Musings on the Patristic Side of Things

A quote that is sometimes heard in church circles is that for most Evangelicals, church history began with either the Reformers or with Billy Graham. If one is of the Reformed persuasion, particularly if one is new or is in the often-maligned “Cage Stage” group, the Reformation is the new Genesis. There are others also who love Billy Graham and who wouldn’t think of anything good coming before his time.

While the origins of the quote are untraceable, the reality behind it is alive and well. Within the traditions of the local evangelical churches, the mention of the nomenclature “Church Father/s,” or the word “patristics,” which is the study of the Church Fathers, will often lead to either a display of disinterest and dismissal of the subject, or a combative attitude oddly similar to how many Protestants will discount any concept apparently having to do with the Roman Catholicism.  The bottom line for the latter category is that the subject is “unbiblical,” or that the works of the Fathers were influenced not by Scripture but by political machinations. This attitude is understandable but certainly lamentable.

It is understandable as D.H. Williams concludes in his book, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism, that twentieth-century evangelicalism is “notoriously difficult” to define—what more twenty-first-century evangelicalism!—in that overall it has become more “a mood and emphasis than a theological system.” He states further that many congregations within the evangelical tradition share in the American Free Church’s renouncing of creeds (“No creed but the Bible/Christ!”).  This tension between “Bible/Christ” and “not Bible/Christ” may explain the modern churches’ attitude towards classical church history in general and patristics in particular. He also adds that something tragically happened during the work of the Reformation—the muting of the voices of weighty preaching through which the historic church had come to understand the meaning of God’s word. Coming from the Reformed tradition, myself, I find that last statement quite challenging.

The attitude is lamentable in that by its dismissive attitude towards the historical developments of church doctrine, especially in the first centuries of the Christian Era, the body of Christ today has isolated itself from a rich trove of truth which proves edifying and encouraging for the church. Again, coming from my tradition, I have to ask myself if I’m guilty of that dismissive attitude. A slight comfort comes to mind when I realize the dismissiveness was not intentional. A slight comfort but the dismissal was indeed there.

A Brief Segue: Who Were the Church Fathers and Why Should We Care?

The Church Fathers are recognized as the prominent and significant Christian theologians and writers in the early church. As stated above, Patristics is the study of the Church Fathers. Fathers are called such because they were the primary thinkers, writers, and defenders of Christian doctrine, handing down valuable teachings and contending for Christian truth.

In order to qualify as a Church Father, one must possess the following key criteria recognized by the Church: Antiquity or living from the close of the first century to around AD 750 (the last recognized Church Father is John of Damascus); holiness, or zeal for God and the Scriptures; orthodoxy, or holding to the teachings in line with the Apostolic Faith; and, ecclesiastical approval, or recognition by the catholic Church. (The word catholic here is used in the universal sense and does not necessarily refer to the Roman Catholic tradition.) Although there is no final or definitive list of Church Fathers, these men have been influential in the doctrinal development of the church, particularly in its first five hundred years, with the church then embroiled in issues such as the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

Based on their location and period of living and ministry, the Church Fathers have been categorized as the Apostolic Fathers or those who interacted with some of the Apostles; the Ante-Nicene Fathers or those who wrote prior to AD 325; and Post-Nicene Fathers or those who wrote after AD 325. Other listings separate the Ante- and Post-Nicene Fathers as Latin and Greek Fathers, depending on which side of the Christian world they ministered.

Despite their extensive contribution to the church, their work is generally unknown on a practical level in many Protestant circles today. Evangelicals generally associate them with strange and sometimes unbiblical teaching and practice. This is not entirely a new development, as emotional rejection of Christian doctrine and development was already observed by such as J.F. Bethune-Baker, in the introduction to his book, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine to the Time of the Council of Chalcedon, published more than half a century ago. As stated above, much of this dismissal can be traced to the antagonism Protestantism has with anything remotely associated with Roman Catholicism. The last sentence is ironic, as it has been shown time and again that Protestants and Catholics share a rich history.

An Example from Irenaeus: How to Read and How Not to Read the Scriptures

Scholars know very little about the life of Irenaeus (b. AD 130) and what little they know mostly come from his own testimony (e.g., his admiration for Polycarp and his receiving instructions from the latter, and his probably origin of birth—Smyrna).  Only two of his works survive, courtesy of Eusebius: The Detection and Overthrow of So-Called Knowledge, most often known as Adversus Haereses (Against the Heresies), completed ca. 190, and The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, which may have been written with new converts in mind.

In his short introduction to Irenaeus’ life, Payton says that the Church Father “insisted on the importance of remaining faithful to the Christian message as received from Jesus Christ and the apostles,” the responsibility about and passing on of which are placed on the shoulders of church leaders.

Irenaeus’ main doctrinal targets were the Gnostics of his day. The movement had its beginnings even in the times of the Apostles (cf. Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians and John’s First Epistle) and was already a theosophy offering a way of life by tying together “ancient culture with religious dressing.”

One quote from the Church Father I find interesting:

“For all the apostles taught that there were indeed two testaments among the two peoples; but that it was one and the same God who appointed both for the advantage of those men (for whose sakes the testaments were given) who were to believe in God, I have proved in the third book from the very teaching of the apostles…” (Against Heresies 4:32)

It may the result of his being in proximity, timewise, to the Apostolic Church and to the guidance of the Apostles, but Irenaeus’ firm stance on the inspiration of both the Old and New Testaments is commendable and should serve as a warning to some in the modern-day church who would suggest a sharp divide between the two Testaments. At worst we have the likes of Andy Stanley who suggests no continuity between the Old and New Testaments, and at best we have examples of modern-day preaching which focuses on the New Testament and relegates the Old Testament to merely a footnote in the sermon or use Old Testament characters and passages merely for sermon illustrations.  

In Closing

It is helpful for the modern evangelicals to know that the truths which they have been treasuring—known summarily as the fundamentals of the faith—were the very same truths which the earliest generations of Christians have been wrestling with and even the briefest survey of patristic theology would show that their struggles were real and often hard-won.

For further reading:
Williams, D.H. Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.

Payton, James Jr. Irenaeus on the Christian Faith: A Condensation against Heresies. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2011.


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