|Woodcut, The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)|
After all, these are the men who compiled the Scriptures, organized the early Ecumenical Councils, and warded off dozens of heresies. How much attention should we pay to their writings, and how much credence should these writings receive?
Before answering that, I want to show three wrong ways of approaching the Church Fathers. The first way is to ignore them; or worse, to disregard them as pagans. The second way is to exploit them: to cite them in glowing terms when they agree with the position that you already hold to, and throw them away when they challenge your pre-existing views. The third wrong way is to treat them as if every word that they speak is infallible.
Having shown why each of these approaches fails, I’ll put forward an alternative view tomorrow. Or more accurately, I’ll show from the writings of the Church Fathers how they believed Patristic writings should be used.
Wrong Way #1: Ignoring or Fearing the the Church Fathers.
This first camp tends to be made up of Baptists and other modern Evangelicals. For members of this camp, the teachings of the Church Fathers don’t matter, either because they disregard the Fathers as heretics, or because they just don’t really care what the Fathers have to say. Scot McKnight, himself an Evangelical, describes the problem of ignorance well:
Most evangelicals know almost nothing about the early Fathers, and what they do know (they think) supports what they already believe, so why bother studying them. When it comes to realities, however, few have read even a page of the Fathers. However, very few evangelicals are drawn to either the Fathers or the Medieval theologians to strengthen their faith and interpretation. The only theologian from this era most of them bother reading is St. Augustine (whom they hesitantly call "saint" out of courtesy).So there might be an assumption that the Church Fathers must have believed in something like modern Evangelicalism, but a hesitation and even a refusal to read the Church Fathers directly, to find out if that theory is true.
Much of this ignorance seems to be intentional. I've previously mentioned the episode of "the Berean Call" with Dave Hunt and Tom McMahon, in which they simultaneously claim that the Church Fathers weren't Catholic, and warn Evangelicals not to read them, and instruct Evangelicals to follow (their own interpretation of) the Bible instead of the writings of the early Christians.
Worse, when it’s shown that the early Christians were Catholics, not Evangelicals or Baptists, this is treated as a reason to reject the Fathers, rather than a reason to convert to the faith of the early Church. McKnight mentioned that Augustine is the one Father that Evangelicals tend to like. But when they discover he was Catholic, this reaction often changes. So, for example, Laurence M. Vance (a Baptist firmly entrenched in this first camp), has lambasted St. Augustine as a heretic. From pp. 55-56 of The Other Side of Calvinism:
Since Augustine is regarded by Calvinists as “in a true sense the founder of Roman Catholicism,” it is no surprise that he maintained a number of Roman Catholic heresies besides baptismal regeneration. He taught that Mary was sinless and promoted her worship. He allowed for the intercession of saints and the adoration of relics together with the miracles attributed to them. He was the first who defined the so-called sacraments as a visible sign of invisible grace, and adds confirmation, marriage, and ordination to the Lord’s Supper and baptism. To Augustine the only true church was the Catholic Church. Writing against the Donatists, he asserted:
St. Augustine (from an Austrian pulpit) (1890s)
The Catholic Church alone is the body of Christ, of which He is the head and Saviour of His body. Outside this body the Holy Spirit giveth life to no one, seeing that, as the apostle says himself, “The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us;” but he is not a partaker of the divine love who is an enemy of unity. Therefore, they have not the Holy Ghost who are outside the Church.He believed in an apostolic succession of bishops from Peter as one of the marks of the true church. [… Lorraine] Boettner also admits that Augustine was the one who gave the doctrine of purgatory its first definite form.
Admittedly, many of the claims that Vance makes are false: Augustine didn’t found Roman Catholicism, didn’t teach that Mary or relics should be worshiped, didn’t “add” to the number of Sacraments, didn’t believe that the Eucharist was simply a “spiritual presence,” etc. But ignoring these and a whole host of other factual errors, Vance’s central point is true: Augustine was a Catholic who held to Catholic teachings.
This ought to be a reason to take a second look at Evangelical assumptions about what Christianity teaches about Mary, purgatory, relics, Sacraments, the structure and marks of the true Church, baptismal regeneration, etc. But instead, it is treated as a reason to reject Augustine.
Why this First Way Doesn’t Work: It Reduces Christianity to Incoherence
|Guillaume Crétin, Baptism of Sigebert III from the Grandes Chroniques de France (16th c.)|
It’s not just me saying that, either. The Protestant history Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325, wrote on “The Doctrine of Baptism” that “This ordinance was regarded in the ancient church as the sacrament of the new birth or regeneration,” and that its “effect consists in the forgiveness of sins and the communication of the Holy Spirit.”
So to take this Evangelical position, you end up needing to reject not just Augustine, but the entire Christian Church of the first few centuries. Why is that a problem? Two reasons. First, because it undermines the authority of all of Christianity. Try proving the Trinity when you believe that everyone at the Council of Nicaea was a heretic, along with all of the early Trinitarian apologists.
But wait, you argue: I’ll just argue from the Bible alone! That’s impractical, since you end up debating the same handful of passages, generation after generation, without getting very far. But more fundamentally, where did you get that Bible, exactly? How do you know which Books are orthodox, and of Apostolic authorship? Remember that many of them are internally anonymous, and that there were several false Gospels purporting to be Apostolic.
There are basically two answers to this. The first is to claim some sort of internal witness of the Holy Spirit, in which the Holy Spirit reveals the truth to you, individually, directly. And that’s what much of Protestantism devolves into. But if you’ve got those sort of prophetic powers, why do you even need Scripture? And in any case, why should any one besides you believe in Scripture on the authority of your internal feelings? After all, Mormons claim to have the same thing.
The second answer is the authority of the Church (either the witness and consensus of the Church Fathers, the decrees of the early Church Councils, or both). But if you condemn that Church as heretical, this option is closed off to you, and your religion becomes, frankly, an incoherent mess.
Wrong Way #2: Exploiting the Church Fathers.
|Woodcut, The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)|
But while Luther and Calvin both considered themselves Augustinians, they really only accepted a sliver of what he taught (mostly, cherry-picking certain things he said about predestination), while rejecting (or simply ignoring) his teachings on a slew of other issues, like the papacy, the Sacraments, etc.
As the Vance passage cited above points out, Augustine held views on Mary, purgatory, relics, Sacraments, the structure and marks of the true Church, baptismal regeneration, etc., that modern Lutherans and Calvinists would find anathema. And on all of these issues, the Patristic position is simply disregarded, even if it is the position held by all of the Fathers, which is how John Piper can justify rejecting baptismal regeneration, by appealing instead to his personal (mis)reading of 1 Peter 3:21.
Why this Second Way Doesn’t Work: It Doesn’t Treat the Fathers Honestly.
To cherry-pick a handful of Calvinist-sounding things from Augustine, while ignoring an overwhelming number of other things that he taught is exploitative. If you only accept Augustine when he agrees with what you already hold, Augustine doesn't matter. You’re believing only on your own authority, and citing to Augustine is little more than a pretense. Plus, as we will see tomorrow, this uses Augustine in a way he would have resented, and a way that he protested against.
|Fra Dolcino of Novara (c. 1250 – 1307)|
One scholar has found a quote that relates to the teachings and disciples of Dolcino. Dolcino and his followers held to some form of rapture view whereby people were translated to heaven before the time of judgment on the Antichrist.This is a great example of cherry-picking. The “orthodox believer” that the author has chosen was Fra Dolcino of Novara, the head of a short-lived heretical sect, known as the Dulcinians, from the fourteenth century. And the passage he cites to is not one of Dolcino's own writings, but a passage from an anonymous book about the Dulcinians, called The History of Brother Dolcino.
Sherlin’s clear that he’s choosing Dolcino simply because either he or his followers seem to have “held to some form of rapture view.” It’s not because Sherlin actually thinks Dolcino was orthodox (I strongly doubt Sherlin has any idea who Dolcino was, or about the Spiritualist Franciscans more generally). All he seems to mean by “orthodox believer” is “someone who seems to agrees with the position I’m currently arguing for.”
Sherlin certainly wouldn’t endorse the actual positions of the Dulcinists. The Dulcinist “rapture” view includes the prediction that “when the Antichrist is dead, Dolcino himself, who then would be the holy pope, and his preserved followers, will descend on the earth, and will preach the right faith of Christ to all, and will convert those who will be living then to the true faith of Jesus Christ.”
So Sherlin can't actually believe that the Dulcinians are orthodox, or that their end-times predictions were true. He’s just reaching for somebody from history he can point to, in order to give the illusion that his views were consistently held (when they weren’t). That’s not honest scholarship, and it’s beneath what we should expect from Christians.
Wrong Way #3: Treating the Church Fathers as Infallible.
There is a third error, however, at the opposite end of the spectrum: treating something as true simply because a particular Church Father says so. I think that this is self-explanatory, so I will add only two things. First, we Catholics are most likely to fall into this trap. Second, this is the least dangerous of the three approaches (and the one closest to what the Fathers prescribe). However, it is still problematic, as we are about to see.
Why this Third Way Doesn’t Work: The Fathers Occasionally Disagree.
The basic problem is that the Fathers occasionally disagree with each other. It doesn’t happen frequently, but it does happen. We have, for example, letters between St. Augustine and St. Jerome in which the two Saints (both of them Doctors of the Church) disagree with one another. Sometimes, the Church will step in and declare which of the two (or more) sides was correct: as She did with the canon of Scripture.
So there are really two problems: first, it’s logically impossible for contradictory Patristic views to each be infallible; second, you can’t reject a teaching of the Magisterium simply because a Church Father taught otherwise prior to the Church settling an issue.
So where does that leave us? It seems that every way we would go about approaching the Church Fathers is wrong. If only one of the Church Fathers had left us some clue about how to use their writings. Tune in tomorrow to see how Augustine and others answered this problem.