the curiosity of a speculative mind, discouraged not others from endeavoring with more sobriety and better success to write entire expositions on some parts of the Scripture: such among the Greeks were Chrysostom, Theodoret, Aretine, Oecumenius, Theophylact; and among the Latins, Jerome, Ambrose, Austin, and others. These have been followed, used, improved, by others innumerable, in succeeding ages. Especially since the Reformation hath the work been carried on with general success, and to the great advantage of the church; yet hath it not proceeded so far but 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 farther light in the opening and exposition of Scripture, or any part thereof” (Works 4:227-228).
Owen understood several important points: (1) There was a lack of cohesive consent of the Patristic authors (contra Beckwith’s statements). (2) The Patristic authors lacked exegetical clarity and required a further illumination of Scripture. (3) The Reformation period was a great boon in biblical understanding. (4) We should be weary of those who make the Patristic authors authoritative. (5) We can be thankful for the exegetical work of Chrysostom, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine while also seeking to make Scripture’s content clearer through contemporary commentaries. The Patristic authors have been “improved” by “innumerable” authors in later generations. Owen makes it clear that those exegetical works arising from the pens of the reformers are especially illuminating. (6) Owen understood the pull of antiquity would contend for the hearts of those that should be committed to exegetical clarity and progress. Indeed contemporary commentators are “the best, most useful, and profitable labor in the Lord’s vineyard.” (7) By principle, neither should we stop with John Calvin, John Owen or other Puritan/Reformed expositions! Although our exegetical understanding of Scripture has been “improved, by others innumerable, in succeeding ages” we will always be in need of “farther light” upon God’s Word. Owen here is humbly submitting his own works to future improvement. Encouraging Bible scholars, not Patristic scholars, is for Owen the greatest pursuit of the church.
For Owen to say we should focus our attention especially on the exegesis of the Reformed and Post-Reformed period will draw criticism. It will be considered “intellectual snobbery” toward Patristic exegesis. Some will say Owen’s statements are only concerning false Roman Catholic authority (contrary the general scope of the volume). But I’m more thankful for men like Dever who are willing to cut the grain and voice an Owen-like hesitancy. In light of Owen’s old caution and Beckwith’s recent action, reformed Evangelical readers and preachers have every right to show caution towards Patristic exegesis and a greater interest in Reformation and Post-Reformation exegetical contributions.
Please join me today in prayer that God would shed the further light of His Word on the soul of Dr. Beckwith. Especially that Scripture, not the Patristic or any other tradition, would be the authoritative source of truth. We can take this opportunity to pray for our own souls. May God help us to bear great fruit in the Lord’s vineyard.