This week we continue my “How I Became a…” series. Today I wanted to tell the story of how I became a fan of the Church Fathers, more specifically, the Ante-Nicene Fathers. This is a collection of writings from the early leaders of the church, writing in the first three centuries and before (ante) the Council of Nicea.
I had grown up in a church that billed itself as a “New Testament” church. The prevailing attitude was that all was great in the way things were done in the early church up until Emperor Constantine made Christianity an official religion of the Roman Empire. In their opinion, things kind of went down hill from there, with all kinds of non biblical traditions being introduced.
I was in my twenties when I left this group, and not long after that I met my first Jehovah’s Witness, a young University Student named Clarence. Rather surprisingly, Clarence had similar views about Constantine. We found however that we had big differences when it came to our understanding of the deity of Christ. We started meeting weekly: I would bring in information that I had gleaned from Walter Martin’s book, “The Kingdom of the Cults”, and he would present information that he had gathered from his local chapter.
One frustration that I had was that I had no real way to evaluate many of the arguments that were being presented, by either Walter Martin or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This was one of the factors (there were many others) that led me to decide to go to seminary. By this time I had developed a real interest in studying the deity of Christ, and was gathering up as much material as I could about the subject.
At seminary I resolved to take as much Greek and Hebrew and I possibly could. I quickly developed a love for Church History as well. It was in my first year at seminary that I received word of a Pastor who was selling his library. I have always had a love for books and decided to visit. The Pastor had developed some form of lung disease and had to retire early. Among the jewels of his collection was the 10 volume series of the Ante-Nicene Fathers which he sold to be for $60.00.
I devoured those books. I read every page, especially focusing on those pages that dealt with the deity of Christ. Contrary to the claims of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the deity of Christ did not arrive with Constantine, but was present throughout all the writings of the early Church Fathers. I also learned from these writings not to be so dogmatic about a number of things, including Baptism, and the alcoholic content of the communion cup.
In my 2nd year at seminary some Jehovah’s Witnesses had the misfortune of knocking at my door. They had a little booklet with them entitled, “Should You Believe in the Trinity?” It included a section on what the Church Fathers believed. I politely took the booklet and set up a meeting for the following week.
In the booklet were quotes from a number of the Ante-Nicene Fathers. I spent hours looking up each quote (no references were given) and comparing the quotations that they had provided with what the Fathers had actually said. They could not have done a better job of distorting and taking out of context the words of the original writers. Let me give you a couple of examples:
From the pamphlet: Tertullian – “There was a time when the Son was not… Before all things, God was alone.” –
The first part of the phrase does not even come from Tertullian, but from commentary on Tertullian. Tertullian believed in an eternal Logos, which took on the form of the Son at the incarnations. However Tertullian also believed that the incarnation was when God became Father. God “could not have been the Father previous to the Son, nor a judge previous to sin” (Against Hermogones, Ch. 3).
As to the second part of the phrase, here it is in its full context:
“For before all things God was alone — being in Himself and for Himself universe, and space, and all things. Moreover, He was alone, because there was nothing external to Him but Himself. Yet even not then was He alone; for He had with Him that which He possessed in Himself, that is to say, His own Reason. For God is rational, and Reason was first in Him; and so all things were from Himself. This Reason is His own Thought (or Consciousness) which the Greeks call Logos, by which term we also designate Word or Discourse and therefore it is now usual with our people, owing to the mere simple interpretation of the term, to say that the Word was in the beginning with God;” (Against Praxeas)
Again and again they took texts that affirmed the deity of Christ and twisted them to mean the exact opposite!
When the Jehovah’s witnesses came back, I took out their tract, and then took out the Ante-Nicene Fathers. I had highlighted all the quotes from their pamphlet in the Ante-Nicene Fathers and had them read these quotes in the context in which they were written. Their faces started going white. I said to them, “Look, I don’t blame you for believing this. You are believing just what you have been taught. But the authors of this pamphlet knew exactly what the Church Fathers taught, and they are the ones who are intentionally deceiving you. You have just read for yourself that what you have been taught isn’t true. So my question for you is: What else have they been lying to you about, and what are you going to do about it? I would encourage you to step away and start to examine things for yourselves. Start to read more that what you are given by your group.”
They left very shaken, and I never saw them again, but I believed that I had planted some sort of seed in their minds that might help them have a different perspective on what they were being taught.
So that was the start of my love affair with the Church Fathers. Since then I have expanded beyond the Ante-Nicene Fathers, but they still are a resource that I go back to again and again.
A couple of final notes: The ten volume set of the Ante-Nicene Fathers is available from ChristianBook.com for the current price of $129.99. You can also read them online at The Christian Classics Ethereal Library. For those interested in the topic of the deity of Christ, I have found no better resource that the fairly recent book: “Putting Jesus in His Place: The case for the Deity of Christ” by by Robert Bowman and J. Ed Komoszewski.
As usual, your thoughts and comments are welcome.