|Woodcut, The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)|
What should we Christians make of the Early Church Fathers, the early Christians who preserved orthodox Christianity?
After all, these are the men who compiled the Scriptures, organized the early Ecumenical Councils, and warded off dozens of heresies. How much attention should we pay to their writings, and how much credence should these writings receive?
Before answering that, I want to show three wrong ways of approaching the Church Fathers. The first way is to ignore them; or worse, to disregard them as pagans. The second way is to exploit them: to cite them in glowing terms when they agree with the position that you already hold to, and throw them away when they challenge your pre-existing views. The third wrong way is to treat them as if every word that they speak is infallible.
Having shown why each of these approaches fails, I’ll put forward an alternative view tomorrow. Or more accurately, I’ll show from the writings of the Church Fathers how they believed Patristic writings should be used.
Wrong Way #1: Ignoring or Fearing the the Church Fathers.
This first camp tends to be made up of Baptists and other modern Evangelicals. For members of this camp, the teachings of the Church Fathers don’t matter, either because they disregard the Fathers as heretics, or because they just don’t really care what the Fathers have to say. Scot McKnight, himself an Evangelical, describes the problem of ignorance well:
Most evangelicals know almost nothing about the early Fathers, and what they do know (they think) supports what they already believe, so why bother studying them. When it comes to realities, however, few have read even a page of the Fathers. However, very few evangelicals are drawn to either the Fathers or the Medieval theologians to strengthen their faith and interpretation. The only theologian from this era most of them bother reading is St. Augustine (whom they hesitantly call “saint” out of courtesy).
So there might be an assumption that the Church Fathers must have believed in something like modern Evangelicalism, but a hesitation and even a refusal to read the Church Fathers directly, to find out if that theory is true.
St. Augustine (from an Austrian pulpit) (1890s)
Since Augustine is regarded by Calvinists as “in a true sense the founder of Roman Catholicism,” it is no surprise that he maintained a number of Roman Catholic heresies besides baptismal regeneration. He taught that Mary was sinless and promoted her worship. He allowed for the intercession of saints and the adoration of relics together with the miracles attributed to them. He was the first who defined the so-called sacraments as a visible sign of invisible grace, and adds confirmation, marriage, and ordination to the Lord’s Supper and baptism. To Augustine the only true church was the Catholic Church. Writing against the Donatists, he asserted:
The Catholic Church alone is the body of Christ, of which He is the head and Saviour of His body. Outside this body the Holy Spirit giveth life to no one, seeing that, as the apostle says himself, “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us;” but he is not a partaker of the divine love who is an enemy of unity. Therefore, they have not the Holy Ghost who are outside the Church.
He believed in an apostolic succession of bishops from Peter as one of the marks of the true church. [… Lorraine] Boettner also admits that Augustine was the one who gave the doctrine of purgatory its first definite form.
|Guillaume Crétin, Baptism of Sigebert III from the Grandes Chroniques de France (16th c.)|
Of all of the early Christians who left a substantial “paper trail,” they all sound more Catholic than they do Protestant. For example, there was no camp that rejected the supposed “heresy” of baptismal regeneration: that was the view that all Christians took in the first millennium of Christianity.
Wrong Way #2: Exploiting the Church Fathers.
|Woodcut, The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)|
This second error (which overlaps with the first) is one that I’ve seen mostly from Lutherans and Calvinists. This unprincipled treatment of the Fathers dates back to Luther and Calvin themselves. For example, in the 1559 edition of Institutes of Christian Religion, the reformer John Calvin cited Augustine over 400 times. And note well, these are positive citations: he is trying to prove the truth of his claims, in part, by citing to Augustine’s authority. Calvin is attributed as saying, “Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings.”
But while Luther and Calvin both considered themselves Augustinians, they really only accepted a sliver of what he taught (mostly, cherry-picking certain things he said about predestination), while rejecting (or simply ignoring) his teachings on a slew of other issues, like the papacy, the Sacraments, etc.
As the Vance passage cited above points out, Augustine held views on Mary, purgatory, relics, Sacraments, the structure and marks of the true Church, baptismal regeneration, etc., that modern Lutherans and Calvinists would find anathema. And on all of these issues, the Patristic position is simply disregarded, even if it is the position held by all of the Fathers, which is how John Piper can justify rejecting baptismal regeneration, by appealing instead to his personal (mis)reading of 1 Peter 3:21.
To cherry-pick a handful of Calvinist-sounding things from Augustine, while ignoring an overwhelming number of other things that he taught is exploitative. If you only accept Augustine when he agrees with what you already hold, Augustine doesn’t matter. You’re believing only on your own authority, and citing to Augustine is little more than a pretense. Plus, as we will see tomorrow, this uses Augustine in a way he would have resented, and a way that he protested against.
|Fra Dolcino of Novara (c. 1250 – 1307)|
Of course, the same is true for the exploitation of any of the Fathers. For example, Dr. Keith Sherlin, a pro-“rapture” advocate, claims that “Orthodox Believers of History Have Believed in a Pretribulational View” by citing to four early Christians. Here is a sample of Sherlin’s analysis:
One scholar has found a quote that relates to the teachings and disciples of Dolcino. Dolcino and his followers held to some form of rapture view whereby people were translated to heaven before the time of judgment on the Antichrist.
This is a great example of cherry-picking. The “orthodox believer” that the author has chosen was Fra Dolcino of Novara, the head of a short-lived heretical sect, known as the Dulcinians, from the fourteenth century. And the passage he cites to is not one of Dolcino’s own writings, but a passage from an anonymous book about the Dulcinians, called The History of Brother Dolcino.
Sherlin’s clear that he’s choosing Dolcino simply because either he or his followers seem to have “held to some form of rapture view.” It’s not because Sherlin actually thinks Dolcino was orthodox (I strongly doubt Sherlin has any idea who Dolcino was, or about the Spiritualist Franciscans more generally). All he seems to mean by “orthodox believer” is “someone who seems to agrees with the position I’m currently arguing for.”
Sherlin certainly wouldn’t endorse the actual positions of the Dulcinists. The Dulcinist “rapture” view includes the prediction that “when the Antichrist is dead, Dolcino himself, who then would be the holy pope, and his preserved followers, will descend on the earth, and will preach the right faith of Christ to all, and will convert those who will be living then to the true faith of Jesus Christ.”
So Sherlin can’t actually believe that the Dulcinians are orthodox, or that their end-times predictions were true. He’s just reaching for somebody from history he can point to, in order to give the illusion that his views were consistently held (when they weren’t). That’s not honest scholarship, and it’s beneath what we should expect from Christians.
There is a third error, however, at the opposite end of the spectrum: treating something as true simply because a particular Church Father says so. I think that this is self-explanatory, so I will add only two things. First, we Catholics are most likely to fall into this trap. Second, this is the least dangerous of the three approaches (and the one closest to what the Fathers prescribe). However, it is still problematic, as we are about to see.
The basic problem is that the Fathers occasionally disagree with each other. It doesn’t happen frequently, but it does happen. We have, for example, letters between St. Augustine and St. Jerome in which the two Saints (both of them Doctors of the Church) disagree with one another. Sometimes, the Church will step in and declare which of the two (or more) sides was correct: as She did with the canon of Scripture.
So where does that leave us? It seems that every way we would go about approaching the Church Fathers is wrong. If only one of the Church Fathers had left us some clue about how to use their writings. Tune in tomorrow to see how Augustine and others answered this problem.