Early Church Fathers and the question of authority

As I see it, Scripture confers no special status to the so-called Early Church Fathers. As such their theological opinions should be judged against the Scriptures and they should not be given substantial weight when interpreting Scripture. They were closer to the Apostolic age and may well have some insights into certain matters, but their fallible opinions (which are quite varied) are in no way equal to the same God given authority which the Apostles held. The writings of the Early Church Fathers are not canonical! Most Eastern Orthodox and Catholic apologists appeal extensively to the Church Fathers, and much of their churches’ theology can be traced to them. We Reformed believe in Sola Scriptura. Scripture alone is our highest and only infallible authority. We should use our reason and the guidance of the Holy Spirit when we are interpreting Scripture and expounding doctrine for the Church.

It is sad that so often I encounter Orthodox and Catholics who will dismiss a carefully reasoned piece of exegesis of Scripture with the quip “Well the Church Fathers didn’t teach that!” The Apostle Paul warned us that error and false teaching would soon come into the Church. And it was even present at the time he wrote Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We can see many heresies being embraced by the Church Fathers such as infant baptism, baptismal regeneration, apocatastasis or rather universal salvation, purgatory, the necessity of the 7 so-called sacraments, etc.

Here are some Scriptures by the Apostles Paul and Peter which address false teaching.

But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.

2 Peter 2:1

“…stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies.  These promote controversies rather than God’s work–which is by faith.  The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.  Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk.  They want to be teachers of the law, but htey do not know what they are talking about our what they so confidently affirm.”
(1 Tim. 1:3-7)

“Some have rejected these [faith and good conscience] and so have shipwrecked their faith.  Among them are Hymanaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.”
(1 Tim. 1:19b-20)

Deacons “must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.”
(1 Tim. 3:9)

“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.  Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.”
(1 Tim. 4:1-2)

“Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.  Watch you life and doctrine closely.  Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
(1 Tim. 4:15-16)

“If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing.  He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.”
(1 Tim. 6:3-5)

“Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”
(1 Tim. 6:10b)

“What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.  Guard the good deposit that was entruted to you–guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”
(2 Tim. 1:13-14)

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.  Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.  Their teaching will spread like gangrene.  Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth.  They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.”
(2 Tim. 2:16-18)

“Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you  know they produce quarrels.  And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”
(2 Tim. 2:23-26)

“They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.  Just as Jannes and Jambres oppose the truth–men of depraved minds, who, as fas as the faith is concerned, are rejected.”
(2 Tim. 3:1-8)

“In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.  But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it…”
(2 Tim. 3:12-14)

“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.  But you, keep you head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” (2 Tim. 4:2-5)

Elders “must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.  For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of teh circumcision group.  They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach–and that for the sake of dishonest gain.”
(Titus 1:11)

“Rebuke them sharply, so that they may be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the commands of those who reject the truth.” (Titus 1:13-14)

“You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.” (Titus 2:1a)

Thus, we can see the great importance the Apostles placed on sound doctrine. Our authority must be the Word of God. There is no higher authority to which we may turn to. All the man made traditions we find present the Roman and Orthodox churches can be traced back to the teachings of the Early Church Fathers. They must clearly be categorically rejected. Everything we need to be complete in our faith and ready to live out our faith is found in the Scriptures. There is no extraneous set of authorities we need to submit to when interpreting and understanding Scripture. The Orthodox and Catholic churches have replaced the function of the Holy Spirit with a bunch of men. This is a serious and Satanic error.

The teachings of the Early Church Fathers may be considered when interpreting Scripture, however they should not be accorded any special weight, the pious opinions of the Reformers and contemporary Reformed authors, pastors and seminary professors should be considered at the same level as we do the Early Church Fathers. In fact I would give more weight to the theology of Reformers such as Luther and Calvin then I would the Early Church Fathers. Because we know the Reformation was a special movement used by God to get His Church back on the path of biblical truth and sound teaching. Personally, I value the theological opinions of the Puritans much more than I do the opinions of the Early Church Fathers! What the Puritans write resonates with me on a deep level. I don’t get that from reading most of the Early Church Fathers. I do with Augustine however, although he had substantial error in his teachings, nevertheless God enabled him to understand the Doctrines of Grace!

I repeat, we are absolutely not to regard non-apostolic writers of the first century and onward as a doctrinal authority. As we see in the early Church, in the book of Acts, Apostolic doctrine, now contained in the New Testament, is to be our focus; along with the Old testament; the Bible, which is our authority for faith and practice.

The Early Church Fathers have a diverse range of theological opinions, sometimes embraced heresy, and oftentimes contradict each other. They are no more learned or endowed with understanding of Scripture than godly men of other times in history. No special status should be granted to them. And certainly not the enormous weigh the Orthodox and Catholic churches grant them in defining doctrine.

As we have seen, the Early Church Fathers’ opinions can be useful, but we should not base doctrine on their fallible and oftentimes contradictory opinions. We should base doctrine solely on the infallible witness of the Scriptures! This is the solid ground!

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