I recently worked with a young man majoring in physics at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. (We’ll call him John.) Being a physics major you can gather that he is an intelligent young man. John is also a Christian. In fact, he is a member of the Churches of Christ. John has a great interest in theology, and we were always discussing it. One day we were discussing the Catholic Teachings on the Virgin Mary. John was explaining why he doesn’t agree with the Catholic Teachings on Mary.
“When I look at the Bible and first century Christianity I just don’t see it. To convince me that the Early Church had a devotion to Mary like the Catholic Church teaches you would have to prove it existed during the first century. You can’t point to the Church Fathers of the second century or later to try and prove Catholic Teaching on Mary.”
I wasn’t shocked by this comment. My wife’s family is Church of Christ, and they have repeatedly rejected any reference to the Church Fathers during discussions with me. So John’s comments were familiar and expected. Actually, I simply calmly explained to John why this anti-historical stance doesn’t make sense.
First of all, I pointed out that the Church Fathers lived much closer to the time of Jesus than we do. So it would stand to reason that they would have a better understanding of what the Apostles and Jesus taught than someone living centuries later. An example would be the Canon of the Old Testament. Origen, Tertullian, St. Jerome, and many other Church Fathers used the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. Furthermore, writings of St. Jerome and others prove that the Septuagint version they used contained the deutero-canonicals (commonly referred to by Protestants as the Apocrypha). During the sixteenth century, Martin Luther decides to expel the deutero-canonicals from the Old Testament Canon. Now who should I follow? Why listen to Martin Luther? He lived about 15 centuries after Jesus. The Church Fathers lived much closer to the Apostolic Period. I will follow the example of the Church Fathers.
Secondly, I pointed out that, while Scripture does not explicitly teach things like the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption, one can find them implied in Scripture. Then the issue just comes down to interpretation of Scripture. I won’t get into the debate here over whether every Christian can authoritatively interpret Scripture for himself (per Protestantism), or whether only the Church can authoritatively interpret Scripture (per Catholicism). So Catholic Teaching regarding the Virgin Mary can be found in Scripture, but many are only implied. That’s okay, though! The Holy Trinity is also only implied in Scripture. It took the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 to formally define this dogma.
Thirdly, I pointed out that even the Churches of Christ can not find their teachings formally defined by the Apostles or Jesus. The Trinity is the best example. Nowhere in Scripture do we see it explicitly stated that God is three persons in one God. There are no explicit statements made by either Christ or His Apostles to the effect that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God, and fully equal. Yet, the Churches of Christ teach this very thing. They may not be fond of using the same terms Catholics use to describe it, but they still believe in the Trinity.
So to make the claim that we must find an explicit statement from the first century in order to believe in a teaching is contradictory. We believe in many things that were not explicitly taught by Christians of the first century. Heck, the New Testament itself is nowhere explicitly stated during the first century! So, based on John’s logic, we can’t believe in the New Testament.
Now, you might point out that John never asked for an explicit statement. He only asked for some evidence for Marian devotion from the first century. It is not the purpose of this particular post to give evidence for Marian devotion. I would refer the reader to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Hail, Holy Queen (Scott Hahn), and The World’s First Love (Fulton Sheen) for evidence for Marian devotion. What we are concerned with here is the misuse of the Church Fathers.
Protestants tend to believe that Scripture alone should be used for faith and morals. However, they will sometimes attempt to use the Church Fathers to defend their teachings when debating with Catholics and non-Christians. Yet, they feel like one must find an explicit statement in the Church Fathers in order to use their writings to defend a teaching. Yet, when one reads Justin Martyr’s writings, one will not find an explicit statement in favor of the Trinity. Would anyone dare say, therefore, that St. Justin Martyr did not believe in the Trinity? Some of Justin Martyr’s comments on the Godhead tend to have a subordinationist ring to them. Does that mean that St. Justin didn’t believe in the Trinity?
It is not fair for us to expect the earliest Christians (even the Apostles) to have understood the teachings of Jesus as we do. We have had 2000 years to look back, reflect, and think on these things. Besides, Jesus said the Holy Spirit would guide us into Truth, not that Truth would immediately be revealed and comprehended. If St. Justin Martyr’s comments on the Godhead tend to have a subordinationist ring to them, it doesn’t mean that St. Justin Martyr didn’t believe in the Trinity. It may just mean that St. Justin Martyr didn’t have the understanding of the Trinity that we (or the Fathers of the Council of Nicea) have.
The evidence for Catholic Teaching are present in both Scripture and the Church Fathers. One must do a bit of investigative work to find it. In regards to Marian devotion, however, I would point out that such was not an issue during the first century. Before Novatius in the fifth century, no one had really questioned the status of the Virgin Mary. The Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) was one of the first to deal with the status of the Virgin Mary. So, again, for my co-worker John to expect the Christians of the first century to have addressed issues regarding the status of the Virgin Mary is unfair; and it is lacking in historical knowledge.
Until the fifth century, no one had questioned the status of the Virgin Mary. So there was no need to address the issue. The Church has never addressed an issue until it became necessary. Until someone questioned the status of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Church just assumed that the faithful knew and understood the Church’s position. If we are looking for explicit statements for all of our beliefs as Christians, then we will hold few beliefs.
If you wish to learn more about the Church Fathers and the development of doctrine I would recommend reading Early Christian Doctrines by J.N.D. Kelly. I recommend this work in part because it is a good exposition of the development of Christian doctrines in the Early Church. I also recommend it because J.N.D. Kelly was not a Catholic, but a Protestant. Even more shocking is that he actually backs up some of what the Catholic Church teaches! Happy reading, my friends!
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity