This might seem like an odd title, especially since I’m Protestant. Not only am I a Protestant, but I come from an evangelical background. Thus, I have been raised (and currently hear) the idea that the Church fathers were, “great guys, did some good, but overall were just in it for the power.” There are multiple theories on the Church fathers, but very few respect them. If you mention the martyrdom of Polycarp, you’re met with, “Yeah, but that’s oral history, so how reliable is it?” If we talk about Peter being hung upside down on the cross, we say, “Oh that’s just Roman Catholic legend.”
But I think our purposeful ignorance of the Church fathers has cost us dearly in terms of both our theology and how we reach out to culture. In fact, I can think of quite a few reasons why Protestants should read the Church fathers:
1) They are part of the community of faith – one of the beliefs in Christianity is that when the soul separates from the body it goes to be with Christ. That means those who’s bodies have gone to sleep are still ever active and still alive. That means these fathers who came before us are still part of the living community of Christ. Thus, it makes sense to read what they had to say on Christ and theology.
2) Their proximity in history – we can never forget that some of the earliest of the fathers were either discipled by the Apostles (such as Polycarp was by John) or were discipled by someone who was discipled by the Apostles. While this doesn’t make them perfect or infallible, it does mean that we should listen to what they say. Granted, it does not take long for heresy to creep into theology (as we can see from the writings of Paul who was writing against heresy), but for some of these men the Twelve could have stopped them if they were wrong. It is unlikely that Christ would entrust His Church in the hands of Twelve and then let those twelve go on to teach false doctrine or let their disciples teach false doctrine.
3) They provide ancient wisdom for the modern age – worried about the rise in the new atheism? Church fathers already dealt with that (Epicureanism). Concerned about the emergent movement? Church fathers dealt with that too (Sophism). Wondering how to defend the deity of Christ and the Trinity against recent attacks? Church fathers have been there and done that (see Gnosticism). Any problem you face in the modern age or any theological question you have can generally be found in some writing within the Church fathers.
4) They provide an inspiration to us – though the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers didn’t face the persecution of the earlier Church, the Ante-Nicene fathers should provide a great inspiration for us. They wrote in a time where their writings made them targets. In fact, we read the writings of both Polycarp and Ignatius and know that they did not die of natural causes, but instead were killed for their faith in Christ. Yet they chose to stand against the morality of the day, they refused to capitulate with the Roman desires to have Christianity become universal, and they made the ultimate sacrifice. There’s a sense of solidarity with such men and women, that if they could suffer while standing for the truth, why can’t we? In their suffering, they won people over to their side. We can look to Athanasius, who was a Nicene father, who refused to admit that Jesus wasn’t God. For this, he was banished from his own city multiple times, yet he stood fast in the truth and God rewarded him by vindicating him. Athanasius, and many others, should stand as examples of how we should act in our modern age.
5) They give us a better understanding of basic theology – the foundational teachings of Christianity were hammered out during this time. Our understanding of the Trinity comes from language developed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries with the framework being provided by last 1st century writers and early 2nd century writers. If you desire to understand the basics of the Christian faith, then read the fathers. Think – when was the last time you read a book or heard a sermon that explained the Trinity (The Shack doesn’t count). We have no modern equivalent for their teachings on the Trinity. In fact, the Trinity is easily rejected in the modern age because we don’t understand the Trinity; were we to read the Church fathers, this wouldn’t be an issue.
There are many other reasons to read the fathers, but I think these five are the biggest ones. As Protestants, we need to abandon our suspicion of the fathers and instead begin to read them. If it challenges our theology, then what of it? If we are wrong, then we are corrected in our theology; if we are correct to begin with, then we can search out reasons for why we are correct and then believe our theology all the more. There is no disadvantage to reading the Church fathers.