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

Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 2

December 07, 2011

Dr. Donald Fairbairn

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.




Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , biblically-grounded , current students , equipping leaders for the church and society , faculty blogger

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Dr. Donald, your post helps me to maintain my observation about the church history in relation to the Authority of the bible. The way the Church fathers described Christianity has a valuable contribution to the present biblical interpretation. I gain knowledge to see the church fathers through the question of “how they have been responding the matter of the Authority of the Bible?’’
Seleshi Andarge 1:28PM 01/07/13

Why Reformation Day?

October 31, 2011

Peter D. Anders

Reformation Day is an occasion for reflecting on the importance of the historical event of the Protestant Reformation. Although the actual observance is typically transferred to the Sunday (called Reformation Sunday) on or before October 31, its focus is on this date as the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. This dispute over the church’s practice of selling indulgences launched what became the call for broad reforms of Christian faith and practice that have defined Protestantism ever since.

There are certainly many distinctives of our Protestant Christian faith that are worthy of renewed appreciation on this special day. The reaffirmation and recentering of the authority of the Word of God over the Church is probably the most basic. This was the basis for the fundamental shift to how we now understand Christianity in connection with the Word of God as a personal encounter with God through union with Jesus Christ our risen Lord in the power of the Spirit who quickens and heals us by making Christ’s benefits our own. This reform turned the focus from what occurs within us in a sacramental view of salvation, to that which takes place outside of us in God’s own work of forensic justification. Here our reflection on Scripture alone leads us to the other liberating insights we inherited from the Reformation: grace alone; faith alone; by Christ’s work alone; and to the glory of God alone.

Our Christian practice also has many distinctives that follow from the Reformation. The recovery of an affirmative attitude toward the world is probably the most basic. This resulted from the Reformation’s renewed emphasis on the distinction between justification and sanctification. The reform shifted focus from meritorious works seen as essential to being in the state of grace, to a new understanding that embraces God’s promise in the gospel as giving us what his commands in the law require. This has made us perfectly free to turn our full attention to dutiful service where our works of love overflow to needy neighbors, whom we are enabled to serve as a church that is a priesthood of believers. Here our reflection on the value of the God-given vocations of everyday life leads us to a renewed appreciation of the Reformation’s high regard for the idea of just government and human rights; for the rights of women; for the value of the family and of marriage; of Christian activism in politics, involvement in the marketplace and in music and art; and for the study of science.

Why Reformation Day? Because we Protestants have inherited a great tradition that should not be taken for granted. We should pause to reflect on it, to appreciate it, and to become reacquainted with it. This is the tradition that has formed us as Christians. It is the tradition we confess, the tradition we live, and the tradition we will advance and ultimately bequeath to those who come after us.

Professor Peter D. Anders is an Instructor in Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, MA. His academic work includes research in political science and international relations regarding the state of Christianity and the Christian church under the Marxist-Leninist governments of Eastern Europe and the USSR. He is also a contributing scholar to Modern Reformation.

Tags: Author: Peter D. Anders , biblically-grounded , faculty blogger , thoughtfully evangelical

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Abram, Thanks for your response to my brief comments concerning Reformation Day. Of course you are right in pointing out that, when compared to the perspective of a more egalitarian Protestantism today, these types of statements are unacceptable. However, in many ways the practice of the Reformers, particularly in Calvin's Geneva, was very progressive in affirming the rights of women in terms of issues like divorce, and in affirming the value of the new contributions women were empowered to make in both the church and society (and not merely the home). Surely it has taken time for a full inclusion of women in the life and ministry of the church, as well as in society, and we are still not there yet. But I think it's right to be reminded that the trajectory of the work of the Reformation has led in large part to the gains we have made today, and it's in that tradition that we agree, "once reformed, always reforming."
Peter Anders 11:34AM 11/05/11
I'm not so sure about "the Reformation’s high regard for...the rights of women." (Although I guess it depends on what the author of the post means by "rights.") Luther: "Take women from their housewifery, and they are good for nothing." Calvin: "I therefore conclude that Mary was sent to the disciples in general; and I consider that this was done by way of reproach, because they had been so slow and sluggish to believe. And, indeed, they deserve not only to have women for their teachers, but even oxen and asses, for the Son of God had been teaching them long and laboriously." Knox: "Nature I say, doth paint [women] further to be weak, frail, impatient, feeble and foolish: and experience hath declared them to be inconstant, variable, cruel and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment.” And so on. Regarding the affirmation of the *dignity* of women and of the image of God in them, I think the reformers still had a long way to go. But I suppose this is one of those places where "once reformed, always reforming" comes into play....
Abram 7:14PM 11/01/11
Great post, Dr. Anders. Thanks for delineating how the Reformation "has made us perfectly free to turn our full attention to dutiful service..." I have not heard that aspect of the Reformation parsed out so clearly before. Very insightful!
Brian Gronewoller 2:38PM 11/01/11