Why aren’t there more Evangelicals in Patristics (2): Evangelicals have a deeply problematic tendency to read early church history through a reformation lens.

(See first post in this series here)

Evangelicals, like all Protestants, tend to define themselves in terms of Reformation distinctives, which has its pros and cons. I think the Reformation (re)discovered important theological and biblical truths and rightly called for a reform of the Catholic Church as it then stood in Western Europe. However, it also had the consequence that Protestantism continually defines and locates itself as a movement over/against Roman Catholicism. If Catholicism ended, what would Protestantism be?

It also had and continues to have a debilitating effect on Protestant scholarship more broadly, and Evangelicalism in particular. That is, it has made the Reformation period both normative and norming for historical theology. This is seen, for one, in the fact that those who teach, write on, and interpret Patristics within Evangelical institutes and for Evangelical audiences are often (a) those whose specialty is Reformation history, and (b) Systematic theologians.

Not, of course, that those trained in other disciplines can never or should never dare to comment or produce scholarship, but taken as a whole, it skews Patristic studies by evangelicals in a certain direction. One in which the ‘normal’ view of things is shaped by those trained in 16th century theology, history, and 20th century concerns. There is a real danger of anachronism here, that we would read Early Church Theology not on its own terms, not in the context of Late Antiquity, but subject to our own agendas, and our own colonialising narratives, as we try to make a history of early Christianity fit our doctrines of, for example, decline and reform, or Pristinism, and so on.

Asking questions like, “Where is justification by faith in the early church?” or “What evidence is there for penal substitutionary atonement in the Fathers?” are valid questions. But they are not the right questions to start with. They reflect our concerns, and in particular they reflect our concerns as shaped by 16th century ones. They are second-order questions, and if you ask them first, you distort early Christian theologies by (mis)leading the witnesses. Better by far, it is, to attempt to enter into the historical context of those believers, and attempt to understand what they wrote, and what they did, on their own terms, in the matrix of how they themselves articulated it.

How does this contribute to a lack of Evangelicals in Patristics? In three ways, as I see it. Firstly, if Reformation and Systematics researchers can do the job, why bother training Patristics scholars? (I’ll have more to say on this in my next post). Secondly, if you continually explain and mine the field of Patristics in service to other agendas, there’s no value in Patristics per se. It’s a means to other ends, and those ends dictate where students will place their studies, and how the evangelical context ‘values’ Patristics. Thirdly, simply doing Patristics well will involve a partial rejection of this paradigm of evangelicalism, which is going to lead into my fourth post.

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