Interview with Michael Haykin, author of REDISCOVERING THE CHURCH FATHERS: WHO THEY WERE AND HOW THEY SHAPED THE CHURCH

Published on September 14, 2015 by Todd Scacewater

Crossway, 2011 | 176 pages

Many of our readers are already familiar with Michael Haykin, Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also on our Board of Reference here at Books At a Glance and our Review Editor for Church History and Historical Theology, having helped us since the early planning stages of this work. He is a good friend, a prolific author, and he is well known for his extensive acquaintance with all things historical.

Among his recent works is his Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church (Crossway, 2011). Studies in ancient church history are not overly common, although there is a rising interest in the field today. So we were very interested to talk to Dr. Haykin about this work.
 

Books At a Glance (Fred Zaspel):
Let’s begin on a personal level. Tell us something of your own interests and studies in the ancient church. Wasn’t this your original area of Christian academic interest? How did that come about?

Haykin:

I did begin with an interest in the Ancient Church. I am sure my love for the Graeco-Roman world that goes back to first grade (yes, first grade) had something to do with it. I have always loved history, but what sparked the fascination with the Patristic era was the request by my theology prof, Dr Jakob Jocz, the Lithuanian Jewish believer and a superb theologian, to write an essay on Novatian’s De Trinitate. I was hooked, and especially so when I studied with Dr John Egan, a Jesuit expert on Gregory Nazianzus. Egan had gotten his doctorate under Charles Kannengiesser, the Athanasius expert, who was the last doctoral student of Jean Daniélou, the great architect of patristic ressourcement. This is a great heritage that I have received from these men.
 

Books At a Glance:
Before we move on, let’s clear away another basic kind of question regarding your book. Why do we refer to these men as “fathers” of the church? Are there “mothers” of the church also? 🙂

Haykin:
Recent feminist historians have helped scholars like myself realize that there were indeed “mothers.” But the problem is textual material: apart from say Perpetua (f.200–203), Egeira (fl.381–384), and some female friends of Jerome like Marcella and Paul Eustochium, who write letters to Jerome, we we have really nothing written by these women. Perpetua left a portion of a prison diary and Egeira left a travel diary.
 

Books At a Glance:
Exactly what time period are we talking about? Just what is the era of the fathers? And what considerations determine the ending point?

Haykin:
The staring-point is easy: right after Revelation; so around 100ad, although there are one or two documents written before this: the Didache, which might be as early as 80 ad and the First Letter of Clement from the 90s ad.

The big issue is the closing date. I was always taught the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century was the close of the patristic era. For a variety of reasons I would now argue that it is much later, namely with the emergence of Islam out of the Saudi peninsula. So around 700 ad. This means that the two last major representatives of the Ancient Church are John of Damascus in the east and the Venerable Bede  in the west.
 

Books At a Glance:
So, the fathers span a number of centuries. Are there ways to subdivide that broad period of time?

Haykin:
Probably the easiest way is the pre-Nience (before the council of Nicaea)/pre-Constantinian era (before Constantine’s declaration of the toleration of Christianity) era: so that would be 100-313/325. And then the second period is 313/325 to the end of the patristic era, around 700 or so. Or one could subdivide the latter era into: and talk about the high partristic era, 313/325–500 and the late patristic era as 500–700.
 

Books At a Glance:
Why should we be interested to study the church fathers? What do they have to offer us? Are there particular ways in which the church fathers are still helpful to us today?

Haykin:
Our generation is afflicted with a kind of historical amnesia, which, unfortunately, has not left the Church untouched. For instance, Malcolm Muggeridge, who became a professing Christian after a lifetime of skepticism, in remarks made in the account of his conversion, stated that in the final analysis “history is phony.” As he went on to say:

…in the case of the greatest happenings such as Christ’s life and death, historicity is completely without importance. It is very important to know the history of Socrates because Socrates is dead, but the history of Christ doesn’t matter because he is alive. [Jesus Rediscovered (London: Wm. Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., 1972), 204.]

In such an intellectual ambience — which is nonsensical to anyone who values the historicity of Christian origins — the question, “Why study the Fathers?” must be asked again and answered afresh. Our forebears at the time of the Reformation well knew the benefit of studying the patristic era. [See Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “The Promise of Patristic Studies” in David F. Wells and Clark H. Pinnock, eds., Toward a Theology for the Future (Carol Stream, Illinois: Creation House, 1971), 125-127.]  What did they know that we have forgotten?

First, study of the Fathers, like any historical study, liberates us from the present [C.S. Lewis, “De descriptione temporum” in Walter Hooper, ed., Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1969), 12.]. Every age has a certain outlook, presuppositions which remain unquestioned even by opponents. The examination of another period of thought forces us to confront our innate prejudices which would go unnoticed otherwise.

For instance, Gustaf Aulén, in his classic study of the atonement, Christus Victor, argues that an objective study of the Patristic concept of Atonement will reveal a motif which has received little attention in post-Reformation Christianity: the idea of the Atonement as a divine conflict and victory, in which Christ fights and overcomes the evil powers of this world, under whom man has been held in bondage. According to Aulén, what is commonly accepted as the New Testament doctrine of the Atonement, the forensic theory of satisfaction, may in fact be a concept quite foreign to the New Testament. As to whether he is right or not — and I think he is quite wrong — can only come by a fresh examination of the sources, both New Testament and Patristic.

Then, the Fathers can provide us with a map for the Christian life. It is indeed exhilarating to stand on the east coast and watch the Atlantic surf and hear the pound of the waves. But this experience will be of little benefit in sailing to England. For this a map is needed. A map based upon the accumulated experience of thousands of voyagers. Similarly, we need such a map for the Christian life. Experiences are fine and good, but they will not serve as a suitable foundation for our lives in Christ. To be sure, we have the divine Scriptures, an ultimately sufficient foundation for all of our needs (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But the thought of the Fathers can help us enormously in building on this foundation.

A fine example is provided by Athanasius’ doctrine of the Spirit in his letters to Serapion, bishop of Thmuis. The present day has seen a resurgence of interest in the Person of the Holy Spirit. This is admirable, but also fraught with danger if the Spirit is conceived of apart from Christ. Yet, Athanasius’ key insight was that “from our knowledge of the Son we may be able to have true knowledge of the Spirit” [Letter to Serapion 3.1.]. The Spirit cannot be divorced from the Son: not only does the Son send and give the Spirit, but the Spirit is the principle of the Christ-life within us. Many have fallen into fanatical enthusiasm because they failed to realize this basic truth:  the Spirit cannot be separated from the Son.

Third, the Fathers may also, in some cases, help us to understand the New Testament. We have had too disparaging a view of Patristic exegesis, and have come close to considering the exposition of the Fathers as a consistent failure to understand the New Testament.

For instance Cyril of Jerusalem in his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:5, which concerns temporary abstinence of sexual relations between married couples for the sake of prayer, assumes without question that the prayer is liturgical and communal prayer [Catechesis 4.25.]. Cyril may be guilty of an anachronism, for he was a leader in “the hallowing of the time,” that is, the observance of holy seasons. Nonetheless, there is good evidence that such communal observances, in some form or other, are quite early. The liturgical life of the Church of Jerusalem in the fourth century was not that of Corinth in the first, but nevertheless there were links. Possibly it is the Protestant commentators who are guilty of anachronism when they assume that Paul meant private prayer; such religious individualism is more conceivable in the Protestant West than in first-century Corinth.

Again, in recent discussions of the Pauline doctrine of salvation, it has been asserted by the proponents of the so-called “New Perspective” that the classical Reformed view of justification has little foundation in Paul or the rest of the New Testament, but is more a product of the thinking of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564). Yet, in a second-century document apologetic work, the anonymous Letter to Diognetus, we find the following argument that sounds like it has been lifted straight from the pages of Luther.

The author has been arguing that God revealed his plan of salvation to none but his “beloved Son” until human beings realized their utter and complete inability to gain heaven by their own strength. Then, when men were conscious of their sin and impending judgment, God,

did not hate or reject us or bear us ill-will. Rather, he was long-suffering, bore with us, and in mercy he took our sins upon himself. He himself gave his own Son as a ransom for us — the Holy One for the godless, the Innocent One for the wicked, the Righteous One for the unrighteous, the Incorruptible for the corruptible, the Immortal for the mortal. For what else was able to cover our sins except his righteousness? In whom could we, who were lawless and godless, have been justified, but in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange! O the inscrutable work of God! O blessings beyond all expectation! — that the wickedness of many should be hidden in the one Righteous Man, and the righteousness of the One should justify the many wicked! [Diognetus 9.2-5]

The use of the term “ransom” at the head of this passage recalls Mark 10:45 (“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”), where “ransom” bears all of the force of its meaning as a ransom payment that is substitutionary in character [Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (3rd ed.; London: Tyndale Press, 1965), 33-38.]. Here, in the Letter to Diognetus this substitutionary motif is also in view in “ransom” as the subsequent clauses of this text display. And although our author employs hyper after “ransom” rather than the Markan anti, hyper is being used as a synonym of anti, as it frequently is in koine Greek [Thus Morris, Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 62.]. Then follow five dialectical ways of expressing this act of substitution, one of which — “the Righteous One for the unrighteous” — almost exactly reproduces a phrase from 1 Peter 3:18. What is highlighted in this dialectic are the twin soteriological themes of the Son’s utter sinlessness and humanity’s radical depravity, and that in ways in full accord with the classical Reformed view of the meaning of Christ’s death for our salvation.

As T.F. Torrance has generally observed:

[There is a] fundamental coherence between the faith of the New Testament and that of the early Church…  The failure to discern this coherence in some quarters evidently has its roots in the strange gulf, imposed by analytical methods, between the faith of the primitive Church and the historical Jesus. In any case I have always found it difficult to believe that we modern scholars understand the Greek of the New Testament better than the early Greek Fathers themselves! [Space, Time and Resurrection (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1976), xii.]

These reasons are only a start towards giving a full answer to the question, “Why study the Fathers?” There are certainly other reasons for studying these ancient authors which may be more obvious or even more important. There is, for example, the fact that it is in the patristic era that the doctrine of the Trinity, found in nuce in the New Testament, is developed and hammered out on the anvil of biblical reflection and worship [Bromiley, “Promise of Patristic Studies”, 135-137]. But the reasons given above sufficiently indicate the need for Patristic studies in the ongoing life of the Church:

  • to aid in her liberation for the Zeitgesit of the twenty-first century
  • to provide a guide in her walk with Christ
  • to help her understand the basic witness to her faith, the New Testament.
     

Books At a Glance:
Are there areas where the church fathers are not really a help to us, or even distinctly unhelpful?

Haykin:
Oh yes: not all of their exegesis is sound (especially when they indulge in allegory — though we must learn to understand why they make such interpretations before we critique them).
 

Books At a Glance:
How then should we read the fathers?

Haykin:
Sympathetically, as older brothers in the Faith. We need to read them as the Reformers and the Puritans read them: as learned exegetes who have much to teach us but who are not infallible.
 

Books At a Glance:
Some have been concerned that reading the church fathers may lead some to become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Do you share this concern?

Haykin:
Yes. But an accurate reading of the Fathers will reveal much that is at odds with later Roman and Eastern traditions: no papal authority, no doctrine of transubstantiation for example.
 

Books At a Glance:
What were you hoping to accomplish by your book? What contribution(s) were you hoping to make?

Haykin:
I wanted to encourage the reading of the Fathers and the treasuring of them as my own forebears like John Gill and John Sutcliff did.
 

Books At a Glance:
It’s been said that the Reformation is a battle between the two sides of Augustine. To what extent is that true? And how so?

Haykin:
This is a remark from B.B. Warfield, who noted that Augustine’s theology of grace was at war with his ecclesiology (there is no salvation outside of the church). There is much truth in this.
 

Books At a Glance:
Are there particular fathers you would recommend to the beginning student? Which of the fathers would be best to begin our acquaintance with them? And why?

Haykin:
Begin with Augustine’s Confessions. Then read Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit, and then Letter of Diognetus. I would hope that after these you would be hooked!!

Buy the books

REDISCOVERING THE CHURCH FATHERS: WHO THEY WERE AND HOW THEY SHAPED THE CHURCH

Crossway, 2011 | 176 pages