Who were the Fathers? I was listening to a discussion on Jason Stellman (the apostate PCA minister). One of the issues he mentions in his conversation is that after he had been researching different Protestant doctrines and challenged on them, he was then “ambushed” by the Fathers. I pictured the scene from the movie Braveheart where out of nowhere from the trees come the Fathers on horseback. I felt bad for him because I knew that even a quick look through the Fathers and they discredit themselves from having too much authority.
Stellmen in his interview talked about the task of having to search through the 37 volumes to legitimize the doctrine of imputation. Definitely a daunting task when understood like that, however it was terribly presumptuous and not what he thought. The Fathers are bigger than 37 volumes and though they’re important, helpful and fundamental, they’re not always a source to trust in all matters of doctrine.
TurretinFan states in the discussion with James White “There is the standard volume that people recall when they think of this question. The Schaff collection (the Eerdman’s set) of patristics translated into english. This isn’t the whole.”
Most popular patristic sources have approximately 86 volumes of Greek, not counting the Latin translations. To bring the Latin Fathers into discussion brings the number over 200! And this number doesn’t include those Fathers who wrote in languages that weren’t Greek or Latin (Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, etc.) Then the discussion is which manuscripts have survived and which are even authentic. After this massive collection has been gathered, it has to be recognized that these aren’t even all in English.
A few of these may not have been preserved beyond the manuscript. To suggest you only have to look through 37 volumes to find a doctrine (Jason Stellman) is a gross understatement. And it is apparent he didn’t do this because he would have discovered this fact if he had and realized my second point. That they are ALL OVER the place in their teachings. Some guys are orthodox then they’re excommunicated. Then brought back. The good guy/bad guy line is not so easy in Patristics. It’s not like the good guys wear white and the bad guys wear black.
Some were bishops of major cities teaching what they thought were Christ honoring truths. Then they would be excommunicated and called heretics.
Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox use the blanket statement of “The Fathers” and Protestants who don’t know any better just assume they’re right. There is not a silver bullet in the discussion of the Fathers because they are really random in what they say. However, I think we shouldn’t throw them out with the bathwater. The Fathers have contributed greatly and we do well to remind ourselves of what they had to struggle through. Here are some examples from the Fathers of how they can be good and unreliable:
Satan will be saved: Gregory of Nyssa (330 – 394),”A certain deception was indeed practised upon the Evil one, by concealing the Divine nature within the human; but for the latter, as himself a deceiver, it was only a just recompense that he should be deceived himself: the great adversary must himself at last find that what has been done is just and salutary, when he also shall experience the benefit of the Incarnation. He, as well as humanity, will be purged.” (The Great Catechism, 26, newadvent.org/fathers/2908.htm)
Salvation can be lost: Hermas (150?), “For the Lord has sworn by His glory, in regard to His elect, that if any one of them sin after a certain day which has been fixed, he shall not be saved. For the repentance of the righteous has limits. Filled up are the days of repentance to all the saints; but to the heathen, repentance will be possible even to the last day.” (The Shepherd, 1:2:2)
Scripture Alone is final Authority
Origen (185? – 252), “No man ought, for the confirmation of doctrines, to use books which are not canonized Scriptures,” (Tract. 26 in Matt.)
St. Cyprian of Carthage (200? – 258), “Whence comes this tradition? Does it descend from the Lord’s authority, or from the commands and epistles of the apostles? For those things are to be done which are there written … If it be commanded in the gospels or the epistles and Acts of the Apostles, then let this holy tradition be observed,” (Ep. 74 ad Pompeium).
Athanasius (300? – 375), “The Holy Scriptures, given by inspiration of God, are of themselves sufficient toward the discovery of truth. (Orat. adv. Gent., ad cap.) 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,” (Exhort. ad Monachas)
The point should be clear…the Fathers are helpful but never our rule of faith. Scripture must be our rule of faith and we can see the Fathers as helpful commentators but no more than that.