The Importance of the Study of Patristics

There exists a present and abiding interest in the exegesis done by the Fathers of the church. In addition to the well known Roman Catholic ressourcement movement, of which the current Pope has been a contributing member, Protestant evangelicals also desire to be knowledgeable in what the Fathers had to say about Scripture. Thomas Oden’s “paleo-orthodoxy” and his Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series give evidence of this impetus. Recently, the conversion of Francis Beckwith, now former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, to Roman Catholicism by his own admission was made upon careful reflection upon the biblical exegesis of the early church:
I began reading the Early Church Fathers as well as some of the more sophisticated works on justification by Catholic authors. I became convinced that the Early Church is more Catholic than Protestant and that the Catholic view of justification, correctly understood, is biblically and historically defensible. Even though I also believe that the Reformed view is biblically and historically defensible, I think the Catholic view has more explanatory power to account for both all the biblical texts on justification as well as the church’s historical understanding of salvation prior to the Reformation all the way back to the ancient church of the first few centuries.*
It is needless to say, that the import for an understanding of what the church Fathers had to say about the Bible, what they believed the Bible to say, and how they related what they said about the comments of their ecclesiastical contemporaries impinges upon our scholarly conscience. We must understand these things. We must be conversant on what the Fathers taught and how they viewed their own understanding of Scripture relative to what other highly esteemed colleagues thought.
A comparison between the commentaries of church Fathers affords us some opportunity here. It allows us to examine what they believed Scripture to say in light of our current understanding of what it says. It allows us to understand how the they viewed each other’s comments. It gives us a sense of how authority is maintained and even transmitted. Further still, it helps us determine where the locus of authority resides: text or church. These are the sort of questions which ought to be kept in the back of our minds while studying the Fathers. Ironically, it was these same questions that allowed Luther to so ably debate Eck, and it is these same questions that cause evangelicals to reexamine their assumptions and enter communion with the Roman Catholic church.

*Francis J. Beckwith, “My Return to the Catholic Church,” n. p., [Cited 8 May 2007], Online:

3 thoughts on “The Importance of the Study of Patristics

  1. I was speaking to Dr. Braithwaite yesterday on something similar this topic. He stated that he was reading the council of Trent and found several statements concerning the relationship of justification and sanctification which are essentially played out in reformed theology. He sees little to no difference between reformed and Catholic views. It makes sense to me of why Beckwith would switch.

  2. Wow, that is a really drastic evaluation. Apparently to the Reformers there was a difference major enough to put up something of a fight. What was the Reformation built on, if not opposition to Roman ideas of justification and sanctification?

    I’m sorry, but I just can’t buy it, and I don’t think either the papists or the reformers would really be willing to agree with that assessment either.

  3. It does seem that there is some confusion. I think that it is difficult to argue with some 500 years of disagreement over what justification means.

    I am familiar with the argument, and most if it is based on a misunderstanding of Calvin in Book IV.8.3 where he comments on Matt. 24:13.

    I don’t believe that Calvin meant that enduring until the end secures salvation. he merely states that this is “the ultimate point of salvation.” (Battles’ translation, p. 1022)

    Patristics does make some interesting contributions to the topic. For instance, Augustine’s version of Perseverance of the Saints is significantly different than Calvin’s.

    I wish I could add more at this time, but lunch beckons – Calvin would forget lunch, I know.

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