There are certain Church Fathers (mostly St. Augustine) that are loved by both Protestants and Catholics. And we Catholics are inclined to point out that these Church Fathers were Catholics then, and if they were roaming the earth these days, would be Catholics now. They were members of the Catholic Church, and they held to Catholic doctrines.
There are a number of Protestants who agree with us. They tend to either (1) convert to Catholicism, or (2) reject the Church Fathers as heretics. But there are other Protestants who challenge this description, who deny that the Fathers were Catholic then, or would be Catholic now. In this latter category falls my friend, Rev. Hans Koschmann, a Lutheran pastor from the Kansas City area. Here is his argument, in his own words:
The Early Church Fathers were neither Catholic nor Protestant as those labels retain to the original issues of sixteenth century Europe and the continued fracture of the church. It is anachronistic to make the Early Church Fathers into modern day Catholics or Protestants. It is intellectually dishonest to place a label upon someone that lived many centuries before simply because we do not know what the Early Church Fathers would think about the issue of indulgences or other issues of the Reformation. We can make arguments and assumptions, but these anachronistic arguments are more likely to reveal our own opinion than those of the actual Church Fathers.
This is a reasonable objection, and Rev. Hans is right that the Fathers had no way of foreseeing the future, of knowing what would happen in the Church in the centuries after their death. But I think that the Catholic answer is stronger than this objection. In a nutshell, the Church Fathers articulated an ecclesiology that made membership in the visible Catholic Church a non-negotiable principle. To leave the Church was to leave Christ. So we have no reason to believe that any intervening changes would cause them to reject their own beliefs and abandon the Church.
Still, without a time machine, there’s no way to prove that this answer is correct. We can’t bring the Church Fathers into the present, and see how they’d react to all of the changes within the Church and within the world. But it occurs to me that there is an easy solution to this problem: simply throw our (hypothetical) time machine in reverse. Instead of trying to bring the Fathers into the present, place yourself in the past. Unlike the future, the past is fixed and certain, and the Church Fathers were prolific writers. If you want to know what the Church was like then, you can find out easily.
Herein lies the challenge: if you took a time machine back to the millenium from 200-1200, what Church would you be in communion with?
I’m not asking about if you were a seventh century peasant who’d never known about any other form of Christianity. I’m asking about you, dear reader, today, knowing what you know now. If you could hop in the TARDIS and jump back in time, what church’s doorway would you darken, come Sunday? Would you treat the Church Fathers as your coreligionists? Or as heretics, even if (perhaps) well-meaning ones?
Given that, I’m curious to how my Protestant readers in particular would respond to this. Would you be comfortable being in full communion with someone who believes in transubstantiation? With someone who venerates Mary? With someone who believes that justification involves faith and works? With someone who believes that the papacy is the visible head of the Church, and that all Christians owe the Bishop of Rome their allegiance?
If your answer to these questions is no, there are implications to that answer:
|Sandro Botticelli, The Last Communion of St. Jerome (detail) (1495)|
- If you would reject the Church Fathers as heretics, this seems to undermine your ability to rely on them to prove disputed doctrines. It seems illogical to take someone you reject as a heretic (whether that be Athanasius or Pope Francis) and then use their witness as proof of a particular doctrine. Certainly, you can say, “even these heretics agree with me!” But it doesn’t seem credible to, for example, cite to Augustine to prove original sin, while holding that Augustine was a heretic.
- It also undermines your ability to use Scripture. If the early Christians are heretics, there’s no more reason to trust the Bible than, say, the Book of Mormon. No Protestant group would dream of relying on a book as Sacred Scripture solely on the testimony of the Mormon Church. If Catholics, including the early Church Fathers, are in a similar position, then there’s no external reason to trust the New Testament. As for the Old Testament, different canons of Scripture were determined by (1) the Catholic Church and (2) post-Apostolic Jews. If both of these groups are heretically in the wrong, even the Old Testament is now in serious question.
- It also undermines faith in the Holy Spirit. After all, if He abandoned the truth to heretics for that long, what reason have we to think that He’s not still doing that? By that logic, we might as well conclude that all Christians everywhere today are heretics.
If your answer to these questions is yes, there are implications to that answer, as well:
- If these doctrines aren’t a reason to be in schism from the Catholic Church then, they’re not a good enough reason to be in schism from the Catholic Church now. In other words, come home to the Catholic Church!
- The Catholic Church can offer you Communion with the Church Fathers. We have something better than a time machine. We have the Eucharist, in which we are united, through the Body and Blood of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, with the whole Communion of Saints. This Sacrament transcends all time and space. Thus, we have the ability, at each and every Mass, to be nearer to Augustine and Athanasius than we could ever be with a simple time machine.
As always, I invite discussion in the comments below. Are there specific Fathers you definitely would (or wouldn’t) be in communion with?