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Discovering the Church Fathers

Imagined Discoveries

Take a few moments to image the following scenario:

You wake up tomorrow morning to excitement on the news. Somebody has found a number of long-lost letters written by an early Church leader with close links to the apostles. The documents discuss issues such as the humanity of Jesus, the eucharist, and church governance. Christians across the world are beside themselves with intrigue: What does it say? What can it tell us about our religion? How can it shed light on what the authors of the New Testament meant in their writings? Translations are made available online within the day, and each page receives tens of thousands of views.

The next morning there is another sensational news story: investigators, in following up about the first discovery, have found a very early Christian manual that gives details about how the early Church observed practices such as fasting, baptism, and the eucharist. Once again there is a frenzy of excitement, with Christians across the world eager to let it inform their theology, spirituality, and church polity.

On the third day there is more news: a huge stash of early documents has been uncovered. It contains writings from many early Christian theologians. The texts discuss a huge range of topics, from baptism, to prayer, to spiritual gifts. Naturally, the Christian world buzzes with excitement for months and months as believers read the documents and allow their theology to be shaped and challenged.

The Christian world is never the same after this. It is deemed unreasonable for someone to present a theology of, for example, the eucharist without dealing with these early writings, and interpreters of the Bible are expected to consider the ways in which the discovered documents can shed light on the biblical text.

The Truth Behind the Imagination

I trust that many evangelicals will find these thoughts exhilarating. Imagine the debates we could resolve. Imagine how much better our theology would be with more knowledge from the very early Church.

Here is the most exciting part of the imagined scenario: it is not entirely imagined. The “discoveries” I have described refer to real extant documents. The letters are those by St. Ignatius of Antioch.[1] The second discovery refers to The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, also called The Didache.[2] The third discovery refers to the huge corpus of other writings we have from the early Church. Fascinatingly, most of these texts, commonly called The Writings of the Church Fathers,[3] have never been lost and rediscovered; they have always been there, offering information and insight to anyone who will read them.

A Troubling Reality

While the documents I described in the imagined scenario are real, the depicted response of the Church to the documents is not (at least in most Christian circles). There is no buzz of excitement concerning the fathers; few even in the world of theological studies express joy and excitement to explore these ancient texts. Furthermore, when doing theology, one is rarely expected to take into account the Church fathers.

Why is this the case? I cannot provide a full answer, but I think two realities are contributing factors. Firstly, some Protestants seem suspicious of ancient Christian texts aside from the New Testament, as if recognizing and valuing these other these writings might somehow detract from sacred Scripture. To such people I would assert that reading the Church fathers need not detract from Scripture in any way. In fact, studying early-Church texts is a way of showing one’s seriousness about the Bible. To develop an idea introduced in the first section of the article, just as the historical context of a biblical writing—so valued by biblical scholars, and rightly so—can shed light on the text and help us interpret it, the writings of the fathers, who were closely connected to the earliest Church and knew many things we do not, can enhance our reading of Scripture.

Secondly, there is a view among some scholars that they, the enlightened ones, can interpret historical documents with supreme accuracy and insight. What older writers have said is to be disregarded, since they were not sufficiently enlightened. This type of thinking seems to have made its way into the world of theology and biblical studies, leading some to think that recent and current interpreters of the Bible are the best by far and that the Church fathers simply could not have interpreted the Bible with much accuracy. What I have already said opposes this view. The Church fathers knew may things that we do not, and we should be willing at least to consider what they said.

Reading the Fathers

I hope this post will encourage many to begin reading the Church fathers. My theology has been greatly enriched by studies in this area, and I trust that others will have the same experience. Fortunately, there are free translations of the fathers available online, making it easy to dive into this fascinating world. Audio recordings of some early-Church writings can also be found here on the Conciliar Post.

Having said all this, I must now issue a word of caution. The fathers are not to be read uncritically; as fallen humans who, like us, were corrupted by the fall, they made mistakes, misunderstood some things, and had biases and prejudices. In some cases their words and actions were outright sinful. This does not mean, of course, that their writings have no value; it means that we need to read them carefully and wisely. We ought to ask thoughtful questions like “Where might the author have learned this idea?” and “Are the author’s ideas being skewed by prejudices or biases?” Answering these questions is difficult, and it requires serious study. Fortunately, there are excellent scholars who devote much of their lives to this type of thinking. Like studying the Bible, then, we should not do it alone. Rather, we should participate in conversations with our fellow Christians that help us all come to a greater understanding of what the fathers taught and how their teaching can connect with the contemporary world.

Fellow believers, let’s read the fathers together.

Show Notes
David Doherty

David Doherty

David works in Christian higher education in Ontario, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Religious Education from Emmanuel Bible College (Kitchener, Ontario) and a Master of Theological Studies from McMaster Divinity College (Hamilton, Ontario). His research interests include the Gospel of John, metaphors in religious thought, and the development of Christian theology in the West. Together since their mid-teens, he and his wife adventure through life together and encourage each other in their faith and research.

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