Archive for September, 2006

What to Read of the Fathers?

September 27th, 2006 Posted in Church History

In the comment section on the previous post on the Fathers, I was asked about what to read of the Fathers. Everyone who has studied the Fathers will have his or her favourites. Here are some of mine.

I would say Jaroslav Pelikan’s first volume in his history of Christian doctrine, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, is an excellent place to start. JND Kelly on Early Christian Doctrine is another excellent starter. Other secondary sources that provide a good introduction include the works by Christopher Hall (Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers and Doing Theology with the Church Fathers) and Robert Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Thought. Gerald Bray’s Creeds, Councils and Christ is also very good. I also like Henry Chadwick’s two works on the early church: The Early Church (Penguin) and The Church in Ancient Society (OUP).

For primary sources, see Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers and his The Later Christian Fathers give good overviews. Augustine’s Confessions is a natural place to start. You may not agree with all you read, but it is a gem. Also the second-century The Letter to Diognetus is a gem—the cream of second-century Apologetics. I would also strongly recommend Basil’s On the Holy Spirit.

Why Study the Fathers?

September 26th, 2006 Posted in Church History

Our generation is afflicted with a kind of historical amnesia, which, unfortunately, has not left the Church untouched. For instance, Malcolm Muggeridge, who became a professing Christian after a lifetime of skepticism, in remarks made in the account of his conversion, stated that in the final analysis “history is phony.” As he went on to say: “…in the case of the greatest happenings such as Christ’s life and death, historicity is completely without importance. It is very important to know the history of Socrates because Socrates is dead, but the history of Christ doesn’t matter because he is alive.” [Jesus Rediscovered (London: Wm. Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., 1972), 204].

In such an intellectual ambience—which is nonsensical to anyone who values the historicity of Christian origins—the question, “Why study the Fathers?” must be asked again and answered afresh. Listed below are a number of reasons that can be considered an initial step in this direction.

First, study of the Fathers, like any historical study, liberates us from the present [C.S. Lewis, “De descriptione temporum” in Walter Hooper, ed., Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1969), 12]. Every age has a certain outlook, presuppositions which remain unquestioned even by opponents. The examination of another period of thought forces us to confront our innate prejudices which would go unnoticed otherwise.

For instance, Gustaf Aulén, in his classic study of the atonement, Christus Victor, argues that an objective study of the Patristic concept of Atonement will reveal a motif which has received little attention in post-Reformation Christianity: the idea of the Atonement as a divine conflict and victory, in which Christ fights and overcomes the evil powers of this world, under whom man has been held in bondage. According to Aulén, what is commonly accepted as the New Testament doctrine of the Atonement, the forensic theory of satisfaction, may in fact be a concept quite foreign to the New Testament. As to whether he is right or not—and I think he is quite wrong—can only come by a fresh examination of the sources, both New Testament and Patristic.

Then, the Fathers can provide us with a map for the Christian life. It is indeed exhilarating to stand on the east coast and watch the Atlantic surf and hear the pound of the waves. But this experience will be of little benefit in sailing to England. For this a map is needed. A map based upon the accumulated experience of thousands of voyagers. Similarly, we need such a map for the Christian life. Experiences are fine and good, but they will not serve as a suitable foundation for our lives in Christ. To be sure, we have the divine Scriptures, an ultimately sufficient foundation for all of our needs (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But the thought of the Fathers can help us enormously in building on this foundation.

A fine example is provided by Athanasius’ doctrine of the Spirit in his letters to Serapion, bishop of Thmuis. The present day has seen a resurgence of interest in the Person of the Holy Spirit. This is admirable, but also fraught with danger if the Spirit is conceived of apart from Christ. Yet, Athanasius’ key insight was that “from our knowledge of the Son we may be able to have true knowledge of the Spirit” (Letter to Serapion 3.1). The Spirit cannot be divorced from the Son: not only does the Son send and give the Spirit, but the Spirit is the principle of the Christ-life within us. Many have fallen into fanatical enthusiasm because they failed to realize this basic truth: the Spirit cannot be separated from the Son.

Third, the Fathers may also, in some cases, help us to understand the New Testament. We have had too disparaging a view of Patristic exegesis, and have come close to considering the exposition of the Fathers as a consistent failure to understand the New Testament. For instance Cyril of Jerusalem in his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:5, which concerns temporary abstinence of sexual relations between married couples for the sake of prayer, assumes without question that the prayer is liturgical and communal prayer (Catechesis 4.25).

Cyril may be guilty of an anachronism, for he was a leader in “the hallowing of the time,” that is, the observance of holy seasons. Nonetheless, there is good evidence that such communal observances, in some form or other, are quite early. The liturgical life of the Church of Jerusalem in the fourth century was not that of Corinth in the first, but nevertheless there were links. Possibly it is the Protestant commentators who are guilty of anachronism when they assume that Paul meant private prayer; such religious individualism is more conceivable in the Protestant West than in first-century Corinth.

As T.F. Torrance writes, “[There is a] fundamental coherence between the faith of the New Testament and that of the early Church… The failure to discern this coherence in some quarters evidently has its roots in the strange gulf, imposed by analytical methods, between the faith of the primitive Church and the historical Jesus. In any case I have always found it difficult to believe that we modern scholars understand the Greek of the New Testament better than the early Greek Fathers themselves! [Space, Time and Resurrection (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1976), xii].

These three reasons are only a start towards giving a full answer to the question, “Why study the Fathers?” There are certainly other reasons for studying these ancient authors which may be more obvious or even more important. But these three reasons sufficiently indicate the need for Patristic studies in the ongoing life of the Church: to aid in her liberation for the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century; to provide a guide in her walk with Christ; to help her understand the basic witness to her faith, the New Testament.

“Troublechurch” Browne

September 26th, 2006 Posted in Church History

Paul W. Martin asked for more on “Troublechurch Browne”. Here is a wee sketch.

In the latter part of the sixteenth century, a number of Puritans came to the conviction that the Church of England would never be fully reformed, and thus they decided to separate from the state church and organize their own congregations. These Puritans would be known as Separatists and they would argue for what was essentially a Congregationalist form of church government.

One of their earliest leaders was Robert Browne (c.1550–1633), who in a tract entitled A Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for anie (1582), provided the “clarion-call” of the Separatist movement. Browne—nicknamed “Troublechurch” Browne by his opponents—came from a family of substance and was related to Robert Cecil, Elizabeth I’s Lord Treasurer and chief minister. During his undergraduate years at Cambridge University, Browne had become a “thoroughgoing Presbyterian Puritan.” Within a few years, though, he had come to the conviction that each local congregation had the right, indeed the responsibility, to elect its own elders. And by 1581 he was of the opinion that the setting up of congregations apart from the Established Church and its parish churches was a necessity for, he wrote that year, “God will receive none to communion and covenant with him, which as yet are at one with the wicked.” That same year he established a Separatist congregation at Norwich. Experiencing persecution he and his Norwich congregation left England the following year for the freedom of the Netherlands.

It was in the Netherlands that Browne published the book for which he is remembered, A Treatise of Reformation without Tarrying for anie (1582). In this influential tract, Browne set forth his views that, over the course of the next century, would become common property of all the theological children of the English Separatists, including the Congregationalists and the Calvinistic Baptists.

First of all, Browne willingly conceded the right of civil authorities to rule and to govern. However, he drew a distinct line between their powers in society at large and their power with regard to local churches. As citizens of the state the individual members of these churches were to be subject to civil authorities. However, he rightly emphasized, these authorities had no right “to compel religion, to plant Churches by power, and to force a submission to ecclesiastical government by laws and penalties.”

Then, Browne conceived of the local church as a “gathered” church, that is, a company of Christians who had covenanted together to live under the rule of Christ, the Risen Lord, whose will was made known through his Word and his Spirit. Finally, the pastors and elders of the church, though they ultimately received their authority and office from God, were to be appointed to their office by “due consent and agreement of the church … according to the number of the most which agree.”

The key principle that Browne had seen clearly was that the kingdom of God cannot be brought about by the decrees of state authorities and that ultimately Christianity is “a matter of private conscience rather than public order, that the church is a fellowship of believers rather than an army of pressed men” and women.

Browne returned to the British Isles not long after publishing this treatise. To the consternation of many of his friends he subsequently recanted his views, and rejoined the Church of England. But he had begun a movement that could not be held in check. Browne’s mantle fell to three men—John Greenwood (c.1560–1593), Henry Barrow (c.1550–1593) and John Penry (1559–1593)—all of whom were hanged in 1593 for what was regarded by the state as an act of civil disobedience, namely secession from the Established Church.

Prior to his death, Penry rightly emphasized to the state authorities that “imprisonment, judgments, yea, death itself, are not meet weapons to convince men’s consciences, grounded on the word of God.” The response of the English state was swift and brutal. In April 1593 a law was passed that required everyone over the age of sixteen to attend their local parish church. Failure to do so for an entire month meant imprisonment. If, after three months following the individual’s release from prison, he or she still refused to conform, the person was to be given a choice of exile or death. In other words, the Elizabethan church and state was hoping to rid itself of the Separatist problem by sending those who were recalcitrant into exile. But the preaching and writings of Greenwood, Barrow and Penry led a significant number in the English capital, London, to adopt Separatist principles. And as British Baptist historian Barrie White has noted: “For many it was but a short step from impatient Puritanism within the established Church to convinced Separatism outside it.”

Browne also ended up spending his final days in prison. He was arrested when a very old man for striking a village constable. His own personal walk may have been wanting—but he set in motion a train of events and ideas that could not be held in check.

New French Blog

September 26th, 2006 Posted in Uncategorized

Lisez-vous français? Here is a new blog by three dear brothers—but it is in French: Yanick Éthier, Stéphane Gagné, & Francois Turcotte.

Baptists and the Concept of Liberty–A Thought

September 22nd, 2006 Posted in Uncategorized

Some historians are arguing that Baptist thought about individual freedom and soul-liberty is an influence of the Enlightenment. While there are definitely some good indications of such an influence in the 19th century with Francis Wayland and his exaltation of individualism at the expense of the community, I fear this line of thought is a failure to see that the roots of Baptist convictions about individual freedom before God are rooted in the Separatist movement of the late 16th century, hardly a period of Enlightenment thinking!

Men like Robert “Troubelchurch” Browne were central in the development of thinking in this direction. And even earlier than Browne, Jean Morelli, that remarkable Huguenot author with whom Bèze clashed over church government and who defended a Congregationalist polity, developed some of these ideas. No, the roots of Baptist thinking in this regard lie in the 16th century and that because of the re-reading of Scripture in fresh ways.

One-Volume History of the Church: Addendum

September 22nd, 2006 Posted in Books

There is a one-volume history of the Church by a single author that I have found scintillating and that is Jeremy Jackson, No Other Foundation: The Church across Twenty Centuries. (1980). He has well captured a biblical perspective on the metanarrative of the history of the church. On details, I would differ here and there.

Jackson studied under Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri, Switzerland, and later became his assistant, editor and historical advisor. He has also taught European history at the College of William and Mary and at Syracuse University, and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. He co-pastors Trinity Fellowship in Syracuse, New York.

A One-Volume History of the Church

September 21st, 2006 Posted in Books

Back in March of this year, Tim Challies asked me for a suggestion of a one-volume history of the Church. I am glad I am finally able to say a few words on this subject.

I am leery of one-volume histories of the church, since they tend to be written by single authors, who, no matter how gifted they are as historians in certain areas, simply cannot know the entirety of church history well enough to provide a summary of it all. One sees this, for example, in K.S. Latourette’s history of Christianity. His specialty was the history of mission. In other areas, he is so-so. Even the great historian Jaroslav Pelikan, who has recently gone to be with Christ, has his weaker moments in his five-volume magnum opus on the history of doctrine. The first volume, on the patristic era, I consider utterly splendid and standard reading for anyone studying that era. But I found his treatment of post-Reformation Puritanism, Jonathan Edwards, and the New Divinity men sadly lacking.

With that said, then what would I recommend? Well, the text that I have used consistently over the past few years is Tim Dowley, ed., An Introduction to the History of Christianity (1990 Rev. ed.; repr. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995). It has a number of advantages. It covers the entire history of the church. It has been written by experts in the numerous fields. So it capitalizes on the strengths of a number of great historians of the church. And then Dowley has good editing skills and has produced a seemingly seamless text. I also admit to loving the many pictures, maps, sidebars (the latter essential for the post-modern reader who cannot handle large blocks of text without break!), and mini-chronologies.

I may find time to make a comment or two on church history sets. But that will have to wait.

Hyper-Calvinism in the SBC

September 19th, 2006 Posted in Uncategorized

Nathan Finn has a wise post on Hyper-Calvinism in the SBC here.

Having spent significant time studying Hyper-Calvinism—a real-life problem in the 18th century in the UK and in parts of the South in the 19th century—I would ditto all that Nathan is asserting here: The Specter of Hyper-Calvinism.

Mohler on the Pope and His Words about Islam

September 19th, 2006 Posted in Uncategorized

Dr. Mohler’s recent comments on the brouhaha about the Pope Benedict XVI’s words about Islam are right on: see his The Pope, the Prophet, and the Crisis of Truth” on his commentary (see

Chapel Attendance for Seminarians

September 18th, 2006 Posted in Uncategorized

One of the constant issues of seminary life is chapel attendance by students. For some students it is irksome to be required to attend. They have other things they need to do. Some of these things are undoubtedly good things. But I for one would argue that one key difference between a seminary and other types of academic schools of higher education is that a seminary is not only a place of academics. It should be that. But it is not only that. It is also a community of men and women learning to be servants of Christ and His Church. And as such a community there needs to be times when the doxological goal of their studies finds corporate expression. And chapel is the perfect place for this.

Here is a great testimony as to why students at a theological seminary need to attend chapel: “Mother Never Told Me Not to Pee in the Neighbor’s Yard”.