Gordon-Conwell Blog

Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 4

March 16, 2012

Dr. Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 4 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; Part 2 here; Part 3 here.

Why should evangelicals care about the early church, about the first several centuries after the end of the New Testament? Another reason why we should take that period seriously is that the church fathers had a very different way of reading the Bible from the way we are taught to read it, and we may have something to learn from their interpretation.

Modern Bible study methods focus on “reading out” the message of each passage by focusing on the context to that passage—the history, the culture, the language. Such study methods implore us to avoid “reading in” any pre-conceived ideas that might corrupt the message of that text. In contrast, the church fathers read every passage of Scripture in light of the major thrust of Scripture, the single story they believe the Bible is telling. And that story, according to the vast majority of the church fathers, is the story of Christ. So they see the whole Bible—down to every last passage of the Old Testament—as a story about Christ. To state the contrast simply, we read from the narrow to the broad—from the meaning of each individual passage to the whole message of the Bible. They read from the broad to the narrow—reading each passage in light of what they think the whole Bible is about.

In light of this difference, we might accuse the church fathers of reading their own ideas into the texts—and we would be right in this accusation (at least in some cases). But before we are too quick to criticize, we should recognize that our narrow-to-broad method of Bible study emerged among modern scholars who did not believe the Bible was a unified book. They saw—and still do see—the Bible as a series of rather disparate stories that are not necessarily consistent with each other. So those scholars do not consider the big story of the Bible to be relevant to the question of what each individual passage means. Only the historical, cultural, and literary context of that passage is relevant to that passage’s interpretation.

When we look at the matter this way, we recognize that we evangelicals share the early church’s assumption and disagree with the modern liberal assumption. Unlike our colleagues in the liberal academy, we believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible, that it tells a single story, that it is a unity. It is thus ironic that we sometimes use a method of biblical interpretation unwittingly borrowed from scholars who do not believe the Bible is a unity, a method that focuses narrowly on the background to each passage, without as much attention to the broader context of the whole Bible.

If we do in fact share the church fathers’ assumption about the unity of Scripture, should we not take another look at the fathers’ interpretation of the Bible? When we read their interpretation, much of it seems very far-fetched, like finding Christ in minute details of the Old Testament, and I do not for a moment want to condone such exegetical excess. What I do want to commend, though, is the fathers’ attitude toward the Bible. It is a single book, given by God, telling a single story, and that story is ultimately about Christ. They believed that, and so do we. Because they believed that, they proceeded from the big picture to the details, from Christ to the individual passages, in their interpretation of Scripture. We usually do not do that. But should we?

Whether we adopt very many of the fathers’ specific interpretations of Old Testament passages or not, their focus on Christ can remind us that we too can and should make Christ the center of all our biblical interpretation. And the church fathers can also open our eyes to the possibility that there are more connections between the Old Testament and Christ than we typically see, even if there are not as many legitimate connections as they find. Thus, early church biblical interpretation has some important lessons to teach us about the Bible, lessons we might not learn without paying attention to the church fathers.

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 , biblically-grounded , equipping leaders for the church and society , faculty blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

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It is my first time hearing such difference among the church fathers and the contemporary evangelicals in interpreting the bible. In my understanding if they were not based on the central message “Christ”, they might accept other scripts in the canon and creates a great confusion. God never let His divine agenda to vanish. But, He uses His people according to His plan throughout the time. He knows how to use the early church fathers and us. At this time we might not interpret having in mind to elevate ‘Christ’, but our interpretation using history, the culture, and the language finally should have a message in connection with The Father The Son and The Holy Spirit. If and otherwise the interpretation has something wrong. The Bible is the story of the work of God, Son and The Spirit. I agree we should learn from church Fathers.Dr. God bless you I have got a new understanding.
Seleshi Andarge 2:10AM 01/15/13
Happy Easter.... Thanks for the post on reading from the best book:)
Ken Jensen 12:56PM 04/08/12

The Seminary Wife: Here I Am; Send Me

March 13, 2012

Jessica Haberkern

I never imagined that I’d call New England home, and yet this morning I am here. The sun greets me by melting the frost gathered like crystals in the corners of my windowpane and casts shadows from the birch trees onto my bed. A few weeks ago, the scene was different—I had a job and friends and a loft situated in the heart of a concrete jungle. Now I am living on the campus of a seminary, which is as foreign to me as taking up residence at a convent.

I remember the day my husband told me he wanted to quit his career as a motion graphic designer and go to seminary. We were on an afternoon stroll through the park behind our street. The heat lingering over the sidewalk rivaled the stagnancy of our marriage. Not seeing eye to eye was new to us, and the summer had felt like a disaster. Seminary, I said, us? I fumbled over the words strung together, but I sensed that my husband was right.

We were both frustrated with detaching our Sundays from the workweek—Christian one day and ordinary members of society another. Sure, we read our Bibles, a lot in fact. We engaged in ministry and attended small groups. We prayed together and occasionally brought food to the homeless and jobless on our street. Still, something was missing, and its gaping hole was growing wider.

We had assembled our lives like giant puzzle pieces, arranging the God-piece where we thought it fit. Our foundation was in Christ, yes, but the rest of our puzzle created a picture of us. How do I want to follow Jesus? What does God want me to do? These questions were legitimate, but through trying to serve God on our terms, we were only serving ourselves.

In his book Radical, writer David Platt says that if you ask the average American Christian to summarize the message of his or her faith, the response will go something like this: God loves me enough to send His Son Jesus to die for me. Sounds good, right? But that’s not all, Platt argues. “The message of biblical Christianity is not ‘God loves me, period,’ as if we were the object of our own faith,” he writes. That account of the Christian narrative stops short of the full story. Instead, the message of Christianity is “God loves me so that I might make Him—His ways, His salvation, His glory, and His greatness—known among all nations.”

God loves me so that I can make His name known. How simple of a truth. I am not the end of the gospel, God is. And yet how often do I need to be reminded that all of my puzzle pieces should reflect the glory of Christ Jesus.

My husband and I are not the first people to have uprooted our life to attend seminary. We are not special in that sense. Nearly every family in our new home has experienced some sort of reckoning, either by leaving a job or church or simply abandoning their plans at the feet of Jesus. I pray, though, that as my husband and I enter into community and classes and begin to reshape our life around God’s word, that we would do so in the crux of the gospel truth. Every circumstance in my life up until this very moment has occurred to make His name known. That is my story. It is my husband’s story, and it is yours.

Sometimes I’m prone to think that the writers of scripture wrestled with different questions than I. Surely the fathers of our faith weren’t surrounded with uncertainty about their direction or purpose! And then I page through their words and discover that they were often just as lost. Though there are many stories of encouragement in the scriptures, I find Isaiah’s particularly pertinent to my current season of life. In Isaiah 6, God is holding court with His angels. They are in intense discussion. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah overhears God (6:8).

Notice that God did not single out Isaiah and beg—His will illuminated in flashing lights—or even charge Isaiah with the call to go. Isaiah is privy to God’s heavenly conversation because he is still and quiet and found in prayer. “Whether or not [we] hear God’s call depends on the state of [our] ears,” Oswald Chambers says.

Lend an attentive ear to the throne. What plans does God have in the works? Are you willing to say, here I am Lord, send me? The gospel, after all, does not end with you or me. It ends with Christ, His name glorified.

Are you listening?

—The Seminary Wife

Jessica Haberkern is a creative writer and violinist once local to Atlanta. She teaches writing for Ashford University’s online program and writes for The Oxford American, In Touch, and Scoutmob, among other publications. She chronicles her and [her uber cool] husband’s eats + beats on their blog, thehaberkerns.tumblr.com.

Tags: Author: Jessica Haberkern , current students , thoughtfully evangelical

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Jessica I just read your article in Charles Stanley's In Touch A Life to Overcome / Writing A Different Success Story... I loved the article and know that you and your husband Christian will do wonderful work and give God and Jesus the Glory.. Just writing to send you congrat's and I will keep you both in my prayers for your Journey.
Catherine "Kitty" Green 11:57PM 06/09/12
As a seminary wife (in her last few weeks as such) at a reformed seminary on the opposite coast, I still really resonated with what you had to say here! Thank you for sharing. I actually stumbled across this while writing a post of my own reflecting on the past three years of seminary life. You have a lot of great and challenging things ahead of you! May God be glorified as you go through them. Blessings, Katie
Katie Chappell 11:39AM 04/05/12
Thanks for the encouragement, Debbie. Your ministry has been inspiring to many women, including myself and my mom! It's a great reminder that God's adventures are better than anything we could conjure up on our own. Beth: It sounds like THAT guy needed a class to teach him how to treat his wife! Of course every outer appearance has a back story. Fortunately, my mister is a rock star of a husband--encouraging and kind and my best friend. Embracing the role of seminary wife has been a total joy because coming to seminary is not just his story. Before we even moved, we knew that God was calling us as a team. Christian was adamant about supporting my ventures in Atlanta, and he continues to be my biggest cheerleader in New England. I love that you said, "God comes to every person just as he came to Abraham." For me, that's a reminder that students and spouses of seminarians are both pioneers, living out the unique call God has charted for their life.
Jessica Haberkern 2:13PM 03/15/12
It's hard enough to answer your own call to go to seminary! It must also be difficult to answer the call of being a seminary wife! Personallly, I think there needs to be a class on how to treat your spouse, draw out your spouse's gifts and ministries and meet her/his needs. I remember one wife begging her husband who had already graduated to leave the library and talk with her. He refused, holding a book, and she cried. After she left I really let him have it and told him to get out of the library and put his arms around her. He would not. Yes, it's hard to study but it's hard to be quiet and pay the bills for someone who is studying. And as I remember, it's hard to do both as a single person. I watched the movie the Bible in a theater long ago. I realized as the only person in the audience that God comes to every person just as he came to Abraham et all. Our response is just as breathtaking and difficult and consequential as his. I was contacted by a man whom God is calling to Myanmar and he's looking to gather resources. I helped as I could but ended with, "Congratulations on being a pioneer!"
Beth Turner 1972 M-Div 11:47PM 03/13/12
Your mom just forwarded this to me!!! I say AMEN to everything you said! Hearing God's call on my life 44 years ago....and saying YES has been the greatest adventure of gloriflying God and making Him known. Praying for you and Christian and love following your journey together! Love, Debbie
Debbie McGoldrick 6:21PM 03/13/12

Our Seminary Experience: Virtual Tour of Hamilton Campus

March 01, 2012

Take a look at our beautiful Hamilton campus and learn a little about our rich history. If you're a prospective student, take advantage of our hospitality with a visit to campus which includes complimentary travel to and from the airport, meals, and housing for up to two days. Call an Admissions Representative at 1-800-428-7329 or click here to schedule a visit.

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Such a beautiful and serene place! it's really inviting.
Yvonne R.Munama 8:43PM 03/25/12

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