Read the Fathers

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Why Read: Megan V.

[This post is the first in what we hope will be a series of posts by readers explaining why they want to take on reading the church fathers. Megan V. draws from Mark Noll, Augustine, and T. S. Eliot to explain what has brought her to patristics. If you are interested in contributing a similar post (details here), please send us a note. —LAM]

A tree through a dirty window

 And He spoke a parable unto them. (Luke 18:1)

In an old country house, there was a window that looked out on a tall tree. The house’s owner would come and look through the window at the tree.  He could see the tree clearly, from its roots to its crown, because the window was kept clean and clear. Then the owner died, and no one came to the house for seventy years. No one cleaned the window, and it grew very dusty. Spiderwebs crisscrossed its surface. At last, a young woman came to the house. She reached the window and looked out, but the grime that covered the window after seventy years so obscured the tree that she could see only its shadow.

Just so, I have come to realize that the two thousand years between the early church and the contemporary one obscure (and sometimes even distort) my sight of the Christian faith. As seventy years covered the window with dust and cobwebs, so twenty centuries have covered the faith with so many political maneuvers, crusades, national re-awakenings and reformations, and even benign changes in the church service or Bible reading that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between biblical doctrine and recent historical tradition. Ultimately, this is the reason why I am planning to read the Fathers: to see more clearly how Christianity was meant to be experienced, which is not necessarily how we experience it today.

Last spring, I read Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. It was Noll who pointed out to me most clearly that what some people would consider ‘simple biblical truth’ (120) is in fact a recent invention, made popular by its historical and cultural contexts.

For example, I was raised premillenialist, and so as a child I assumed that believers way back to Paul accepted this position because it was ‘simple biblical truth.’ Not so. Premillenialism is popular in part because evangelials leaned heavily on its doctrines in order to cope with the massive social changes in 1800s America, such as increasing secularization and the Industrial Revolution. Timothy Weber suggests that “the premillenialist view of the future provided both a blessed hope and a way of understanding why things were going so badly. There [was] an ironic comfort in knowing that centuries ago, the Bible predicted this mess.” (qtd Noll 120). Its theological truth aside, there is no doubt that premillenialism was emphasized as important Christian doctrine partly because it spoke to an important emotional need two hundred years ago.

To take a less-doctrinal example, consider the chapters and verses added to Scripture. Noll points out that readers who rely on these for Bible study risk confusing actual biblical truth with human interpretation, necessarily added along with chapters and verses in the 1500s (134). To stop reading and start reading at what are sometimes arbitrary and always human divisions of God’s word is about as useful to good interpretation as chopping Michaelangelo’s David into twenty pieces for art appreciation. What was meant to be appreciated and understood as a whole is subdivided into so many little pieces that the original meaning is sometimes lost altogether. I re-read Galatians several years ago, and, finishing the book in a single sitting, I saw more clearly than ever before the stress Paul lays on Christian liberty. Yes, reading Galatians a few verses or chapters at a time is often more practical, and the verses were added for a legitimate need: the need to locate passages of Scripture easily and quickly. But their legitimate purpose does not change the fact that the chapter-and-verse divisions are a historical tradition, one which not only helps but also hinders believers’ ability to understand their faith.

In giving these examples, I am not trying to convince you to give up a belief in premillenialism or to seek out a Bible in which the chapter and verse divisions have been erased. To argue theological truth or hermeneutical practice is far beyond the scope of my post! No, my hope is point out that history does not wash over us, like waves over a rock, and leave us unchanged. Christian practice has been adapted and re-adapted to meet the particular needs of the moment, again and again within the last two thousand years. Yes, much crucial doctrine has been left intact, but there are also areas in which our understanding has been, like the tree through the dirty window, obscured and distorted by the grime of history.

So, I am back to my original point: In an attempt to ‘clean the window’ and see Christian practice without its historical detritus, I plan to read the early church fathers. Like the house owner who saw the tree through the clean, clear window, the church fathers saw the church grow up in its original cnotext, free of endless historical permutations. No, they were not necessarily closer to God or better able to interpret Scripture than we by virtue of the century in which they lived; we too are ‘guided into all truth’ by God Himself. Yes, the Church Fathers also experienced their faith through culture, but this is a problem that cannot be escaped until Heaven; this side of Paradise, all experience is through culture and time. The Church Father’s culture, not ours, was the original one to Christianity and so the one in which the events and practices and messages of the early church should be understood.

But these limitations should come as no surprise and do not undermine the importance of reading the Fathers: We have been warned that we will understand our faith only ‘through a glass darkly’, and in light of such a warning, it should be our goal to see as clearly as possible. It was the Church Fathers, not us, who stood at the window before it was made dirty by time and saw through it as clearly as human eyes can see. It is the Church Fathers, therefore ,who can help us clear our own vision of the contaminations of historical shifts and see our faith clearly. To read the Fathers is to ‘unweave, unwind, unravel’ the accumulated cultural shifts and confusion of the last two thousand years and see our faith in its appropriate setting, and our God in the culture to which He originally revealed Himself.


* Image courtesy of Flick user thisreidwrites // Creative Commons licensed


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Megan. It’s good to hear what is motivating people to read.

    I find it interesting that our motivations are almost exactly opposite. The motivation you describe could be labeled ‘primitivist’, i.e., we need to get back to the earliest, purest church. That’s a long tradition, older even than the Reformation. T. D. Bozeman captured the idea beautifully in the title of a book: ‘to live ancient lives’.

    But for my own part, I am much less skeptical that the history of the church has been an accumulation of errors. Rather, I think we should expect the church to be growing over time in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, and that believers are better off today precisely because they have a long and honorable tradition. In other words, it seems to me that the best way to be faithful to the church of the apostles is to be faithful to the church of the apostolic fathers, and of the ante-Nicene fathers, and the Nicene fathers, and the post-Nicene fathers, and so on all the way down to the present.

    Our difference just goes to show how much diversity there can be while still finding a shared interest in the fathers of the church. Doubtless, both of our views will be challenged and modified by the actual encounter with the texts.

  2. I love comments: Discussion always clarifies and sharpens my thinking.

    I’m not sure I would describe the history of the church quite as strongly as “an accumulation of errors”: Yes, clarity and doctrine have been lost, but I agree that we have gained a rich legacy from more recent believers and writers (As a literature scholar and teacher, I would be lost without Milton and Eliot.) Nor am I completely comfortable with the label “primitivist”. Much as I am looking forward to reading about our faith in its original context, I do not feel that the modern church should follow some practices for no other reason than that the early church held them (I am sure that you did not mean this, but it is an argument I hear quite often where I am from, and so I wanted to clarify.) Among other things, I do like navigating a Bible with chapters!

    That said, I still believe that essential truths and practices in the Christian church are often obscured by the time periods in which we live. To give a third example, certain groups of Americans have made their faith a deeply political affair. While they are certainly not the first believers ever to do so (witness Dante himself), the politicized version of the faith is sometimes far different from what Christianity should be like. American believers sometimes think that they can change the world for Christ by changing American cultures and laws (I know this, because I was once just such an American.) Important as political action is, I later learned that such action is only tangential to our faith and added by our culture; doing justly and loving mercy is at the heart of it.

    I am deeply grateful for the heritage of Christian saints throughout the ages, as well as the refinements and improvements made in the church. But I am also, as I stated, eager to step out of the cultural confusion for a moment and see my faith more clearly.

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