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 “Apostolic Fathers.” 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. That’s 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. 110]).
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 1500’s), The Rapture (late 1800’s), 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 wasn’t clearly defined the way it is today. It wasn’t 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 bore 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 didn’t go away for 1200 years and then come back. Indeed that would have rendered Jesus’ 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.
As we noted above, the writings of the Early Church Fathers are accepted by Catholic and non-Catholic scholars alike. That is the good news. The bad news is that all too many Protestants read the Early Fathers in the same way they read the Bible; selectively. They focus on passages that appear to support their arguments while ignoring those that don’t. For example, the following passage authored by Athanasius is used to support the claim that he was a proponent of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone).
The Catholic Christians will neither speak nor endure to hear anything in religion that is a stranger to Scripture; it being an evil heart of immodesty to speak those things which are not written (Athanasius, Exhort. ad Monachas).
Note that Athanasius says, “nor endure to hear anything in religion that is a stranger to Scripture.” He is talking about doctrines that would contradict Scripture. Those are the things that he condemns that weren’t’ written. Sacred Tradition would not be included in that because Scripture actually tells us to “Hold Fast” to the Church’s oral traditions (2 Thessalonians 2:15). But you don’t have to take my word for it. We can ask Athanasius about it.
Me: Is it true that you believe in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura?
Athanasius: Beyond these [Scriptural] sayings, let us look at the very tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. (Four Letters to Serapion of Thmuis 1:28 [A.D. 360]).
Me: Okay, so you are saying that it is from Sacred Tradition and Scripture that we learn those doctrines which were ordained by God for those who follow Him. But what is wrong with people interpreting the Scriptures for themselves?
Athanasius: But since they allege the divine oracles and force on them a misinterpretation, according to their private sense, it becomes necessary to meet them just so far as to vindicate these passages, and to show that they bear an orthodox sense, and that our opponents are in error (Discourse Against the Arians I:37 [A.D. 362]).
Me: You are right, people can and do misinterpret the Scriptures. In fact, now that you mention it I seem to remember Peter telling us that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation (2 Peter 1:20). Logically then, an outside authority would be needed to assure us that we are interpreting the Scriptures properly. However, I still have people telling me they can do it completely on their own without the aid of a visible church.
Athanasius: Take thought of the Church, lest many of the little ones be injured on your account, and the others be given an occasion of withdrawing.... But if the organizing of the Churches is distasteful to you, and you do not think the ministry of the episcopate has its reward, why, then you have brought yourself to despise the Savior that ordered these things. I beseech you, dismiss such ideas, nor tolerate those who advise you in such a sense.... For the order the Lord has established by the Apostles abides fair and firm.... For if all were of the same mind as your present advisers, how would you have become a Christian, since there would be no bishops? Or if our successors are to inherit this state of mind, how will the Churches be able to hold together? Or do your advisers think that you have received nothing, that they despise it? If so surely, they are wrong (Letter 49:3-4 [A.D. 354]).
Me: Would you like to expand on that?
Athanasius: So that for the future all men everywhere may say, “One Lord, one faith” (Ephesians 4:5). For as the psalmist says, what is so good or pleasant as for brethren to dwell in unity. But our dwelling is the Church, and our mind ought to be the same. For thus we believe that the Lord also will dwell with us, who says, 'I will dwell with them and walk in them ' and 'Here will I dwell for I have a delight therein.' But by 'here' what is meant but there where one faith and religion is preached? (Letter to the People of Antioch 1 [A.D. 362]).
Me: I see your point. Church unity is an important part of God’s plan.
Athanasius: What then I have learned myself, and have heard men of judgment say, I have written in few words; but do you, remaining on the foundation of the Apostles, and holding fast the traditions of the Fathers, pray that now at length all strife and rivalry may cease, and the futile questions of the heretics may be condemned (De Synodis 3:54 [A.D. 359]).
Me: Another good point. I wonder how many people have rejected Christianity because of all the strife and rivalry within its ranks. We have thousands of denominations all claiming authority from the Bible and yet disagreeing on what it teaches. That is not the result Jesus intended when He prayed that we would be one as He and the Father are one (John 17:21). He obviously meant for us to be one united Church.
Athanasius: For if this be done, all evil suspicion will be removed on all hands, and the faith of the Catholic Church alone be exhibited in purity (Letter to the People of Antioch 3 [A.D. 362]).
Me: Thank you Athanasius.
Athanasius: You're welcome Sebastian (Dialogue with Sebastian 1:1 [A.D. 2018]).
Okay he didn’t say that last part but he did say the rest.
Steak is good! Does that mean that lobster is not? The statement “steak is good” does not even address the issue of lobster, and thus it does not rule it out. Likewise, when the Early Fathers extol the virtues of Scripture they are not ruling out the role of Sacred Tradition or Church authority. And by the way, both of these, unlike the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, are taught by Scripture.
Now some Protestant commentators are quick to point out that when the early fathers used the word catholic they weren’t referring to the Catholic Church. Rather they say the word catholic refers to a characteristic of the Church; the fact that it is universal in nature. On this point they are right, and they are wrong. The word catholic does refer to the nature of the Church; the fact that it was established for all men. However, they err greatly when they claim the Early Fathers were not referring to the Catholic Church when they said “the Catholic Church.” Just a few short years after the death of the last apostle, historic Christianity was called the Catholic Church.
When Donatus devised his heresy and separated from the Church his movement was called Donatism. Historic Christianity was still called the Catholic Church. When Marcion started his rebellion and separated from the Church; his group was called Marcionites. Historic Christianity was still called the Catholic Church. When Montanus created his heresy his group was called Montanists. Historic Christianity was still called the Catholic Church.
When Martin Luther started his group they were called Lutherans. Historic Christianity was still called the Catholic Church. When John Calvin attempted to reinvent Christianity his followers were called Calvanists. Historic Christianity was still called the Catholic Church. And it will be called the Catholic Church until the Second Coming.
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For Further Study
Teachings of the Church Fathers
by Fr. John R. Willis, S.J. and
Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church
by Pope Benedict XVI and
Handed Down: The Catholic Faith of the Early Christians
by James L. Papandrea
Audio File - Church Fathers by Pope Benedict XVI
DVD - Footprints of God - Apostolic Fathers Handing on the Faith with Steve Ray and The Early Christians
Early Fathers First Topic