How I Became a… Fan of the Church Fathers


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 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.

73 thoughts on “How I Became a… Fan of the Church Fathers

  1. One of my best investments was a Kindle edition of the church fathers (the Schaff edition) that was only USD$2.99. Much handier to carry around than the full set of ANF and NPNF. I do miss the tactility of the physical books though.


  2. A couple of resources are really good introductions to the Fathers:

    1) The Lenten reading plan from the Fathers. It’s one of my favorite Lenten devotionals and takes us from the Didache to Gregory the Great over the course of 40 days.

    2) InterVarsity Press’ commentary series “The Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scriptures.” It’s multi-volume, and thus not necessarily cheap, but especially for pastors and preachers it’s a great resource. They take the major writings of the Fathers as the commentary for the various bible passages. And FWIW, they’ve JUST started releasing a similar commentary series from the Reformers.

    I don’t remember where I first heard this (somewhat hyperbolic) bit of advice, but I really like it: For every hour or modern scholarship/commentary on the Scriptures, we ought to read 10 hours of the Reformers. For every hour of the Reformers, we ought to read 10 hours of the Fathers. For every hour of the Fathers, we ought to read 10 hours of Scripture itself.


  3. When Mike said the JWs turn it all around backwards he was correct. Saying Christ’s divinity was ordered by Constantine is also exactly backwards. It was Constantine that called the 2nd Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (the council that wrote the first part of the Niacin Creed) because he sympathized with Bishop Arias (Arianism) and his views that Christ is a created being, exactly what the JWs believe.



  4. Mike Bell, thanks for a great post this week. This wasn’t supposed to get into another food fight, and mostly people behaved. Lots of good discussion.


  5. The gospel of Mark is said to be a compilation based on Peter’s sermons. In other words we have the recording of an eyewitness as taken down by a third party. About as close to the source as you can get. Matthew has been described as an annotated version of Mark. One, that fills in missing details. These people were there! There is plenty of reason to think that the historical Jesus ever said such things.


  6. Interesting points, Stuart. Thanks. In my church we tend to ignore the gifts, without denying their existence. So it’s more theoretical for me—although 30 years ago I was with a small charismatic group, and in that case saw no abuse of the gifts.

    I guess manipulative leaders and controlling elders show up on both sides of that fence. But that’s probably not surprising.


  7. Faulty, speaking for myself, after more than forty years of study I increasingly find that the Bible contains Truth in all its depth and complexity, and the Truth it points to is epitomized in the historical life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah to Israel and by extension to us all. It also contains a lot of other things that may or may not be helpful in a particular situation. This is not an intellectual comprehension, tho the intellect and reason can be involved as tools. Basically it is a spiritual comprehension, and this is something that sprouts like a seed and continues to grow thruout life if nourished and taken care of. It is not a legal document or a history book or a religious manual, tho it does contain those things in part.

    Basically it is like a map or a signpost to what can be called salvation, or in its more fundamental meaning, healing, spiritual healing and growth. This isn’t something that comes from an intellectual approach, tho that can work for some people up to a point. The point is to follow Jesus wherever that takes you, and this involves a commitment that is dead serious, sometimes literally so, sometimes not. But Jesus seems more than willing to meet anyone wherever they are at and go from there. He spoke of it as whosoever. Apparently even Shirley MacLaine.


  8. StuartB I fully understand what you are talking about. Especially “Lord, Lord did we not……….” I fully doubt the last line with protection and living with darkness and coldness. You haven’t experienced that yet.

    The Holy Spirit has led me out of so many things and has done it through the love of Christ and the Father. No burden it has actually been the opposite of burden. That’s just my testimony and my hope is to continue.

    I would fear in earlier times you or I would have found ourselves on a rack or drowning in a lake or river while the religious leaders were seeing if we had demons and them with so many other things that you have cited over Charismatics.

    My problem being of course is when I hear the teaching of the head without the heart and the dryness that occurs in my soul almost to the point I’d rather join you in the darkness and coldness and I have had a good taste of it.

    There is my temptation always before me to go back and drink myself to death because I really can’t stand it here and how we treat each other. I want to go to when God called it good but I have to endure this place first and not just endure it as just a sinner but live it fully alive as one with Christ and like Him my Lion and Lamb. The biggest struggle I have is to much lion and not enough lamb.


  9. Thinking about it a bit, his use of the Phoenix as an illustration is really no different than some of the modern sermons I’ve heard preached that used a third- or fourth-hand retelling of some circulating email or Facebook story as an illustration. I’ll admit that I was disappointed when I saw the Phoenix reference, but it simply shows we’ve been doing these sorts of things for many years.


  10. There is no reason to accept the gospel accounts as true history. We have no idea who wrote them, but whoever it was, they seemed to be relying on a mass of oral folklore separated from the events they describe by a generation or more.


  11. Or how about these two scriptures as affirmation of Christ’s deity

    Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
    Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

    (Luke 23:42-43)


  12. one thing the Fathers left for us was record of how the early Church developed the doctrines of ‘who Christ was’ and of ‘the Holy Trinity’

    the writings of the Fathers do give us valuable insight into much of the thinking of early Christianity, but it is good to note that these writings are not sacred Scripture . . . also there are some bogus writings that claim to be by the Fathers, so that should be a caveat to those who are pursuing an active study of writings accredited to the Fathers

    I can’t imagine being raised as a Christian and not having knowledge of these early writings, but I have come to understand that this is the case for many who are not Catholic or Orthodox, and I am glad to see that the majority of Christian people are now becoming familiar with the writings of the early Fathers


  13. So Jesus and Mansur Al-Hallaj may have been executed for the same reason? It’s not an impossible interpretation of what Jesus meant when he referred to himself as “I AM.”

    But the Church’s experience of the power of the resurrected Jesus is that he is the living and always present God of Israel. It’s Jesus who the Church calls “Lord,” not you or me or Paul or any of the Apostles or any of the ante-Nicene fathers or the Pope or Caesar. We fall down at Jesus’ feet and worship him, not Mansur Al-Hallaj or anyone else.

    Jesus is Lord God.


  14. You’re right, it is peculiar that a lot of Pentecostals are also dispensationalists.

    I’ve had the thought that Pentecostals could not exist WITHOUT dispensationalism, but I’ve yet to tease it out.


  15. I’ve nearly come to the conclusion that cessationism is largely a control issue.

    For me, after growing up cess, then being cont, and now being ‘de facto cess’…it’s a protection issue. Protection against heresies, new theologies, manipulative leaders, controlling elders, craziness, insanity, new “waves” of the “spirit”, words of knowledge, gnostic prophecies…and avoiding the “lord lord did we not cast out demons and heal the sick/depart from me, never knew you”.

    Protection. I’d rather live in a world of utter darkness and coldness then go back under the charismatic yoke and chain.


  16. I like the doctrine of the Trinity. It helps me to have an apprehension of God as a dancing, dynamic, personal field of being, a living, speaking divine dance, who exists and moves and loves deep down in the depths of things, rather than as a static king and lawgiver in the sky, flinty and implacable. That’s poetic language, and is only meaningful in a poetic context, but then the word God is also a poetic word, only meaningful in a poetic context. And what is the doctrine of the Trinity if not poetry? But poetry, both lyrical and narrative, is the stuff of life itself.


  17. Mike, it is late and past my bedtime. The passage you bring up is complex and not at all clear, tho I’m sure it is to you. Jesus also says things like “I am from above” in which it does not appear to be used as the I AM name. In the one you quote, many translations say “I am he” which could as easily mean “I am Messiah” and I believe more likely in context. Jesus speaks of having been sent by God, which indicates he considers himself as separate from God. Your quote from Thomas could easily mean recognition of Jesus as Messiah and One with God. Your strongest point is when Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I AM”, which is the only place where the Jews pick up rocks to stone him and obviously heard it as you do. I would contend that Jesus could legitimately say this with that meaning speaking as One with the Father, but it wouldn’t mean that he considered himself, Jesus, as God the Father. He was still Jesus who grew into perfect Oneness with the Father, just as, apparently, you and I could. But we wouldn’t be Messiah.

    I believe it is futile to argue these matters in words because the Oneness Jesus calls us to is beyond words. The Eastern church calls it divinization amongst other terms, which implies that we too can become One with the Father or divine, just as Jesus did, tho likely not doing it as well as he did. To make it a point of intellectual belief upon which salvation depends strikes me as just plain silly. I don’t begin to understand how these things work from God’s point of view, and if you claim to understand them I would probably figure there was no point in discussing this further with you. I think the Apostle John probably had a better handle on it than anyone else, but even he couldn’t explain things without resorting to Greek philosophical terms or poetical terms.

    The position of Arians depended on where you were. In much of Europe they were the majority until they were squashed, often violently. I don’t really see that it would have made a great deal of difference either to their spiritual walk or to Jesus, as long as they were following him as Messiah and depending on the Holy Spirit. But I do recognize that this really pushes people’s buttons so I mostly let it go. It doesn’t matter to me if you claim to understand all those words in the Nicene Creed, tho I am convinced that the signers of that document probably all had somewhat differing interpretations of what it meant and just signed to stop the arguing and save their jobs. Eventually it split the church in half over one little letter. I think it is more important to follow Jesus as Messiah in Spirit and let the theologians bust an aneurism over what the letters mean.


  18. P.S. My name isn’t on the cover, but it is in the acknowledgements.Based on that work I was asked if I would be interested in creating a concordance to the Dead Sea Scrolls! Unfortunately the technology was not there at the time.


  19. Robert F.

    Just a little aside about the Nag Hammadi library:

    In another life I contributed 80 pages to “Nag Hammadi Texts and the Bible: A Synopsis and Index (New Testament Tools and Studies, Vol 18)

    The book notes all the textual similarities between the Bible and the Gnostic Library found at Nag Hammadi. I wrote a computer program to parse the text of the book and create a cross index. Available at Amazon if you have $332.00 dollars to spare.


  20. So, when Jesus stated: “Unless you believe that ‘I am’, you will die in your sins.” How do you interpret it? Those listening certainly understood it as a claim to deity. Or in the same passage when he again uses a title for God when claiming to preexist Abraham. Or when Thomas proclaims “My Lord and My God!” (He uses the definite article which the JWs claim is done to distinguish Yahweh from “a god”), does Jesus say “Don’t worship me for I am only a man?”

    As I read the New Testament and the Church Fathers, it becomes quite clear that the deity of Christ has always been the view of the church, and codified as such in the Nicene creed. If you read the history books you will see that the Emperors favored the Arians, but that this was very much a minority position among those who were followers of Christ.


  21. I actually felt that ” Greek philosophical thinking” was apart of some of what I was reading through but wasn’t sure. It would certainly seem to influence thought by these early authors.

    The homilies of Chrysostom on acts has my interest and I’m going to stay there for awhile. There is alot. It would seem he butted heads with some of his day. In short Oscar has the right idea for me at least at my age. I don’t think my profession is sitting at a desk but it is worthwhile on my time alone with Him. Thanks for the responses.


  22. Christ, through Paul, gave the church what it needed to stay on the rails. That being Romans, Galatians, Ephesians and the rest of Paul’s letters and well as Paul himself.

    Luther, used Paul’s letters to help get that wayward ship moving in the right direction, again.

    The life of the church is one of content reformation.

    Because we are sinners hell bent on keeping ourselves in the center.


  23. Mr. O’Ring, you are certainly right that the idea of a human being as divine was offensive and against the fundamental principles of Judaism, but in the Gospel stories it is mostly the Pharisees and Temple officials who were so deeply offended as to eventually kill Jesus. I don’t think you are going to find any places in those stories where Jesus is claiming to be divine or God. What he did say on different occasions and in different ways was that he and the Father were One. That is not the same thing as saying he was divine, even if the religious leaders took it that way.

    On the last night Jesus was alive in his earthly body he prayed that his disciples would become One with the Father just as he had done, and not only his disciples at the time but us today. The idea is still highly offensive, even to many Christians, but looked at in a certain way it is the whole point of following Jesus. The Eastern wing of the church is much more comfortable with this idea than the West, but the idea is slowly gaining acceptance even here.

    I doubt very much if most of the “church fathers” we are discussing would have considered Paul as their leader. Certainly he was influential but they were probably influenced by Greek philosophical thinking as much as anything else in hammering out what eventually became the Nicene Creed. And the fathers we are discussing lived before Imperial Christianity. If there was a wrong turn taken, I would see it more as coming to depend on abstract words and reason rather than the Holy Spirit, but even so not nearly to the extent of the Neoplatonists. The Neoplatonists have their adherents even today, but I can’t imagine them ever having the draw of Jesus the hands-on story teller and healer.


  24. The mind staggers at the volume that has been written by the ante-nicean fathers and by the complexity and variety of their understandings of the Gospel.

    When you contrast these writings with the seemingly simplicity if Jesus’ words it makes one wonder if He would even recognize His Church upon His return.

    I have not been to seminary as many here have been, and I have not studied Greek and Hebrew, but I HAVE read the bible extensively for many years along with various commentaries on the texts. If Christ had meant for things to get this complicated then He might have given more instruction on how to proceed. We are left with only the instruction to live as He did and to trust and rely on His Father for what we needed.

    The Fathers, so-called, are not scripture, nor are their words the same as the Gospels. They are only guides and signposts to belief. When push comes to shove all that matters is one person’s commitment to Christ’s sacrifice for sin and that person’r reliance on the Father for provision and the Holy Spirit for guidance.

    And THAT’S my story and I’m stickin’ to it!


  25. H. Lee, You understand that I’m no scholar myself, and my reading in this area is more like sampling.

    But, to name two responsible, rigorous New Testament scholars, Raymond Brown and Luke Timothy Johnson both are very critical of the idea that the Gospel of Thomas, or the other apocryphal/gnostic gospels, can tell us anything reliable about Christian origins.

    I can especially recommend Johnson’s “The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels.” Johnson uses the tools of contemporary historiography, while at the same time describing the limits of historical reconstruction, to address the inadequacy of many of the current attempts to get back behind the traditional Jesus of Christian faith to a supposedly truer historical Jesus. After reading Johnson’s book 15 years ago, I found it impossible to take the Jesus Seminar, and their many spinoffs, seriously (though up until that time I had become enamored with John Dominic Crossan).


  26. once the Church was under a vicious attack from a Roman Jew who persecuted many Christians during the very early days of the Church’s existence . . .

    and then something happened . . . something that tells us about the very nature of the Church itself . . .

    that Roman Jew was knocked off of his horse and blinded by the power of God and, in time, recovered but he was changed profoundly when he heard a Voice saying to him
    ‘Saul, Saul, why persecuteth thou ME?’

    that is how we know that the Church itself is composed of far MORE than just what is visible and vulnerable


  27. Christianity took a wrong turn when it accepted St. Paul as its new cult leader. The Jersualem Christians–and Jesus himself–would have been deeply offended by the suggestion that Jesus was in any way divine (which goes against the most fundamental principles of Judaism).

    The “church fathers” and “heretics” should be read side-by-side. Imperial Christianity supported one side over the various other versions. If any of these had won, then all the posters thundering on about the Nicene Creed or the Trinity would be doing the same thing on behalf of Ialdabaoth or the Pleromas.


  28. I’ve nearly come to the conclusion that cessationism is largely a control issue.

    Dispensationalism likes to have neatly-tied packages, tell-us-what-to-believe scenarios, and of course those who put themselves in place to tell people what to believe. And if anyone is seemingly off on a Holy Spirit tangent, they are very much out of a leader’s control.

    You’re right, it is peculiar that a lot of Pentecostals are also dispensationalists.


  29. I recently bought a used copy of Evelyn Underhill’s Mystics of the Church. Lots of ’em, throughout church history (mostly Catholic, but in their defense a lot of them were pre-Reformation, so they didn’t know they were Catholic).

    You can’t have mystics and be a cessationist.


  30. It’s not that it was off the rails as the rails were not in place. These doctrines developed over time. There was a concept of the Trinity dating back to the Apostles; however, In the east, there was a hierarchial/monarchian view of the Godhead; in the west, a “Logos” view. Over time, the church refined these views through the authority of the councils. The teaching of the church fathers without the final authority of the councils lacks important context.

    The reason the church was pressed to settle these issues through the decree of council is important.
    As Paul Tillich stated in his “HIstory of Christian Thought”:
    “The really decisive issue, its meaning and permanent significance, is the answer to the question, ‘How is salvation possible, in a world of darkness and mortality?’ This alone was the question. This was the question, as we have seen already in the Apostolic Fathers. It was the question ever since, and it was the question in the period of the great Trinitarian and Christological struggles.”

    That to me is the foundation for any conversation with a JW, Mormon, or Oneness Pentecostal. If Jesus is a half-God or a created being, how does he save, if only God can save us from sin? The answer typically falls back to human effort and legalism, which cannot save. Rejecting the councils is not just an act of disobedience but a threat to the faith and salvation.


  31. Dispensationalism developed in the middle 1800’s and is very much alive and well today in many Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, tho not necessarily under that name. It was started by John Nelson Darby and popularized in the early twentieth century by C.I. Scofield and his hugely annotated Scofield Bible. The Rapture theory was a big part of this, think Hal Lindsey. Darby was a cessationist, believing that miracles and manifestations ceased with the death of the Apostles, which is peculiar since the Pentecostals adopted so much of the theology. That’s off the top of my head and someone else might have to correct me in details.

    Cessationist thinking probably started early on amongst those not comfortable with the Presence of God closer than the pages of the Bible. I don’t think it has ever become official policy of the Roman Church and I imagine there is a wide range of belief. Catholics here might know a lot more. Probably more at home in the mainline Protestant churches but even there likely a wide range of belief, as there is here at the Monastery. I imagine the Eastern Orthodox church has always welcomed the Holy Spirit but not necessarily in extreme forms. Tho sitting on top of a pillar for years on end strikes me as kind of extreme. I don’t think they do that today or even much back when.


  32. You caused me to look up the fellow. This stuff is hard for me I was not raised in it. It says he made many homilies on a lot. Quite a few actually, stuff that could keep a person at a desk for a long time.


  33. I have reason to believe that the church Fathers had no problem with the gifts of the spirit and that it may have gone on beyond the apostles. I know that John Chrysostom mentions the book of Acts in some of his homilies and how it makes a difference having it when it comes to understanding the work of the Holy Spirit.


  34. Yes they were 2 separate questions only I was having a brain fart on the cessationist part. These being closely tied together is this their birthplace or is it more in the late 1800’s when this stuff I’m reading was written and has copyright. Or am I just thoroughly wrong all together.


  35. Robert, I’d be interested to have links to or names of those “other responsible, rigorous scholars ,” so I can learn a more than the little I have read. Do you have these references handy?

    As for having “confidence” in the Gospel of Thomas — I think it sounds like the writing of St. Paul on LSD! But it’s interesting to me, as are the other “gospels,” like the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Mary Magdelene. They show how many different strands of Christianity existed bewfore the soon-to-be Catholic Church codified the official faith.


  36. The church started going off the rails from the git-go. All one has to do to see it is to read Paul’s letters.

    Isn’t that kind of what we are getting at though, that that simply is not true? Even in Paul’s letters, it’s not true, unless you establish a monolithic church with sublime doctrine that everyone knew to be true but just wanted to corrupt? As opposed to a group of new believers in a new religion figuring things out as they went?

    I’m not sure I buy into that meme anymore. Or any meme that descends into restorianism.


  37. I believe that would be cessationism, not dispensationalism, though many dispensationalists are cessationists.


  38. I think I need to rephrase the question. Is this the beginning of dispensationalism? Is this the thought that signs and wonders were only present at first and then ceased?


  39. w, I’m not sure this will answer your question, but I’m going to point you to Luke 1. Reflect upon what it says about the Holy Spirit and It’s interaction with people. (I just started leading a study on Luke and kinda struck by the number of times the Holy Spirit is mentioned and how it is described “as working.”)

    “For he (Zechariah’s son aka John the Baptist) will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.” (v.15, NASB)

    “The angel answered and said to her (Mary), ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God’.” (v.35, NASB)

    “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” (v.41, NASB)

    “And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:…” (v.67, NASB)


  40. I have a question. In the first part I read of Clement he talks about being holy alot. His mention of the Holy Spirit is only to those apostles before him and pertaining to the Bible. My wondering is this the first of thinking that the Holy Spirit was just for then. In my way of thinking it wasn’t until I became accommodating to the Holy Spirit have I even been able to live what would be close to a holy life. Is this the start of having to do everything right all on our own? I’ll listen.


  41. “Jesus was the divine man, as the earlier belief may have been in parts of the Church, but it later came to be understood that he was also incarnate God. These beliefs are not mutually exclusive, though one may have preceded the other chronologically”

    And does the transition from the first belief to the second actually change that much of anything?

    It still seems to me that stating Christ is The Divine Man or The Incarnate God, and then having a heated argument about it, is splitting hairs. Perhaps I have too much baggage, but the – often angry – debates over the concept of The Trinity leave me ice cold to the concept; the ever inter-winding of ever more obtuse metaphors. Metaphors which draw far more on the an authors philosophical background than on scriptures. I no longer believe in “The Trinity”, because I cannot claim to believe in a concept I cannot describe in any meaningful way; but I am fine with assenting to belief in the Trinity in creeds as I agree with the thrust of what they are saying, and I am skeptical the vast tracts of theological weeds amount to places of consequence.

    Tertullian’s statement: “His own Reason. For God is rational, and Reason was first in Him”

    What is his basis for this statement? And what does he mean by “rational”? I respect Tertullian, but what gives this statement or belief merit other than its vintage? Does the the statement “Reason was first in Him” imply that God created reason? [or his own Reason?]. But my four-dimensional human rationality does not seem all that applicable to a being like God, so when I say such a thing what does that claim mean? Is Tertullian’s statement more about Scripture and/or Hebrew tradition or more about the prevailing philosophies of the first century?


  42. Amen.

    The church started going off the rails from the git-go. All one has to do to see it is to read Paul’s letters.

    These “we alone know the truth” movements…or some of the re-pristination movements that happen in these law based “churches” are wrongheaded at best. And at worst, of the Devil.


  43. Brianthedad,

    According to Cyril Richardson, the Epistle of Clement is late first-century, and was considered part of the NT canon in Egypt and Syria in the early years. But Clement’s account of the Phoenix rising is probably what got him axed in the long run. He does use the Phoenix as an illustration of resurrection and of God’s promises, though. And you’re right, it is a good read.


  44. I always have gone here to read the daily readings and Spurgeon and found the book The life and times of Jesus the messiah by Alfred and never looked over to the corner. It does seem like a hard read for me like Alfred but I will push on.


  45. I have physician friends who say that they would over-rule a JW parent’s demand for no blood transfusion for a minor child. And the law is on the side of the medical community.

    One of them, a Physician’s Assistant, said that while he was in PA school he researched the Jehovah’s Witnesses policy on blood transfusion for a medical ethics paper, and subjected himself to proselytizing until he got the information he needed. Then he said, “OK, thank you very much. You can leave now.”

    I thought that was rude, but he’s still one of my best friends. 😀


  46. Thanks for the early church fathers link! Bookmarked for future reading. Already did the epistle of clement this morning. Lots of OT quotations. And then the Phoenix! Very interesting read. Thanks again.


  47. Haven’t read Pagels. But the claim that Christ wasn’t God until Iranaeus—or Constantine—said so only works if you haven’t read the New Testament. John 1:1 for starters, and, like, anything Paul wrote.

    I have a copy of Cyril Richardson, ed., Early Christian Fathers and Irenaeus looks pretty Trinitarian (read: Christ is God) to me. And I don’t think he made it up either. It’s a lot of the same language that flowed out of the New Testament.


  48. The Kindle edition of the Fathers is $2.99. Can’t beat that with a stick.

    I came across ’em in seminary; my next-door neighbor in the dorms was a new convert to the Orthodox Church, and his priests had recommended he read the Fathers, so he splurged for the 30-volume set. “Any time you wanna borrow anything,” he told me, so I took him up on that and started working my way through them. But he graduated the end of the semester and took his library with him, so I had to resort to the school’s library. (And discovered Thomas Oden’s works while I was there. He’s a useful index.)

    Really steeled me against Restorationism—”The church went astray in antiquity, but we’re bringing it back”—in its many forms.


  49. A couple of Mormon missionaries had the bad luck to come knocking on my door one Maundy Thursday morning as I was polishing up my sermon for that evening’s Communion-Footwashing service at our Lutheran church in the D.C. suburbs. I invited them in, of course; but I’m afraid they learned more about Holy Week and my faith community that day than I learned about theirs.


  50. I used to be a Jehovah’s Witness. I started reading the church fathers when I was doing some research for a sermon in a JW hall and it definitely affected me. Although it wasn’t the only thing that caused my loss of faith I do think Jesus used the Church Fathers to set me free.


  51. I don’t know Pagels books. What little I have read and heard leads me to think that her scholarship tends to read into the existing documentary evidence interpretations that most other responsible, rigorous scholars find untenable. As a result of this possibly unfair pre-judgement, I don’t seek her books out, or intend to read them.

    As to the idea that the doctrine of incarnation developed over time, I don’t see any problem with this. We have to keep in mind that the incarnation necessarily expanded the understanding of the nature of God, and it took time for the definitions and doctrines to approximate what had been revealed in Christ. There is no evidence that the Church of the first century and a half taught anything about Christ that was incompatible with the later doctrine of incarnation; i.e., Jesus was the divine man, as the earlier belief may have been in parts of the Church, but it later came to be understood that he was also incarnate God. These beliefs are not mutually exclusive, though one may have preceded the other chronologically. It’s just that the later expanded the earlier.

    Like Eeyore, I don’t have much confidence in the Gospel of Thomas, or the Nag Hamadi library, to reveal much about Christian origins. In addition, the gnostic texts I’ve read lack the distinctive narrative quality of the canonical gospels. They seem more like aphorisms, haphazardly patched together in the most artificial way. They lack story, which is essential to the Jewish/Christian matrix of revelation.


  52. Mike Bell, this is good stuff. This entire series is excellent. I’m glad you went the route of Hebrew and Greek. I’m sorry I didn’t take Hebrew in seminary. Thanks for talking about the Ante-Nicene Fathers. Here is so much we can learn.

    The last time Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door I was away from home. My peace loving dog growled at them.


  53. I did a research paper in seminary on the topic of Gnostic/non-canonical Scriptures in general, and the Gospel of Thomas in particular. The problems with these “scriptures” can be (extremely briefly) summed up in three categories…

    1) Dating. Even the most “liberal” of NT scholarship nowadays agrees that the books of the NT were written in the 1st century AD (or CE if you insist). Most Gnostic scriptues I’m aware of are at least one century later than that.

    2) Authorship. The early church placed a heavy emphasis on books authored by asposles or their close associates. Most Gnostic scriptures are anonymous, or were written too late to be really attributed to their supposed author (see above).

    3) Consistency of Witness. When you actually come to read them, the worldview and theologies of the Gnostic and Canonical scriptures are worlds apart (pardon the pun). The use of Christian names and terminology covers up a consistently non-Jewish, ultra-Greek Gnostic spin on things. If you want to be a Gnostic, that’s fine, but it’s not what the original apostles had in mind.

    Apart from these general patterns, I’d have to look up the specific document in question, since seminary was a long time ago in a galaxy far far away…


  54. 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.

    The same view of Church History which I have heard from Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Landmark Baptists — and Jehovah’s Witnesses. How everything became Romish Popery and Paganism and Great Apostasy until Our Founder Reverend Apostle Joe Soap was Personally Chosen by God to Re-Establish The One True New Testament Church. We Alone are Right, All Other “Churches” are Wrong Wrong Wrong, Have Fun in Hell.

    (Where does Restored New Testament Church end and CULT CULT CULT begin?)

    The Wahabi and Salafi(?) are similar movements/attitudes in Islam. Returning Everything to the Pure Islam As It Was In The Day Of The Prophet, PBUH. Result: The Extreme Islam you see in Saudi and among the Taliban.

    Whenever I have heard this attitude, I’ve always seen accompanying danger of what Thomas Merton called “The Devil’s Theology” — where the most important thing is Proving Myself Absolutely Right and Proving Everyone Else to be Absolutely Wrong. At the very least, ignoring centuries of church history leaves you re-inventing the wheel over and over with little or no reality check.


  55. Obviously I’ve drunk too much strong tea with my Thanksgiving dinner, because a third comment occurs to me: I’m very impressed, Mike, with your very scholarly approach to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was crushing but respectful at the same time — not an easy feat.

    My own “rejection” of them was neither scholarly nor particularly respectful. I’d often invited them in when they came around because I enjoyed talking religion. But then I realized they (naturally) understood my interest to be that of a potential convert. I felt it was time to make it clear why I wasn’t, and pointed out some of their beliefs I didn’t share. When I questioned them about the wisdom of forbidding blood transfusions, based only on one half verse of the NT, they argued a bit and then said something like, “Well, this isn’t a very large part of our beliefs, anyway. It’s not that important.” I had just received one of their pamphlets, with pictures of numerous children on the cover, captioned, “Children who believed in God.” When I’d read the accompanying article, I realized these kids were all dead, because they had refused blood transfusions! I grabbed the pamphlet and thrust it in front of them and said in a (muted, I hope) roar, “You will let your children DIE for it! That sounds pretty important.” They left shortly after and never came back. I can see I should have been more courteous, rather than just exploding like that.

    Anyway, you did a great job in giving them food for thought!


  56. I’m sure some here have read Elaine Pagels’ “Beyond Belief,” which is somewhat misleadingly subtitled “The Secret Gospel of Thomas.” I guess it’s a bit off-topic, but I’d be interested to know what you thought about it.

    I found it fascinating and (dare I say it?) liberating, in that it outlines information from the not-so-secret Gospel of Thomas (which is on the internet!) and from other Gnostic writing of the first and second centuries. Among other things, Pagels says that the early church father Irenaeus (ca. 130-200 AD) was the first to codify the belief that Christ was God — not just a divine Man but God Himself. This belief, Pagels asserts, was not universal in the earliest church, but became so in the second and third centuries, and of course was stated repeatedly in the Nicean Creed.

    Anyway, I would like to hear about people’s views here of Pagels’ book in particular and of the early Christian writings in general which were *not* adopted by the ascendant Catholic Church.


  57. I go to Christian Classics Ethereal Library everyday and didn’t know about this. I have hope that this will be a part of my next daily reading. I will be checking it out and thanks.


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