Can Reading Church Fathers Be Dangerous?
Reading church fathers—Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril of Jerusalem, Eusebius of Caesarea—gives me a tangible connection to the cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1) that surrounds us as believers in Christ. I suppose it’s not too surprising that I would find enjoyment with them, because I’ve always loved learning about history.
But recently, a friend expressed some concern that reading ancient theologians might expose me to strange interpretations or heretical teaching that it is better to avoid. And it’s true; the respected early fathers of our faith didn’t always interpret or teach according to orthodoxy. And to further the potential for being misled, ancient heretics wrote too—think Arius or Apollinaris—and not everything they taught or wrote was found to be heretical.
This same friend who initially brought the concern to my attention has also shown me a tool that I can use to detect falsehood in the things I read. My friend encourages believers to share with one another the teaching they learn from sermons, radio programs, books, and other sources.
Of course, we often do this when we discover something that encourages us and can be beneficial for the growth of others. But that isn’t quite the purpose that my friend has in mind. By sharing both the beneficial teaching and the potentially questionable teaching we are exposed to with others, we can work together to recognize truth and expose falsehood.
Working Together to Expose Falsehood
One way I practice this habit when I read church fathers by sharing with my husband the things that I learn. Often, he also appreciates the particular concept that I have shared and thus, helps to confirm the orthodoxy of it. But sometimes, he is not as impressed with something as I am, and he will show me where I may have gone astray in my understanding or been attracted by something that doesn’t withstand investigation. He most often does this by drawing my attention to biblical passages that reveal some falsehood in what I’ve been reading.
When I read in a teachable frame of mind, the Holy Spirit helps me discern truth from falsehood as I compare what I read from ancients with the Bible and other tried and true sources. Do I do this perfectly? Absolutely not! But I begin to recognize ideas, arguments, and patterns that I encounter in my reading come back around in contemporary oppositions to Christian teaching. As I grow in my ability to detect poor or even false teaching in my reading of the ancients, I also grow in my ability to spot it today. This is an invaluable skill that I want to continue to cultivate. And amazingly, I don’t have to depend only on myself to get it right. I can depend on my brothers and sisters in Christ to help!