Do the Church Fathers Matter?

Those familiar with this blog will be familiar with the great weight I place on sola scriptura. It is a necessary paradigm for determining true doctrine from false doctrine amid a sea of false teaching. Summed up, it is the principle that we must obey the command to “Test all things, and hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess 5:21); what is “good” being, in respect to doctrine, what is true, and in respect to practice, those practices which are legitimately apostolical and in accord with the will of God; and that what is indeed true in respect to doctrine and legitimate in respect to practice can ordinarily only be known by way of demonstration from the holy scriptures. Ordinarily to know that any doctrine is true or practice legitimate, we must see it demonstrated from the holy scriptures, either by an explicit testimony, or by demonstration that it is a necessary consequence of what is said.

This method will ordinarily provide the Christian with as much knowledge of true Christianity as they can ever hope to have in this world. The word “ordinarily” is inserted because what we really want is knowledge, and knowledge can only come by demonstration from an infallible indemonstrable first principle, taken on faith. Ordinarily this is only the scriptures- but at times in history it has includes other special revelation. God is not limited by the scriptures. But this exception laid aside, we can reasonably speak in generalities; not all of God’s people will hear a prophet speak, an apostle preach, or be visited by an angel. Of course the frequency of these things, the legitimacy of supposed instances of these things, etc, is a highly debated issue, and not something I intend to speak to here. Whether one believes that prophecy is ordinary to the church at all times, or is a rare event largely limited to ancient history and the apostolic era, anyone can agree that at times God has chosen to give men special revelation besides the scriptures, and that this revelation is just as reliable and just as useful a first principle for the discovery of truth as scripture is.

But these things are not common, not equally available to all believers. For instance, I know from the scriptures that some in Corinth prophesied, but I do not know what they said. In contrast to that, all believers have access to God’s infallible revelation in the scriptures. Thus ordinarily, scripture alone is our indemonstrable first principle, and ordinarily, only what can be demonstrated from the scriptures is truly known by the believer. Thus anything beyond what is demonstrable from the scriptures remains a mere theory, and in order for anything to be accepted, it ought to be positively proven from the scriptures. No doctrine that cannot be demonstrated has a place in the dogma of the church.

All that said, given these views, one might wonder why this blog gives so much attention to the early church fathers. After all, if sola scriptura is true, then no one needs the church fathers to come to a knowledge of the truth. Why then should we read the church fathers, or bother studying them at all?

One might argue that we need the church fathers for sake of catholicity. What catholicity is, and that as a paradigm it is flawed I have covered here. The various versions of the paradigm employed by different traditions are woefully arbitrary, inconsistent, and self-defeating. But one version especially is popular with many who value the church fathers. This is called the Vincentian Canon, named after fifth century church father Vincent of Lerins.

Vincent’s big idea is that we should all be catholic, and that what is catholic is what has ‘been believed always, everywhere, and by all’. Its perhaps the simplest form of the catholicity paradigm. And it sounds quite nice. After all, you can fool some people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time. Anything that everybody in the church has always agreed on must be a genuine apostolic tradition, it is reasoned. This view lives for ‘patristic consensus’, and whatever is understood to have had a consensus in the early church is deemed ‘catholic’, and true. This is one of the only versions of ‘catholicity’ that doesn’t betray its own name, since, according to this standard, anything that meets it must be truly universal, at least up till a certain point in history.

The Vincentian Canon is a beautiful idea. But it is fatally flawed. Like some mythical creature, its beauty is only dampened by the cold reality that it is not truly attainable. That’s because in order to know that there was a patristic consensus on any doctrine not only takes an enormous amount of research among the many volumes of church fathers available in English translations, and a knowledge of many ancient original languages to access untranslated works which are otherwise inaccessible, but also requires access to the great multitude of patristic writings that are not available to us, because they are lost to history.

In Eusebius of Caesarea’s famous Church History, we get a glimpse at what a fourth century theological library might look like. Eusebius painstakingly takes the time to list the works of many major church fathers, such as Irenaeus. From these lists, we are well aware that the surviving works we have from the many ante-nicene fathers are only a very small portion of what was produced in that era. There are many fathers we have no surviving works from at all. Many are known only by fragmentary quotes from later authors who quoted them in their own preserved works, thereby preserving small portions of otherwise lost books.

As if this is not depressing enough to the eager student of the ante-nicene fathers, we must also remember that the fathers Eusebius gives us lists of works from, and whose works we have preserved, are almost all Greek-speaking fathers from within the bounds of the Roman Empire. Almost all the ante-nicene fathers who we know much about and have surviving works from are from around the Mediterranean basin. Even still, fathers from ancient Roman Britain and Hispania are almost completely unknown. When we consider the ancient churches of Ethiopia, Assyria, China, and India, and how vast they were, we realize that we truly only have a relatively small sampling of ante-nicene writings, and even a relatively small knowledge of ante-nicene authors. We know who influential fathers within the Mediterranean basin area were- but who were the prominent theologians of non-Greek speaking lands? Who were the Irenaeuses and Justin Martyrs of ancient Britain, Ethiopia, China, and India? We simply do not know.

This massive gap in our data is significant. To claim that looking at the small sampling of sources we do have is enough data by which to determine what was believed ‘always, everywhere, and by everyone’, is simply ludicrous. We may make educated guesses. We may see things in which we find consensus among surviving sources, and extrapolate from that incomplete data that it is very likely that all churches would have held a given belief. But we lack the concrete evidence to make a solid case, let alone to suppose that we truly know. After all, on top of everything mentioned above, even what was preserved from the Mediterranean basin was often selectively preserved according to the ‘orthodoxy’ of later periods- works supporting Quartodecimanism, Iconoclasm, non-nicene views of the Trinity, and pre-millennialism, for instance, were far less likely to be preserved than their ‘orthodox’ counterparts.

This means that the Vincentian Canon is impossible- we cannot know what was believed everywhere, always, and by everyone, in the early church. We lack the data, and what those who claim to use this paradigm to discover truth present to us is not what they claim. To base one’s doctrine off such great uncertainty is foolish. It is to make speculation and guesswork into dogma. We should rather base our dogma off an actual knowledge of truth, for which we must go to God’s infallible revelation in the holy scriptures.

All the more so, then, after dismantling the theory of the Vincentian Canon, one might wonder what use studying the writings of the church fathers is? After all, if we cannot gain a certain knowledge of true doctrine and legitimate practice from them, but only what is tentatively true, what is the point of investing effort in understanding their doctrines and beliefs?

The answer is multifaceted. Firstly, sola scriptura does not deny the value of teachers. Scripture affirms the value of teachers to help us understand the truth. Whatever we receive from teachers must be taken as tentative until it is confirmed to be true by demonstration from the holy scriptures- but that tentative instruction is extremely valuable, as a guide to understanding the scriptures, and as a witness to the truths they teach. While doctrines must be confirmed by scriptural demonstration to be known, they can be pointed out to us by teachers. Were it not for such instruction drawing our attention to what scripture says, we would often not understand the scriptures as clearly and fully as we can with the aid of such instruction. The very principle of “Test everything, and hold fast to that which is good” requires that we be receiving some extra-biblical instruction which requires testing.

Studying the church fathers is also valuable in order to avoid novelty. If a doctrine was not believed within the first three centuries of Christianity, it is almost certainly false. The apostles, after all, are the original teachers of the early church. What they taught was the doctrine of the early church. Of course, we do not have a complete record of all that was believed early on. Even honest men make mistakes and err, and false teachers and outside influences may result in certain truths receiving an undeservedly small amount of attention, or being lost early in church history. Certainly, new things were added over time. Seeing a doctrine in the fathers is no assurance that it is true. But the faith handed down once for all was not invented in the sixteenth century. It found a home in the hearts of first century Christians, instructed by the apostles themselves, and those Christians, and their students, remain among the best possible resources at our disposal for tracking down what that apostolic faith is.

Due to the incomplete record of early Christian belief, we may fairly say that not having a record of someone holding a given doctrine within the first few centuries of church history does not mean that it is not true. Scripture is our source of knowledge of what is true, and if some doctrine is demonstrable from it, we can know it is true, even if it lacks patristic witness. Yet, that being said, novelty is still suspect. And so studying the church fathers, and showing one’s beliefs to be in accord with the teachings of the church fathers, bears much value, to see for oneself, and to show others, that one’s views are not the novel inventions of a much later time.

The writings of the church fathers, then, are to be valued highly; not overvalued, as an infallible authority on par with scripture when they are not, but as knowledgable teachers, who can help guide us to the truths taught by scripture, which we will know to be true by seeing them demonstrated from the holy scriptures themselves. Any Christian who neglects them, neglects a valuable help that God has given him, and those who study their writings know how blessed it is to be their students.

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