A friend of mine, Andrew Stoddard, had the opportunity to sit down with Patrick Kelly, who coauthored Awakening Faith alongside James Stuart Bell. Here’s some short dialogue concerning their new daily devotional featuring thoughts from the Church Fathers (we recently reviewed it here):
Andrew: Why patristics? What prompted you and James Bell to focus on Ancient Christian devotional passages for a modern/postmodern readership?
Pat: We both recognized that in contemporary evangelicalism there has been an ache for authority, and a renewed interest in the early church, but not much in the way of a jumping off point to the Church Fathers for everyday Christians. We thought that a devotional of writings from the early church would be the perfect introduction for Christians less familiar with the Fathers, but also a great resource for any believer looking for wisdom from ancient bible interpreters. The Christians that have gone before us have said so much good stuff! We Protestants should not only look back to our Reformation heroes, but further back to the centuries of Christian history that produced so many amazing theologians and preachers and monks.
Andrew: With so many sources to choose from, how did you two go about the process of narrowing the field so to speak? How were you able to decide which Fathers and passages to include? How did you decide which ones hit the cutting room floor?
Pat: We used a number of different sources, and did a lot of reading, but from the beginning we tried to find material that could reach across the centuries and provide real spiritual, biblical, and ethical insight to modern readers. Many of the bigger names in the early church are known for their involvement in various theological controversies, which is great for the student and scholar, but can be somewhat esoteric for the average Christian. Therefore we tried to stay away from it and look for applicational and exegetical material, which we found in lots of sermons that have survived the centuries. It’s pretty amazing how much stuff you can find from the first few centuries of the church that is so accessible and applicable to your life right now.
Andrew: How was your own faith deepened or enriched in the process of editing and compilation?
Pat: Well, as I was just saying, I was in a way surprised to find so much pastoral care in so many of the Fathers’ writings. As a theology student I learned that Ambrose, Basil, the Gregorys, and all the rest were amazing scholars and thinkers who helped figure out what it meant that God became man … but they were also gifted and loving pastors of their various flocks! I love the fact that these great men were writing polemics on the two natures of Christ during the week and then preaching to their congregations on the weekends. The Fathers were men who were simply “all in” regarding their faith. Their belief in Christ was what they lived and breathed, and you can tell when you read their work. I was also challenged and sharpened by their various emphases that we in the modern church perhaps don’t emphasize as much. One was their longing for heaven, and the blessing that it is to meditate on the promise of Christ’s coming again and being made new. They generally had no reluctance with using heaven as a motivation for enduring suffering and pursuing holiness, which I think that we moderns can sometimes be scared to do (pie in the sky and all that). Another emphasis of theirs that is humbling to consider is their emphasis on helping the poor and needy, which you see especially in Fathers like Chrysostom. They took the biblical commands to act generously and give freely, as if we are giving to Christ himself, very seriously—which I admit I hardly live up to.
Andrew: Was there one particular figure with whose words you resonated most frequently (or most readily)?
Pat: I hope no one thinks it a cop-out, but I’m going to have to say Augustine, but not for perhaps the most obvious reasons. I actually went in to this project not being particularly fond of Augustine, having read a few of his major works in school and not being thrilled with them. I especially didn’t enjoy De Trinitas, which I wrote a research paper on, because it felt too speculative and too much like natural theology. But man, his sermons are just top-notch. He can be a really elegant writer, is very persuasive, and knows his Bible like machine. Most striking in my opinion is how (if I could use a loaded word) relevant his sermons are. They reach across the centuries and speak to us in our situation today. His writing style is so winsome and expressive and accessible—it’s just surprising that he was writing more than 1,500 years ago! He knew how to preach. Right up there regarding writing skills is probably John Chrysostom, or “Golden Mouth.” He had this name for good reasons. His sermons are a bit more artfully crafted, and a bit more beautiful to hear, and for that reason feel a bit more distant from us (I’m not sure if that says something good or bad about our day’s preaching). John Cassian also has some unique entries in the book that are entertaining and enlightening.
Andrew: What is one significant thing that contemporary readers should seek to glean from Fathers and the way that they practiced their spirituality?
Pat: I think the thing that will most resonate with contemporary Christians, but that all of us at all times could use more of, is the Fathers’ Christocentric worldview. The Fathers can seem at times to be very strict ethical teachers, but their ethics are never without Christ at their center. Most of them held the death and resurrection of Christ at the center of their teaching and preaching, whether they were writing on the moral life, or the life to come, or understanding suffering, or simply interpreting Scripture. Christ is every in the pages of Awakening Faith because Christ is the lens through which they saw everything. For most of the Fathers, Christ’s existence or the historicity of the gospel were not issues they were much concerned with. Instead their faith in Christ allowed them to see so much more of the world, the life of men and women, and the Bible through the picture of Christ that everything really was in submission to him. I’m reminded of the Abraham Kuyper line, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” The Fathers understood this.
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