You have devot­ed your life to study­ing the church fathers. How did your love for the church fathers first develop?

I came to love the church fathers dur­ing my doc­tor­al work under Tom Oden at Drew Uni­ver­si­ty from 1987 – 1991. Up to that time, I had read few patris­tic texts, oth­er than some Augus­tine (City of God) at Regent Col­lege in Van­cou­ver, BC, dur­ing direct­ed study with J.I. Pack­er. It was Tom who taught me that the Holy Spir­it has a his­to­ry.” Up to my doc­tor­al work, my bib­li­cal and the­o­log­i­cal edu­ca­tion was large­ly first cen­tu­ry, then the six­teenth cen­tu­ry on. I learned from Tom Oden and the fathers that the Holy Spir­it was also at work in the church from the sec­ond to fif­teenth cen­turies CE. There was no huge, emp­ty gap, as though the train had jumped the track for fif­teen cen­turies — as I had been taught by some of my ear­li­er teach­ers. I was sur­prised, indeed, delight­ed to find such rich, insight­ful minds and hearts. Quite a com­men­tary on my edu­ca­tion up to that point!

You have served in a vari­ety of con­texts — Asia, Africa, the Mid­dle East, Cana­da, South Amer­i­ca, Europe, and the Unit­ed States. How has the Great Tra­di­tion tran­scend­ed any spe­cif­ic min­is­te­r­i­al context?

The Great Tra­di­tion pos­sess­es a weight and glo­ry that speaks cross-cul­tur­al­ly. My expe­ri­ence in these dif­fer­ent min­is­te­r­i­al con­texts bears this out. Image-bear­ers are image-bear­ers wher­ev­er we find them, and since the Great Tra­di­tion is indeed a prod­uct of the Holy Spirit’s gra­cious work in the church on behalf of the church, we shouldn’t be sur­prised if it speaks to min­is­ters and lay peo­ple in what­ev­er con­text they find themselves.

Of course, bridge-build­ing work is often required. Nicene lan­guage, for exam­ple, must be explained care­ful­ly as to what it means and doesn’t mean, but I think this task is sim­ply cat­e­ch­esis. How can I explain clear­ly to my African or South Amer­i­can friends what the Great Tra­di­tion is? I must under­stand their min­is­te­r­i­al and cul­tur­al con­text, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly hav­ing immersed myself in the Great Tradition.

The same is true for the evan­gel­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty in the states.

Speak­ing of evan­gel­i­cals, do evan­gel­i­cals today mis­un­der­stand the Great Tradition?

Most evan­gel­i­cal folks have very lit­tle grasp of what the Great Tra­di­tion means when it affirms and explains truths such as the Trin­i­ty or the Incar­na­tion. A recent sur­vey whose results were report­ed in Chris­tian­i­ty Today found 78% of evan­gel­i­cals agree­ing with the arch-heretic Arius that Jesus is an exalt­ed creature.

Sad­ly, evan­gel­i­cal lead­ers often mis­con­strue Trini­tar­i­an rela­tions as they attempt to sup­ply divine jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for author­i­ty struc­tures they advo­cate. Ralph Drollinger, the founder of Cap­i­tal Min­istries, who reg­u­lar­ly teach­es Bible stud­ies in the White House, pic­tures dif­fer­ent lev­els of author­i­ty with­in the Trin­i­ty itself, with the Son pos­sess­ing less­er author­i­ty than the Father, and draws star­tling con­clu­sions. Drollinger writes, The respect of the sub­mis­sive wife to her hus­band then, becomes a tremen­dous phys­i­cal pic­ture of the inter­re­la­tion­ships exist­ing amongst the mem­bers of the Trin­i­ty, i.e. the Son’s respect for the Father’s author­i­ty. This human mod­el­ing is essen­tial to the woof and warp of suc­cess­ful cultures.”

Oh my! This is a Trini­tar­i­an impos­si­bil­i­ty. To pred­i­cate less­er author­i­ty with­in the per­son­al rela­tions is to believe in three gods, not one. Yet we often run across per­spec­tives such as this in evan­gel­i­cal think­ing not ground­ed in the Great Tradition.

With the influ­ence of social trini­tar­i­an­ism, Protes­tants and evan­gel­i­cals have some­times drift­ed from bib­li­cal, Nicene trini­tar­i­an­ism. Can the Fathers help us renew our ortho­dox heritage?

Sure. Folks not famil­iar with Nicene trini­tar­i­an­ism get con­fused by trini­tar­i­an lan­guage and this is under­stand­able. When we hear, for instance, that there are three per­sons” in the Trin­i­ty, we nat­u­ral­ly begin to think of human per­sons. And that’s prob­lem­at­ic, for the fathers weren’t think­ing of human per­sons as their start­ing point in think­ing about the Trin­i­ty. They were think­ing about God. If we start with our pic­ture of per­sons” using mod­els drawn from human per­son­hood, soon we are pic­tur­ing the divine per­sons as indi­vid­u­als dis­tinct from one anoth­er, yet shar­ing com­mon characteristics.

But the per­sons of the Trin­i­ty are rela­tion­al­ly dis­tinct, not indi­vid­u­als” if we’re using the word uni­vo­cal­ly, like folks not cat­e­chized will tend to do. When I read some social trini­tar­i­ans, it seems they too read­i­ly trans­fer their mod­el of human per­son­hood into their under­stand­ing of per­sons” in the Trin­i­ty. We then begin to use social” mod­els based on human com­mu­ni­ties to illus­trate what’s going on with­in the Trin­i­ty and end up draw­ing con­clu­sions about the Trin­i­ty that the Tra­di­tion and the church fathers reject. We’re not far away from think­ing of the per­sons as three sep­a­rate gods, relat­ing to one anoth­er on a very deep, per­son­al level

My friend Stan Grenz, whom we lost back in 2005, illus­trates this dif­fi­cul­ty in his sig­nif­i­cant work, The­ol­o­gy for the Com­mu­ni­ty of God. In his dis­cus­sion of Trini­tar­i­an doc­trine, Grenz affirms that we con­fess that the One God is three – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spir­it” (85). Fine. But he then writes, Each of the three is deity, shar­ing togeth­er in, and togeth­er con­sti­tut­ing, the one divine essence” (85). Big problem.

The lan­guage of togeth­er con­sti­tut­ing” the divine essence, is murky at best. Father + Son + Spir­it = the one divine essence, as though when we add them togeth­er we have the essence? No. The Father is numer­i­cal­ly one with God, as is the Son and Spir­it. They do not con­sti­tute” aspects of the essence that they then offer to each oth­er as per­sons.”

Evan­gel­i­cal the­olo­gians too often speak of three per­sons in one God” or in one God­head.” Calvin may even have used lan­guage like this. This is not nec­es­sar­i­ly unortho­dox, but it tends to lead the mind down dif­fer­ent paths than more tra­di­tion­al lan­guage. I talked with a friend — a not­ed patris­tic schol­ar — about this and nei­ther of us could recall the fathers speak­ing in this way. It’s much more typ­i­cal of them to speak of each per­son of the Trin­i­ty hav­ing” the full­ness of the divine essence (orig­i­nat­ing from the Father and giv­en in full to the Son and Spir­it. If you must pic­ture the divine ousia, I believe, it’s bet­ter to pic­ture it ful­ly with­in each per­son, rather than all three per­sons with­in it. The lat­ter lan­guage has led to the talk of three per­sons con­sti­tut­ing” the divine essence.

The one God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spir­it. There is no deity” out of which the per­sons are con­sti­tut­ed.” For the per­sons are the essence and the essence are the per­sons. Bumpy gram­mar, yes, but I think faith­ful to the Great Tradition.

In a cul­ture that is rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent than the world in which the Fathers lived, are their con­tri­bu­tions to eth­i­cal dilem­mas still rel­e­vant today?

I don’t think you’ll be sur­prised by my answer, as I just wrote a book on the ethics of the fathers, and the rel­e­vance of their think­ing and prac­tice for our lives today. Though there are sig­nif­i­cant cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences between their con­text and ours, there are also strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties. The fathers’ ancient Greek and Roman con­text, for instance, was sex­u­al­ly over­heat­ed, much like ours today. Their cul­ture loved vio­lence, as does ours.

Let me add that where the Fathers’ cul­tur­al con­text dif­fers from ours, this helps rather than hin­ders in terms of their eth­i­cal teach­ing. They will tend to have greater clar­i­ty on key eth­i­cal issues than we do, for their cul­tur­al blind spots are often not the same as our own. And, of course, the same is true for us. We will see some things more clear­ly than them.

The Fathers were not only the­olo­gians, but exegetes and preach­ers. How has a patris­tic hermeneu­tic helped influ­ence your inter­pre­ta­tion of Scripture?

I’ve learned not to rely sole­ly on mod­ern sources in inter­pret­ing the Bible. A phrase I’ve coined, hermeneu­ti­cal prox­im­i­ty,” illus­trates the impor­tance of ancient sources for read­ing the Bible well. The Fathers lived very close to the time of Jesus and the apos­tles. Ignatius of Anti­och, for instance, may have known the apos­tle John. So, when Ignatius is writ­ing about a bib­li­cal text, I want to lis­ten to him very care­ful­ly. He knows the music of the text in a man­ner I don’t, for he has learned it per­son­al­ly from the composers.

The fathers read the Bible through a Chris­to­log­i­cal lens. They know the end of the sto­ry, and allow the Gospel to pro­lep­ti­cal­ly shed light on the entire text, from Gen­e­sis on. I’ve come to expect teach­ing about Jesus or aspects of his life to appear in bib­li­cal texts that in the past I wouldn’t have spot­ted it.

The Fathers had a lot to say about spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion and the spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines. How might Chris­tians today benefit?

The church fathers affirm a deep con­nec­tion between our spir­i­tu­al health and our abil­i­ty to read the Bible well and apply its teach­ing to our lives. The fathers can help evan­gel­i­cal read­ers to learn and prac­tice a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple: the Scrip­ture is to be stud­ied, pon­dered, and applied with­in the con­text of wor­ship, rev­er­ence, and holi­ness. The fathers con­sid­er the Bible a holy book that reveals its rich­es to those who are pro­gress­ing in holi­ness through the grace and pow­er of the Spir­it. The char­ac­ter of the per­son read­ing the Bible deter­mines in sig­nif­i­cant ways what we see and hear in the text itself. I think all the Fathers would affirm this prin­ci­ple as fundamental.

The lit­er­a­ture can be daunt­ing. If some­one were to begin read­ing the fathers for the first time, where should they begin?

I sug­gest look­ing at the read­ing pro­gram sug­gest­ed by Boni­face Ram­sey in his book, Begin­ning to Read the Church Fathers, pub­lished by Paulist Press. It’s a rea­son­able, wise list; not at all overwhelming.

If you had a time machine and could sit at the feet of any one Father, who might it be and why?

Great ques­tion. My imme­di­ate response is John Chrysos­tom, since I did my doc­tor­al work on his under­stand­ing of prov­i­dence and have read lots and lots of his work. More recent­ly, though, I’ve become more inter­est­ed in the Cap­pado­cians – Gre­go­ry of Nys­sa, Basil the Great, and Gre­go­ry of Nazianzus. What fun it would be to have din­ner with any of them, though no doubt I’d be intim­i­dat­ed. Basil’s expe­ri­ences in the Egypt­ian desert would be an inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion point, as would Gre­go­ry of Nyssa’s ideas con­cern­ing the final restora­tion of all things.

You must enjoy get­ting togeth­er with col­leagues who also love the Fathers. If you could rec­om­mend one of your patris­tic pals to read­ers, who would it be?

By a patris­tic pal,” I think you must mean some­one alive! Every Fri­day at 4 pm I join Phillip Cary on a zoom call, and we talk the­ol­o­gy for an hour and a half or so. Phil’s a bril­liant patris­tic schol­ar as well as an expert on Luther and lots of oth­er stuff. You are prob­a­bly famil­iar with the three books he’s writ­ten on Augus­tine – all pub­lished by Oxford Press. I’m a sin­gles hit­ter when it comes to Phil Cary and his under­stand­ing of the Fathers. He’d prob­a­bly be play­ing third base for the Phillies, while I’d be shag­ging fly balls for a sin­gle A team. Phil’s present­ly edi­tor of Pro Eccle­sia, which no doubt many of you read. His posi­tion as edi­tor indi­cates his stature with­in the Catholic and evan­gel­i­cal schol­ar­ly com­mu­ni­ty. Right now, we’re read­ing Aquinas togeth­er, and I’m learn­ing a great deal from Thomas and Phil. Occa­sion­al­ly Phil will say he’s learn­ing from me, too, but I have my doubts.

If the Fathers were res­ur­rect­ed from the grave and walked into church on Sun­day morn­ing, what would they find most dis­turb­ing and what would they find most encouraging?

If the church you have in mind is an evan­gel­i­cal one, I think the fathers would be dis­turbed at how rarely the Eucharist is cel­e­brat­ed. How odd,” they would think. Why have they left the most impor­tant aspect of wor­ship out?”

Evan­gel­i­cal emphases on time man­age­ment — dig­i­tal clocks keep­ing every­thing mov­ing, each part of the ser­vice care­ful­ly orches­trat­ed down to the last sec­ond — would also have caught their attention.

The enter­tain­ment side of evan­gel­i­cal ser­vices would have caused a few groans. Some wor­ship songs — espe­cial­ly the ones that sound like pop­u­lar pop romance music — would have raised an eyebrow.

On the pos­i­tive side, they would have applaud­ed the evan­gel­i­cal love for the Bible.

First pub­lished in the June 2020 issue of Cre­do Mag­a­zine. Reprint­ed with permission.

Text First Published June 2020

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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