Ancient Christian Study and Evangelicalism: Essay I: The Patristic Opportunity – Shawn Fowler

Ancient Christianity has fortunately been preserved for believers of today through the existence of numerous manuscripts.  These writings, containing a wealth of knowledge advantageous to current Christian circumstances, are frequently and sadly overlooked.  But upon further inspection, most Evangelicals would quickly recognize that much is to be gained from Patristic study in two main areas:  the solidification of our own theological stances and the facilitation of cordial communication with those of other Christian traditions.

First, an in-depth understanding of ancient Christian thought and practice would undoubtedly lead to a clarification of our own Evangelical beliefs.  Sometimes it seems as though we of a conservative and Evangelical persuasion think that because we stress the historical-grammatical approach to exegesis, everything we believe and practice is fully supported by Scripture and uncontested.  Yet, we clearly operate within the framework of a tradition, sometimes very scriptural and other times nothing more than familiar or comfortable.

Comparing ancient Christianity to that of our own denominations will help us to identify the differences that exist between the two, especially those of a theological nature.  Because early Christianity is held in such high esteem in most traditions, mostly due to its proximity to the time of the Apostles, viewing our own tradition in light of it will prove to be a humbling and beneficial experience.  During this process, we can examine the differences that this juxtaposition will expose and more accurately affirm what is worth clinging to, while discarding that which is shown to be detrimental.  Our own theological stance can be bolstered by comprehending the doctrines of the early Church.

Second, global Christianity is mostly non-Evangelical.  For there to be any sort of unity in the Church, or at least an attempt in such a direction, we must be willing to understand different interpretations of Scripture and dialogue about these matters.  Studying ancient Christianity will help in this way because the Church fathers thought much differently than we do on certain topics.  For instance, what we call the Ransom Theory of the atonement was widely embraced in the early Church.  Most Evangelicals today reject this theory, yet would not dare to say that early Christians such as Athanasius, an influential figure who adhered to the Ransom Theory, was a heretic or not saved.

In a related manner, many Pentecostals/Charismatics around the world today believe that divine healing for the Christian is provided for in the atonement of Christ.  They claim that the verse “by his stripes we are healed” is speaking of physical healing, to be appropriated by faith.  If we do not agree with this as Evangelicals, and even identify it as shoddy exegesis, does that mean that the Pentecostal should be written off as some sort of false Christian?  Can a person adhere to the core tenants of the Christian faith, be off on some of the peripheral matters, and still be saved?  I use this example to show that if we can understand and accept that the early Church fathers differed with us in certain areas yet still were Christians in the fullest sense, we will be equipped to also identify secondary issues with our Christian brethren today, being willing to drop peripheral squabbles for the sake of unity.

The documents of the early Church are available and inviting us to explore their treasures.  We would do well to heed this call and undertake the task of understanding the theological and liturgical traditions founded so long ago, and so close to the time of Christ himself.  Coupled with grace from God, the study of this era will surely help us in the process of self-identification and also in our quest of being “made one.”

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