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 2: John Anthony McGuckin, ed.,
We Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ
The second volume is dedicated to Patristic Christology. Editor John Anthony McGuckin is a distinguished Eastern Orthodox scholar affiliated with both Union Theological Seminary (New York) and Columbia University. The volume focuses on this part of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
In his introduction, McGuckin helpfully reminds readers that the early creeds were doxological theology, composed for use as baptismal confessions and prayers rather than dry theological treatises. He also acknowledges that Patristic Christology was often nuanced through confrontation with heresy, and was thus more often reactive rather than proactive. He affirms the Patristic idea that Christ’s person is best understood in relation to his saving work. McGuckin also argues for a pre-critical reading of Patristic sources and remains hopeful that recovering the Patristic creedal tradition will result in a new ecumenism among Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox believers. Some evangelicals will resonate with McGuckin’s ecumenical goals, though most will likely be hesitant to embrace any ecumenism that downplays reformational emphases on the supreme authority of Scripture and justification by grace alone through faith alone.
The selections themselves are among the most familiar Patristic writings to evangelicals. Numerous quotations are culled from the writings of Athanasius and the Cappadocians, forged in combat with the so-called Arians and others who were hesitant to affirm the full deity of God the Son. Evangelicals will benefit from engaging Patristic emphases on Jesus as the fulfillment of OT promises, the eternity and creative power of the divine Logos, and the argument that the eternity of the Father—which was assumed by most all parties—necessarily implies the eternity of the Son, since fathers are not fathers until they have children. Evangelicals will also appreciate the Patristic commitment to a “Christology from above,” which stands in stark contrast to recent critical emphases on “Christology from below” (2:97–106). The many anti-Arian quotations, along with McGuckin’s comments on the Patristic doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Father and Son, are a gold mine of helpful material.
Other material is less likely to resonate with evangelicals. The Eastern emphasis on deification, which was crucial to many christological arguments and continues to be emphasized in the Orthodox traditions, seems a less helpful way to articulate the process of individual salvation than the more common evangelical doctrines of progressive sanctification and final glorification (2:90–92). The controversial subordinationist tendencies referenced in Bray’s volume also receive attention in this volume. Evangelicals will also be uncomfortable with the pronounced Mariology of many Patristic thinkers, for whom the virgin conception became the seedbed for speculations about Mary’s perpetual virginity (2:129) and status as the “new Eve” in the economy of salvation (2:133–34).