On the right use of the Fathers 1

In the summer I witnessed a scene at the Oxford Patristics Conference, at a session for evangelicals, of some confusion of mind about just how Christians today should make use of the Fathers.  At the time I said that I thought someone needed to write something about this.  I thought that I would start to think about this issue here.

When I encounter people who are interested in the Fathers, most of them fall into two groups, holding quite different views about how we should look at the Fathers.  The first of these views we might call the “secular view”; the second the “catholic view”.  What is missing from this, of course, is what might once have been called the “protestant view”.

The secular view is simple enough.  Christianity, it believes, is not true.  The bible is not true and the account that it gives of Christian origins is not true.  The preaching of Jesus of Nazareth is not true, in its most essential parts; those whom he instructed were likewise wrong in the key points that they preached; and the teaching of the New Testament, that Christ died for our sins and rose again from the dead, is not true either.  Likewise it believes that the early Christians were similarly wrong; that the writers of that group were mistaken about the matters of most interest to them; and that the Fathers are merely the most outstanding examples of a group which is throughly mistaken.  I do not speak here of atheists, as such; so much as normal unbelievers of our day.

It is perfectly possible to hold these views, and still find early Christian history interesting, and to look at the works of all these writers — I mean the Fathers — as being historically interesting.  This approach is the one adopted by unbelievers who, for some reason, find themselves working in this field.

The Catholic view is not quite so simple.  Obviously the bible is true, and the Christian teaching is true.  But what about the writers after the New Testament?

The Catholic view, as I understand it, is that a select group of these writers are to some extent inspired, in a similar but lesser way than the bible; or rather, are a witness to the teaching of God the Holy Spirit.  Others are less reliable, being merely human; others still are plain mistaken.  The “select group” alone truly deserve the name of “Fathers of the Church”, although the term is used more loosely than that.

Which of the early Christian writers comprise the “select group”?  For this, I turn to volume 1 of Johannes Quasten’s Patrology.

Patrology is that part of the history of Christian literature which deals with the theological authors of Christian antiquity. It comprises both the orthodox and the heretical writers, although it treats with preference those authors who represent the traditional ecclesiastical doctrine, the so-called Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Thus, Patrology can be defined as the science of the Fathers of the Church. It includes, in the West, all Christian authors up to Gregory the Great (d. 604) or Isidore of Seville (d. 636), and, in the East, it extends usually to John Damascene (d. 749)·[1]

We are accustomed to call the authors of early Christian writings ‘Fathers of the Church’. In ancient times the word ‘Father’ was applied to a teacher; for in biblical and early Christian usage, teachers are the fathers of their students. …

In Christian antiquity, the teaching office was the bishop’s. Thus the title ‘Father’ was first applied to him. Doctrinal controversies of the fourth century brought about further development. The use of the term ‘Father’ became more comprehensive; it was now extended to ecclesiastical writers in so far as they were accepted as representatives of the tradition of the Church. Thus St. Augustine numbers St. Jerome among the witnesses to the traditional doctrine of original sin, although he was not a bishop…

Vincent of Lerins, in his Commonitory of 434 applies the term ‘Father’ to all ecclesiastical writers without distinction of hierarchical grade:

If some new question should arise on which no such decision has been given, they should then have recourse to the opinions of the holy Fathers, of those, at least, who, each in his own time and place, remaining in the unity of communion and the faith, were accepted as approved masters; and whatsoever these may be found to have held, with one mind and one consent, this ought to be accounted the true and catholic doctrine ofth.e Church, without any doubt or scruple (Chapter 41). — Nothing ought to be believed by posterity save what the sacred antiquity of the holy Fathers consentient in Christ has held (Chapter 43) .

Today only those are to be regarded as ‘Fathers of the Church’ who combine these four necessary qualifications: orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, ecclesiastical approval, and antiquity. All other theological writers are known as “ecclesiae scriptores” or “scriptores ecclesiastici”, a term whIch St. Jerome coined (De viris Ill., Prol.; Ep. 112, 3). The title ‘Doctor of the Church’ is not identical with ‘Father of the Church’, because some of those known as Doctors of the Church lack the distinction of ‘antiquity’,…

Although the Fathers of the Church hold an important position in the history of Hellenistic and Roman literature, their authority in the Catholic Church is based on entirely different grounds. It is the ecclesiastical doctrine of Tradition as a source of faith which makes the writings and opinions of the Fathers so important. The Church regards the “unanimis consensus patrum” as infallible, if it concerns the interpretation of Scripture (Vatic. sess. 3, c. 2).[2]

These select writers all express views which shaped the subsequent course of church history in the middle ages, and created medieval Catholicism.  They treat the church itself as a possible source of authority, and are “ecclesiastical” in a way that few modern Christians are.

The attitude of Catholics towards the other early Christian writers is to treat them as interesting but not authoritative.  This is close to what we might call the “protestant view”.  Unfortunately no-one today uses the term “protestant” for themselves; today those who are the intellectual heirs of the protest of the evangelical princes at the Reformation are generally known as simply Christians or (under protest) Evangelicals.  I will use the former term, although I am well aware that some Catholics are Christians.

Christians believe that the bible is true, and that the teaching of Christ and his apostles is true.  But few Christians know much about Christian writers after the New Testament.  Those who do take the line that all of these writers were fallible human beings, and that they could be unduly influenced by the times in which they lived, just as we are.  They broadly accept the Nicene creed, and have no ideological objection to Chalcedon, because  they don’t really know much about it, and are not disposed to disagree with something handed down which does not seem obviously wrong.

But they do believe that God acts in history.  They do believe that Christians today are working with the Holy Spirit, and that, therefore, Christians of past times were doing so likewise.  While wary of anything like a cult of “Saints”, people like John Wesley or C. S. Lewis or Martin Luther will receive interest and approval, albeit not unqualified.  To the extent that Christians are aware of the early Christian writers, they will read them primarily for historical interest, as the “secular view” people do, but also looking for signs of spiritual kinship, as Catholics do.  They will find fewer links than Catholics do, however, because most of the surviving patristic literature exists precisely because it was copied by Catholics.  But they will tend to feel that these are brothers in Christ living in past times.

This approach is very similar to the attitude that Catholics take to early Christian writers who are not in the magic circle, who are not Doctors or Fathers of the Church.  It is, in truth, a halfway house between the “secular view” and the “catholic view”, as might be expected, although rather closer to the latter.  But always there is awareness that “Churchianity” can eclipse the message of the Gospel.

I confess that it seems an entirely wholesome way to look at things to me!

  1. [1]Vol. 1, p.1
  2. [2]Quasten vol. 1, p.9-11.

5 thoughts on “On the right use of the Fathers 1

  1. Well put, although I would add that the “Catholic” view, as I’ve experienced it, is often vague so that when a Father says something he’s not supposed to say (i.e., it disagrees with later teaching or other Fathers), it can be explained away by an appeal to the general “teaching of the Church”. It might be easy for someone reading your description to think that it is the sum total of the “select writers”, but it doesn’t seem to be fleshed out that way in practice (indeed, I don’t know if there is a way of determining which part of which authors are the good parts according to those who hold the Catholic view).

  2. This is my experience also. But it probably means that we don’t quite follow how it all works, all the in’s and out’s of the doctrine. I didn’t feel all that comfortable with my summary, I must say, but I had to say something in order to make clear what I did want to say; how I felt the fathers should be rightly used.

    Essentially it looks as if the Catholics have an additional, specialised use of the Fathers which the rest of us wouldn’t go for. But Quasten’s position is a lot less unreasonable than one might suppose.

    Quasten wasn’t as clear as he might have been, and he was also writing for an English audience which wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with how it works on the ground.

  3. While reading this, I was thinking of the spectrum of Christians that fall in this third group from conservative confessional, who give ascent to the Fathers and their contribution to the church though possibly not finding practical use for that knowledge, to Anabaptist/pietistic recognizing little between Revelation 22:21 and the founding of a particular denomination or association. A thoroughgoing (or even introductory) examination of how rightly to use the Fathers would possibly move the spectrum into the same direction. I realize this is akin to herding cats, but perhaps some will show themselves to be good followers.

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