May 2007 - Vol. 8
Reading Scripture with 
the Early Church Fathers

by Don Schwager

Icon of Christ Pancrator (Christ Ruler of All) 
 6th century, Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai, Egypt

What can the early church fathers teach us about Scripture?
Why read the early church fathers and what can they teach us about the scriptures? It is easy to underestimate the contributions of the past and to exaggerate the wisdom of the present. Can we trust the Christian teachers of  the early church period? Did they read the scriptures well? Did their own cultural and religious blind spots prevent them from understanding the heart of the gospel? Today there is renewed interest in the writings of the early church fathers among Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox. Many are rediscovering the rich treasure of wisdom and insight of the early church scholars, pastors, and teachers who devoted their lives to the study of the scriptures. The early fathers had a tremendous zeal for God and the Scriptures. What we see from a distance of some 2000 years, they saw close-up because of their access to the teachings of the apostles and the disciples of the apostles who also passed on their wisdom and insight. 

Who are the early church fathers?
The age of the church fathers begins with the apostles and the first disciples who had the privilege of personal contact with the Lord Jesus. They are the hearers of the Incarnate Word who kept and handed on the words of the Word. The age of the apostles ends with the death of John the Evangelist at the close of the first century. 

The patristic period began with some of the fathers who remembered the apostles John or Peter personally. They did not see Jesus in the flesh, but they had a personal share in the transmission of the apostles' testimony. 

The golden period of the fathers runs from the fourth to the sixth century.  Most date the end of the age of the Fathers of the West with the death of Isidore of Seville in 636, and the age of the Fathers of the East with the death of John Damascene in 749. 

What characterizes a father of the church?
What qualified someone to be recognized as a "father of the church"?  There are four key characteristics. First, their antiquity. The first church father is Clement of Rome, who wrote his letter around the year 96 AD. The early fathers lived and breathed the scriptures and the teachings of the apostles. They were the disciples of—and the disciples of the disciples of—the apostles. They demonstrate how Christ is present in all the Scriptures, from Genesis through Revelations.  [See quotes from the Early Fathers in the box below.]

A second characteristic of the church fathers is their holiness of life. They studied, meditated, and lived as faithful witnesses of the gospel. And they exhibited a tremendous zeal for God and the Scriptures. They have much to teach us about reverence for God's word and for study and meditation upon it. 

A third characteristic is their orthodox doctrine. Their teaching is recognized as sound within the bounds of Scripture and church tradition. They affirm the central truths of the faith, such as belief in the triune God, that Christ was fully divine and fully human, the redemptive efficacy of Christ's death on the cross, the absolute authority and infallibility of Scripture, the fallen condition of humanity, the significance of baptism, the vital importance of prayer and of the disciplined spiritual life. They were not just theologians, but pastors of the church.  Most of the early fathers were bishops. As shepherds of the church they spoke to the hearts and needs of those in their care. 

The fourth characteristic is ecclesiastical approval. They were affirmed as such by the church itself. Within the broader classification of "Church Fathers" eight are designated as "Doctors of the Church": Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great in the West; Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Athanasius and John Chrysostom in the East. They are eminent among the fathers for the depth of their learning. 

Reading Scripture is a spiritual activity
How did the early church fathers approach the reading of the Bible? They show us that it's not just an intellectual activity, but more importantly a spiritual one. In fact we need to prepare our hearts and minds for the fruitful study and meditation of the Scriptures. Listen to what the early fathers say about reading the Scriptures: 

Origen, who lived between 185-254 AD,  wrote: "The Word of God is in your heart. The Word digs in this soil so that the spring may gush out." 

Jerome, who lived between 342-419 AD, wrote: "You are reading? No.Your betrothed is talking to you. It is your betrothed, that is, Christ, who is united with you. He tears you away from the solitude of the desert and brings you into his home, saying to you, 'Enter into the joy of your Master.'" 

John Chrysostom, who lived between 347-407 AD, wrote: "Listen carefully to me..Procure books [of the Bible] that will be medicines for the soul. At least get a copy of the New Testament, the Apostle's epistles, the Acts, the Gospels, for your constant teachers. If you encounter grief, dive into them as into a chest of medicines; take from them comfort for your trouble, whether it be loss, or death, or bereavement over the loss of relations. Don't simply dive into them. Swim in them. Keep them constantly in your mind. The cause of all evils is the failure to know the Scriptures well."

The reading of the Bible should impact daily living. The Scriptures must be put into practice and translated into daily experience. We must be living testimonies of the Word of God. Reading the church fathers can be very rewarding, but it requires some serious effort. We have to transcend our modern culture and way of looking at things in order to understand the mind and culture of the early church and its way of thinking. If we are willing to hunt and dig a little in our study, then we will find a rich treasure of wisdom and inspiration from the writings of early fathers on the Scriptures.
The Scriptures are one book in Christ

Irenaeus writes from the 2nd century: 
"If one carefully reads the Scriptures, he will find there the word on the subject of Christ and the prefiguration of the new calling. He is indeed the hidden treasure in the field — the field in fact is the world — but in truth, the hidden treasure in the Scriptures is Christ. Because he is designed by types and words that humanly are not possible to understand before the accomplishment of all things, that is, Christ's second coming." 

Origen writes from the 3rd century: 
"[Christ's words] are not only those which he spoke when he became a man and tabernacled in the flesh; for before that time, Christ, the Word of God, was in Moses and the prophets. ...[their words] were filled with the Spirit of Christ."

Hilary of Poitiers writes from the 4th century: 
"Every part of Holy Writ announces through words the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, reveals it through facts and establishes it through examples. ..For it is our Lord who during all the present age, through true and manifest foreshadowings, generates, cleanses, sanctified, chooses, separates, or redeems the Church in the Patriarchs, through Adam's slumber, Noah's flood, Melchizedek's blessing, Abraham's justification, Isaac's birth, and Jacob's bondage." 

Augustine of Hippo writes from the 5th century:
“You recall that one and the same Word of God extends throughout Scripture, that it is one and the same Utterance that resounds in the mouths of all the sacred writers, since he who was in the beginning God with God has no need of separate syllables; for he is not subject to time."
"The Scriptures are in fact, in any passage you care to choose, singing of Christ, provided we have ears that are capable of picking out the tune. The Lord opened the minds of the Apostles so that they understood the Scriptures. That he will open our minds too is our prayer.” 

[Don Schwager is a member of The Servants of the Word and the author of the Daily Scripture Reading and Meditation website.]

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