Portraits of Church Fathers (1): Introduction

The letter read this way:

At our last meeting it was decided to ask you to write a series of articles for our magazine.  This series will begin to be printed after “From Dordt To Today” has been completed.  We would like the articles to be concerned with men who molded and formed our faith, beginning with the very early church (100 A.D., possibly Origen, Tertullian, etc.). It was suggested that a biography accompany the views which the man held, along with quotations from his works.  The length of the series will depend upon how fully you wish to treat the man and how many men you desire to write on.

I had begun to breathe a sigh of relief that my obligations to Beacon Lights (as far as writing is concerned) were once again almost at an end.  Then the letter came: and the staff succeeded in discovering the one subject I found it extremely difficult—in fact, as this article makes clear, impossible to refuse.

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            It is my contention that every faithful child of God who takes seriously his calling to fight the battle of faith must be a student of church history.  This contention is often challenged, even by our own people.  The argument is raised that the past is emphatically past and hence, of no value to us.  We live in the present; we ought to concern ourselves with the present; we have problems enough today to occupy all our time and energies without delving into dark and dreary ages of forgotten history to learn of problems men faced then.  We have sufficient to occupy all our time and attention in this modern life without getting all dusty prowling around in the nooks and crannies of history.  We have adequate “characters” in our age to keep us busy without dragging old skeletons out of forgotten closets which are better left buried beneath the dust of the centuries. So, let us turn our backs on the past and face the present and the future; this will be of far greater profit.

I have no sympathy with such argumentation. While surely, we live in the present and had better occupy ourselves with the present, it is nonetheless disastrous to forget our past.  Arguing against our past is a type of spiritual suicide.  It plays into the hands of modern day church men who are heard raising the same objections.  It is apparent to anyone who does live seriously in the present and is aware of what is going on in the church that one of the chief evils of the age of apostate religion in which we live is precisely this evil of scorning the past.  It is said by altogether too many church leaders today that we must, in order to be relevant, forget all about the history of the church.  Their position is that we have to reconsider the decisions of church councils in history; re-evaluate the confessions of the church, re-examine our doctrinal heritage and face the fact that the past is outdated, that the present alone is significant, and that our modern age requires new doctrines and new beliefs.

This is serious business.  If we listen to this, we do grave harm to the cause of Christ and shall never be able to fulfill our calling.

The fact of the matter is that the church today stands in organic connection with the church of the past, united to this church by the Spirit of Jesus Christ.  This Spirit calls out of every age of history the one body of Christ which includes the full number of the elect and redeemed people of God.  This same Spirit leads the church into all truth, as Christ Himself promised.  This same Spirit commits the heritage of the truth of one generation to the next and places each succeeding generation under the solemn obligation to continue the development of the truth with the inheritance of the fathers as the basis.  We cannot ignore this calling.  And it presupposes that we know what the Spirit of truth has already done in the church in other years.  This is not being traditionalist—i.e., worshipping tradition for tradition’s sake: this is being grateful for God’s work in the church to which you and I belong.

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            The staff speaks of “articles to be concerned with men who molded and formed our faith….” This is, no doubt, to the point.  God raises up, within the church, at the right time and in the right place, men of His choice and eternal preparation to be used by Him to defend the faith and advance the cause of Jesus Christ.  Some of these men were martyrs sealing their faith with their blood.  Some of them were stirring characters, whose deeds arouse our admiration, make us smile with inward delight, but whose lives are more interesting than fiction.  Some were intellectual giants who nevertheless used their vast powers and enormous energies with single-minded devotion to the cause of God.  Some were heretical—especially when viewed from the perspective of our day of increased understanding, and their value in our study is consequently somewhat negative.  Some were heroes of faith in their own times, acknowledged as leaders in the church; others were outcasts who had to await the favorable judgment of history to be vindicated.  To some we owe a great debt; to others we owe very little.  Yet in them all is evidence of God’s most astonishing care of His church and the proof of all the promise of Christ; “The gates of hell shall not prevail against you.”

We shall have to look at men, who were themselves sinners, a fact which they themselves would be the first to admit.  We shall have to see their frailties, their weaknesses, their errors.  We shall have to examine men of whom it was true that “the evil men do lives after them while the good is oft interred with their bones.” But through it all we shall have to see that they were men of God who served God’s purpose in His Church.

We shall look at their teachings, their doctrines, and their faith.  We shall find that some of their teachings have already been set aside, that some were imperfect and even very wrong, that some contained the seeds of future doctrines to be developed by their spiritual children.  But through it all we shall have to see that God was leading His Church into the faith “once for all delivered unto the saints.”

And if when we read of these men, we experience a spiritual kinship with them; if we see in their confession the truth which we have also learned to love; if we see clearly that the errors with which they struggled are much the same as errors again arising within the church; if we stand in amazement before the great truth that God works His purpose, that “weakest means fulfill His will”; if the result of it all is that a doxology of thanksgiving arises in our hearts and we are encouraged to greater diligence in the battle set before us; if all these are the fruit, then these labors will not be in vain.

(Note: If some of our societies lack material for after recess programs, it s suggested that some material similar to what will be included in this series be studied.  There are many interesting and valuable books available.  And this material is of great interest to those who are willing to spend the time digging it out.)


1 In a recent issue of the Reformed Journal (March, 1966), Henry Stob, professor of apologetics in Calvin Seminary made just such a plea.  He asks for a re-investigation of practically every truth the church has even maintained including the doctrines of Scripture, the Confessions, God, predestination, creation vs. evolution, and the atonement.  He wants discussions again on the importance of the institute of the church, the liturgy of the church, the question of ecumenicity and social calling.  Every doctrine of the church which she has long held sacred must come under the hammer of criticism and re-evaluation.

2 This problem is discussed at greater length in the introductory article of last series. The interested reader can find it in the issue of June-July, 1963.