Bryan Liftin is a self-described “proud, dispensational, conservative, born-again fundie.” He is also the author of Getting to Know the Church Fathers, which discusses the early Christians and their beliefs. The following quotes are from an interview he gave to Christianity Today:
I began to see them as my forefathers, that I might feel an organic connection. And that church history is a continuous story. We can recover the fathers as our own and we can recover them through a direct line back, so that all the richness of church history becomes ours. That’s what I want to do for the Christian today: I want the Christian to understand that there’s a richness to their history that they’re missing; embrace it and let it be something that inspires you.
As Steve Ray (a convert to Catholicism from Protestantism) puts it: “So far so good. This was the exact sentiment I had when I began to read them—thinking that I would discover fellow Evangelicals who held to the simply “Bible Alone” and “Faith Alone” theology of “real Christianity.” If [sic] found differently. I find it sad and disappointing that contemporary Christians have avoided and ignored this period of the Church. ”
I can second that concept; I’ve found my faith greatly enriched by understanding what the early Christians wrote and believed. It does remind that we are part of a historic Church that leads back to the time of Christ. We actually did exist before Vatican II, despite what some people seem to tell us. We’re part of an organic Church who teaches the same things that the early Christians taught, we just have come to understand them more fully.
(Side note: an example of this is our teaching on sexuality. Up until the ’60s no one ever seriously challenged the teaching on the use of God’s gift of our sexuality; they have ignored it, but they didn’t raise serious challenges to it. That changed with the Sexual Revolution and most Christians across denominations were caught flat-footed and unsure how to respond. Most responses fell into one of two categories: “You’re right; go at like bunnies and have a good time.” or “Because we said so.” And that’s understandable, they’d never had to think about the issue. Not just they, but all Christianity through history. Fortunately, Karol Wojtyla had been thinking about it, and after his election as Pope, promulgated his teaching of the Theology of the Body
which shows how our entire body, not just our sexuality, “has a specific meaning and is capable of revealing answers regarding fundamental questions about us and our lives.” Papal biographer George Weigel has referred to this as a “theological time bomb” set to explode in the 21st century that could help us recapture a proper understanding surrounding the use and wonder of our sexuality. This is just one example of how the Church can know what God’s teaching is, but not necessarily understand the “why” when first asked.)
Unfortunately, Litfin misses an obvious connection when talking about the beliefs of the Church Fathers:
You have to realize that they’re not evangelicals. So some of the points where we would differ with them would be the points where we would differ with Roman Catholicism. Some of their doctrine of salvation is going to be sacramental. They’re not going to use the term inerrancy, but they give full credence to Scripture, and [see it as] inspired. … There can be a works-orientedness to them, where there’s a paying-off of God. You can see that in Tertullian, for example.
He comes so close, but probably due to a life-long habit misses the obvious point. As he says, Evangelicals will disagree with the early Christians in the same places where they disagree with Catholics. He misses, though, the obvious connection that the early Christians and Catholics teach the same things; the early Christians were Catholics! As Ray puts it:
Yes, he has to ignore and avoid their basic theology and teaching on salvation because it is too sacramental, too Catholic. He wants his readers to know these first Christians, but not to really know them. Let’s find what they believed that agrees with us (the final judges) and ignore the part that sounds too Catholic.
His admission that “You have to realize that they’re not evangelicals” is very revealing. What he is really saying is that he has a different religion today than the first Christians held in the first centuries.
Who has the true theology and practice—those 2,000 years removed or the ones who learned the faith directly from the Apostles? Hum! Who should be listened to with more credence? An admitted 21 century “fundie” or the martyrs who learned at the feet of the Apostles John, Peter and Paul? I know at whose feet I will sit to learn.
He makes a very salient point: why should we take the word of a person living two thousand years after Christ over the word of someone who learned at the feet of the apostles. Ignatius of Antioch, in whose writings we find the earliest extant reference to the Church as “Catholic,” died in 107 and learned the faith from Peter. If Litfin teaches something different than Ignatius, who should we listen to? Doesn’t seem like that hard a decision.
Litfin says that to discuss their theology opens a can of worms. Yes it would! And for those who dare to open the can of worms very often see the poverty of their modern Evangelicalism.
Modern Protestantism is very different from the early Christians. Those who begin to dig deeper frequently become Catholics. It is a dangerous thing for modern Evangelicals to encourage their followers to read the Fathers since they will soon lose many of the best and brightest to the Catholic Church. I don’t think this will be a big trend, it is far to dangerous to encourage the reading of such subversive literature.
A number of my favorite Catholic authors, if not most, are former Protestants and many of them admit to converting after studying the early Christians. Recognizing in their teaching a sacramental theology, belief in a visible Church with apostolic succession, a sacrificial priesthood, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the Church’s ability to teach infallibly. (Not to mention the fact they were preaching without a Bible compiled yet. If the “Bible alone,” were true, what did Christians do before the canon of the Bible was finalized? Sit around waiting for God to give them the Bible? Of course not, they preached what they learned from the Church! After all, many Christians couldn’t read; were they left unsaved since they couldn’t turn to the Bible?)
One Protestant told me they don’t read the early Christians because they wouldn’t know who to believe. That argument is a bit of a canard: there’s not much disagreement on doctrine. As discussed above, the disagreements weren’t so much on the “what,” but on the “why” or the “how”. Where there was disagreement on the “what,” such as the dispute over Arianism about the eternal existence of Christ, a Church Council was called that settled the matter definitively.
And I think that’s the real reason many Protestants don’t want to study early Church history: when they do, they find a Church that is Catholic. Litfin may be fighting recognizing that, but hopefully his book will help other Protestant to realize that fact. As the saying goes, “God draws straight with crooked lines,” and this book may be yet another example of that.
Hat Tip: Steve Ray