ChurchFathers (1) The first teachers of Christianity are called the Church Fathers. The reason is that these teachers were seen, over time, as the great teachers of spiritual truth for the whole church. The term “Fathers of the church” refers to those theologians and teachers who were the earliest post-apostolic thinkers and writers who left us a rich legacy of faith and doctrine in their written works.

There is no clear cut-off date by which someone may be called a “Father” or not but I lean toward the fifth century for several reasons. The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) was critical to the entire future of the church. Up to and through this time period the major theologians were the greatest Fathers of the faith. But St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) is included on some lists, as well as Venerable the Bede (d. 735) and St. John Damascene (d. 749). No arbitrary time period works perfectly but tradition generally treats the patristic period up to and through the middle of the fifth century as the core of the time period in which the Fathers wrote.

The earliest histories of this period are found in the works of Eusebius of Caesarea and St. Jerome (d. 420). But it wasn’t until the era of the printing press that great editions of these works became more widely available to a growing circle of Christians. One major collection of Latin Fathers numbers 222 volumes while the Greek Fathers reach 161 volumes. This is, obviously, a large body of written work. Scholars who make it their life’s work to study and interact with this work have become a great blessing in my own life. Projects which provide this work to the masses are now producing a rich harvest of spiritual and doctrinal fruit for all the church and evangelicals are at the forefront of this recovery.

Who Is a Church Father?

St. Vincent of Lerins, in his famous work Commonitorium (A.D. 434) gave us an accurate and useful description when he said: “The Fathers of the Church are those alone who, though in diverse times and places yet persevering in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, have been approved teachers.” Modern writers follow the same course and believe that a Father of the Church must have been faithful to sound doctrine who lived a godly life.

Add to this things like the following; e.g. the writer is cited by a general council, referenced in addresses to the whole church or included in the public readings of the early church and you get the general idea.

But do all the Fathers teach the same truth? The answer is clearly no. On those matters that are universally believed by every part of the church they are, in general, of one mind and spirit. But the Fathers clearly held to very different ideas on some matters. To cite but one example, the Fathers were not one on their beliefs about eschatology. Their views of hell, for example, were diverse. They also held very different views of the millennium. Both Tertullian and Origen, as examples, taught things that many Christians did not believe. A consensus of the Fathers, in all doctrinal teaching, is simply not to be found. This alone should say something to schismatic Christians who think that we must all agree on every point of ancient Christian teaching or we are heretical.

Must We Agree with the Fathers?

The answer to this is more complicated than might be understood by ordinary readers. The witness of one Father never made a truth universally valid. Their words carried weight, and thus had great influence. But the Fathers were not apostles! Some teaching of the Fathers became normative for the whole church and thus is still held by orthodox believers to this day; e.g. St. Augustine’s teaching on the Trinity and St. Athanasius on the divinity of the Son of God come to mind here.

Both piety and good judgment suggest that we proceed with caution if we disagree with the general consensus of these Fathers. This is why the early Protestant writers studied and cited the Fathers far more than their heirs do today. They did not see themselves as creating a new church or simply throwing off all the core beliefs of previous Christians and the entire Catholic Church. This is one reason, among a number I might cite, for why the fundamentalist Protestantism’s rejection of the Catholic Church, ipso facto, is ludicrous. We who are not Roman Catholics did not get here without a Christian family in history and that family is not rooted solely in Geneva or Wittenberg.

The Fathers include the Apostolic Fathers, thus those second century writers who were closest to the apostles, and the Greek apologists of that same era. These include men like Irenaeus and Justin Martyr. The Western apologists include Tertullian. By the third century we have the Alexandrian writers and people like Hippolytus in Rome. The great African writers include names like Cyprian. By the fourth century we have Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa. And in Antioch we have the greatest preacher of them all, John Chrysostom. I could go on but this gives you a general sense of some of the greatest thinkers of the early church.

Why Are These Writers Important to Us?

We desperately need a growing sense of who we are and where we came from. We live in a world going global and viral. Should we be rooted in modern readings of the Bible without these great thinkers of the early church? Do the dead matter to the way we read the Bible that they read long before us? Amazingly, there are Protestant fundamentalists who mock this idea of the importance of reading and listening to the Church Fathers. This response not only reveals immense ignorance but incredible arrogance. Should I be led to believe that an English Bible reader living in the 21st century is to be preferred in every way to an ancient writer who lived closer to the time of Jesus, to his culture and to the Holy Scriptures and the acceptance of the Canon? If you listen you will hear current some very conservative (popular) evangelicals making this kind of argument regularly. I am appalled by the short-sightedness and arrogance of this response. I also believe it harms the faithful in profound ways, especially when people actually begin to believe that right interpretation lies within their own minds once they have read a text for themselves. This was never Luther or Calvin’s idea, but that of radicals who wanted to throw out the past entirely. Avoiding extremes is never easy but we must try or we will surely fall. The Fathers provide a great blessing and are also a great aid in this process of how tradition and the Bible serve one another.

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  1. Phil Swann April 28, 2011 at 5:16 am

    Thanks for this John. If I am to correct my woeful ignorence of the early Church Fathers, where do you recommend I start?

  2. CatholicPosts April 28, 2011 at 7:36 am

    Thank you for this thoughtful post Dr. Armstrong.
    I am of the belief that the disconnect between modern Protestantism and it’s “patron” Saint Augustine gives an indication of how radical Protestantism truly is.
    Dr. Francis Beckwith of Baylor University, and former president of the Evangelical Theological Society writes:
    “St. Augustine, whose genius helped rid the Church of the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian heresies,[1] would not be welcomed in [the Evangelical Theological Society] or as a faculty member at virtually any evangelical seminary, because the Bishop of Hippo accepted the deuterocanonical books as part of the Old Testament canon,[2] the deposit of sacred tradition,[3] apostolic succession,[4] the gracious efficacy of the sacraments,[5] the Real Presence of the Eucharist,[6] baptismal regeneration, [7] and the infusion of God’s grace for justification.[8]”
    Citations and original source at Dr. Beckwith’s blog

  3. John Paul Todd April 28, 2011 at 8:04 am

    Helpful comments, John. They make a great supplement to “Your Church is too small”. I wish all Christians in every tradition would have a basic awareness of the period you’re referring to and the Church Fathers in general. It is one more of those “creative tensions” that it would appear the churches need to operate in- as Protestants we must insist on Scripture alone while not neglecting what the “Christian family in history” has discerned from Scripture in their diverse contexts.
    I have convictions on the Fathers silmilar to what Leonard Goppelt came to in “Apostolic and Post-Apostolic Times” (Baker,1970). He said that there was a “truncation of the message” early on in the post-Apostolic Fathers, and it arose because of what they were faced with: their perception “that the Church had to be made secure through these forms inorder that she might be able to exist in history”. And Goppelt makes this judgement: “The authoritative word which summoned to obedience in faith was thus subordinated to the authority of a constitutionally established office, to the sacraments which functioned in a manner similar to the mystery religions, and to a system of repentance. They believed themselves to be directed to institution by the Spirit, yet they fitted the Spirit into the institution”.(p.150)
    I have found this statement to be very close what I believe is a critical difference between the Protestant Churches and all others. I also have come to the same conclusion independently that he did : “The development of Early Catholicism was therefore also a ‘falling away'”.
    ( as apparently was Oscar Cullman’s conclusion)

  4. Chris Criminger April 28, 2011 at 4:22 pm

    Hi John,
    Thanks again for raising issues that are near and dear to my heart. Despite what some conservatives say about the Scriptures, it was just as much about the church giving us scripture as it was about scripture giving us the church. It seems like people like to swing the pendulum way too much in one direction or the other.
    I will be studying both Scripture and the early church fathers for the rest of my life. There is such a rich sacramental tapestry that is like a beautiful robe for those who have eyes to see.
    As far sa Augustine goes, he is a mixed bag. I like the positive things you mentioned but even the Eastern Orthodox struggle with Augustine as well. He also believed Mary was sinless, unbaptized infants are damned, sex within marriage is debased, war can be holy, and that it is proper for a ‘Christian’ state to presecute heretics.
    When it comes to Scripture, church, and tradition, probably one of the best perspectives I have come across is Theodore Sylianopoulos, an Eastern Orthodox. He says,
    “Divine word and community, Bible and church, cannot be played off against one another for they are both constitutive products of the same Spirit; just as there could be no church without the gospel, so also there could be no gospel without Church . . . The Bible gained supreme authority according tho the church fathers linking it to the church’s continuous life and worship, and never apart from the church’s ongoing living tradition” (The New TEstament: An Orthodox Perspective, pp.57-58).
    In the end, I feel more comfortable speaking of Scripture as Prima-Scriptura rather than Sola-Scriptura (but then others thoelogical mileage may vary).

  5. John Metz April 28, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Thanks for this post, John. I think it is fascinating that there was indeed a great diversity of opinion about many things among the church fathers. One only has to consider Origen’s writings to realize that the fathers could be quite wild in their interpretations and constructs.
    Even on the things stated clearly in the creeds, there was a diversity of opinion if not open controversy about those things and the statements made in the creeds were often compromises. I have read (sorry, can’t remember where) that the creeds were developed as much to allow for this diversity as to limit errors.
    I wonder if Athanasius, called by some the “father of orthodoxy,” would be accepted by some evangelicals today.

  6. John Armstrong April 28, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    John, you are quite right in your general observations. Though I am not entirely in sympathy with Rob Bell’s Love Wins, he would not be thrown overboard if he were among all the church fathers. If we had some ancient perspective here we would be far less ready to attack our own brothers and sisters.

  7. John Armstrong April 28, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    The primacy of Scripture is a lot closer to what I see in the Fathers than Scripture only or alone. However, I am not persuaded of the Post-Tridentine Catholic answer either.

  8. John Armstrong April 28, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    I am a huge fan of Goppelt and Cullman and would love to see this type of thinking move to the center of modern Catholic and Protestant dialog. I am not holding my breath, however.

  9. John Armstrong April 28, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    Look for the several books by Christopher Hall, an evangelical who understands the Fathers. From his three books you can find all the help you need or want as to how to read them with greater profit and balance.

  10. Nick Morgan April 28, 2011 at 11:15 pm

    John, thanks for these two excellent posts on the importance of reading and studying the early Church Fathers. You know from our conversation how enriching to my faith the writings of the Church Fathers have been.
    To anyone interested, I highly recommend checking out the Ancient Christian Commentary Series published by IVP. I believe the whole series is completed now, covering the entire New and Old Testaments and the “Duetero-canonical books” as well. I’m slowly acquiring the series. I’ve believe that studying the Scriptures and the Fathers together is one of the best things that Christians who take “missional ecumenism” seriously can do.
    God bless!

  11. Joe Heschmeyer April 29, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    I know this was directed at John, but if you don’t mind me jumping in, there are a lot of great topic-specific Patristic collections. So, for example, Fr. James O’Connor’s The Hidden Manna is, bar none, the best collection of easily-accessible writings of the Church Fathers related to the Eucharist. And Beckwith does a good (albeit very very short) treatment of the Fathers on imputed v. imparted justification in Return to Rome.
    Willis’ The Teachings of the Early Church Fathers is a good general resource. It’s organized by topic, so you look up a particular doctrine, and you can find some specific Patristic writings on the subject.Finally, Calvin College has a very good online collection of Patristic writings in their Christian Classics Ethereal Library, although the collections of Catholic Culture(sortable by name or decade)and particularly New Advent may be more user-friendly (I dislike the way CCEL puts every chapter on a separate page). Hope that helps,

  12. Chris Criminger April 29, 2011 at 7:37 pm

    Hi John,
    Good discussion and thanks for your wonderful insights John. One question, what specifically were you referring to when you said you are not convinced of the Post tridentine Catholic answer?
    Thanks – Chris C.

  13. John Armstrong April 29, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    The idea of two forms of authority: Scripture and the Magisterium. This has been variously discussed by Catholic theologians and there are several different ways of expressing this view but after Trent the view hardened, until more recent times have allowed new ways of thinking about it again. Rome still, of course, sees the Church has possessing an authority Protestants do not. This is a major point of disagreement.

  14. Jeff May 18, 2011 at 12:20 am

    I realize I’m jumping in rather late to this discussion, but a friend just sent me the link and I very much enjoyed the post and discussion that followed.
    @John Paul — Goppelt’s perspective is interesting, but seems liks a common variation on a theme I’ve found somewhat common, especially amomgst modern Evangelicals and fundamentalists, which is to describe a paradigm of a doctrinally pure New Testament age, followed by a sudden or gradual falling away into the errors of Catholicism.
    There are several problems with that approach, however (one of which is to retro-fit even the plausibility of a ‘bible-alone’ form of Christianity into an age which didn’t yet have a canonized set of scriptures, but that’s another discussion).
    If one reads the Fathers with much closeness, one finds what a modern Evangelical might term a “Catholic” understanding of sacraments (among other things) quite early on…in fact, even overlapping or coming quite quickly on the heels of the lives of the later apostle(s). As such, what criteria is really being applied to determine ‘doctrinal purity’? If it’s a matter of chronology, we have very early witness to a more ‘Catholic’ perspective from Christian writers outside the Bible.
    To add to this, another rather glaring problem: if there was a ‘falling away’ so early on, there are quite a number of core beliefs and pronouncements which one would have to reject if one decrees the Fathers rather quickly ‘falling away.’ The Trinity as we understand it, for example. Or the many very important distinctions about the nature of Christ as incarnate, both God AND man, etc., etc., which developed via church councils in response to fairly early heresies.
    For that matter, there’s the acceptance of canon itself. If the church had begun to fall into error by, say, 150 AD (or 200, etc), then one would ultimately have no historical basis for the completed canon of NT scripture itself, the first complete list of which didn’t appear until circa 350 ad (and even then it was just one man’s list — it wasn’t canonized and fully accepted as scripture until closer to 400 AD).
    I could go on, but hopefully the point rings true: to deem the church fallen away (or even ‘falling away’) soon after the apostles is to reject a large body of belief critical to all of us as Christians, including the authority of the Bible itself.
    Alternately, if the reply is, “No, I don’t reject EVERYTHING the Fathers said, just the things I don’t agree with,” we’re really left with a 20th or 21st century modern, kind of handpicking what we like.
    I fear that’s what the scenario is, ultimately, with Cullman and Goppelt (at least from your post — I haven’t read them): the ‘falling away’ appears to be determined by a modern (1970s, yes?) Protestant’s standards of truth, rather than the standards operating at the time of the apostles or their immediate successors the church fathers.
    I don’t know if I could say it better, really, than John’s original post here: “Both piety and good judgment suggest that we proceed with caution if we disagree with the general consensus of these Fathers.”
    “Should I be led to believe that an English Bible reader living in the 21st century is to be preferred in every way to an ancient writer who lived closer to the time of Jesus, to his culture and to the Holy Scriptures and the acceptance of the Canon?”
    Sorry to be so long-winded! Just enlivened by such an interesting discussion!

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