Reading the Church Fathers: An Interview with James Papandrea

In 2012, Dr. James Papandrea published his textbook introducing beginners to the writings of the early Church Fathers, the key players in the Church from the time of the apostles up to the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.). Papandrea, a convert to Catholicism and professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Chicago, has just released a newly revised and expanded version of the text, Reading the Church Fathers: A History of the Early Church and the Development of Doctrine (Sophia Institute Press, 2022) which leads readers up through the year 1200 A.D.

Dr. Papandrea was kind enough to field a few questions for CE’s readers.

Kapler: It’s not every day that CE speaks with a Catholic scholar who is employed at a United Methodist seminary. Can you share a little bit about your experience at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary?

Papandrea: Our faculty and leadership are very diverse and committed to ecumenism – I am living proof of that. It’s kind of ironic, actually, that a traditional Catholic can represent diversity, but in the liberal Protestant world, that is sometimes how it plays out. In any case, I am the one Catholic on the faculty of an otherwise very progressive Protestant seminary. But I can honestly say that when my colleagues say they value different points of view, the very fact that I’m there proves that they practice what they preach. On the other hand, in this kind of culture it can be true that traditional points of view carry no more weight than the newest ones, and having stood the test of time is often more something to be skeptical about than something that earns trust.

Having said all that, I see it as my mission in that context to be one of the voices who call people back to the foundation, who speak for the Tradition of our faith, and for orthodox doctrine, in order to provide a part of our students’ formation that will keep them grounded, or anchored. I teach a class that every student has to take – the first of two required courses in The History of Christian Thought and Practice. As the name implies, this includes both doctrine, as well as the more outward aspects of the faith. For my part, I focus primarily on the early Church, as the time of the most important development and clarification of doctrine – everything from the doctrine of the Trinity to ecclesiology, which is the Church’s understanding of itself. 

In my job, I have the privilege of participating in a small way in the ecumenical project. On the one hand, I get to bust all the myths about Catholicism that might allow a Protestant preacher to perpetuate misleading stereotypes about our faith, or worse, that might prevent Protestants from working side by side with Catholics for causes of social justice and for works of mercy. On the other hand, I get to promote unity in the universal Body of Christ, and one of my favorite ways to do that is to lead ecumenical pilgrimages to Rome. I get to lead tours of Rome where people from different Christian traditions can explore the early roots of our faith side by side, and find common ground.

Kapler: What inspired you to make the Church Fathers and historical theology your academic focus?

Papandrea: When I first came into my PhD program, I was at the time an ordained United Methodist deacon, and I had the same motivation that drives a lot of evangelical Protestants, which is to see what so-called original Christianity was all about. I reasoned (and I still think) that it should be important to us to know how the earliest Christians practiced their faith and what they believed, since they were closest in time to Jesus and the apostles. In fact, when I was coming up in the Lutheran and Methodist denominations, I was told that the Protestant reformation was all about getting back to an original version of Christianity, so I always had this desire to find out what that original version of Christianity was like.

As I soon learned, it was the earliest bishops who were in direct succession from the apostles, and they make up a big part of who the Church fathers are, along with the other earliest theologians and catechists. These earliest Church fathers had a direct connection to people who knew Jesus personally, and so they were the ones handing on his teachings, along with the teachings of the apostles, which means they were in the best position to know the difference between truth and heresy.

So I started reading the writings of the Church fathers, and studying the early Church, and here’s what I found out. First of all, I learned about the concept of apostolic succession – that in fact, original Christianity is exactly what was preserved by the early bishops, and handed on to their successors, and that becomes our Tradition. Then I discovered that the idea that there was some kind of original version of Christianity that pre-dated Catholicism is just not true. There is no such thing as “pre-Catholic” Christianity, and Catholicism is not something made up of a lot of superstitions that were added in the Middle Ages (as the myth goes). And finally, I learned that the concept of “sola Scriptura” never existed until the Protestant reformation. This doctrine, if you can call it that, was invented to separate Scripture from Catholic Tradition, but the problem with that is that you can’t faithfully interpret Scripture without the help of Tradition. So to be clear, the Church fathers and earliest Christians did not read the Bible the way proponents of “sola Scriptura” do today.

All this is to say that I started with a kind of Protestant “restorationist” point of view, as though I was going to enter into this Protestant project of recreating the apostolic Church, but what I found out was that the Protestants who do this usually limit themselves to the study of the New Testament for what the early Church was like, and they don’t pay enough attention to the early Church fathers. In fact, many Protestants will say they limit themselves to the first century, but they exclude other important first century documents such as the Didache and the first letter of Clement of Rome. So I realized that the key to the original Church is in the Church fathers, and it’s there where you will find original Christianity, and where you can understand how the Church fathers handed down the teachings of the Church so that they would not be corrupted. And then it became clear to me that the Catholic Church is, in fact, the best expression of original Christianity there is, and I found myself in a place where I couldn’t not come back to the Catholicism of my baptism.

Kapler: What moved you to revise Reading the Church Fathers, and why now? How does this edition differ from the first?

Papandrea: I first wrote the book Reading the Early Church Fathers when I had been teaching for only a few years. I had crafted my lectures so that I was pretty happy with them, and the book was written from those lectures. But now here we are a decade later, and so I’ve got another ten years of research and teaching under my belt. That’s also another ten years of students’ questions and discussion, and so the revised version incorporates a lot of that, and anticipates and answers a lot of questions that were not answered in the first version of the book. I’ve also added some material that is based on subjects I hadn’t quite “mastered” when I wrote the first version.

So I thought it was time that I updated the book. The book now has a slightly different title: Reading the Church Fathers: A History of the Early Church and the Development of Doctrine. The new title more accurately describes how the book really tells the story of the early Church. It’s not just about the Church fathers and their writings, but it covers the historical context that gave rise to those documents – things like the Roman background, the persecutions, as well as the controversies within the Church. It’s all in there, laid out like a story, which makes it easy to follow.

And on top of all that, I was able to do a lot more of my signature myth-busting, especially when it comes to the chapter on the Christian Bible and the New Testament. I was able to use some of the latest scholarship to demonstrate how some recent trends in biblical scholarship actually distort our understanding of the early Church and the development of our Scriptures. So all that is in there, and now it’s kind of a one-stop-shop for everything about the early Church. I feel like I was really able to find the balance of making it both faithfully Catholic, and faithful to the historical evidence.

Kapler: Your writing is incredibly accessible, but for those who still feel intimidated at just the thought of beginning a study of the early Church, what encouragement would you give them?

Papandrea: Well, thanks for saying so. It’s always been my goal to make the Church fathers and the early Church accessible to everyone. I would say that you don’t need to be a scholar to understand the history and theology of the early Church. You don’t even need to be a scholar to understand doctrine – in fact, if people read this book, they will get a pretty solid understanding of all the important doctrines of our faith, at least in the sense that we find them in the early centuries. You’ll understand the Nicene Creed, and you’ll understand certain aspects of the liturgy as well. This book is not short, but it is written for beginners (that’s who takes an intro class, after all), and so you don’t need any prior knowledge to read this book. It starts from scratch and catches you up all along the way. Anyone can understand it, and everyone who reads it will be introduced to all the important early Church fathers (and mothers – and there are some!).

The other thing to keep in mind is that all the heresies that were tried and found wanting in the time of the Church fathers are still around today, in one form or another. So I think it’s extremely important for faithful Catholics, and faithful Christians of any expression, to know and understand our common Tradition, and the history of the early Church, so that lay people won’t be taken in by the modern-day heretics who come to your door, or leave tracts on your car. And I would go so far as to say that if we don’t understand where we came from as Christians, it’s much harder to pass the faith on to the next generation, so that they will hold on to it as we have.

Reading the Church Fathers: A History of the Early Church and the Development of Doctrine is available now from Sophia Institute Press.

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