Quick. When was the last time you heard or read anything written by someone from the early church? I’m not talking about the New Testament. Something from the post-apostolic era up to about A.D. 600. Most people are almost totally ignorant of our spiritual forefathers from the distant past. I wonder if people assume that we don’t have many writings that survive that era. I suspect that many think the early church fathers don’t have anything useful to say for us today. For the few Christians who have some familiarity with early Christianity, it surely seems strange, foreign, simple. Others conclude the early church was overly philosophical and moralistic. And the way they interpreted the Bible is so different than how most read the Bible today. Their fourfold hermeneutic feels almost mystical, hardly rooted in the grammatical-historical exegesis dominant since the Reformation era.
May I suggest that there is some truth in all of these criticisms, but in my opinion none of them are sufficient grounds for ignoring the interpretation, theology, devotion, and worship that the earliest years of the church produced. They have left us a vast spiritual heritage that is just waiting to be mined by Christians today who yearn for a connection to the past, for a chain through the ages all the way back to Jesus and the apostles. But how to get started? Edited by Cindy Crosby (General Editor: Thomas Oden), the Ancient Christian Devotional: A Year of Weekly Readings, Lectionary Cycle A (ACD-A) is an accessible portal to “travel back in time” to experience the early church.
Organized into three books to coincide with Lectionary Cycles A, B, and C, ACD-A is the first of three devotionals that take the reader through a year of weekly readings following the flow of the Church Year (e.g., Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, All-Saints Day, etc). There is one chapter per week, following a particular theme and arranged according to the flow of a daily office. Thus a typical chapter flows like a personal worship service:
- Theme paragraph
- Opening prayer – quote from an early church resource
- OT reading – followed by reflections from various church fathers
- Psalm of response
- NT reading – followed by reflections from various church fathers
- Gospel reading – followed by reflections from various church fathers
- Closing prayer – quote from an early church resource
I’ll be the first to admit there is a large dose of allegorical interpretation in ACD-A. But that is going to be the case because for much of church history the fourfold interpretive method was utilized, even before it matured and was codified in the medieval period. In its mature form, this method taught that every text has four levels of meaning, or four senses. The first is the literal sense, the second is the allegorical sense which emphasizes symbolism and typology, the third is the moral (tropological) sense, and the fourth is the anagogical (metaphysical, eschatological, gnostic) sense. In reading the church fathers, all four of these senses can be discerned here or there. What I find interesting is that often their conclusions are biblically and theologically sound, but the conclusion does not necessarily arise literally or allegorically from the text. So while I don’t subscribe to the fourfold hermeneutic as a reliable method for reading the Bible, I’m not prepared to say that the church fathers are unhelpful. Actually, far from it! Their insights into human nature, the godhead, and applications to life are often stimulating and a breath of fresh air. We just don’t see things exactly the same way today. C.S. Lewis urged people to read more old (long dead) authors, not because they are inherently better, but because they are not bound by the blindspots and prejudices of our generation. That is one of the great benefits of reading the church fathers.
Another blessing of spending a year with the ancient church is a sense of rootedness and connectedness that contemporary writers cannot offer. Hearing stories about your great-grandparents is not the same as reading their own words. You get to know someone better and feel closer to him when you hear him rather than simply about him. I’m reminded of a Peanuts comic where Sally begins writing a theme paper on Church History. She begins with, “When writing about Church History, we have to go back to the very beginning. Our Pastor was born in 1930.” Ha! We are the poorer for such a limited, myopic view of the church. God has been building his church and giving gifted teachers for thousands of years. These men and women were also led by the Holy Spirit to discern truth in the Word and in the world. We are the richer for learning from them.
ACD-A is also a useful resource for finding quotations from the early church and Bible passages that follow a particular theme. Say you want to do a Bible study on the Nearness of God. Week 24 offers four Bible passages, commentary by various early church fathers, and two prayers that you can use for teaching on God’s nearness. Multiply this usefulness by 52 and you have quite a reference work.
If you want to read some of the writings of a particular church father, consult the index for his commentary on various Bible passages, or perhaps follow through to the commentary’s cited source for further research. Or you can just turn to the pertinent volume in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series for deeper study.
ACD-A is not always easy reading. I would not recommend you speed-read it. Mix it in once a week with your private devotions—this is what I did. That pace seems just right. If the discipline of spending a year with the early church fathers proves fruitful, you can continue the devotional journey using subsequent volumes (ACD-B, ACD-C).
Take up and read. Become acquainted with the likes of famous men such as Athanasius, Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Jerome, Justin Martyr, Leo the Great, Origen, and a whole lot more lesser-known saints from ages past.
See the “WTS Review” tab for church historian Carl Trueman’s review.
Read an interview with General Editor Thomas Oden regarding his journey to Christian orthodoxy by way of rediscovering the church fathers.