Protestantism and the ECFs: Gain an Inch, Lose a Mile

I’ve said on this blog before that one of the biggest strikes against Protestantism, in my opinion, is that no one believed in it prior to the Reformation. That even the attempts to use one Early Church Father are one step forward, one mile back, for Protestantism as a whole. That is, you can use St. Jerome as a stick against the Deuterocanon’s canonicity, but if you hold him up as a Christian, you’re holding up someone who:

  • Argued for the perpetual virginity of Mary, against Helvidius;
  • Believed in papal primacy and the Eucharist. In an appeal to Pope St. Damasus in order to decide a dispute, St. Jerome wrote: “My words are spoken to the successor of the Fisherman, to the disciple of the Cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but Your Blessedness, that is, with the Chair of Peter. For this I know is the rock on which the Church is built. This is the house where alone the Paschal Lamb can be rightly eaten. . . ”
  • Attacked solo Scriptura: “The art of interpreting the Scriptures is the only one of which all men everywhere claim to be the masters . . . The chatty old woman, the doting old man, and the worldly sophist, one and all, take in hand the Scriptures, rend them in pieces and teach them before they have learned them . . . They do not deign to notice what the prophets and apostles have intended, but they adapt conflicting passages to suit their own meaning as if it were a grand way of teaching – and not rather the faultiest of all – to misrepresent a writer’s views and to force the Scriptures reluctantly to do their will . . . ” (Fr. Christopher Rengers, The 33 Doctors of the Church, p. 97).

In other words, Jerome was a Catholic who held one position which we now regard as wrong. Of all these beliefs, guess which one he was rebuked for by St. Augustine? Right. The only one he’s praised for by modern Protestants. Even then, when push came to shove, when Pope St. Damasus asked him to make the Vulgate, which contained the Deuterocanonical books, he complied. Certainly, he lodged his protest in his translator’s introduction, but he was still the translator who ensured that Catholics everywhere could read the Deuterocanon.

I think Protestants can proof-text their way to a cobbled together defense of their position by: (1) separating one view from the ECF’s other views; or (2) misrepresenting/misunderstanding what’s being said, usually by assuming the controversy he was dealing with is the one you want him to be dealing with. I mean, St. Augustine describes the Eucharist metaphorically, at points. If you sever that from his other views on the Eucharist (that is, that It is was It represents), you can sorta-kinda make him a “spiritual Presence” proto-Protestant; likewise, if you take some of his views on predestination, and detach them from his views on free will, he sounds sort of Calvinist.

Obviously, the Church Fathers weren’t infallible, and all of their writings contain flaws somewhere. The difference from a Catholic position is we (a) agree where they agree with one another, and (b) disagree with a minority of their views. Modern Protestantism is forced to reject the Fathers’ consensus on, say, the Eucharist, and take a handful of Fathers’ unique personal positions to make that seem like what was once believed.

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