We stated in a previous post that the Catholic Church’s dependence on the church fathers to prove the truth of a particular teaching raises more questions than answers. For example, exactly which of the early Christians were considered to be church fathers? How do we know for sure? Does the Catholic Church have an infallible list of these? How do we know that we are correctly interpreting a certain father when we read his writings? If we can correctly interpret the fathers, shouldn’t we also be able to correctly interpret the Scriptures? Why is it that some of the fathers contradict each other? Why do they sometimes contradict the Catholic Church? And how do we know that the “heretics” were not the real fathers and the ones believed to be “fathers” weren’t the real heretics? Can the Catholic Church answer any of these questions without using circular reasoning (e.g., saying the fathers are right because the Church says so, and the Church is right because the fathers say so)?
Although Catholics are quick to use the fathers as authoritative sources, someone may find it difficult to find an “official” statement by the Catholic Church that clearly defines exactly who the fathers are, and precisely what type of authority they hold. But it seems, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) that the teachings of the fathers somehow tie in closely with Sacred Tradition (CCC #78; CCC #688). In fact, the fathers of the Church are said to be one of the “principal sources” in the creation of the Catholic Catechism (CCC #11). With this in mind, we must ask, “Are all the fathers’ teachings correct?” How do we know (again, without using circular reasoning)? The answer is simple…we compare their teachings with the Bible.
The Pope Has Spoken
But, according to a papal encyclical by Pope Pius XII, it is wrong to “judge the doctrine of the Fathers and of the Teaching Church by the norm of Holy Scripture, interpreted by the purely human reason of exegetes, instead of explaining Holy Scripture according to the mind of the Church which Christ Our Lord has appointed guardian and interpreter of the whole deposit of divinely revealed truth.” (“Humani Generis”, paragraph 22, August 12, 1950.)
In other words, according to the Catholic Church, we are not allowed to judge the teachings of the church fathers in light of Scripture without the “mind of the Church.” But the “mind” of the Catholic Church clearly contradicts the Scriptures in many of its teachings, so its claim of being the “guardian and interpreter” of the “whole deposit” of truth is an empty and deceitful boast.
The Bible commands us to TEST ALL THINGS (I Thessalonians 5:21; I John 4:1), which would include the fathers, and we test them with the Scriptures, just as Jesus did (Matthew 15:1-9). No one’s teachings are exempt from this test, whether it’s the Catholic Church, a Protestant church, any church father, or any individual or group. We are all subject to God’s ultimate authority, the Scriptures, which will judge us in the last day (John 12:48). Even the teachings of the APOSTLES were to be tested (Acts 17:11), as well as those who claimed to be apostles (Revelation 2:2). And if we can test an angel from Heaven (Galatians 1:8-9), we can certainly test the church fathers.
But, just for the sake of argument, what if there were a perfectly unanimous agreement between all the fathers on all their teachings and Scripture interpretations? Would even this prove that the fathers’ teachings are true? The answer is still no. It’s not the level of unity on a doctrine that proves its truthfulness, but it’s whether it lines up with God’s revelation…the Scriptures.
To demonstrate the point, what if every single father firmly believed in a particular false teaching? Would that kind of unity make the teaching true? Of course not. Someone may answer, “But God wouldn’t have let them believe in it if it were false.” But this answer is just an unprovable assumption.
Apostasy in the Early Church
Can we always trust the fathers? Is it possible that even a church father could fall into error or apostasy? Yes, indeed. Note that apostasy, in one form or another, has entered the church from earliest times. Although not a complete apostasy, it was nevertheless present in different degrees and in different places early on, even in the days of the apostles. Note what the Apostle Paul said to the Ephesian elders:
28) Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
29) For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in AMONG YOU, not sparing the flock.
30) Also OF YOUR OWN SELVES shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. (Acts 20:28-30)
Paul also dealt with the errors of the Judaizers in the early church era, in his epistle to the Galatians, and he dealt with Gnosticism in his epistle to the Colossians.
The Apostle John also had to deal with the false teachings of the Gnostics in the epistle of I John. Furthermore, the Lord Jesus pointed out, through John, the false teachings within two of the seven churches of Asia that needed to be dealt with. (Revelation 2:14-15, 20)
Now, this does NOT mean that the gates of Hell had prevailed over the church (Matthew 16:18), but only that some had fallen prey to false doctrine. So, there was no guarantee that a father would automatically be right. One’s position or ecclesiastical (church) office does not make his message true. His faithfulness to God’s Truth does. (John 17:17)
“Closer-in-Time” Proves Truth?
CATHOLIC CLAIM – BUT SURELY THE FATHERS WERE IN A BETTER POSITION TO KNOW WHAT THE APOSTLES REALLY MEANT, THAN WE ARE TODAY. THEY WERE MUCH CLOSER IN TIME TO THE APOSTLES, AND THEREFORE, THERE WAS LESS CHANCE THAT THE MESSAGE WAS CORRUPTED.
Being “closer” to the time of the apostles does not necessarily mean the fathers’ teachings had to be true. Just as the apostles sometimes had problems understanding Jesus, Himself, the students of the apostles no doubt also sometimes had trouble understanding the apostles. And so on, down the line. Error can, and did, creep into the church and led to more and more false teaching. But, if “closer-in-time” proves a teaching is true, then why did heretics exist during the time of the apostles? And if “farther-in-time” weakens the truth, then wouldn’t it be pretty hopeless for us today, since we are so far removed from the time of Jesus and the apostles? How could we know any truth today? Perhaps the likelihood of being correct in those days was greater, but proximity in time does not guarantee truth. The fact is, there was both truth AND error in their day, just as it is now. We don’t have living, infallible apostles today to keep us on track, but we do have infallible Scripture.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – BUT THE FATHERS BELIEVED IN CATHOLIC DOCTRINES, LIKE THE EUCHARIST, INFANT BAPTISM, PENANCE, THE PRIESTHOOD, PRAYERS FOR THE DEAD, ETC., AND SOME OF THESE MEN WERE TAUGHT BY ACTUAL APOSTLES! SO THESE TEACHINGS HAD TO BE TRUE.
This does not necessarily follow. The New Testament speaks of men who were probably directly taught by apostles, yet were teaching false doctrine, like Hymenaeus and Philetus (2 Timothy 2:17-18). Worse yet, no doubt some had even stood in the very presence of Jesus Christ and claimed to be His disciples, and yet, misunderstood or misconstrued what He taught, and then went out and taught heresy. So, being in a line of students directly up to the apostles does not prove one’s doctrine. The Pharisees claimed a pedigree (lineage) from Abraham, but they didn’t do Abraham’s works or teach what Abraham taught (Matthew 3:7-9; Mark 7:6-8; John 8:39). Remember, these Pharisees were Jewish leaders to whom the oracles of God had been entrusted (Romans 3:2), just as the apostles had also been entrusted with the oracles of God. But this did not eliminate the possibility of error, abuse, or misunderstanding (even shortly) down the line. Once again, the teachings of the students of the apostles were true and accurate only in relation to their faithfulness to God’s Word.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – YOUR PROTESTANT ARGUMENTS ARE MERELY A “JOHNNY-COME-LATELY” THEOLOGY. THE CATHOLIC CHURCH HAS BEEN AROUND FOR TWO THOUSAND YEARS AND HAS ALWAYS TRUSTED THE TEACHINGS OF THE CHURCH FATHERS. SO, WHO ARE YOU GUYS TO GO AGAINST THIS VENERABLE INSTITUTION WITH YOUR NOVEL IDEAS?
First of all, we’re not saying that the teachings of the fathers are never to be trusted…they just all need to be tested before they’re accepted.
Secondly, longevity does not prove truth. Just because the Catholic Church has been around a long time doesn’t mean they’re right. The Hindus have been around for about five thousand years (more than twice as long as Christianity), but I don’t think that any reputable Catholic would say that the Hindus have more truth than Christianity does.
Thirdly, there is an extraordinary assumption in the above claim: that the modern day Catholic Church is the same church that existed in the first century, i.e., the church we find in the Bible. But how can the Catholic Church be that same one when many of its teachings are not found in the Bible, and oftentimes even contradict the Bible?
It’s easy to say, “Yeah, that was US back then, and we’re still here, doing and teaching the same things as then!” But the proof of the true church is in its faithfulness to Scripture. Catholics like to say, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” But if someone wants to see the historical church, the church of the Bible, and what THEY taught, why look so much to the fathers in the fourth, third, or second century, as many Catholics do? Why not go all the way back in history to the Author of Christianity, Jesus Christ Himself, i.e., to Him Whose words were infallible? What someone else SAID He taught does not override our responsibility to go directly to His Words in Scripture to see what He actually did teach.
The Pharisees and scribes were sharply rebuked by the Lord Jesus when they put their man-made traditions above God’s Word. And just as the Pharisees put too much trust in their “tradition of the elders” (Matthew 15:2; Mark 7:3), so do Catholics today when they look to the church fathers. Let us never embrace the words of the church fathers at the neglect of the words of the Heavenly Father. (Matthew 6:26)
Please understand, we are in no way attempting to belittle the church fathers. They had good and valuable insight, their teachings were useful and informative, and they were important to the church. But we are trying to avoid the over-emphasis of their importance. Some of them were more important than others, and they had different levels of authority and recognition. But the fathers were human, just like you and me. They sometimes disagreed with each other, contradicted each other, changed their minds on certain things, and sometimes even fell into heresy.
Were the church fathers great men of God? We believe that most of them probably were. Were they good role models? Again, we believe that probably the majority of them were good Christian examples. But the real question is, “Were their teachings INFALLIBLE?” And the answer is no. Therefore, let us hold on to that which IS God-breathed and infallible, God’s Word, the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and let us use that as our Standard to test every teaching that comes our way.