Main Menu

Why the church fathers?

Why the church fathers?

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Why the church fathers?

Oct. 10, 2008  News media contact: Tita Parham*  
800-282-8011   Orlando {0924}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

There is a gradual, but noticeable, trend in which contemporary Christians are turning to the “Church Fathers” as a resource in the post-modern era. Here is my own perspective on why this is so.
But, first, who were the “church fathers”? They were the leaders and thinkers in the church during its formative period of approximately the first five centuries. In the Orthodox churches, only certain ancient Christian writers are given the title of “father.” They limit the application of this title to those whose teaching is considered to be thoroughly orthodox or consistent with the doctrine of the church. In the Catholic and Protestant traditions the title “father” is used more broadly to describe all the ancient Christian writers who made a constructive contribution to the doctrine of the church, but whose ideas may be simplistic or even heretical in some ways. The writings of Origen are an example of sound teaching sometimes mingled with some unfortunate personal speculation not consistent with the doctrine of the church. Catholics reserve the title of “doctor,” which means “teacher,” to identify the fathers whose teaching is considered normative. I am using the title loosely to include Christians in the periods before and after the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 whose writings exerted considerable influence in shaping the teaching and mission of the church. A short list would include Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Theodoret, Leo the Great, Cyril of Alexandria, Ephrem of Syria, Jerome and Augustine. Such a list excludes a multitude, but it indicates who were some of the major figures.
Sometimes the title “mother” is used to refer to influential women. Regrettably, the ancient world was so patriarchal that we know few women who were writing in this era. Undoubtedly, there were great women theologians, but we do not know them. A case in point is Macrina, the sister of Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa. Her abilities are displayed in the account of her dialogue with her brother Gregory in his treatise “On the Soul and the Resurrection.” Yet Macrina is known to us by her brothers’ writings, not by her own writings. It was not until the appearance of Susanna, John and Charles Wesley that there was another family group of such importance in the history of the church. If we stretch the title of “church fathers and mothers” throughout the history of the church, then we can include significant women theologians and spiritual guides, such as Julian of Norwich and Theresa of Avila.
Why are these teachers compelling for many of us today?
For one thing, the church fathers demonstrate that the primary task of the church is to hand on from generation to generation the witness of the prophets and the apostles about Jesus Christ. The modern reading of church history emphasizes the diversity of perspectives in the ancient church. Diversity does characterize Christian thinking in the past, just as it does in the present. However, the critical point is that, in the midst of great diversity, there was an enduring consistency in Christian teaching in many different contexts over a long period of time. The main goal of all the fathers was to be faithful to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ as it is contained in the prophetic and apostolic tradition in the Scriptures. A study of the writings of the fathers over many centuries leaves a powerful impression upon the reader of the fathers’ commitment to be faithful to the original source of the church’s life in the apostolic tradition. One reason why post-modern Christians are reading the fathers is to acquire the skill of discerning and handing on the apostolic faith in the midst of a pluralistic and even relativistic world today.
Moreover, the church fathers disclose how theology is a missionary task of the church. The fathers were usually bishops or presbyters who had responsibility for the life of the church and who were writing to either correct unorthodox teaching in the church or to defend the message of the church against its cultural despisers. Today, Western Christians have become accustomed to thinking of theology as an academic rather than an ecclesial task. This is because the church created universities during the Middle Ages, and it became a custom for the theologians to be teachers in a school rather than leaders of the church. While there is nothing wrong with this development as long as theologians in the academy view themselves as committed servants of the church, the Western development has caused a problem today: there are some in academic institutions who teach biblical studies, church history, theology and ethics whose commitment is to the free study of religion as an intellectual discipline, but who do not profess a commitment to the church and its doctrine. In popular culture, anyone who writes about religious issues is considered a “theologian,” and many people lack the ability to discern how their teaching is different from the doctrine of the ecumenical church. Some of them even manifest hostility toward the Christian faith. The value of studying the church fathers is that it reminds the church in the post-modern era that the original purpose of genuine theology is to serve the mission of the church of Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, the church fathers reveal how the mind of the church developed and settled on the rules for interpreting the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Jesus Christ as being one person in two natures, human and divine. There are two main lessons we learn as we study their writings over hundreds of years. First, we learn that the seeds of later doctrinal flowering were planted during the era of the apostles. These doctrines were not human inventions, but developments of the teaching of the apostles and evangelists by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Second, their struggle to discern the right way to understand these doctrines caused them to weigh all the alternatives to orthodox faith and, therefore, to prescribe the rules that should govern Christian reflection in the future. As one studies all these writers one discovers that he or she goes through the journey of the development of doctrine with them so that one’s own mind is illumined in a similar fashion. I think that many post-modern Christians are turning to the fathers, not because of a curiosity about antiquity, but to experience the spiritual journey of the illumination of their own minds in order to be able to interpret the Christian faith today. Of course, there is room in every time and place for the constructive task of speaking to a new generation. Nevertheless, while the wheel of theological thinking is always turning, there is no need to reinvent the wheel, or, if one tries, it will not be the wheel that is invented.
It is not only the thought of the church fathers that post-modern Christians appreciate, but also their method. Two primary examples are their catechesis and their guidance in the spiritual life. Post-modern Christians are beginning to realize the similarity of our cultural context to that of the fathers. While they lived in a pagan culture, we live in a neo-pagan culture. Many churches are rediscovering catechesis, or a lengthy formation in Christian belief and practice, which we call “Christian initiation” today. Catechesis, or initiation, is necessary to purge a seeker from the toxins of deception and sinful behavior in the culture. Also, many Christians today are looking for a deeper spirituality, and some of them are discovering the rich heritage of spiritual instruction in the fathers’ library, such as “The Life of Moses” by Gregory of Nyssa and the “Confessions” of Augustine.
The late Robert Webber coined the phrase “ancient/future faith” to describe the emerging belief and practice of the post-modern church. This is an entirely different project from that of the modern church, which was the last chapter of the merger of Christianity with Western culture that began under the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. In the post-modern era, the church is beginning to discover that it has inherited a living tradition that is rooted in the past, but oriented toward the future. Webber’s own journey led him to an engagement with the church fathers’ writings where he discovered insights relevant to the church in the post-modern era. Anyone looking for an “ancient/future faith” has to begin with discovering the fathers of the church.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.