New Evangelical book on the Church Fathers

by Steve Ray on November 18, 2007

Litfin.jpgThere is a new book published on the Church Fathers written by a self-professed “proud, dispensational, conservative, born-again fundie.” He is from Moody Bible Institute.  I ordered a copy of Getting to Know the Church Fathers by Bryan Litfin. Below is an excerpt from an interview he gave with Susan Wunderink for Christianity Today.

Having just produced the only documentary in existence on the Apostolic Fathers (the earliest of the Church Fathers), I read the interview with curiosity. You can read the whole interview for yourself, but here are a few things I found revealing. 

Litfin wrote: Whom did you write the book for?
Someone like me, someone who had heard of the concept of the ancient church and thought Yeah, there were people in togas who got thrown to the lions. But I didn't really know who they were, and I certainly didn't feel any spiritual or theological connection to them. Then I began to see them as real people. I began to see them as my forefathers, that I might feel an organic connection. And that church history is a continuous story.
We can recover the fathers as our own and we can recover them through a direct line back, so that all the richness of church history becomes ours. That's what I want to do for the Christian today: I want the Christian to understand that there's a richness to their history that they're missing; embrace it and let it be something that inspires you.

So far so good. This was the exact sentiment I had when I began to read them—thinking that I would discover fellow Evangelicals who held to the simply “Bible Alone”  and “Faith Alone” theology of “real Christianity.” If found differently.  I find it sad and disappointing that contemporary Christians have avoided and ignored this period of the Church.

The first two centuries were the hinge between Jesus and the Apostles and the Church today. Why do many consider their favorite Televangelists, pastors and writers to be so influential today, but they ignore the first Bible teachers and pastors—the ones who knew the Apostles personally? 

I commend Litfin for writing this book. But now let’s see his basic conclusions and what he avoids. 

 Are there some negative views evangelicals hold that are valid?
Yes. I try not to go into that too much, not in order to hide those things but because they're so complicated. It just opens up a can of worms. I feel that perhaps the pendulum is so against them that I need to be positive to counter-weight that.

You have to realize that they're not evangelicals. So some of the points where we would differ with them would be the points where we would differ with Roman Catholicism. Some of their doctrine of salvation is going to be sacramental. They're not going to use the term inerrancy, but they give full credence to Scripture, and [see it as] inspired. Their anti-Semitism is something you can put in there as needing correction. There can be a works-orientedness to them, where there's a paying-off of God. You can see that in Tertullian, for example.

 Yes, he has to ignore and avoid their basic theology and teaching on salvation because it is too sacramental, too Catholic. He wants his readers to know these first Christians, but not to really know them. Let’s find what they believed that agrees with us (the final judges) and ignore the part that sounds too Catholic. 

His admission that “You have to realize that they’re not evangelicals” is very revealing. What he is really saying is that he has a different religion today than the first Christians held in the first centuries.

ApostolicFathersCoverSm.jpgWho has the true theology and practice—those 2,000 years removed or the ones who learned the faith directly from the Apostles? Hum! Who should be listened to with more credence? An admitted 21 century “fundie” or the martyrs who learned at the feet of the Apostles John, Peter and Paul? I know at whose feet I will sit to learn. 

Litfin says that their theology is too complicated. No, actually it is very simple, Lutfin just disagrees with it. It is only complicated for Litfin and Evangelicals because it contradicts their new Protestant religion. It scares them. Litfin says that to discuss their theology opens a can of worms. Yes it would! And for those who dare to open the can of worms very often see the poverty of their modern Evangelicalism.

Modern Protestantism is very different from the early Christians. Those who begin to dig deeper frequently become Catholics. It is a dangerous thing for modern Evangelicals to encourage their followers to read the Fathers since they will soon lose many of the best and brightest to the Catholic Church. I don’t think this will be a big trend, it is far to dangerous to encourage the reading of such subversive literature.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

mike aubrey December 3, 2007 at 4:24 PM

I agree with your criticisms of Litfin. Though I think that he does go into some of the less than pretty things about the fathers also, his reflections on Chrysostom for example discussed the issue of antisemitism.

But you’re right, there are problems too. But I think as a first primer, its does its job well.
And it should be noted that Litfin succeeded in maintaining his fundie roots inspite of the reading the fathers as has just about every evangelical historical theology/church history professor has survived.

Bryan Litfin March 22, 2008 at 10:25 AM

From my years of study of the Fathers, I do not think their theology is simple. It is complex and it evolves and is anything but monolithic, so that a discussion of its interface with any contemporary theologies would require time, patience, and nuance.

I have no problems opening the "can of worms" and I do so each semester with my students. However, a few minutes in an interview with a reporter, when I have no control over how my remarks are going to be handled, is not the place to do that. I think you are giving too much credence to some off the cuff remarks I made to a reporter, rather than to the well-thought-out statements in the book itself.

BTW, like modern Protestantism, modern Roman Catholicism is also very different from the Ancient Church.

STEVE RAY HERE: Dear Dr. Litfin: I appreciate your comments and candor. I have purchased your book and have spent some time perusing it. After most of my overseas travels will be over later in April I will take the time to read it more thoroughly this summer. As a former Fundamentalist myself, I understand the situation from both sides.

I may have given credence to the comments you made to a reporter, but such is the nature of interviews. When statements are made that the Church Fathers were not Evangelicals, they stand out. Frankly, I found this an honest and refreshing comment since some Evangelicals try to mold them into proto-protestants.

I agree that the Fathers are a complex and even diverse at times, but there is an overall unity in their thought about things precisely Catholic such as the priesthood, the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration and much more. There is much more unanimity than many Protestants would like to admit. Reading their writings convinced me that Protestantism was something new and novel. My book Crossing the Tiber details some of my spiritual, biblical and intellectual journey and I would be happy to send you a copy if you would be interested. Just let me know.

God bless you and I am thrilled that Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are delving into the Fathers and the early Church. I see it as a good thing. I especially like the Ancient Christian Commentaries published by IVP. I have them both in book and electronic form. I am pleased with such endeavors and I am pleased that you are writing and teaching on them as well. Happy Easter!

Bryan Litfin March 22, 2008 at 10:46 AM

that’s cool, we’re both on the journey, I think. pax.

dorothy morris May 4, 2008 at 1:00 PM

On 22 March 2008, Bryan Litfin said that "BTW, like modern Protestantism, modern Roman Catholicism is also very different from the Ancient Church". If we can accept that the "ancient church" is the Church established by Jesus Christ as in "I will build my church", then does this mean that neither Protestanism nor Roman Catholicism is the Church that Jesus Christ esyablished? So where is this ancient Church?

STEVE RAY HERE: The words in quotations deal with a quantitative difference, not a qaulitative difference. The oak tree looks quantitatively different than the sampling, even more different than the acorn; yet, qualitatively they are the same thing. The acorn and the sampling, though looking different than the tree are organically the same thing.

The Early Church is the sapling that has grown into the full grown tree. You can also see it as the bud of the flower that has now opened up in all its glory. Jesus used a parable similar to this in Matthew 13 — the smallest seed that is planted in the ground which qualitatively grows into a large tree, quantitatively different, but organically the same. The tree when grown can nest all the birds of the world. The same is true of the Catholic Church which has now spread its beautiful branches through the whole world. I am proud to be a Catholic!

dorothy morris May 7, 2008 at 7:10 AM

Truly, I am overwhelmed – that from Jesus Christ, the seed became the sapling being the early church of the fathers, and the fully grown tree is the Catholic Church.

Now then, let me get back to the other part of Mr. Litfin’s comment that modern Protestantism is very different from the the ancient church. Is this merely a way of denying the situation as you had explained, or is it not possible that from the “sapling” TWO branches grew to full maturity?

But in any case, I am aware that Protestantism, is a sapling/fully grown tree from the seed of Luther beginning at around 1520, so would Mr. Litfin care to explain what exactly are these differences.

Again from Mr. Litfin we can understand that the “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit in both the “believing individual reader and the “whole collective believing community” would lead them to the TRUTH.

What can/should happen when both disagree with one another as this is what happened when Luther, an individual believer disagreed with the whole collective community of the ancient church?

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