How Should We Read the Early Church Fathers?

How Should We Read the Early Church Fathers?

One of the great challenges as a Protestant is to know and understand how we came to be. The Reformation is our roots in history, but the Bible is our root in theology. Simply put, to be Protestant means you leave the man-made teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and look towards Scripture as your authority for faith and practice.

Why do I make this point when talking about the Early Church Fathers (ECF)? It is simple. Catholics tend to put an inordinate amount of weight and authority in the ECF. They do this to the point of elevating their writings to the level of Scripture. However, they will tell you that they do not do this. Yet, when shown their interpretation is incorrect Biblically, they will say, “But Origen said…” or “But Iraneus argued….” or “But Clement states…” and so on. When you simply say they are wrong, and point out the error, they will say that are we to know better than those that sat under the Apostles?

This, of course, is a logical fallacy. It is an appeal to authority. However, there is no authority there.

We do not hold that the ECF were infallible. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that the ECF, or the church today, including the Pope, are infallible in any way (though the Catholics will try to argue that there is). So how are we to use the ECF?

The answer to this is not difficult. We should use the ECF as we use any other commentary. It is useful for study and instruction but must always be tested against the Scriptures. The Scriptures and Scriptures alone have the final say in all matters of faith and practice. The ECF did get things wrong, and often, they even contradicted each other. Scripture, on the other hand, has no contradictions. It is the perfect and holy words of God.

So while we should read the Fathers, we should not elevate their work to the level of Scripture.

4 thoughts on “How Should We Read the Early Church Fathers?

  1. ah yes… the tried and true Reformed argument. “all of the ECF’s were wrong and I’m right”. Oh, you say the Scriptures have no contradictions? We all know what you mean is that YOUR INTERPRETATION of the Scriptures has no contradictions and is the correct one. Lord Jesus, thank You for the clarity found in Your one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church!

    1. First, the argument is not that all ECF’s were wrong in all they taught. Nobody has said that. There were many good things the ECF taught. If you think that is the Reformed argument you clearly have not read this article.

      That being said, Scripture does not contain any contradictions. It simply doesn’t. You can’t name one ACTUAL contradiction.

      The Roman Catholic Church is a false church, period. It preaches a different Gospel and should be shunned.

      1. David, you say “There were many good things the ECF taught.”
        You are right. St Ignatius (AD 106) believed that the Eucharist IS the flesh of Jesus (and not just a symbol of flesh). Which fits very neatly with Catholic doctrine. But I guess you think he was wrong on this since you disagree with him. But on what basis do you disagree with him?

        Citing scripture for your argument doesn’t work for you because Catholics also cite scripture. So, in the end, it boils to “my interpretation of scripture versus the Catholic Church’s interpretation of scripture’.
        This is why Jesus never left us with a book (bible) or even instructed us to ‘go by the book’ before He ascended into heaven. Instead what did He do? He left us with His Church (12 men for a start) to go teach and to baptise. Make no mistake – the bible is the word of God and to be revered. It is great IF interpreted correctly. A big IF. That is the IF you must keep in mind if you want to argue that the scripture alone has the final say.
        And by the way, Jesus never said that the final say lies with scripture. If fact scripture testified that Jesus left with His Church with the final say, starting with Peter who was commissioned to lead the flock, the Church. And that has been happening for the past 2,000 years. The Church has the final say, working in union with the bible. Not the bible ALONE has the final say. Nor me-and-my-bible ALONE has the final say. That is a doctrine alien to the early Church Fathers. They never heard of it. Were they all wrong all this while? Doubtful.

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