Why Should We Quote the Church Fathers?

by Trevin Wax

Recently, on Beeson Divinity School's podcast, Timothy George and Matthew Emerson discussed the Center for Baptist Renewal -- a movement that intends to equip Baptist churches in retrieving "the Great Tradition of the historic church for the renewal of Baptist faith and practice.

Emerson and George encourage congregations to recite the creeds and incorporate some liturgical elements into Baptist worship. Thankfully, they do not push a one-size-fits-all liturgy. Instead, they find value in retrieving aspects of ancient Christian practice in order to renew and refresh our worship today.

I'm encouraged by this group's desire to emphasize the ancient roots of our beliefs and practices, and I share the heart of those who believe that more interaction with our forefathers and mothers in the faith will lead to a stronger witness today.

As I've written in This Is Our Timechurch history is a treasure box, not a map. We err if we look to the past in order to chart the precise path of faithfulness for the future. We are marching to Zion, not retreating to Constantinople or Geneva. For this reason, we should look to the past in order to retrieve the resources we need in order to fortify and renew our faith in the present as we discern with wisdom and prudence the way forward. This is how we best honor those who have gone before us: learning from both their strengths and also their sins, and praying that we will be faithful today.

As the primary teaching pastor at my church, I quote regularly from the church fathers when I preach. I don't do so in every sermon, but my congregation is now familiar with names like Augustine, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Athanasius.

Quoting people in sermons can be challenging, no matter what era of church history you pull from. A sermon is an act of exposition intended to evoke exultation and conclude with exhortation. That is, we expound on the biblical text, seeking to lead our congregation to experience worshipful awe at these truths, which provides the fuel for exhorting them to obey King Jesus. Quotes can either enhance that process or hinder it. (If you quote so often or in a way that it sounds like you're reading an essay with footnotes, you're doing it wrong.)

But here's why I quote often from the church fathers and why I recommend you consider doing so as well:

1. Our generation needs to know that we're not alone in our struggle.

Do not let people fall for the false idea that we must somehow face spiritual and cultural challenges on our own. Sometimes it may feel like we are embattled and pressed from all sides.

But Hebrews 12 would have us see the world differently, to recognize that we are indeed surrounded, but not by cultural challenges nor the gospel's enemies. We are surrounded by the large cloud of witnesses. We are not alone. We stand in a long line of saints who have gone before us, who now are seated in the heavenly coliseum, cheering us on as we run the race before us.

That's why one of the things we must do as preachers, both for ourselves and also for our people, is to lift our eyes from our current moment, to listen to the words of the psalmist, hear the laments of the prophets, recall the stories of our ancestors, visit our church fathers, read and learn from our missionary mothers, and realize that spiritual struggle is the norm, not the exception.

2. Our generation needs to know we are not the first to encounter these biblical texts.

I want my church to realize that we are not the first generation of Christians to study a particular passage of Scripture. This is why I made sure we included "Voices from Church History" in The Gospel Project curriculum.

When I quote from Ambrose in a sermon, I usually include a brief mention of how far back it goes: Here's how Ambrose, the great preacher, put it nearly 1,700 years ago . . . . I want people's ears to perk up as they realize, Wow! This is old. These roots of ours go deep.

By quoting from ancient church leaders, we remind our congregations that our faith is relevant not because it is "modern," but because it is rooted.

We also protect our people from being convinced that their novel, never-before-heard-of interpretation of a text cannot be challenged. The Holy Spirit is not stingy with spiritual insights. He has been at work for thousands of years. We make this truth clear when we quote from ancient saints.

3. Preachers need the wisdom of those who have gone before.

When I consult the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture or read through Chrysostom's homilies on a Bible book I am preaching through, I am never simply mining for good quotes. I want their exegesis to challenge me.

When Basil the Great finds application in a text that I would never see, I want to know why. It's not that I adopt the hermeneutical approach of the fathers in every case or that I agree with all of their interpretations. (Often, I don't.) Still, the depth of their convictions, the worshipful feel of their exposition, and the passion they bring to their preparation challenge my 21st-century narrow-mindedness.

I need these voices in my head. To think that I'm better off--just me and the Holy Spirit and my Bible--without ever consulting the Spirit-filled people of God who have gone before me is to impoverish myself from insights that flow through the centuries. The church fathers are not inspired, but they are wise.

Not the First

Let the great cloud of witnesses be present in your preaching and teaching and writing. Tell their stories. Inspire your congregation. Let your people know we are not the first to face challenges.

We are not the first to encounter these texts. And our Christianity stretches back through the ages, where a tomb is still empty.

Editor's Note: A version of this post also appeared at Trevin's blog.