3 Misconceptions About the Church Fathers

Posted: August 28, 2011 in books, christianity, history

In light of The Resurgence’s recent Concise History of Creeds and Confessions series (you might check out the Know Your Heretics series as well), I thought I would post an excerpt from Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction.

In this selection, Dr. Bryan Litfin identifies three common evangelical misconceptions regarding the church fathers.

Misconception #1: The church fathers were not biblical.
Many Protestants today associate the sayings of the church fathers with the nebulous concept of “tradition.”  Patristic teachings and creeds are sometimes referred to as “the doctrines of men,” as opposed to the divine revelation given in scripture.  Now it is certainly true that the writings of the fathers are susceptible to error, while the Bible alone is the inspired, inerrant Word of God.  But even though the fathers are fallible human beings, this does not mean everything they wrote is therefore wrong…The problem comes when we view everything through the lens of the Reformation era, when “Scripture” and “Tradition” became two competing entities.  The Council of Trent said in 1546 that the Bible and the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church are each to be venerated “with like feeling of piety and reverence.”  This came to be known as a “two-source” theory in which “Scripture” and “Tradition” were viewed as separate fountains of revelation…Obviously, to read such perspectives back onto the church fathers is to do them an injustice…

Misconception #2: The church fathers were Roman Catholics.
Once again, we commit the error of anachronism if we read our later concept of “Roman Catholic” back onto the church fathers.  Instead, we should understand what they meant when they called themselves “catholic.”  I am convinced many Christians today are being robbed of their ancient heritage precisely because they have equated the word “catholic” with being “Roman Catholic.”…The word “catholic” comes from the Greek word katholicos which literally means “pertaining to the whole” or “universal.”  When it was used to describe the Christian church in the patristic period, it referred to the unified community of all true believers in the world: those whose loyalty was given to the risen Christ, whose doctrine was orthodox, and whose faith was identical to the eyewitness testimony proclaimed by the apostles…

Misconception #3: The church fathers represent the “fall” of Christianity.
It seems there is a certain historiography (or way of viewing history) subtly being transmitted among many evangelicals today.  It goes something like this.  The New Testament era was “good,” and for a century or two the church was “pure.”  But then the subsequent generations started perverting the apostolic truth.  By the Middle Ages, the perversion of the church – doctrinal, ritual, and moral – was ubiquitous.  Only with the advent of the Protestant reformers was apostolic Christianity finally recovered…The “fall” historiography described above is not the viewpoint taken in this book…[as it] robs contemporary believers of vast portions of their historical legacy.

– Bryan Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 20-28.

You can also check out my recent interview with Dr. Litfin about the book.

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Comments
  1. youthguyerik says:

    Thanks for posting this. Its amazing to me that more believers are not more familiar with the fathers. There is no doubt that the writings of the fathers represents a powerful tool in the hands of believers in defending the faith and knowing our history. Great post!

    • Matt Tully says:

      Agreed. If you haven’t checked out the book, I’d encourage you to do so! It’s a really helpful introduction, especially for those unfamiliar with the ancient church.

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