Despite their importance to church history and the usefulness of their writings to us today, sadly many modern Christians do not know who or what the "Church Fathers" are. Perhaps this ignorance is especially strong in evangelical circles, where such strong emphasis is placed on studying the scriptures that sometimes the study of church history is forgotten about entirely. So before referencing the Church Fathers in coming posts on this blog, I wanted to briefly introduce who the they are and why their writings still have relevance to us modern Christians.
Who are they? The Church Fathers are early Christian writers from the first several centuries of Christianity. They are typically divided into two groups- the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF), who lived and wrote from the first century to 325 A.D. (the year of the Nicene Council) and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF) who lived after 325 A.D. They are altogether a very diverse group, spanning across a large period of time and representing a lot of geographical diversity, hailing from all across the ancient world; Alexandria, Jerusalem, Lyons, Carthage, Neapolis, Cappadocia, Syria, Rome, Athens and more. Some of these men held positions in the church such as bishop, while others we have no record of holding such office. Many of them were martyrs. The writing of these men represent the lion's share of most extant ancient extra-biblical Christian literature. Nearly all of their writings are available for free online.
Why should we care? The writings of the Church Fathers give us a unique window into the faith and practice of the early church at the time they wrote. If you want to know what the second century church believed and how they worshipped, while you could pick up a modern book on the early church, you could also pick up the works of the Church Fathers of the second century and cut out the middle-man by reading them for yourself. As is typically the case, these authors best speak for themselves.
This window into the beliefs of the early church can be more relevant to us moderns than you might imagine. Firstly, the things they wrote to edify the church of their time are often just as edifying to modern readers. While not inspired like the biblical authors, the Church Fathers can be edifying to modern Christians, just like modern Christian authors who are also not under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Many of the things they taught about living the Christian life in the first century still find application in the lives of modern Christians today.
Secondly, the Fathers did a great deal of work in the area of apologetics, just as many modern authors do. They, like us, found it expedient to be able to "give an account for the faith that is in [them]". They interacted with Greeks, Romans, Jews, and heretics or various kinds, encountering many of the same attitudes and beliefs we still encounter today (there is nothing new under the sun). An as such, their works still prove very relevant to us today. For example, seeing how they were able to prove the gospel to Jews from the Old Testament still has much use for us today in witnessing to Jews (and others). Likewise the study of how they defended the faith against attacks by pagans and heretics can still yield great fruit for us today as we face many of the same attacks, and for that matter, in many cases even the very same heresies. We would be foolish, in combatting a heresy the early church also dealt with, to not study how they put it to flight early on. In doing so, we find many useful arguments and tactics already laid out in their writings, like ready weapons laid out for us by our fathers in the faith to be picked up by us and wielded again against the modern manifestations of these heresies.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the writings of these early Christians hold great value for us as witnesses to the content of the biblical faith handed down from the apostles to the church. With their own words they show us what the doctrine of the earliest church actually was, and also, those of later dates can help us trace changes in doctrine. Now while the concept of a "rule of faith" handed down to the church from the apostles was common knowledge in the early church, in many circles today it isn't, so lets take a moment and examine what we mean by "the faith".
When God established the church, scripture tells us He built it on "the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone". Through holy scripture, His very word, and the teaching of the apostles, He gave us what scripture calls "the faith" -that is, the body of true, biblical doctrine (think of the gospel, the Trinity, etc.) that together constitues orthodox Christian doctrine. For example, Ephesians 4:5 mentions "one faith", and in 1 Timothy 3:9 Timothy is instructed to hold "the faith" with a clear conscience. In these cases, "faith" is not used to speak of belief or the exercise of trust, but a body of doctrine. So also, Jude 1:3 says "Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints." (NASB, emphasis mine).
Now I am convinced that this faith, this orthodox doctrine, can be found and arrived at from the scriptures alone. But in order for that to happen, we must interpret them correctly, for if we misinterpret the word of God, we are bound to misunderstand it and then may find ourselves believing something quite different from that "faith which was once for all handed down to the saints". And here is where I will pose the question- from whom is this "faith once for all handed down to the saints" handed down? The early church evidently understood that to be the apostles, for they constantly refer to them as the source of their doctrine and practice, along with the scriptures. And that was the great advantage that the early church had that we can ever hope to compete with -the Church Fathers, especially the ANF, lived in close proximity to the apostles in time. This means that the earliest of them learned directly from the apostles, such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Papias, and Ignatius. Those that followed them had the privilege of learning from these men, who in turn taught them what they had learned from the apostles. The result is that the early Church Fathers benefitted both from learning directly from the apostles themselves, and those that came after from a strong tradition established by them (all in addition to the same scriptures and Spirit we have today). So in their writings, we see this faith handed down from the apostles reflected, and the earlier we go, very well preserved against innovations.
This then, can be of great value for us. For if we are reading scripture in some way entirely differently than these earliest of Church Fathers, who had the advantage of being discipled by the apostles and learning their doctrine and interpretation of scripture from them, we have reason to be concerned. We can't sit down with Peter or Paul or John and ask them to explain what they had been taught by Christ and the Spirit about such and such a doctrine. We can't ask them questions about how to interpret difficult passages. We can't ask them what they meant by certain hard to understand things they penned in their own writings under the inspiration of the Spirit. But Clement of Rome could. So could Polycarp and Ignatius. But we cannot be discipled by anyone today who may claim such an advantage, or anything close to it.
The writings of the Church Fathers (uninspired and fallible as they may be) are still of immense value to use modern Christians as a way of making it easier for us to find that "one faith" handed down once for all. Can we reach orthodoxy simply by the study of scripture? Yes. Will you lack some essential element of the "faith" God wants His people to hold if you only study the Bible? Not necessarily. But not utilizing the Church Fathers may make it harder for you to arrive at a correct and fuller understanding of God's word. For while the Bible is a sufficient source to learn it from, you must ask yourself if you really trust your interpretation that much (or if you should)? For me personally, I am much comforted when I am able to look back to the writings of these earliest Christians and see that the faith they held as having received from God through both the scriptures and the apostles is the same as what I have found in my own study of the Bible. If nothing else, it is a way to double check myself. And many times, we may find that they understood things more accurately and fully than we do.
While the Bible as the word of God is surely the source of our faith, we can be greatly helped in our understanding of it by allowing the Church Fathers to help shape our interpretation of it. When they say they received a doctrine (and an interpretation of God's word) from the apostles that is different from our own, we would do well to let this cause us to re-examine our own position and see if perhaps their is something we missed. Perhaps we will discover that their interpretation is sounder than our own. And in the cases where they make mistakes, as with any human author, we must be discerning and disregard the mistakes. But we should not lightly brush aside the traditional view of the people of God as to an interpretation of God's word without some good reason.
Let us be humble. Let us remember that Christianity did not begin with us reading our Bibles today in the twenty-first century. It began long ago with the apostles and their disciples, and we simply inherited it. It is not our place to come up with novel interpretations of scripture and invent new doctrines. Because according to the word of God, true doctrine was already given to the church -and we don't need someone's innovations 2,000 years later to arrive at it. Truth is received, not invented. So if we see the Church Fathers saying with one voice that they received their faith from the apostles, we ought to pay heed and test our faith by theirs. Where there are things we have missed seeing in scripture, let us add them. Where there are passages of scripture we have misunderstood, let us alter our understanding of them. For we ought always be correcting and changing our doctrine to be in greater conformity with the word of God. So also, when we read that the Church Fathers held a certain doctrine to be biblical and apostolic, we ought to, like any new interpretation or doctrine of which we may hear, test it by scripture, and if it holds up, accept it as biblical and trustworthy. This way we will maintain a faith that is both biblical and apostolic, and can be more sure that we are truly holding to that faith handed down to us saints once for all.
So then, when you see the Church Fathers quoted on this blog, please recognize that I do not quote them because I believe them to be authoritative in their own right or infallible. They are not, and scripture is. But they can be helpful in proving what the church received as taught by the apostles in their ministry. They can serve as witnesses to what the correct interpretation of scripture is, and their writings can serve as helpful commentaries to us on the word of God. While we are not totally dependent on them in order to arrive a correct interpretation of scripture, since many strange doctrines have been introduced both by false teachers and well-meaning but mistaken Christians, their testimony is a very helpful witnesses to the accuracy and apostolicity of the doctrines scripture clearly teaches. And when we find that our doctrine is both consistent with the Bible itself and the Church Fathers who first received our faith from the apostles, we may be confident in it indeed as part of that true "faith which was once for all handed down to the saints" for which we are commanded to contend earnestly.
Grace and peace,