In a previous post I mentioned the Ancient Christian Doctrine series from IVP which is now well along with five volumes. It is a reference tool to familiarize students and scholars with Patristic theology and viewpoints, based on the Nicene Creed. This is a real gem for scholars and enables NT researchers (like me) to get access easily to basic viewpoints.
In this post, I will briefly deal with the question: WHY BOTHER? I, of course, think it is very important that we ‘bother’ ourselves with the Church Fathers (and Mothers), but I find it useful to address this issue.
1) We have largely ignored the Church Fathers in NT studies because we tend to see the NT period as the most important time of Jesus, his disciples, and the apostles. We tend to idealize those times and presume that what happened later was basically a lot of bickering about ‘theology’. However, without such dialogue and refinement, we wouldn’t be where we are now. Also, as many have pointed out before, we should be careful not to presume life was grand in the earliest period – think of how confused and muddled the Corinthian church was! In any case, that barrier between the NT period and the Patristic period is beginning to crumble, as we see that that boundary is more porous and permeable than once assumed. Part of this recognition owes thanks to a better understanding of the process of the canonization of Scripture. We read the NT and often forget how the NT got to us – through the labor and wisdom of post-NT theologians and leaders. A nice sign of the times is the new journal Early Christianity (Mohr Siebeck) which seeks to reestablish the continuity between NT studies and the early Patristic period.
2) Another important reason to bother with the Church Fathers is that they were truly excellent theologians and readers of Scripture. Now, we are not trained to think like this. For too long, higher criticism taught that we must read the Bible like any other book (and only this way) – without a regula fide, without bias, and pursuing what can be determined by historical and grammatical exegetical methods. However, the Theological Interpretation of Scripture movement (Fowl, Green, Moberly, Hays, Davis, etc…) has realized that the Christian Bible is first and foremost for Christians – Christians who read the Bible as their sacred texts and not as an academic artefact. Thus, theological persuasions are not (always) a liability. In fact, they can be helpful. So, we do not have to ignore the Patristic theologians for their empassioned sermonic readings of Scripture. Rather, we can appreciate that the Spirit teaches and guides all kinds of people in all kinds of places and times and we can be spurred on and taught by them. On this, see especially Brian Daley’s essay ‘Is Patristic Exegesis Still Usable? Some Reflections on Early Christian Interpretation of the Psalms’ in R. Hays and E. Davis (eds.) The Art of Reading Scripture (Eerdmans).
3) In his book Seeing the Word: Refocusing New Testament Study, Markus Bockmuehl argues that NT studies is in a confused state, with so much fragmentation and a bewilderingly enormous set of tools for interpretation to work with. How do we move forward? Bockmuehl has much wise advice, but one important area is early reception history – how was the NT understood and interpreted by its earliest recipients? While we can guess a bit what this was for the original readers/hearers (e.g. for Romans or Philippians), this also includes those earliest theologians that reflected on Scripture. Also, Bockmuehl encourages the study of other forms of reception – early liturgy, art, etc… In any case, we can appreciate the Patristic writers as early interpreters of Scripture.
These are just a few reasons why we can and should bother with the Church Fathers, but there are more reasons that I won’t fully discuss. Certainly, though, advances in technology and the use of the internet is part of the flood of interest – we can access the texts and translations very easily on the web and critical discussions in commentaries through e-books, googlebooks, LOGOS, etc… Finally, I think we are getting to a place where there is more inter-faculty discussion of issues – conferences where ‘theologians’ and ‘Bible scholars’ are in real dialogue. Again, the fact that the recent Wheaton conference on N.T. Wright included Jeremy Begbie and Kevin Vanhoozer is a salutary sign.
I have said this kind of thing before, but it is worth repeating – we must be careful, when we get into patristic study as NT researchers, not to ‘plunder’ the Fathers – that is, just poke around and quote random sentences from a dozen sources and people. This is a very scattershot method that will fall under scrutiny very quickly. Better to ask a Patristic insider to point you in the right direction on a given subject of your interest, pick 2 0r 3 authors and read deeply. Of course, use the IVP sets to get a sense of where the discussions are. But these books are not meant to be the full solution for researchers – they offer quick reference, devotional inspiration, and a bird-eye view of dialogue and development, but they should inspire a pursuit of the sources for deeper understanding.