New SBJT encourages study of the early church

Communications Staff — August 19, 2008

Should historical amnesia be an option for the average Christian?

Knowing church history, particularly as it relates to the early years of Christianity and the theological issues which faced leaders in that age is important for all believers, essayists in the summer edition of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology argue. The latest SBJT examines the early church and encourages Christians to learn from important church fathers such as Athanasius, Augustine and Irenaeus.

Essayists include Southern Seminary professor Michael A.G. Haykin, author and pastor John Piper, Westminster Theological Seminary professor Carl Trueman, Western Seminary professor Todd L. Miles, and Scottish Baptist pastor Nick Needham.

Journal editor Stephen J. Wellum opens with a plea for Christians to take a closer look at their earliest leaders. He admonishes readers to consider the importance of the first centuries of the church and the leaders who worked to establish biblical orthodoxy.

“Today, one of our problems in the evangelical church, which no doubt reflects our larger culture, is that we do not know history, let alone church history and historical theology well,” Wellum writes.

“This is especially the case in regard to the era that we have now dubbed ‘the Patristic era.’ It is safe to say that for most evangelicals, including Baptists, we are more familiar with key people and theological ideas from the Reformation and post-Reformation era than we are of the people and ideas from the earliest years of the church.”

Wellum sets forth two reasons why a study of the church fathers is crucial for modern-day Christians: it helps to remind believers of the rampant pluralism that leaders of the early church faced, and it serves to remind believers that it was the church fathers who hammered out the orthodox expressions of the faith in crucial areas such as Christology and the Trinity.

Many of the ancient heresies which leaders of the nascent church contended with remain alive and well, Wellum points out, and are seen in sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.

“Knowing this era of church history will not only enable us to be alert to trends in our own day that basically re-invent ideas from the past, but it will also help us better to live and proclaim the gospel faithfully today, for God’s glory and our good.”

Haykin, who serves as professor of church history at Southern Seminary, reviews emerging church leader Brian McLaren’s new book “ Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices,” a work that seeks to recommend spiritual disciplines as practiced in the early church to modern believers. One major problem with the book, Haykin argues, is that it articulates a spirituality that lacks any meaningful connection to the work of Christ.

“In the whole of the book,” Haykin writes, “there appears to be only one explicit reference to the cross. This occurs in the context of the trendy declaration that ‘Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion,’ for he ‘wouldn’t have been killed simply for starting a new religion,’ since the Roman Imperium was religiously tolerant. Yet, throughout its history, healthy Christian piety has directed people desirous of knowing how to draw near to God to the cross.”

In the end, Haykin concludes that McClaren’s book falls prey to the very thing is seeks to remedy and fails in its overall mission.

“McLaren keeps referring to ‘the ancient practices’ in his book, but, at the end of it, I was no wiser as to what exact period he is thinking of. I suspect that he would like the reader to think of the ancient church, which is usually dated from 100 A.D. to 500 A.D…But the truth of the matter is that much of what he said regarding these ancient practices is no older than the late Middle Ages.

“McLaren emphasizes that he wished to provide his readers with something more than a ‘mushy, amorphous spirituality,’ but that, in the opinion of this reader, is exactly what he has served up for his readers.”

Piper examines the life and theology of Athanasius, Needham provides an overview of the life and thought of St. Augustine of Hippo, Miles analyzes the thought of Irenaeus of Lyons, and Trueman traces the connections between Patristic beliefs and the theology of the Reformation.

The Journal also includes numerous book reviews and a panel discussion of the significance of the early church. Panelists include Southern Seminary professors Chad O. Brand and Gregg Allison, along with noted theological historian Stephen Nichols and Criswell College professor Everett Berry.

For more information or to subscribe to the SBJT, please e-mail or call 502-897-4413.

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