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The Church Fathers

Question: How do you respond to the Catholic claim that "the early church fathers historically believed as we believe"? I am sure that true believers could not believe anything except the Scriptural way.

Answer: The claim that the faith of the early Church Fathers was identical to the present Catholic faith is as false as could be. While it is true that the roots of some distinctive Roman Catholic dogma can be traced to the teachings of earlier or later Church Fathers, it is equally true that there was a gradual departure from pure biblical doctrines in the development of Catholicism. Thus, for example, many of the church fathers, Augustine included, condemned the use of statues in religious worship while others spoke in favour of this unbiblical practice. Eventually Rome approved the use of graven images. (Incidentally, statutes were never accepted in the Eastern church.)1 Moreover, the distinctive Roman Catholic doctrines (e.g. universal papal jurisdiction, papal infallibility, the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption) are absent in the writings of the early Fathers.

It would be wrong to claim that the Church Fathers agree with the Evangelical faith in every aspect (they don't, and may I repeat, they don't agree with Catholicism either). On the other hand, the distinctive evangelical doctrines are also found in the writings of the Fathers.2

You also said that true believers could not believe anything except that which is scriptural. That is not entirely correct. Admittedly, true Christians believe the Biblical Gospel, yes, but their knowledge of the Scriptures is neither exhaustive nor perfect. Their knowledge is mixed with much error originating from human traditions and personal prejudice. Take for example the Corinthian, Colossian and Galatian Christians. All were genuinely Christian, but there were some serious errors entertained in those churches. It is the same with individuals and churches throughout history. You and I don't know the truth perfectly either. We are still growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ.

And finally - an important point - the crucial test of true Christianity is not what the Church Fathers (or whoever else) teach. Reading the Church Fathers, early and late, is most helpful. They left us a rich heritage of sound Biblical teaching, albeit contaminated with many errors and contradictions. They also give us a picture of how doctrine and other issues evolved in the early church. Yet we ought to believe what we believe for no reason other than that it is written and taught in the Holy Scriptures, the pure and infallible Word of God. If a particular man - no matter who he is or how great his name and reputation - teaches otherwise, we will still uphold the Word of God even if we happen to be the last people on this planet to do so. Christianity is not built on "Thus saith the Fathers." Christianity is founded on "Thus saith the Lord!"

The Holy Scriptures are able to make you wise unto salvation which is by faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15).

Suggested reading

  1. The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, written by William Webster, published by The Banner of Truth Trust. You can buy this excellent book from Christian Resources
  2. Many writings of the Church Fathers are found online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Historian Philip Schaff gives a brief estimate of the Fathers.

Dr Joseph Mizzi