Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The church fathers

1.How should a Protestant view the church fathers? The short answer is that we should sift their testimony the same way we’d sift the testimony of any putative historical witness. The church fathers have all the potential values and limitations of any historical observer.

2.Who are the church fathers? This designation is an honorific, theological classification rather than a historical classification. It roughly covers a group of Christians from the subapostolic fathers to Isidore and John of Damascus.

This is noteworthy in a couple of respects:

i) It presents quite a time spread: from the late 1C to the mid-8C.

Since, in their appeal to tradition, Roman Catholics have a habit of ignoring the obvious, let us state the obvious: the chronological distance between the historical event and the historical witness is highly germane to the quality of his historical testimony.

ii) By the same token, this designation excludes heretics who may be much closer to the source than are some of the church fathers.

Origen is not a church father. Marcion is not a church father. Valentinus is not a church father.

iii) Yet a heretic can be a useful historical witness. Take Marcion’s canon. We can infer from what he rejects the state of the preexisting canon. We can infer from what he rejects which books of the Bible Christians before his time accepted as canonical.

So Marcion ends up being an unwitting witness to the very thing he denies.

3.Due to the time spread, a subapostolic father is a more reliable witness to primitive tradition than John of Damascus.

4.There are also church fathers like Eusebius, Hippolytus, and Julius Africanus, who, while living long after the Apostles, were well-connected men who made a concerted effort to document primitive tradition. As such, they enjoy a historical value above and beyond than their birthdate.

5.Even if an early church father happened to be a contemporary of the apostles, and enjoyed some direct, albeit glancing acquaintance with the apostles, that general contact does not, of itself, underwrite any specific belief or interpretation.

If, say, Polycarp were to tell us that he once asked the apostle John what Jesus meant in the Bread of Life discourse, that would be one thing, but the mere fact that A knew B is quite insufficient to connect a particular belief of A with a particular belief of B unless that connection is explicitly made by the party in question.

6.Let’s take a couple of commonplace examples. A child will ask her mother about her grandmother. Her mother will say, “If only I’d thought to ask that when my mother was still alive!”

Likewise, you have a family reunion where siblings reminiscence about old times, only to get into an argument over what actually happened on that childhood camping trip.

7.We know from the gospels that the Twelve did not always understand what Jesus was saying. Indeed, they frequently misunderstood what he was saying.

We know from apostolic letters addressed to the NT church that the church quite often misunderstood what the Apostles were telling them.

So this is a documented phenomenon. And it goes all the way back to the very foundations of the church.

8.Returning to my illustration, there are some things a family member can get wrong, as well as other things a family member can hardly get wrong. This is part of sifting the evidence.

The subapostolic fathers can be pretty reliable on macroscopic matters of place, date, and authorship. But a generic appeal to the church fathers can never trump grammatico-historical exegesis on this or that verse of Scripture.


  1. 9. We have the historic precedent of widespread institutional apostasy among the covenant people of God in the OT itself. That this phenomenon would repeat itself in the New Covenant era should surprise few.

    i) Apostasy at an institutional level doesn't militate against the existence of true believers who live/operate apart from the sanction/authority of an apostate hierarchical class (The OT itself is essentially a record of this very thing. Cf. especially Elijah's belief that he alone was faithful in all of Israel - yet God's response was that His true remnant, although not visible at an institutional level, numbered 7,000).

    ii) We should also note that institutional apostasy is seldom a dramatic event that occurs at a point in time. Rather it is something that develops over time as traditional accretions displace/supersede various aspects of the original religion (and this is not a phenomenon limited to Christianity alone).

    iii) The Old Covenant people of God had moved so far from the true religion of YHVH at an institutional level, that the law itself was apparently lost (cf. 2 Kgs 22:3-20), which was followed by a later period of revival/restoration (cf. 2 Kgs 23:1-25).

    10. The Gospels record the institutional apostasy that was prevalent in the Jewish nation prior to and during the time of Christ.

    i) Christ’s response to their traditional accretions (all allegedly handed down from Moses) was to repeatedly direct them back to the priority of the written Revelation of the OT (cf. his oft used formula “Have you not read…?”).

    11. We have the further example (at the close of the apostolic age) of most of the churches in chapters 2 & 3 in the book of Revelation condemned for greater or lesser degrees of apostasy.

  2. Der, are you saying the church fathers, Augustine, Ambrose, all the greats, were apostates?

  3. What I was pointing out was that the apostasy of the institutional structure of the covenant people of God is not without historical precedent (cf. the OT record for many examples).

    This fact is indisputable although those who think in facile terms concerning ecclesiastical development (i.e., those who believe in a church that has remained essentially unchanged and uniform in doctrine for the last 2000 years) will no doubt not appreciate the observation and the implications that follow concerning the probability of historical recapitulation - but I can't do anything about that.

    Additionally, I made the point that apostasy isn't something that happens at a point in time, but rather is something that occurs gradually over time.

    Hence various individual fathers held greater or lesser degrees of heterodox ideas on a variety of theological topics based on their geographical locale and period in which each lived (e.g., fifth century writers with ties to Antioch would lean more toward sharply dividing the 2 natures of Christ, much as Nestorius did).

    In specific answer to your question - let me reframe it, because the question itself reflects a naive understanding of what it means to be orthodox/heterodox.

    Were Augustine and Ambrose possessors of a pure and undefiled faith without any errors in their thought?

    I'm not inclined to think so. I have many reasons to believe that they were fallible men who were just as subject to their own historical/cultural/sociological influences as you or I, and hence subject to error.

    What about the converse? Were they heterodox on every matter of theological articulation?

    I would answer that question in the negative (as I think most would). Much (but not all) of the thought of both aligns well with the apostolic faith one finds in the NT record.

    The answer, then, lies somewhere in between. Neither possessed a theology that was identical to either that of a pure NT theology or to the theology of the other.

    I am generally favorable toward both figures (but especially Augustine) – although I would disagree with both at certain points as well.

  4. Thought I'd weigh in as an Eastern Orthodox blogger. An Evangelical friend of mine sent me the link to this post and asked me what I thought; the following is my reply to him:

    OK, so I really liked the first part of Steve's article, where he basically sets up how to approach the Fathers: things like "The church fathers have all the potential values and limitations of any historical observer," and "the chronological distance between the historical event and the historical witness is highly germane to the quality of his historical testimony" are both very good points, w/ which I obviously agree.

    I also agree with the idea that "a heretic can be...an unwitting witness to the very thing he denies," though perhaps for different reasons than the author does. I see things such as belief in apostolic succession of bishops and the Church's preservation from institutional apostasy in the writings of Tertullian, for example, both pro in the writings made when he was a Christian, and contra when he was a Montanist. By this we can see that these two doctrines were held by the early orthodox Christians and denied by heretics.

    Statement #4, about Eusebius, Hippolytus, and Julius Africanus, is good. Nice to know the author is willing to give these post-apostolic fathers a place.

    Using the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the author says that "the mere fact that A knew B is quite insufficient to connect a particular belief of A with a particular belief of B unless that connection is explicitly made by the party in question." This is true. However, given the extensive nature of the training all of the sub-apostolic bishops had to have received from the Apostles, it's not at all likely that every last one of them would have misunderstood such a crucial doctrine, much less that they all would have erred on the side of insisting on the Real Presence instead of some being memorialists, some being consubstantialists, etc. The uniformity of the sub-apostolic witness on this subject--hardly a family reunion with arguing siblings or a woman slapping her forehead about questions missed--is too great to dismiss with an argument from silence.

    #7 is one I hear a lot -- that the apostles misunderstood Christ's teachings, and the Church misunderstood the Apostles. Christ knew the former, which is why He promised the Spirit, which would bring all things to their remembrance and guide them into all truth. He also predicted the latter, as did St. Paul, that false prophets would come...yet the prediction about the gates of hell not prevailing, that the whole Church would not be led into error, stands, largely due to the authority of the appointed leaders of the Church to teach and instruct, that error may be overcome and the Church may continue to "grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ" (Eph. 4:15). That troubles would come is seen in Revelation, in the letters to the Churches, but as long as one lampstand remained (as was obviously the case), the apostolically-ordained community of the Church would continue.

    The last sentence of Steve's article, which said that "a generic appeal to the church fathers can never trump grammatico-historical exegesis on this or that verse of Scripture," is interesting because, imo, the ante-nicean fathers *are themselves* the historical half of said exegesis! I assume, then, a father-by-father breakdown regarding specific mentionings of specific doctrines would help move away from such "generic" appeals...I do, btw, agree that too many people in Catholic and Orthodox circles simply say "The Fathers say..." with about as much readiness (and as little proof) as many fundamentalist Protastants who say "The Bible says..."

    Der Fuerspreche's main idea--that the well-documented institutional apostasy of OT Israel paves the way for a similar NT Church institutional apostasy--is definitely one that seems as though it could easily be true--the NT Church was made up of people no less human than those who comprised OT Israel--but I do not see that specific prophecy made anywhere in Scripture. Indeed, the Isrealites are told in advance, by Moses himself, that they would indeed betray God as a nation and go after other gods, be punished, and return to Him. The NT Church is given no such prophecy by our Lord. Instead, the NT Church is called "His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all" (Eph. 1:23). Instead of doing things on behalf of all the people (as the OT Levites did), the NT priesthood (the Apostles, ordained by the Great High Priest from the line of Melchizedek) were sent out to do what only God could do: forgive and retain the sins of men, and bind and loose with divine authority. Surely this would not be given to an ekklesia who, being just as brittle as OT Israel, would fall away so soon into obvious apostasy, or merely given to one generation of men (the Apostles), with the understanding that it was to be passed no further.

    Christ's rebuttal of the Pharisees and Sadducees with written Scripture is also often used as a tactic in debates to say that one can do the same with extra-biblical Catholic and Orthodox teaching. Two thoughts on this: One--Christ had the benefit of being the Logos incarnate; it's a rather safe bet that His knowledge of the proper interpretation of Scripture would be *somewhat* thorough. Two--Protestants in any age cannot claim this, as they are simply men and women who read the Bible and come to (often very different) ideas of how the Catholic and Orthodox churches have strayed from biblical truth. This is hardly the authoritative voice we hear coming from Christ. Rather, we should look at how the Scriptures were received by the earliest Christians and, if there is, as St. Vincent of Lerins said, universality, antiquity, and consent displayed in the witness of these early men with respect to a particular interpretation of said Scripture, we can ascertain with reasonable certainty the original, historical theological meaning of said passage.