Yesterday, we looked at three common ways of misusing the Church Fathers: (1) ignoring or fearing them; (2) exploiting them; (3) treating them as individually infallible. These may seem like simple points, but a large number of Christians (Catholics and Protestants alike) fall into at least one of these three camps. Given this, what does that leave, exactly? How should Christians treat the writings of the Church Fathers? Fortunately, we can find an answer to that question … in the writings of the Church Fathers themselves.
Don’t worry, it’s not as circular as it sounds. They’re not telling us how to interpret their own writings: they’re telling us how to interpret the writings of the men that they considered Church Fathers. By the time of men like St. Augustine (354-430), the writings of certain earlier Christians were already being held up as Patristic writings, and the were considered “Church Fathers.” So how did the fourth and fifth century Church Fathers tell their readers to treat the Patristic writings?
|“Pelagius Hereticus and John Chrysostom,”
Woodcut, Nuremberg Chronicles (1493)
In St. Augustine’s fifth-century work Against Julian, he directly confronts a Pelagian by the name of (you guessed it) Julian. Specifically, Julian of Eclanum, who falls into one of the first two camps in his treatment of the Fathers. On the one hand, he freely disregards the consensus of earlier Church Fathers as “a conspiracy of the wicked” (36). These Fathers include, as Augustine notes, “men of such quality and importance, Cyprian, Hilary, Gregory, Ambrose, and other priests of the Lord” (91). To that extent, he sounds very much like some of the modern Evangelical critics of the Church Fathers.
On the other hand, when it is convenient, Julian appeals to the Church Fathers. Or more accurately, he appeals to one of them,the recently-deceased St. John Chrysostom of Constantinople, to try to prove Pelagianism. Julian does this by proof-texting what John actually said, taking one of his homilies out of context. Augustine laments to John, “in your writings this young man thinks he has found the means to overthrow and make void the opinions of so many of your great fellow bishops.” (28).
Augustine responds by showing that Julian is misappropriating the Church Fathers, and then by using the authority of the Church Fathers to disprove Pelagianism. Here is Augustine’s own summary of the argument (380-81):
In Book 1 of this work I gave an abundant and more certain answer from the testimonies of the Catholic treatises of St. Basil of Caesarea and St. John of Constantinople, although you say these are in accord with your opinion. I showed how by failing to understand some of their words you, with remarkable blindness, attack their teaching, which is the Catholic teaching. And in Book 2 I said enough to show it is no ‘conspiracy of lost men,’ but the pious and faithful consensus of the holy and learned fathers of the Catholic Church which resists your heretical novelties, for the ancient Catholic truth. You say we offer ‘the people’s muttering alone’ against you; but it is not alone, since it rests on the authority of very great teachers, and it is also just, because it does not wish you, who also know this very well, to destroy the salvation of infants, which is in Christ.
Now, what lessons can we learn from all of this?
Julian makes it clear that he doesn’t think that the dispute over Pelagianism should be settled by popular opinion. Augustine agrees with this, but he distinguishes this from the sensum fidelium, which he describes as protected by divine assistance (100):
But I do not disturb you by the large numbers of the multitude, although by the grace of God, about this faith which you oppose, even the multitude of the Catholics has sound judgment. In this, many, where they can and in whatever way they can, as they are given divine assistance, constantly refute your vain argument.
So there are two lessons here: first, the sensum fidelium is something distinct from popular opinion. For one thing, it only includes Catholics. Second, this sensum fidelium doesn’t just happen to be right. Rather, it is correct through the grace of God and divine assistance.
Since Julian has made it clear that he rejects any appeal to the sensum fidelium, Augustine opts for another line of argumentation: the Church Fathers themselves (101):
But because it pleases you not to count numbers but to weigh the few, […] I set against you as judges in this case ten bishops (now deceased) and one priest who passed judgment on this matter while they were alive. If we consider your small numbers, they are many; if we consider the multitude of Catholic bishops, they are very few.
Who were the eleven men Augustine cited to?
|17th c. Icon of the Three Holy Hierarchs: Basil the Great (left – #7),
John Chrysostom (center, #9) and Gregory of Nazianzus (right, #6),
- St. Irenaeus of Lyons
- St. Cyprian of Carthage
- St. Reticius of Autun
- St. Olympius of Enos
- St. Hilary of Poitiers
- St. Gregory of Nazianzus
- St. Basil of Caesarea
- St. Ambrose of Milan
- St. John Chrysostom
- Pope St. Innocent I, and
- St. Jerome.
Of these, all but Jerome was a Catholic bishop. Augustine has gathered them from both the East and West, and Auguste does not hesitate to use St. John Chrysostom against Julian. These men, Augustine explained, possessed authentic teaching authority within the Church (37):
But see to what I have introduced you: the assembly of these saints is not a popular multitude; they are not only sons but also fathers of the Church. They are of that number of whom it is prophesied: ‘In the place of thy fathers sons are born to thee, thou shalt set them as princes over all the earth.’ [Psalm 45:16] From her, sons are born to learn these things; they became her fathers that they might teach.
And this passage, although lengthy, is a beautiful explanation of why Augustine chose these eleven men in particular (102-103):
If an episcopal synod were gathered from the whole world, it would be surprising if so many men of such calibre could be members of it. For these did not all live at one time, but God, as it pleases Him and He judges expedient, Himself distributes His stewards, faithful, few, more excellent than many, in diverse ages, times and places. So you see them gathered from various periods and regions, from the East and the West, not at a place to which men are obliged to travel, but in a book which can travel to men. The more desirable these judges would be for you if you held the Catholic faith, which they sucked with their mother’s milk, which they took in their food, and they have ministered this milk and food to great and small, openly and bravely defending it against its enemies even you who were not then born; whence you now stand revealed.With such planters, waterers, shepherds, fosterers, the holy Church grew after the time of the Apostles. This is why she feared the profane voices of your novelty, and, being cautious and sober as a result of the Apostle’s warning, lest, as the Serpent seduced Eve by his cunning, her mind be seduced from the chastity which is in Christ; [2 Cor. 11:3] she shuddered at the toils of your doctrine creeping toward the virginity of the Catholic faith like the head of a serpent; she trod upon it, crushed it, cast it away.
Therefore, by the statements and the great authority of holy men you will either be cured God’s mercy granting it, and He who may accomplish it knows how much I desire it for you or, what I deprecate, if you persevere in this your wisdom which is really great folly, you will no longer merely seek judges before whom you may justify your cause, but before whom you may accuse so many famous and brilliant holy teachers of the Catholic truth: Irenaeus, Cyprian, Reticius, Olympius, Hilary, Gregory, Basil, Ambrose, John, Innocent, Jerome, and the others, their comrades and colleagues, and, in addition the whole Church of Christ, to which divine family they faithfully ministered the food of the Lord and thus grew famous in the glory of the Lord.
In other words, it’s not just a matter of picking out some random Christian writers from antiquity. The Church Fathers were more than that. They were “saintly men, many and great, learned in sacred letters, brilliant, highly honored and praised for their remarkable government of the Church” (105). They have withstood the test of time, and they rightfully “grew famous in the glory of the Lord.” To oppose the assembled Fathers is therefore to oppose the Church Herself, a point we will address more directly in a moment.
Contrast this with the example from yesterday, in which Dr. Keith Sherlin attempted to prove that “Orthodox Believers of History Have Believed in a Pretribulational View” by appealing to Fra Dolcino of Novara, a thirteenth century heretic who was burnt at the stake.
|St. Cyprian of Carthage|
Julian was aware that the Church Fathers spoke against his Pelagian positions, but he claimed that this just proved that they were heretics (an argument that may sound familiar today). Specifically, Julian dismissed these Fathers as Manicheans. It’s no small irony that this same argument is frequently raised today by Protestants who dismiss these same Fathers as Pelagians. In any event, Augustine answers this line of argument definitively (136):
For, if Manichaeans have ravished the Church through holy bishops of God, and through the memorable doctors Irenaeus, Cyprian, Reticius, Olympius, Hilary, Ambrose, Gregory, Basil, John, Innocent, and Jerome, then tell me, Julian, who gave birth to you? Was she a chaste woman or a harlot who through the womb of spiritual grace brought you into the light you have deserted? Is it to defend the Pelagian dogma that you defame the womb of the bride of Christ, who is your mother, by a wicked impulse not of error, but of madness?
The argument works just as well today. If the Church Fathers were heretical, you cannot trust the Bible, since it these same Fathers who tell us which Books belong in the Bible; nor can you trust the Gospel, since it is from these same Fathers who preserved the Church from heresy (or didn’t). This is similar to the argument Augustine makes elsewhere, that to reject the Catholic Church is to reject the Bible.
In response to Julian’s citation of a sermon by St. John Chrysostom to support Pelagianism, Augustine makes two arguments in rapid succession: that the Fathers should be read in a manner harmoniously with one another (particularly on issues at the “foundations of the faith”), and that on there are other issues on which the Fathers may nevertheless disagree (25-26):
Do you, then, dare to set these words of the holy bishop John in opposition to so many statements of his great colleagues, and separate him from their most harmonious society, and constitute him their adversary? Far be it, far be it from us to believe or say such an evil thing of so great a man. Far be it from us, I say, to think that John of Constantinople, on the question of the baptism of infants and their liberation by Christ from the paternal handwriting, should oppose so many great fellow bishops, especially the Roman Innocent, the Carthaginian Cyprian, the Cappadocian Basil, the Nazianzene Gregory, the Gaul Hilary, the Milanese Ambrose.
There are other matters on which at times even the most learned and excellent defenders of the Catholic rule do not agree, without breaking the bond of the faith, and one speaks better and more truly about one thing and another about another. But this matter about which we are now speaking pertains to the very foundations of the faith.
So individually, the Church Fathers aren’t infallible, and disagree with each other on some of the less-important aspects of the Faith. This directly answers the error of the third camp (which seeks to treat the Fathers as individually infallible, forming some sort of super-Magisterium). But we find them in harmony on the more important issues, like infant Baptism. To reject their teachings on these issues is to reject “the very foundations of the faith.” (This should make it obvious why Baptists, who reject the early Christian’s unanimous witness on infant Baptism, typically aren’t fond of the Church Fathers).
On of the first arguments Augustine makes is that this whole controversy could have been avoided if Julian had just listened to “blessed Pope Innocent” in the first place. While Augustine ends up citing to a whole litany of Eastern and Western Fathers, his original argument had relied entirely upon Fathers from the West. He argued that this should have been sufficient, since these Fathers were in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the head of the Apostolic See (14):
Pope St. Innocent I
Again I admonish you, again I ask, look at the great number of defenders and doctors of the Catholic Church; see on whom you inflict so serious and so wicked an injury. Or do you think that they are to be despised because they all belong to the Western Church and I have not mentioned any Eastern bishops among them? What, then, shall we do, since they are Greek and we Latin? I think that that part of the world should suffice for you in which the Lord wished to crown with glorious martyrdom the first of His Apostles. If you had been willing to listen to the head of that Church, blessed Innocent, you would already have withdrawn your perilous youth from the Pelagian snares. For, what could that holy man answer the African councils except what the Apostolic See and the Roman Church together with the others have steadfastly held from of old?
He then describes Pope Innocent, a latecomer to the Pelagian controversy, as having superior rank even to the other Fathers (15):
Consider what you will reply to St. Innocent, who knows nothing else of this matter except the opinion of those into whose company I introduced you, if that is of any avail. He, too, is on their side; though later in time, yet higher in place.
means alone. Just as Augustine sought to correct Julian’s misuse of St. John Chrysostom, St. Athanasius (296-373) prevented the Arian heretics from claiming that the Fathers (and specifically, St. Dionysius of Alexandria) were Arians. To one reader,
I approved of the right opinion entertained by your piety concerning our blessed fathers, while on the present occasion I once more recognise the unreasonableness of the Arian madmen. For whereas their heresy has no ground in reason, nor express proof from holy writ, they were always resorting to shameless subterfuges and plausible fallacies. But they have now also ventured to slander the fathers: and this is not inconsistent, but fully of a piece with their perversity.
Saint Basil (329-379), #7 on Augustine’s list, explained that he did not “venture to propound the outcome of my own intelligence, lest I make the words of true religion merely human words.” Instead, “what I have been taught by the holy Fathers, that I announce to all who question me.”
|Vasily Surikov, Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (1876)|
We also see this commitment to the Church Fathers (and the pope) at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Council that defined Christ as being fully Human and fully Divine. At the Council, Bishop Paschasinus described Pope Leo as “the most blessed and apostolic bishop of the Roman city, which is the head of all the churches.” When the Council Fathers were asked to adjudicate an unjust condemnation of St. John of Constantinople, the Acts of the Council report the following responses:
Paschasinus the most reverend bishop, representing the Apostolic See, said; “Flavian of blessed memory hath most holily and perfectly expounded the faith. His faith and exposition agrees with the epistle of the most blessed and apostolic man, the bishop of Rome.”
Anatolius the most reverend archbishop of Constantinople said; “The blessed Flavian hath beautifully and orthodoxly set forth the faith of our fathers.”
Lucentius, the most reverend bishop, and legate of the Apostolic See, said; “Since the faith of Flavian of blessed memory agrees with the Apostolic See and the tradition of the fathers it is just that the sentence by which he was condemned by the heretics should be turned back upon them by this most holy synod.”
Maximus the most reverend bishop of Antioch in Syria, said: “Archbishop Flavian of blessed memory hath set forth the faith orthodoxly and in accordance with the most beloved-of-God and most holy Archbishop Leo. And this we all receive with zeal.”
Thalassius, the most reverend bishop of Cæsarea in Cappadocia said; “Flavian of blessed memory hath spoken in accordance with Cyril of blessed memory.”
All of these responses emphasize two common themes: agreement with the pope, and agreement with the Church Fathers. I could give other examples, but I think that this suffices to demonstrate what a proper respect for the Church Fathers looks like.