Why Study the Church Fathers?

Reformation 21 (the online magazine of Alliance of Confession Evangelicals) recently released their latest issue which asks the question, “Why Study the Church Fathers?”  Dr. Michael Haykin has written the feature article as well as a test case entitled “Basil of Caesarea on Abortion.”  I became a huge fan of reading the Church Fathers after my Intro to Church History class with Dr. Tom Nettles where we were required to read four selections from the early patristics.  After the semester, I invested in the Church Fathers set and found it to be one of the best and (I believe) wisest purchases I have ever made. 

Yesterday, Carl Trueman and and Phil Ryken chimed in as well, offering more incentives for reading the Church Fathers.  Here are their reasons:

Carl Trueman:

1. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are basically hammered out in the early church.  By tracing the controversies, we can learn how and why the creedal formulations of these doctrines is important.

2. The pre-Constantinian context of much patristic theology offers a paradigm of how Christians can operate as a minority in a hostile or indifferent society.  I am often struck by the difference between the early church apologists approach to the Roman Empire (`don’t persecute us because Christians actually make the best citizens’) with the modern approach of `don’t mess with us, we’re Christians’ where Christianity can sometimes look like little more than a cultural idiom for protesting Communism, secularism etc.

3. The very alien nature of the world in which the Fathers operated challenges us to think more critically about oruselves in our own context.  We may not, for example, sympathise much with radically ascetic monasticism; but when we understand it as a fourth century answer to the age old question of what a committed Christian looks like at a time when it is starting to be easy and respectable, we can at least use it as an anvil on which to hammer out our own contemporary response to such a question.

4. As Protestants, we cannot claim to understand the historical development of our own tradition unless we come to terms with patristic theology: Luther, Calvin, Owen and company were deeply read and heavily influenced by patristic writings.

If I had my time over again, I would have studied patristics rather than Reformation; the evangelical Protestant world has a dearth of good patristic scholars.  Michael Haykin and Don Fairbairn are notable exceptions; but we have not done well in this field as a whole; and we have neglected it to our own impoverishment. 

Phil Ryken:

1. The Church Fathers have a more constant concern for the poor — an emphasis sometimes lacking in contemporary evangelicalism.

2. The Church Fathers placed a prominent emphasis on the resurrection — not just Good Friday, but also Easter — not just the cross, but also the empty tomb.  This too is is sometimes missing in the church today.

3. The Church Fathers remind us how far the church has come in some areas of theology and exegesis.  Their frequent flights of allegorical fancy (with some notable exceptions, including Cyril of Alexandria and John Chrysostom) make us more than grateful for a more method that is more rooted in the best traditions of grammatical-historical exegesis.

I typically try to read at least one patristic source for any sermon series I am preaching, a practice greatly helped, I must say by the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. 

Now, I am not going to pretend to be an expert in the Patristics, but I would like to add one other very important reason why you should read the Church Fathers.  You should read them because almost every modern heresy and threat to the gospel will attempt to appeal to one or more Church Fathers as an authority and means of legitimizing their position or appeal for orthodoxy.  For universalists, they would turn to Origen; for inclusivists, Irenaus and Justin Martyr’s Logos Christology; for Open Theists, Tertullian.  I could go on, but you get the point.  Furthermore, if you go here you will see that the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions in their defense of penal substitutionary atonement mined deep into the Patristics, and even have provided some texts on their website.

You may be thinking, “Well, I am not a full-time seminary student, especially not a church historian.”  That’s precisely my point.  The Church Fathers should not belong to academia but on the front shelves of your church library and accessible for Sunday School material, teaching preparation, and personal edification.  I am not a church historian and am not where I would like to be in my studies of the Church Fathers.  But I am beginning – and learning – and appreciating how the Holy Spirit has directed the Church, how Christ has built His Church, and how the Father has providentially worked in the Church for His glory throughout all generations, not the least of which are those who were immediate successors of the apostolic age. 

So I conclude with a desire of some feedback.  For those of you who have read any of the Church Fathers, let me ask:

1.  Who is your favorite Church Father?
2.  What is your favorite work?
3.  In your own opinion, why should other Christians read the Church Fathers?

BONUS: Can you guess what Church Father this is?

In a day where chronological snobbery is so rampant and novelty appraised for assumed relevance, we need Christians who will take the challenge to learn from the Church Fathers and more importantly how Christ through His Church has changed the world.

Explore posts in the same categories: Church History

7 Comments on “Why Study the Church Fathers?”

  1. John Fariss Says:

    I’m not sure I have a favorite; but my reason for studying them is that to ignore them is to deny that the Holy Spirit spoke to any generation except the apostolic and our own! And that is the height of narcissism.

  2. Jim Patterson Says:

    The Church Fathers need to be read and digested. At the same time, it needs to be recognized that there is considerable diversity among the Fathers. In addition, several of them make some pretty wild statements (e.g., on women). My favorite is Augustine, but I am not comfortable with his sacramentalism and sacerdotalism. He also fell short on the doctrine of justification–the Reformers clearly articulated a more Pauline understanding than Augustine (or any of the Church Fathers, for that matter). So as with all of church history, we need to read the Fathers in a balanced way, recognizing both strengths and weaknesses. I fear that some have become so enamored with the Fathers that they have lost any critical perspective.

  3. James L Says:

    Is Chrysostom considered an early father? He was a pretty hard core believer. I picked up a copy of one of his sermons and he chided believers for attendance at satan’s festivals (sporting events), as I remember. I would like to know how they hammered out justification by faith alone in Christ alone,etc. I’m not a preacher but Chrysostom definitely intrigues me.

  4. James,

    Indeed Chrysostom is a Church Father and a great preacher as well. It’s great to see that you have picked him up (not literally, but allegorically, as the Church Fathers do).

  5. Dr. Patterson,

    You said, So as with all of church history, we need to read the Fathers in a balanced way, recognizing both strengths and weaknesses. I fear that some have become so enamored with the Fathers that they have lost any critical perspective.

    Very good word. It is common, I suppose, to swing the pendulum from one extreme to another, from silencing the Church Fathers in dismissal to praising the Church Fathers in blind acceptance.

    I think we have a vantage point of 2000 years of church history and heirs of the Reformation to look back at the Church Fathers with disappointment with some of their statements (such as Justin speaking of Christians being anyone who has the Logos). It is also worth mentioning that their defining and defending cardinal truths and orthodoxy came much in reation to heresy (via negativa) rather than a positive articulation of the faith. Perhaps we should tread with sensitivity to the Church Fathers and their errors while appreciating the things they have said and done as successors of the apostolic age.

    So if I understand you correctly, you are calling for discernment and fair criticism in reading the Church Fathers. If that indeed is the case, I agree completely. Obviously, they are not our authority no more than Luther, Calvin, or any other modern-day Christian. But I think we would all agree that there is much that we can learn from them. For all those who are reading Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, I would love to hand them Athanasius On the Incarnation and the like. 🙂

  6. Matt Says:


    Tread very carefully with the Church Fathers. It was at Southern Seminary, in a patristics class with Dr. Blaising, that I discovered some very important truths.

    If you read too much in Church history, study too much the writings of those who still had the voices of the apostles ringing in their ears and put yourself too much under the tutelage of those ancient and holy Church Fathers, you might not be able to remain in the SBC. You might come to understand that “To be deep in history, is to cease to be Protestant.”

    Case in point, read what the Church Fathers taught about the Eucharist then read John Chapter 6 and ask yourself who has left Christ because of this hard teaching? Then, if you really want to make trouble for yourself, study the formation of the canon. Read the Councils texts that settled the Canon, taking care to look at their lists for both new and old testaments.

    Dig deep and noli timere,


  7. Matt,

    Thanks for the Patristic police patrol. 🙂

    Seriously, I will heed your concern and as always hold the words of men up to the Word of God.

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