The witness of the Church Fathers

Hundreds of books have been written about the Church Fathers.  So I will labor to keep this short.  Once I was aware of the fact that there was a historical component to Christianity that pre-dated AD 1517, I became very interested in the types of things they believed.  Of course, I attended a Calvinist Presbyterian church for a good while, and so I was aware of the fact that one of the greatest Protestants of history was St. Augustine.  Besides the name, though, I knew precious little of what he said.  And the thing is, he said an awful lot.

But before I even got interested in him, I had received as a gift (I think) a book called the Apostolic Fathers.  It was published by some Orthodox outfit, whose study bible I had also purchased in order to get a better feel for “early Christianity”.  This book contained some of the earliest non-canonical Christian writings.  Of special interest were St. Ignatius (~AD 107), St. Clement (~AD 100) and St. Polycarp (~AD 140).  Barnabas and the Shepherd were also in there, as I recall.  These dudes weren’t Protestant.  Obviously.  I mean, Protestants didn’t come along until much later.  But these early figures also espoused much that Protestants repudiated.

Before I get into that, though, who were these fellas?  Well, they were disciples of the Apostles.  Clement is possibly the Clement mentioned in one of St. Paul’s epistles.  He writes to the Corinthian Church from Rome.  Ignatius is the third bishop of Antioch (you know, where Christians were first called Christians), and was possibly ordained by St. Peter.  Polycarp of Smyrna was a disciple of St. John.  So, these guys have street-cred.  They learned the Faith at the feet of the Apostles.  They walked and talked with the Apostles.  The Apostles.

Excellent.  So what did these guys believe?  Well, that salvation comes through Jesus Christ.  That would be foremost.  So these guys were Protestant!  Take that, Catholics.  Not so fast, young tiger.  Starting chronologically with Clement, first, the fact that he, writing from Rome, feels he has the authority to command assent to his desires in a Pauline church (i.e., Corinth) while St. John was still possibly alive says a lot about the role the local church of Rome played in the wider universal Church.  In other words, while the papacy is yet undeveloped, you have the seeds of the papacy right here at the turn of the 2nd Century.  He also embraced apostolic succession as the means of preserving the Church.

In St. Ignatius, you get the first written name for the early church: the Catholic Church.  What you also get is a very strongly hierarchical church, with the bishop ruling the local church with authority.  United to the bishop are priests and deacons, with the laity.  According to Ignatius, Gnostics are heretics who abstain from the Eucharist because they don’t believe it is the body of Christ.  So the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is attested at the turn of the 2nd Century.  Co-redemptive suffering is also mentioned by Ignatius.

Polycarp’s lone surviving letter is a pastiche of Scripture, essentially, except for the key fact that he recommends the writings of Ignatius to be read, as they are sound.  So here an person who learned the Faith from St. John bears witness to everything Ignatius had to say.

Many Protestants are able to look this evidence in the face and claim that these fellas were more in line with Protestant teaching than Catholic teaching.  I suspect this has more to do with an abhorrence of the Catholic Church than a fair reading of the documents.  In any case, it seemed pretty clear to me that the Apostolic Fathers would not have recognized the version of Christianity known as Protestantism.  Which was unsettling.  At this point, there is a fork in the road, and people may take one of several paths.  Admit that the early Church was not Protestant.  This means revising your interpretation of much of the New Testament.  For if the disciples of the Apostles interpreted the Scriptures differently than you on some key points, maybe you have something to learn from them.  Another path involves claiming that the Church did not have a full canon of Scripture to work from at that point, so they could not have known the full truth (nevermind the implications for Sola Scriptura here, or the fact that they actually talked to the Apostles…they didn’t need letters).  Another path simply involves claiming that the Apostles were pretty dumb in selecting the people they entrusted their mission to.  I.e., these guys were just plain wrong.  They departed, not 15 years after the death of the last apostle, from the teachings of the Apostles.  I suppose there are other paths one can take also.  The mind can be pretty creative.

In any case, for someone who already had a healthy distrust of his own opinion on things, it seemed pretty evident to me that these giants of the Faith were right, and that I was wrong.  More importantly, my church was wrong.  Moreso yet, all Protestant churches were wrong.  Apostolic succession, tradition, the Eucharist were nowhere to be found.  At this point, there was no going back.  A disquiet had settled into my soul that could be healed in but one way.  I had to leave.

Now this is but a brief summary of some of the teachings of the earliest of the Fathers.  Within the first few centuries, one can find a host of other imProtestant teachings being lived out by the Church, while she battles the various heresies.  In other words, these teachings were nowhere thought to be novel and strange: veneration of the martyrs, seeking their intercession, praying for the dead (i.e., purgatory), regenerational baptism, the importance of the bishop of Rome, Mary as the New Eve and all that implies, the Mother of God, her perpetual virginity, her sinlessness, the possibility of losing the state of grace, faith and works, merit, penance, monasticism, virginity as a charism etc.  The list, literally, goes on.  And on.  And on.


~ by Rob on May 22, 2008.

2 Responses to “The witness of the Church Fathers”

  1. imProtestant – Great word!

  2. […] The witness of the Church Fathers […]

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