169.“Baptized and Sent”: Is This the Biblical Mission?

November 1st, 2019

“Baptized and Sent: The Church of Christ on Mission in the World”. This is the theme chosen by Pope Francis for the Missionary Month that he called for this past June. “For the month of October 2019”, he said in the homily that opened the month on October 1st, “I ask the whole Church to live an extraordinary time of missionary activity”.

This special initiative marked the 100th anniversary of Pope Benedict XV’s Apostolic Letter Maximum Illud (1919), a document on the Church’s mission to the world, and was run in conjuction with the Synod of Bishops of the Pan-Amazon region. Pope Francis argued that “It will help us in our mission”, which is not about spreading a “religious ideology” or a “lofty ethical teaching.” Instead, he continued, “through the mission of the Church, Jesus Christ himself continues to evangelize and act; her mission thus makes present in history the Kairos, the favorable time of salvation.”

The Message by Pope Francis for World Mission Day (20th October) contains some important aspects of Roman Catholic missiology that deserve critical attention, especially on the importance that Rome attributes to baptism for mission.

Is Baptism the Foundation of Mission?
The title of the Message indicates a causative link between baptism and mission. The background of the Pope’s appeal to a renewed missionary effort by his Church is given by the presentation of the standard Roman doctrine of baptism, and by extension, of the sacramental life. Mission begins with a sacrament and unfolds in a sacramental journey. This is what the Pope said:

This life is bestowed on us in baptism, which grants us the gift of faith in Jesus Christ, the conqueror of sin and death. Baptism gives us rebirth in God’s own image and likeness, and makes us members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church. In this sense, baptism is truly necessary for salvation for it ensures that we are always and everywhere sons and daughters in the house of the Father, and never orphans, strangers or slaves. What in the Christian is a sacramental reality – whose fulfillment is found in the Eucharist – remains the vocation and destiny of every man and woman in search of conversion and salvation. For baptism fulfils the promise of the gift of God that makes everyone a son or daughter in the Son. We are children of our natural parents, but in baptism we receive the origin of all fatherhood and true motherhood: no one can have God for a Father who does not have the Church for a mother (cf. Saint Cyprian, De Cath. Eccl., 6).

Here we find the traditional Roman Catholic view of baptism in a nutshell. Baptism is thought of as bestowing the gift of faith, giving new birth, incoporating into the Church, granting salvation, enacting adoption, making accessible the promise of God, and making it possible to enter into the sacramental reality which finds its climax in the Eucharist. The Church administers God’s grace through the sacrament of baptism and nurtures it through the sacrament of the Eucharist. In the Roman Catholic view, this sacramental life, beginning with baptism, is what is offered in mission to all people.

In passing, notice that even when Rome speaks the seemingly evangelical language of mission, it does so in its own sacramental understanding. Baptism, and thefore the sacraments, and therefore the Church, are central to the Roman Catholic gospel. Rome cannot be and will never be committed to the gospel truth that salvation is by faith alone. One is not saved by believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but by receiving the sacrament of baptism by the Church. Rome finds it hard to accept the straighforward biblical message that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Romans 10:9-10). Whatever view of baptism churches might hold (and notoriously Protestants disagree on the meaning of baptism), the gospel is clear that it is by confesssing and believing (in other words, by faith and by faith alone) that one is saved.

“Every baptized man and woman is a mission”

According to Francis, then, mission stems from baptism. One is sent into mission because he/she is baptized. One who is baptized is a missionary by definition. Here is what he said to reinforce the point: “Our mission is rooted in the fatherhood of God and the motherhood of the Church. The mandate given by the Risen Jesus at Easter is inherent in Baptism. In this Roman Catholic view, there is something intrinsic and objective in baptism that makes it foundational to the missionary mandate. This conviction was further elaborated when Francis affirmed, “Today too, the Church needs men and women who, by virtue of their baptism, respond generously to the call to leave behind home, family, country, language and local Church, and to be sent forth to the nations, to a world not yet transformed by the sacraments of Jesus Christ and his holy Church.”

“By virtue of their baptism” people become missionaries, thus the theme of the missionary month: “Baptized and Sent”. Later Pope Francis made the point again when he said,“Every baptized man and woman is a mission”. So mission is rooted in baptism and the missionary calling derives from baptism. Once baptized, one is sent.

There are severe problems here. First, baptism, i.e. a sacrament of the Church, is elevated to an importance that makes personal faith second; it therefore highlights the centrality of the institution that administers it and the physical objects that the Church uses (i.e. water), rather than the personal response to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Secondly, most baptized people in the Catholic church don’t show any evidence of this missionary awareness; indeed, many don’t believe in the biblical gospel at all. Many Catholics in majority Catholic contexts have never professed a personal faith in the biblical Jesus and fall short of any biblical qualifications to be missionaries because they are not believers in Jesus Christ in the first place! How is it possible to maintain such a view that runs contrary to Scripture and the empirical evidence? From both theological and sociological grounds, the link between baptism and mission is not causal and linear as the Pope thinks.

Again, Romans 10 is helpful here: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (10:14-15). The Bible teaches that mission requires believers in Jesus Christ to be sent, not baptized people by the Church. This is a significantly different view than that of Pope Francis! One wonders if the link between baptism and mission actually suffocates the gospel rather than propelling it.

The language of Roman Catholic missiology may look like the evangelical understanding of it but, despite the common language, the theological meaning of the words and the overall theological framework are different. The Roman Catholic Missionary Month promoted by Pope Francis is not good news for evangelical mission.

168. Contested Catholicity: In What Sense Is the Church Catholic?

October 1st, 2019

This is a summary of a paper given at the Giornate teologiche (Padova, Italy, 6-7 Sept 2019), the annual theological conference of the Istituto di Formazione Evangelica e Documentazione (www.ifeditalia.org).

The adjective “catholic” and the noun “catholicity” have a bittersweet usage in ordinary evangelical language. They seem too strictly associated with the reality of Roman Catholicism to be used in a way free from cumbersome superstructures of meaning. For this unsettled relationship with the terms, some churches, in reciting the Apostles’ Creed, prefer to profess the church as “universal” rather than “catholic”. The two words overlap, but the former is less embedded in theological controversies than the latter.

The Bible never uses the expression kath’olon (according to the whole) in the theological sense. The only explicit reference, which is used in a negative form, is in Acts 4:18. The profane use of kath’olon has a variegated range including the meaning of “general”, “total”, “complete” and “perfect”. In borrowing the term, the Church began to understand it as describing the universality of the Church (made of Jews and Gentiles), the fullness of the gospel (once and for all delivered to the saints), and the global extension of the people of God (from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth).[1]

Catholicity Always in Context
In the post-apostolic age, the word “catholic” was included in the Apostles’ Creed as a mark of the Church of Jesus Christ. The Creed defines it as the “one, holy, apostolic and catholic” church. Catholicity was affirmed not in isolation, but in the context of the other three dimensions. In this sense the catholicity of the church was signified and limited by making reference to its unity (i.e. there is one people of God), holiness (i.e. the people of God as set apart by Him and for Him), and apostolicity (i.e. the people of God follow the teachings of the apostles, namely the Bible).

Catholicity is not a standalone ecclesiological parameter but one organically linked to the other three. In this way, it is protected from becoming an omnivore capable of integrating all. If catholicity takes precedence over apostolicity (i.e. biblical teaching), it becomes universalism. If holiness is left out, catholicity becomes a box void of spiritual content. If catholicity loses its connection to unity, it explodes into a myriad of self-referential units. In the 5th century, Vincent of Lérins famously summarized the contours of catholicity with the adverbs ubique, semper, ab omnibus: catholic is something that has been believed everywhere (space), always (time) and by all (extension). Despite the usefulness of the Lérinian description, notice the downplaying of the apostolic, biblical grounding of catholicity, the only external and objective criterion for it to remain anchored to God’s truth. Space, time and extension are all important markers of catholicity only insofar as the apostolic gospel is the binding framework for the universality of the church.

The Romanization of Catholicity
Out of such a looser view, catholicity was deeply impacted by the addition of a fifth mark of the church: its centering on the church of Rome, the see of Rome, the Roman authorities. Catholicity absorbed a Roman element that became so intertwined with it that it gave rise to Roman Catholicism. According to Jaroslav Pelikan, “the name ‘Roman Catholic’ conjoined the universality of the Church over the entire world, which has long been the content of the term ‘Catholic’, with the specificity of only one single see”[2], that of Rome.

As Kenneth Collins and Jerry Walls have aptly demonstrated in their book, Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation (2016), Roman Catholicity is a long-established union of catholic universality and Roman particularity, catholic plurality and Roman unity, catholic comprehensiveness and Roman distinctiveness, the catholic totus (whole) and the Roman locus (place), catholic fullness and Roman partiality, catholic breadth and Roman narrowness, catholic elasticity and Roman rigidity, the catholic universe and the Roman center, catholic organism and Roman organization, the catholic faith and the Roman structure.

Along the way, ecclesiastical voice and power supplemented and ultimately overtook biblical authority. The Roman Church grew its exclusive claims. The rise of the papacy became the climax of the Romanization of Catholicism. The sacraments were used to divide rather than to unite Christians. Accounts of the Mary of the Bible were idealized, which reflected the Roman Catholic synthesis.“In short,” the authors say,“ironic though it is, the Church of Rome is not sufficiently catholic” (p. 83). The cumulative argument presented is that Rome wants to tie its romanitas (made of imperial structure, political power, hierarchical organization, extra-biblical traditions) to its status as the only church of Jesus Christ where the fullness of grace can be found. But this is exactly the point at issue. By wanting to be Roman, the Church ceased to be catholic. The Roman mark was a spurious addition that altered the nature of the catholicity of the Church.

Back to Apostolic (i.e. Biblical) Catholicity
The Roman Catholicity was given primacy over its biblical catholicity, thus modifying the fundamental commitments of the Roman Church. The Protestant Reformation was the attempt to recover the apostolic catholicity away from its Roman/imperial/sacramental/hierarchical tenets.

Martin Luther thought that Rome had taken the Church to a “Babylonian captivity” and there was the urgent need to rescue it. In a certain sense, the Reformation was an attempt to recover catholicity by disentangling it from the Roman world and reconnecting it to the mark of apostolicity: the formal principle of the authority of Scripture and the material principle of justification by faith alone.

Certainly, the Reformation broke away from Roman Catholicism, but it did so because it wanted to restore evangelical catholicity. The Reformation did not break away from the Church; in fact, it recovered the Church by breaking from the bondage of Romanism and by restoring the apostolicity of catholicity. This is not to say that the Reformation always and consistently appreciated the unity of the Church, but its main concern was to radically question the Romanization of catholicity that had taken precedence at the expense of its apostolicity and holiness.

The Reformation reclaimed the catholicity of the evangelical faith by showing its faithfulness to Scripture and its substantial continuity with the Church Fathers, and by rediscovering the universal priesthood of believers away from the Roman, sacramental, and hierarchical division between clergy and laity. This point has been cogently laboured and argued for in recent books such as Scott R. Swain and Michael Allen’s Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015) and statements like A Reforming Catholic Confession (2016) signed by dozens of evangelical scholars and leaders from around the world.

Missional Catholicity
There is another angle from which evangelicals are appreciating the catholicity of the biblical faith in the contemporary world. This emphasis can be called the missional dimension of catholicity. In the Manila Manifesto (1989), drafted as the result of the Second Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, there is a call to take “the whole Gospel by the whole Church to the whole world”. The term catholicity is not there, but the catholicity of the evangelical faith is clearly and pervasively present.

The whole gospel: not a truncated version of it, but the full biblical message of God Creator, Provider and Saviour of a sinful and lost world. The whole church: not a class of professionals, but the whole people of God engaged in mission to the ends of the earth. To the whole world: centers and peripheries, groups and nations, the world of business, media, work and ideas. Standing on the shoulders of the apostolic catholicity recovered by the Reformation, this is a promising way to reclaim and to live out the catholicity of the Church in our broken world.


[1] Cfr. A. Dulles, The Catholicity of the Church (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985) and V. Manguzzi, Cattolicità (Assisi: Cittadella, 2012).

[2] J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 4 (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1963) pp. 245-246.

166. Pope Francis Fears for the Planet, But Where Is the Gospel?

Europe, sovereignism (the “us first” type of politics), migrants, glaciers, the Amazon … these are the topics covered in a recent interview given by Pope Francis to the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa (8th August 2019). It is a fairly long conversation that mirrors the concerns the Pope has in looking at today’s global world: he begins with Europe and stretches to the Amazon, touching on social, political, environmental, and ecclesiastical issues. Some of the topics are politically controversial and divisive even among the Roman Catholic constituency. Beyond confirming stances on which the Pope is strongly convinced, however, what is striking in the interview are his silences.

The Biggest Fear for the Planet
None of the things that Francis said were really new. There have been multiple occasions at all levels in which the Pope has expressed his views on sovereignist ideology (“it leads to war”), the populist tendency in the public opinion (“It leads to sovereignism”), the migrant issue (the four imperatives are to “receive”, “accompany”, “promote”, and “integrate”), the exploitation of natural resources (“the Overshoot Day: On July 29th, we used up all the regenerative resources of 2019… It’s a global emergency”); the challenges that the Amazon region is facing (“deforestation means killing humanity”, “the issue of open-cast mines which are poisoning water and causing so many diseases”, “the issue of fertilizers”, “the economic and political interests of society’s dominant sectors”).

These are all serious points, most of which the Pope touched on in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ on “care for our common home”. They have to be thought through and acted upon. They are real emergencies. However, something is missing in the answers of the Pope. Reaching the climax of the interview, the question comes up: “Your Holiness, what do you fear most for our planet?”. The Pope’s answer is striking. Here it is: “The disappearance of biodiversity. New lethal diseases. A drift and devastation of nature that can lead to the death of humanity”.

The disappearance of biodiversity, new lethal diseases, a devastation of nature. These are the things that the Pope fears the most for the world. Again, these are real and scary threats. But isn’t there something missing from a Christian point of view? If Jesus were asked such a question, what would His response be? If Paul, John, Peter, and James were asked such a question, what would their response be? In the Pope’s answer, there is no mention of Christ, sin, the cross, repentance, conversion, God’s judgement, grace, the gospel. And yet he claims to be the “vicar of Christ”!

The question opened up wonderful opportunities to reply in such a way that those fears could be approached and framed in terms of the gospel, rather than in terms of a merely humanistic worldview. In what he said and what he didn’t say, Pope Francis acted as if he were the spokesperson of a secular NGO focused on humanitarian and environmental issues, rather than a Christian who is passionate to tell the whole world the biblical message of God’s creation, human sin, and redemption in Christ alone and to work out its implication for the church and the world.

Where is Christ in all this?
Actually, Christ is not only missing in this answer – He is never mentioned in the whole interview. Greta Thunberg, the young ecologist activist, is referred to by name, but Jesus isn’t. One might say: but the Pope wasn’t asked direct questions about Christ. That’s true; but it was a long interview with lots of questions, full of entry points for the gospel to be announced. These opportunities were all missed by the Pope. In reading the interview the reader is not at all challenged by the gospel. He or she is instead alerted to some pressing environmental and political issues that an informed and cunning politician could have raised. Does his silence say tell something about the kind of “gospel” the Pope has in mind?

Expressing concerns for the Amazon region, the interviewer talked about the upcoming Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon that is going to take place at the end of October 2019. At this point the Pope shared what is going to be the highlight of the Synod: “The important thing will be the ministries of evangelisation and the different ways of evangelising”.

Evangelisation and evangelising. One is left wondering what evangelisation even means to Francis. In the long interview the Pope does not spell it out. The only hint he gives is to “dialogue”:

This is crucial: starting from our own identity we must open to dialogue in order to receive something greater from the identity of others. Never forget that ‘the whole is greater than the parts.’ Globalisation, unity, should not be conceived as a sphere, but as a polyhedron: each people retains its identity in unity with others.

This is what the Pope says: we open up dialogue in order to form a polycentric unity with the people we dialogue with. Again, there is no reference to the biblical content of the “good news” (i.e. the message of salvation in Jesus Christ), nor the biblical expectation that conversions to Christ will result out of dialogue. For the Pope, the outcome of dialogue is an expanded, polymorphic unity among people. In the Bible, however, evangelisation entails dialogue, but also proclamation, preaching, persuading, etc. (e.g. Acts 17:16-31 ). These elements are totally missing in the Pope’s view of evangelisation. Moreover, the Bible is also soberly aware that when and where evangelisation takes place some refuse the gospel, and some believe it (e.g. Acts 17:32-34). No greater unity within humanity is expected, but the conversion of the lost is the goal of evangelism. This should be the greatest concern for all Christians: taking the gospel to the ends of the world so that those who believe in Jesus Christ will have eternal life. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the Pope’s vision, although he claims to be the highest representative of Christ on earth.

164. From the Mary of the Bible to the Mary of Manifold Devotions

This review of Stephen J. Shoemaker, Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (New Haven, CT; London, UK: Yale University Press, 2016) pp. 289, was published in “Credo Magazine”, Volume 9, Issue 2 (June 10, 2019).

At the end of September 2018, in the midst of the Annus Horribilis of the Roman Catholic Church (with the explosion of sexual abuse cases and the growing spiral of inner conflicts within the curia), Pope Francis called his people to devote themselves to praying to Mary to ask for her protection.[1] He asked the faithful to conclude the Rosary with the ancient invocation Sub tuum praesidium (“We fly to thy patronage”). The full Marian invocation is recited as follows:

We fly to Thy protection, O Holy Mother of God. Do not despise our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.

The prayer contains references to attributes and prerogatives that in the Bible are clearly and exclusively relegated to God, e.g. His protection, His acceptance of our petitions, His ability to deliver, and Him being both glorious and blessed. And yet, this Marian prayer ascribes all of these functions to Mary and her protective mantle. Where does this prayer come from? And why is it part of the liturgical and devotional life of the Roman Catholic Church now? 

The Growth of Mariology
A well-documented and scholarly answer comes from the book Mary in Early Christian Faith and Devotion (Yale University Press) by Stephen J. Shoemaker. Shoemaker traces the complex historical process that saw the Mary of the Bible become the Mary of manifold devotions in the first five centuries of the Christian era. The book maps out the growth of Mariology well beyond the “laconic” (62) portrait of Mary that is presented in the New Testament. Even stretching the focus to the second century, Mary certainly becomes the “new Eve” for Church Fathers like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, thus seeing her role expanded to a useful corroboration of the Pauline parallel between Adam and Christ (the new Adam). However, there is no indication of any devotions attached to her. For these Fathers, “Mary seems to be a figure primarily of dogmatic rather than devotional concern” (47). Moreover, Shoemaker helpfully makes reference to a later Father like Tertullian who has a “lower esteem” for the mother of Jesus than other contemporary orthodox writers (65).

While “there is practically no evidence of any Christian devotion to Mary prior to 150 CE” (3), a first boost to the process came from the Protoevangelium of James, a late second century biography of Mary. Here she becomes “the epitome of sacred purity, as perfect holiness embodied in a human being” (60). Particular stress is put on her virginity that is “an emblem of her own sacred purity” (62) rather than a sign of the divine origin of the Son. Mary’s holiness becomes a dominating feature that attracts devotional attention on herself as an exceptional person. In a telling comment, Shoemaker argues that the Protoevangelium – therefore an apocryphal gospel – laid “crucial foundations for future devotions to the Virgin Mary” (53). For evangelicals wanting to ground spirituality on the canonical Scriptures, this in an important point to underline. Historically speaking, Marian devotions were fueled by writings that were never considered to be inspired, and yet have played a formidable role in generating the Marian cult. 

A Heterodox Backdrop
This is the background out of which the Sub tuum presidium prayer comes from. According to Shoemaker, this 3rd century Egyptian papyrus suggests, “Marian piety initially emerged within a more popular and less culturally elite context” (70). Moreover, the fact that the prayer does not mention the Father or the Son may indicate that it may have been linked with “heterodox groups within early Christianity” (72). The spurious lex orandi negatively influenced the subsequent development of the lex credendi. The fact that the highest Roman Catholic authority still uses this prayer shows how deep the impact has been.

The central chapters of the book are dedicated to a fascinating analysis of an important source such as The Book of Mary’s Repose, which opens the tradition of the Dormition narratives. Here, Mary is revered for “her knowledge of the cosmic mysteries and her influence with her son” (128) and capable of receiving intercessions, performing wonders, and making apparitions. The heterodox backdrop of the tradition depicts Jesus as the Great Cherub of Light, a typically gnostic title. The Six Books Dormition Apocryphon reinforce this insurgent tendency of making Mary the center of a proper cult.

Shoemaker also sheds light on the additions of roles given to Mary (e.g. the “ascetic model” strongly supported by Ambrose) and the liturgical evidence for the cult of the Virgin in terms of feast days, festivals, and hymnography. Here again, the lex orandi of ancient Christianity was “a bit ahead of its lex credendi” (194).

The lex credendi did arrive with the dogmatic pronouncement of Mary as the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus, a “major turning point” in the history of Marian piety (205). The final chapter contains a fascinating examination of the Mariological elements undergirding the historical context, the theological debates, and the ecclesiastical outcomes of the Council of Ephesus. The point convincingly made by Shoemaker is that Marian piety was already present and strong before the Council and was one of the principal reasons why Nestorius was rejected by the party lead by Cyril on the theological side and by Pulcheria on the devotional side. The series of sermons by Cyril that followed the conclusion of the Council “went well beyond mere Christological concerns in its exalted praises to Mary” (225). Nestorius’ Christology was certainly in need of further refinement, but he was at least right in foreseeing the explosion of devotion to the Virgin that would follow the proclamation of her as the Mother of God.

Mariology: An Evangelical Analysis
The historical and literary evidence persuasively presented by Shoemaker shows that Mariological devotions originated in heterodox (read: gnostic) milieux and were later theologized and integrated into the corpus of the Mariological doctrine of the Church (6). The book stops at a careful historical analysis, but the evangelical theologian wants to go further in saying something more that is backed up by historical evidence. Contrary to the idealized Roman Catholic view of the development of doctrine as an organic unfolding of the truth (from J.H. Newman onward), Mariological ideas and practices were added from the outside and allowed to penetrate the faith of the people. While Church Fathers like Irenaeus were painstakingly fighting against the heresies of Gnosticism in order to protect the integrity of the Christian faith, other sectors of the church were being infiltrated by gnostic deviations through Marian devotions. Gnostic influences that were thrown out of the door of theology re-entered through the window of devotions, without the church as a whole exercising enough biblical discernment to understand what was happening. Unfortunately, the lex orandi (in this case soaked in Gnosticism) eventually affected the lex credendi (which did not have enough biblical antibodies to reject them).

Back to Pope Francis. When he called his people to pray the Sub tuum praesidium Marian invocation, he referred to an ancient tradition that the Roman Catholic Church has assimilated and made its own. As has been the case from the late second century onward, “Marian devotion and doctrine continue to be driven largely by popular piety, to which the hierarchs and theologians largely respond” (239).


[1] Holy See Press Office Communiqué, 29.09.2018

163. Five Principles for Interpreting the Church Fathers

June 1st, 2019

This article is an excerpt from my Letture patristiche (II-III secolo), “Studi di teologia” N. 54 (2015), pp. 139-141.

Recent decades have seen Evangelical theology express a renewed interest in the Church Fathers. This is all well and good. Rooted in the Bible, Evangelicalism at its best has always thought of itself in continuity with the apostolic gospel as it was proclaimed and taught in the early church, the medieval period, the Protestant Reformation, and Evangelical revivals up to the present day. In this positive retrieval, there is also the danger of an idealization of the Fathers (as if they were always right and always working with pure motives) and a wholesale and unwarranted appreciation of “tradition” (as if it was a monolithic body that is organically related to Scripture). In order to both affirm the Evangelical interest in the Fathers and suggest some caveats in practising it, here are five principles that can be useful to bear in mind.

1)  In reading the Church Fathers, practice the Sola Scriptura principle (the Bible alone is the inspired written Word of God and the ultimate authority), the tota Scriptura principle (the whole Bible is inspired and needs to be received as a whole), and the Scriptura sui ipsius interpres principle (the Bible is its own interpreter). As Protestant theologians, always remember that Scripture is the norma normans non normata (i.e. the norm of norms which cannot be normed). The Fathers are important, but not decisive; the Fathers are useful, but not definitive; the Fathers can be enriching, but to the extent that they are faithful to Scripture. In the words of John Calvin, “we hold that the Word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment, and that Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word, we still give to Councils and Fathers such rank and honor as it is meet for them to hold, under Christ”.[1]

2) Cherish a theologically sober and realistic view of tradition. The Fathers are the cornerstone of church tradition. As the Protestant Reformation taught us, one can and must hold the Word of God over every theological elaboration of the past while, at the same time, treasuring the inheritance that generations of believers have consigned to subsequent ones. In J.I. Packer’s words, “Tradition, after all, is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it”.[2] The 17th century Huguenot pastor Jean Daillé (1594-1670) wrote in his work Du vrai emploi des Pères (On the Right Use of the Fathers, 1631): “Who does not know that a dwarf, mounting on the shoulders of a giant, sees higher and further away of the giant himself? We stand on the shoulders of this great and sublime Antiquity: we owe this position of advantage to it”.[3]

3) Deconstruct the rhetoric of the consensum patrum, the idea that says there is a unanimity of the Fathers and that the patristic body of writings is a homogeneous monolith. This reading of the Fathers is short-sighted and ideological. The Fathers must be evaluated one by one, work by work, section by section, thought by thought, always relating their specific writings to the whole of their work and the general context in which they wrote. It is not legitimate to assign to the Fathers a dogmatic consensus and a simplistic doctrinal continuity with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Take note of what the Puritan theologian John Owen (1611-1683) wrote:  “The joint consent of the fathers or ancient doctors of the church is also pretended as a rule of Scripture interpretation. But those who make this plea are apparently influenced by their supposed interest to do so. No man of ingenuity, who hath ever read or considered them, or any of them, with attention and judgment, can abide by this pretence. For it is utterly impossible they should be an authentic rule unto others, who so disagree among themselves, as they will be found to do, not, it may be, so much in articles of faith, as in their exposition of Scripture, which is the matter under consideration. About the former they express themselves diversely, in the latter they really differ, and that frequently”.[4]

4) Exercise theological discernment in assessing the historical dynamics in which the Fathers wrote. In general, their Christological and Trinitarian reflection is reliable in the ante-Nicene, post-Nicene, and Chalcedonian phases, although it is subject to a progressive infiltration of the devotional practices that eventually undermined it. After the “Constantinian shift” at the beginning of the 4th century, which transformed the self-understanding of the church into that of a religious and hierarchical empire, the ecclesiological, sacramental, and Mariological reflection of many patristic writings is vitiated by “imperial”, sacramental, and matriarchal categories. These areas are abundantly polluted by pagan parameters that have taken over from biblical teaching. The study of the Fathers therefore urges us to have a theologically responsible view of the “development” and “progress” of dogma (i.e. doctrinal elaboration after the closing of the biblical canon), away from naively simplistic accounts of it.[5]

5) Develop an awareness of systemic issues with important repercussions on the contemporary Christian identity. The Fathers are a field of study much sought after by Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant theologies. In studying them, an exegetical and historical expertise is required, but it is not sufficient. There must be a systematic and ecumenical awareness of the issues involved because the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches both claim the Fathers as “theirs”, just as the Reformers felt they had inherited from the Fathers the rediscovery of the biblical gospel. In dealing with present-day readings of the Fathers, we have to deal with the Catholic and Eastern rhetoric of the “undivided church of the first millennium”, as if the way forward towards unity is a “return to the Fathers”. Behind these widespread expressions, there are hidden assumptions that are in danger of abusing the Fathers. The Evangelical study of the Fathers cannot be theologically naive or superficial with respect to the “ecumenical” game that is played on this field. The way forward to unity is a return to the biblical gospel.

In conclusion, John Calvin’s wisdom well summarizes the above mentioned five principles:

“While there is much that is admirable and wise in the writings of those Fathers, and while in somethings it has fared with them as with ordinary men; these pious sons, forsooth, with the peculiar acuteness of intellect, and judgment, and soul, which belongs to them, adore only their slips and errors, while those things which are well said they either overlook, or disguise, or corrupt; so that it may be truly said their only care has been to gather dross among gold. Then, with dishonest clamour, they assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages. Still, in studying their writings, we have endeavoured to remember (1 Cor. 3:21-23; see also Augustin, Ep. 28), that all things are ours, to serve, not lord it over us, but that we are Christ’s only, and must obey him in all things without exception. He who does not draw this distinction will not have any fixed principles in religion; for those holy men were ignorant of many things, are often opposed to each other, and are sometimes at variance with themselves”.[6]

We must be neither “patrophobic” (i.e. fearing the study of the Fathers) nor “patrolaters” (i.e. elevating them as absolutes). Evangelical theology needs to pursue a realistic reading of the Fathers under the supreme authority of Scripture and at the service of the cause of the gospel.


[1] John Calvin’s Letter to Sadoleto (1539). Notice the reversed Roman Catholic argument presented by John H. Newman (1801-1890): talking about the Fathers he argues that “They do not say, ‘This is true, because we see it in Scripture’—about which there might be differences of judgment—but, ‘this is true, because in matter of fact it is held, and has ever been held, by all the Churches, down to our times, without interruption, ever since the Apostles’”:Discussions and Arguments, II.1 (London: Longmans, 1891) p.46.

[2]J.I. Packer, Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today, “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society” 25 (1992) p. 414.

[3] Quoted by G. Peters, I Padri della Chiesa, vol. 1 (Roma: Borla, 20073) p. 20.

[4]John Owen, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein (1678) in Works, vol. 4, ch. 9.2, ed. W.H. Goold, 1850-1853 (reprint: Carlisle, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967) pp. 117-234.

[5]See R.A. Finlayson, The Story of Theology(Cambridge, UK: The Tyndale House, 1967): “By saying ‘development of doctrine’ we mean that the doctrine of the New Testament was gradually discovered and formulated as the human mind approached the material provided by divine revelation”. See also J. Orr, The Progress of Dogma (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901).

[6] John Calvin “Prefatory Address to His Most Christian Majesty, the Most Mighty and Illustrious Monarch, Francis, King of the French”, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536).