As a “Bible Christian,” I would have said I loved the writings of the Fathers. Of course, what I would have meant is that I loved to read Luther and Calvin and the other heroes of the Reformation. What Christians believed in the second, third, fourth, and fifth centuries of the Christian era didn’t matter too much to me.
And why should it? After all, when it came to determining Christian doctrine, all that really counted was “what saith the Scriptures?”
Then I met John Henry Newman. Newman was an Oxford scholar and Anglican minister so renowned in his time that his sermons were printed out in the newspapers each week and read throughout England. He was one of the most brilliant Christian thinkers of the 19th century — certainly one of the most brilliant I’d ever encountered. At the age of 45, however, he left the Church of England to become Catholic — unthinkable!
I picked up and read his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, the defense he wrote of his decision. I also began to read his extraordinary Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine in which a particular series of assertions caught my eye.
“To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”
What? I sat bolt upright as though my chair was on fire. To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant?
But this was only the beginning of birth pangs. Newman went on to insist that it is “easy to show” that the Christianity of history was not Protestantism. In fact, he insisted that if the kind of church I pastored at the time — and theological system I taught — had ever existed in the early centuries of the Christian history, there’s no record of it.
So much must the Protestant grant, that if such a system of doctrine as he would now introduce ever existed in early times, it has been clean swept away as if by a deluge, suddenly, silently, and without memorial.
Newman had thrown down the gauntlet and I was inspired to take it up. Was it possible that there was truth to what Newman was so bolding asserting?
I decided I would begin to read the early Church Fathers, straight through and, as much as it is possible to know, in order. Why not see what these men had to say? After all, these were Christianity’s first bishops, theologians, apologists, saints, and martyrs. A couple of them had been disciples of those who had been disciples of the Apostles. It seemed intuitively reasonable that those closest to the Apostles might have a better handle on what the Apostles thought and meant by the things they wrote than those living two thousand years later, or even fifteen hundred years later in the case of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the other Protestant Reformers.
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