Why Seek out the Fathers

A dear friend, John Clubine, recently passed along to me a couple of pages from The Berean Call, 23, No.3 (March 2008), an article by T.A. McMahon entitled “Ancient-Future Heresies.” There are a number of things in the article with which I would wholeheartedly agree. But at one point the following is stated: “…it takes very little scrutiny of men like Origen, Ireaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine, and others, to see their flaws, let alone their heresies. For example, Origen taught that God would save everyone and that Mary was a perpetual virgin; Irenaeus believed that the bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus when consecrated, as did John Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem; Athanasius taught salvation through baptism; Tertullian became a supporter of the Montanist heresies, and a promoter of a New Testament clergy class, as did his disciple Cyprian; Augustine was the principal architect of Catholic dogma that included his support of purgatory, baptismal regeneration, and infant baptism, mortal and venial sins, prayers to the dead, penance for sins, absolution from a priest, the sinlessness of Mary, the Apocrypha as Scripture, etc. It’s not that these men got everything wrong; some on certain doctrines, upheld Scripture against the developing unbiblical dogmas of the roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, overall they are a heretical minefield. So why seek them out?” (p.4).

John Lukacs, a marvelous historian, has recently said that one of the reasons why we need to do history is that there is so much bad history out there. And this paragraph is a case in point! Much of what is said here is out and out erroneous, some of it needs nuancing and parts of it are right. It would take a book to respond adequately, and a blog is probably not the best place in engage in developing an adequate response.

But suffice it to say this: the paragraph ends with a very erroneous statement and a very important question. The deeply erroneous statement: “overall they are a heretical minefield.” Wow! There have been some in the past who argued thus, but they were usually ones who disagreed with the Reformation impulse and felt that the entire history of the church between the Apocalypse of John and the Reformation was an utter wasteland. Best to forget it all and start anew.

This was not the view of the Reformers, who felt that the Fathers of the Church could aid them in the Reformation needed in their day. Not that the Reformers believed everything that the Fathers wrote. They tested all against Holy Scripture. But they did believe that the Fathers more often supported them than they did their Roman Catholic opponents.

The question: “why seek them out?” Because the Reformers like Calvin and Cranmer and Knox believed that the Fathers were important witnesses to biblical truth and they bore witness to the grace of God at work in the Church.