Saturday, June 04, 2011

On Trusting the Church Fathers

One commenter said below: “It sounding very strange to assert that a father is lying or that many fathers are lying. It makes any kind of rational conversation difficult when it comes to the faith of the early church when if one is confronted with evidence they can merely claim, ‘Oh, this father is not telling the truth.’”

But that’s the way it was, and this type of head-in-the-sand “I’ll believe any church father over modern historians,” has led to more confusion in church history than most people realize.

Another commenter related that Eusebius had not only passed along a mythical letter that Jesus had written during his lifetime to a Persian king named “Abgar”, but which was, according to Eusebius, “available, taken from the Record Office at Edessa.” That means that anyone who had access to the “record office at Edessa” (no small city at the time) would have found this fictitious letter to be presented as “the official record”. This was only one of many such instances.

For those who are inclined to believe that the "early church fathers" were a pure and holy group, not ever given to lying or even fudging, consider this, which I've written about in the past. Samuel Hugh Moffett, writing in "A History of Christianity in Asia," describes the events at the Council of Ephesus:
"On Easter Sunday in 429, Cyril publicly denounced Nestorius for heresy. With fine disregard for anything Nestorius had actually said, he accused him of denying the deity of Christ. It was a direct and incendiary appeal to the emotions of the orthodox, rather than to precise theological definition or scriptural exegesis, and, as he expected, an ecclesiastical uproar followed. Cyril showered Nestorius with twelve bristling anathemas...As tempers mounted, a Third Ecumenical Council was summoned to meet in Ephesus in 431 ... [it was] the most violent and least equitable of all the great councils. It is an embarrassment and blot on the history of the church. ... Nestorius ... arrived late and was asking the council to wait for him and his bishops. Cyril, who had brought fifty of his own bishops with him, arrogantly opened the council anyway, over the protests of the imperial commissioner and about seventy other bishops. ... "They acted ... as if it was a war they were conducting, and the followers of [Cyril] ... went about in the city girt and armed with clubs ... with the yells of barbarians, snorting fiercely ... raging with extravagant arrogance against those whom they knew to be opposed to their doings, carrying bells about the city and lighting fires. They blocked up the streets so that everyone was obliged to fee and hide, while they acted as masters of the situation, lying about, drunk and besotted and shouting obsceneties... (Moffet 174).
For more information, see also:

Philip Jenkins: The Lost History of Christianity

Mar Bawai Soro: The Church of the East: Apostolic and Orthodox


  1. Re-posting as this comment is better suited in this thread


    On the one hand you assert that history is against the side of the Catholic Church.

    "I do not have faith in the Catholic Church because of a head count of scholars (although I do think extant history is very supportive of Catholic claims). "

    You: This is simply not true.

    On the other hand you dismiss evidence that helps the claims of the Catholic Church as lies or ignorance.

    It is a stacked deck and does not strike me as an honest approach.

    I wonder how you are trustful of any father about anything or any council about anything. Are you?

    It is apparent that you know that there is a lot in the extant historical record that favors the claims of the Catholic Church and does serious damage to the contentions that you are making. Your solution is to dismiss that evidence as 'lies' or 'legend.' This is awfully convenient.

    I have never, on the other hand, encountered a Catholic apologist resort to calling a Church Father a liar or ignorant when something does not appear to go in the direction of the Catholic claim.

  2. Kristen:

    The Church Fathers were the same as any other person. Not infalliable.

    The NT record itself tells us people were even then in the lifetime of the apostles, trying to have things their own way and throwing people out of the church who did not agree with them. I will leave it to the reader to find the reference.

    So, I would believe it is entirely appropriate to weigh the evidence appropriately and to ask honest questions. And when the questions are asked, in the light of the New Covenant now established, which has no place for the elaborate systems established by some denominations, serious questions arise as to how right some people did get things.

  3. "I have never, on the other hand, encountered a Catholic apologist resort to calling a Church Father a liar or ignorant when something does not appear to go in the direction of the Catholic claim."

    Allow me to enlighten you then in this regard.

    Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (later declared as "doctor of the church") defended the idea that the pope was able to deprive impious kings of their thrones, and was consequently forced to argue that early Christians had only FAKED their humble submission to higher powers that persecuted them - because they were not yet able to overthrow pagan rulers. He thus basically attributed dissimulating Jesuitical (or Leninist) morality to just about EVERY pre-Constantinian church father - pretending harmlessness when being weak, striking when being strong...

    Citing Edward Gibbon:

    "The modern champions of Rome are eager to accept the praise and the precedent: this great and glorious example of the deposition of royal heretics is celebrated by the cardinals Baronius and Bellarmine; (27) and if they are asked, why the same thunders were not hurled against the Neros and Julians of antiquity, they reply, that the weakness of the primitive church was the sole cause of her patient loyalty. (28)

    Note 028: "Quod si Christiani olim non deposuerunt Neronem aut Julianum, id fuit quia deerant vires temporales Christianis", (honest Bellarmine, de Rom. Pont. l. v. c. 7.)"

  4. I believe in law school, one is trained such that "if the law is on your side, argue the law; if the facts are on your side, argue the facts; if neither the law nor the facts are on your side - attack your opponent!"

    So Kristen now engages in attacks on Mr. Bugay ostensibly because she is out of "law or facts".

    It is simply not true that Catholic apologists refrain from disparaging the ECF's. I can recall - and may even be able to find - several instances where a Catholic, faced with Tertullian's derogation of the pope as "Pontifex Maximus", resorted to calling him an apostate.

    Perhaps, Kristen relies on the Roman "scholarship" that arose between the two Vatican councils. But that work was notorious for the fact that it was published only because it was approved by the censors in the Vatican. In other words, it was "party line" and not true scholarship.

    Mr. Bugay is correct. Even Roman Catholic scholars in the post-Vatican II era are free to publish the truth - and that is not flattering to its highly censored ancestors.


  5. "It is simply not true that Catholic apologists refrain from disparaging the ECF's. I can recall - and may even be able to find - several instances where a Catholic, faced with Tertullian's derogation of the pope as "Pontifex Maximus", resorted to calling him an apostate."

    To cite a more official source: the 787 AD Second Council of Nicaea (that instituted icon-worship) discovered that Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine's famous historian, had opposed the use of images. They bluntly name-called him an Arian heretic and were done with it then!

    From the council acts of 2nd Nicaea:

    pp. 274, 276, 277

    "Tarasius: "They who were so garrulous against holy images have brought Eusebius forward in their favour in a letter which he wrote to Constantia the wife of Licinius. Now, let us see what were the sentiments of this Eusebius."

    Peter and Peter Legates of Adrian, Pope of Old Rome, said: "That which has been read proves that his inclination was Arian; but this book of Eusebius has also other blasphemies which this Council could never endure to hear."

    Tarasius: "We reject the writings of this man."

    The Holy Council: "We reject and anathematize them."

    "Tarasius: "The writings of Eusebius, by the voice of this father, are proved to be alien from the Catholic Church.""

  6. Moreover, J.H. Newman's "doctrine of development" (so celebrated by most modern RC apologists) contains the inevitable side-effect of branding the early church fathers as pretty "ignorant" characters, being in dark about later RC doctrines.

    George Salmon spelled it out:

    "Now, this making the authority of the Fathers the rule and measure of our judgment is absolutely inconsistent with the theory of Development. In every progressive science the latest authority is the best. Take mathematics, which is in its nature as immutable as any theory can represent .theology to be, and in which what has once been proved to be true can never afterwards come into question; yet even there the older authors are only looked into as a matter of curiosity, to illustrate the history of the progress of the science, but have no weight as authorities. We study the science from modern books, which contain everything of value that the older writers discovered—possibly may correct some mistakes of theirs, but certainly will contain much of which they are ignorant.

    And, in like manner, anyone who holds the theory of Development ought, in consistency, to put the writings of the Fathers on the shelf as antiquated and obsolete. Their teaching, judged by the standard of the present day, must certainly be defective, and might even be erroneous. In point of fact, there is scarcely one of the Fathers who does not occasionally come into collision with modern Roman teaching, and for whom it is not necessary to find apologies. A good deal of controversial triumph took place when, by the publication of certain expurgatorial indices, it was brought to light that the Roman authorities regarded certain genuine dicta of early Fathers as erroneous, and as needing correction. But if the Development theory be true, it is only proper that the inaccuracies of the time when Church teaching was immature should be corrected by the light of fuller knowledge.

    The most thoroughgoing and most ignorant Protestant cannot show greater indifference to the opinions of the Fathers than does Cardinal Manning. If Dr. Manning were asked whether St. Cyprian held the doctrine of the Pope's Supremacy, he might answer much in the same way that, as the story goes, Mr. Spurgeon answered, when asked whether St. Cyprian held the doctrine of Justification by Faith. Either might say, 'I don't know, and I don't much care; but, for his own sake, I hope he did; for if he didn't, so much the worse for him.'

    According to Manning, it is a matter of unimportance how the Church is to be reconciled with Scripture or antiquity, when once you understand that the Church is the living voice of the same Being who inspired Scripture, and who taught the ancient Church. To look for one's creed in Scripture and antiquity is, to Manning, as great a heresy as to look for it in Scripture alone. Either course makes the individual the judge or critic of Revelation. The appeal to antiquity, says Manning, is both a treason and a heresy."

  7. Kristen -- This site is filled not only with the work of scholars, but with some extremely thorough first-hand accounts that refute some of the things you have been saying (i.e. evidence that helps the claims of the Catholic Church). You may want to peruse this link:

    One of the reasons we can feel so confident in the things that we say, is because Roman Catholic scholars are saying many of the same things.

    Now, the way this plays out is, we get called "anti-Catholics" and the Catholic scholars we cite get called "liberals".

    That leaves the name-callers on tiny little island (like your Called to Communion friends) who continue to make claims from antiquity, about sources that have been refuted or dismissed by Roman Catholic scholars.

    Louis cited a very bad "mistake" by Eusebius that was passed along as true. Viisaus cited several others. I've cited a few, just in these threads.

    One of the reasons why I write about "the nonexistent early papacy" is because the "tradition" on that one has changed at a very high level. It's a profound embarrassment for Roman Catholicism. The "emperor-pope" has no clothes, in a very real sense.

  8. Oh, so the Fathers as a group are untrustworthy. But they're your only witness to the correct canon of scripture. And most of the reasons why we suppose they are trustworthy are the same reasons Chrustian apologists argue the apostles were trustworthy. So you prove too much and drag Christianity as a whole into your hell.

  9. Oh, so the Fathers as a group are untrustworthy.

    This is not what anyone has said. Try again.

  10. John,

    Abgar was not a Persian king. He ruled the Syriac kingdom of Osrhoene, of which Edessa was the capital. Osrhoene was absorbed into the Roman empire by the 3rd century. Though briefly taken by the Sassanids in the early 7th century, it was never really Persian.

  11. Sorry, I meant to ask in my above comment whether Eusebius calls Abgar Persian or if that's how the commenter you are referring to in the post told the story. If Eusebius himself and you have the citation, I'd like to look at it.

  12. David Pell, the Persia/Syriac switch was my mistake. I was working off the top of my head and I knew it was “out east”. Here’s Eusebius 1:13:

    Because of his miraculous powers the divinity of Christ was noised abroad everywhere, and myriads even in foreign lands remote from Judea came to him in the hope of healing from diseases of every kind. Thus, when King Abgar [V], the celebrated ruler of peoples beyond the Euphrates, was suffering terribly from an incurable illness and often heard the name of Jesus and his miracles, he sent him a request, via letter carrier, pleading for relief from his disease. Jesus did not consent to his request at the time but favored him with a personal letter, promising to send one of his disciples to cure the disease and bring salvation to him and his relatives.

    The promise was soon fulfilled. After his [Jesus’] resurrection and ascension, Thomas, one of the Twelve, was divinely inspired to send Thaddeus, one of the Seventy, to Edessa as preacher and evangelist, who fulfilled all the terms of our Saviour’s promise. There is written evidence of this taken from the archives at Edessa, the then royal capital, which include ancient history as well as the events at Abgar’s time. Here are the letters themselves, which I have extracted from the archives and translated word for word from the Syriac:


    [JB note: The text of the letter follows on pg. 46 of the Paul L. Maier edition. What follows is in Eusebius]:

    (He wrote this letter when the divine light had only begun to shine on him. It is appropriate to hear also the letter that Jesus sent him by the same letter carrier. It is only a few lines long but very powerful)


    Blessed are you who believed in me without seeing me! For it is written that those who have seen me will not believe in me and that those who have not seen me will believe and live. Now regarding your request that I come to you, I must first complete all that I was sent to do here, and, once that is completed, must be taken up to the One who sent me. When I have been taken up, I will send one of my disciples to heal your suffering and bring life to you and yours.

    End of Jesus’s letter to Abgar.

    Schaff calls this “a worthless fabrication,” of course. But Eusebius passes it along as if it were the genuine article. And who, reading Eusebius, would not do the same?

  13. One expert on the early church actually argued that in his opinion, one of the most impressive proofs of the divine origin of the New Testament was comparing the quality of inspired writings with those painfully obviously non-inspired writings that followed them.

  14. "Oh, so the Fathers as a group are untrustworthy. But they're your only witness to the correct canon of scripture."

    John, I see that you are trying to pull the old "the church gave you the Bible"-card. But an EO like you CANNOT use that card, since unlike the RCs, you guys don't even yet have an "infallibly" defined canon anyways! (The Romanists have supposedly had one since the 1546 Tridentine decree.)

    One cannot give something one does not himself possess (the "correct canon"). Ergo, the EO church or their "fathers" did not give the Protestants their Bible.

    In ironical spirit, I'll cite an RC source here:

    "Modern Eastern Orthodox say all sorts of things. Not all EO's claim that the canon is undefined. Some consider themselves bound by Carthage. The reason that a lot of EO's claim that the canon is not defined is because the patriarchate of Antioch consistently failed to implement the Carthaginian canon, both before and after Nicaea II. Various Greek and Syrian churches in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq continued to read from 3 & 4 Maccabbes, the Prayer of Manasseh, and even 1 Clement to the Corinthians and the Epistle of Barnabas, at their liturgies well into modern times. Given that "canon" refers to the rule of usage in the Church's Liturgy, the Eastern Orthodox tend to consider themselves bound by this local usage, and so define the canon that way. They have forgotten about the Carthaginian canon, to which they, technically, used to be bound.

    In some respects the modern Eastern Orthodox Church is not practicing their ancient traditions. A great many EO's claim that the Book of Revelation is "not canonical" because certain Orthodox Churches (like the Greeks) do not read from it at the Liturgy. However, this is a relatively new thing for the Greeks. They used to read Revelation in their Liturgy. At one point, they just stopped doing it."

  15. Viisaus: the canon is all YOU'VE got. Quoting issues with Antioch or Revelation hurts you more than me.

  16. "Viisaus: the canon is all YOU'VE got."

    As if the Holy Scripture wouldn't be a guide good enough in itself. The latent anti-Bible hostility of you tradition-mongers shines through.

    You people are only being consistent with your sometimes-hidden, sometimes-open presupposition about the fundamental UNNECESSITY of the Bible, I guess. As George Salmon observed:

    "If, in fact, the Church be infallible, it is impossible to understand why the Bible was given. It cannot be of much use in making men wise unto salvation, for that the Church is supposed to do already. But it may be used by the ignorant and unstable to pervert it to their own destruction. If a Christian, reading the Bible for himself, puts upon it the interpretation which the Church puts upon it, he is still no better off than if he had never looked at it, and had contented himself with the same lessons as taught by the Church; but if he puts upon it a different interpretation from that of the Church (and if the Church be infallible, her interpretation is right and every other wrong), then he is deeply injured by having been allowed to examine for himself. Thus, if the Church be infallible, Bible reading is all risk and no gain."

    "Quoting issues with Antioch or Revelation hurts you more than me."

    Uh, I don't think so. And again, you are practically bragging here that "EOs can get along without the Bible, we don't need it!"

  17. That's the stupidist quote I've ever seen. Now having raised disputes about the canon and Antioch, let's see you prove who was right, since you've just claimed the right canon is all you need.