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Podcast: Learning from the Church Fathers (Michael Haykin)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

The Early Church

In this episode, Michael Haykin, author of Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church, discusses what we can learn from the early church fathers today. He reflects on what we should make of the early church's allegorical reading of the Bible, the value of early Christian creeds for helping to define our faith today, and where to start if someone is interested in reading the church fathers.

Rediscovering the Church Fathers

Michael A. G. Haykin

An organized and convenient introduction to the church fathers from AD 100 to 500. Haykin surveys a number of church fathers, outlining their roles in church history and their teaching on a number of topics.

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Who Are the Church Fathers?

01:29

Matt Tully
What is meant when someone refers to the “church fathers”? Who would be considered part of that group?

Michael Haykin
The church fathers really begin in roughly 100, so right at the end of the Apostolic Period when the New Testament is being written. The first church fathers would be figures like Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote seven letters on his way to martyrdom, roughly around 107 to 110; Clement of Rome, who is the author of what we call First Clement. Second Clement is attributed to him, but it's not him—it's a different author. He's around the same time, late 90s. The big challenge is trying to determine a terminus for this era. Traditionally, the way I would have been taught it back in the 80s, is that the church fathers run up to roughly 500—Gregory the Great. My own convictions over the years have changed. The pioneering work that somebody like Peter Brown did on establishing what we call “late antiquity”—roughly 200, 250 to around 650, 700—that period between the decline and collapse of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Islam. It has shaped my own thinking so that I believe it's really the breakout of Islam out of the Saudi peninsula that radically changes the framework of what had been the early church, which had basically been built around both shores of the Mediterranean. And so I would actually take the the church fathers up to the time of Bede, who died in 735 in Northern England in Northumbria; or John of Damascus—during roughly the same period as Bede—an Arab Christian living in Damascus under Muslim rule who is writing a synthesis of patristic thought—the thought of the early church fathers. So the time of the church fathers is, roughly, 100 to about 700.

Christian-Muslim History

03:37

Matt Tully
I think a lot of us tend to think of Christian-Muslim relations and the intersection of those two religions in current times, but sometimes we forget that, going back to the early church, that was a real dynamic happening in the later part of that era.

Michael Haykin
Yes, Islam is, from the classical Christian understanding of Islam, Islam is a heresy. It's not a new religion. It's a heretical response to the revelation that we have in the Old Testament, New Testament, and with Christ. A lot of the theological questions that Islam is wrestling with—Who is God? Who is Jesus?—these are very much questions that the early church was wrestling with. And so there's a very good reason why the early church viewed Islam not as a completely new religion, but as a coming at the tail end of this long discussion that begins with the ministry of Christ about Who is he? and What is this new revelation? In the early years, obviously, Christianity and Judaism stand off against each other, and then various heretical positions, and then Islam is really the capstone of those discussions in terms of No, Jesus is only a prophet, God is not Trinity, etc.

Matt Tully
That would explain why, when you dig into Islam and what they believe, there are a lot of parallels and similarities and even agreement, in certain respects; but then, obviously, a lot of big differences.

Michael Haykin
Exactly.

Matt Tully
Can we trace any specific figures back—people we might consider to be a solid Christian figure—and trace the lineage from that person ultimately to what we consider today to be Islam?

Michael Haykin
Yes, John of Damascus is probably the first key Christian theologian who had to respond to Islam. His father actually had, during the siege of Damascus in the middle of the seventh century, opened the city gates to the Muslims. His father was presumably a professing Christian and there had been theological divisions within the Christian communities—in what we now call the Middle East and Egypt—over the Council of Chalcedon: how did the natures within the one person of Christ relate to one another? The Chalcedonian perspective had become the orthodox view. There were those in the Syriac Church who dissented from that, as well as the Coptic and Ethiopian churches, and had been persecuted because the state rulers of what we now call the Byzantine Empire, which occupied this entire region, were committed to Chalcedonian christology. And so they persecuted the Syriac Orthodox Church, based to some degree in Damascus, and the Syriac Orthodox Christians there felt they might get a better deal from the Muslims. And so the city gates were actually opened by John of Damascus's father. And John of Damascus served in the court of the caliph for a period of time, and then decided to devote his life to them to a monastic lifestyle and retire to a monastery. But he writes a major work against heresies, of which the last one is against Muslims.

Evangelical Relationship to Church History

07:28

Matt Tully
Taking a step back, in the book you talk about this feeling that you had early on in your academic training career where you'd initially started studying the church fathers and the patristics, and you felt the need to supplement your own professional training—scholarly training—with other areas of church history that might be more appealing; or, for lack of a better word, more “marketable” in terms of finding a job. Why do you think it is that protestants and evangelicals—Christians today—can be a bit suspicious about the church fathers and all that that would entail?

Michael Haykin
I think part of the problem is that evangelicals have sought to live within the ethos of modernity. Modernity, as it's developed in the 18th century, is very much anti-tradition. The Enlightenment, which is the emphasis on reason as the preeminent arbiter of truth in the 18th century, really brings into question the embrace of any intellectual position simply on the basis of the fact that this is the historical perspective, this is the the tradition—as it's come down to us—and therefore, we need to pass it on. The Enlightenment raises all kinds of questions about that. Evangelicalism, despite what evangelicals would like to believe, is to some degree a product of that world. Our anti-historical bias, our anti-tradition bias—tradition, generally speaking, in our context is a negative word—I think has biased us against the pursuit of history, particularly the history that goes back to this very early period. And then second, the fact that the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church used the fathers to a large degree also means that this period is suspect. I remember being asked to teach a local church seminar, and I was to do three talks. The pastor asked me what I would do. So I wrote back and said, Why don't we discuss Perpetua—early Christian martyr, 202 (roughly) in Carthage; Cyprian—early Christian author, a martyr, 258; and then Augustine. All three are North Africans. His response was, Well, two of those we've never heard of(i.e. Perpetua and Cyprian) and the third . . . wasn't he a Catholic? I think this is pretty standard. And it's also standard on the other side. I've been asked by Roman Catholics, How can I be a student of the early church and not be a Roman Catholic? My response to that is, How can you study the early church and still be a Catholic? There are certain things that are very much part and parcel of Roman Catholicism that are not there in the early church—the strong Mariology, the papacy as we know it, transubstantiation, and so on.

Allegorical Interpretation of Scripture

11:18

Matt Tully
The fathers are sometimes criticized for their “allegorical” interpretation of Scripture. Often they would take a biblical story from the Old Testament and read a lot of additional meaning into it, make connections from it—often to Jesus and to other things—that we might today look at and feel like was “creative”, to put it nicely. How prevalent was that type of reading Scripture in the early church?

Michael Haykin
It's prevalent enough to give Protestant exegetes at the time of the Reformation cause to worry about the exegetical procedures and practices of the early church being a model to follow. Calvin, for example, on one occasion is going through Ephesians 3 where it talks about the length, the height, the breadth, the depth of the love of God in Christ. He cites Augustine's reading of that text, and Augustine sees it as an emblematic of the cross: the death—the way in which Christ came down to our situation; the height—the cross takes us up to the heights of love; the breadth—the breadth in which the gospel goes out to the ends of the earth. And Calvin makes the comment, All of this is very nice and lovely, but what on earth does it have to do with the text? But the reality is much more complex. Even a man like Origen, who I think was a remarkable exegete, he will always take seriously the historical element of the text—the historicity of the text—unless he feels that embracing the actual literal historicity of the text will endanger a true meaning, that it just doesn't seem to fit the larger scope of Scripture, in which case he then will have recourse to allegorization. With Origen you have to remember that he was a man who was engaged in remarkable work in trying to preserve the text of Scripture, the actual text of Scripture. He composed a thing called the Hexapla—six parallel translations in Greek—which is just a tremendous amount of work for that day. Also allegorization—if you look at the Puritans all the way through to the 19th century, around the time of Spurgeon—they may claim they're sometimes doing typology, but it sure looks like early Christian allegorization. I think one of the things that at least certain circles of evangelicals have been thinking for a while now is that texts have more than one meaning. The historical-grammatical approach to Scripture is not adequate in certain places. It's not adequate when you consider what Paul's doing in Ephesians 5 when he cites Genesis 2:24 “A man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife and they shall be one flesh.” Paul said, I'm not talking about marriage. I'm talking about the church. But if you go back to the Genesis 2 passage, there's no literal evidence of the church. A straight up historical-grammatical reading of that text doesn't give you the church. But that's why we need the New Testament. It gives us that added perspective on the Old Testament. It's clear then that from the point of view of the authors of the New Testament, that a passage like Genesis 2 has more than one meaning. Jesus uses it to defend marriage against remarriage, or divorce, for example. But Paul uses it very differently. So here's a text that has more than one meaning. The fathers see that and they feel that they have legitimization for the way in which they treat Scripture in terms of allegory.

Matt Tully
Do you think there's anything that modern evangelical readers of the Bible can learn from the allegorizing tendencies, even if we don't agree with everything that they would say, that we can learn and apply in our own reading of Scripture today?

Michael Haykin
Yes, I do. For example, during the course of the twentieth century the Song of Songs, which is in the Old Testament, has been regarded primarily as just simply as a text dealing with human marriage. What it's done is—often in a mild way, but sometimes very brash and almost hubristic—it is rejected out of hand eighteen hundred years of Christian exegesis. Beginning with Hippolytus of Rome—we don't have his actual commentary on Song of Songs, but we know that he wrote one—so beginning really then with Origen and running through exegetes like Nyssa, Augustine, Bede, Bernard of Clairvaux, Luther, Calvin. Calvin never wrote a commentary of the Song of Songs, but he boots Sebastian Castellio out of Geneva for daring to suggest that the Song of Songs shouldn't be in the Old Testament canon because it's merely a love song. Calvin obviously buys into that view. The Puritans, all the way through into the 19th century with Spurgeon, all of that is suddenly thrown out of hand. These people had no idea what they were talking about when they treated the Song of Songs as a love song between Christ and his people. And that's obviously, in my opinion, just wrong. It's wrong on a number of levels. It's wrong because I think it fails to understand the larger scope of Scripture, which is a marriage story. You see that with the way in which Paul reads Genesis 2 in Ephesians 5, or the way in which we talk about the marriage supper of the lamb in Revelation, or the fact that God talks about marrying Israel in the book of Hosea. I think the fathers could be faulted for some of their exegesis. For example, “Let him kiss me with many kisses” (Song 1:2)—Gregory of Nyssa will take this to mean the gifting of the Spirit. The allegorization of every little aspect of the Song the Songs is problematic. But I think we miss a lot when we fail to see that this song must have more than one reading, and we miss the fact that Jesus said all of the Old Testament speaks of him. So the Song of Songs somehow has to be more than simply a marriage song. It has to speak in some way about Christ. And so the patristic exegesis, while we may be able to fault it, nonetheless we can learn from this sort of approach to Scripture.

Matt Tully
What books are considered Scripture?

Michael Haykin
I think they don't create the canon, the canon is created in the first century when Scripture is given. But the hammering out of the determination of which books should be in the canon is in that patristic period. And that's an enormous gift. It's always intrigued me that the two areas where you would think evangelicals would be in the foremost of scholarship, namely canon studies—we have obviously a remarkable scholar like Michael Kruger working in that area—but there's not a lot. And then the other would be textual studies. And again, a lot of the textual stuff that's been done, at least with what I'm most familiar with on the New Testament, has been done by men who would not be professing evangelicals. But you'd think we would have gone into that with enormous gusto because the determination of the text and what the exact text was, you would think, would be very important for people who confess inerrancy. So I think that's another key area.

Do We Need Creeds?

20:03

Matt Tully
The church fathers are often associated with some of the early creeds of the church—you mentioned the Nicene Creed. What would you say to the person who is listening and maybe feels a little bit skeptical about the creeds? It seems like there's a growing interest in them today, but they wonder Why do we need these man-made, non-inspired documents? They sort of run counter to this principle of sola Scriptura, or even just the sufficiency of Scripture for life and doctrine.

Michael Haykin
Well for the very fact that Jehovah's Witnesses believe in sola Scriptura.

Matt Tully
Elaborate on that.

Michael Haykin
They believe that the Bible alone is to be the basis for thought and doctrine. So here you've got people who deny the Trinity, who are heretical—they're not simply in error on certain secondary issues or tertiary issues; they're in error on primary issues. But they uphold the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.

Sola Scriptura

20:59

Matt Tully
So does that question then the sufficiency of the Bible?

Michael Haykin
The fact that we need credo statements, no. Credo statements are the way in which the early Church found it necessary to summarize what the scope of Scripture says. Most of the early credo statements deal primarily with God and the economy of redemption. The early Church found it necessary over against various heretical positions: Gnosticism, for example; or modalism, the denial of the distinction of persons; or arianism, the denial of the full deity of our Lord Jesus; or apollinarianism, the denial of the humanity of the soul of Christ, etc. They found it necessary to create confessions, or creeds, that summarized the scope of Scripture. The early church, in many ways, is a battle. The battles that take place in the early churches are battles over Scripture. They're not battles over philosophical positions. They're battles over the word of God. By the time you get to the development of the creeds like the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian definition or the Apostles Creed or the Athanasian creed, you have long decades of reflection about the large scope of Scripture behind them. So the early church, in fact, from the very start is confessional. You find it embedded in the New Testament: “If any man does not confess Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh, he is the Antichrist.” (I John 4:3)

“Just Me and My Bible” vs. Church History

22:40

Matt Tully
So would you say that the “just me and my Bible” phenomenon that we might see today and be familiar with is a new phenomenon that doesn't have a lot of basis in church history?

Michael Haykin
Yes, actually it is. I think “me and my Bible” is, again, a product of the Enlightenment, of the questioning of all tradition. It emerges in the individualism of the West, the failure to realize that Christianity is a confession of a community. “We believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven Earth," for example; it's a communal confession. The early church would recite this confession communally. I think the "me and my Bible are enough” is actually a product, to a large degree, of a Western individualistic culture shaped to some degree by the Enlightenment in reaction—even rebellion—against authority. It's very interesting that all of the major heretical movements that we've been plagued with in America over the past 200 years or so—Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphianism, and certain wings of the Seventh Day Adventists—they all grew up in the wake of the Second Great Awakening in a world of what we call Jacksonian democracy, where if a backwoodsman from Tennessee can become the president United States, anybody can do it. Who are you to tell me? I don't care whether you've been to seminary for four or six years and you've got this degree and that degree. I can read the Bible just as well as you can. Who are you to tell me what it means? So that attitude, interestingly enough, is not as biblical as they tend to think it is. It's just me and my Bible actually is more a product of a culture that prizes the individual over against tradition, over against authority, over against a learned ministry.

Getting Started with Church History

24:49

Matt Tully
If there's someone listening right now who actually wants to take a stab at reading a church father for him or herself, what would you recommend that person to start with?

Michael Haykin
I'd probably recommend Augustine's Confessions. It's an excellent summary of how an early Christian found God. Augustine is a tremendous writer. You won't always agree with him. There will be things you disagree with. And because it's an extended prayer, not an autobiography, it's got a rich spirituality. His hunger for God comes through again and again and again. Other works that I probably would recommend would be The Letter to Diognetus, which is a Christian author—we don't know who it is. It's not Diognetus, he's the person to whom the letter is being written. And again, we don't know who he is, but he asked three questions: Who are Christians and why aren't you Jewish? Why do you love each other the way you do? Why has Christianity appeared now and it's not ancient? While his answers aren't perfect, especially regarding why has Christianity appeared now and it's not ancient; nonetheless, you get a very, very bird's eye view of the way in which Christians viewed themselves as a distinct community, the way in which they sought to propagate their faith by love as well as the approximation of truth, and the way in which that community was grounded in the loving work of God in Christ—God giving himself for our sins in the person of our Lord Jesus. Those would be two excellent texts to begin with.

Matt Tully
That's really helpful. I'm sure those are fairly easy to find online I would think.

Michael Haykin
Yes. There's probably three or four new editions of Confessions that have come out in the last three years or so. The Letter to Diognetus you can easily Google it and you'll be able to find it online.

A Favorite Church Father

26:59

Matt Tully
If you had to pick just one, who's your favorite church father and why?

Michael Haykin
I think it would probably be Basil of Caesarea. I did my doctoral work on Basil. He is a key figure in the defense of the deity of the Holy Spirit in the fourth century during the large controversy we call the Arian controversy. After Augustine, he's probably the early Christian figure that we know the most about because of an extensive collection of about 320 to 350 letters. There are about 380 actually passed under his name, but there's a number of them that are spurious. There's a warmth there. The importance of friendship is very much part of his life. He's a mentor. He is very aware of the importance of mentors in his life. One of his mentors was a man named Eusebius as of Samosata—hardly anybody knows about him—but he's got twenty letters to him. We don't have any of Eusebius's letters, but it's quite clear the way in which Eusebius has built into this man's life and enabled him to be the theologian he was. I think that's very, very important in our day. There's a humanity about Basil, and he's been important to me on an existential level in a number of ways.

Matt Tully
What do you mean by that?

Michael Haykin
In terms of my own experience. There was a very difficult scenario I went through probably about thirty years ago with the breakup of a friendship, a very close friendship. And Basil knew the same in his own life, and I was reading Basil at the same time. One of his mentors, a man named Eustathius of Sebaste, he and Eusebius had a break, and it was a fundamental break that was never healed. It had to do with Eustathius's refusal to confess the full deity of the Spirit. The way in which Basil responded to that was enormously helpful for me, despite the way that Eustathius slandered him. It helped me think through and really imitate to some degree. I think one of the reasons why we read Church history is for imitation. That's not taught today, but it's a very ancient view. All of the ancients—Christian and pagan—believe that history has value. One of the reasons it has value is because it gives us models for imitation—models to follow, models to avoid. And Basil has been such a model to follow.


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