A Higher Ecclesiology for Evangelicals
Bryan Litfin's Getting to Know the Church Fathers, which has chapters on Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Perpetua, Origen, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Cyril of Alexandria, is designed to introduce the ancient church to evangelicals. Litfin writes about the lives and major issues of each person, then lists possible study questions, books for deeper exploration, and a short excerpt of the church father's writing. He is concerned that many Christians have rejected the church fathers under the impression that they were detached from Scripture, Roman Catholic, and that they represent the "fall" of Christianity after Constantine's conversion. Litfin spoke with CT about introducing evangelicals to Patristics.
Whom did you write the book for?
Someone like me, someone who had heard of the concept of the ancient church and thought Yeah, there were people in togas who got thrown to the lions. But I didn't really know who they were, and I certainly didn't feel any spiritual or theological connection to them. Then I began to see them as real people. I began to see them as my forefathers, that I might feel an organic connection. And that church history is a continuous story.
We can recover the fathers as our own and we can recover them through a direct line back, so that all the richness of church history becomes ours. That's what I want to do for the Christian today: I want the Christian to understand that there's a richness to their history that they're missing; embrace it and let it be something that inspires you.
Are there some negative views evangelicals hold that are valid?
Yes. I try not to go into that too much, not in order to hide those things but because they're so complicated. It just opens up a can of worms. I feel that perhaps the pendulum is so against them that I need to be positive to counter-weight that.
You have to realize that they're not evangelicals. So some of the points where we would differ with them would be the points where we would differ with Roman Catholicism. Some of their doctrine of salvation is going to be sacramental. They're not going to use the term inerrancy, but they give full credence to Scripture, and [see it as] inspired. Their anti-Semitism is something you can put in there as needing correction. There can be a works-orientedness to them, where there's a paying-off of God. You can see that in Tertullian, for example.
I'm not saying that anyone should hide anything or gloss over it. My thought was, let's do an initial foray. That's enough for most people, but then other people who want to have that deeper conversationthere's room for that.
You write that evangelicals need the church fathers. Why?
I don't think we can apply their situation to our situation. A sense of connection to the fathers grounds us in the bigness of the church, and that there are other stakeholders, and that there are others who have blazed a path that we should reluctantly move away from, not gleefully move away from.
At what point do you think Christians lost track of that?
It's probably coming out of the Reformation, and in particular out of the radical Reformation.
We can recover a sense of catholicity without having to go back to Rome. I'm not one of those guys wanting to cross the Tiber. I'm not even on the Canterbury trail. I'm not trying to meld with Eastern Orthodoxy, high Anglicanism, or Roman Catholicism. I'm a proud, dispensational, conservative, born-again fundie. But I think I can do that in a way that I'm catholic.