Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church

Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church

by Michael A. G. Haykin


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An organized and convenient introduction to the church fathers from AD 100 to 500. Haykin surveys a number of church fathers, outlining their roles in church history and their teaching on a number of topics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433510434
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 03/02/2011
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 702,207
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Michael A. G. Haykin (ThD, University of Toronto) is professor of church history and biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. He has authored or edited more than twenty-five books, including Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church.

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Rediscovering the Church Fathers

A Vital Need for Evangelicals

Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.


A few years after I had completed my doctoral studies in fourth-century pneumatology and exegesis and had started teaching at Central Baptist Seminary in Toronto, I came to realize that I would have to develop another area of scholarly expertise, for very few of the Baptist congregations with which I had contact were keenly interested in men like Athanasius (ca. 299–373) and Basil of Caesarea (ca. 330–379). At a much later date, when I had developed a keen interest in British Baptists and Dissenters in the "long" eighteenth century and was giving papers and lectures in this subject, I was increasingly conscious that while fare from this second area of study was quite acceptable to evangelical audiences, a cloud of suspicion hung over the whole field of the ancient church.

The truth of the matter is that far too many modern-day evangelicals are either ignorant of or quite uncomfortable with the church fathers. No doubt years of their decrying tradition and battling Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy with their "saints" from the ancient church have contributed in part to this state of ignorance and unease. Then, too, certain strains of anti-intellectual fundamentalism have discouraged an interest in that "far country" of church history. And the strangeness of much of that era of the ancient church has proven a barrier to some evangelicals in their reading about the early centuries of the church. Finally, an ardent desire to be "people of the Book" — an eminently worthy desire — has also led to a lack of interest in other students of Scripture from that earliest period of the church's history after the apostolic era. Well did Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–1892) — a man who certainly could not be accused of elevating tradition to the level of, let alone over, Scripture — once note, "It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others."

Past Evangelical Interest in the Church Fathers

Thankfully, this has begun to change. We who are evangelicals are beginning to grasp afresh that evangelicalism is, as Timothy George has rightly put it, "a renewal movement within historic Christian orthodoxy." We have begun to rediscover that which many of our evangelical and Reformed forebears knew and treasured — the pearls of the ancient church. The French Reformer John Calvin (1509–1564), for example, was a keen student of the church fathers. He did not always agree with them, even his favorites, like Augustine of Hippo (354–430). But he was deeply aware of the value of knowing their thought and drawing upon the riches of their written works for elucidating the Christian faith in his own day.

In the following century, the Puritan theologian John Owen (1616–1683), rightly called by some the "Calvin of England," was not slow to turn to the experience of the one he called "holy Austin," namely Augustine, to provide him with a typology of conversion. Yet again, the Particular Baptist John Gill (1697–1771) played a key role in preserving Trinitarianism among his fellow Baptists at a time when other Protestant bodies — for instance, the English Presbyterians, the General Baptists, and large tracts of Anglicanism — were unable to retain a firm grasp on this utterly vital biblical and Patristic doctrine. Gill's The Doctrine of the Trinity Stated and Vindicated was an effective defense of the fact that there is "but one God; that there is a plurality in the Godhead; that there are three divine Persons in it; that the Father is God, the Son God, and the Holy Spirit God; that these are distinct in Personality, the same in substance, equal in power and glory." But a casual perusal of this treatise reveals at once Gill's indebtedness to Patristic Trinitarian thought and exegesis, for he quotes such authors as justin Martyr (d. ca. 165), Tertullian (fl. 190–220), and Theophilus of Antioch (fl. 170–180).

One final example of earlier evangelical appreciation of the Fathers must suffice. John Sutcliff (1752–1814), a late eighteenth-century English Baptist, was so impressed by the Letter to Diognetus, which he wrongly supposed to have been written by justin Martyr, that he translated it for The Biblical Magazine, a Calvinistic publication with a small circulation. He sent it to the editor of this periodical with the commendation that this second-century work is "one of the most valuable pieces of ecclesiastical antiquity."

Who Are the Church Fathers?

In an entry on "patristics" in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, a standard reference work of Christianity, the church fathers are described as those authors who "wrote between the end of the 1st cent. ... and the close of the 8th cent.," which comprises what is termed the "Patristic age." These authors, this entry continues,

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.

In another major reference work dealing with Christianity's history and theology, Christianity: The Complete Guide, it is noted that while there is no official list of the Fathers, there are at least four characteristics that denote those meriting the title of church father: their orthodoxy of doctrine, their being accepted by the church as important links in the transmission of the Christian faith, their holiness of life, and their having lived between the end of the apostolic era (ca. 100) and the deaths of John of Damascus (ca. 655/675– ca. 749) in the East and Isidore of Seville (ca. 560–636) in the West.

Recent study of the Fathers, this article goes on to observe, has tended to broaden the category of church father to include some figures many in the ancient church viewed with suspicion — namely, figures like Tertullian and Origen (ca. 185–254). This article also notes that, owing to the rise of feminist historiography, scholarship of this era is now prepared also to talk about church mothers ("matristics"). There is no doubt that feminist concerns have highlighted the way in which much of church history has been taught from an exclusively male perspective. But the problem with this category of "matristics" is that there are very few women in the ancient church who can be studied in similar depth to the Fathers since they left little textual remains. In the chapters that follow, I briefly note the role played by Vibia Perpetua (d. 202) and Macrina (ca. 327–ca. 379), for example; but, though I wish we had more detail about these fascinating women, any examination of them is bound by significant textual limitations.

Reading the Church Fathers for Freedom and Wisdom

Why should evangelical Christians engage the thought and experience of these early Christian witnesses? First, study of the Fathers, like any historical study, liberates us from the present. Every age has its own distinct outlook, presuppositions that remain unquestioned even by opponents. The examination of another period of thought forces us to confront our innate prejudices, which would go unnoticed otherwise. As contemporary historical theologian Carl Trueman has rightly noted:

The very alien nature of the world in which the Fathers operated challenges us to think more critically about ourselves in our own context. We may not, for example, sympathise much with radically ascetic monasticism; but when we understand it as a fourth century answer to the age old question of what a committed Christian looks like at a time when it is starting to be easy and respectable, we can at least use it as an anvil on which to hammer out our own contemporary response to such a question.

For instance, Gustaf Aulén, in his classic study of the atonement, Christus Victor, argues that an objective study of the Patristic concept of atonement will reveal a motif that has received little attention in post-Reformation Christianity: the idea of the atonement as a divine conflict and victory in which Christ fights and overcomes the evil powers of this world, under which man has been held in bondage. According to Aulén, what is commonly accepted as the New Testament doctrine of the atonement, the forensic theory of satisfaction, may in fact be a concept quite foreign to the New Testament. Whether his argument is right or not — and I think he is quite wrong — can be determined only by a fresh examination of the sources, both New Testament and Patristic.

Then, second, the Fathers can provide us with a map for the Christian life. It is indeed exhilarating to stand on the East Coast of North America, watch the Atlantic surf, hear the pound of the waves, and, if close enough, feel the salty spray. But this experience will be of little benefit in sailing to Ireland and the British Isles. For this a map is needed — a map based upon the accumulated experience of thousands of voyagers. Similarly, we need such a map for the Christian life. Experiences are fine and good, but they will not serve as a suitable foundation for our lives in Christ. To be sure, we have the divine Scriptures, an ultimately sufficient foundation for all of our needs as Christians (2 Tim. 3:16–17). But the thought of the Fathers can help us enormously in building on this foundation.

A fine example is provided by the pneumatology of Athanasius in his letters to Serapion, bishop of Thmuis. The present day has seen a resurgence of interest in the person of the Holy Spirit. This is admirable, but also fraught with danger if the Spirit is conceived of apart from Christ. Yet, Athanasius's key insight was that "from our knowledge of the Son we may be able to have true knowledge of the Spirit." The Spirit cannot be divorced from the Son: not only does the Son send and give the Spirit, but also the Spirit is the principle of the Christ-life within us. Many have fallen into fanatical enthusiasm because they failed to realize this basic truth: the Spirit cannot be separated from the Son.

Or consider the landmark that has been set up on the landscape of church history by the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, commonly called the Nicene Creed. This document, while by no means infallible, is nevertheless a sure guide to the biblical doctrine of God. It should never be dismissed as being of no value. To do so shows a distinct lack of wisdom and discernment. I vividly recall a conversation in the 1990s with an administrator of an academic institution with which I was associated. During the conversation the subject of the Nicene Creed was raised, and this particular individual remarked cavalierly that there was no way he would be bound by a man-made document like this creed. Honestly, I was horrified by his dismissive approach and considered, and still do consider, such a statement to be the height of folly and the sure road to theological disaster.

Reading the Church Fathers so as to Understand the New Testament

Third, the Fathers may also, in some cases, help us to understand the New Testament. We have had too disparaging a view of Patristic exegesis and have come close to considering the exposition of the Fathers as a consistent failure to understand the New Testament. For instance, Cyril of jerusalem (ca. 315–387), in his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:5, which concerns temporary abstinence of sexual relations between married couples for the sake of prayer, assumes without question that the prayer is liturgical and communal. Cyril may be guilty of an anachronism, for he was a leader in "the hallowing of the time," that is, the observance of holy seasons. Nonetheless, there is good evidence that such special communal times of prayer, in some form or other, are quite early. The liturgical life of the church of jerusalem in the fourth century was not that of Corinth in the first, but nevertheless there were links. Possibly, it is the Protestant commentators who are guilty of anachronism when they assume that Paul meant private prayer. Such religious individualism is more conceivable in the Protestant West than in first-century Corinth.

Again, in recent discussions of the Pauline doctrine of salvation, it has been asserted by the proponents of the so-called New Perspective that the classical Reformed view of justification has little foundation in Paul or the rest of the New Testament, but is more a product of the thinking of Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin. Yet, in the second-century Letter to Diognetus, to which we have already referred, we find the following argument, which sounds like it has been lifted straight from the pages of Luther. The author has been arguing that God revealed his plan of salvation to none but his "beloved Son" until human beings realized their utter and complete inability to gain heaven by their own strength. Then, when men were conscious of their sin and impending judgment, God sent his Son, marked in his character by utter sinlessness, to die in the stead of humanity, who are indwelt by radical depravity. What is expressed here is in full accord with the classical Reformed view of the meaning of Christ's death for our salvation. As T. F. Torrance has generally observed:

[There is a] fundamental coherence between the faith of the New Testament and that of the early Church. ... The failure to discern this coherence in some quarters evidently has its roots in the strange gulf, imposed by analytical methods, between the faith of the primitive Church and the historical Jesus. In any case I have always found it difficult to believe that we modern scholars understand the Greek of the New Testament better than the early Greek Fathers themselves!

Reading the Church Fathers because of Bad Press about the Fathers

We also need to read and know the Fathers since they are sometimes subjected to simply bad history or bad press. For example, in Dan Brown's monumental best seller The Da Vinci Code, the hero, Robert Langdon, "discovers" that contemporary expressions of Christianity, especially that of the Roman Catholic Church, have no sound historical basis. According to Brown's novel, it was not until the reign of the early fourth-century Roman emperor Constantine (ca. 272–337) that the Bible, in particular the New Testament, was collated. It was Constantine who had the New Testament as we know it drawn up in order to suppress an alternative perspective on Jesus as a merely human prophet. The novel expresses the view that at the early fourth-century Council of Nicaea (325), which was astutely manipulated by the power-hungry Constantine for his own ends, Jesus Christ was "turned ... into a deity" and became for the first time an object of worship. Jesus' divine status was ratified by a "relatively close vote" at this council. Both of these events took place in order to conceal that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene, that he had a child by her, and that he intended that Mary be the founder of the church. Key Christian teachings are thus the result of a power move by Constantine and other males in order to squash women. As Brown has one of his characters say, "It was all about power."

Brown clearly intends these claims to be more than key aspects of the conspiratorial ambience of his novel. As Greg Clarke, director of the Centre for Apologetic Scholarship and Education at New College, University of New South Wales, has rightly noted, Dan Brown's book has "evangelistic intentions" and "is meant to change our lives." R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, rightly sees the book as a not-so-subtle attack on the central truths of biblical Christianity. Since Brown makes clear references to the Patristic era to support his theory, it is necessary that any response involve accurate knowledge of what actually took place at Nicaea and what the second- and third-century church believed about Jesus.


Excerpted from "Rediscovering the Church Fathers"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Michael A. G. Haykin.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Rediscovering the Church Fathers: A Vital Need for Evangelicals, 13,
2. Dying for Christ: The Thought of Ignatius of Antioch, 31,
3. Sharing the Truth: The Letter to Diognetus, 49,
4. Interpreting the Scriptures: The Exegesis of Origen, 69,
5. Being kissed: The Eucharistic Piety of Cyprian and Ambrose, 91,
6. Being Holy and Renouncing the World: The Experience of Basil of Caesarea, 105,
7. Saving the Irish: The Mission of Patrick, 131,
8. Walking with the Church Fathers: My First Steps on a Lifelong journey, 149,
Appendix 1: Reading the Fathers: A Beginner's Guide, 157,
Appendix 2: Reflections on jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600), 159,
Index, 167,

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Haykin has given us a user-friendly introduction to the early centuries of the Christian church. He illustrates the key elements of the church’s teaching by referring to the lives and teachings of major figures of the time, most of whom are little known to nonspecialists. Ordinary people need to know about these things, and this book is a great place to begin.”
Gerald Bray, Research Professor of Divinity, History, and Doctrine, Beeson Divinity School;author, God Is Love and God Has Spoken

“This gem of a study sparkles with polished clarity. Michael Haykin has skillfully unearthed buried treasures among early church leaders. As an experienced guide, he has drawn from his own personal journey and decades of scholarly research. He presents valuable Patristic insights into apologetic engagement, missional work, spiritual formation, use of Scripture, theological discourse, communal worship, personal piety, and approaches to suffering and martyrdom. From the apostolic fathers to the apostle to Ireland, Haykin’s investigations masterfully apply classical wisdom to contemporary concerns.”
Paul Hartog, Associate Professor, Faith Baptist Theological Seminary

“In this introduction, Michael Haykin, an eminent evangelical scholar, opens the door to the riches of early Christianity for evangelicals in a splendidly concise handbook of sorts. Evangelicals, who are experiencing a renaissance of interest in the Fathers, need look no further than this volume for an introduction to many of the most significant figures in Christian history. Readers will be left wanting to learn even more. Evangelicals are indebted to Haykin for this well-written volume.”
Steven A. McKinion, Professor of Theology and Patristics, Southeastern Seminary, Wake Forest, North Carolina

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