Recently on twitter I suggested a number of reasons why there are relatively few Evangelicals involved in Patristics as an academic field. I felt that it wouldn’t be a waste of time to expand some of those thoughts into more considered reflections (as did Brandon Smith)
Saying that, these are big generalisations. There are evangelicals in patristics, and there are obviously exceptions to my observations. Moreover, I write from a particular perspective; I observe American Evangelicalism primarily from a distance, and the term “evangelical” itself can be a problematic nomenclature. However, I’d rather deal with caveats post-factum.
One of the reasons there aren’t many evangelicals in patristics is because of a strong, prevailing tendency among evangelicals about who counts as a Christian and how the Church History story ‘goes’. Those tendencies is that (a) only people with a genuine personal converted faith in Jesus Christ are Christians, (b) failure to articulate a doctrine of justification by faith alone contradicts (a), (c) that after the New Testament the church ‘fell’ and lost its genuine grasp on a salvific doctrine of faith, and (d) that doctrine, and so genuine belief, was only rediscovered at the Reformation (or worse yet, the birth of your denomination!).
If you read history like this, and you do theology like this, then you can understand why, even if evangelicals don’t say this, they may well act like it’s true – that there were New Testament believers, and then there were Roman Catholics (because protestants tend to read themselves over against Roman Catholicism), and they all believed in justification by works, and then there was the Reformation. So why would we bother doing Patristics when it’s just reading the works of Roman Catholics we know are a priori wrong anyway?
The problems in this ought to be painfully apparent, and if you’re reading this you’re almost certainly predisposed to agree with me anyway. Nonetheless, let me articulate the fundamental flaws in this way of thinking.
- This is very poor historiography. It doesn’t take seriously the history of the early church, it doesn’t engage early Christian theology, it refuses to engage or else prejudges everything between 90 and 1517 AD.
- This is a poor theology of God’s sovereignty and of the church. Do you really think that the Church disappeared for 1500 years?
- It renders Protestantism a historically groundless de novo movement.
- It severs all connection with conciliar Christianity. That is, why would you affirm the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople, and the Chalcedonian Definition, if you thought they were penned by heretics?
- It turns Justification by Faith alone into “Justification by an explicit mentally-assented doctrine of Justification by Faith alone”; which is Protestant’s Gnosticism. If you think that justification is by faith, then you cannot make a criterion of that to be an explicit knowledge and affirmation of that same doctrine a salvific requirement without undermining your own doctrine. This, by the way, is the grounds on which evangelicals can engage in genuine ecumenism.
Evangelicals have a strong, related tendency to think of Patristics as “Catholic” or “Orthodox”, which is a half-truth at best. It is true that within those traditions, a higher degree of importance and authority is placed on early church authors. And it is true that the academic landscape of Patristics has, in the past, generally been dominated by scholars coming out of those traditions. But it is not somehow “exclusively” their dominion, despite what some apologists out of those traditions claim, and despite how evangelicals themselves distance Patristics from theology.