Are the Early Church Fathers Calvinist or Catholic?

In a post entitled “Non Sequitur Illustrated,” TurretinFan (who I don’t know from Adam), has this to say about part one of my multi-part post on the roots of relativism in Protestantism:

Here is a classic non sequitur: “The biggest reason I think that Protestantism lies at the heart of relativism is this. Protestants are in the awkward position of saving, ‘All of Christendom c. 1516 and before, you all misunderstand Christianity!'” (Joe Heschmeyer at Shameless Popery) Leaving aside the ridiculous claim that Protestantism has to make such an assertion, there is simply no connection between that assertion and relativism. Quite to the contrary, claims that we understand correctly and someone else understands incorrectly is an absolutist claim, not a relativist claim. The blog is aptly titled, no doubt, and despite the link for those wishing to verify the accuracy of the quotation, I don’t endorse his post or blog in any way.


I’m not sure precisely where to start with this. I suppose I’ll begin with “the ridiculous claim that Protestantism has to make such an assertion.” It absolutely does, if it expects to present itself honestly. The alternative is to claim that there was an invisible remnant which existed in the mountains, far from what we know as Christianity — which is why I used the term Christendom rather than Christianity, since the former term has spatial implications. Take a handful of issues:

  • Father James T. O’Connor’s book The Hidden Manna goes painstakingly through about every Church Father you can think of (particularly in the West, but with plenty of Eastern representation) to show precisely what we know of their thoughts on the Eucharist. The results are clear: every known Church Father whose existent writings touch on the Eucharist even in passing makes statements compatible with the Catholic view. They’re not compatible (other than through severe perversion) in the Calvinist or Zwinglian view. On TurrentinFan’s sidebar, there’ s a link for the Ante-Nicean Fathers Series. In it, you’ll see the following quote (click the link marked Google, then go to page 89), written by St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch to the Smyrnaeans in 107 A.D., about certain heretics:

    “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that ye should keep aloof from sch persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved.”

    In other words, a literal belief in the Eucharist was a litmus test for whether one could be considered in the full Christian Communion. This isn’t just St. Ignatius’ view — he’s making an appeal to a widely-held standard. By 107.

  • Professor Frank Beckwith’s all-too-short Return to Rome has a brief chapter in which he conclusively dispels the notion that certain Early Church Fathers took a proto-Calvinist view on issues like forensic justification and imputed righteousness. You can get little snippets from the book on his website here, here, and here. As the second link mentions, a source no less definitive than Calvinist scholar and biographer Alister McGrath was forced to concede that Calvin’s views were a “theological novum” on this area. In other words – that no one had thought this before him.
  • The Church Fathers are unanimous in the authority possessed by bishops over the congregation. They also draw a distinction between bishops and elders/presbyters/priests. They also believe in Apostolic Succession, and in many cases, could trace it specifically, by name. Book III, Chapter 3 of Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, found here traces papal lineage.
  • The Early Church has Liturgies which (in addition to affirming a corporate belief in the Real Presence), looks remarkably similar to the liturgies found in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Church, and the (Assyrian) Church of the East. I make that point in more depth here in part I. These liturgies are dramatically and irreconcilably distinct from any of the low-church services found in Evangelical Protestantism, Calvinism, etc.

Perhaps the most compelling proof is that of Baptist minister Rev. David Cloud on his website, Way of Life Literature. In a post entitled The Church Fathers: A Door to Rome, he goes painstakingly through each Church Father, and shows why they would be more comfortable in a Catholic church than a Protestant assembly. And he shows how many intelligent, holy, and well-read Protestants were converted by the consistent testimony of the Fathers. His conclusion? Don’t read the Fathers. Fortunately, TurretinFan is smarter than that, and has a number of ECF resources on his left sidebar (which I heartily applaud).

My point is that when both Catholics* and anti-Catholic Protestants can look at the writings of these early Church Fathers and say, “these are thoroughly Catholic ,” the onus should really be on you to show which early Church Fathers believed what you (or Calvin, or Turretin) believed. And by this, I don’t mean that you can maybe snip something here or there out of context, but that their full view on a given issue is a distinctively Protestant one, on any of these three issues – or better yet, on all three. After all, the alternative is to leave Catholics in the positive of trying to prove a universal negative in the face of “maybe their writings disappeared” or “maybe they lived in the mountains!” There’s no humanly possible way to demonstrably prove what every Christian ever believed, but all the available records point in one direction.

In a separate post, I’ll address the remaining claim. Short answer: when the Protestants declare that the only body in the West claiming to be “the One True Church” is false, that’s a denunciation of the only barrier to moral relativism. And yes, I see the irony in a moral relativist saying that something is definitively untrue, but that’s necessarily the relativist’s stance on absolute truth claims.

*I realize that the bulleted items above are affirmed by all of the Apostolic branches of Christianity. That’s intentional — the (relatively) minor distinctions between them can be hashed out later, and those debates tend to be upon much closer calls: e.g., the Eastern Orthodox really can point to precedent for many of their views, as the schism happened gradually and mostly unintentionally, two sides drifting apart. The fact that all of the bodies which attempted to preserve authentic Christianity preserved nearly identical doctrines regarding the above views suggests that these are original and authentic, like four people with similar messages at the end of a game of Telephone. That Protestantism answers all of the above items uniquely is a testament to its systemic error.

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