Comparing New Testament Interpretations with the Church Fathers
Just a few months ago, I (Bobby) was a part of a meeting where national church leaders discussed/debated the essential definition of church (the subject of “minimum ecclesiology”). After all, if we are going to plant churches together, then we need to have a shared definition of a church. One of the leaders stated that there should be little discussion about what a church is, as the New Testament clearly paints a picture for us to follow. The leader stated that since our job is to reproduce the church intended by Jesus, why would we think we could improve on that? Often times we think it’s appropriate to innovate rather than imitate that which was given to us as a model.
His excellent point, however, brought up another tough question.
True, the definition of church is given to us in the scriptures. But whose interpretation of the scriptures should we most listen to? It was an important and intense conversation because two of the leaders had two different reference points that supported their different positions. One said that his belief was biblical and it was supported by the Protestant Reformers of the 1500s. The other said that his belief was biblical too—but it was supported by the earliest Christians who came after the apostles. By this, he meant the “Apostolic Fathers,” Christian theologians who wrote during the period of A.D. 90 through A.D. 160.
We are writing this article because we believe there is great merit in the second position—it is always wise to check our interpretation of the New Testament with these early Christians. Early Christians are also broadly called “Paleo-Christians,” and their beliefs described as “Paleo-Christianity.” Another term that is often used is “Ante-Nicene Fathers”—Christian theologians who wrote up to the Council of Nicea of A.D. 325.
Living in a secular, epicurean society, we need help in interpreting and applying Scripture written nearly 2000 years ago. Everett Ferguson, internationally respected scholar on the Church Fathers, affirms “the value of early church history as an aid to the interpretation of the New Testament documents …” The meaning of a text can be more clearly defined if one sees it as a continuum of what preceded and followed it.
These early Christian leaders had the advantage in interpreting the New Testament because they were closer to it in time and place. Here are four ways that Paleo-Christians had unique insights that can help direct our interpretation of what the Bible says:
- They spoke and read the same language—with all of its nuances—as the apostles and others who wrote the New Testament.
- They lived in the same culture as the apostles and others who wrote the New Testament.
- Many were directly and individually discipled by the apostles.
- They were in the churches that had been established by the apostles and knew the practices that had been established in those churches.
On the other hand, Ferguson rightly cautions us:
- Don’t substitute their opinions for authority over the New Testament.
- Don’t try to justify their later positions by reading them back into the New Testament.
- If one attempts to establish a common tradition or teaching among the Fathers, show consensus among them—don’t cherry pick.
The modern church is under incessant pressure to adapt to the world’s culture, as it has been throughout the church’s existence. After all, Jesus, a Jew who lived almost entirely among Jews, repeatedly made clear that the kingdom was different from what Judaism had become. Similarly, Greek and Roman Christians were called to make their citizenship in the city of man secondary to their citizenship in the city of God. Christians immersed in Roman society and ruled by Roman law needed constant reminders that they must not succumb to their culture. In this way, the earliest Christians’ circumstance was similar to ours, and we need to apply and heed what they wrote to their brothers and sisters.
Thomas Oden is another well-respected scholar who joined Ferguson in the same quest for what the earliest Christians taught. Ferguson had a Restoration Movement background, and Oden was a Methodist scholar. Oden had been a progressive Christian infatuated with contemporary liberal thought who then repented of his many years of compromising Scripture. He devoted the last decades of his life to championing Paleo-Christian thought. He believed these Christian writings can help church leaders resist modern philosophical pressures.
Ferguson and Oden have produced extensive research literature on the patterns of beliefs and practices of these early Christians. Our readers may find some of the following reference books by Ferguson, Oden, and others to be helpful:
- A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, David W. Bercot, editor, Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998.
- The Ancient Christian Commentary of Scripture [29 Volume Set], edited by Thomas Oden and others.
- Bercot, David. Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, 3rd edition, Amberson, PA: Scroll Publishing Company, 1989.
- Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 2nd edition. Everett Ferguson, editor, New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1999.
- Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd edition, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993.
- Ferguson, Everett. Early Christians Speak: Faith And Life In The First Three Centuries, 3rd, Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 1999.
- Oden, Thomas. A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir. IVP Academic, 2014.
- Oden, Thomas. Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. HarperOne, 2002.
- Sommer, Carl J. We Look for a Kingdom, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007.
I (John) taught a special class at the church I attend, where I put together a series of 25 lessons composed of Ante-Nicene Fathers’ quotes along with Scriptures to which they referred. It was a very encouraging study. The following three works proved to be especially helpful summaries.
- A Concordance of Ante-Nicene Writings E-book PDF is very useful. http://www.valuesdrivenfamily.com/downloads/Concordance%20of%20Ante-Nicene%20Writings%20E-book.pdf.
- Bercot’s A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs have numerous quotes from the Church Fathers under more than 700 topics. In his shorter Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, Bercot dealt with 19 topics 10 years earlier.
- Oden created a systematic theology based upon a synthesis of his learnings from the early Christian leaders applied to theology today called Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (HarperOne, 2009).
These works and others will be very helpful to renew.org readers. For the most part the consensus positions of these writings affirm and complement the beliefs and positions of Renew. That is encouraging corroboration.
 Everett Ferguson. “Using Historical Foreground in New Testament Interpretation”, Everett Ferguson. The Early Church and Today, volume 2 (Christian Life, Scripture, and Restoration). Abilene TX: Abilene Christian University, 2012-2014, 167
 Ibid. 168
 Ibid. 169.
 Ibid. 171-172.