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 3: Mark J. Edwards, ed.,
We Believe in the Crucified and Risen Lord
Theologian Mark Edwards of Christ Church, Oxford edits the third volume, which comments on the Creed’s section devoted to Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension:
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
Edwards’s introduction is a devastating critique of modern reconstructions of Patristic Christology, whether skeptically liberal or simplistically evangelical. Though more verbose (and at times abstruse) than his fellow editors, Edwards also delves a bit deeper into the key scholarly discussions concerning the early christological debates and developments within the catholic creedal tradition. The fathers argued that Jesus was (and remains) simultaneously truly God and truly man, though even orthodox thinkers disagreed concerning details of Christ’s soul and/or spirit, intellect, and will(s); greater, though still not total agreement emerged in the sixth century, following the fifth ecumenical council in Constantinople in 553.
Edwards forcefully discounts a number of common scholarly conclusions. Logos-sarx Christology, or the idea that the divine Logos took the place of a human soul in Jesus, was rejected by early theologians, despite the efforts of twentieth-century scholars to ascribe this position to the ancients. Merely subjective views of the cross or theories that emphasize only Christ’s victory over the evil powers miss the Patristic emphasis on Christ’s objective conquering of sin; the latter was a central reason for Christ’s incarnation and stands behind the Patristic (and Pauline) emphasis on Christ as the New Adam. Following his death, Jesus was resurrected with a real human body, but one that is both physical and spiritual and thus different and better than the sin-tainted bodies with which we are familiar.
The selections Edwards includes in his anthology reveal a wealth of deep reflections on Christ’s death and resurrection that will be welcomed by evangelical readers. The fathers closely connected Christ’s divinity and his saving acts; the former provides the foundation for the latter. Though early emphasis was placed upon the fact of Jesus’ death, during the fourth century it became increasingly popular to emphasize the means of his death—the cross (3:24). The fathers emphasized the historical nature of the faith by emphasizing that Christ’s death was at the hands of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate and that he was buried in a real tomb that was widely believed to still be known and accessible to pilgrims, though fortunately very much empty (3:100). His resurrection was predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures and foreknown by Christ, which confirmed his ministry. He is presently reigning spiritually with the Father from heaven, but will return one day to judge all people and reign physically from the redeemed earth.
The fathers challenge some common evangelical assumptions, sometimes quite helpfully, other times less so. Unlike later medieval Catholic piety (sometimes aped by evangelicals), the Patristic tradition did not equate Christ’s passion with the degree of Christ’s physical sufferings, but rather with his humble submission to God’s plan that he endure suffering on behalf of sinful humanity. This seems like a helpful corrective, especially in light of the way many evangelicals preach about the crucifixion and responded to Mel Gibson’s controversial film The Passion of the Christ. But most evangelicals would understandably object to other emphases, including Origen’s connection of the incarnation and resurrection with allegorical, spiritual readings of Scripture (3:36) and the common “ransom” theories of the atonement found among many of the fathers in the Eastern tradition (3:122–25); the former is too ahistorical while the latter calls God’s integrity into question.