Saturday, March 22, 2014

On Reading the Church Fathers

This afternoon I laid down on the couch and read through a good chunk of the The City of God by St. Augustine. The main reason I am reading it is because this semester (and last) I have been sitting in on a class taught at our PIU seminary (Pacific Islands Evangelical Seminary) which reads through the classic works of theology and church history. As I mentioned in a previous post I have read a lot ABOUT the classic works but have not read a lot of the actual works themselves. I think this is a major hole in my education that I am trying to fill. Believe it or not I actually have had pastors and teachers from my past tell me that we shouldn’t read the church fathers, or anything before the Reformation, because they are “too catholic.” Just “barely dipping my toe” into the pool of these writings has opened up a whole new world of resources to me and given me a much better understanding of what I believe. So here are a five reasons (there are many more) to read the Church Fathers…

  1. To not read the church fathers causes one to miss a valuable witness to what the apostolic writers were talking about in the Bible. We have books that were written by people who were discipled by Jesus’ actual disciples! Why would we not want to read that? They provide very early commentary from inside a very similar church culture to that of the Bible.
  2. Related to that, is that we really do not understand Christian Theology if we do not understand the history of how it developed. And… if we want to understand how theology developed we need to read the actual theologians who developed it. They provide perspective from the “inside” of the development of the ideas and not just a modern interpretation of it.
  3. We need to read outside our own modern perspective. This point is developed far better than I could do it in the two articles we read for the first session of the Readings in Church History class: C. S. Lewis' “On the Reading of Old Books” and Dorothy Sayers' “A Vote of Thanks to Cyrus.” As Lewis said, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” Lewis advised the reader to read two old books for every modern book read. It is wise to get outside the “spirit of the times” once in a while to be discerning about what is going on around you. The old books of the church fathers have helped me see that there are very different ways to look at theological questions than what I am used to.
  4. Related to that, is that we need to read outside our own theological perspectives regularly. When we read only books that we agree with we tend to become parochial and partisan in our thinking and we begin to lose the capacity for self-criticism and get stuck in a theological rut. The older I get and the more I study, I find that I agree with N.T. Wright that “30% of what I know is wrong. The problem is I don’t know which 30% it is.” The church fathers don’t fit into our modern doctrinal categories (For some reason St. Anthony did not have a theology of Christian dating) and forces us out of the theological boxes we have put ourselves into.
  5. Finally, and I know this may be a shock to some who think that God was not doing anything before their own church was founded (hyperbole here for effect), the Holy Spirit was active in the lives of God’s people long before the Reformation. There are amazing stories of conversion, deep insights into the mysteries of God, encouraging examples and commitment and sacrifice, along with very important insights into issues we are dealing with today. I was amazed at how much that I thought was new was already being written about and discussed 1500-2000 years ago.

I know that sometimes that the writing is a little thick and hard to work through but I recommend that you work your way through some old theology books. You can find most of them for free by running an internet search or going to an archive site like Or even better, you could come join us on Wednesday nights at PIU as we discuss some of these works.

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