The Church Fathers

This semester’s class The Pre-Reformation Interpretation of the Old Testament has reminded me of a former passion, the writings of the early church. This passion first appeared in Historical Theology I with Dr. Quiggle. More than any other professor at Moody, Dr. Quiggle taught his students how to read. Read for the thesis. Read for the methodology employed by the author. Read for the specific points he is trying to make and how he goes about making them.

Dr. Thomas has forced us to do the same in this course. Our purpose was to look at a host of interpreters and analyze their interpretive methods. At the end of the class, as is expected in most classes, we are required to turn in a term paper on a specific period of interpretation or interpreter.

Throughout this experience I am once again reminded of the importance of the Church Fathers. What is it about modern culture that makes us think that we have moved beyond the wisdom of our fathers? This does not mean that we read the fathers uncritically. It does mean that they have meditated on the Scriptures and have faced the same issues presented by the text as we do today. Why is it that we think that Mark Driscoll, John Piper, or Matt Chandler are more equipped to deal with our theological quandaries than Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Augustine, and many others? Yes, so much of the conversation has changed. And yet, so much of it has remained the same.

Dr. Thomas made this point the other day in class. As Protestants we are prone to think that we do not read the Scriptures through tradition. We read Scripture with our own eyes. Yet, we do exactly that the moment we pick up a commentary, listen to another’s sermon, or read a theological treatise by our contemporaries when we seek to better understand the text.

So I challenge you, pick up a work from a dead theologian. Investigate the context in which that author is writing. What were the exegetical and theological practices of the day. How is he similar or dissimilar. Will this not better equip you to analyze your own methods? Won’t our methodological principles be better refined by sharpening them against the Apostolic Fathers, Apologists, Nicene Fathers, Post-Nicene Fathers, and Scholastics, Reformers, Puritans, etc.? The Protestant cry of ad fontes “to the sources” applies to those sources that have shaped the way we currently see or read Scripture as it does to the Scriptures themselves.

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2 Responses to The Church Fathers

  1. Dustin says:

    Love it Jacob! Would you agree that present living commentators/theogians are just as important as dead ones in light of theology’s progressive nature? It’s not that we’ve moved past Athanasius, for example, but the history of theology means were asking new questions or coming at it from different angles because the great work of those before us. Furthermore, if the work of theology is in part finding biblical answers to our current questions, then consulting Vanhoozer could be more helpful in some regards because he’s doing theology in our day and context. This doesn’t undermine the value of church fathers but does recognize their limitations. Thoughts? Great post!

    • jacobcerone says:

      Dustin. I absolutely agree. In my haste to post, I took those things as given. It is not that I don’t think progress has been made or that the questions haven’t changed. They have significantly. This is why new commentaries come out on the same book every year. In some regards, this is a bit excessive, but in others it is necessary. The job of the church is to constantly find new ways to communicate the apostolic faith in whatever age we live.

      My suggestion that we should return to the Fathers is not a rejection of our ordained place in history. It is not at all to say that the former times are somehow better than the later times. I hesitated to include this in the original post, but it is appropriate now. There is the danger of looking at previous interpreters or periods and being unjustly critical of our own. I have seen it in this same class. Somehow the questions that we ask today are inferior to those of a previous time. There is also the temptation to use historical theology as a refuge for those unwilling to take a stand (Augustine says this but Luther says that). Despite these pitfalls, we should read the Fathers for the same reasons we read classical literature. It is well written. It tells a good story, but in this case makes a good theological argument. It takes us out of our world and forces us to compare it with another.

      I hope that helps!

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