Rediscovering the Church Fathers

A few years after I had done my doctoral studies in fourth-century pneumatology and exegesis and had started teaching in the 1980s, I intuited that I would have to develop another area of scholarly expertise, for very few of the Baptist congregations with which I had contact were terribly interested in men like Athanasius (died 373) and Basil of Caesarea (c.330-379). At a much later date, when I had developed a keen interest in British Baptists and Dissenters in the “long” eighteenth century and was giving papers and lectures in this subject, I was increasingly conscious that while fare from this second field was quite acceptable to Evangelical audiences, a cloud of suspicion hung over the whole field of the Ancient Church. Far too many modern-day Evangelicals are either ignorant of or quite uncomfortable with the Church Fathers. No doubt years of their decrying tradition and battling Roman Catholics with their “saints” from the Ancient Church have contributed in part to this state of ignorance and unease. An ardent desire to be “people of the Book”—an eminently worthy desire—has led to a lack of interest in other students of Scripture from that earliest period of the Church’s history after the Apostolic era. This should not be. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)—a man who certainly could not be accused of elevating tradition to the level of, let alone over, Scripture—once rightly noted: “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others” [Commenting and Commentaries (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1876), 1].

Thankfully, this has begun to change. We who are Evangelicals are beginning to grasp afresh that Evangelicalism is, as Timothy George has put it, “a renewal movement within historic Christian orthodoxy” [Promotional blurb in Williams, D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influence of the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 1.]. We have begun to rediscover that which many of our Evangelical and Reformed forebears knew and treasured—the pearls of the Ancient Church.

The French Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564), for example, was a keen student of the Church Fathers. He did not always agree with them, even when it was a case of one of his favourites, like Augustine. But he knew the value of knowing their thought and drawing upon the riches of their written works for elucidating the Faith in his day.

In the following century, the Puritan theologian John Owen (1616-1683), rightly called by some the “Calvin of England” was not slow to turn to the experience of the one he called “holy Austin,” namely Augustine of Hippo (354-430), to provide him with a typology of conversion. See A Discourse concerning the Holy Spirit in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (1850-1853 ed.; repr. Edinburgh/Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), III, 337-366.

Yet again, the Particular Baptist John Gill (1697-1771) played a key role in preserving Trinitarianism among his fellow Baptists at a time when other Protestant bodies—for instance, the English Presbyterians, the General Baptists, and large tracts of Anglicanism—were unable to retain a firm grasp on this utterly vital biblical and patristic doctrine. Gill’s The Doctrine of the Trinity Stated and Vindicated was an effective defence of the fact that there is “but one God; that there is a plurality in the Godhead; that there are three divine Persons in it; that the Father is God, the Son God, and the Holy Spirit God; that these are distinct in Personality, the same in substance, equal in power and glory” [The Doctrine of the Trinity stated and vindicated (2nd ed.; London: G. Keith and J. Robinson, 1752), 166-167]. But a casual perusal of this volume reveals at once Gill’s indebtedness to patristic Trinitarian thought and exegesis, for he is at home in quoting such authors as Justin Martyr (d. c.165), Tertullian (fl.190-220), and Theophilus of Antioch (fl.180).

One final example of earlier Evangelical appreciation of the Fathers must suffice. John Sutcliff (1752-1814), a late eighteenth-century English Baptist, was so impressed by the Letter to Diognetus, which he wrongly supposed to have been written by Justin Martyr, that he translated it for the The Biblical Magazine, a Calvinistic publication with a small circulation. He sent it to the editor of this periodical with the commendation that this second-century work is “one of the most valuable pieces of ecclesiastical antiquity” [ The Biblical Magazine, 2 (1802), 41-48. The quote is from p.41].

May the Lord enable us to be wise and discerning in our rediscovery of the Fathers.