The Early Church period is an era that seems somewhat neglected by many modern church traditions. Our culture has an unhealthy obsession with the novel and it’s a spirit that has creeped into the church. There are churches in which you’d be lucky to worship with a song that’s ten years old, much less one that’s 1700. Fortunately, it seems that many Christians and churches are recognizing the benefit of looking back to our rich Christian heritage; and not just to the reformation but also to the ancient church. ‘Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation’ is a short reader that includes various voices from the Early Church, focusing on the first through seventh centuries AD. D. H Williams, a professor of religion at Baylor University, has penned several books on the Early Church as well as how Evangelicals might benefit from Christian tradition.
The book is divided into nine chapters by topic, each of which includes excerpts from the writings of many different Early Church Fathers. The authors included vary widely. There are passages from Paul’s Epistles and the Acts of the Apostles alongside excerpts from Augustine, Origen, Justin Martyr, and many others. The writings in each chapter are generally organized by date and allow the reader to get a good sense of how Christian thought was developing in its nascent years. Although Williams does a good job of pulling from a number of different sources, some voices are more dominant than others. To be honest though, I don’t know whether it was because of the greater amount of material available from certain authors or the editor’s preference for some writers over others. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hinder the book from being incredibly beneficial as an introduction to the thought of the Early Church Fathers.
The topics covered in the book range from monotonous to thought-provokingly interesting. It makes logical sense that the chapters on ‘Baptismal Formulas and Instruction’ and ‘Local and Conciliar Creeds’ would stand next to one another; unfortunately, by the time you get to the end of the Creeds chapter you’re growing tired of reading the same basic creed repeated over and over with slightly varied wordings. I understand that there was quite the debate going on about the time regarding whether Christ was of the same essence as the father, of the same substance as the father, or just like the father, but reading the creeds worded in all three different ways didn’t do a whole lot for me. This was definitely the low point of the readings. Fortunately, if you can read through to the chapters on Early Church interpretation of the Bible and the chapter titled, ‘Theological Poetry and Hymns’, you’re in for a treat.
One of the things about the Early Church that I truly enjoy is their belief in the continuity of God’s Spirit. They saw themselves as coming directly from the Apostles and, as a result, they lived that way as well. They didn’t interpret scripture in a strictly historical-grammatical way. There was an almost universal belief within the Early Church that there were levels of interpretation to Scripture. Since the Holy Spirit was the driving force of the writing of scripture, they were divine. And since they were divine, layers of meaning lay hidden in the Word of God that only one who was empowered by the Spirit of God could access. This understanding lines up much more closely to the way Jesus and the Apostles interpreted the Old Testament. The New Testament writers often took scriptures from the Old Testament and drew out spiritual understandings. They made great use of types, shadows, and allegorical understandings. They saw Christ in every verse of both the New and Old Testaments. The Early Church Fathers did the same thing because they believed that the same Spirit who gave the Word to the writers of the Bible was the same Spirit that was living within each Christian. Therefore, He could give understanding to see both the historical-grammatical level as well as the deeper spiritual meanings. In the eyes of the Early Church Fathers, the Spirit of God did not quit working after Revelation was written. He was active in their lives as well, enlivening their minds so that they could grasp more of the riches of scripture.
One of the other things that this book reveals is how, although the canon of scripture we have today was not universally recognized from year one, it didn’t take long for the basic outline of our modern-day Bibles to emerge. From the beginning, only the four gospels we now use were accounted authoritative. This is true of a large portion of both the Old and New Testaments. There was not, as has been popular to claim in recent years, a council which arbitrarily decided which books would be counted scripture. The canon was largely formed by the time of the councils. They simply confirmed those books that the churches were already using.
Although there are some dull sections in this book, the high points definitely make it worth reading. You may want to just pick the chapters that you read but if you’re interested at all in the development of early Christian thought, especially regarding scripture, it is a great read. All in all, this book is a great tool and introduction for anyone wanting a greater understanding of the Early Church Era.
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