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Why Read Early Christian Authors?

Examining the Modern Life with Help from the Past

The truth of the matter is that 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 Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy with their “saints” from the Ancient Church have contributed in part to this state of ignorance and unease. Then, certain strains of anti-intellectual Fundamentalism have discouraged an interest in that “far country” of church history. And the strangeness of much of that era of the Ancient Church has proven a barrier to some Evangelicals in their reading about the early centuries of the Church. Finally, an ardent desire to be “people of the Book”—an eminently worthy desire—has also led to a lack of interest in other students of Scripture from that earliest period of the Church’s history after the Apostolic era. Well did Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834–92)—a man who certainly could not be accused of elevating tradition to the level of, let alone over, Scripture—once note: “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.”[1]

Reading the Church Fathers for Freedom and Wisdom

Why should Evangelical Christians engage the thought and experience of these early Christian witnesses?[2] First, study of the Fathers, like any historical study, liberates us from the present.[3] Every age has its own distinct outlook, presuppositions which remain unquestioned even by opponents. The examination of another period of thought forces us to confront our innate prejudices which would go unnoticed otherwise.

Then, the Fathers can provide us with a map for the Christian life. It is indeed exhilarating to stand on the east coast of North America, watch the Atlantic surf, hear the pound of the waves, and, if close enough, feel the salty spray. But this experience will be of little benefit in sailing to Ireland and the British Isles. For this a map is needed—a map based upon the accumulated experience of thousands of voyagers. Similarly, we need such a map for the Christian life. Experiences are fine and good, but they will not serve as a suitable foundation for our lives in Christ. To be sure, we have the divine Scriptures, an ultimately sufficient foundation for all of our needs as Christians (2 Timothy 3:16–17). But the thought of the Fathers can help us enormously in building on this foundation.

Consider the landmark that has been set up on the landscape of church history by the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, commonly called the Nicene Creed. This document, while by no means infallible, is nevertheless a sure guide to the biblical doctrine of God. It should never be dismissed as being of no value. To do so shows a distinct lack of wisdom and discernment. I vividly recall a conversation in the 1990s with an administrator of an academic institution at which I was teaching. During the conversation the subject of the Nicene Creed was raised and this particular individual remarked cavalierly that there was no way he would be bound by a man-made document like this creed. Honestly, I was horrified by his dismissive approach and considered, and still do, that such a statement to be the height of folly and the sure road to theological disaster.

Reading the Church Fathers so as to Understand the New Testament

Third, the Fathers may also, in some cases, help us to understand the New Testament. We have had too disparaging a view of Patristic exegesis, and have come close to considering the exposition of the Fathers as a consistent failure to understand the New Testament. For instance Cyril of Jerusalem (c.315–387) in his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:5, which concerns temporary abstinence of sexual relations between married couples for the sake of prayer, assumes without question that the prayer is liturgical and communal.[4] Cyril may be guilty of an anachronism, for he was a leader in “the hallowing of the time,” that is, the observance of holy seasons. Nonetheless, there is good evidence that such special communal times of prayer, in some form or other, are quite early. The liturgical life of the Church of Jerusalem in the fourth century was not that of Corinth in the first, but nevertheless there were links. Possibly, it is the Protestant commentators who are guilty of anachronism when they assume that Paul meant private prayer. Such religious individualism is more conceivable in the Protestant West than in first-century Corinth.

Again, in recent discussions of the Pauline doctrine of salvation, it has been asserted by the proponents of the so-called “New Perspective” that the classical Reformed view of justification has little foundation in Paul or the rest of the New Testament, but is more a product of the thinking of Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin. Yet, in the second-century Letter to Diognetus, which we have already referred to, we find the following argument that sounds like it has been lifted straight from the pages of Luther. The author has been arguing that God revealed his plan of salvation to none but his “beloved Son” until human beings realized their utter and complete inability to gain heaven by their own strength. Then, when men were conscious of their sin and impending judgement, God sent his Son, marked in his character by utter sinlessness, to die in the stead of humanity, who are indwelt by radical depravity. What is expressed here is very much in full accord with the classical Reformed view of the meaning of Christ’s death for our salvation. The examination of another period of thought forces us to confront our innate prejudices which would go unnoticed otherwise. Click To Tweet

Reading the Church Fathers Because of Bad Press about the Fathers

We also need to read and know the Fathers since they are sometimes subjected to simply bad history or bad press. For example, in Dan Brown’s monumental best-seller The Da Vinci Code the hero Robert Langdon “discovers” that contemporary expressions of Christianity, especially that of the Roman Catholic Church, have no sound historical basis.[5] According to Brown’s novel, it was not until the reign of the early fourth-century Roman emperor Constantine (c.272–337) that the Bible, in particular the New Testament, was collated. In fact, it was Constantine who had the New Testament as we know it drawn up in order to suppress an alternative perspective on Jesus as a merely human prophet.[6] The novel expresses the view that it was at the early fourth-century Council of Nicaea (325), which was astutely manipulated by the power-hungry Constantine for his own ends, that Jesus Christ was “turned…into a deity” and became for the first time an object of worship. Jesus’ divine status was ratified by a “relatively close vote” at this council.[7] Both of these events took place in order to conceal the fact that Jesus was actually married to Mary Magdalene,[8] had a child by her,[9] and that he intended that Mary be the founder of the church.[10] Key Christian teachings are thus the result of a power move by Constantine and other males in order to squash women. As Brown has one of his characters say, “It was all about power.”[11]

Since Brown makes clear references to the Patristic era to support his theory, it is necessary that any response involve accurate knowledge of what actually did take place at Nicaea and what the second- and third-century Church did believe about Jesus. The Fathers can provide us with a map for the Christian life Click To Tweet

Not only is Brown deeply mistaken about Nicaea, where the decision to embrace the Nicene Creed was overwhelmingly in favour of it, but the Church in the second and third centuries had a very high Christology in which Jesus Christ was worshipped as God. Here is one good example, the second-century preacher, Melito of Sardis (died c.190). Contemporaries regarded Melito as having lived a life remarkable for its spirituality, though knowledge of his career is scanty. Of his sixteen or so writings whose titles are known, only one is fully extant, the sermon The Homily on the Passion. Of the rest only fragments exist.[12] In his sermon, Melito, talking about Israel’s failure to recognize who Christ was, says:

You did not see God.

You did not perceive the Lord, Israel,

You did not recognize the first-born of God,

Begotten before the morning star,

Who adorned the light,

Who lit up the day,

Who divided the darkness,

Who fixed the first boundary,

Who hung the earth,

Who tamed the abyss,

Who stretched out the firmament,

Who furnished the world,

Who arranged the stars in the heavens,

Who lit up the great lights,

Who made the angels in heaven,

Who there established thrones,

Who formed humanity on the earth.[13]

Here we see a rehearsal of Christ’s sovereignty over creation, which, by implication, is a celebration of his deity. A little further on in the sermon Melito explores the paradox of the cross and ends with an open confession of Christ’s deity:

He who hung the earth is hanging.

He who fixed the heavens in place has been fixed in place.

He who laid the foundations of the universe has been laid on a tree.

The Master has been profaned.

God has been murdered.[14]

As Bart Ehrman, himself no friend to orthodox Christianity, states in response to Dan Brown: “Scholars who study the history of Christianity will find it bizarre, at best, to hear [Brown] claim that Christians before the Council of Nicaea did not consider Jesus to be divine.”[15] Thus, when the creedal statement issued at Nicaea declared its belief in Jesus’ divinity, it was simply affirming what had been the central conviction of the Church between the Apostolic era and the time of the council itself.

Reading the Church Fathers as an Aid in Defending the Faith

The early centuries of the Church saw Christianity threatened by a number of theological heresies: Gnosticism, Arianism, and Pelagianism, to name but three for example. While history never repeats itself exactly, the essence of many of these heresies has reappeared from time to time in the long history of Christianity.

Consider, for example, the challenge, one of the greatest of today, posed by Islam’s attack on the Trinity and the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.[16] Broadly speaking, Evangelicals are woefully inadequate in their ability to respond to such an attack for they rarely ever hear sermons on the Trinity and the Incarnation. Here, the Fathers can help us enormously, for in replying to the Arians and then later to the Muslims they hammered out the biblical details of these two key doctrines. One key issue that Islam has with Christianity is its Trinitarianism. In some areas that had been Christian, Islam had an aesthetic appeal, namely, its utter simplicity as a monotheistic faith— God is one, and there is none other who is God—as opposed to Christianity with its complex theology with regard to the Trinity and the Incarnation.[17] But Christian affirmation of the deity of Christ—and by extension the deity of the Holy Spirit—is found in the Scriptures. Christians are Trinitarian because the New Testament is Trinitarian. They therefore must seek to have some understanding of these truths, even though ultimately they escape human ability to fully comprehend. Christians are Trinitarian because the New Testament is Trinitarian. Click To Tweet

Reading the Church Fathers for Spiritual Nurture

In Hebrews 13:7, the author of this portion of Holy Scripture urges his readers to “remember” their past leaders, those who had spoken God’s Word to them. They are to closely scrutinize (anatheōrountes) “the “sum total” or “achievement” (ekbasin) of their day-to-day behavior, manifested in a whole life.[18] Here is a key reason for studying the history of the Church and the Church Fathers in particular. In the confessors and martyrs of the pre-Constantinian era, for example, we have many models of what it means to be a Christian in a hostile society, a situation that faces many believers today around the World today, and increasingly so in the West.[19]  And then during those days in the fourth century, when the doctrine of the deity of Christ and his Spirit were under attack we again have models of what it means to be committed to doctrinal fidelity. In this regard, it is noteworthy that one of the fathers of Methodism, John Wesley (1703–91) could use the example of Athanasius’ doggedness in defending the deity of Jesus in a letter of encouragement to the young abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759–1833). Writing to Wilberforce about his fight against the slave trade but a week before his death, the aged Christian evangelist told Wilberforce:

Unless the Divine power has raised you up to be as an Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how can go through your glorious enterprise, in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you who can be against you. Are all of them together stronger than God? Oh be not weary of well-doing. Go on in the name of God, and in the power of His might, till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it.[20]

Wesley begins this fascinating letter with a reference to Athanasius’ defence of the deity of Christ for over thirty years despite exile and persecution. Athanasius was only able to maintain this fight, Wesley implies, because God enabled him to persevere. Likewise, unless God empowers Wilberforce in the struggle to abolish the institution of slavery, he will fall before those who support this “execrable villainy.”


These reasons are only a start towards giving a full answer to the question, “Why study the Fathers?”[21] There are certainly other reasons for studying these ancient authors which may be more obvious or even more important. But the reasons given above sufficiently indicate the need for Patristic studies in the ongoing life of the Church: to aid in her liberation for the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century; to provide a guide in her walk with Christ; to help her understand the basic witness to her faith, the New Testament; to refute bad histories of the Ancient Church; and to be a vehicle of spiritual nurture.


 [1] Commenting and Commentaries (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1876), 1. Cf. the similar remarks of J.I. Packer: “Tradition . . . is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it.” [“Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 25 (1982), 414].

[2] An earlier version of the next two sections of this article has previously appeared as “Why Study the Fathers?”, Eusebeia: The Bulletin of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies, 8 (Fall 2007), 3–7. Used by permission.

[3] C.S. Lewis, “De descriptione temporum” in his Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 12.

[4] Catechesis 4.25.

[5] Gene Edward Veith, “The Da Vinci phenomenon”, World, 21, no.20 (May 20, 2006), 20-21. The edition of The Da Vinci Code being used is The Da Vinci Code (New York: Anchor Books, 2006).

[6] Da Vinci Code, 231–2.

[7] Da Vinci Code, 233–5.

[8] Da Vinci Code, 244–7.

[9] Da Vinci Code, 255–6.

[10] Da Vinci Code, 248–9, 254.

[11] Da Vinci Code, 233.

[12] On these writings, see Stuart G. Hall, trans. Melito of Sardis: On Pascha and Fragments (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 63–79.

[13] Homily on the Passion 82 [trans. Alistair Stewart-Sykes, Melito of Sardis: On Pascha (Crestwood, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 60].

[14] Homily on the Passion 96 (trans. Stewart-Sykes, Melito of Sardis: On Pascha, 64). For a brief discussion of Melito’s Christology, see Stewart-Sykes, Melito of Sardis: On Pascha, 28–9.

[15] Bart D. Ehrman, Truth And Fiction in The Da Vinci Code. A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 15.

[16] For this point, I am indebted to a conversation with a close friend and my one-time student, Mr. Scott Dyer of Burlington, Ontario, July, 2010.

[17] The simplicity of Islam as opposed to Christianity’s complexity is well seen in the architectural differences between churches from this era and mosques. The great church of S. Apollinaire that was built in the 530s near Ravenna in northern Italy, for example, is richly decorated with highly ornate mosaics that are designed to impress the observer and convince him or her that Christianity is a faith marked by “royal splendour.” By contrast, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, built after the conquest of Visigothic Spain in the first two decades of the eighth century, is devoid of any images and extremely simple in design and ornamentation. This simplicity in architectural design matched the simplicity of Islamic theology and proved to be attractive to some. See Yoram Tsafrir, “Ancient Churches in the Holy Land”, Biblical Review Archaeology Review, 19, no.5 (October 1993), 30; Robert Milburn, Early Christian Art and Architecture (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1988), 173.

[18] Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1977), 569; William L. Lane, Hebrews 9–13 (Word Biblical Commentary, vo.47B; [Dallas: Word,] 1991), 522.

[19] Carl Trueman, “The Fathers” (reformation21 post, April 30, 2007;; accessed July 23, 2010).

[20] Frank Whaling, ed., John and Charles Wesley: Selected Prayers, Hymns, Journal Notes, Sermons, Letters and Treatises (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 170–1.

[21] See further, Paul A. Hartog, “The Complexity and Variety of Contemporary Church—Early Church Engagements” in his ed., Contemporary Church and the Early Church, 1–26.

The following article can be read in full within Michael A.G. Haykin, Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, (Crossway, 2011).

Michael A.G. Haykin

Michael Haykin (Th.D., University of Toronto) is the Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality and Director of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of numerous books including Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the ChurchThe Missionary Fellowship of William CareyEight Women of FaithThe Christian Lover: The Sweetness of Love and Marriage in the Letters of Believers, A Sweet Flame: Piety in the Letters of Jonathan Edwards, and To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy

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