Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church by Michael A. G. Haykin (Crossway Books)
Reading the Church Fathers for Spiritual Nurture
Christians, like all human beings, are historical beings. Their lives are inextricably tied to the past, their own immediate past and that of other humans. As Gilbert Beers, a past editor of Christianity Today, has noted, “We owe much to many whom we have never met.” In times past, when there was a reverence for the past, this reality was acknowledged gratefully. But as Beers goes on to note, “We live in a throwaway society; we dispose of things we consider a burden. My concern is that we do not add our predecessors to the collection of throwaways, carelessly discarding those who have made us what we are.”51 The study of the church fathers, like the study of church history in general, informs Christians about their predecessors in the faith, those who have helped shape their Christian communities and thus make them what they are. Such study builds humility and modesty into the warp and woof of the Christian life and as such can exercise a deeply sanctifying influence.
In Hebrews 13:7, the author of this portion of Holy Scripture urges his readers to “remember” their past leaders, those who had spoken God’s Word to them. They are to closely scrutinize (anatheōrountes) the “outcome”—“sum total” or “achievement” (ekbasin)—of their day-to-day behavior, manifested in a whole life.52 Here is a key reason for studying the history of the church and the church fathers in particular. In the confessors and martyrs of the pre-Constantinian era, for example, we have many models of what it means to be a Christian in a hostile society, a situation that faces many believers around the world today, and increasingly so in the West.53 And then during those days in the fourth century when the doctrine of the deity of Christ and his Spirit were under attack, we again have models of what it means to be committed to doctrinal fidelity. In this regard it is noteworthy that one of the fathers of Methodism, John Wesley (1703–1791), could cite the example of Athanasius’s doggedness in defending the deity of Jesus in a letter of encouragement to the young abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759–1833). Writing but a week before his death, the aged Christian evangelist told Wilberforce concerning his fight against the slave trade:
Unless the Divine power has raised you up to be as an Athanasius contramundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise, in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you who can be against you. Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh be not weary of well-doing. Go on in the name of God, and in the power of His might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it.54
Wesley begins this fascinating letter with a reference to Athanasius’s defense of the deity of Christ for over thirty years despite exile and persecution. Athanasius was only able to maintain this fight, Wesley implies, because God enabled him to persevere. Likewise, unless God empowers Wilberforce in the struggle to abolish the institution of slavery, he will fall before those who support this “execrable villainy.”
There is no doubt that generations of believers have found in the writings of men like Basil and Augustine soul-nourishing food, of which evangelicals in the past have been well aware. Wesley, for example, published a fifty-volume collection of spiritual classics, The Christian Library (1750), for his lay preachers.
What is noteworthy is his inclusion of a number of Patristic spiritual classics: some of the writings of the apostolic fathers, the acts of early Christian martyrs, and the spiritually rich sermons of Macarius Symeon (fl. fourth century). Evangelical believers need to recapture the wisdom in this regard of our spiritual forebears.
This Book on the Church Fathers
These reasons are only a start toward giving a full answer to the question, why study the Fathers?55 There are certainly other reasons for studying these ancient authors that may be more obvious or even more important. But the reasons given above sufficiently indicate the need for Patristic studies in the ongoing life of the church: to aid in her liberation from the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century; to provide a guide in her walk with Christ; to help her understand the basic witness to her faith, the New Testament; to refute bad histories of the ancient church; and to be a vehicle of spiritual nurture.
In this book, I seek to commend the reading and prayerful study of the church fathers by looking at several case studies, as it were. The specific church fathers that have been chosen—Ignatius of Antioch (fl. 80–107), the author of the Letter to Diognetus, Origen (ca. 185–254), Cyprian (ca. 200–258), Ambrose (ca. 339–397), Basil of Caesarea, and Patrick (ca. 389–ca. 461)—are men that I have listened to and walked with now for more than three decades.56 But others could have served just as well as an introduction to the Fathers—men like Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130–ca. 200), Athanasius, or the other two Cappadocians besides Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 329–389/390) and Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335–ca. 394). What was critical was not primarily the choice of figures but the issues that they wrestled with in their lives as believers, for these issues are central to the Patristic era: martyrdom, monasticism, and discipleship; witness to an unbelieving world and mission; the canon and interpretation of Scripture; and the supreme issue of this era, the doctrine of the Trinity and worship.
One final word about the Fathers before we plunge into their world of long ago. The Fathers are not Scripture. They are senior conversation partners about Scripture and its meaning. We listen to them respectfully, but are not afraid to disagree when they err. As the Reformers rightly argued, the writings of the Fathers must be subject to Scripture. John Jewel (1522–1571), the Anglican apologist, put it well when he stated:
But what say we of the fathers, Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Cyprian, etc.? What shall we think of them, or what account may we make of them? They be interpreters of the word of God. They were learned men, and learned fathers; the instruments of the mercy of God, and vessels full of grace. We despise them not, we read them, we reverence them, and give thanks unto God for them. They were witnesses unto the truth, they were worthy pillars and ornaments in the church of God. Yet may they not be compared with the word of God. We may not build upon them: we may not make them the foundation and warrant of our conscience: we may not put our trust in them. Our trust is in the name of the Lord.57
Michael A. G. Haykin (PhD, University of Toronto) is professor of church history and biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than twenty-five books, including The Emergence of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities.
50 An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 4.4, in Chase, Saint John of Damascus, 338–39, altered.
51 Christianity Today, November 26, 1982, 12.
52 Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 569; William L. Lane, Hebrews 9–13, Word Biblical Commentary 47b (Dallas: Word, 1991), 522.
53 Trueman, “The Fathers.”
54 Frank Whaling, ed., John and Charles Wesley: Selected Prayers, Hymns, Journal Notes, Sermons, Letters and Treatises (New York: Paulist, 1981), 170–71.
55 See further, Paul A. Hartog, “The Complexity and Variety of Contemporary Church–Early Church Engagements,” in Hartog, Contemporary Church and the Early Church, 1–26.
56 See below, chapter 8, for reflection on this walk with the Fathers.
57 Cited in Barrington R. White, “Why Bother with History?,” Baptist History and Heritage 4 ( July 1969): 85.