The Early Church Fathers were the leaders and teachers of the early Church. Their writings are widely available and are accepted as authentic by Catholic and non-Catholic scholars alike. Thus they provide common ground for establishing the beliefs and practices of the early Church.
The earliest of the fathers are known as the ďApostolic Fathers.Ē They were the immediate successors of the Apostles. Three of them were disciples of one or more of the Apostles. Clement of Rome was a disciple of the apostles Peter and Paul. Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna were disciples of the Apostle John. Naturally we would expect that those who were personally taught by the Apostles would themselves believe and teach correctly.
Protestantism is based on the allegation that the Catholic Church became corrupt shortly after 312 AD. Thatís when the emperor Constantine converted and made Christianity the state religion. It is alleged that pagan converts came into the Church bringing with them many of their pagan beliefs and practices. According to Protestant historians the pagan practices that were brought into the Church became the distinctive doctrines of Catholicism. Thus the Catholic Church was born and true Christianity was lost until the Reformation. But history tells us a different story.
In reading the Early Fathers we see a Church with bishops in authority over priests and deacons. We see a church that baptized infants and believed in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. We see a Church that believed in the primacy of Rome, the intercession of the saints in heaven and the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Thus we are lead to the inescapable conclusion that the early Church was the Catholic Church. It was even called that. Shortly after the death of the apostle John, his disciple, Ignatius of Antioch, wrote the following in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans: "Where the bishop is present, there is the Catholic Church" (8:2 [A.D. 107]).
As you can imagine, the writings of the Early Fathers are especially helpful in refuting the Protestant claim that many Catholic doctrines were invented in later years. Although they are wrong concerning the age of Catholic doctrines the reasoning of our Protestant friends is sound. If a teaching appears after the apostolic age without evidence of previous support it must be false. Curiously enough they abandon this line of reasoning when it comes to many of their own beliefs. For instance, the doctrine of Scripture Alone (mid 1500ís), The Rapture (late 1800ís), and the legitimacy of artificial contraception (1930) are just some of the examples that can be given.
It is important to note that some doctrines existed in a primitive form during the early years. These doctrines would develop over time. One example is the Doctrine of the Trinity. All of its elements were present at the beginning but it wasnít clearly defined the way it is today. It wasnít until later that it was fully understood. This would not make it a late teaching as all of the information was there from the beginning. Other doctrines were developed in this same way.
Also worthy of note is the fact that the Early Fathers occasionally disagreed on minor issues that were not yet settled by the Church. This does not present us with a problem as we do not claim that the Fathers were infallible. While they were not infallible they were unmistakably Catholic. They clearly illustrate the fact that the early Church had no resemblance to Protestantism.
John Henry Newman was one of the more famous converts to Catholicism. After studying the Early Fathers he wrote: "The Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth it is this, and Protestantism has ever felt it so; to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant" (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine).
Christianity was started by Jesus Christ 2000 years ago and it has existed for 2000 years. It didnít go away for 1200 years and then come back. Indeed that would have rendered Jesusí words impotent. In Matthew 16:18 as He was establishing His Church Jesus gave us a guarantee. He said: "I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." If the Protestant hypothesis is correct, the gates of hell did some serious prevailing and that would make Jesus Christ a liar. But of course such is not the case.
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For Further Study
Teachings of the Church Fathers
by Fr. John R. Willis, S.J.
DVD - Footprints of God - Apostolic Fathers Handing on the Faith with Steve Ray
Early Fathers First Topic