Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman once said, “To be familiar with history is to cease to be Protestant.”
He ought to have known. Cardinal Bl. Newman converted to Catholicism from Anglicanism. It was his familiarity with Christian history that brought him into the Catholic Church.
As I have stated multiple times, my wife is from a Church of Christ background. When we first began dating, Emberly and I had conversations about religion. Whenever I would appeal to the Church Fathers to further prove a point which I had already demonstrated from Scripture, my wife would ask why she should care what the Church Fathers had to say!
At first, I thought this an odd stance to take. Why wouldn’t you consider what the Church Fathers had to say? I soon realized, however, that this stance was common with the Churches of Christ. Most Protestants appeal to the Church Fathers from time to time, but they will distort the meaning of what the Fathers said. The Churches of Christ, however, make no appeals to the Church Fathers. To their minds the Church Fathers were no different than any other Christian.
This view misses the point. The Church Fathers were more than just your average Christian. Many were members of the hierarchy. These men had to be very well educated. Often, the members of the hierarchy were among the best educated. They were better educated than most of the nobility!
Those few Church Fathers who were not members of the hierarchy were, nonetheless, very highly educated. They were often familiar with the languages the Bible was written in. They were often very well-trained in philosophy. They also could frequently quote the scriptural texts from memory. Sowhy not listen to the Church Fathers? Doesn’t their education and familiarity with Scripture warrant our respect and attention?
I will grant that education and familiarity with Scripture does not guarantee their interpretation and beliefs will be correct. When we examine some of Christianity’s core beliefs, however, we find that many of our defenses and explanations of these beliefs stem directly from the Church Fathers. Indeed, they often developed and expounded on these defenses and explanations. So why not listen to what the Church Fathers had to say?
We must also acknowledge that the Church Fathers lived during what we might call the “formative years” of Christianity. For about the first half millenia of Christianity, the Church spent a great deal of Its time clarifying, expounding, and defending Church Teaching. The Church Fathers were absolutely instrumental in these endeavors. Though no Church Father was considered infallible on his own (except the ones who were popes and bishops; and this only under certain circumstances), the Church often used the writings of the Church Fathers to help explain Church Teaching. Who in their right mind could ignore what the Fathers had to say?
One problem the Churches of Christ have is that they adhere to sola scriptura. I have written many times on this topic, but I consider it the quintessential issue. If all Christians were united on the issue of authority, then Protestantism would cease to exist. In addition, the issue of authority has a direct bearing on our discussion here. Without sola scriptura, the Churches of Christ would have no problem with the Church Fathers.
During the first, second, third, and most of the fourth centuries, “mainstream Christianity” (non-heretics, meaning Catholics) had no unified Bible. Some Protestant scholars have tried to explain this away by saying that, though there was no official Bible among “mainstream” Christians, most did have either the same, or very similar, New Testaments. This explanation ignores one significant fact. Not all “mainstream” Christians had the same New Testament. If anyone wanted to add or remove books from the New Testament they could. Before the late fourth century, some had such books as the Didache, First Letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, and the Protevangelium of James. Until the New Testament was made official in the late fourth century, there was no official New Testament canon.
This had an effect on the theological debates of the early centuries of Christianity. Since there was no official biblical canon to speak of, the Church Fathers often could not appeal to Scripture to defend the Church’s Teachings. In fact, there was no official Scripture with which to actually say what the Church’s Teachings were. The only thing to appeal to was the collection of oral teachings passed down from the Apostles (Sacred Tradition). In fact, the Protestant scholar J.N.D. Kelly attests to this fact in his book “Early Christian Doctrines”.
This isn’t to say that everything the Church Fathers wrote is accepted. One of the greatest Church Fathers, Tertullian, eventually left the Church to become a part of the Montanist heresy. His writings from his Montanist period are generally rejected by the Catholic Church. Much of Origen’s writings are also rejected. The Church considers the content of the writings, not just who the author is.
We have good reason to give heed to the Church Fathers. There those like Sts. Justin Martyr and Augustine of Hippo who were highly trained in philosophy before becoming Christian. There were those like St. Cyril of Alexandria who were bishops. Sts. Damasus and Leo the Great were both popes. St. Jerome is widely considered one of the greatest biblical scholars ever. Before discounting the Church Fathers, let us consider the historical circumstances which have caused Catholics to regard them so highly for so.many centuries.