Volume 9, Issue 5: Whole Counsel
Loving the Fathers
I was deeply saddened a few years ago when I spoke to a pastor friend of mine. Like me, he was a lover of old theology. But his love was too particular. He liked the Puritans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and his shelves were impressively arrayed in Banner of Truth sets. He did have a number of volumes from the early fathers, but he didn't like them. They didn't understand the Gospel, he thought. Later, another friend was excited to tell me about the Church History class he was taking. He had read a number of excerpts from patristic writings and was convinced that they had all strayed far from Scripture. Again, more recently, one of my students (not in history) shared with me his passion for church history. He told me of a book he had recently found that had "some good stuff in it," but unfortunately, he said, "it was too Catholic" and focused "too much on the Middle Ages" and didn't give enough attention to the reformers. I held my tongue, but wanted to tell him that he neither knew church history nor thought like the reformers. There are a number of good reasons to study the early and medieval church and its theology.
Reading the fathers provides a sense of historical identity. The church is a communion, a community, and its membership is not restricted to those in our own age. The church fathers are our brothers in Christ. We compromise the unity of the church when we neglect or, worse, shun them as some moderns are wont to do. Some have picked up a patristic writing for the sole purpose of finding fault. Imagine treating a brother that way! Of course, faults can be found in the fathers' writings--plenty of them--and we shouldn't read them uncritically. But we shouldn't preoccupy ourselves with their shortcomings, either. (We should approach our contemporaries' writings the same way.) When we open Augustine or Anselm, we must be struck by their wisdom and their piety. Their writings have lasted as long as they have for good reason. It is a delightful exercise to sit at their feet and receive their instruction and admonition, knowing that our own work will one day fade from memory when theirs will still be remembered. Our place is seated at their feet, for they are our fathers. We do ourselves, and the Church, a disservice if we walk away from them.
The fathers are also a great source of encouragement. In their lives and work we encounter true heroism. The accounts of the martyrs we find in Eusebius help us realize the preciousness of the faith. The church has faced great trials and has emerged stronger than it had ever been. As we encounter trials today, trials which pale in comparison to those our forebears faced, the fathers remind us that we have access to grace in the midst of it--the same grace that they received, and we can watch again and again how they were blessed by it. There's nothing quite so inspiring as Athanasius' valiant stand against the Arian heresy, or Polycarp's courage in the face of death.
Finally, the fathers are instructive to us. One of my favorite pieces by C.S. Lewis makes this point. It is the little preface he wrote for a modern English translation of Athanasius' On the Incarnation, where he argues for the value of reading old books. He observes that each generation embraces certain assumptions without being aware of them; this is as true of our era as it is of previous ones. One danger of an exclusive diet of contemporary literature is that the reader exposes himself only to basic thought-forms that he already embraces--the assumptions of his own era. Every age has its blind spots, and contemporary authors aren't able to point out ours. Future authors could, but they aren't available to us. So we are left with old books. Granted, writers of old had their own blind spots, but our outsider's perspective protects us from their snare. We may think some of their views quaint, but we must let them expose our foolish novelty.
Ours is an age of chronological snobbery. We have convinced ourselves that the most recent developments in the life of the church are most important. Social Studies has replaced History in the modern church just as it has in modern education. Historical theology is more of an anachronism than an authority. If we would start looking back to the fathers as the early reformers did, we might once again witness the fruits of reformation in our own age.