A Protestant Learns to Love the Church Fathers

Like beer and black coffee, the Church Fathers are an acquired taste.

Although young and still a graduate student, I am no newcomer to the Christian faith. But somehow, in the process of church, youth camps, undergrad Bible courses and extensive reading of Scripture, the Church Fathers -- the spiritual exemplars of the Christian tradition -- never made it into the conversation.

To me, everyone from the Christian tradition was merely another interpreter of Scripture. Why would I waste my time reading someone else's opinion when I could just read the Bible for myself? What good would it do to read from the Christian tradition when everything I need can be found in Scripture? Sola Scriptura! -- and the tradition can be left to my non-Protestant friends.

But things began to change when I learned that being Christian is about conforming to a tradition. It is about becoming part of an ongoing movement that has hung around and thrived for two millennia. It's not totally unlike American History requirements in school. The historical question is far greater than learning about the past, or even learning about how to navigate the future. It is about identity. One could hardly be called an American in the thick sense of that term without even a cursory knowledge of Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and our other political heroes. So it seems equally absurd to me for a person to think that being Christian can be accomplished without knowing what being Christian has meant through our shared history. However, somewhere in the Protestant move the central role of Scripture for the Christian identity became so overwhelmingly bright that the humble lamps of the Christian fathers were misplaced and then subsequently forgotten.

One of the greatest disservices of contemporary theology is its neglect of the Christian Fathers and their contribution to our religion. But even more than that, an equally appalling tragedy is the neglect of the great exemplars of Christian faith in non-liturgical traditions.

Reading the Fathers is difficult in its own right, and learning how to constructively appropriate them into contemporary contexts is an even greater challenge. But it is insane to call ourselves Christian when we ignore what being Christian has meant since its inception. Before reading another book about leadership or church structure, maybe Christians (including me) could do well to reach for Augustine or Maximus the Confessor.

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