“Ah, the Church Fathers! Love those guys! There when you need them for a great story or an inspiring quote or a meaty sermon citation, and then they turn back into primitive pagan necromancers” (anonymous)
I found this quote on one of my FaceBook friend’s threads. I’m pretty sure it was sarcastic, but I would like to address it for a minute in a serious way. This is because a number of my friends are leaning toward Eastern Orthodoxy and this quote, or the thoughts behind of this quote seems to be at the center of the issue.
Here’s how I think of the early church: First, the “early church” is early only in relation to me and when I live. If we understand the first 1,000 years as “early church,” that would mean just over half the history of the church comprises the early church. However, if Christ comes back in 10,000 years, by this definition, we’re living in the early church. Does that mean that we’ll be church fathers to those who go to be with the lord in the year 9,550? I’m not sure that’s what the author of our quote had in mind, but it is an interesting thought.
Second, why do we call them “Church Fathers”? In my view, they simply came before us. They came first, granted, but nowhere does anyone, either then, or in the Bible, say that that means anything important. The folks who lived in the lifetime of the Apostles and who knew them personally, undoubtedly had more authority than the average Bible scholar of their day, but the further away from actually knowing an apostle, the less the influence the gent would have had. It would be like, my saying that I knew Francis Schaeffer personally and studied under him for 20 years, so I can represent him better than someone who read everything he ever wrote, but had never met him. But would we expect that same level of true knowledge of Francis Schaeffer from someone who studied someone, who studied someone, who studied someone, who studied me? We wouldn’t give as much credence to a fourth generation studier as we would to the first generation studier and this would especially be true if the fourth generation fellow said things that were diametrically opposed to things Schaeffer actually wrote and thus thought. It’s the same in the church. Polycarp is thought to have known the Apostle John. It makes sense that he might know more about John’s view of Jesus than almost anyone else living at the time. But would anyone think that Irenaeus (studied under Polycarp) know as much about Jesus as Polycarp did? And what about those who studied under Irenaeus, or under them? Throw in there the fact that Polycarp lived in Smyrna, Turkey (where Irenaeus was born) and Irenaeus lived in Lyon, France, and there was no electronic communications in those days.
It concerns me that the author of the quote put the term “Church Fathers” in capital letters. It appears that he thinks of these gents more highly than he ought to think. I don’t know why he would do that. When I use the term church fathers, I mean, godly Christian who came before me. Like my own earthly father, I grew up studying him, learning from him, and becoming like him. So now, as a 60 year old man, I find myself walking like I remember he walked, saying things like I remember him saying things, and probably even thinking things like he thought them. And this is all good.
One of the things he taught me, however, was to look higher than him, to look to the heavens, and to imitate him as he imitates Christ. This means that because he is human and sinful, there were things he thought, did, and said that were sinful. Things he thought that were Biblically wrong. When I was growing up, he was much wiser than I, he knew God better than I, he served God better than I and I was to imitate him in this. But where he got it wrong, I was to run past him, to become wiser than him, to speak, think, and act in a more godly way than he did. I was to take what he gave me and surpass him. To stand on his shoulders and go higher than him. And this is what I have sought to do. He is my father, but Jesus is my Lord.
This is why I’m reluctant to call the church fathers, Church Fathers. This capitalization seems to indicate an authority that God has given only to himself. He is our Father, not Chrysostom. Augustine was a great man of faith, but he was given to us to imitate and then surpass, not look to as another Apostle of God. I believe we should be standing on his shoulders, not trying to be him. I believe he would be pretty upset with us were we to stop with him and never progress in godliness, in sanctification, and in holiness of word and deed.
This is why in another place I wrote that I believe that were the early church fathers living today, or in the day of the Reformers, they would be Protestants. I said this because I believe that these men were godly and they would have thought about God and the church in the same way the Reformers did in their day. The early church gents didn’t deal with the same issues the Reformers were dealing with.
One interesting thing that might be pointed out is that whether the older church conscious of it or not, they were standing on the shoulders of the church that had gone before them. So, in a huge sense, the problems that existed in the church in the Reformers days were created by the early church fathers and the way they understood the Scriptures and their place in history. Instead of constantly comparing the church fathers teaching to Scripture and throwing out the bad and growing past it, as in my illustration with my own father, subsequent church leaders thought the church fathers had Biblical authority and kept even the sinful things. As I listen to gents who are wrestling with Eastern Orthodoxy this seems to be a consistent theme. The Church Fathers were patently right and we need to be like them. They are on par with Scripture and nothing has changed since the first four or five centuries.
As I’ve been writing this, one thing keeps popping up in my mind. In Ephesians 5:25-27 says,
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.
This passage, of course, is in the section where Paul is telling husbands how to think and act toward their wives. But he compares it to an action of Christ in history that we often seem to forget. The church is not finished. And what “not finished” means is that she is going from a state of ugliness to a state of pristine beauty. She is being sanctified, getting a bath, growing, flourishing in ever greater ways. This means that while I don’t believe the church is anywhere near finished, historically speaking she is much more beautiful today than she was when these so called church fathers were mucking about.
Why, if the church was at its ugliest state, do our friends want to be like them? It’s like wanting to be like the Corinthians when Paul to them. Why would we want to imitate those guys? If the leaders at the church in Laodicea had written sermons and letters to other churches in their day, would we call them church fathers and work to imitate them? Well, in the Eastern Orthodox sense, no. But in the sense that I’ve outlined, as they imitated Christ, we should imitate them. We do need to learn from them, stand on their shoulders, and move past them.
Speaking of history, I think it is important to point out here that when Christ is truly being exalted by a people, things change culturally. As I look at church history and cultural change around the world, the places where the world is changing the most is in places where the Gospel has been unfettered and turned loose. In an effort to preach the Gospel in all the world, and to do it more effectively, culture and life has drastically changed. In places where the church has striven to stay like the “Church Fathers,” the church has had very little cultural impact and has remained largely ineffective in spreading the Gospel and making disciples of Jesus.
It might be argued that cultural impact can be overdone. Who says, for example, that inventing cars, and rockets, smart phones, and skyscrapers has been a good thing? I would agree. It isn’t necessarily a good thing. But when you consider that this is the outcome of a world that knows Jesus, it seems that it is a good thing. It has been abused, to be sure, but in cultures where Christianity is not king, things are ugly and dark. And the spectrum from Evangelical Protestant Christianity, on one end, to total paganism, on the other, seems to mirror cultural progression and prosperity to stone age. The edges are not stark, but the differences are noticeable.
Throughout the world, Eastern Orthodoxy in all its iterations (and there are many) is only slightly above Islam in terms of impact of God on culture. The Communism of the last hundred years might be blamed for this backwardness, but the Eastern Orthodox church claims to be the original church. What have they done to change the world in 2100 years? Where have they been? Why hasn’t the world, even their part of the world, changed for the better in all that time? How did communism arise in the first place if the church was doing her job in those places? They draw communism has on people is “workers of the world unite.” They want the impoverished workers to unite to throw off the rich classes above them who keep them oppressed. If the church were serving God in those countries, the communists would have had not traction at all. But here we are. Beautiful churches all over the place, with almost 100 years of terror and humiliation for the church of Jesus Christ.
Back to the original quote for a moment. I do look to the early church fathers for help in understanding how to read my Bible. They were saints who went before. And I do find great help in them. They knew God and strove to serve him with all their hearts. But they were human and at times they were wrong. So, yes I love those guys. I use them for quotes and meaty sermons citations, and yes also, where they didn’t get it right, I also acknowledge that as well. They weren’t Jesus. My pledge is to him alone. I stand on the shoulders of all the Christians who have gone before me and I don’t turn on them in terms of whether they will be in Heaven or not. But that doesn’t mean I want to go live on a pole in the desert or in a cave in the side of a castle, or try to talk to dead saints. They had that part wrong.