Christopher A. Hall, Why Read the Fathers?


Jerome, Augustine, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, Origen, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Cyril of Alexandria, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Ambrose, Gregory the Great. For some of us the names are familiar. Perhaps memories of a past Western civilization or church history course come to mind. We have read Augustine’s Confessions or sections of The City of God. Yet the passage of time has blurred our memory or dampened our enthusiasm for the personalities and world of the early church.
Maybe our recollection of past attempts to understand a church father’s writing discourages us. We recall the desire to explore an early Christian text, yet remember the terrible dullness of plowing through translations that obscured more than opened patristic perspectives to us. On the one hand, we say to ourselves, surely there is a reason why Augustine’s name keeps turning up in print. On the other hand, too often Augustine’s writing and world remain hidden to us, veiled behind cultural barriers, hermeneutical idiosyncrasies, incomprehensible translations and confusing theological controversies. The same could be said of lesser-known personalities such as Jerome or Basil.
For others, the church fathers represent a vast unknown, unexplored territory. Questions proliferate. What is a church father? Did all early Christian leaders receive this designation? If not, how did one qualify to be called a father? Why should we take the time to read them? Were they not all wild allegorizers? Did they really understand the gospel? Or did their Greek and Roman background distort the gospel beyond recognition?
Can the Fathers Be Trusted?
Protestant readers might be particularly suspicious at this point. Can the fathers be trusted? Weren’t most of them Roman Catholic or Orthodox? Didn’t they believe in salvation by works? Isn’t their understanding of the gospel more Greek or Roman than Christian? For many inquirers, the image of wild-eyed, legalistic, imbalanced ascetics quickly surfaces, fomenting suspicions.
Indeed, the trustworthiness of the fathers remains a fundamental question for Christians from many different backgrounds. Will the fathers lead us astray? Did they read the Bible well? Or did their own cultural and religious blind spots prevent them from clearly comprehending the heart of the gospel? For many Protestant Christians there is a deep suspicion that the abuses of late medieval Roman Catholicism find their seeds in the thoughts of the fathers themselves. Does not Martin Luther himself question “what good it does to rely on the venerable old Fathers, who have been approved through such a long succession of ages. Were not they too all equally blind, or rather, did they not simply overlook the clearest and most explicit statements of Paul?”
And yet the same Luther who seems ready to discard the fathers consistently interacts with them throughout his work, particularly relying on the insights of Augustine. Perhaps we are more faithful to Luther if we examine carefully his own methodology in reading the Scripture with the fathers. He is not reluctant to criticize them when he feels they are in error. Simultaneously, though, Luther listens carefully to their voices and praises them when he feels they interpret Scripture correctly.

from Hall, C. A. Reading scripture with the church Fathers. Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press.

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