Tuesday, July 05, 2022

More Than The Church Fathers

When Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are discussing early church history, it's common for them to make misleading claims about the scope of the relevant evidence. For example, they'll say that all of the church fathers agreed about a particular issue, even though the fathers aren't the only relevant sources, or that nobody denied a certain belief, even though what they mean is that no church father denied it. What they allege about the fathers is often wrong, but what I want to focus on here is the neglect of other sources.

Why is the discussion being framed in terms of the fathers? What I'm focused on here isn't the common ignoring or underestimating of Biblical evidence among Catholics and Orthodox, though that is a problem. The main thing I want to address here is their ignoring or underestimating of extrabiblical sources other than the church fathers.

For example, in discussions of the authorship or canon of scripture, it's often suggested that we're more dependent on patristic evidence than we actually are. Large amounts of internal evidence and external evidence from Jewish sources, the manuscript record, heretical documents, and pagan sources, for example, will be overlooked or assigned less significance than they actually have. In a recent post on baptism, I gave some examples of extrabiblical sources who aren't church fathers, but give us significant evidence about the relationship between baptism and justification (against baptismal regeneration). Not only is the claim that baptismal regeneration was universally held by the church fathers false, but it's also inadequate in that it neglects the extrabiblical evidence outside the fathers. I could give other examples, but these are enough to make my point, and I want to move on to something else.

My post on baptism linked above is largely about Tertullian's treatise On Baptism. People often conclude that Tertullian's comments against infant baptism in that treatise were written in response to unnamed individuals who accepted the practice in his day. But, as far as we can tell, those alleged unnamed advocates of infant baptism Tertullian was responding to weren't church fathers. Yet, proponents of infant baptism often appeal to those unnamed opponents of Tertullian as evidence that some people believed in infant baptism at the time. If that sort of argument is acceptable in favor of infant baptism, then it's acceptable in opposition to baptismal regeneration as well. In the same treatise, Tertullian responds to people in his day who rejected baptismal regeneration in favor of justification through faith alone. The fact that those people weren't church fathers, as far as we know, doesn't mean they have no significance or should be left out of discussions of what beliefs were held at the time.

Then there's the dispute over whether Tertullian himself should be considered a church father. Even if he weren't considered a father, would it follow that he has no significance? No, it wouldn't.

Think of the many contexts in which Catholics and Orthodox appeal to extrabiblical sources who aren't church fathers. In addition to the example from Tertullian's treatise on baptism discussed above, involving infant baptism, think about the many documents at New Advent (a Catholic site) that come from the patristic era, but weren't written by church fathers: the Didache, the Epistle Of Barnabas, the Protoevangelium Of James, the Apostolic Constitutions, etc. And some of the sources sometimes considered church fathers are controversial in a relevant way: whether Tertullian should be considered a father, Hippolytus' status as an antipope, whether Origen should be considered a father, and so on. And Catholics and Orthodox frequently appeal to Biblical and extrabiblical manuscripts, catacomb inscriptions, and other such sources who aren't church fathers. It's commonplace for Catholics and Orthodox to appeal to anonymous documents, inscriptions from unknown sources, or even something like an apocryphal or heretical document to support their beliefs about Mary, prayer, or some other subject. Yet, they narrow the discussion to what the church fathers believed (often misrepresenting the fathers in the process) when they think they can gain an advantage by narrowing the discussion that way. When you hear a Catholic or Orthodox make a claim about the fathers, don't just question whether they're representing the fathers accurately. Also question why other sources aren't being included.

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