Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Value (and danger) of the Early Church Fathers

Church Fathers - who are these?
The "Church Fathers", so called, are the first leaders of the church after the close of the New Testament apostolic era, so we are talking about from 100AD onwards. They lived in a heroic age where the church grew fast and was persecuted a lot.

(Don't be put off by the funny clothes or fanciful halos - these are artistic impressions - church fathers wore the Levi's and T-shirts of their age). 

Out of their warfare with pagan thinking and idolatry, they were pioneers of the faith, defending the teaching of Scripture and writing it down in short statements (creeds).

We think of names such as Ireneaus, Clement, Tertullian, and more. Many of their writings survive today (and may be read, for example in the 38-volume set called  "The Early Church Fathers").

Why we learn with caution from these greats
While we have much to learn from these great pioneers we must never follow them slavishly. And here is why:
  • they were no more inspired than we are (i.e. they had no hotline to heaven, unlike the apostles)
  • they had no-one to go before them in formulating truth and so they were at the leading edge and sometimes made mistakes
  • they did not yet have the blessings of a closed and finished New Testament (canon): they were still working this out
  • many of them converted from paganism had been taught pagan philosophy and frankly didn't shake it all off
  • they shared in all the weaknesses of ordinary church life drift from Scripture

What they got right
They were filled with zeal. They were prepared to die for Christ - sometimes too eager to die for Christ! They defended truth with great gusto and exposed the wickedness of Roman/pagan religion.

We also learn from them - almost incidentally -  how God has preserved the Bible. Read their quotes and you think you are reading one of our own translations today! It's an amazing experience!

What they got wrong
There are a number of tendencies which every church is subject to, and which the first Christians were also prone:
  1. the move from grace to law - so quickly and so easily these fathers introduced laws about what you should and should not do / go /eat / etc.
  2. the move from body to hierarchy - so quickly we find that bishops and presidents and what nots are doing all the leading, and the body of Christ takes back stage
  3. the move from freedom in worship  to liturgy - so quickly the church moves from that freedom "each brings a word" to structure and liturgy, formalism.
  4. the move from relationship to religion - we find even in the 100s Christians already introducing stuff not in the Bible: the sign of the cross, baptising three times followed by eating milk and honey, etc.
All four of these mistakes are signs of man-made religion, whether Islam, Hinduism or Christendom. Whenever true Christianity goes to seed, it begins to look like religion.

What we learn
The Church Fathers teach us many things. Here are the two big ones:
  1. Refer back to Scripture ALONE, not tradition or pagan thought  when shaping doctrine or practice
  2. Beware of the four great errors they made above, errors which the natural mind imposes on Scripture, but errors which will kill the church by quenching the Spirit.
If we were to ask where the Roman Catholic Church goes wrong, one place would be here. They take the church fathers as authorities - virtually on par with Scripture. So the errors of these men pass into Roman Catholic doctrine uncorrected. 

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