Thanks, Da Vinci Code . . . for sending us back to Christianity’s founding fathers


Once in a while, a book or movie comes along that presents its own twisted version of the Christian faith or of events from Christian history, and the faithful rise up to object. And sometimes, the faithful also dig into our history to find out “what really happened.” This was the case with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, first published in 2003:

Thanks, Da Vinci Code …
… for sending us back to Christianity’s “founding fathers”—and the Bible we share with them.
Chris Armstrong

It’s been a while since Christian History got an online response to rival the emails that poured in after last week’s “Behind the News”. We enjoyed reading your responses to staff writer Collin Hansen’s fact-checking piece on Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

One thing that encouraged us about your letters is this: In the face of spurious claims from a man who poses himself as a historian even as he writes a novel (“All descriptions of … documents … in this novel are accurate”), some of you turned to the apostles and church fathers, to see what they and their Bible really had to say about the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Anything that leads people back to those dynamic early centuries of the church can only help the Christian cause. Obviously no human untruth can obscure the truth of the Gospel. And the first thing you notice when you read the early “church fathers” is that they are completely convinced Jesus is God himself. I’m talking about those bishops and teachers from the 100s and 200s too—long before the Nicean council (Brown claims) enforced on the church the supposedly minority position of Christ’s divinity.

True, few Christians need the knock-down argument that these earliest teachers provide—at least, to convince themselves that Jesus is God. We may find that early testimony helpful in talking with those who have become muddled by Brown’s book. Or to respond to those who have grabbed hold of that book’s “historical” arguments as a blunt instrument against a faith they already dislike.

But the church’s earliest teachers—Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and others—provide us with many more valuable things.

These were, after all, the church’s “founding fathers.” I don’t mean that in the precise political sense used by the Catholic and Anglican confessions: that today’s bishops and popes stand in a direct, traceable succession with all the other bishops (for many of the “fathers” were bishops) back to Peter. Rather, I’m talking about the process of discernment that played itself out in the church’s first centuries.

Make no mistake, the questions the first Bible scholars and theologians wrestled to the mat were some of the most momentous ever decided in the church. The question of how the man Jesus could be (as he and the apostles claimed) God himself was only the first of these.

The early fathers also asked how Jesus could be both wholly divine and wholly human—having two natures in one person. They asked which documents being circulated and read in the early congregations could be trusted to continue building up that church in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4, KJV) They asked which of these were most consistent with the first eyewitness reports and, especially, the continued experience of a Jesus who still lived and moved and had his being in his people—the Body of Christ.

But these thinkers faced another crucial question about the Bible—beyond identifying the books that, by the church’s second century, had already begun to form themselves into a recognizable New Testament. They asked, what do we do with the Scriptures that Jesus himself used, which describe who God is and how he has dealt with his people before we showed up? That is, how do we read the Torah?

By a few decades after the resurrection, when the church had launched out from its original Jewish population base and was spreading through the empire like a firestorm, this was the question of the hour. The Greek-speaking gentiles, used to their philosophers’ high-toned, abstract teachings about a God who was “thought thinking itself,” just didn’t know what to do with the Hebrew Scripture. It was so—well—”earthy.” The God in its pages was always getting his hands dirty in the affairs of humans—kings, wars, marriages. And the Hebrews described God’s character with such startlingly concrete, personal metaphors and terms—wings, hands, emotions.

Moreover, how were the early gentile Christians to find life-giving instruction from the Torah’s long passages about wars, genealogies, and ceremonial law—linked to an ethnic people to which they did not belong and a temple that had been destroyed in A.D. 70? Surely these Scriptures had been preserved in order to prepare the world for Christ. But where in their pages was the Christian reader authorized to find him?

So the Bible teachers of those first centuries had daunting work to do. And they did not do it in dusty libraries and obscure classroom debates, as we might imagine from looking at the faith-detached work of some modern academic Bible scholars. Rather, the fathers (and mothers!) of the church approached Scripture reverently and with joy. They found in it the Fountain—the source of everything that mattered.

Irenaeus, Origen, and the rest studied the Hebrew Bible (though usually in Greek translation), along with the apostles’ documents that would become the New Testament, with an almost physical thirst for God and his truth. They read them in settings marked by worship and the pursuit of holiness. And they believed that as they read and submitted their lives to the Word and their thoughts to Christ, the Holy Spirit was at work to open the eyes of their hearts and to build his church so “the gates of hell will not overcome it” (Matt. 16:18, NIV).

What came out of those “first Bible studies”? Only the central doctrines of the church, and some of the most exciting, challenging (and yes, sometimes downright strange) interpretive work that has ever been done on the Christian Scriptures. Think these first teachers are worth reading? You bet.

John Chrysostom, Athanasius, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Gregory of Nazianzus—Christian History is trying to do our bit to bring today’s Christians back to these names, which have become obscure to us. Our Fall 2003 issue is dedicated to these and other early Bible teachers, their interpretive techniques, and the questions they asked and answered.

Working on this issue has stirred in me again the passion for Bible study that I first experienced as a college-aged convert. I hope the issue, which will begin mailing at the end of this month (November), will provide to many readers the same experience.

As we do for each issue, we will also be featuring a new article from issue #80, “The First Bible Teachers: Reading over the shoulders of the church’s founding fathers,” each week on www.christianhistory.net, starting on December 19th. Meanwhile, if you want to explore the fathers’ interactions with the Bible, check out Christopher A. Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (InterVarsity Press, 1998). Or, for a thorough soaking in the early fathers’ own writings, see any volume of InterVarsity’s new Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

“Don’t know much about history,” croons the song. That’s surely the condition of the church today. So the editors at Christian History celebrate when something comes along—yes, even The Da Vinci Code—to remind us that the best path to the church’s future is through our shared past.

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine.

Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.

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