Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Significance Of The Early Patristic Sources

They support a high view of the New Testament documents, such as their authorship, genre, historicity, and Divine inspiration. Because of that, skeptics often try to cast doubt on the significance of those patristic sources. Critics will often take an unusually negative view of the dating of the documents, their authorship, the quality of the sources they had access to, the quality of their information, the degree to which they disseminated the more valuable information they had, etc. So, it's important to evaluate and reevaluate those issues from time to time.

There's an element of truth to the approach skeptics often take toward these sources. As a general principle, earlier sources are better than later ones. And even the earliest patristic sources are patristic sources, meaning that they generally postdate the New Testament documents. Memory fades over time. Though some contemporaries and eyewitnesses of Jesus and the apostles would have lived into the late first century and beyond, there were fewer of them as time passed. Some apostolic documents and other relevant literature would have been preserved over time, but there would be fewer such documents available later than earlier. Some patristic sources were significantly close to the apostles relationally, chronologically, geographically, and such, but others weren't. From a Christian perspective, the New Testament documents were Divinely inspired in a way in which the patristic sources weren't. And so on.

However, much more can be said on the other side, in support of the value of the early patristic sources, than skeptics suggest. There's a danger of overestimating these sources, but also a danger of underestimating them. And even some Christians underestimate them, as a result of overreacting to Roman Catholicism or for some other reason.

For example, there are some passages in First Clement that ought to receive more attention than they normally do in this context. Section 5 refers to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul as having occurred in "our own generation". The admonition in section 44 that it would be unjust to remove church leaders who were appointed by the apostles and have served well in those offices seems to assume that some leaders appointed by the apostles were still alive. Section 63 refers to messengers being sent who "from youth to old age have lived blameless lives among us". So, we have one apostolic church (Rome) writing to another (Corinth) and mentioning the presence of witnesses who had been part of their community "from youth to old age", which would go back to the middle of the first century. Those witnesses were contemporaries of the apostles, close witnesses of the apostles' interactions with the Roman church and more (they witnessed the activities of close associates of the apostles, like Mark and Luke, related to Rome; they witnessed apostolic documents sent from Rome, not just documents written to that city; etc.).

I've written elsewhere about similar evidence pertaining to Papias, Polycarp, Quadratus, etc. You can search our archives for other examples.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Problem Of Ignorance Of The Church Fathers

"Far too many Evangelicals in the modern day know next to nothing about these figures [the church fathers]. I will never forget being asked to give a mini-history conference at a church in southern Ontario. I suggested three talks on three figures from Latin-speaking North Africa: Perpetua, Cyprian, and Augustine. The leadership of the church came back to me seeking a different set of names, since they had never heard of the first two figures, and while they had heard of the third name, the famous bishop of Hippo Regius, they really knew nothing about him. I gave them another list of post-Reformation figures for the mini-conference, but privately thought that not knowing anything about these figures was possibly a very good reason to have a conference on them! I suspect that such ignorance is quite widespread among those who call themselves Evangelicals" (Michael Haykin, Patrick Of Ireland [Scotland: Christian Focus, 2017], 9-10)

That ignorance causes major problems in interactions with Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, atheists, Muslims, and other people whose beliefs and practices are highly relevant to the church fathers. The situation isn't as bad everywhere as Haykin's experience in Ontario, but it doesn't have to be so bad in order to be a significant problem.

I wrote an overview of how to study the church fathers several years ago. And I'll have more to say about the earliest fathers later this week.