English-speaking evangelical church historians and historical theologians have always been interested in the history of Christianity in the British Isles and North America. This should surprise no one; these are, after all, our contexts, our forebears, our native language. For the most part, scholars who were interested in pre-modern church history and theology tended to focus on the Reformation era. This is also unremarkable, considering the reformational roots of the evangelical movement. But recent years have witnessed some new and perhaps surprising interests among evangelical scholars.
In the past generation, scholarly interest has shifted decisively toward the pre-Reformation period, particularly the Patristic era. Virtually every evangelical college or seminary of any size has at least one historian or theologian with expertise in Patristic Studies. Many other evangelical Patristic specialists teach in university contexts. A number of schools, most notably Wheaton College, have hosted significant conferences or established research centers devoted to the early church. Influential periodicals such as First Things and Touchstone and initiatives like Evangelicals and Catholics Together have brought many evangelical thinkers in closer dialog with Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox scholars, furthering the growing evangelical interest in Patristics.
Evangelical publishers have expended considerable resources in promoting this agenda by publishing important studies by evangelicals (and others) committed to Patristic (and, to a lesser degree, Medieval) ressourcement. In recent years Eerdmans, Baker, Crossway, and Zondervan have all published scholarly studies and popular introductions to the early church and/or constructive proposals that are heavily influenced by Patristic theology and themes. But no publisher has invested more energy into (re)introducing evangelicals to the early church than InterVarsity Press.
IVP has been at the vanguard of evangelical engagement with the church fathers for well over a decade. First, they published the widely acclaimed Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Series (ACCS), a twenty-nine volume project under the general editorship of Tom Oden. Each volume in the ACCS includes a scholarly introduction by the volume editor and compiles relevant Patristic commentary. IVP followed up on the success of the ACCS by publishing the Ancient Christian Texts Series (ACTS), an ongoing project under the general editorship of Oden and Gerald Bray. Unlike the ACCS, the ACTS produces new translations of Patristic commentaries in their entirety.
IVP’s latest venture into Patristic Studies, also under the watchful guidance of Oden, is the five-volume Ancient Christian Doctrine Series (ACDS). According to Oden’s series introduction at the beginning of the first volume, the ACDS is an ecumenical project that seeks to introduce modern readers, especially evangelicals, to the theological priorities of key Christian leaders between the first and eighth centuries. According to Oden, the series aims to “clarify the ancient ecumenical faith into which Christians of all times and places are baptized” (1:ix). Following the model of the ACCS, each volume compiles a range of Patristic quotes that function as commentary on each of the phrases of the Nicene Creed, “the most authoritative common confession of worldwide Christianity” (1:ix). Oden underscores that though each volume has been edited according to the “rigorous requirements of academic readers,” the ACDS is first and foremost intended for the edification of pastors and laity (1:xvii)
This review touches upon the entire ACDS, with emphasis on how evangelicals will presumably interact with the contents of each volume.
Volume 1: Gerald L. Bray, ed.,
We Believe in One God
The first volume is edited by Anglican evangelical historical theologian Gerald Bray, who currently serves with Latimer Trust in London and Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Bray’s volume is dedicated to the Patristic doctrine of God. The creedal phrase under consideration is, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” Bray argues that the primary concern of this section of the Nicene Creed is defending monotheism, which the early church understood to be a distinctively Trinitarian concept. The principle opponents to Christian monotheism were the Gnostics in the second and third centuries and Arius and his sympathizers in the fourth century.
For the most part, the Patristic selections Bray includes fortify an orthodox understanding of the Trinity, a doctrine that evangelicals have thankfully reemphasized in recent years. Much of the material is relatively familiar to any minister or student who has taken a church history survey course. Evangelicals who too often read late medieval Catholic views of tradition back into the Patristic era will be encouraged at the biblicism of the fathers. Evangelicals will also benefit from the discussion of canonization and the rule of faith (regula fidei), the latter an oral summary of the Bible’s grand narrative that provided an authoritative interpretation of the OT and a key criterion in recognizing the canon of the NT.
Broad appreciation notwithstanding, many evangelicals will likely bristle at a couple of Trinitarian ideas enunciated during the Patristic era. Many pre-Nicene thinkers at least leaned toward subordinationist ideas, including Origen (1:69–70), Alexander (1:71), Basil the Great (1:72), and Hilary (1:73). This issue has been hotly debated in recent years in part because of its possible ramifications for how we understand gender roles. All evangelicals will reject an ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. Many will also reject any eternal functional subordination of the Son prior to his incarnation. The second controversial issue is the emphasis many church fathers placed upon the idea that each believer has a guardian angel (1:137–38). Though this idea is quite common to the piety of many grassroots evangelicals, most scholars reject the concept of guardian angels. On the whole, the first volume will likely enjoy sincere appreciation and general agreement from virtually any evangelical reader.