Monday, March 26, 2012

Pulpit Review: More Ancient Christian Fathers




Haykin, Michael A. G. Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. 172 Pages. Paper. $16.99. (LHP)

Conti, Marco, Translator. Edited by Joel C. Elowsky. Gerald L. Bray and Thomas C. Oden, Series Editors. Theodore of Mopsuestia: Commentary on the Gospel of John (Ancient Christian Texts). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. 172 Pages. Cloth. $60.00. (P)


Hill, Robert C., Carmen S. Hardin, Translators. Edited by Michael Glerup. Gerald L. Bray and Thomas C. Oden, Series Editors. Severian of Gabala and Bede the Venerable: Commentaries on Genesis 1-3 (Ancient Christian Texts). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. 162 Pages. Cloth. $60.00. (P)



I am blessed to have a Heavenly Father in Christ Jesus, my earthly father, Lutheran fathers in the faith, and our common early Church Fathers. 


These resources will introduce you to the early Church Fathers as a whole and three in particular based on what they wrote on Genesis and John.



While the church today looks quite different than it did two thousand years ago, Christians share the same faith with the church fathers. Although separated by time and culture, we have much to learn from their lives and teaching.

This book is an organized and convenient introduction to how to read the church fathers from AD 100 to 500. Michael Haykin surveys the lives and teachings of seven of the Fathers, looking at their role in such issues as baptism, martyrdom, and the relationship between church and state. Ignatius, Cyprian, Basil of Caesarea, and Ambrose and others were foundational in the growth and purity of early Christianity, and their impact continues to shape the church today.

Evangelical readers interested in the historical roots of Christianity will find this to be a helpful introductory volume.


Michael A. G. Haykin (PhD, University of Toronto) is professor of church history and biblical spirituality at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has authored or edited more than twenty-five books, including The Emergence of Evangelicalism: Exploring Historical Continuities.

(publisher's website)


Haykin's introduction to the Church Fathers is a great way for Gospel-centered Christians to rediscover their heritage in Christ. 


Church history is our history. 


These are our people. 


They are the "saints who from their labors rest" for whom we thank the Lord. 


We have forgiveness, life, salvation, and Christ in common with them. 


We share their Bible, their vocations, their sorrows and joys, and life in this world.  


And they have been neglected by Evangelicals for far too long. Call it part of the "scandal of the Evangelical mind."


The author shows a bias with regard to Holy Communion (102). I'll personally stick to what Jesus says "this" is in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians 11. Also, I will try to put the best construction of what Basil (117) says about orthodoxy and orthopraxis, while rejecting monasticism. Yes, it did preserve Biblical manuscripts, ancient chant, beer, cheese, and scholarship, but once it served those purposes for Christianity and Western Civilization as a whole, we are better off without its confusion of vocations and confusion of salvation and works.

I love the author's unique approach to rediscovering Church Fathers by highlighting seven fathers over six chapters that focus on their strengths: taking every thought captive for Christ, preserving Christ's truth, interpreting all Scripture Christologically, seeking the Lord's forgiveness in word and sacrament, focusing on vocation and holiness in Christ, and telling the good news about Jesus. The idea is Haykin's. The paraphrases/summarize are mine. 


The second Appendix, reprinting Jaroslav Pelikan's The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) is all the more interesting considering his conversion from Lutheranism to Eastern Orthodoxy. This essay serves Haykin's purposes well.


Who were the Church Fathers and How did they shape the Church? Rediscover the answer to these questions for yourself as you read Michael Haykin's affordable introductory volume, Rediscovering the Church Fathers.



You may also wish to rediscover the Church Fathers by reading extensive writings by individual authors. Consider the following:



Theodore of Mopsuestia, born in Antioch (c. 350) and a disciple of Diodore of Tarsus, serves as one of the most important exemplars of Antiochene exegesis of his generation. Committed to literal, linguistic, grammatical and historical interpretation, he eschewed allegorical explanations that could not be supported from the text, though he was not averse to typological interpretations of Old Testament texts that were supported by the New.

Regrettably, Theodore was dragged posthumously into the Nestorian controversy, and his works were condemned by the Three Chapters and the Council of Constantinople in 553. As a result many of his theological and exegetical works were lost or destroyed. The original Greek version of his Commentary on the Gospel of John remains only in fragments. This new English translation is based on an early complete Syriac translation dated A.D. 460-465, within forty years of Theodore's death in 428.

While charges of heterodoxy against Theodore may not be entirely justified, there remains an apparent dualism in his Christology that should be critically viewed in light of the later Chalcedonian formula. With this caution, there still remains much that is valuable for contemporary readers, whether preachers, students or lay people interested in the early church's understanding of the Gospel of John.

Here for the first time is a complete English translation of this valuable work, ably translated by Marco Conti and edited by Joel C. Elowsky.

Ancient Christian Texts is a series of new translations, most of which are here presented in English for the first time. The series provides contemporary readers with the resources they need to study for themselves the key writings of the early church. The texts represented in the series are full-length commentaries or sermon series based on biblical books or extended scriptural passages. (publisher's website)

If anything, Theodore is guilty of dualism (e.g. p 29ff on John 2:22 and p. 140 on John 16:28). His Christology was orthodox, but not always and everywhere clearly stated. That means later readers were tempted to read into Theodore the false theology of Nestorianism. No, Scripture does NOT teach two persons of Christ, but two natures in one person as Chemnitz so extensively clarifies.


Theodore of Mopsuestia shines as an exegete when he interprets Scripture in the context of Scripture as in this exposition of John 1:29 (20):

Let us consider how Scripture usually places words in the appropriate context of facts. By saying here that this is the one who takes away the sin of the world, he did not call him "the Only Begotten Son" or "Son of God" or "the one who is close to the Father's bosom," as it appears that he had said above, although now would have seemed the right time to express the majesty of his nature in order to confirm the purpose of the things which he was about to give. But [the Baptist] did not say any of these things. Instead, he called him lamb, a name that signifies his passion...

This volume is more than worth you time.


And so is this wonderful commentary on Genesis by Severian of Gabala and Bede the Venerable paired together. 




Severian's material is presented first, as he preached them in seven homilies. Bede's commentary follows.

The church fathers displayed considerable interest in the early chapters of Genesis, and often wrote detailed commentaries or preached series of homilies on the Hexameron--the Six Days of Creation--among them Eustathius of Antioch, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Augustine.

This volume of Ancient Christian Texts offers a first-time English translation of Severian of Gabala's In cosmogoniam and a fresh translation of a portion of Bede the Venerable's Libri quatuor in principium Genesis. Severian, bishop of Gabala in Syria, who early on was a friend of John Chrysostom, later turned against him and opposed him at the Synod of Oak in 403. Though displaying his own strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies, Severian still represents the so-called Antiochene school with its preference for literal over allegorical interpretation of texts. The text derives from the six homilies found in Migne's Patrologia graeca, volume 56, together with a seventh homily found only in the 1613 Eton edition of John Chrysostom's works, edited by Henry Savile, and falsely attributed to Chrysostom.  These homilies have been ably translated with explanatory notes by Robert C. Hill.

The commentary from Bede the Venerable derives from Book I of his four-book commentary on Genesis from the account of creation to the casting out of Ishmael. Bede was a polymath--teacher, computist, exegete, historian--and one of the foremost scholars from Anglo-Saxon England. As a teacher, Bede strove to hand on the tradition of the church in a form easily understood by those who might not be well educated. These early chapters in Genesis provided teaching on creation, human origins, sin and redemption. The text deriving from Corpus Christianorum Latina is ably translated with explanatory notes by Carmen Hardin. (publisher's website)

Lutherans tend to be more comfortable with the literalness of the Antioch school of Bible interpretation. Unfortunately, the translation appears at home with the JEDP school of Genesis interpretation (5). Don't let that prevent you from reading and appreciating Severian. In Homily Two, Severian comments (31) on the second day of creation, speaking of law and Gospel in the Word:

The Word of God arouses the soul's desire and envelops it in joy in a kind of joy like a kind of lamp, so as to bring luster to its reasoning, cheer its thinking, cleanse it of sin and enlighten its ideas. That is what the Word of God is like: what a whetstone is to a blade, the Word of God is to the soul. It is not a single benefit the whetstone brings to the blade; instead it first has the effect of expunging rust from it, then it thins its thickness, sharpens it when blunt, brightens it when dull, cleanses, brightens, and sharpens. 


Bede is not helpful when he comments on "Six Ages of the World" (135). It is a creative allegory and may be safely omitted.


Later, commenting on Genesis 3:15 (155), Bede shines as he extols the ongoing work of Christ in His Church, His Bride:

The woman will bruise the head of the serpent when the holy church drives away the snares of the devil and the poisonous persuasions that were discovered from the beginning, and just as if treading them under foot, the church reduces them to nothing. She will bruise the head of the serpent when she resists the pride through which Eve was deceived, having been humbled under the mighty hand of God, for "the beginning of all sin is pride." And the serpent lies in ambush for the heel when he busies himself to snatch us at the end of this present life. For "heel," which is at the end of the body, fairly designates the end of our life, because the state of the serpent, who is bruised by all who can and who never stops lying in ambush to viciously attack the feet of people, allows both interpretations figuratively.

Bede and Severian are worth reading and make good reading together, both foremost scholars in their own day and capable and eloquent expositors of their own theological schools of tradition.



Context and culture are very helpful to better understanding Scripture in its original time and place, as we listen in the place of the original hearers. Anything that can be done so that we understand things as they would helps us understand not only what the text meant first, and also what it still means in our day and age.


Pastors, preachers, and scholars are the best servants they can be to the Church when they speak where and when Scripture speaks and are silent when God's Word is silent.We have a lot to learn from our fathers in the faith, especially who Christ is and what He has done for us to win and deliver forgiveness, life and salvation to us. 


At times, we need to learn from the fathers' counter-example, when they insert opinion, bias, or speculation. Hopefully, that will help us self-edit, so that we may present Christ and Him crucified and Risen all the more clearly this Holy Week, Easter, every Sunday, and at every opportunity.



The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.

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