Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in evangelical quarters regarding patristic theology. In the hands of Thomas C. Oden, this has led to a resurgence of interest both in patristic biblical commentary and devotion, placed, one might add, in the service of an evangelicalism with a simple, ecumenical aesthetic which bears comparison, say, with the mere Christianity that has been such a part of the evangelical heritage. Oden’s work is a treasure trove of theology; but the tendency of the project overall to relativize that which comes later, not least the great Protestant truths of justification by grace through faith, and personal assurance of God’s favor, render the overall project, in my opinion, less than Protestant. In the hands of others—most notably the recent work of Craig Allert—the patristic testimony has been placed in the service of contemporary critiques of established evangelical positions, such (in the case of Allert) as that on the inspiration and authority of scripture. Of the two movements, that symbolized by the life and work of Oden is arguably constructive and helpful even to those, like myself, who wish to maintain a more elaborate doctrinal confession; the latter is rather an iconoclastic phenomenon, less easy to assimilate to orthodox, creedal Protestantism.
I would suggest that sound orthodox theology of today, however, can find a third way to do theology which both respects the insights of patristic theology while yet avoiding both the tendency to downplay later confessional developments and the desire to set the ancient church against the modern. It is that represented by the approach of such as Owen in the seventeenth century. Owen had an acute sense of the fact that there are a limitations to patristic theology, yet his Protestantism, far from making him dismissive of patristic theology, requires that he take patristic writers seriously. A commitment to scriptural perspicuity means that he examines in detail the history of exegesis relative to any passage of scripture he addresses. A commitment to the church as God’s means of transmitting the gospel from age to age means that he takes very seriously what the church has said about scripture and about God throughout the ages. A realization that there are a set of archetypal heresies, particularly focused on God, Christology, and grace, means that the early church provides him with much fuel for contemporary debate. A commitment to the fact that the church’s theological traditions, especially as expressed in her creeds, provides both resources, parameters and, at times, unavoidable conceptual problems for doctrinal formulations in the present drives him again and again to look at traditions of theological discussion from the early church onwards. Further, a belief that theology is talk about God, and not just communal reflection upon the psychology of the church in particular context, means that Owen regards it as having universal, referential significance; and thus he sees those who have worked in formulating doctrine over the years as having a significance which transcends their own time and geographical locale. In this context, he also understands that each solution to a doctrinal problem generates new problems of its own, and thus to understand why the church thinks as she does, one needs to understand how the church has come to think as she does (e.g., the anhypostatic nature of Christ’s humanity, a point likely to be incomprehensible to biblical theologians and/or no-creed-but-the-Bible types, but surely central to a sound understanding of incarnation in the post-Chalcedonian era). Each of these makes interaction with patristic authors necessary as Owen and others in his tradition work to ensure that the gospel is not reinvented anew every Sunday but, rather, is faithfully communicated from generation to generation.
Trueman, Carl. “Patristics and Reformed Orthodoxy: Some Brief Notes and Proposals.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 12, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 58-59.