No, you don’t have to draw fanciful pictures of the Church Fathers with halos, bung them into stained glass windows, pray to them, or name your children after them (it would be a tad cruel to name junior after Ignatius, Papias, or Hegesippus).
For many Evangelicals, the early Church Fathers need to be rescued from their association with Roman Catholicism. These men were not Roman Catholics. In most instances, we can count them as faithful disciples of the Lord. They wrote, preached, and lived out the gospel in their generation. Protestants must not be fearful of this part of church history, and in fact, need to learn to reclaim the early Church Fathers as part of our own faith heritage.
Among Evangelicals and Reformed folks you can often find a view of the Church that could be described as “rupturism“. Rupturism is a word I have coined to describe a church historiography where, long ago, there existed the early Church of the New Testament that was biblical and pure. When the last Apostle went to be with the Lord, there appeared a mysterious rupture. A long period of Roman Catholic darkness ensued, until the Protestant Reformation sprung into being and poof! The Church reappeared!
Some Evangelicals – especially our beloved American friends – sometimes go even further and imagine a Church that goes back only about 200 years, or at a stretch, maybe back to the pilgrims. They seem to conceptualise the Church as somehow arriving in world during the great revivals of the 19th century. Often they do not want to think back further, or even consider the issue as to where the Church was in the long Medieval Period.
I know this is how many Evangelicals think. I was raised to think the same thing, and only really started to ponder that long “middle bit” when I was at college. But, truth be told, I have come to a more mature evaluation of this only in the last ten years or so.
The conception of the church that I once had looks much like this:
A lot of Evangelicals (and sometimes Reformed folks too) get a bit worried when people start talking about the early Church Fathers, like Athanasius, Jerome, Polycarp and Augustine. “Oh, that’s all Roman Catholic stuff!” they exclaim, evidently in the belief that Roman Catholicism sprung into existence the moment the last Apostle died.
In fact, this belief among Evangelicals and Reformed actually affirms Roman Catholic claims that they are the exclusive heirs to the ancient Church, and thus denies this heritage to us Protestants when it is our biblical beliefs that are actually the doctrines that are deeply rooted in history, including among the early Church Fathers. Thus, many Protestants abandon the field of battle and turn over their brethren in the ancient Church to the possession of the modern Roman Catholic Church whose teachings they would have fiercely repudiated had it existed in their day.
We need to understand that there has always been a Church and we need to understand that Roman Catholicism was a development over time. Like many churches, it accumulated false teachings as the centuries went past and inch by inch, gradually corrupted the truth of the gospel. These corruptions really hit the accelerator in the later Medieval era as popes jostled and battled to gain more earthly and spiritual power over others. It was during this period that they produced dogmas like Transubstantiation and heated up the virtual worship of Mary and the saints.
But that’s not the early Church Fathers. The Church Fathers were among the first generations of Christians and we Evangelicals and Reformed can learn much from them. They were fighting battles for Christ and defeating heresies right from the beginning. By the grace of God and with the Spirit of the Word, they were preserving the gospel and bequeathing to us a rich treasury of safeguarded biblical truths, such as the Doctrine of the Trinity.
Of course, the Church Fathers and their writings are not infallible. They did not write scripture, although they quoted from it frequently. They did make mistakes on all kinds of things, as fallible human beings do when writing. There are many, many things that the Church Fathers did not agree on. In fact, their writings bear all the imprint of our humanity. Some writings of the Church Fathers make glorious affirmations of wonderful biblical truths like the recorded sermon of Melio of Sardis who preached on the resurrection of Christ and gave us one of the earliest testimonies to the deity of Christ. Other writings are long rambling overly-philosophical treatises that seem impractical and irrelevant to our eyes. And yet again, other writings consist of long personal prayers, such as Augustine’s famous confession, which documents the sins of his youth and demonstrates how God was mercifully dealing with him all the way back in the 4th century Roman Empire. It is also a fascinating practical work of psychology to boot.
There is a vast texture to the corpus of written material, with some being plain and straightforward like Clement’s letter to the Corinthians which is basically an extended collection of quotations from the New Testament, and others being rather dense, such as some of the material from Irenaeus. Undoubtedly, some of the philosophical stuff is a bit left-field. Some – even quite a few – of the Church Fathers were a bit muddle-headed about certain things, and one or two of them were clearly a little too obsessed with abstruse points that to our modern eyes have little to do with the gospel. But they were in the process of defeating dangerous heresies, building up the Church, evangelising a pagan world and leading souls into an eternal relationship with our great and mighty God.
Even the Desert Fathers – those who sought deeper, nearly mystical communion with God in the lonely regions of the desert – have insights that we can benefit from. Although there is a strong scent of dangerous aestheticism about their hermit existence, and although I am not convinced their way of life was the way God would have any of us live, nonetheless they lived devoted lives of prayer. Who knows how much they may have strengthened the mission of the Church with their prayers?
I do not advocate aestheticism or a hermit lifestyle. The Desert Fathers unquestionably went overboard in their lifestyle, and by so doing, helped to drive the beginning of a self righteous idea that those who deprive themselves of family, sex, wife, food, and friends can reach a higher level of sanctity than those who do not. The Apostles Peter and Philip, who did not deny themselves these things, prove that holiness is not incompatible with a normal human life.
Nonetheless, I admire the zeal of these men and women. I admire their thirst to really know God at the expense of their flesh and earthly ambitions. And despite the manifestation of that zeal in isolation, one should never discount the wisdom they did acquire through their relentless pursuit of Christ in prayer and their long meditations on the word of God. Do I approve of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox hagiography of these guys with their paintings, icons, monasteries and assorted encrusted religious junk? No. Do I recognise them as souls seeking the Lord? Yes. Do I think they went about it in a biblical way? No. Do I see something inspirational and significant in their quest to go as deep into the Spirit of the Lord as they could? Yes.
We have much to learn from the Church Fathers, although our learning must always be guided, tempered, limited, restrained, and governed by the words of true scripture.
We Reformed\Evangelicals need to understand that the true Church persevered throughout the Medieval era. Even if it was a mixture of wheat and tares growing together. This is evinced by the fact that even at the height of the corruption of Rome we find figures like Francis of Assisi reacting, almost by instinct, against the horrendous luxuriation of the era. We may not agree with Francis on everything, but we would probably find more points of agreement than not. I have a great deal of admiration and respect for this devout, committed man who sought to preach in the open to the poor and to live in faith on the provision of God. Much nonsense has accrued in typical Roman Catholic hagiography about his life – which presents Francis talking to animals and so forth – but when stripped of these clearly fictitious elements, he lived an inspiring and noble life trying to follow the exactitude of the words of Jesus as he understood them.
In the 14th century, of course, we find the “Morning Star of the Reformation”, John Wycliffe who realised the scriptures were the authoritative centre of Christianity some two hundred years before Luther. Wycliffe was translating the Bible into English in the 1400’s and sending forth itinerant preachers to declare the pure words of the New Testament to the common people. It is a testament, once again, to the reality of Christ’s work throughout the ages. Our Lord has always ensured that there has been a remnant of true Christians and true Christianity, enlightened and protected by the Holy Spirit, who kept them from the corrupt ideas, practices, and doctrines of their generation.
Roman Catholicism, since the promulgation of the Dogma of Papal Infallibility, is now quite beyond reform. In fact, it has been beyond reform ever since it made clear its determination to persist in its errors at the time of the Reformation, and from those errors it has never departed since. This is something to bear in mind as we approach 2017, and the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The Reformation is still quite relevant today.
So, let us dispense, therefore, with a “rupturist” view of church history. Let us reclaim our heritage of those ancient Christians who first heard the word and started worshipping long ago in ancient churches on the green slopes of England, on the grassy knolls of Ireland, among the wooded regions of Germany. Let us be inspired by the faithful who trudged through snow and forests to bring the truth to the pagans of Norway and Finland. Let us remember the pioneering missionaries who carried the word to the scorched regions of northern Africa; who established the faith throughout the Mediterranean. They wrote; they preached; they prayed; they lived, and all long before the corruption of what is now called Roman Catholicism.
Enough with the nonsense that the Church Fathers are “Roman Catholic”. They aren’t! And as an Evangelical or Reformed believer, you should know better than to claim that they are. I mean that in all kindness and sincerity. It’s time to crack open the books and grow in faith at the amazing fidelity of Christ to his people – the invisible Church of all true believers – that has always existed across geographies and across many centuries.
To the praise of his everlasting glory.