As a young man I heard a church history professor say he minimized the patristics because too many young students get too excited by them and convert to Catholicism. (Some convert to Orthodoxy too, but he didn’t mention that.) His emphasis, no surprise, was the Reformation. So a narrative has taken shape: evangelicalism doesn’t know the patristics. Which means, if you want to find a faith shaped by and deep into the patristics, Go East or Go to Rome!
Kenneth Stewart decisively defeats this narrative, but I’m not sure he solves the problem. Stay with me here. I’m referring yet again to the really engaging book In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis. The argument is that the modernistic world is too rationalistic, or a disembodiedness, or that we need the fathers.
The question is, is this current fascination with the early church really something new for evangelical Christianity?
We must be frank in admitting that such writers have reached their conclusions on the basis of perceptions gleaned from within the strands of evangelical Christianity in which they were nurtured. … Iheir judgments have involved a readiness to extrapolate from the evangelical movement as they have personally experienced it to the whole of it.
I propose that this line of explanation ought to be that the current resurgence of interest in early Christianity is not a swing of the pendulum toward something neglected for the five centuries of Protestantism’s existence. It is, in fact, a return to emphases regularly present in historic Protestantism.
So, he turns to show the deep interest and scholarship and even some preaching that were all deeply engaged with the patristics, and we need not mention all the names, but they include the production of the Nicene Library (now with Eerdmans, and I think Hendrickson], BB Warfield, John Wesley, John Calvin and Martin Luther (later in his career but not early).
Calvin was deep into humanism and humanism had informed him about the patristics and he saw in them divergence from Catholicism.
It was this humanist predisposition to prefer the teaching of Christian antiquity rather than the teaching of the church in more recent history (the onset of which coincided roughly speaking with the sack of Rome in 410 or, at very least, the papacy of Gregory the Great circa 590-604) that separated such early Protestants from current Catholic theology, which viewed Christian theology as an unbroken continuum from antiquity to the present. Such a Protestant stance had been “served up whole” by the humanistic studies of the day.
Stewart is right: historic evangelicalism and Protestantism have never ignored the patristics for long; there is a deep awareness of the deep tradition. I’ll get to his main points shortly, but this must be said: contemporary evangelicalism is defined far more by populist preaching, megachurch types of theology (or lack thereof), political partisanship and messaging, and non-denominationalism, which in itself is largely an eschewing of theological penetration. Stewart knows this, though he doesn’t say much about it except in passing, but he is intent on showing that historic evangelicalism is rooted in the patristics. He’s right, but the problem is that the evangelicalism of that sort is far more rare today than it was fifty years ago. Many of us could go to church for months without hearing a church father mentioned or quoted. So, it is the case that many grow up without the fathers, the theology they hear is absent that depth, so they are attracted to it.
Stewart is showing the roots are there. And always have been.
Here are his major points:
In summary, as one considers the prevalent fresh appropriation of early Christianity in our own time, one finds on closer inspection that the evangelical Protestant tradition, rather than exhibiting a history of neglect, has quite often been exemplary in investigating and appropriating early Christian theology and practice.
First, the neglect of the early church and its teaching is a relatively modern phenomenon, afflicting both conservative and liberal Protestantism for a period of some three decades early in the twentieth century, and waning since the 1950s.
Second, one hardly finds any evidence in the five hundred years surveyed) of an attitude that cedes the first centuries of Christianity to Roman Catholicism (or to Orthodoxy).
Third, at the dawn of the Reformation, the advocates of reform enjoyed (at least temporarily) the position of “frontrunner” in the appropriation of early Christian teaching and in the advancing of the notion that the early church, because not yet “fallen,” could help to judge the later church.
Fourth, todays fascination with the Christianity of the second century— so powerful an influence on the number of evangelical Protestants who have decamped to Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy—is an attitude very different from that displayed in both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism since the Renaissance.
Fifth, it is urgent that the Protestantism of today recapture the principle, apparently obvious until the twentieth century, that the Reformation was itself a fresh appropriation of all the early Christianity deemed to be consistent with the supreme authority of Scripture.
Sixth, Western Christianity’s ability to draw on and to appraise patristic Christianity has customarily gone hand in hand with the cultivation and maintenance of a curriculum of classical studies of the ancient Mediterranean world, its cultures, and its languages. …Surely, the Christian community should be making its voice heard in favor of a restoration of classical studies at multiple levels.