Profiling the Church Fathers
I am now in my first semester on the campus of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I was fortunate enough to participate in an introduction to church history with Dr. Michael Haykin. Dr. Haykin has an amazing ability to stir in his listeners a love for studying church history, and his ability to teach historical theology is unmatched in contemporary Evangelicalism.
For the class, we have to do several profiles of important figures in early church history, and I would liked to share those summaries in a series on this blog. Each summary will contain an overview of their life, major works, and if applicable any theological controversy that the individual engaged in. In addition, I would like to include an excerpt of their writings if it is available. Dr. Haykin stresses primary sources in his teaching method and including excerpts from these writers is helpful.
Defining the “Church Fathers”
This series will be focused on the “church fathers” or also known as the Patristics. Before we begin, it would be helpful to define who the church fathers were. In his book Rediscovering the Church Fathers,1 Haykin defines a church father by quoting from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church:
“[Authors] who wrote between the end of the 1st century…and the close of the 8th century…[they also] defended the Gospel against heresies and misunderstandings; they composed extensive commentaries on the Bible, explanatory, doctrinal, and practical, and published innumerable sermons, largely on the same subject; they exhibited the meaning and implications of the Creeds; they recorded past and current events in Church history; and they related the Christian faith to the best thought of their own age.“2
We will see through each person that we profile that they contributed to a wide range of Christian living and theological issues. The tumultuous time after the Apostles was filled with brave men and women who fought for the truth of the Gospel and a biblical worldview, and their contributions are as relevant today as they were then. Our world of rampant idolatry, sensuality, hostility to the Gospel, and relativistic thought is very close to the worldview and cultural issues dealt with by early Christians.
Why Study the Church Fathers?
All of this begs a question: Why should I care? These men and women lived centuries ago, and surely we have progressed beyond the questions dealt with by the early church right? As mentioned in the last section, the truth is that our current context is very similar to the Greco-Roman world of the church fathers. To neglect the questions they grappled with and wrote on would be a profound mistake.
In contemporary Evangelicalism, this is a popular “no creed, just Jesus” mentality, and to think this is the height of presumption and folly. The Christian faith contains propositional truths, and it was necessary then and now to be people defined by doctrine. When we move away from confessional orthodoxy we open the door to an onslaught of heresy. Instead, we need to turn to church history for wisdom and insight, and this is especially true in our technological culture that only values what is new and leads us to view anything in the past as inferior.
Dr. Haykin in lectures I attended, and in his book on the church fathers he outlines several reasons we should study the church fathers.3
- Christianity is a historical religion: The Bible is the story of God’s work in history, and it doesn’t end with the Apostolic age. History’s climax is the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus; and all of history progresses towards the time when he will come and culminate history.
- Nothing is really new: Solomon declares in Ecclesiastes 1:9c that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and he says this for good reason. Our culture today deals with variations of Gnosticism, Modalism, Atheism, Relativism, and other heresies all of which the church has dealt with in her history.
- Study of church history builds humility: When you read how these men and women labored in the defense of the Gospel it builds a thankful humility. It also makes you realize how little you really know. It’s amazing to think about how much we owe to people we have never met.
- Liberates us from the tyranny of the present: Our present world, now more than ever, values what is transient, new, and shiny. Church history makes us value things absent in our cultures.
- Gives us models for imitation: Reading about great apologists, theologians, and pastors gives us incredible examples in which to emulate.
- They aid our apologetics and biblical interpretation: The church fathers dealt with issues we face today and defended the faith with clarity and precision. The church fathers also produced an abundance of commentaries and exegesis on biblical texts, and they are helpful in many instances to understand the Bible.
- To clarify bad press about the fathers: Modern attacks against early church history (such as Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code) horribly misrepresent the early church and church fathers. It is important we understand what these men and women actually wrote and believed.
- To receive spiritual nurture: Reading Augustine’s and Patrick’s writings are two examples of incredible spiritual zeal and edification. When we interact with these titans of our faith we can receive abundant spiritual encouragement.
I look forward to sharing with you great stories of these incredible heroes. I hope they provide the same encouragement I have received in my brief but soon to be life-long study.
- Michael A.G. Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2011). [Back]
- “Patristics,” in F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1233. Quoted in Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers, 16. [Back]
- Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers, 17–28. [Back]