Thinking about the Church Fathers
A few weeks ago I wrote a post about Patrick (c. 389–c. 461). In response to that post, someone asked several questions about Patrick including whether or not he was Catholic. I offered a brief reply, and a colleague suggested that many people might have similar concerns about the church fathers in general and that it might be helpful to address the subject in a separate post.
Here’s the bulk of my original reply about Patrick:
Concerning “salvation by grace alone through faith alone,” one would be hard pressed to find that kind of language used prior to the Reformation. In fact, although I believe the NT teaches that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, one can’t actually find that phrase in the Bible, and it probably can’t be found in any of the early church fathers either. So if we’re just looking for those words, we won’t find them in Patrick. On the other hand, he doesn’t say anything that is inconsistent with the idea of salvation by grace alone through faith alone.
“Are we certain Patrick wasn’t Catholic?” It all depends on what one means by the word “Catholic.” Patrick definitely wasn’t Roman Catholic in the modern sense of the term. In his Confession, Patrick never mentions Rome or the pope. He describes his grandfather as a priest without any sense of that being inappropriate. And he appeals to the Scriptures (about two dozen times) as authoritative, but he never points to tradition as a basis of religious authority. The kind of Christianity which Patrick saw established in Ireland was not Roman Catholic in any meaningful sense.
Admittedly, Patrick wasn’t a Baptist nor any other kind of Protestant, but then no one was in the fifth century. Based on what he left behind, Patrick seems to have preached a Christianity which was biblically-based, distinct from Rome, and as far as we can tell “evangelical” (in the broad, anachronistic sense of the term).
Catholic sources have labeled Patrick a saint, but they’ve also labeled Peter, Paul, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and most other early church fathers saints as well. For the most part, Catholic sources are not a reliable guide to determining how “Roman Catholic” a particular individual was (cf. Peter as the first pope).
Much of what I said about Patrick is applicable to the church fathers in general. If you’ve had questions about how biblical or perhaps how Roman Catholic the church fathers may have been, here are three reading suggestions that may help.
First, read the introduction to Bryan Litfin’s book Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Brazos, 2007). The entire book is worth reading, but the first thirty pages or so are particularly helpful in this regard. In these pages Litfin addresses a number of misconceptions which evangelicals tend to have concerning the church fathers. The first two misconceptions he addresses are the twin ideas that “the church fathers were not biblical” (20) and that “the church fathers were Roman Catholics” (22). Instead of repeating that material here, I’m going to just recommend that you read that section of the book. If you don’t have access to a hard copy of the book, you should be able to read the relevant pages online using Amazon’s “look inside” feature (If you’re not in the habit of using that feature, go here, then click on the book’s cover and scroll down to the relevant pages.).
Second, read the first chapter of Michael Haykin’s book Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Crossway, 2011). This chapter explains why evangelicals living in the twenty-first century should bother reading books written by Christians almost a thousand years ago. Among other things, Haykin mentions how some of our Protestant forebears found the fathers helpful, how the church fathers can help us understand the present, and how the fathers can help us understand the NT. Again in this case, most of the chapter can be read on Amazon using the “look inside” feature. But as with Litfin’s book, this one is worth owning, so if your book budget allows, you should really considering picking up the book.
Third and most importantly, read the church fathers themselves. While books about the church fathers can be very helpful, nothing can take the place of actually reading (i.e., listening to) the people you want to understand. You could read all about chocolate, but if you’ve never tasted chocolate, you still won’t really understand what chocolate is like or why some people consider Breyer’s chocolate ice cream one of the major food groups (If chocolate isn’t your thing, fill in an appropriate flavor.). In much the same way, you should probably spend more time reading the church fathers than simply reading about them. Listening to the fathers is the only way to really understand them. Here’s a roughly chronological list of where to begin reading the fathers:
The Apostolic Fathers in English, ed. Michael Holmes
Athanasius, On the Incarnation
Life and Practice in the Early Church: A Documentary Reader, ed. Steven McKinion
Eusebius, The Church History
Basil, On the Holy Spirit
Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius
Augustine, City of God
Excellent! Thank you.