Looking at the article, we quickly see that it is written in response to a particular situation, where US Christian writers have suggested that:
“The early Fathers can bring us back to what is common and help us get behind our various traditions … Here is where our unity lies. … evangelicals need to go beyond talk about the unity of the church to experience it through an attitude of acceptance of the whole church and an entrance into dialogue with the Orthodox, Catholic, and other Protestant bodies”
David Cloud is quite right to query such a statement, because it seems very confused. The consensus of teaching found in the Fathers of the Church is considered authoritative on matters of doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church. No doubt someone will be able to give us a reference on this.
But no Protestant holds such a view. Luther came to the view that Councils of the Church have erred, and do err — thinking of the Council of Constance –, and that no reliance can be placed on them; that only Scripture can be trusted as a source of doctrine. That is the reformed position.
How then, can any form of unity be found in perusing works that one side considers inspired, at least where they agree, while the other considers as merely works written by Christians who happened to live a long time ago? (Indeed Protestants tend to look more suspiciously on all post-Nicene writers). For we can only consider the consensus of the Fathers as divinely inspired if we have already agreed that Roman Catholicism is true, together with all the doctrines that are superadded onto the New Testament, and that gospel-based Christianity is a mistake. Whether or not this is so — which I don’t propose to consider here — this is not a point of agreement, but the opposite. The idea is confused.
David Cloud is right to dismiss this. But the article then goes down what in my opinion is a blind alley. He attempts to show that many of the Fathers held views which would be considered strange today. He is right, of course, but the selection is misleading. Matters which the gospels do not clearly set forth had to be considered by those who came after the apostles, usually in the face of heretical deceptions, and some form of policy for Christians to be set forth. Not all the views reached were considered correct in the end. But the article overstates its point when it says:
The fact is that the “early Fathers” were mostly heretics!
This as stated is the reverse of the truth. The heretic, then as now, is guided by convenience. Whatever sounds pleasing to the ear, as the apostle put it, leads such men astray. Again and again, when we look at the teachings of the gnostics we see them prefer some fable of their own invention when faced with a gospel teaching that was embarassing. Jesus himself, because of his disreputable execution as a criminal, was embarassing to Christians and a source of amused jeering to pagans. Marcion deals with this by smoothly asserting that Jesus was a phantasm, not really crucified. Other similar stories were woven by heretics, all with the same end, of pleasing. Sacrifice to the gods? Well, why not? It could be very unpleasant not to! Convenience doesn’t do “unpleasant”.
The early Christians did not do this. They died, not to do this. The commitment to Christ that we ask of every new convert today, to accept Jesus into their life as Lord of their life, is the same commitment that Paul made on the road to Damascus; it is the same commitment that Justin Martyr made on the beach where he met the Christian philosopher; it is the same commitment that Origen made, and paid for with his blood. Convenience and nominalism are not keynotes of their writings. They intended to live by the gospel, mistakes and all, and to die with it. So should we all.
The article then goes on to list some of the stranger views held by early Christian writers. But again the author writes incautiously. In his eagerness to suggest that patristic teaching is not that of the gospels – only partly true – he ends up suggesting that the Fathers did not teach what Christians today call Christianity (and non-Christians, when they think of Christianity). This is nonsense, of course. We have only limited access to second century texts today — so much has perished, and nearly all the material that has survived is addressed either to apologetics or works addressing one or another heresy. We cannot stand in the church and listen to John’s disciple Polycarp preaching, for his works are nearly all lost.
But to argue, therefore, that some wild discontinuity came into existence between 70 AD and 100 AD seems unwarranted. The early Christians themselves are not aware of such a discontinuity.
There is change, of course; the apostles are all dead by 100 AD. The “living voice” beloved of Papias grows silent, although Polycarp is still preaching in Rome and converting heretics by telling of what the apostle John said and did as late as 155 AD. At the start of this period, the books of the New Testament are only just being written, or collected; at the end of it, Justin is referring to “memoirs” of the apostles, and as soon as we can see the canon, it looks very like that of today. The process whereby the church was able to move from oral authority derived from apostles to using their teaching in written form is unknown to us, and occurs in that period, and it is futile to speculate about it. But these changes, real as they are, are in some sense illusory. The apostles themselves did not invent doctrine. They preached what Christ had taught them. There are no anecdotes of the apostle John bringing out teachings which are unknown to us, for instance. The New Testament contains the apostolic preaching, and churches that had it were more firmly grounded than those which did not.
So why do we find churches with bishops and deacons rather than apostles and prophets? The reasons come to us clearly enough in Ignatius and Tertullian; that the heretics refused to listen to the apostolic teachings, selecting whichever bits pleased them and finding excuses to ignore the rest. So it is today. The early Christians found that arguing with them only resulted in a headache, or stomach-ache, in the words of Tertullian, and no certain victory or result. It was quite simply easier, more effective, to appeal to the fact that the church of Ephesus was founded by the apostle John, and that what it taught was derived fairly directly from that source; that churches that followed the apostolic teaching were all in communion with each other; and if you were not in, you were out. It was a simple, practical way to evade the endless text-twisting and ensure that Christian supported each other.
Of course we know today that this could lead to evils such as the renaissance papacy of Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia. We know that it could become a power structure. The reasons why protestants objected to the medieval Catholic church are all valid, and it is a great pity that they were not listened to. We all know what men who seek to be bishops are capable of; and if we don’t, the “bishops” of the Episcopalian Church in the USA at the moment are giving us an object lesson of hate, selfishness, hypocrisy and dishonesty. But we should not project this back onto the early church, where “episcopos” meant “overseer”, not a “Prince of the Church”, decorated with the ineffable sublimities of Byzantine church-speak. As Tertullian remarked, the church is not a conclave of bishops, but the spiritual assembly of spiritual men. This, of course, is not entirely compatible with Roman Catholic teaching!
When I look at the Fathers, I see people like me. I see them living in a society somewhat different to ours, but also somewhat similar. I see God acting in their lives. I see men turning from sin, and seeking their salvation. They make mistakes, they write books intended for their contemporaries, some of which have reached us. (Their works are also of tremendous interest historically, and as a guide to church history, but that is not important for this post).
Does an interest in the fathers lead to Rome? It certainly can do. There have been no lack of people who ached to join the universal Catholic church of ancient times and found themselves led to Rome. The Oxford Movement Anglicans edited the fathers, and many of them crossed the Tiber. But it is telling that they mostly edited post-Nicene fathers; Tertullian, at least, would hardly have suited their purpose.
I do not see that the Fathers point to Rome. They are, instead, themselves. The differences between modern Roman Catholic teachings and those of the Fathers seem considerable, not least because Roman Catholic teaching has added to what it received from that source. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Mary is not to be found in Ignatius, Irenaeus, or Tertullian! (Catholic reasons for considering tradition and elaboration to be the work of the Holy Spirit are another issue; but not the subject now) Protestants remember that our Lord did not endorse the actions of the pharisees in adding the tradition of men to the teachings of God. Tertullian makes plain, in the introduction to Adversus Praxean, where he draws up the formula of the Trinity, that he is NOT introducing an innovation.
The fathers provide us with historical evidence of Christian origins. They provide us with the means to refute the cruder falsehoods that we see atheists circulate on the web. They provide us with clear proof that some academic histories of Christianity are substantially false and unfaithful to the facts, which only the Fathers provide to modern men. In spiritual terms they can be disappointing; the apostolic fathers collection does not make my heart warm, I must say. True spirit-filled gospel faith often leaves only ashes in written form, as I know myself. The reality was to be there, in the presence of God, and is not to be captured in words. In all this, they can serve Catholic and Protestant alike, and we can value them. But a gateway to Rome? A path to Christian union? I do not see it.