The Value of Reading Our Church Fathers

Church-Fathers-2

Joey Cochran served as the High School Pastor at Fellowship Bible Church Tulsa for four years before transitioning to serve as the Resource Pastor at Cross Community Chicago, a plant of The Village Church. He is a graduate of Dallas Seminary. Joey blogs regularly at jtcochran.com. Follow @joeycochran on Twitter.


History has always fascinated me. In studying history we discover where we come from and how we got here. We observe progress. We also observe errors repeated. Most often, when errors of the past repeat it is because we forgot the past.

In RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith, Dr. Michael Svigel, Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, warns, “It only takes one negligent generation to forget the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the entire history of the church” (Svigel, 50).

Do we run the risk of being that generation? To protect from this error, it is wise to read those who came before us, especially the Church Fathers.

Most scholars agree that the Church Fathers are the men who wrote during the beginnings of the Church up to medieval times. These are our earliest leaders. They lived closer to Christ’s time and offer solidarity to scripture’s message. The earliest of these men sat at the feet of our New Testament writers.

There is wealth in reading these writings. Here are three values of reading the Church Fathers:

Value 1: We learn from the Church Fathers’ challenges

In reading the Church Fathers, we read of the battles they fought. The creeds and the council’s primary purpose were to eradicate erred doctrine. Much of these writings were apologetic. The writer’s responded to those who perpetuated false-doctrine.

Justin, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian wrote against Gnoticism and Marcionism. Athanasius championed Trinitarianism against Arianism. The Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, Greggory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus) wrote against Arianism and Apollinarianism. Augustine wrote against Pelagianism.

Yes, a lot of big words and no time to explain. It seems overwhelming, doesn’t it? Likely, you have heard these terms but may not know the meaning. Does knowing about these controversies matter today?

Let’s use Marcionism as an example. Marcion believed the Old Testament God is different from the New Testament God. He depicted the Hebrew God as a wrathful tyrant.

Does anyone do this today? Absolutely! New Atheists do. They argue that the Old Testament God is different from the New Testament God. They challenge God’s justice and question his character. Fundamentally, they attempt to convince us towards Marcionism as a gateway to the path of Secular Humanism.

Do you see the value of reading the Church Father’s now? The New Atheist argument against the justice of God is not new. The Church travels a trodden path blazed by the Church Fathers. Reading the Church Fathers prepares us for what’s ahead.

Value 2: We learn from the Church Fathers’ errors

Reading requires spiritual discernment. Whether reading John Piper, Aaron Armstrong, or Augustine, we must measure the writing against the scripture’s veracity.

Augustine is an excellent example. We agree with much of his writing. His views of the Trinity, Christ, and Grace are foundational for our faith. So much rich doctrine is built on his foundational writings.

Yet, many of us would disagree with his viewpoint of the afterlife.

Read him here:

…it is for those who, having been regenerated in Christ, did not spend their life so wickedly that they can be judged unworthy of such compassion, nor so well that they can be considered to have no need of it. As also, after the resurrection, there will be some of the dead to whom, after they have endured the pains proper to the spirits of the dead, mercy shall be accorded, and acquittal from the punishment of the eternal fire. (City of God, Book 21 Chapter 14)

Augustine believed in purgatory. Protestants see no evidence for this doctrine. We consider this an erred perspective.

Reading the Church Fathers reminds us that we are but men flawed and erred. We will not articulate God’s Word perfectly. This humbles us. If giants like Augustine had erred views, we must hold our novel notions loosely.

Value 3: We glean gold from the Church Fathers’ study

Gleanings of gold await readers of the Church Fathers. Yes, the Church Fathers are blemished writers, but they have rich perspective. These men are thinkers and offer much to today’s reader.

Here are three gleanings from Augustine:

There is a joy that is not granted to the wicked, but only to those who worship you for your own sake, and for whom you yourself are joy.

No man has a right to lead such a life of contemplation as to forget in his own ease the service due to his neighbour; nor has any man a right to be so immersed in active life as to neglect the contemplation of God.

The faith will totter if the authority of the Holy Scriptures loses its hold on men. We must surrender ourselves to the authority of Holy Scripture, for it can neither mislead nor be misled.

Value the Church Fathers

Do not let the Church Fathers’ writings go untouched. Value their writing! Learn from the doctrinal battles they waged. Learn from their errors. Glean the gold from their pens.

If you have not read the Church Fathers I recommend starting with these two works:

You may also want to purchase William Placher’s Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 1: From Its Beginnings to the Eve of the Reformation.