How to do theology with the Church Fathers as a Protestant?

Another common point of contention between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians is that of the role of the Church Fathers for Christian theology.

Many people are of the opinion that taking the Church Fathers “seriously” means abandoning Protestantism for either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. In my personal opinion, this is a myth most often put forth by people who have not read very much serious Protestant theology for themselves. In the first place, the Protestant Reformers were constantly citing from the Church Fathers in support of their positions. Moreover, the most important contemporary Protestant theologians were well-versed in the Church Fathers and the history of Christian theology more generally, such as Karl Barth, TF Torrance, Jürgen Moltmann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Now these figures may agree or disagree with the Church Fathers to various extents, but my point is only that it is a myth that Protestants either do not or cannot take the Church Fathers and the history of Christian theology seriously.

What I want to do in this brief post is to share some of my own thoughts in response to the question: How to do theology with the Church Fathers as a Protestant? By way of answering this inquiry, I would like to propose four theses.

Thesis 1: Theology is an ongoing conversation in search of the truth.

Christian theology has always been a dynamic ongoing conversation. The earliest Christians did not agree with each other about how to understand the significance of Christ and of the revelation and salvation that He brought. Some of them thought that the Gentiles who believed in Christ still had to obey the Law of Moses and to be circumcised, while others (notably, the apostles) did not. Some of the earliest Christians thought that Christ did not have a true human nature, while others (e.g., the apostle John) insisted that He did. Some of the earliest Christians thought that it was permissible to eat meat from animals sacrificed to idols (e.g., the Nicolaitans from Rev 2:14; and Paul seems to think that, considered in itself, it is a matter of indifference in 1 Cor 10), while others disagreed. So also, Christians disagreed among themselves in later generations of the Church as well. They disagreed about any number of issues: the precise sense in which Christ is the Son of God; whether and how the Holy Spirit is God; how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are related; how the two natures of Christ relate to each other; how free will and divine providence are related to each other; whether all human beings will eventually be saved or not; whether it is permissible to use images in worship and to venerate icons; whether the baptism administered by heretical groups is valid; whether there can be forgiveness for grave sins committed after baptism; whether a person should be baptized as an adult or whether it is permissible to baptize children; whether sacraments administered by an immoral priest are still valid; and so on. This means that, from the very beginning, there has never been unanimous consensus on any theological issue in the Church.

Now, the Church has outlived all of the Church Fathers. They died and went on their way to the Lord. Each one has presumably received the appropriate recompense for his or her work, but in the meantime the Church continues on Earth. Time did not stop in the eighth century! The conversation of Christian theology also continues. Many of the issues debated in the early days are still debated even now. Doing theology with the Church Fathers means knowing their contributions to these ongoing conversations and appreciating the perspective they were trying to put forth for others. Joining an ongoing conversation responsibly means knowing what was said before one joined in. But it does not mean simply accepting whatever the previous contributors said, as if the fact that they had said it settled the matter. New things are being said, and even the arguments of the Church Fathers themselves are not unanimously convincing to later participants in the conversation. For example, hardly anyone would endorse precisely each argument given by the Church Fathers for the doctrine of the Incarnation, or for the Trinity, or for any other particular theological issue. One can think that they were right about a thesis without endorsing the arguments they put forth for the thesis. But when you do that, you take for granted that the conversation continues beyond their contribution, going forward into the future.

For a Protestant like me, theology is an ongoing conversation that will never be complete until the Day of the Lord. It proceeds on the basis of the revelation of Christ, and seeks to deepen its appreciation of this revelation as time goes on. But only on the last day will faith give way to sight (cf. 1 Cor 13). The conversation of theology thus does not have a “stopping point” sometime in the past, as though all that needed to be said was said.

Thesis 2: In an ongoing conversation, it is possible both to agree and to disagree.

A genuine conversation means that at least two persons are permitted to express their opinions about what is being discussed. Now, many people treat theology as if it were not a conversation for all Christians. They talk about the Church Fathers as if they were university lecturers introducing freshmen students to a complex subject for the first time: they speak and are listened to; they are not themselves taught or questioned or corrected. They may appeal to the fact that Church Fathers are nearly all of them churchmen in some way or other: bishops and priests, etc. They might even appeal to a biblical text like 2 Pet 1:20, which says: “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” But this is a grossly inappropriate way to think about these things.

In the first place, the Church Fathers themselves did not have this attitude about what they wrote. At the end of a discussion about the person of Jesus in his On First Principles, Origen says this:

The above, meanwhile, are the thoughts which have occurred to us, when treating of subjects of such difficulty as the incarnation and deity of Christ. If there be any one, indeed, who can discover something better, and who can establish his assertions by clearer proofs from holy Scriptures, let his opinion be received in preference to mine.

Origen, On First Principles II, 6, 7

And Augustine:

For the reasonings of any men whatsoever, even though they be Catholics, and of high reputation, are not to be treated by us in the same way as the canonical Scriptures are treated. We are at liberty, without doing any violence to the respect which these men deserve, to condemn and reject anything in their writings, if perchance we shall find that they have entertained opinions differing from that which others or we ourselves have, by the divine help, discovered to be the truth. I deal thus with the writings of others, and I wish my intelligent readers to deal thus with mine.

Augustine, Letter 148 to Fortunatianus IV, 15

And for good measure, consider this line from Cyril of Jerusalem:

For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 4, 17

Thus, at least these Church Fathers themselves did not think themselves unquestionable authorities who must only be listened to and never questioned. They did not treat each other that way, neither did they expect that others would treat them in that way. The only resource they thought unquestionable was Scripture itself.

In the second place, this attitude is contrary to Scripture. According to the Apostle Paul, what qualifies a person to participate in the discussion about the meaning of revelation is the reception of the Holy Spirit, not the authority or position that a person occupies within the Church. He says: “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny… But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 10:14-16). If a person has the Holy Spirit, they are invited to participate in the discussion of the Church about the revelation of Christ.

This does not mean that everyone is just as capable a contributor as anyone else, since some persons have a special gifting in this respect. Indeed, in Scripture, the precondition for being established in the position of bishop or presbyter or deacon is precisely that one has a “firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching” (Tit 1:9) and is “an apt teacher” (1 Tim 3:2). Thus, in the scriptural perspective, a person should not be listened to just because he is a bishop in the Church. Rather, he should be a bishop in the Church only if he should be listened to — which of course does not always happen. But in any case, it is the possession of the Holy Spirit that gives a person the right to participate in the discussion, not simply the position he holds in the Church.

For the Protestant like me, the Church Fathers are worth listening to in some matter if what they say is true, but if what they say is false, then they are not worth listening to in that respect. Of course, their reputation as “Fathers” does mean that they ought to be taken seriously. But even the Church Fathers themselves would never prioritize the truth over what they say, nor did they think that the truth is inaccessible apart from their testimony. And one is free to agree with them on some things but not on others. That is what it means to participate in a genuine conversation: having the freedom to form your own opinion about a thing in dialog with another.

Thesis 3: Disagreements have to be settled by turning to the thing being discussed.

In any honest conversation, we are concerned with the truth. We want to come to know things as they are. Now, all of our statements are taken as true or false depending on how they measure up to the standard of truth or falsity, which is the thing itself being discussed. If I say that a cat is white and another person says that the cat is black, then we have to measure our statements against the thing being discussed — the cat itself. The same thing is true in theology. In Christian theology, we are concerned principally with the person and teaching of Christ, such as this was passed down to the Church by His apostles and disciples in Scripture. Thus, what we say about God, or about Christ, or about the Church, or about faith or justification or anything else ultimately must refer back to the Bible and be measured against the Bible.

The Church Fathers knew this. Whatever topic they might have been discussing, they took the time to interpret Scripture and to show how their opinions agreed with or flowed out of the teachings of Christ and the apostles. This does not mean they were always right, of course. Some Church Fathers were judged to be mistaken about this or that thing, even though they were very prominent and highly esteemed in their time and afterwards. (Origen is a great example of this.) But in any case, it should be obvious that if they themselves are trying to interpret Scripture, then their statements must be judged according to what it is they are trying to describe, namely Scripture.

Now, sometimes it happens that disputes about things are hard to settle. It could be because the thing being discussed is not directly accessible to the people debating about it, or it could be because the people discussing it seemingly cannot agree about how to describe it. In situations like this, people lose their patience and choose sides not according to the truth but rather according to the authority or reputation of the person participating the discussion. But this is a mistake. Statements are not true because of who makes them. They are only true to the extent that they are adequate to their objects. There is nothing wrong with taking a position in such a situation. But you are not closer to the truth simply because you take the side of a prominent party. That is a way of preserving a tradition, but it is not necessarily a way of reaching the truth.

For the same reason, in a dispute about the meaning of Scripture or about some doctrine, it is not enough to say that Church Fathers X, Y, and Z understand it in some way. They also are interpreters of Scripture just like we are. They also are fellow students in the school of Christ: “Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah” (Matt 23:10). They can be wrong, just as we might be wrong. Their opinions should be taken seriously, especially if they offer arguments for their opinions. But a thing is not true just because some Church Father or even a number of them say the same thing. Once more, that is a way of preserving a tradition, but it is not necessarily a way of reaching the truth.

There are a couple more points to make in this matter.

First, the people we call Church Fathers were not the only participants in the historical conversations about Christian theology. So-called “heretics” also participated in the conversation. They are called “heretics” because they did not agree with what later was accepted as the “right” understanding of things. Whether they were rightly called heretics, however, is not a matter that can be settled merely by appealing to the people who disagreed with them. Of course, Arius is a heretic for Athanasius, just as Athanasius is a heretic for Arius; of course, Pelagius is a heretic for Augustine, just as Augustine is a heretic for Pelagius. Once more, what matters is not who says this or that, but rather what is true. And the truth can only be settled by returning to the thing itself under discussion, which in each case was the revelation of Christ as passed down by the apostles in the New Testament. What makes Athanasius orthodox and Arius a heretic is not whether the one or the other gets everyone or even most people to agree with him, but whether the one or the other agrees with Christ.

Second, for the same reason, it is never true to say that there was “unanimous agreement” in the early Church. Even if the Church Fathers all agreed on some issue, – which is not obviously the case, – it would still be true that other persons, so-called “heretics,” disagreed with them, so that there was not universal consensus or agreement. And it should go without saying that just because a person was condemned for a heretical opinion on some issue, it does not follow that they were wrong about everything. People can be right about some things and wrong about others. But in any case, unanimous agreement would not prove anything. At some point in history, there was unanimous agreement by all the relevant authorities that the sun revolved around the earth. They were still wrong about that. Indeed, even the notion of “Church Father” is itself relative. The only reason Copernicus or Einstein are authorities for scientists in a way that Aristotle or Ptolemy are not is that contemporary scientists are educated into an Einsteinian understanding of physics. So also, the only reason that people commonly refer to Athanasius, Augustine, and Basil as Church Fathers rather than Arius, Pelagius, or Eunomius is because they are part of a Church tradition that accepts the teachings of the former while rejecting the teachings of the latter. But it is one thing to belong to a tradition, and it is another thing to have the truth. And for a Protestant such as myself, it is more important to have the truth than to belong to some particular theological tradition, since the truth is what it is independently of all traditions.

Third, it is also possible that some of the Church Fathers did not say what later interpreters think they said. For example, people simply take for granted that the Church Fathers affirmed the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist from the very beginning. In fact, the interpretation of their writings is more complicated than that. One could also read William Whitaker’s A Disputation on Holy Scripture: Against the Papists, especially Bellarmine and Stapleton to see how an early Protestant writer attempted to show that the Church Fathers did not have the conception of the Scripture-Tradition relation that contemporary Roman Catholics were attributing to them. Once more, the dispute must be settled by appeal to what is being disputed. From the fact that Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox claim some Church Father for themselves, it does not follow that the Church Father in question would actually recognize himself in their understanding of him.

Thesis 4: Disagreements about ideas are compatible with agreement in focus.

Let’s consider once more the way things are in science. Aristotle and Ptolemy propose a certain scientific understanding of the world. This conception of things is rejected by Newton, Copernicus, and Darwin. Then Newton’s conception of things is rejected by Einstein, while contemporary evolutionary biology goes beyond Darwin in a few ways. The conversation in science is ongoing, and scientists disagree with each other on all manner of things. But despite their disagreements, they are all in contact with one and the same world. They are fascinated by and share a love for one and the same universe. Their disagreements about ideas are nevertheless compatible with an agreement in shared focus.

I think the same thing is true in Christian theology. Christians may disagree with each other about any number of things. But they are still talking about one and the same Christ. More importantly, they all love one and the same Christ. They have all committed themselves to Him, a fact that is not compromised by their disagreements about ideas. And even more importantly, Christ died for them all. He is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). He invites all people to friendship with God through Him in the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 1:9). Christian theology is the collaborative effort to understand better this God and this Christ and this Holy Spirit who call all people to fellowship with them. The “background” against which the historical conversation of Christian theology takes place is the embrace of God in Jesus Christ on the Cross.

This does not mean that everyone in Christian theology shared this focus. If a person said that Christ did not have flesh and did not really die, it seems obvious that he or she is not agreeing with Christ’s own apostles, contrary to the concern of the “apostolic Church”. If a person said that Christ did not really rise from the dead, then it would make no sense to entrust themselves to Christ in the way that apostolic faith calls for. A dead person cannot save you! Thus, not every theological opinion is “fair game.” But neither can we naïvely assume that everything the Church Fathers said is true, that every opinion they rejected was worth rejecting, or that every opinion they affirmed was worth affirming, and so on. To repeat a motif that has come up before in this post, it seems to me far more important that theology be true than that it be traditional. This doesn’t mean that tradition and truth exclude each other, but neither is something true simply because it is traditional, nor is something traditional simply because it is true.

Summary

Briefly stated, according to my conception of theology as a Protestant, it is more important for theology to be true than for it to be traditional. This does not mean that truth and tradition exclude each other, but neither are they inseparably connected. And just as contemporary science can respect the opinions and contributions of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Newton without limiting itself to what they said, so also Protestant theology can respect the opinions and contributions of the Church Fathers without necessarily limiting itself to what they said or agreeing with them in everything.