Dr. Arnold interviews Brandon Smith about the early church fathers and their contributions to Christianity.
Topics of conversation include:
- What do we mean by early church?
- How should we understand and respond to some common objections to reading the church fathers?
- What are some of the most significant doctrines established by the early church fathers?
- Recommendations on where to start when it comes to reading primary sources.
Dr. Brandon Smith is assistant professor of Theology and New Testament at Cedarville University. He helped found the Center for Baptist Renewal and hosts the Church Grammar podcast. Dr. Smith holds a PhD in Theology and New Testament from Ridley College in Melbourne.
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:16):
C.S. Lewis was one of the greatest Christian thinkers in the 20th century. His work spanned books like Mere Christianity—widely considered to be one of the best apologetic works of the century—to the Chronicles of Narnia, a fiction series that tells us of the tales of the Pevensie children and the Aslan character, who’s like Christ. But Lewis was also a professor at the University of Oxford, where he was trained as a medievalist. His depth in fiction and in theology came from his mastery of ancient sources. Lewis often complained about a modern condition he coined “chronological snobbery,” in which people learn only from new books, and who see the old books as simply antiquated. He wrote about this in his famous introduction to Athanasius’s On The Incarnation. And Athanasius was a fourth century church father.
Brian Arnold (01:02):
And listen to what Lewis wrote—”The only palliative to chronological snobbery is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there’s any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good of a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.” Well, today I want to thrust open those windows and let that cool sea breeze blow through our minds. We are not the first to believe in Christ or to be filled with his Spirit.
Brian Arnold (01:57):
Jesus has been working through his church for two millennia, and we have a lot to learn from our forebears. Well with us today to talk about the church fathers, we have Dr. Brandon Smith, who is a professor at Cedarville University since 2019. Before that, he spent the previous four years helping lead the Christian Standard Bible translation and as an elder at a church in the Nashville area. He has also helped found the Center for Baptist Renewal and hosts the Church Grammar podcast. And his research interests include a lot of the things that I’m interested in—things like the Trinity, and biblical theology, and early church theology—especially those first four centuries or so. Dr. Smith completed his PhD at Ridley college in Australia. Welcome to the podcast.
Brandon Smith (02:42):
Thanks, Brian. Good to be here.
Brian Arnold (02:45):
So I always ask one big question of our guests, and today the question is this—what can we learn from the early church? And I think to begin with, we need to probably define that for some people. So how would you define the early church?
Brandon Smith (02:57):
Yeah, I mean, people define the early church differently, but I’d say typically speaking it’s something like AD 100 to 600, maybe 800 AD. So those first 600-800 years of church history, kind of around the first set of ecumenical councils there. So typically something like that—the patristic period, the church father period, and that development of theology and interpretation and sort of the beginnings of the church right after the New Testament.
Brian Arnold (03:25):
So Brandon, that was a test. And I’ve got to say, we’re not off to a good start, because I would say definitely to about 600. You were right the first time. My PhD supervisor, Michael Haykin, likes to go to John of Damascus, and I always tell him he’s wrong about that. I like to see Gregory the Great, who dies in 604, as kind of that pivotal point between the patristic period—that’s the church fathers, for those who are new to that word—to the medieval kind of period. So stick with your gut, go with that first answer.
Brandon Smith (03:50):
In my dissertation, I said 600. So I will say—I’m in print somewhere, somehow at 600. So I think we’re on the same page.
Brian Arnold (03:57):
Brandon Smith (03:57):
I was just giving a little deference to the people who like to kick it down the road.
Brian Arnold (04:01):
That’s right, that’s right. Well, I like how you even frame that around a lot of those early creeds. There’s a lot of cohesion in the early church, even. There’s a lot of clarity around who the church is, and then they can come together for these councils and make some pretty significant declarations of what the church has always believed. Most of those around the issue of the Trinity and the person and work of Christ. So I love that era. I love the founding fathers of the church. I would love to tell my story, but I want to hear yours first. What drew you to the church fathers?
Brandon Smith (04:36):
So I went to a kind of standard undergrad Baptist university. A good school. Got a B.A. in Biblical Studies there. And my kind of initial interaction with the church fathers was, you know, everybody before the Reformation is Catholic. You know, there’s this sort of suspicion of early Platonism, and these sort of Greco-Roman philosophies infiltrating the church, and things like that. So I had a really negative view when I first was introduced to the fathers, but then in my grad work at Criswell College in Dallas, I was introduced to…you know, one of the things in our program was we read everybody and everything. And so I got to read the church fathers. And I started reading them, and I was just thinking, you know, they think a lot more…I guess, I think a lot more like they do. Even though I didn’t realize that there was a lot about their dispositions for doctrine toward the unity of Scripture and things like that, that I had not gotten in the same way.
Brandon Smith (05:31):
And so I, when I started reading them, I thought—these are my people, you know? Of course there’s a lot of disagreements as a 21st century Baptist, you know, with the church fathers. But there was a lot of sort of overlap, and a lot of sort of their culture of theology—the way they thought about God and the Bible was sort of what I was wrestling with. And so I found kind of a home there, in a lot of ways, because of how much they love Scripture, love the doctrine of God, and how those things relate to each other.
Brian Arnold (05:55):
So I didn’t have your background of a B.A. from a Christian college, and when I was in college and felt called to seminary, I thought—I’m going to be behind every other student who shows up. So I get Grudem’s Systematic Theology and start reading through that as a college student. And at one point, I was working as a paramedic and sitting underneath a shade tree at a horse park—it was the best paramedic gig I ever had—I got to sit there and just read for 12 hours a day. And somebody had recommended Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language, a book that I would recommend to our listeners as a great entry point to church history. And I remember just being struck by these church fathers. These are the people who have taken the mantle of the Christian faith from the Apostles, and then even two generations or so from there—they don’t know the Apostles, and they don’t even have a full Bible at their disposal—and yet they’re willing to die. Their devotion for Christ is so great, that they would surrender this life for the kingdom. And I was just captivated by their faith. Just like you said, as you read them, you recognize there’s a faith once for all, delivered to the saints. And what they said, you know, 1900, 2000 years ago is the same faith I hold dear today.
Brandon Smith (07:03):
Yeah. I mean, I think about Iranaeus, you know, he’s writing within a hundred years of the end of the New Testament, you know, arguing it’s these people who are teaching false gospels and trying to add…and they already know, I mean, there’s not a full Bible yet, but there’s this sort of understanding of—that’s not what the Apostles taught us. And then, you know, even as you said, you get a couple hundred years away, and you still have Athanasius and these others looking back at Irenaeus and these others, who were close to the Apostles, and saying, “this is what’s been handed down, we’ve got to keep this going.” Which is why heresies were, in some sense, so obvious to them, right? Because they kind of knew what they were supposed to be teaching. They kind of knew, generally, here’s what’s been handed down to us. And so they fought to give us the faith that we have today.
Brian Arnold (07:44):
One of my favorite stories of the early church comes from Iranaeus, and he is—for those who don’t know, he’s writing at the end of the second century. And he says, he’s discipled by Polycarp, who was discipled by John. I always wonder what those fireside chats were like, when he’s like, what stories did John tell that aren’t in the Gospel of John? What was that like? And then there’s this story of the Apostle John, who is in a bathhouse in Ephesus, and Cerinthus, one of the Gnostic teachers, comes in and you see this picture of John running, fleeing from the bathhouse, saying, “Cerinthus the false teacher is here, it’s going to basically implode—God’s going to bring it down on everybody’s head!” And I love that picture of John as I’m reading his gospel.
Brandon Smith (08:26):
Yeah. He’s understated in his gospel as the beloved disciple, but clearly he was doing a lot of good discipleship and work, based on who he left behind for us as well.
Brian Arnold (08:36):
That’s right. And you know, I actually use that story for my students, to remind them that even dealing with heresy, the Apostles were pretty strong with this. And so was the early church. That they, when they saw something that was out of step, they knew people’s eternal destinies were on the line. And that meant that they needed to correct that, a lot of times with forceful rhetoric.
Brandon Smith (08:54):
Brian Arnold (08:55):
So it’s one my favorite things. One of my favorite church fathers to read is Tertullian. He’s like the Martin Luther of the early church. And that guy wasn’t afraid to say anything.
Brandon Smith (09:04):
I did…me and Matthew Emerson did an episode of my podcast where we drafted church fathers like you would do a fantasy football draft. And we were doing a basketball draft—we had a team of five with a sixth man. And I drafted Tertullian. And I said, the thing about Tertullian is, he’s the guy that comes off the bench, that if you need somebody to get a couple of hard fouls, you know, throw a couple of elbows, something like that, you know—call Tertullian in. You know, he’ll muck it up a little bit with the heretics, then you could send him back to the bench and keep on playing.
Brian Arnold (09:33):
Yeah, wow. That sounds like a lot of fun. Would have been nice to be invited.
Brandon Smith (09:37):
Yeah. Somewhere out there, you know, there’s an email that you probably didn’t reply to.
Brian Arnold (09:42):
Oh right. Yes. Yes, of course. Well, you mentioned a couple of things that the church fathers kind of get a bad rap for. Some of those things, of bringing in like Platonism, or even their penchant more towards things like allegory. So what would you say to somebody today who just feels like the early church kind of brought in some bad baggage into the faith that we really need to disentangle?
Brandon Smith (10:07):
Yeah. So I was having this conversation this past week with my students. So I’m teaching a church history class right now for our students—and using Shelley, by the way, so I recommend that as well, that textbook. But yeah, the couple of things that I try to point out is that part of what the church fathers are doing, is they’re doing apologetics and teaching theology from a particular context. So when it comes to Platonism, for example, that is the dominant view of their culture. And so they are finding ways to appropriate and sort of draw on the common language of the day, so that they can turn that for Christianity. So we do this today, preachers do this today, right? We’ll use illustrations, or we’ll use things from our context that speak to the people that we’re talking to.
Brandon Smith (10:55):
They’re doing that in a lot of the same way. So like a lot of the apologists, like Justin Martyr and Tertullian, they’re writing these letters to the Roman emperor and they’re appealing to the Greco-Roman philosophy as a way to defend their own religious liberty, for example. Right? They’ll say, you know, you allow all of this sort of polytheistic thought, and you allow us to have these different views, and you say this and that, but the Christians aren’t allowed to do that. That doesn’t seem fair. So you’ve got that side of it. There’s the apologetic side of it. And then there’s the theological side of it, where you’re trying to shift people…they’re trying to shift people, I think, from a dominant worldview to another one. And oftentimes what you’ll see these guys do…like Justin Martyr will do this, where he’ll say, you know, “well, some of the Greco-Roman gods, you know, some of them suffered, some of them went through these different things, but none of them were Christ. And here’s why. Here’s how Christ is better than them.”
Brandon Smith (11:42):
Or Origen will do this as well, right? Where he writes this…there’s this guy named Celsus, who basically says that Christians are a bunch of dumb hillbillies—I’m paraphrasing of course, a third century version of that. And Origen says—the beauty about the Christian faith is that the simple-minded person, who doesn’t have some sort of, you know, highfalutin Greco-Roman education, can believe on Christ and have their life changed. And somebody like me, who is a highly educated guy, can go play on your field of philosophy and do it better, because my philosophy is the true philosophy. So I think one of the things to understand about them is that, to the extent that they appropriate it, they’re not making Christianity another philosophy, they’re using that philosophy as a way to teach the truth of Christianity in the context that they’re in. And so I think that’s where we have to make a little bit of a distinction there, and recognize that we all do this. Even in modern times, we use certain cultural contexts, certain language, certain illustrations from…whether it’s literature or movies or whatever, that inform the way that we talk about Christianity. And in some ways, the way that we even practice Christianity. And that’s not necessarily wrong, as long as you’re not breaking with orthodoxy,
Brian Arnold (12:54):
Of course. That’s right. And I love the phrase that they use for this—they said, “plunder the Egyptians.” And Augustine even says that Cyprian, that he was one of the best at plundering the Egyptians. So if you remember the story, Israel is coming up out of the land of Egypt. And just to, almost kind of pour salt in that wound a little bit more, God tells the Israelites, “take all their stuff on your way out.” Like, steal all their stuff. And so the early church said it should be like that with ideas. All truth is God’s truth. We say that in our day, all the time. Well, that’s what they were doing back then. They were saying, “if all truth is God’s truth, we’re going to plunder it, and recognize that it really belongs in the service of Christians to be able to use these things to better understand the gospel.”
Brandon Smith (13:34):
Yeah. I mean, and the obvious example that a lot of people will bring up is that Paul does this in Acts chapter seven, right? Where he says, “I see that you’re worshiping an unknown god—let me tell you about who this God is, this true God.” Which is deep in Platonic thought. I mean, they had this idea that there’s, you know, Zeus or Jupiter is sort of the highest god. Or some of them would say, this god is so distant, we don’t even know his name.” And so he’s saying, like, “you worship this unknown God. Let me tell you who this God is.” And then he says, you know, “even as your own poets say, in him we have our living and our breathing and our movement.” Or, you know, whatever the translation you want to do there. And he’s saying, “I know, you know, these types of ideas, let me tell you what the truth is about those ideas. But let me correct your thought in a way that shows you what Christianity actually does. What it offers. And that it’s a better way to view the world than the way that you are right now”
Brian Arnold (14:24):
So I think that’s a great response to the first kind of charge—that they are too Platonic, or they bring in too much Greco-Roman philosophy into the faith, and we need to remove ourselves from that. Another charge that I hear a lot of times is that they feel too Roman Catholic. You kind of mentioned this before, that really church history basically dies with John and resurrects with Martin Luther, and that whole 1500 year period—it’s almost like the Holy Spirit went to sleep, only to be reawakened with the Reformation. And we found that not to be the case, as we recover so much great things from here. So what would you say to somebody who just says, “I can’t get into them—they seem, from a Protestant perspective, too Roman Catholic.”
Brandon Smith (15:04):
Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things that you realize…you know, I was talking through this with my students a couple of weeks ago. We were reading Ignatius, who’s writing, you know, I mean, he’s writing around 100 AD. In fact, you know, him and Clement and some of these apostolic fathers are writing, perhaps at the same time that John is writing Revelation. Right? So, I mean, these are early, early, early Christians. And Ignatius will say things about bishops, and elders, and presbyters, and stuff like that. And he’s clearly not talking about a Pope who is in charge of the whole church, right? And so, as you read some of those early fathers, you see some of that language, and you can see…I mean, I had my students sort of say…I said—”how can you see how Roman Catholicism would read this?”
Brandon Smith (15:46):
And they’d say, well, I guess whenever you look at it as like a bishop or a bishop who’s writing to other churches as Ignatius does, for example, that you could extrapolate that and say—oh, that’s like a pope-like authority, you know, that he’s over the whole church. But that’s seems pretty clear that’s not what’s happening, historically. So some of that is the issue. You also have a lot of debates in the first couple hundred years where sometimes people seem to be giving into this sort of hierarchy, and they’re saying, “hey, hey, hey, like, let’s be careful about how much authority we give to one person.” You have these early bishopships in Alexandria, for example, like Alexander or Athanasius, who do seem to have some sort of regional authority, but there’s still…they call together their synods, where they’re all sort of equals and they’re all voting together on certain things.
Brandon Smith (16:30):
It almost reminds me of, you know, like a Baptist, you know, director of missions, who sort of helps…it’s not quite this simple, but somebody who says, “let’s all get together and let’s work together and agree on these things and this kind of stuff, and then we’re going to go out and preach the gospel in our churches.” So you don’t really see a lot of…you see a little bit of, perhaps, hierarchy in the early church, but it’s not what we think of when we think of the Catholic church. I think you really don’t see what Luther responds to, where you have a Pope, in a certain situation, who is claiming authority on the level of Scripture and on the authority of Christ really until the medieval period, if not the late medieval period. And so I would say, as you read the first couple hundred years, especially maybe the first thousand years, you never see that sort of centralized, powerful figure who is equating himself with Scripture in the way that we think of Catholicism that Luther responded to.
Brian Arnold (17:21):
I think that’s a helpful way to think about it. My PhD supervisor, Michael Haykin, as I mentioned before, would always say, “people say, how do you read the church fathers—they’re too Catholic.” And he said, “how can you read the church fathers and be Catholic?” Because it certainly is not as neatly packaged as many people today try to make it seem.
Brian Arnold (17:39):
Well, so what are some of the biggest doctrinal things that you think the early church gave us? If somebody’s listening and they’re saying, “okay, give me some really good reasons dive into the fathers.” What were some of those really important doctrines that they helped establish?
Brandon Smith (17:55):
Yeah. I mean, I think the two that come to mind to me, that I think are the most impactful, and I think that most evangelicals like us take for granted now, is the doctrine of the Trinity. You know, again, you read the early church fathers all the way back to Justin, the Apostolic fathers, and they’re already using Trinitarian language. I mean, obviously it changes in different contexts and becomes more solidified around a particular type of language when you get to the council of Nicea and after. But this is a common assumption from the New Testament on of the doctrine of the Trinity. And so a lot of what we take for granted in how we talk about the Trinity—Jesus being fully God and fully man, and we talk about Christology, you know, the sort of outflow of Trinitarian theology.
Brandon Smith (18:38):
A lot of what we take for granted is the stuff that they fought for, and in some sense, died for, right? So I think the doctrine of the Trinity is probably the most obvious one. And then Christology, probably related to that. I think the other one would be unity of Scripture. I mean, Irenaeus, when he’s arguing with the Gnostics…again, before you have what we might consider a true, fully formed Canon, you know, he’s writing against heresies, and he quotes 21 of the 27 New Testament books, something like that, and says—these are the authoritative texts. And the ones that you’re trying to give us, you Gnostics are trying to give us, don’t fit with this. And not only that, but the Gnostics, for example, would say that the Old Testament God is a lesser god, an evil god. He can’t be the true God because of fallenness and brokenness.
Brandon Smith (19:24):
And he would say…Iranaeus, and Origen, and even Justin would say—no, no, no, we can’t have the New Testament without the Old Testament. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. He is the one that the Old Testament is pointing to. So if you get rid of the Old Testament, you’ve got nothing, right? You don’t even know what to make of Christ if you don’t have the Old Testament. And then Justin, for example, will turn around to a Jewish person, like Trypho…he writes a thing called Dialogue to Trypho. And he tells Trypho, he says—and now you’re denying the New Testament. But what you don’t understand is that the reason why we believe the New Testament is authoritative is because of the fulfillment of the Old Testament. So they’re kind of going on two different fronts against those who deny the power of the Old Testament or the authority of the Old Testament, and those who deny the authority of the New Testament and say—you can’t have one without the other.
Brandon Smith (20:11):
And so what they do is give us a really, really rich unity of Scripture, even before, again, Canon is even a fully formed conversation. You already have them having these conversations, such that when you get to the doctrine of the Trinity at Nicea or Constantinople later, 400 years later, or you get to some of the conversations about Canon, you can read the early church fathers and say, “man, they’ve already been…they’ve already been setting us up for this. This is what has already been handed down. And I had a student who read On The Incarnation and he emailed me and he’s like, “I’m not really sure how to do a book review on this because I don’t feel like I’m learning anything new here.” And I had two responses. One was, if you’re not learning anything new from Athanasius, you probably aren’t understanding him. I was trying to give him a little humility there, but also I said, part of the reason why Athanasius seems so obvious to you is because everything that you believe about the incarnation is a footnote to the work that people like Athanasius did, right? So a lot of it is in our consciousness, I think, as evangelicals. And we don’t recognize how much work was done in that first couple of hundred years to give us that.
Brian Arnold (21:11):
And it, to me, is one of the great apologetic of the Christian faith, that I’m reading this guy—for those who don’t know, Athanasius was a North African church father, he was called the “Black Dwarf.” So here he is, different race, different culture, different language, different time. Everything about us should be so different. And yet we can read him today and say, I’m not sure I even see anything different here, because our faith has come down through people like him. And in recognizing one of the things you said, which I think is critically important, the church fathers are not just inventing doctrine. These are things that they’ve received from the Apostles, from the New Testament, they’ve already been developing—and then somebody says something wrong. It’s a miss. And they come together and say, that’s not what we’ve historically believed. And that’s not what Scripture teaches. And now we’re going to give a conciliar declaration in a one-paragraph creed, that is going to summarize what we say about these kinds of things. Which are remarkable statements, to stand the test of time as they have.
Brandon Smith (22:08):
Yeah. One of my favorite stories out of Nicea that may be true, or may be legend, you know, it’s one of those things where, you know, you’re not quite sure, but one of them is at the council of Nicea. You have Arius, who is saying that Jesus is a created being—he’s not truly God like the Father is, and all this kind of stuff. And so the council of Nicea comes together, and this is kind of the main issue among a few others that they talk about. And there’s a story where they’re having some debate, and they’re trying to be fair to Arius, and there’s some people there who are sympathetic toward Arius. And then it says that they read out some of the quotes from Arius, his writings, and there’s an audible gasp in the room, because everybody realizes like—that’s not right. You know, like this isn’t an agree to disagree issue. Like, that’s not what we are teaching in our churches. That’s not what was handed down to us. That is markedly different from what we’re doing. So even where there’s a little room for disagreement in the early church, which there is, there is a common core there that they can sniff out as soon as they…as soon as the heresy, or as soon as the false teaching comes along,
Brian Arnold (23:06):
It reminds me of a story of Jerome and Augustine, where one wrong word was spoken out from the book of Jonah because of Jerome’s new translation, and the town almost riots! That’s how well these people knew the Bible and loved the Bible and the unity of the Word. Brandon, there’s so much more I would love to talk to you about, this is…it’s always fun to get with somebody who loves the same even era of the church that I love. But maybe just mention one or two starting places that somebody who says, “I’ve never read anything in the church fathers.” Let’s go primary sources—what would you recommend?
Brandon Smith (23:39):
Yeah, I would recommend Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. I think that is one of the most foundational writings in the early church. He’s writing this even before the big controversy with Arius. I mean, you can already see, very clearly, what the church is teaching on Christology. You mentioned the SVS press translation, that has the C.S. Lewis introduction. That is a really good translation. I think a lot of people think that the primary sources are hard to read, but if you get a good translation, they’re pretty easy to follow. So I’d say, Athanasius, On the Incarnation, and Iranaeus’s On the Apostolic Preaching is really good as well. Both of them are hundred-page books. The translations of them that we have now are really good. And both of them give you a really clear sort of logical step-by-step on—here’s what we think about who Christ is, here’s what we think about how to read and preach the Bible.
Brian Arnold (24:28):
I would also recommend those. If I threw one more in, it would be Augustine’s Confessions. I think…I told my seminary students—no seminary education is complete without reading Augustine’s Confessions. And those, I think, would be great entry points into knowing the early church a little bit better, and kind of dipping your toes into that water. Well, one of my favorite quotes on knowing and loving church history comes from a former professor at Yale University, named Jaroslav Pelikan. And he said this: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” And I think for our time, if we’re going to really recapture the Christian tradition, the faith once for all, handed down to the saints over the last 2000 years will be to recover some of this tradition, even as it was in the early church fathers, and not cling to traditionalism, things of the recent past, things that are not even connected to history or the gospel, which is the dead faith of the living. So Brandon, thank you so much for joining me to talk about the living faith of the dead.
Brandon Smith (25:26):
Thank you, Brian. I had a good time talking to you—wish it could be longer as well.
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