Why should we care about the church fathers? After all, they lived a long time ago; they weren’t inspired; they had limited knowledge and perspective when it came to ancient history. Craig Allert, in his new book Early Christian Readings of Genesis One, opens by considering this question. There are several good reasons for us to care and to pay attention to their writings.
God’s Faithfulness. We look back to the writings and wrestlings of the ancient Fathers because we inhabit a long heritage, with a trail that has been blazed by those who came before. We care about the church fathers, first and foremost, because we believe in God and in his power and plan.
The past is not just ages passed; rather, we inhabit it in and through our community of faith. It does not gloss over sin and corruption in our history – it believes that God has always been with his church, even when it was corrupted (“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Mt 16:18). It does not seek to excise entire chunks of our history, because doing so would question God’s presence in his church during these times of difficulty and even unfaithfulness. (p. 36)
That the church has failed at times is evident. The failure of God’s people is a recurring theme of Scripture and it continues into the age of the church. We are called back to faithfulness from unfaithfulness, but God is always faithful and his Spirit has been active in the church from the beginning. God has cared for his church through time and we should care about the thinking (good and bad) of those who came before.
But there is more.
Immersed in Scripture. We also care about the church fathers because they were immersed in Scripture and took the Old Testament and the apostolic writings now part of our New Testament canon very seriously. Allert notes that “Anyone who takes the time to read a treatise by one of them cannot miss the overwhelming presence of Scripture that is cites, alluded to, and assumed on every page.” (p. 38) While we may question some of their interpretations (no one gets it all right – then or now), most are quite sound. The early church was grounded in Scripture and the story of God’s people.
Wrestled with Theology. We care about the church fathers because they wrestled carefully and pastorally with the implications of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as God’s Messiah. Allert lists a number of key issued carefully considered by the early church fathers – doctrines of continued importance today. (p. 41-44)
They wrestled with the questions of authority and the canon of Scripture.
They wrestled with the nature of the Trinity. (A totally new concept!)
They wrestled with the incarnation and the relationship between the humanity and divinity of Christ.
They worked to understand the nature of Christ’s work through his life, death, and resurrection.
They sought to understand the implications for humanity – and what it means to be human.
They considered the question of the church. What is the church? What is its tasks? What dangers lurk? and so forth.
They looked forward to the future and the resurrection.
Their writings on these topics are worth reading – and shaped much of what we believe even today.
Appreciate the Mystery. We care about the church fathers because they help us appreciate the mystery of our faith. Coming from a different age, they were not irrational … but they were also not tied to the overemphasis on reason rampant in our modern world. In fact, some caution against over reliance on reason. Allert suggests that there are two kinds of mystery. One kind is an “investigative mystery” where there is a problem to be solved. Once the solution is found the mystery is gone. Too often we approach our faith as just such a mystery. But there is another kind of mystery, Allert terms this a revelational mystery. “Revelational mystery revolves around what is unknown and ungraspable – this is why it remains a mystery even though it is revealed.” (p. 49) Many truths in Scripture are communicated as mysteries and the early church fathers emphasize and celebrate these mysteries. An over reliance on reason makes God a problem to be solved and one we may think we have “solved.” There is great danger in this. Allert concludes “Then he must fit our categories and he becomes the God we think he should be. The Fathers encourage us to let God be God.” (p. 49-50)
All good reasons to read and think along with the early Church fathers.
Why should we care about early church thought?
How does it help us to understand our faith better today?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net