Evangelicals and the Early Church

Ben Blackwell has posted a link to a conference being held at Wheaton concerning Evangelicals and the Church Fathers. Wheaton has started an early Christian studies program recently, a testament to the ongoing interest in the Fathers on the part of Evangelicals. However, this is not the case everywhere. In my own experience in an Evangelical institution, the Fathers were glossed over. Augustine was often recast as a proto-Calvinist, but he was basically the only one who got any mention (I was shocked to hear that the ‘greatest preachers in the Church’s history’ all came from the 19th and 20th century – no mention of Chrysostom, of course).  There was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding over the early Church’s beliefs. For instance, I had a professor wrongly tell us that the Church didn’t believe in the real presence until the early Medieval period when Paschasius Radbertus wrote his book advocating the belief in transubstantiation. This also betrays a misunderstanding of our Eastern brethren  (about whom Evangelicals tend to know very little) – how would this Western Benedictine abbot have influenced their theology? I’ve told people, tongue in cheek, that I’ve considered becoming EO just so I can get away from all the hate mail I’ve received over my becoming Catholic. Romophobia is alive and well, but I’ve never heard of Constantinopolophobia!

I will say that things on the whole are looking up. Robert Louis Wilken noted that most of the students who came to UVA to study the early Church with him were Evangelicals. There are efforts now to bring the wisdom of the early Church into the evangelical tradition such as IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series. I’m all for it.  I think the way the early Church read Scripture is preferable to what goes on today and I hope modern exegetes will take into consideration the wisdom of the past.

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