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).