Gordon-Conwell Blog

Learning from Our Church Fathers

November 18, 2011

Dr. Donald Fairbairn

We live in a society infatuated with novelty. From clothes to cars to computers to TVs to hand-held electronic devices, we are told we should want the latest, the newest, the hottest, the best. Given our love affair with the new and supposedly improved, it is a bit surprising that people of all stripes today are growing increasingly interested in a period of history we call “the early church” (from about AD 100-600), also known as the “patristic period” or the period of the “church fathers.” Of course, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have long been interested in the centuries just after the close of the New Testament. But today, Protestants and even scholars with no particular religious affiliation are giving the early church a lot of attention. Why?

To explain this phenomenon, I like to use the phrase “historical authority,” by which I mean people’s desire to legitimize their own beliefs (whatever they are) by showing that those beliefs have a long-standing pedigree, that such beliefs were around as far back as the ancient world. Catholics and Orthodox insist that their current practice is directly continuous with the practice of the early church. Liberal Protestants and non-religious people—both deeply imbued with a relativistic spirit—insist that there was no consensus about either doctrine or practice in the early church, but instead there was a vast array of differing “Christianities,” none of which was any better or more “right” than any others. In all of these cases, people find in the early church what they want to find; they discover a consensus or lack of consensus that provides warrant—“authority,” if you will—for their own convictions about the contemporary world.

Where do evangelicals stand in the midst of these forays into the early church? Well, for the most part, we stand on the sidelines. Priding ourselves on our commitment to Scripture alone, we have often demonstrated that commitment by paying little attention to the centuries after the end of the New Testament. After all, something isn’t true just because a church father says it, and for that matter, even the Nicene Creed doesn’t carry the same weight of authority as the Bible. Why, then, should we pay attention to the non-inspired writers of a period in the distant past, when we could be focusing on the Bible itself and on the immediacy of our current situation?

Over the next several weeks, I would like to suggest various different answers to this question—different reasons that combine to show us why it can be valuable for us to attend to the Christians of the first few centuries after the New Testament.

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.




Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , current students , faculty blogger , spiritually vital , thoughtfully evangelical

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"After all, something isn’t true just because a church father says it, and for that matter, even the Nicene Creed doesn’t carry the same weight of authority as the Bible." Don, there was a time a few years ago when I would have cried, "not true" to the statement you made above. But, as I have grown in the Lord, I am understanding that as responsible Christians (no matter what denomination) we have to deal specifically with what the Fathers say about certain topics, not just take them at their word. No one human is always correct on spiritual matters. As I have read the Fathers over the last few years (In English I should add), I have been frequently surprised to see that they do not agree unanimously on all things! Indeed, when I read books written from Roman Catholic and Orthodox perspectives I am often puzzled by the authors apparent opinion that the Fathers speak as one unanimous voice on every Christian point of Doctrine. This, of course, is not true at all. I am encouraged when Evangelical Christians seriously study the Fathers, like you do, in the understanding that they have much wisdom to impart, but not above the wisdom found in Scripture. I appreciate your charitable scholarship in this field and I look forward to learning more of what you have discovered through your assessment of Patristics. Joseph
Joseph C. Justice 6:13PM 10/08/13
As you have said that this is the time that we should lead people to concentrate on the Bible rather than the history of the early church fathers. Different people with their different religious background have their own understanding regarding the early church fathers. Some of these religion leaders let the people to worship church fathers. The stories of the church fathers might have an affirmative contribution to our life. Some of their systems of beliefs and doctrinal settings is very important for us.(Like Trinity, the doctrine of Christ..). On the other hand, the traditional religion believers worship their ancestral spirit. Some of them claim that their dead father or grandfather visit them. They should worship and provide sacrifice to the spirit. They don’t have a book but, they overruled by the ancestral spirit. We have the Word of God, the 66 books which is written divinely using kings, shepherds, fishermen, historians, priests, a scribe, a tax collector, a doctor a royal cup-bearer a government official and others. These people were in different place and lived in different time. The word of God is enough as it is said at 2Timothy 3:16 ll scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. In Some place the present evangelical church elders and ministers, try to curse the present and praise the previous believers. According to my understanding this is also the same as of giving the authority for the practice in the early church. As evangelicals we believe in the authority of the Bible not in the practice. Dr. Donald thank you I have learned a lot of things and it helped me to think deeply.
Seleshi Andarge 2:35PM 01/04/13
I'm excited for this series!
Brian Gronewoller 8:56AM 11/21/11