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.

Why aren’t there more Evangelicals in Patristics (1): Some Evs aren’t sure there were any Christians between Paul and Luther.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. This is a poor theology of God’s sovereignty and of the church. Do you really think that the Church disappeared for 1500 years?
  3. It renders Protestantism a historically groundless de novo movement.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.