We ignore the church fathers at our peril

Published Friday, November 15, 2019  |  
(Photo: Unsplash/James Coleman)

I wrote some time ago about an interesting church history anecdote: Saint Nicholas (Santa) punched Arius for advocating a heretical Christology. Since then, there is one overwhelming comment that I have consistently received: "I'd never heard that before."

I'm not surprised to hear that many have never heard of Saint Nicholas, Arianism, or the Council of Nicaea. Modern Christians simply don't often think about our 'church fathers' (loosely defined as the Christian leaders of the first 500 hundred years of Christianity).

This shouldn't be unexpected. We constantly hear that new is better, and that whatever we have is outdated and requires replacement. I myself am often chided when friends notice my miniscule 32 inch, ten year old television in the centre of my lounge room. Isn't it time to upgrade to the newest, and therefore best?

This attitude then creeps into how we view people. Movies like The Intern or The Internship are effective because they draw on the assumption that older people have nothing to offer—this world is vastly different to when they grew up, therefore they cannot contribute to contemporary life or issues. I think we forget that they have experienced more than we could imagine, and have accumulated vast amounts of wisdom.

For instance, last year at ANZAC Day, I was standing proudly in my uniform, medals glistening in the sun, as people kindly thanked me for my service, when I noticed a man in a wheelchair. He was in his nineties, wearing poorly-aligned, dull medals which would contravene our dress-manual. I got talking to him, only to find out that he had landed at Normandy on D-Day. He had serious military experience, yet seemed to be almost overlooked that day.

I think that this attitude then extends to our church fathers. Some of these were taught by Christ's Apostles themselves, they shaped Christianity as we know it, and handed us clearly articulated explanations of doctrines including the Trinity and Christ's nature. Yet we still seem to ignore them, assuming that as stuffy ancient men (and women) they have nothing to contribute today.

I think this attitude is further fuelled by another major factor.

Scripture alone

As good Protestants, we often associate the teaching of the fathers with "human tradition", as opposed to divine Scripture. Because we (rightly) believe in Scripture alone (sola scriptura) as our magisterial authority, we are not bound to human teaching.

Now it is true that church fathers are fallible. It is further true that Scripture, "is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience" (Second London Baptist Confession, cf. 2 Timothy chapter 3, verse 16).

Yet this does not mean that no other sources (nature, reason, tradition, experience) are profitable, and that only Scripture may ever be considered (solo Scriptura). Instead, Scripture forms the infallible foundation of Christian belief and practice, and other sources may then be implemented if they conform to divine revelation.

With this in mind, the church fathers did not seek to establish an authoritative source alongside Scripture, but simply to elucidate divine teaching.

In fact, they revered Scripture immensely. For example, the fourth-century bishop Athanasius, wrote that the biblical books are the "fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take from these" (Festal Letter 39).

Why bother?

Well, even if we accept that the church fathers are not anti-biblical, why should we listen to them when we have the Bible itself? Why should I care what that D-Day veteran has to say, when I have experienced military service myself?

Although the church fathers do not provide an infallible authority, the truth is our ancestors have ploughed through difficult terrain and have a great deal of experience and wisdom to share. Yet we often assume that we need to treat Scripture as a new book and ignore what has already been expounded.

This is surely to our detriment. For 2,000 years faithful men and women have served the Lord, and their work is available for us to glean. So rather than arrogantly assuming that we know better, or must start again, we should make use of what God has done through them. We are, as my Church History lecturer reminded us, dwarves standing upon the shoulders of giants, able to see much further when they lift us up.

So when we try to articulate the biblical truth that Jesus is divine, we can be aided by the Nicene Creed: Jesus is the "only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father".

How does this relate to His humanity? Well the Chalcedonian Creed teaches that Christ is "true God and true man...two natures, without confusion or mixture, without division or separation...in one person".

So although we should never elevate these human words to equal with Scripture, to ignore them completely is to cut off our forebears and make ourselves historical orphans.

May I humbly suggest you give these tired old veterans a chance, and I pray that you will be surprised and encouraged by the warmth, humanity, wisdom and Godliness that they are willing to hand on to their grand-children in Christ.

Courtesy of Press Service International