Author Interview: Getting to Know the Church Fathers by Bryan Litfin

Posted: August 5, 2011 in books, history, interview

Dr. Bryan Litfin (University of Virginia) is a professor of theology at the Moody Bible Institute.  In 2007, Dr. Litfin published his first book entitled, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction.  The book is an engaging overview of the early church, offering modern Christians an accesible peek into a very different (and often neglected) era of Christian history.

I learned a lot from Dr. Litfin during my time at Moody.  His deep appreciation for church history and genuine love for his students has made him a favorite among many.  Although charged with the difficult task of teaching two survey classes related to Christian doctrine and church history, Dr. Litfin consistently manages to cultivate an environment that is both interesting and fun, full of dialogue, discussion, and laughter.  Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Litfin effectively conveys the importance and relevance of a robust understanding of our Christian heritage.  Numerous students have spoken to me about how they have come to appreciate (and even enjoy) the study of history since taking his classes.

Getting to Know the Church Fathers is a great book that is well worth the read.  Although not lacking in scholarship, the book reads more like a novel than a textbook.  If you’re looking for a great read for this last bit of summer, consider something a little out of the ordinary and pick up this book!

MT: What field did you do your doctoral work in and why?

BL: I studied patristics because I got interested in it during seminary and wanted to expand my understanding.  In seminary I started writing exegetical papers and quickly realized that learning Greek and Hebrew wouldn’t give me a magic key to provide the one, official answer for every verse.  I started to realize that interpretation within the historic Christian stream of thought was vital…what we might call “tradition.”  At the same time, my seminary hired an excellent patristics professor, who initiated me into that academic field.  I went on to study with one of the leading patristics scholars in the world.

MT: Why write a book about the church fathers?

BL: Many times I am asked, “I don’t know much about the ancient church fathers. Where could I find something to read on that?”  I got asked that so many times and didn’t have a good answer, so I decided to write the book myself!  More generally, I wanted to write about the fathers because many evangelicals are missing out on the riches of their theological and exegetical insights. They are our forefathers in the faith; they shaped many practices and doctrines and apologetic arguments and forms of worship that we take for granted today.

MT: Who is your intended audience?

BL: I wrote this book for the curious layperson, and/or for college students. In other words, I think GTKCF works as a college textbook, but it doesn’t read like a textbook.  Many of my students have told me, with surprise, that they actually enjoyed the book. It was a good read in addition to teaching them something.  I wanted to “put the cookies on the bottom shelf.” I wanted to take my academic discipline of early Christian studies and make it accessible to the Christian who wants to know something about the fathers but needs a guide.  Take my hand, I’ll lead the way, and you’ll discover some great treasures that you’re missing.

MT: What are some of the important contributions of the church fathers?

BL: We get many Scriptural patterns of thinking from the fathers.  For example, when we read the Old Testament and see Christological meaning there (in the form of prophecy, typology, or symbolic hints of the coming Messiah) we are following a patristic way of reading the Bible. Or we get doctrines from the ancient church, such as the co-eternity and consubstantiality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Trinity, or the two natures united in one person in the hypostatic union of Christ. We get many practices from the fathers, such as Christian charity for the poor, or Eucharist as a ritual instead of a household feast, or the solemnity of baptism.  Not to say that these things aren’t in the Bible, but they get developed by the fathers. Other patristic practices have been dropped by many Protestants and probably could stand to be revived.  We also owe the recognition of the canon of Scripture to the fathers. And of course we can be inspired by their heroic testimony in martyrdom.

MT: What would you say to someone who thinks history is boring and irrelevant?

BL: Someone who is convinced of that probably has some basic immaturity that I won’t be able to overcome. However, perhaps the issue might be that the person hasn’t found an accessible treatment of history that is engaging and interesting and understandable.  I tried very hard to make my book on the fathers that sort of book, and not a few people have told me they have found it to be such.  To the person who thinks history is irrelevant, I tell a story in my introduction that might apply.  It’s like a little boy who loves his grandmother but ignores her family heritage (which is his as well). When he is older and more mature, he cleans out her attic and finds her hope chest.  Then he is struck that Grandma had a history and a story that he was too immature to appreciate.  But it’s his story…it made him who he is.  He wishes he had been wise enough to examine it while he could.  The church fathers are like that.  Take a peek into your Christian hope chest.  Learn something about your roots and your heritage. Don’t be a fool who is only fascinated by what lies ahead.  The past has made you what you are, whether you acknowledge it or not.

MT: Why do you think so many Christians are ignorant about their Christian heritage?  How can church leaders teach about and encourage an appreciation for church history?

BL: The basic problem here is that we think that “true Christianity” existed only in the time of the Apostles, and then it disappeared, but it re-appeared with Protestants in the Reformation.  I try to show in GTKCF that we are all “catholics.”  Obviously that does not mean we must convert to the Roman Catholic Church.  What I mean is that the universal church is a communion throughout all the Christian centuries..not just the first, or the sixteenth, or the twenty-first.  Church leaders should educate their people about the ancient period and make reference to the early saints in their teaching. Perhaps pastors can refer to patristic commentaries on Scripture and not just those of modern scholars. I wrote GTKCF to be this sort of resource. Each chapter has study questions and selections from the fathers themselves. There is a bit of a spiritual or devotional tone to it.  I always thought it might be a good book to go through in a Sunday school class or adult community or small group.

MT: What practical applications does this study have for normal Christians?

BL: The practical application of this study is to gain a sense of oneness with those who ran the race before us.  One of the biggest problems in church circles today is disconnection from the larger “catholic” church.  Many pastors just make things up out of the blue, and everybody thinks that’s great or innovative.  Well we are not a business.  We aren’t just supposed to create new things from scratch.  New things should be new ways of communicating old things.  There should be a sense that we belong the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.”  People long for this.  They don’t (or at least they shouldn’t) want to come to a church that feels like a mall.  It should be sacred space, ancient, mysterious, august. This is hard to achieve.  You can’t just put up candles and say the Apostles’ Creed and call yourself ancient. But what I am suggesting is, if you take the time to get to know the church fathers, you will realize you are part of something bigger than your own congregation. You are part of the Christian Faith. You are connected to all the believers – ancient, medieval, and modern – who have run the race before you.  That’s why I say, “Embrace your inner catholic and see where it will take you.”


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