Below is a repost of an interview I did back in December with my former student Dayton Hartman on his blog, The Jude 3 Project:
Dayton: I remember enrolling in your course on the early church with some interest in the topic. However, I left the course with a passion for early church history. What professor, course, or book inspired your love for the early church?
Ed Smither: Initially, none of the above. After college, I spent 2 years living in North Africa and there became interested in the early African church and its fathers, including Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine. Later, however, this love for the early church was stoked by authors such as Henry Chadwick, W.H.C. Frend, Phillip Schaff, and Kenneth Scott Latourette.
Dayton: You have a great interest in one church father in particular, Augustine. Would you mind discussing why Augustine is a church father that Christians should be familiar with?
Ed Smither: This is a huge question! Augustine of Hippo (354-430) has been studied thoroughly for his contribution to philosophy and theology. He used his training in neo-Platonic philosophy to write on the problem of evil. Later, in his magisterial workThe City of God, he proposed an early Christian philosophy of history. In theology, he contributed greatly to the early church’s understanding of salvation, grace, the Trinity, the church, and, of course, the free will and predestination discussion. In his Confessions, regarded by some as the first autobiography, he narrates powerfully his journey to faith and his struggle to grow as a Christian. Of course, through his letters and works such as On Teaching Christianity and Instructing Beginners, we get a glimpse into his pastoral ministry—his “day job” for the last 40 years of his life. Not only did Augustine influence philosophy, theology, and pastoral theology in the 4th and 5th centuries, his legacy has continued through the Reformation to the present day. So to fail to study Augustine on at least some level, is to miss a chunk of the story of Christianity.
Dayton: You wrote an extremely useful book on Augustine entitled, Augustine as Mentor. What led you to write this book? Who would benefit from reading Augustine as Mentor?
Ed Smither: The book was originally my PhD dissertation at the University of Wales. While reading for a research topic in Augustine, I became impressed by his approach to discipling other spiritual leaders in the early African church. As most have studied Augustine for his philosophy or theology, I thought that a study of his pastoral theology and discipleship would be a fresh contribution. While I think that this book would help students and teachers of early church theology, I would be most encouraged if modern pastors read it and reflected upon Augustine’s model in light of their own ministries. That said, this is not a “how to” book on discipleship or spiritual formation; rather, it is a “how did” book. It’s up to the reader to determine what can be useful for today.
Dayton: What else have you written? Anything in “the works?”
Ed Smither: In terms of books, I translated François Decret’s Early Christianity in North Africa (2009) and have written some articles on early Christian evangelism and discipleship. Also, because I work in intercultural studies, I am presently completing a PhD in Missiology (University of Pretoria) with a dissertation on Brazilian evangelical missions in the Arab world. This project may be published as a monograph. Currently, I am working on a book length project on mission in the early church, which should be available in 2012. For other publications, see www.edsmither.com/publications.
Dayton: You spent a number of years in global missions work and you still remain active in mission efforts today. How important do you believe it is for Christian to see first-hand the realities of a lost a dying world?
Ed Smither: As the Great Commission passages (Matt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15-16; Jn. 20:21; Lk. 24:44-49; Acts 1:8) are all over our Bibles and the Bible itself is a story of God’s redemptive plan for the nations (Gen. 12:1-3; Ps. 67:1-2), to believe the Scriptures naturally means that we are engaged in global missions efforts. While some are certainly called to go to the nations, everyone can send, support, pray, and even go short-term. We are all invited to participate in some manner in the mission of God.
Dayton: Of what importance is knowing church history to apologetic endeavors?
Ed Smither: First, a number of church fathers (i.e., Tertullian, Augustine, Athanasius) provide winsome models for defending orthodoxy while engaging with the world around them. Also, a number of them dealt with issues that still face the church. Tertullian challenged the heresy of modalism, Athanasius defended the deity of Christ, and Augustine insisted upon man’s sinful nature. Reading their responses to heretics might also prove helpful for our challenges.
Dayton: What would you recommend as a “first step” for someone wanting to become more familiar with church history?
Ed Smither: Enroll at Liberty Seminary and take Patristics or History of Christianity I with me. If not, pick up a well-written introductory book. I recommend Bryan Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers, Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language, or Roger Olson’s The Story of Christian Theology.
Dayton: There is a great deal of talk today about Christianity returning to the faith of the early church. What are your thoughts? Has modern Christianity really lost something that early Christians had?
Ed Smither: Thomas Oden has correctly asserted that orthodoxy is remembering correctly what the apostles learned from Jesus. Yes, we must continue to guard the good deposit of faith that was handed down to the earliest Christians and that has been preserved through the centuries through the Scriptures. Given this foundation of faith, I do think that the modern church and ancient church can have a stimulating conversation regarding approaches to ministry, mission, and other church practices. That said, we must read the church fathers on more than a superficial level and not confuse “recovering the early church” with lighting candles in worship or wearing t shirts with Celtic crosses on them.
Dayton: How has your study of church history served to growth your faith in Christ?
Ed Smither: The church fathers have become friends who have invited me into their struggle to walk with Christ and to understand the Gospel and articulate sound doctrine. Their insights on Scripture have illuminated my own; so yes, they have greatly inspired me in my walk with Christ. That said, I don’t want to romanticize the early Christians because they believed and practiced some things that I certainly find troubling.
Dayton: In closing, what word of advice would you give to those looking into church history, specifically the early church? Should we just assume that they lived close to the time of Jesus and the Apostles so they must have gotten everything right? Or are there guidelines we should use in examining their thought and theology?
Ed Smither: As I alluded to in the last question, while the early Christians had less historical distance between themselves and the Lord, this does not mean that they were spared from error or given to read the Scriptures with the lenses of their cultural context. As convicted evangelicals, we must measure all teaching and practice according to the canonical Scriptures.
Dayton: Thank you for your time Dr. Smither! You can learn about Dr. Smither by visiting his website: http://www.edsmither.com/