November 18, 2011
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.