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Mention the “Church Fathers” and “Roman Catholicism” will likely spring to the minds of many pew-warming (and some pulpit-filling) evangelicals and fundamentalists. Let’s face it, for many Protestants, Christian history begins in 1517 with Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church. The fourteen hundred years of Christian history spanning Revelation to the Reformation is often foggy and remote. So large a lacuna in Christians’ understanding of the development of foundational doctrines makes them easy prey for Dan Brown, Bart Ehrman and their insidious ilk, who are eager to fill the vacuum with lies and innuendo about suppressed gospels and altered manuscripts. Series editor Thomas Oden notes, “To the extent Christians today ignore the ancient rule of faith, they remain all the more vulnerable to these distortions” (p. xiv). Diagnosing the problem is half the battle: what can be done to remedy it?
A helpful corrective (even if not a silver bullet) has come in the five-volume Ancient Christian Doctrine series published by IVP Academic in 2009. The series is self-described as “a collection of doctrinal definitions organized around the key phrases of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (commonly called simply The Nicene Creed) as viewed by the foremost ancient Christian writers” (p. vii). Those ancient Christian writers include the disciples of the original disciples and those disciples who pressed on the work in the years spanning AD 95 through 750.
Despite the fact that eminent Reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin were steeped in the Church Fathers, that fertile ground was, over the intervening centuries, ceded to Catholicism (at least by the rank and file churchgoers outside the academy). Catholic writers, most notably Mike Aquilina, have in recent years produced dozens of accessible works that have successfully popularized patristics for a predominantly Catholic audience. These treasured writings predating the Schism and the Reformation nonetheless remain a blind spot for many non-Catholics. Oden acknowledges this unfortunate fact when noting “the evangelical tradition is far more famished for their sources, having been longer denied sustenance from them” (p. xvi).
Among the purposes of the Ancient Christian Doctrine series is “showing how the new ecumenism is today being nourished and renewed by the ancient ecumenical consensus” (p. vii). For those who bristle at the mention of “ecumenism” (a word sprinkled liberally throughout the book’s editorial matter), Oden takes care to contrast “the true meaning of ecumenism” as found in the Fathers versus “a century of often dubious modern ecumenical experimentation” (p. xiv). Oden, at the forefront of the paleo-orthodoxy movement, unsurprisingly states that the “ancient faith is the rightful patrimony of all global Christians today, whether Protestants, Orthodox, Catholic or charismatic,” adding that “there is a dawning awareness among Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox laity that vital ecumenical orthodox teaching stands in urgent need of deep grounding in its most consensual classic Christian sources” (p. xv). While not agreeing fully with Oden’s statement, I believe there is an uneasy awareness among Christians that biblical illiteracy is on the rise and that fewer Christians understand and are able to articulate foundational doctrines. This series does indeed do much to inform readers of these foundational doctrines, grounded in Scripture, and illustrating that truths we accept today as self-evident were often arrived at only through much thought, deliberation and interpretation, and often as a result of a heretical challenge (e.g., Arius’ denial of the Trinity).
The complete five-volume Ancient Christian Doctrine series, which has been published and is readily available, presents a commentary on the Nicene Creed of AD 325. This first volume, titled We Believe in One God, examines the opening article of the Creed with a chapter dedicated to each of its eight distinct topics: (1) We Believe, (2) In One God, (3) The Father, (4) Almighty, (5) Maker, (6) Of Heaven and Earth, (7) Of All That Is, Seen, (8) And Unseen. Each chapter opens with a page or two of historical introduction followed by a wealth of passages drawn from the writings of the Church Fathers expounding upon, speculating about, and/or wrestling with the topic at hand.
Each chapter organizes its topics under headings; for example, the “We Believe” chapter boasts eleven subheadings, including “Knowledge of God in Nature”; “The Inspiration of Scripture”; “The Authority and Sufficiency of the Scriptures”; The Canon of Scripture” and “Scripture, Tradition and Faith.” Below each subhead are passages from the Fathers, each passage headlined in boldface.
One of the many headlines that caught my eye was “Read Only the Hebrew Canon of the Old Testament,” in which Cyril of Jerusalem exhorts readers to “have nothing to do with the apocryphal writings” (p. 25). But instead of providing Protestant readers a stinging rebuke of the Catholic Church that they can add to their proof-text arsenals, Cyril adds later in that passage, “As a child of the church, therefore, do not go against its rules.” This is an excellent example of the tension evident in the writings of the Fathers. How easy—but how unfair—it is for a fundamentalist or Roman Catholic to wrest a line from its context to prove their point from an ancient source. Responsibly, the editors printed substantive portions of the writings to ward off such abuses and to provide readers sufficient context.
This book is accessible and useful both to scholar and student, as opposed to similar works, such as Jaroslav Pelikan’s impressive but often impenetrable five-volume series, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. I found myself drawn to and dipping into this book frequently, my curiosity piqued by provocative subheadings such as “Eve Took Adam’s Body, But Not His Soul”; “How Many Jupiters Are There?”; “Hellfire Cannot Be Material” and the irresistible closing subheading, “The Torment of Love.” No matter which page I opened to, there was something informative, edifying or inspiring awaiting me.
Deserving of accolades is the book’s designer, Cindy Kiple. She has crafted a volume for those of us who appreciate the aesthetic quality of books and shun the sterility of Kindles and Nooks. It’s cream-colored, two-columned pages are inviting to the eye. And with the slightest pressure applied the book will remain flat (a boon to us whose studies find our desks strewn with a half-dozen opened books being held open with yet more books).
I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated reading this volume, coming away confident that my fellow fundamentalists would be similarly stirred to thought and would glean enlightening insights from the writings of the Fathers. Of course a study of the Fathers cannot substitute for the study of Scripture, but it can complement it and enhance our understanding of God’s Word. A necessary first step is disabusing ourselves of the notion that patristics is solely a Catholic property and pursuit, a step made simpler and surer by the Ancient Christian Doctrine series. Perhaps a fundamentalist embrace of the Fathers could outpace John Piper’s neo-Puritan revival by returning believers to the earliest centuries of Christianity to draw wisdom from their forebears as they thought through, and fought for, the fundamental doctrines of the faith in a pagan culture of compromise and heresy—one strikingly similar to our own.
Gary Peterson serves on the English faculty of Grace University in Omaha, NE. He holds degrees in English (SUNY Stony Brook) and Theology (Grace University). In addition to teaching, he is a freelance writer, editor and comic book letterer. He and his wife have thus far been blessed with two children.