Monday, January 8, 2007

How Do Lutherans See the Fathers?

Many fundamentalist and evangelical Christians admittedly have little use for the Fathers of the Church (meaning those, especially of the earlier church). Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians, of course, would give the Fathers high honor, and would appeal to their writings as authorities for their teachings. But how do the Lutherans view the Fathers?

I believe that Chemnitz, who was by and far early Lutheranism's greatest patristic scholar, would be one who would express the Lutheran view best. Carl Beckwith, in his article "Martin Chemnitz's Use of the Chruch Fathers," says: "Given Chemnitz's prefatory comments on the fathers and his restatement of them, it is fair to characterize his attitude toward the Fathers as one of esteem and discernment" [CTQ, July-Oct, 2004, page 279).

Given the fact that the "fathers" of the Lutheran church, including Luther, did not hesitate to appeal to the fathers of the ancient church over and against errors and false practices of their time (see also J.A.O. Preus, "The Use of the Church Fathers in the Formula of Concord, CTQ April-July 1984: 99), it would be fair to say that the Lutheran church has always recognized the value of these esteemed theologians of the past and looked to their teaching as reflections of those of the apostles' themselves.

Yet the Lutheran approach is balanced between esteem and discernment, understanding that all men are of weak, sinful flesh, and can err. Tertullian, for example, was a brilliant theologian, but fell into more Montanist error later in his life, refusing forgiveness for serious sins after Baptism, for example. Augustine, another brilliant theologian and father, was also limited by his lack of understanding of all the biblical languages.

To read the Fathers uncritically would be a danger, and all should be read in light of the only infallible cannon of truth: Holy Scripture. Where their insights shine brightly and clearly and offer guidance for the church, we should praise God and apply their words. In recent years there has been a movement within theological circles to return to the Fathers for a new perspective in biblical interpretation and pastoral practice. Given the bankruptcy of Higher Criticism and an over-dependence of psychology, this return is welcome and much needed.

Christopher A. Hall, in his book Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, also writes: "In their best moments the fathers will lead us into a renewed sense of wonder, awe and reverence for God and the gospel. Through the fathers' influence, prayer and worship may well become more frequent companions to our exegetical study. And through greater familiarity with the fathers will periodically magnify their own weaknesses, our own blind spots will be much more clear to us because of the time we have spent with figures such as Augustine, Chyrsostom, Athanasius, Jerome, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil, Abrose or Gregory the Great.....When we have recourse to the writers of antiquity, we have the opportunity to compensate for the blind spots inherent in our particular culture." (page 37)

The church needs the Fathers more now than ever. And as my previous post hopefully showed, I believe that even given their human weaknesses, the truth of the Gospel has shown throughout the history of the Church. There were times when that light was dim, just as it was in Israel during periods such as the ministry of Elijah. But the light was never extinguished. In each era God has raised up special "fathers" to guide the church, or to call it back to its moorings, such as Luther. I hope, personally, I can come to appreciate the Fathers more in the Lutheran spirit of esteem and discernment as I seek their wisdom in the midst of my own weaknesses.

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