Sundoulos - Fall 2009

Reader, Beware of the Church Fathers

by Ashish Naidu

In the past three decades, much has been written on the implications of postmodern subjectivism in biblical interpretation, highlighting the danger of self–imposed amnesia and autonomous theological reflection that is divorced from the church’s past.1 A renewed call to evangelical maturity implies the necessity of a serious consideration of our Christian roots in the Pre–Reformation. One scholar who echoes this idea said it well: “If the aim of contemporary evangelicalism is to be doctrinally orthodox and exegetically faithful to Scripture, it cannot be accomplished without recourse to and integration of the foundational Tradition of the early church.”2

There has been a flurry of scholarship lately encouraging Protestant evangelicals to celebrate their ancient heritage and to learn from it.3 One such resource is the multi–volume patristic scriptural commentary titled, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, which seeks to address this dearth by conveniently capturing the interpretive insights of the fathers on the Old and New Testaments.4

But all this recent emphasis on the church fathers raises a number of questions. Where can we find this material?5 More important, how does a thoughtful Christian evaluate it when she finds it? Should we assume that the fathers, just because they were closer in time to the Apostolic Age than we are, are better guides to theological truth? Are the writings of the fathers to be considered authoritative for the church today? In what follows, I propose to offer a balanced assessment of the fathers: reader, beware—but don’t ignore.

The Reformers and the Church Fathers

Protestantism began in the 16th century when an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther took a stand at the Diet of Worms and refused to recant, uttering the resounding words that captured the spirit of the Reformation, “My conscience is held captive to the Word of God.”6 The Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura conveys the idea that the Word of God alone stands head and shoulders above the Church and its teachers. All other forms of authority, such as the writings of the fathers, the creeds, the confessions, and the councils are subordinate to God and his Word. Moreover, in contrast to the Roman Catholic view, the Reformers held that the Bible alone is the only written source of infallible special revelation, not the Bible and the Church’s tradition—this idea captures the Sola of Reformation’s battle cry, Sola Scriptura. However, this principle never meant that the only resource the believer needs to understand the Word of God well is the Bible alone, because the Reformers themselves benefited from the wisdom of the church fathers.

John Calvin distinguished between the creedal orthodoxy of the patristic era (first five centuries of the church) and “the tyranny of human tradition,” consisting of extracanonical teachings justified by the arbitrary power of clerical offices with no regard to the authority of the Bible.7 The Reformers understood the difference between the orthodox teaching of the fathers, (including their intellectual and spiritual legacy), and human customs not enshrined in Scripture. The Bible, Calvin insisted, was the only infallible authority and the writings of the fathers must be judged in its light.8

At the same time, the Reformers held that their teaching was consonant with the doctrines of the early church, and the fathers were often cited in polemic arguments. In his response to a Roman Catholic opponent, Calvin contends, “But here you bring a charge against us. For you to teach that all which has been approved for fifteen hundred years or more, by the uniform consent of the faithful, is, by our headstrong rashness, torn up and destroyed… you know that our agreement with antiquity is far closer that yours, but that all we have attempted has been to renew that ancient form of faith.”9 Calvin viewed the Reformation as a renewal of the ancient faith of the church.

The popular misconception that the post–apostolic church was completely steeped in spiritual and theological darkness until the Reformation must be examined in the light of the Reformers’ knowledge and use of the church fathers in their treatises, commentaries, and writings. One cannot study Luther’s discovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone without reference to Augustine or consider Calvin’s exegetical comments on the New Testament without reference to John Chrysostom. The fathers of the church had a profound influence on the theology of the Reformers and deserve careful study.

The slogan of Renaissance Humanism, ad fontes (Latin for “to the sources,” i.e., return to the original and classical sources), captured the academic mood of the sixteenth century, which included a return to the writings of the church fathers. It was in this milieu that the Reformers read and reclaimed the teachings of the patristic era against the distortions of medieval Roman Catholicism. Returning to the formative eras of the Christian faith—apostolic and patristic—in the defense of the gospel was integral to the Reformation movement. The Reformers would concur with the statement that “The Church is apostolic indeed, but the Church is also patristic.”10

The Reformers viewed the writings of the fathers not as an end in themselves but as exegetical pointers to the reading of biblical texts. Luther correctly averred that, “the intention of the early Fathers in their writing was to introduce us to the Bible; but we see them only to find a way of avoiding it.”11 The point I’m making is not that there was dialectic between the fathers and the Reformers, but that the patristic writings must be appropriated in the light of the Scriptures. Indeed, the Reformers were indebted to the fathers who, like Augustine, provided theological insights on the radical corruption of the human condition, on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, on the central role of God’s grace in salvation, and on the devotional aspects of the Christian life of loving God for his own sake,. “For too little doth he love Thee, who loves anything with Thee, which he loveth not for Thee.”12

Who Are the Fathers?

The fathers were primarily early church leaders who played a key role in the development of doctrine as they theologized, preached, and instructed Christians in biblical truth. Church historian Philip Schaff observes that the term “church father” originated in the biblical and ecclesiological custom of transferring the idea of father to spiritual relationships, especially to those of teacher, priest, and bishop (cf. I Cor. 4:15). The term necessarily includes the idea of antiquity, involving a certain degree of general authority, and this title of honor is therefore limited to the more distinguished teachers of the early church.13

Another scholar, Boniface Ramsey, identifies four criteria for determining who merits the title “father.” First of these is Antiquity. The term “father” and terms such as “patristic” suggest a venerable quality associated with age. Ramsey lists the era of the fathers as beginning around the year 96 with the writing of the First Letter of Clement and concluding in the East with the death of John of Damascus in 750. (Alternate dates for the end of the patristic period are the deaths of Gregory the Great in 604, Isidore of Seville in 636 or that of the Venerable Bede in 735.)

The second criterion is Holiness of Life. The idea of holiness is viewed in line with Ps. 149:6, “Let the high praises of God be in their mouths and two–edged swords in their hands.” The fathers exhibited much zeal for God and the Scriptures, and often like us, their zeal manifested itself in both their strengths and weaknesses.

Thirdly, Orthodox Doctrine. This implies two things: first, it means that a father must have left behind teaching of some kind, however small, or at least a reputation, and second, the teaching or the reputation for teaching must have been orthodox or fall within the bounds of Scripture and tradition.

The fourth and final criterion is Ecclesiastical Approval. Quite simply this means that a father is affirmed as such by the Church itself. Ramsey adds that the most obvious sign of this approval is the designation “saint,” attributed to a number of fathers. He rightly observes that some prominent figures of the early Church, like Tertullian and Origen, did not receive the aforementioned designation because some of their teaching was judged to fall outside the boundaries of orthodoxy.14

In the recent past, InterVarsity Press has published superb primers on the church fathers with the objective of introducing readers to the fathers, and highlighting their exegetical and theological contributions.15 Reading scripture and learning theology with the church fathers can be as spiritually enriching for us as it was for the Reformers.

Schools of Interpretation

Traditionally, historians have tended to categorize the fathers of the church based on the schools of interpretation to which they belonged and were affiliated. However, the stereotyping of the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of biblical interpretation as allegorical and historical–literal respectively is not in vogue in current scholarship. These categories are inadequate to describe the differences between the schools. This is primarily because of the recognition of two facts. First, a simplified hermeneutical distinction made between the Alexandrian and the Antiochene biblical interpretations does not hold true under careful scrutiny, as fathers from both “schools” crossed the boundaries of their respective classifications. For example, key Alexandrians like Clement (2nd/3rd century) Origen (3rd century), Athanasius (4th century) and Cyril (5th century) did not deny the historical aspects of most texts, nor did key Antiochenes like Diodore of Tarsus (4th century), John Chrysostom (4th/5th century), Theodore of Mopsuestia (4th century) or Nestorius (5th century) always adhere to just the literal sense of the text.

Second, there were differences in the institutional structures as well; the “school” at Alexandria was more like a scholastic institution with a succession of connected teachers, organized and supervised by the local bishop, whereas at Antioch, different individual exegetes and theologians tutored and supervised their own students (e.g. John Chrysostom and Theodore were under the tutelage of Diodore). Nevertheless, in patristic hermeneutical discussions, it is understood that the term “school” refers to clearly exhibited hermeneutical and exegetical tendencies that were peculiar to either Alexandria or Antioch.16

Fathers and Scripture

The Scriptures were central to the life of the early church. As a guide to liturgy, they played an essential part in the worship of the church; as a manual for catechism, they functioned as a means to formulate creedal statements; as a text for preaching, they provided the preacher with the lesson; and as an authoritative body of writing, they governed all ecclesiastical polity. The reading and interpretation of Scripture was performed in the context of worship, reverence, and the spiritual life of the church. As early as the second century, Irenaeus and Tertullian asserted that all interpretation of Scripture must be performed under the auspices of the church. The “rule of faith” or the “body of truth,” which was understood as the distillation of the apostolic teachings, became a yardstick, and a guiding principle for scriptural interpretation against false teachings.17 It was affirmed that proper interpretation of Scripture takes place in church contexts that have strong roots in the apostolic tradition.

Furthermore, the fathers unanimously concurred that the Scriptures were divinely inspired and had a central message, and only by the enlightening of the Holy Spirit could one understand their unified Christ–centered theme. Tertullian employed the analogy of the seed and its fruit, Clement spoke of the ecclesiastical symphony of the two choirs of the Old and New Testaments, Athanasius maintained that the unity of the Scriptures was the result of the Spirit’s aim or intent, Cyril of Alexandria held that the consistent message of both Testaments attested to their divine origin, John Chrysostom posited that the Holy Spirit’s inspiration assured their united Christological theme.18 The Bible, therefore, was viewed as an inter–connected organic system. The Old Testament enshrined the truth of the coming messiah, Jesus Christ, in prophecy and type. The New Testament contained the apostolic witness to Christ, who fulfilled all the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning him. The Christian message of the New Testament did not just augment, but clarified and fulfilled the message of the Old Testament.

The incarnation was understood as the ultimate expression of God’s love for us, a theme that was pictured in figures and shadows in the Old Testament. Christological and typological interpretations of the Old Testament were common among both the Alexandrian and the Antiochene fathers. They viewed the reception of the Bible in terms of divine condescension and shared a common Christological understanding of the Scriptures. While the Alexandrian fathers maintained that Christ the Word according to flesh appears in the Bible according to letter, Antiochenes like Chrysostom viewed the Scriptures as the Word of God enfleshed in human language. God’s message is inextricably fused in the inspired text of the Scriptures, and therefore much diligence and reverence is required on the part of the interpreter. God reveals his truth in this divine pedagogy for the reader’s edification and spiritual life. Martin Luther discovered this as he meditated and pondered over the Word of God in his study of Paul’s letter to the Romans. The life–transforming power of God’s Word was the warp and woof of patristic preaching. It is through the reading and the hearing of God’s Word, one encounters its true subject: Jesus Christ.

As the Word of God, the Scriptures provided the framework that defined and confirmed all doctrine, and the church provided the milieu in which the interpretation of the Scriptures found their application. John Chrysostom, the early church’s most illustrious preacher, likened the Bible to a repository of medicine, which heals, nourishes, and edifies the soul; and a mine full of spiritual treasure, which requires diligent study. When the Word of God is read, the voice of God is heard, and when the voice of God is heard, it must be obeyed. The inseparable bond between exegesis and praxis characterizes the writings of the fathers. They maintained that the purpose of doctrine was not just to inform and educate, but also to govern the practical Christian life.

In the view of the fathers, exegesis, doctrine and application formed a complex whole, with strong interconnections between them. Reflections on doctrines like Trinity and the Incarnation were interwoven with insights on prayer and worship. Doctrine was complemented by application, and they both found their provenance in Scripture.19 The fathers also affirmed a deep connection between the spirituality of the interpreter and interpretation: a spiritually ill theologian will inevitably produce unhealthy theology. In Patristic thought, reading, interpretation and application of the Scriptures was viewed as a three–stranded cord, closely intertwined. They would have regarded modern hermeneutical practices, which emphasize one aspect alone, as akin to separating and dividing the strands, thus weakening the whole cord. The beauty and strength of the cord is fully appreciated when one treats this functional relationship as a whole, unified and undivided.

In other words, exegesis and theology, far from being autonomous academic exercises, must be informed by historic Christian orthodoxy and lived out for the glory of God.

So why read the fathers? In many fields of creative work, like music for instance, familiarization and immersion in tradition is considered a prerequisite for attaining excellence. Knowledge and use of classical works is the way to balanced progress and development. The same principle can be applied to the church’s intellectual life and theological work. We learn to think well by reading good writers who have demonstrated their trustworthiness over time. Likewise, we learn to theologize soundly by reading great theologians of the past who have proved to be reliable interpreters of God’s Word. The creedal and theological insights of the preeminent teachers (doctors) of the early church have not only withstood the ravages of time, but have also been found trustworthy in the light of the Scriptures. Moreover, like the Reformers, we too can learn much about our roots in faith by reading and benefiting from the wisdom of the fathers, and avoid succumbing to what C. S. Lewis aptly called theological “novelties.”20 We cannot afford to ignore the fathers if we want to be sound exegetes and theologians.


1 E.g., Robert Webber, Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity (Zondervan, 1978), and Ancient Future faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World (Baker, 1999), Thomas C. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity (HarperCollins, 2002).

2 D. H. Williams, Retrieving Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1999), 13.

3 See the series published by Baker Academic titled, Evangelical Resourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church’s Future, edited by D. H. Williams.

4 Ancient Scriptural Commentary on Scripture, ed. Thomas C. Oden (InterVarsity Press, 2001- present). The editors boldly claim, “Today the historical-critical method of interpretation has nearly exhausted its claim on the biblical text and on the church. In its wake there is a widespread yearning among Christian individuals and communities for the wholesome, the deep and the enduring. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture does not seek to replace those excellent commentaries that have been produced in the twentieth century. Rather, it supplements them, framing them with interpretive voices that have long sustained the church and only recently have fallen silent. It invites us to listen with appreciative ears and sympathetic minds as our ancient ancestors in the faith describe and interpret the scriptural vistas as they see them.” For a comprehensive introduction to ACCS, go to about_the_accs.php.

5 See the side bar for some pointers to the best primary and secondary resources.

6 It must be noted that forerunners to the Reformation like John Wycliffe (14th century) and John Hus (14th/15th century) also underscored the sole authority of the Scriptures over the church’s tradition before Luther’s time.

7 John Calvin, Institutes, 4.X.18,23.

8 The Reformers criticized the fathers whenever their teaching deviated from Scripture, and praised them when they were biblically and theologically insightful. E.g., see Martin Luther, Table Talk on the Church Fathers.

9 John Calvin, Reply to Sadoleto, I.465, Italics mine.

10 George Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition: An Eastern Orthodox View (Nordland, 1972), 107.

11 Martin Luther, Appeal, 3.25.

12 Augustine, Confessions, 10.29.

13 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: From the Birth of Christ to the Reign of Constantine (Charles Scribner, 1859), 454-455.

14 Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers (Darton, Longman and Todd, 1986), 4-5.

15 Christopher A Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity Press, 1998), and Learning Theology from the Church Father (InterVarsity Press, 2002).

16 For an excellent discussion on this topic see, Donald Fairbairn, “Patristic Exegesis and Theology: The Cart and the Horse,” WJT, 69:1-19.

17 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.9.1.

18 Tertullian, Prescrition Against Heretics, 19-20; Clement, Stromateis, 6.11.88, Origen, First Principles, 4.2.7. Cyril of Alexandria, On Genesis; John Chrysostom, Commentary on Psalm 4.

19 For an exhaustive examination of this functional relationship in John Chrysostom see, Ashish J. Naidu, Transformed in Christ: Christology and the Christian Life in John Chrysostom (Paternoster, forthcoming).

20 “For a great many of the ideas about God that are trotted out as novelties today, are simply the ones which real theologians tried centuries ago and rejected.” C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Harper, 2002), 136.

Ashish Naidu (Ph.D., University of Aberdeen) is Assistant Professor of Theology at Talbot. His special interest is in the development of systematic theology in the early church, and his boundless enthusiasm for studying the fathers is contagious. Ashish and his wife Sabita, both natives of India, recently welcomed daughter Sharon Grace, and enjoy cooking spicy curries in their home in La Mirada.

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