December 07, 2011
This is Part 2 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here.
Why should evangelicals care about the early church, about the first several centuries after the end of the New Testament? Of the many answers one could give to this question, perhaps the most important answer is that we should care about the early church precisely because we are committed to the authority of Scripture alone. Since we have that commitment, we want to know as precisely and comprehensively as we can what Scripture actually means. And this brings us to a fundamental claim that I often make: What we think the Bible means is influenced by what we think the church has said the Bible means.
Consider this claim for a moment. As faithfully and carefully as we may read the Bible, we never come to Scripture as a blank slate. There is a long history of biblical interpretation that influences what we are looking for as we read Scripture—whether we know that history or not, whether we realize its influence on us or not. In particular, the great issues of the Protestant Reformation (16th and 17th centuries) and the subsequent issues of Pietism and revivalism 18th-20th centuries) have set up the categories with which you and I approach the Bible.
For example, one of the legacies of the Reformation (a legacy that the Reformation itself owes to High Medieval Roman Catholicism) is the tendency to think about the meaning of biblical passages in terms of clear-cut, either/or alternatives. “It has to be either x or y, so let’s go to the Bible to decide which it is.” Salvation has to be by faith (the right answer) or by works (the wrong answer). Sanctification is either distinct from justification (the right answer) or the same as justification (the wrong answer). The atonement has to be either limited or unlimited. (On this one we disagree about which is the right answer.) A true believer either can or cannot lose his/her salvation. (Here again we disagree about which is the right answer.) On these points and countless others, we usually accept the questions the way they are presented to us, and we inquire of the Scriptures to see which of the options is right.
When we read the great thinkers of the early church, however, we find that they often had a different way of posing the issues than we do. Rather than arguing over whether salvation was by faith or by works, they demonstrated their complete reliance on Christ by talking about him, rather than about their own faith or their own works. They regarded both justification andsanctification as things that God gives us at the beginning of salvation, and they defined both as the righteousness that we receive when we are united to Christ, who is the righteous one. And their whole conception of the atonement was one in which the question of limited vs. unlimited could not even arise.
My point here is not that we should necessarily follow the way the early church described Christianity. Rather, it is that by reading the church fathers, we gain another vantage point from which to look at Scripture. By seeing the Bible through their eyes, we can also see the way our own history has shaped the way we inquire of Scripture, the kinds of questions we ask of the Bible. What we think the Bible means is shaped by what the church has said the Bible means. Thus, understanding the history that has led our branch of the church to ask the questions we ask, and also gaining potential insights from Christians who had a different set of questions, can help us move closer to understanding the Bible fully, comprehensively, and accurately.
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.