Church Fathers 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 conversation—there'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.
Where do you see a movement to restore the church fathers to evangelicalism?
There is a blossoming of patristic scholars. Many young grad students are going into the field of early church.
It's also happening in the pews. The emergent church is very much engaged with ancient Christianity and Robert Webber and ancient future faith. But I don't know that everything that's happening in emergent circles is an authentic retrieval of the fathers.
I have heard several people argue that the church fathers, since they were closer in time to Christ (although their lives did not overlap with his), were more correct in theology and application than today's church. Do you agree?
I think there's plausibility there, but that thesis has limited merit.
Rather than being close in time, a better thing is being close in geography. So that what we have is a Mediterranean, Greco-Roman, and Semitic viewpoint, and an ancient mindset.
The church fathers were in the same culture that Jesus lived in. They were living in the world that Jesus inhabited. [That common Roman culture] doesn't change until the fall of the Roman Empire in the 6th century. One of the facets of the Roman Empire was the amazing ubiquity of this general culture.
Is tradition something that we should look to for authority in the church, or is that something that we should be suspicious of?
To me, tradition is very important, and it's something we should use. It's not something to be equated with Scripture as a second source. It's not to be done that way. That whole conversation is coming out of the Counter-Reformation. You would find that idea in the Council of Trent, for example, where Scripture and tradition are separate and equal.
No, tradition is rather a friend and a guide. It is a witness and it does not stand over Scripture, but it can serve Christians by helping us to understand what Scripture means.
What role does the Holy Spirit play in continuity and tradition?
The Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity who indwells the believer, but also believers collectively as the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity who indwells the church. What you have to do is intertwine ecclesiology and pneumatology.
The role of the Holy Spirit that evangelicals typically tap into is "the Spirit in me." So I've got the Spirit and I can sit and look at the text, and I can figure it out. But that's not really the only way to think about the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Holy Spirit is the Comforter, but he is also indwelling the fullness of the church.
What a proper pneumatology does is move us away from pure individualism and move us toward a high ecclesiology that is willing to then look at the collective witness of the church, which I would define as tradition. The Holy Spirit's role, as much as it is to illumine my personal understanding of Scripture, perhaps even more is to illumine the body as a whole. At which I can partake of that gift of time-honored inheritance.
Who is your favorite?
I wrote my dissertation on Tertullian. I have a special affinity for him. Not by any means do I like everything about his personality or his beliefs. He's got some problematic beliefs. But I like his style.
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