I have been thinking about the church fathers a lot lately. As an Anglican, my tradition sits at the intersection of the historic Christian traditions — a via media or “middle way” between the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. We affirm Sola Scriptura and Sola Fida, but we also value the historic views of the patristics. These two instincts need not be in direct confrontation. It is perfectly reasonable to grapple with Paul’s statements of being saved by grace through faith alone, while still seriously entertaining ideas that Christians have traditionally argued were handed down from the Apostles themselves.
The church fathers, here defined as the inheritors and expositors of Christan thought from the end of the first century until the death of Bede in 735 AD, were prominent presbyters, episcopates, and church leaders who individually served in the larger communities of the early Christian period. Many of them are historically believed to have directly been mentored by the apostles (namely the Apostolic Fathers Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna) and are given a special place in that their beliefs are said to reflect unwritten beliefs of the Apostles themselves.
The validity of these claims varies. Many Protestants tend to argue that the church fathers are not authoritative at all, while Greek Orthodox sects sometimes go as far as to claim that the church fathers are equally as authoritative as Scripture itself. Catholics often thread the needle more carefully, claiming an unbroken direct link reaching through the church fathers to the Apostles as an argument for the authority of the Pope.
In my dialogs with Catholic and Orthodox Christians, a very common criticism of modern American Evangelical culture has been the argument that the sola scriptura approach to faith and spirituality has cost Christians a great deal of the insight, nuance, and authority of the church fathers. And I am quite amenable to this criticism. With the exception of leading Baptist theologians like Gavin Ortlund (seen below), few Evangelicals read them. (This criticism is less applicable to mainline denominations, which are more rooted in historic Christian orthodoxy.) There are very few church fathers other than Augustine of Hippo that the average American has read — and in most cases, they’ve only read Confessions.
Regardless of the side one takes, the church fathers themselves are enigmas. As a Protestant, it is hard to believe that many of their interpretations are strictly accurate — such as John Chrysostom’s claims that Adam and Eve had no primary sex organs before the fall or that Jesus never smiled or laughed for his entire life. At other times, it is compelling to find out that Ignatius of Antioch went to his martyrdom in 110 AD believing a eucharistic theology of the living presence that was not dissimilar from most Catholics, Orthodox, and Lutherans — potentially compelling evidence that “this is my body” is more literal than most evangelicals believe, if you take his historical proximity to the Apostles seriously.
Regardless of whether the church fathers ought to be taken authoritatively, they ought well to be taken seriously and their ideas grappled with. Thankfully, two books have been released in the past year that are useful for any readers interested in digging into this time in the history of the church — both coming from intellectually serious academic Protestants. Louis Markos’ Ancient Voices: An Insider’s Look At the Early Church and Gerald Bray’s How the Church Fathers Read the Bible: A Short Introduction were released in relative proximity and offer a complimentary pairing of the history and theology of the church fathers.
Markos (seen below) is an Evangelical Baptist and Bray is a Reformed Anglican. Both men approach the subject of the patristics from somewhat heterodox lenses. Many Orthodox or Catholic readers might be mortified by some of their conclusions as a result, including some clear disinterest in the Marian dogmas of the early church, the debate surrounding Iconodulism, and questions of ultimate authority. But both authors are generally quite honest about where the differences in their theology sit, merely outlining developments as they happened and offering a simple portrait of orthodox thinking of the time.
Ancient Voices: An Insider’s Look At the Early Church
What makes the church fathers important is that they were believed to be the generations that immediately carried the torch from the Apostles in the two centuries before Christianity became a legal religion and was adopted by the Roman Empire in 313 AD. As such, it is believed that they held direct liturgical and doctrinal insights from the Apostles not mentioned in the Epistles. This belief is called Apostolic Succession and it forms the backbone of liturgical sects that claim a direct monarchical line of succession from the throne of St. Peter.
The flow and challenges of what that means are something that Markos explores well in his book. I have been more than passably familiar with Marko’s work from his previous books From Plato To Christ and Atheism on Trial. He is the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities at Houston Baptist University, and he brings an incredible wealth of acquired knowledge to the table in all of his books. The Early Church is his newest book and marks the third book in a trilogy covering the philosophies of the ancient world in Greece and Rome.
Starting from the beginning of The Book of Acts, Markos charts the history of early Christianity through the time of Emperor Constantine, focusing specifically on the first three centuries of the church amid its persecutions during the Roman Empire. Much of it is adversarial in nature, particularly towards secular academics who blindly parrot claims from Edward Gibbon and The Da Vinci Code, like saying Christianity was a fake religion conceived from whole cloth at the Council of Nicea. On the contrary, Christianity at the time of the Apostles looked remarkably similar to how it did at the time of Constantine.
As Markos notes, the mission of the church fathers of the first few centuries was often a negatory one. The church fathers were placed in a very tight political situation. They faced multiple and regular persecutions from Roman Emperors eager to blame their problems on these misanthropic “atheists” and “cannibals” roaming the Empire with impunity, who dared not worship the pantheon, attend public social events, and ritually ate the body of their dead God.
Christianity of this time certainly did not look like modern Christianity in any form. Early churches were hosted in people’s homes. It was very much a church in the shadows, borrowing heavily from the liturgy and sacrificial theology of the contemporary Jews but translated through the exposition of Peter and Paul, with Christ taking the role of Temple Sacrifices and serving as a narrow beacon of light in a dark world — as we see in texts like the Didache and Epistle of Barnabas.
“For a low Protestant, such practices are likely to seem overly ritualistic at best and legalistic at worst. Yet, Didache attests to their centrality in the life of the early church, even sandwiching them between guidelines about baptism and about the Eucharist,” says Markos.
The church faced massive threats on three sides — from the Roman pagans, the Jewish authorities, and the violent schismatic heresies arising frequently. For its own protection, the church needed to keep open dialogs with pagan Stoics and Neo-Platonists; negate the tendencies of Jewish adherents to force their practices on the Gentiles; and strictly crack down on Arians, Nestorians, Docestists, Marcionites, and various flavors of Gnostics who believed that orthodox thinking was incorrect in the face of hidden knowledge and new revelations. This meant that much of the church’s early energies were dedicated to delineating true orthodoxy.
Markos does an amicable job exploring the histories of these sects and tensions, but his best exposition comes through the book’s breakdown of the philosophies of specific church fathers. With only 250 pages, he cannot afford to be comprehensive, but he chose the most important developments of each major philosopher and uses it as a jumping-off point for their contribution to the greater growth of Christian thought. This includes the historical perspective of Eusebius, the typology of Clement, the importance of ecclesiastical unity in Ignatius, the apologetics of Justin Martyr, the orthodoxy of Irenaeus, the duality of Christ’s wrath and mercy in Tertullian, and the allegorical teachings of Origen.
How the Church Fathers Read the Bible: A Short Introduction
Catholics and Orthodox tend to claim a certain ownership over the church fathers, as seen in John Henry Newman’s famous dictum that “those who are deep in history cease to be Protestant.” Markos acknowledges this, noting:
“As a low churchman, I was shocked the first time I read Ignatius’s letters because they depict a church that is already marked by a degree of hierarchy. More shocking to my sensibilities was the suspicion that Ignatius casts on what modern Protestants would call private judgments and what Baptists would call soul competency.”
However, many historical Protestants sects would counter that their reading of scripture is technically more in line with the views of the church fathers themselves. Martin Luther and John Calvin both appealed to the teachings of the church fathers, both in their calling on their ideas and dissenting from them. As Gerald Bray (seen above) notes in his book, medieval theologians had been highly dependent on St. Jerome’s “passable” Vulgate Latin translation of the Holy Bible from 382 AD, rather than relying on Greek and Hebrew texts — letting the reformers argue that minor errors and excretions had been left unexamined for centuries by the time of the Reformation.
Bray notes that the church fathers have been taken in by renewed interest in the past century, as waves of critical scholarship have called the Bible’s core historical and philosophical claims into question. Many have hoped to find within the church fathers the animated spirit of the early church, hoping to bring necessary revival to the modern church.
“Patristic biblical interpretation is therefore not just a form of literary archeology of interest only to specialists. It is a battleground of ideas, in which the credibility of the Christian tradition is at stake. Retreating into a kind of patristic fundamentalism, in which everything the fathers said and did must be accepted as infallible, is not an option.”– Gerald Bray
The church fathers themselves operated through general consensus, believing that the Holy Spirit would guide their councils and meetings and that the gates of hell could not prevail against them. Regardless, many of them disagreed violently on various issues. Origen of Alexandra was considered a leading figure in the third century but was anathematized in the fifth century, with many of his writings being declared retroactively heretical and burned, due in part to his frequent faulty conclusions and real-life character defects. Regardless, Origen was a pioneer, who conceptualized many modern ideas for scriptural exegesis and systematic theology.
Bray’s book is a very scholarly and expositional text, clearly written for young theologians, that painstakingly explores the nuances of everything from the history of the Old and New Testaments to the concepts of Hermeneutical Theory, Exegesis, and Escatology. It is a short read, but one that is clearly intended to get a fresh reader up to speed with the basics of Biblical interpretation, developing a basic understanding of the lenses used by the church fathers. It gives readers a clear sense of the processes and theologies the church fathers used to develop their traditions.
“Justin Martyr, for example, drew a parallel between Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Eve, the wife of Adam. According to him, both women were virgins who conceived, but whereas Eve brought forth disobedience and death because she listened to the serpent, Mary gave birth to the God-man in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might be destroyed in the same way in which it derived its origin… The pattern is not developed systematically but it was generally consistent in the sense that what appeared as types and shadows in the Hebrew Bible was revealed in its fullness by the gospel.”– Gerald Bray
There is plenty to take away from the church fathers, from the bravery of their martyrdoms to the openness of their dialogs with pagan philosophers, to their use of “the Four Senses of Interpretation” as a model for grappling with the full meaning of the text. Both books highlight the troubling relationship between Christians and Jews, and the tendency for early Christians to wildly condemn their estranged philosophical cousins while claiming themselves the sole inheritors of the title of God’s chosen people — a tendency that foreshadows some of the more extreme anti-semitic tendencies of the millennia that followed.
Additionally, both books highlight the problems with consensus and heterodoxy, showing that the church fathers fought very hard for a single unified church, while themselves internally grappling with ideas that constantly threatened to tear the church apart, while external duress made them vulnerable. The fathers constantly struggled to gain a greater understanding of God without compromising orthodoxy, often failing in the process. Even in their failures, they laid down the core essential beliefs of what it means to believe in Christ and how we ought to engage with the scriptures. Authoritative or not, their work has defined the Christian faith for all time.