The authority of the early Christian writers today

A note in the Patristics Carnival 27 pointed me to an article online written by David Cloud, discussing whether the Fathers are a door to Rome.  

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.

17 thoughts on “The authority of the early Christian writers today

  1. Michael: quite right! But just imagine how long that post would have been if I’d gone there! And the article that I responded to wasn’t concerned about conversions to Orthodoxy.

    Joel: thanks. It’s taken me two days to formulate even that much.

  2. In the Orthodox East we also read and venerate the fathers as they do in the Roman Catholic West but this thing that we do have in common does not bring us closer: The real issue behind the 1054 Schism was not filioque but the primacy of the Pope. We are willing to accept a Pope as head of the church but as primus inter pares, not as a king. In no way are we willing in the East to accept other papal constructs like that ex-cathedra speaches are infallible and such. Reading the fathers does not help allay these issues, which were and are the core of the 1054 schism

  3. To answer the first part of your excellent post – this is America. Things don’t have to make sense. Everything is unabashedly consumerist here.

    When we go shopping for opinions (there’s an apt metaphor) if Irenaeus says something we like which helps support a particular opinion we want supported – Irenaeus is part of our tradition. If we don’t like what he says on something else (or find him to boring or confusing) we ignore him.

    Church Fathers are treated in the same unrefined manner as the Scriptures themselves.

    I do think Irenaeus can be described as an apologist for Roman primacy, though. He’s one of only a handful but that would be accurate in his case.

  4. All I am saying is that in the old days, in the old world people adapted themselves to what ‘tradition’ declared. Now in modern times, in the modern world, people use the Church Fathers as if they were standing in that most modern of concepts – the buffet line. I doubt for instance most people have ever read past Book One of Irenaeus.

  5. I think this last is misconceived. Convenience is the religion of today, it is true; and no doubt many a worldly churchman quote-mines the Fathers to decorate what he has already decided to do. Indeed I remember some worthless archbishop quoting Isaac the Syrian in a simpering manner, while justifying some fashionable evil. (I wish that work was online, but I just couldn’t scan it, it was so boring).

    But Christians do not live by convenience. Self-denial is not convenient, in any age; why else do the selfish generation, now in power, demonise Christians? So it was during the Restoration, when the king’s whores appointed bishops, and the wretch who devised the Acts of religious conformity boasted that he had framed them to damn one half of the nation and starve the other half. So it is, perhaps, in every period when the ruling class decide to pursue vice and reject virtue as an inconvenience.

    Accepting the Lordship of Christ is about rejecting the pick-and-mix approach, where the world offers us a menu from which to select our brand of conformity. Instead Christ gives us a new menu; one that leads to Salvation.

    There! You asked for that.

  6. No I probably deserve worse than that … Just don’t mistake me for someone I am not.

    My point was only that living in the United States as I do, I find it difficult to reconcile what ‘tradition’ many of these Christians belong to. I have my own warped ideas about my own tradition. I can be fairly attacked on that ground. I certainly wasn’t to criticize anyone outside of this strange spiritual circus I find myself living in right now.

    I guess to answer your original question – there is a reason why someone has tried to reconcile all these irreconcilable positions as you note in your essay. It comes down to something political.

    When George Bush was successful in his two re-election bids it was done by appealing to anyone who believed in God or felt they were ‘conservative’ in any way. This works as long as you have a common enemy – ‘godless liberals’ – but in practical terms it breaks down when trying to develop a united front on things as diverse as ‘canonical scripture’ (consider the long running debate between the long and longer versions of the Ignatian canon) and even the status of the Church Fathers within the Church.

    I am a zealous lover of tradition, I wouldn’t have come to your site everyday for the last three years if that weren’t true. Our only difference is that my interest extends to dead traditions. My personal belief is that modern American evangelical thought is a worse heresy than anything Marcion ever represented. In my opinion Irenaeus and Marcion would agree against the likes of Joel Olstein on every meaningful nuance of their (supposedly) common religion.

    The business about the status of ‘the Creator’ in Marcionitism can be explained easily enough. But again this isn’t the place for that. Tertullian wouldn’t have said that a Marcionite synagogues closely resembled Catholic Churches if there wasn’t some truth to his original statement.

    All that matters is tradition. In my mind that extends to dead traditions. In the end, I respect that you respectfully disagree. My respect for tradition and those who seek after her scent would demand that much …

  7. Nice piece! Have you read Eric Osborn’s fine book: Tertullian, first theologian of the west? (Cambridge) I have asked this question before, but few have read it, even in the Tertullian world, or those who read, write on the second-century. Strange?

    Fr. Robert (Anglican)

  8. I’ve skimmed bits of Osborn’s work, but never read it through. But I have difficulty accessing secondary literature, you see. So you can presume I have not read lots of stuff! Have you read T.D.Barnes, “Tertullian: a historical and literary study”? That book started my whole interest in patristics and is the root of all I do, you see. It has wonderful summaries of the content of all of Tertullian’s works.

    But because of my limited access, my focus is really on primary sources.

    Interest in the Fathers is considerably less than it should be. A renewal of interest has followed every Christian revival in the west in the last few centuries. Think of John Wesley issuing a volume of translations from people such as Ignatius, but also Macarius! The Oxford Movement follows on from the Methodist one.

    There has been a very considerable revival of Christianity in England in the last 50 years, yet copies of the fathers remain few. I suspect that we have all those “theologians” to blame, the ones who have made programmes on the BBC and Channel 4 for the last 20 years saying “theology proves Christianity is not true.” Ordinary Christians are hardly encouraged to venture beyond the bible, thus.

  9. Roger: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?

    Chaka:you should now better Roger.Catholics do not consider the works of the fathers as inspired.Only Scripture to catholics are inspired.

    Roger: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.

    Chaka:Hmmm…This is private judgement my brother.What if an Arian rounds luther up and tell him that the council of Nicea erred in her definition of the doctrine of the Trinity.What if a Nestorian rounds the same Luther telling him that the council of Ephesus erred in her definition of the doctrine of the divine marternity of Mary.If General councils of the Church can err how are we sure that they did not err in Nicea and Ephesus?Everyone is then left to rely on his or her own private judgment.Is that what our divine religion is all about|?

  10. Chaka: my understanding of Catholic teaching is different; that the consensus of the Fathers is a source of authority. I don’t see how that authority can not be inspired. Of course I am glad to be corrected, if wrong (with some kind of reference, of course).

    I’m not sure that I quite understood your second point, but it sounds as if you are disagreeing with Luther, not me? Whether right or not, that’s a different issue.

  11. Roger, as a non-Catholic, I can only offer what I have studied. I do not believe that Rome feels that, say, Ignatius of Antioch, was inspired, just the Tradition in which he stands. For Rome, Tradition and Scripture hold inspiration because both come from the Church.

  12. Mr.Roger,
    The way you sound suggests that you do not fully grasps how Catholics understand terms such as Tradition,infallibity and inspiration.I will try and look at my library for a book that might just be helpful to you.But before then i think you should read the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (DEI VERBUM)by Vatican II.Here are some excerpts(3-10) from that document which touches on what we are discussing on:

    “3. God, who through the Word creates all things (see John 1:3) and keeps them in existence, gives men an enduring witness to Himself in created realities (see Rom. 1:19-20). Planning to make known the way of heavenly salvation, He went further and from the start manifested Himself to our first parents. Then after their fall His promise of redemption aroused in them the hope of being saved (see Gen. 3:15) and from that time on He ceaselessly kept the human race in His care, to give eternal life to those who perseveringly do good in search of salvation (see Rom. 2:6-7). Then, at the time He had appointed He called Abraham in order to make of him a great nation (see Gen. 12:2). Through the patriarchs, and after them through Moses and the prophets, He taught this people to acknowledge Himself the one living and true God, provident father and just judge, and to wait for the Savior promised by Him, and in this manner prepared the way for the Gospel down through the centuries.

    4. Then, after speaking in many and varied ways through the prophets, “now at last in these days God has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). For He sent His Son, the eternal Word, who enlightens all men, so that He might dwell among men and tell them of the innermost being of God (see John 1:1-18). Jesus Christ, therefore, the Word made flesh, was sent as “a man to men.” (3) He “speaks the words of God” (John 3;34), and completes the work of salvation which His Father gave Him to do (see John 5:36; John 17:4). To see Jesus is to see His Father (John 14:9). For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover He confirmed with divine testimony what revelation proclaimed, that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal.

    The Christian dispensation, therefore, as the new and definitive covenant, will never pass away and we now await no further new public revelation before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (see 1 Tim. 6:14 and Tit. 2:13).

    5. “The obedience of faith” (Rom. 13:26; see 1:5; 2 Cor 10:5-6) “is to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals,” (4) and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him. To make this act of faith, the grace of God and the interior help of the Holy Spirit must precede and assist, moving the heart and turning it to God, opening the eyes of the mind and giving “joy and ease to everyone in assenting to the truth and believing it.” (5) To bring about an ever deeper understanding of revelation the same Holy Spirit constantly brings faith to completion by His gifts.

    6. Through divine revelation, God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men. That is to say, He chose to share with them those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind. (6)

    As a sacred synod has affirmed, God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certainty from created reality by the light of human reason (see Rom. 1:20); but teaches that it is through His revelation that those religious truths which are by their nature accessible to human reason can be known by all men with ease, with solid certitude and with no trace of error, even in this present state of the human race. (7)

    7. In His gracious goodness, God has seen to it that what He had revealed for the salvation of all nations would abide perpetually in its full integrity and be handed on to all generations. Therefore Christ the Lord in whom the full revelation of the supreme God is brought to completion (see Cor. 1:20; 3:13; 4:6), commissioned the Apostles to preach to all men that Gospel which is the source of all saving truth and moral teaching, (1) and to impart to them heavenly gifts. This Gospel had been promised in former times through the prophets, and Christ Himself had fulfilled it and promulgated it with His lips. This commission was faithfully fulfilled by the Apostles who, by their oral preaching, by example, and by observances handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did, or what they had learned through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The commission was fulfilled, too, by those Apostles and apostolic men who under the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit committed the message of salvation to writing. (2)

    But in order to keep the Gospel forever whole and alive within the Church, the Apostles left bishops as their successors, “handing over” to them “the authority to teach in their own place.”(3) This sacred tradition, therefore, and Sacred Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments are like a mirror in which the pilgrim Church on earth looks at God, from whom she has received everything, until she is brought finally to see Him as He is, face to face (see 1 John 3:2).

    8. And so the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved by an unending succession of preachers until the end of time. Therefore the Apostles, handing on what they themselves had received, warn the faithful to hold fast to the traditions which they have learned either by word of mouth or by letter (see 2 Thess. 2:15), and to fight in defense of the faith handed on once and for all (see Jude 1:3) (4) Now what was handed on by the Apostles includes everything which contributes toward the holiness of life and increase in faith of the peoples of God; and so the Church, in her teaching, life and worship, perpetuates and hands on to all generations all that she herself is, all that she believes.

    This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.

    The words of the holy fathers witness to the presence of this living tradition, whose wealth is poured into the practice and life of the believing and praying Church. Through the same tradition the Church’s full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the word of Christ dwell abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16).

    9. Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For Sacred Scripture is the word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.(6)

    10. Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort. (7)

    But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

    It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls”.

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