On Protestant Interest In The Fathers

In the context of a book review by Phil at Hyperekperissou wrote, he made a few comments on free church protestants that I thought were interesting and mostly right. They are worth a read. As a protestant free church guy, here is my experience.

For most in the baptist tradition, at least among Southern Baptists among which I grew up, church history basically started with the NT, stopped with the NT, and began again somewhere around the American revolution. Of course that period wasn’t very important except that they say our founding fathers were Christian and that’s when a lot of good hymns were written. Of course most don’t read the guys of that era. They just talk about them some. It is really kind of a shame. If they read their historical brethren they would see the strong reformed ideas in their ancestors.

It wasn’t till I was introduced to reformed theology that I found out there were those who actually cared about the reformation and the writings and ideas birthed them. In my church there is interest in the writings of the reformers because of its anchoring in the reformed tradition, but such churches are rather rare in baptist circles (though growing, I hear).

Here I quote Phil at length:

This movement is a source of perplexity among many Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox readers, I recognize, because, except for some notable converts, most of these writers remain evangelical and Protestant, while emphasizing the importance of both the Fathers and catholicity in their theology. This perplexity is understandible[sic], of course, because of the aversion that many Protestants, especially those of the free church persuasion (Baptists, Mennonites, non-denominations evangelicals of all varieties), have to reading anything earlier than the Reformers (and, even then, one has to be careful of the magisterial ones). Never mind, that the early Reformers were as ready to scrape about the Fathers and the early Church as any Roman Catholic. Never mind that Protestantism remains very Augustinian in its theology, even if in a different way that Roman Catholics (this being something which drives Eastern Orthodox writers to despair).

So in my experience Phil, you are right, but the percentage actually care enough to read the reformers is smaller than you mention here. And anyone who has read Calvin knows how much he quotes the Fathers...but then again most have not. Now another quote:

I think the important way to review this Protestant patristic revival is that it is often intended as a way to deal with the shortcomings of the free church tradition. Most notably, the Fathers are frequently employed as a prophelactic[sic] against hte[sic] Protestant disease: splitting at the drop of a hat.

I found this one interesting. Of course, he is right that this is a protestant disease, but the thought I actually found interesting was that the revival of interest is intended to help with this issue. Is that right? I have been chalking it up to a more general interest in our early Christian heritage as an attempt to reconnect to our roots, and somewhat related to all the stupid stuff that people keep saying on news specials about the early Christians. I would be interested in seeing why you think that is the case, Phil. I do not know enough people who actually have interests in the Fathers to ask, so my ability to do personal research on this is somewhat limited. This is not the reason for my interest in the Fathers, but I can hardly say I know the reasons of my brethren.


Nick Norelli 2008-02-16 02:35:01

My interest in the Fathers comes from my desire to see how orthodoxy developed over time. My main area of interest of course is the shaping of Trinitarian theology. But from my experience with others, they mostly use the Fathers for proof-texting. It’s just as easy to cite an out of context reference from whatever patristic writer as it is to cite an out of context verse from the Bible and support pretty much any idea you can think of.

Phil Snider 2008-02-16 06:52:12

I’m glad you found the review helpful, although I cringe at every sic! in the quotes. Yikes. I really need an editor.


Eric 2008-02-18 09:02:12


My interest is different as well, which I will be posting on soon. And it is probably easier to cite out of context from a father, because there would be less around who could refute your misquotation.

Eric 2008-02-18 09:02:59

Phil, we all make mistakes :)