Friday, December 18, 2009

Evangelicals discovering Church Fathers

I wonder whether the several hundred Evangelicals who crowded into Barrows Auditorium at Wheaton College to mark the public beginning of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies on October 29, were told that Robert Louis Wilken, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, when he was introduced to address them on the occasion, was a Catholic convert.

David Neff, Why Evangelicals Turn to the Church Fathers (Christian History Blog, November 4, 2009), writes:
In his short address, Wilken dashed through the church fathers’ approach to interpreting Scripture, touching the bases at Isaiah 6, Matthew 5, and Job 14, before coming home with key insights on patristic exegesis.

In addition to relating the Fathers’ comments on these passages, Wilken explored why evangelical Protestants in particular should pay attention to writers like Gregory the Great, Augustine, John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nyssa, and why evangelicals are indeed beginning to realize “that the early heritage is theirs also.”

The large majority of Wilken’s graduate students over the past ten years have been evangelicals, he said. The success of the ambitious Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity Press) testifies to such interest as well. Now the opening of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies institutionalizes that interest—and in a first-rate location.

First, Wilken posed the question, Why this renewed interest?

Precisely because evangelical theology and spirituality are built around Scripture, and so were those of the patristic writers. You cannot read them without an open Bible in your hand. Their writings are shot through with Scripture. Evangelicals and the church fathers thus have a natural affinity.

Second, Wilken asked whether giving some priority to these early interpreters of Scripture isn’t at cross-purposes with the evangelical principle of scriptural perspicacity. Evangelicals have long taught that the meaning of Scripture is open to every Spirit-led reader, and that biblical interpretation must not be held hostage by church tradition. Isn’t the Bible intelligible without the Fathers?

Yes, of course, in a sense it is. But the Fathers help us go more deeply into the Bible, Wilken said. They teach us to read it more slowly and enter it more deeply. He illustrated this by looking at several passages through their eyes, showing the way in which they treated the Bible as a single, coherent book in which difficult passages are illuminated by other passages. Indeed, those other texts raise the questions that lead us deeper.

Thus Isaiah‘s report in chapter 6 that the prophet “saw God” is clearly in tension with passages (such as John 1:18) that suggest no human has seen, or even can see, God. The key, however, is found in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” By mining the notions in that passage, the Fathers were able, not only to explain in what sense some might “see God,” but also to point the way toward the ideal Christian life. Thus to see God is to be united to him through purity of life. Understand, said Wilken, that the Bible is not primarily about the head; it is about the heart.

Third, Wilken reminded us, the patristic writers were the best minds of their day. From their engagement with Scripture, they forged the language with which we express the Christian faith. To ignore their reading of Scripture is also to undercut the foundations upon which the great creeds were built.
Read the rest of the article here.

Historically, I find it interesting that Evangelicals have been saying that Catholics don't know their Scripture, while Catholics have been saying that Evangelicals don't know their Church Fathers. To go deep into history, said Cardinal Newman, is to cease to be Protestant. Ignorance of Scripture, said St. Jerome, is ignorance of Christ. Many a Catholic convert has found his way into the Church through studying the Church Fathers. Many a Catholic has discovered how Scriptures come alive while reading the Patristics.
No contemporary translation of St. Augustine's Confessions that I know of, as I've recently learned, begins to include all the Biblical quotations that are found in the Latin original. The Patristics writings are apparently saturated in Biblical exposition. Food for thought, and perhaps for authentic Ecumenism. Your thoughts?

Related:[Hat tip to J.M.]


Lutheran said...

What defines the most sublime theology? Time, place, person? Or is it the Truth in whom it is written? Without Christ, there are no patristics, there are no churches, there is no discussion.

In the Grace of the Lord, in the Scriptures alone, in Faith alone. This is what directs theology.

Dan said...

Tradition, tradition, tradition! Scripture came after tradition.

IDOTCOL said...

God left us a church. The book came later as inspired by the Holy Spirit...

Pertinacious Papist said...

Well, as my friend Tom Howard once put it, Jesus our Lord is usually found in the precincts of the Church. Of course, Scripture attests to Christ. Of course, Scripture also IS (part of) Tradition (it's handed down: Gk - paradosis). Of course, none of us could believe that Scripture communicates God's Word, that it IS God's Word, apart from the supernatural gift of faith. So these things may not necessarily be exclusive of one another, though I will agree that how they are linked together makes a difference in where you come out in your ecclesiology and theology.

Anarcho-Papist said...

Christ left no teaching authority with His Church. He appointed apostles to serve as mere amanuenses to record His words and the events surrounding His life, atoning Death and Resurrection. Apostolic succession is a fabrication enacted by Constantine and Charlemagne and Christian discipleship means pamphleteering, as every believer is perfectly capable of interpreting Scripture in the light of his or her own conscience. That's why to be deep in history means becoming a Jehovah's Witness and recognizing Christ is Michael the Archangel.

Sheldon said...

The last line about being a Jehovah's Witness and recognizing Christ as Michael the Archangel almost made that clever, Tony.

The relevant question would be: On what authority to you assert your Comment? On your own? Then we can ignore you. On the basis of biblical text or history? Then we can refute you. On the basis of the post-Protestant American social consensus? Then we can show you that Protestantism is half-way to Anarchism, which is where, after all, you apparently wind up.

JM said...

Good grief: so much caustic comment over what seemed like a faith-affirming post highlighting *agreement* between churches. Ah well... Many Catholics seem as happy to live in isolation as the Evangelicals protesting the Manhattan Document.

IDOTCOL said...

It is clear that many modernistic, quasi so called Christians never read any of the writings of the Fathers, the echo of the first Bishops that were the Apostles of Jesus. Many modernistic errors. I was a former Protestant and have come home to THE ONE TRUE FAITH. Jesus clearly will always have his prime minister in the world until the end of the age, for that is all the Pope is. Just a David had his primer minister in the Old Testament, so too will the Lord, who sits on the throne of David ... Lucifer rebelled against Heaven and wished his own Kingdom, so too do the modernists who rebel against God's Church and wish their own man made Church.

Anarcho-Papist said...

I hope people recognize I was being facetious in my post. I recognize the teaching authority of the Church of Rome! Pace Sheldon, Protestantism is far more amenable to statism than is Catholicism. Moreover, I call myself an anarchist not because I resist the moral law, but because I believe the moral law ("Thou Shalt Not Steal!") should apply to the institution of the State, which has conned otherwise Christian peoples to accept and even endorse its programs of legalized extortion (read: taxation) and mass murder (read: elective warfare).

Sheldon said...


My bad. I took you literally. So much for tongue-in-cheek nuance via email. Sorry!

Anarcho-Papist said...

I thought when I threw in the Michael the Archangel (Jehovah's Witnesses really equate him with Christ, you know) reference, you'd all understand I was mocking the doctrine of *Sola Scriptura*. (Though, in Protestantism's defense, the flaky unitarian JWs don't even use the same Scriptures.)

Pertinacious Papist said...

In Sheldon's defense, irony is one of the most difficult things to communicate without benefit of facial expression, voice inflection, or conversational context -- much more so in an email or online post. Still, I suppose some of us must of caught it.

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

Dysfunctional interpretations of the early fathers are certainly no surprise, coming as they do from motley collections of everyman popes, who also have leant their dysfunctional powers of analysis to the bible. The works of leading Catholic theologians are equally dysfunctional. One more thing they have in common.