The Relevance of the Church Fathers Today

The Relevance of the Church Fathers Today

The early church fathers are highly respected by all Christian groups that are serious about the historical roots of their faith. Their writings are appealed to by Protestants and Roman Catholics alike to support their dogmatic and ecclesiastical beliefs and practices. However, it is easy to make too much out of them. This essay provides eleven considerations about how difficult it is to understand the genuine meaning of the early church fathers with regard to religious controversies that arose after their time. The second half discusses six reasons why the early church fathers are not a sufficient authority for determining such controversies.

This article is a synopsis of A Treatise Concerning the Right Use of the Fathers” by Jean Daillé (1594-1670). Daillé presents several clear proofs and examples (in their original languages as well) for each argument in his book which will not be reproduced here, rather our intention is to provide a brief summary of his reasons. The reader is highly encouraged to read the book in its entirety, especially if something does not seem persuasive in this synopsis.

The fundamentals of religion which Protestants hold to are clearly drawn from the Scriptures, expressed in the ancient church councils, and “unanimously received by the greatest part of Christians in all ages, and in different parts of the world” (p. 17). The Church of Rome adds to these beliefs additional articles of faith (which Protestants do not receive) that are not found in Scripture and contends that they are necessary. These include such things as that the pope is the head of the church, papal or ecclesiastical infallibility, transubstantiation, veneration of the host, expiatory sacrifice of the mass, the worship of graven images of God and adoration of the saints, prayer to saints and angels, Purgatory, canonicity of the Apocrypha, auricular confession to a priest, that only priests need to receive both elements of the Eucharist, and many more. Since none of these are found in Scripture, Rome seeks to leverage the writings of the early church fathers for support. Daillé’s book examines “whether or not this be good and sufficient means for the decision of these differences” (p. 19). His two general arguments throughout the book, which need to be answered by Rome to substantiate their idea of a normative patristic tradition are the following:

“The first is, that the question being here about laying a foundation for certain articles of faith, upon the testimonies or opinions of the Fathers, it is very necessary that the passages which are produced out of them be clear, and not to be doubted; that is to say, such as we cannot reasonably scruple at, either as regards the author out of whom they are alleged, or the sense of the place, whether it signify what is pretended.
. . .
[Secondly], to allow a sufficiency to the writings of the Fathers for the deciding of those controversies, we must necessarily attribute to their persons very great authority; and such as may oblige us to follow their judgment in matters of religion.” (p. 20).

The difficulty of knowing the meaning of the Fathers with regard to current religious controversies.

“If we should here follow the same course of argument which some writers of the Church of Rome make use of against the Holy Scriptures, it would be a very easy matter to bring in question, and render very doubtful and suspected, all the writings of the Fathers. For, when the Old or New Testament is quoted, these gentlemen instantly demand, how, or by what means they know, that any such books were truly written by those Prophets and Apostles whose names they bear? If therefore, in like manner, when these men urge Justin, Irenaeus, Ambrose, Augustine, and the like, one should at once demand of them, how, and by what means they are assured that these Fathers were the authors of those writings which at this day bear their names, there is little doubt but that they would find a harder task of it than their adversaries in justifying the writings of the sacred volume, the truth whereof is much more easy to be demonstrated than of any human writings whatsoever.” (p. 25).

1. Few extant writings.

1. There is very little extant of early church writings, especially from the first three centuries.

The primary reason for the alleged authority of the early church fathers is due to their antiquity and the supposition that the church was more pure, in doctrine and practice, in the time immediately following the Apostles. Corruption crept into the church little by little and by degrees over time. However, even this assumption ought to be balanced by further considerations. Scripture itself warns of error, and it is clear from the New Testament that the first century church, and the Apostles themselves, continuously fought multiple errors (Mat. 18:7; 1 Cor. 11:19; 2 Thes. 2:7; 2 Tim. 4:3-4, 14-15; 2 Peter 2:15-16; 1 John 2:18-19; Jude 4 ff.; Rev. 2:6, 15; etc.). [1] Further, Eusebius cites Hegesippus’ (c. 110-180 AD) testimony that error began to spread soon after the death of the Apostles,

“the Church up to that time [of emperor Trajan] had remained a pure and uncorrupted virgin…but when the sacred college of apostles had suffered death in various forms, and the generation of those that had been deemed worthy to hear the inspired wisdom with their own ears had passed away, then the league of godless error took its rise as a result of the folly of heretical teachers, who, because none of the apostles was still living, attempted henceforth, with a bold face, to proclaim, in opposition to the preaching of the truth, the ‘knowledge which is falsely so-called.'” (Eccles. Hist. III.32).

If such errors existed in the Apostles’ day, and immediately following, how much more can we expect them centuries later? So even of the writings we have from the first three centuries, we cannot automatically assume that they are necessarily pure.

However, to this day we possess relatively few writings from the early church, especially from the first three centuries. This is the case for two reasons, 1) they did not write as much as later ages did; Origen relates that “they were of opinion that the Christian religion was to be defended by the innocency of life and honesty of conversation, rather than by sophistry and the artifice of words” (p. 29); further, amidst persecution the Christians in that age scarcely had the opportunity to write. 2) Of the books that were written, many of them have been lost through time and by censorship, suppression, and malicious destruction.

2. Anachronism.

2. Those writings which we have of the Fathers of the first centuries treat of matters much different from the present controversies in religion.

The time of their writing makes the use of the Fathers in modern religious debates difficult. It is very easy and common to read the early church fathers anachronistically, interpreting them as though they were addressing controversies that arose after their times. Daillé observes,

“The matters whereof they treat are of a very different nature. These authors, according as the necessity of their times required, employing themselves either in justifying the Christian religion, and vindicating it from the aspersion of such crimes wherewith it was most falsely and injuriously charged; or else in laying open to the world the absurdity and impiety of Paganism; or in convincing the hard-hearted Jews; or in confuting the prodigious fooleries of the heretics of those times; or in exhortations to the faithful to patience and martyrdom; or in expounding some certain passages and portions of the Holy Scripture—all which things have very little to do with the controversies of these times, of which they never speak syllable, unless they accidentally or by chance let a word drop from them, toward this side or that side, yet without the least thought of us or of our controversies. Although both the one and the other party sometimes lights upon passages wherein they conceive they have discovered their own opinions clearly delivered, though in vain for the most part, and without ground.” (p. 33).

The theologians of that time were busy with controversies other than many of those which arose in the Protestant Reformation. They even formulated things in ambiguous ways prior to controversies but tightened up their language after more precise phrasing was codified. Daillé demonstrates how many of them, writing prior to the outbreak of heresies (such as Arianism), seem, at face value, to be espousing heresy, and gives many explicit citations of later writers saying so of earlier ones (pp. 111-117). The same phenomenon is the case regarding controversies between Rome and the Protestants, Rome and Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans and Reformed, Anglicans and Puritans, etc. The Fathers did not intend to address many of these points of controversy (or if they did, it was in passing), and it is anachronistic to attempt to force them to. However, we can be sure that “the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture (Gal. 1:8-9; 2 Thes. 2:2; 2 Tim. 3:15-17).” (WCF 1:6).

3. Forgeries.

3. Those writings which bear the names of the ancient Fathers are not all truly such; but a great part of them supposititious, and forged, either long since or at later periods.

Forgery is commonplace in many disciplines, including theological writings of the past. It is not only a recent tactic, but it was frequent even centuries ago. As Daillé noted, “It is the complaint of the greatest part of the Fathers, that the heretics, to give their own dreams the greater authority, promulgated them under the names of some of the most eminent writers in the church, and even of the Apostles themselves.” (p. 37) “…they were not so foolish as to discover their venom at the first dash, in the height of their heretical positions; but rather, that they only cunningly infused here and there some sprinklings of it, laying the foundation of their heresy as it were afar off only; which makes the knavery the more hard to be discovered, and consequently the more dangerous.” (p. 40). This was not exclusively the practice of heretics, but even the orthodox, or those with otherwise noble intentions, occasionally engaged in such deception. For example, some early Christians disguised predictions of Christ as though they were oracles from the Sibyls, hoping to give credibility to Christianity among the pagan Greeks (p. 44). Not only are authors forged, but also the date of composition so that works may seem to be more ancient and thus more honorable.

Many apocryphal gospels and other pseudepigraphical works of antiquity are well known, while many others are disputed and questioned by modern scholars. Daillé relays many examples, some of which it likely could not have been known were forgeries if other ancient evidence and testimony had not survived. However, even this is not an infallible guide, “Some of the Fathers themselves have made use of these kind of forgeries…others have favoured them because they served their turn; some have not been able to discover them; and some others have not been willing to do so, whatsoever their reason has been” (p. 57).

If we are able to discover these forgeries, is it not very probable that there are others which have not been discovered, nor that feasibly can be? Not only must ancient forgeries be discovered, but those that are of more recent times. Is it not also a common occurrence that even when false information is revealed, it is still unknowingly or uncritically propagated by some? Biases often prevent people from critically examining things, and no one can be an expert at everything. Myths commonly propagate for a long time after they have been found to be false, even in scholarly writings, and conclusions are drawn from such forgeries that are difficult to unwind after time passes. Daillé remarked,

“Suppose that these authors have done their utmost endeavour in this design, without any particular affection, or partiality; how shall we be satisfied concerning their sufficiency for the performance of their undertaking? Is it a light business to bring the whole stock of Antiquity to the crucible, and there to purify and refine it, and to separate all the dross from it, which hath so deeply, and for the space of so many ages, been not only as it were tied, and fastened on to it, but even thoroughly mixed, united, and incorporated with it? This work requires the most clear and refined judgment that can be imagined. An exquisite wit, a quick piercing eye, a perfect ear, a most exact knowledge in all history, both ancient and modern, both ecclesiastical and secular; a perfect knowledge of the ancient tongues, and a long and continued conversation with all sorts of writers, both ancient, medieval, and modern, to be able to judge of their opinions, and which way their pulse beats: to understand rightly the manner of their expression, invention, and method in writing: each age, each nation, and each author, having their own peculiar ways in all these. Now such a man as this is hardly produced in a whole age.” (pp. 54-55).
. . .
“Now how can we imagine but that among so many several persons that have for their several purposes employed their utmost endeavours in these kinds of forgeries, there must needs have been, in so many centuries, very many able men, who have had the skill so artificially to copy the manner and style of the persons whom they imitate, as to render it impossible to discover them? Especially if they made choice of such a name as was the only thing remaining in the world of that author, so that there is no mark left us either of his style, discourse, or opinions, to guide us in our examination.” (pp. 55-56).

In sum, if people are smart enough to detect forgeries, others can also be smart enough to create forgeries. Consider the modern example of the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ wife” and the incredible skill that went into creating it which mystified scholars for years. Harvard historian of Christianity, Dr. Karen King, “had placed her faith in the opinions of expert papyrologists, along with a series of carbon-dating and other scientific tests, at MIT, Harvard, and Columbia, that had turned up no signs of modern tampering or forgery.” After a journalist from the Atlantic investigated the provenance (history of ownership) of the manuscript and exposed its shady past, “King said she would need scientific proof—or a confession—to make a definitive finding of forgery. It’s theoretically possible that the papyrus itself is authentic, she said, even if its provenance story is bogus. But the preponderance of the evidence, she said, now ‘presses in the direction of forgery.‘” [2]

4. Textual Variants.

4. Those of the writings of the Fathers which are legitimate, have been in many places corrupted by time, ignorance, and fraud, both pious and malicious, both in the former and later ages.

Similarly, after discovering the genuine writings of the Fathers from the spurious, the next task would be 1) to distinguish every genuine reading within the writings from those which have been inserted by someone else, and 2) to restore what has been lost either by time, ignorance, or fraud. God did not certify by his singular care and providence that the writings of the Fathers would be kept pure from corruption like he did about the holy scriptures. Their writings have undergone many significant alterations, and their style of writing makes these alterations all the more significant when it comes to discerning their meaning. Whereas it is often the case that scribal errors in the New Testament do not alter the meaning of the passage, this is not as often the case in the writings of the Fathers due to their convoluted style (cf. point 5). Changing one letter can dramatically change the meaning; e.g. what is “papa urbis,” father/bishop of the city, in some manuscripts is “papa orbis,” father/bishop of the world, in others (p. 87). Daillé observed,

“For example, take Tertullian, and you shall find, that one little word added, or taken away, or altered never so little, or a full-point or comma but out of its place, will so confound the sense, that you will not be able to find what he would have. Whereas in books of an easy, smooth, clear style, as the Scriptures for the most part are, these faults are much less prejudicial, seeing they cannot in any wise so darken the sense, but that it will be still easy enough to apprehend it.” (p. 63).

Daillé again furnishes numerous examples, but we will only cite a few here. Jerome openly admits that when translating Origen he left out what he believed was dangerous or possibly offensive as well as what was not important, and he references the practice of Hilary and Eusebius as justification—and this practice of his appears to be consistent if one “compares his Latin Chronology, with the Greek fragments which remain of Eusebius” (p. 69). Many others acquainted with the Fathers, says Daillé, have noticed this phenomenon and even in the margins there are often things written such as “Hic videtur aliquis assuisse nugas suas” [roughly: Here, someone seems to have attached his own nonsense]. 16th century Roman priest and Syriacist, Andreas Masius even admitted that:

“Men have always been of such a humour and disposition in matters of religion as that you shall scarcely find any that have been able to content themselves with the ceremonies prescribed unto them by their fathers, how holy soever they have been in themselves: so that we may observe, that in tract of time, according as the prelates have thought fittest to move the affections of the people to piety and devotion, many other things have been either added, or altered; and (which is much worse) many superstitious things have been introduced.” (Praef. in Litur. Syr.) (pp. 70-71).

Romanist George Cassander likewise noted that “the ancient liturgies have by little and little been enlarged by the several additions of the moderns” (p. 71; cf. Liturgica, ch. 2). It was not just private writings of the Fathers which have been altered, even corporate liturgies, canons, and creeds have been as well. The Greeks and Latins continually accused each other of corrupting ancient works. Works originally written in one language, today only exist in another, the original meaning of which can never be clearly known. Many works were entirely destroyed, such as those by Iconoclasts, which Pope Adrian decreed “That they should burn all those books which had been written against venerable images” (p. 92). “It is impossible but that in these fires very many works must needs have perished that might have been of great use to us for discovering what the opinion of the ancients was” (p. 92). Even prior to alterations being discovered, doctrine and practice has been built upon them such that it is difficult to unravel the sources of everything that came afterwards. If such tampering has been discovered, how much more still lies suspect or hidden, which is so deeply buried by the cunning devices of both the malicious and the pious, or which after many ages might be unlikely or impossible to uncover?

5. Language, idioms, rhetoric, terminology.

5. The writings of the Fathers are hard to be understood by reason of the languages and idioms they wrote in, the manner of their writing, which is for the most part encumbered with figures, rhetorical flourishes, and nice logical subtleties, and the like; and also by reason of the terms, which they for the most part used in a far different sense from what they now bear.

Roman Catholics claim that Scripture is obscure and that it therefore cannot be the judge of controversies. Yet, why cannot we give the same reason for the writings of the Fathers? “As Jerome did of some certain expositors of some parts of the Scriptures: that it was more trouble to understand them well, than those very things which they took upon them to expound: that is to say, that it is much harder rightly to understand them than the Scriptures themselves” (p. 102; Letter 140 to Cyprian, Migne PL v. 22, p. 1166).

Assuming the authenticity can be verified of the works we leverage from the Fathers for modern controversies, in order to understand them, one must one be fluent in the languages in which they wrote. Daillé shows how many translators changed the meaning of the original and notes how even experts often disagree about the proper translation of difficult idioms and the meaning of whole propositions (pp. 101-111). The Council of Florence is a great example where Romanists and Eastern Orthodox debated the meaning of many quotes from the Fathers,

“and after all their disputes, how clearly and powerfully soever each party vaunted that the business was carried on their side, they have yet left us the sense of the Fathers much more dark and obscure than it was before… Each side having indeed very much appearance of reason in what they urge against their adversaries, but very little solidity in what they have said severally for themselves.” (p. 108).

The Manner of Their Writing.

Secondly, the manner of their writing makes the use of the Fathers in modern debates difficult. They often admit to purposely concealing their ideas, or to at least expressing them obscurely (p. 118). Particularly when speaking of the sacraments, they often spoke obscurely “to implant in the minds of the Catechumens a greater reverence and esteem of the sacraments, and a more earnest and eager desire to be admitted to partake of them: fearing, lest the laying open and discoursing plainly on the matter and manner of celebrating of the sacraments, might lessen affections in them” (p. 119). Some were not as educated as others and did not write very clearly. On the other hand, many of them were very learned and “had been trained up from their infancy in the eloquence and knowledge of the Greeks…by this means mixing with the Christian philosophy many exotic words, customs, and discourses—which mixture, though it gives indeed much pleasure to the learned, must necessarily render the sense of these authors the more dark and perplexed” (p 121). Epiphanius (AD 377) testified:

“The doctors no longer regarding an honest, plain, and solid way of teaching, began now to endeavour to please, and to be favourably received by their auditors, just as Sophisters are wont to do…” (Panarion 64.19) (p. 122).

Likewise, Gregory Naziansen (AD 329-390) noted:

“There was a time when our affairs flourished, and we were in a happy estate, when this vain and loose kind of divinity, which is everywhere now in fashion, together with all its artifices and delicacies of language, was not at all admitted into the sheepfolds of the Lord…On the contrary, rather a plain, masculine, and free way of discourse was then accounted the most pious.” (Enc. Athan.) (p. 123).

It is also common for them to deny or affirm something with absolute language even though their intent is to do so only by way of comparison to something else. Daillé cites several examples of this also. To strengthen this observation he notes that the second council of Nicaea, which endorsed Iconodulia, worship of images, cited three church fathers which plainly seem to be Iconoclasts, but yet the council “pretends that these Fathers here speak only by way of comparison; meaning to say no more than that the images of Jesus Christ and of the saints are much less profitable than the reading of their books, or the imitation of their lives, or than charity toward the poor” (p. 129; cf. the sixth session). While they seem to be unjustly invoking this rule of interpretation, it is significant that even they admit it is a common technique in the Fathers.

Further, in their polemical writings they routinely exaggerate their arguments, and “whilst they use their utmost endeavour to beat down one error, they seem to run into the contrary one” (p. 130). Athanasius defended Dionysius Alexandrinus against the Arians on the grounds that Dionysius’ arguments against Sabellianism appear to be espousing Arianism; Basil did the same in vindicating Gregorius Neocaesariensis from the charge of Modalism, etc. (p. 131).


Lastly, “the changing of customs, both civil, and ecclesiastical, and the variation of words in their signification, do not a little contribute to this difficulty of understanding the writings of the Fathers” (p. 134).

“But yet there arises much more confusion out of the words they used, which we have still retained, though in a different signification. We have indeed these words, Pope, Patriarch, Mass, Oblation, Station, Procession, Mortal Sins, Penance, Confession, Satisfaction, Merit, Indulgence, as the ancients had, and make use of an infinite number of the like terms; but understand them all in a sense almost as far different from theirs, as our age is removed from theirs.” (p. 135).

Every bishop was called pope or papa, the Mass had not accumulated all the liturgy and ceremonies we know it to have now, etc.

6. Concealed opinions.

6. The Fathers frequently conceal their own private opinions, and say what they did not believe; either in reporting the opinions of others, without naming them, as in their commentaries; or in disputing against an adversary, where they make use of whatever they are able; or in accommodating themselves to their listeners, as may be observed in their homilies.


Jerome explains the goal of commentators of his time:

“This is the usual manner of commentaries, and the rule that commentators go by; to set down in their expositions the several opinions they have met with; and to deliver both what their own and what the judgment of others is upon the passage. And this is the practice not only of the interpreters of the Scriptures, but of the expositors also of all kinds of secular learning, as well in the Greek as in the Latin tongue.” (Apology Against Rufinus 1.16)

Daillé astutely observes:

“This seems to be a very strange way of commenting. For what light, or what certainty can a reader be able to gather out of such a rhapsody of different opinions, tumbled together in a heap, without so much as intimating either which is good or bad, or probable, or necessary, or to the purpose, or not? But seeing it has pleased Jerome to follow this course, whatsoever his reason be, you see plainly that we are not to take as his whatsoever he has delivered in his commentaries. And seeing also he speaks in general terms, as he does, of the nature and manner of a commentary, we are not to doubt but that the rest of the Fathers have been chiefly of the same judgment, and that consequently they took the same course in those expositions which we have of theirs. So that it will hence follow, that notwithstanding that we should chance to find in these kind of writings of theirs, an opinion or an interpretation clearly delivered, yet may we not from thence presently conclude that this was the author’s own opinion. For perhaps he only delivered it as the opinion of some other man.” (pp. 138-9).

If they had only presented the views of orthodox believers, and noted when and whom they were citing, this would not be quite as problematic, but they often include strange and dangerous viewpoints from ill reputed theologians. Daillé relays several instances of this, as well as instances where Romanists acknowledge that the Fathers often did this (p. 143). Just as it is futile to discern the opinion of a good historian or transcriber who merely relays the opinions of others, likewise is it often toilsome to attempt to discern the opinions of the Fathers in their commentaries.


Cardinal Perron (certainly not an ally of Reformed Theology) further evinced what was noted in reason 5, that the early church fathers often admit to purposely concealing their ideas, or to at least expressing them obscurely. He noticed that they would frequently allegorize texts related to the sacraments to keep the mysteries concealed from the Catechumens (which were dismissed before the sacraments were observed, but permitted to listen to the sermons), and make them all the more desirous to become communicants. They spoke what “they thought to be not the best and truest, but the most proper for the edification of others, and that they had an apprehension that a bare and downright expression of the truth might possibly have abated the warmth of the people’s devotion” (p. 148). Their sermons and homilies were not generally straightforward for this reason. Daillé notes how Perron attempted to use this rule of interpretation against various quotes of the Fathers which the Protestants leveraged against the Papists. While Perron dishonestly alleged this, it is significant that he admits it is a common earmark of the Fathers’ homilies. If the Papists use this against us, why can we not use it against them? Especially since “the Fathers are much more careful in concealing the matter of the sacrament, the outward appearance whereof is apt to make it disesteemed, than they are in concealing the form, which is of so venerable a nature; saying often and in express terms that it is ‘the body of Christ,’ but ordinarily forbearing to say that it is, or that it was, ‘a piece of bread.’” (p. 148).


“Their opinion was that in this kind of writing it was lawful for them to say and make use of anything that might advance their cause, although it were otherwise but light and trivial, or perhaps also contrary to what themselves believed; and so, on the other side, to conceal and reject whatsoever might prejudice their cause, though otherwise true and allowable.” (p. 149).

Daillé cites the testimonies of Jerome, Athanasius, and Basil, where they admit that this was a widespread technique in disputations with one’s adversaries. “They were wont in their disputations sometimes to say one thing and believe another…and that they were sometimes constrained to fit their words, not to their own proper thoughts, but to the present necessity” (p. 151). Even if they did not openly confess this, it is evident in their writings, and they will often say opposing things in different writings.

Hence it is not always so easy to discern the sincerely held viewpoints of the Fathers.

7. Retractions.

7. The Fathers have not always held the same doctrine; but have changed some of their opinions, according as their judgment has become matured by study or age.

“Amongst all the Ecclesiastical writers, the penmen of the Old and New Testament only have received the knowledge of divine things by an extraordinary inspiration. The rest have acquired their knowledge by the ordinary means of instruction, reading, and meditation; so that this knowledge came not to them in an instant, as it did to the others, but increased in them by degrees, ripening by little and little in proportion as they grew in years. Whence it is that their writings are not all of the same weight, nor of the same value. For who sees not, that what they, as it were, sportingly wrote in their younger years, is of much less consideration than those other pieces which they wrote in their mature age?” (p. 156).

Augustine wrote a book of Retractions near the end of his life. Jerome relays that Origen had written a letter in his old age where he confessed that he had “repented of many things which he had taught and written” (p. 157). Daillé provides additional examples where it is evident that the Fathers changed their views over time, yet many did not have Augustine’s modesty to comprehensively record their retractions. Since many works have been lost, it is also possible that retractions have been lost. Also, it is not always easy to know the date of any given writing. Lastly, it is not always the case that men grow wiser with age, men can become senile or otherwise change for the worse later in life.

Roman Catholic theologians have dismissed certain passages of the Fathers that do not comport with their views on this very grounds (pp. 157-8). But this exposes a seventh difficulty in discerning the applicability of the Fathers to modern religious controversies:

“…it will necessarily follow from hence, that we ought not to rest certainly satisfied in the testimony of any Father, except we first be assured that not only he never afterwards retracted that opinion of his, but that besides, he wrote it in the strength and ripeness of his judgment. And see now how we are fallen into a new labyrinth: For, first of all, from whence and by what means may we be able to come truly and certainly to the knowledge of this secret? Since we can hardly meet with any conjectures, tending to the making of this discovery, namely, whether a Father has in his old age changed his opinion on that point for which it is produced against us, or not?” (p. 159).

8. The Manner and Degree the Fathers held their views.

8. It is necessary, but nevertheless difficult, to discover how the Fathers have held all their several opinions—whether as necessary or as probable only—and in what degree of necessity or probability.

Again, Roman Catholic theologians have used this argument against Protestants who say that they hold to the catholic faith of the church. They allege that Protestants do not believe everything in the same manner and degree that the early church did (p. 164). Yet on the other hand, they subtly excuse their own doctrine and practice, which is contradictory to the early church, on this grounds. There are even multiple schools of thought within the Roman church which hold contradictory beliefs to one another (e.g. immaculate conception of Mary; whether to worship the cross or not; whether the pope or general councils are the supreme power, etc.). Beliefs which, if considered in themselves, are not inconsequential; and yet, to prop up their contrived unity, they assert that these differences are not necessary to faith. Hence, the problem of knowing with what degree the ancients held the necessity or probability of the doctrines which are in dispute between the Protestants and the Romanists pertains even to the disputes between Romanists.

Did the early church Fathers hold each of their doctrines in the same, higher, or lower degree of necessity than is currently held by Rome? If they insist on convincing their interlocutors from the Fathers, they must demonstrate this. “Now this must prove a matter of most extreme difficulty, and much greater here than in any of the other points before proposed.” (p. 169). Daillé exposes where the Council of Trent made an error in judgment of the manner and degree the Fathers considered a doctrine to point out how even councils full of learned men can make a mistake on this point in using the Fathers (pp. 170-172), and calls our attention to the fact that,

“The Fathers tell us very seldom in what degree, either of necessity or probability, they held their opinions. And even when they do tell us, their expressions being such as we have observed of them [section 5], we ought not at once to conclude anything from them without first examining them thoroughly. For many times, when they would recommend unto us such things as they accounted profitable for us, they would speak of them as if they had been necessary. And so again, to take off our belief of, and to divert our affections from, such things as they conceived either to be simply false, or otherwise unprofitable for us, they represented them as the most detestable and pernicious things.” (p. 173).

The best way to know with what degree of necessity the Fathers considered Christian doctrines is from their ecclesiastical assemblies and creeds where doctrine is more explicitly stated and errors condemned. Daillé says,

“Yet this rule will scarcely be of any use at all to us in the decision of our present controversies. For some of them appear not at all, either in that rule of faith so often mentioned by Tertullian, nor in the Nicene Creed, nor in that of Constantinople, nor in the determinations of the Council of Ephesus, nor yet in those of Chalcedon… [they] do not at all appear at all in the two following councils… Yet have these first six councils (if you believe the Fathers of the 7th) “established and confirmed all those things which had been taught in the Catholic Church from the primitive times, whether by writing, or by unwritten tradition.” It will hence follow that these points, which appear not here in the said first six councils at all, were not taught from the beginning, neither in writing nor otherwise. ” (pp. 174-5).

It isn’t until the eighth century that we find a council laying down something that is controversial between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 enjoined the use and adoration of graven images, which was hotly disputed by the Iconoclasts at the time and even in regional councils (e.g. Council of Hieria in 754, and of Frankfort in 794).

In sum,

“it is, if not impossible, at least a very difficult thing to discover in what degree either of necessity, or probability, the ancient Fathers held each of those points which are now debated amongst us. Seeing that they appear not at all, neither in the expositions of their faith, nor yet in the determinations of their councils, which are as it were the catalogs of those points of doctrine which they accounted necessary.”

9. Doctrine of the whole Church, or only of a few Fathers?

9. We ought to know what have been the opinions, not of one or more of the Fathers, but of the whole ancient Church; which is a very difficult matter to discover.

The Fathers discuss “points which were long since decided, believed, and received, expressly and positively, by the whole Christian Church, either of their own age, or of any of the preceding ages” (p. 178), but they also discuss points which are merely their own private opinions. Daillé shows how the Romanists use this concept to answer objections levied against them out of the Fathers. Since all sides admit that the Fathers often express their own private opinions, it is important to discern whether their opinion is that of the whole church, or only their own. But this is not always an easy task.

Protestants may leverage Jerome’s excision of the Apocrypha from the canon, then Papists reply that it was a private opinion which no general council had yet determined, but then later attempt to exploit his adoration of relics without applying that same standard there. Not only is a clear knowledge of these matters difficult to have, but also a consistent application of it. This is why it is problematic to prop up so high the authority of the fallible Fathers. Sometimes the Fathers “attribute to the Church those things which it is most evident it never held. Yet they very seldom make any such distinction, but commonly express their own private opinions in the same manner as they do those publicly received” (p. 181). As noted in the previous section:

“The ancient Church has not anywhere declared, neither in its creeds, nor in the aforesaid councils, what the opinion and sense of it has been on the greatest part of those points which are now in dispute amongst us. It follows therefore, that by this means we shall never be able to distinguish in the writings of the Fathers which were their own private opinions, and which they held in common with the rest of the Church.” (p. 182).

10. Reception by the Universal Church.

10. It is very difficult to ascertain whether the opinions of the Fathers, as to the controversies of the present day, were received by the universal Church, or only by some portion of it; this being necessary to be known before their sentiments can be adopted.

“Suppose that a Father, relieving us in this difficult or rather impossible business, should tell us in express terms, that what he proposes is the sense and opinion of the church in his time; yet this would not quite extricate us from the doubtful condition we are in. For, besides that their words are many times, in such cases as these, liable to exception, suppose that it were certainly and undoubtedly so; yet it would concern us then to examine what that church was whereof he speaks; whether it were the church universal, or only some particular church, and whether it were that of the whole world, or that of some city, province, or country only.” (pp. 184-5).

Rome considers the opinions of the universal church infallible and necessarily true, but those of individual churches are not. If we are to ground our faith on that which is infallibly true, it is necessary to know that a doctrine was received by the universal church rather than individual churches only. Moreover, “the opinions and customs which have been commonly received by the greatest part of Christendom, have not always immediately taken place in each particular church; and again, those which have been received in certain particular churches have not been entertained by all the rest” (p. 185). Daillé samples specific disagreements on doctrine and practice in the early church where both sides alleged that they held to apostolic tradition, “speaking with such great confidence in the justification of their own opinion, that on hearing them individually, a man would really believe that each of their opinions was the very sense of the whole Church; which notwithstanding was only the opinion of one portion of it” (p. 186). He continues,

“Before you can make use of any opinion or testimony out of any of the Fathers, it is necessary that you first make it appear, not only that it was the opinion of the church at that time; but you must further also clearly demonstrate unto us what church’s opinion it was; whether of the church universal, or else of some particular church only.” (p. 190).

11. Diversity of Opinions.

11. It is impossible to know exactly what has been the belief of the ancient church, either universal or particular, regarding any of those points which are at this day controverted amongst us.

Finally, even if one could resolve all ten of these previous difficulties, it would still be impossible to know with certainty from the writings of the Fathers what the judgment of the entire ancient church has been regarding current religious disputes.

The term “church” can mean either all people in general who profess to be part of the church, or in a stricter sense, the collective body of ministers and officers representing the church. If we consider the church in the first sense, it is clearly impossible to know from the testimony of the Fathers what it has believed in every age about every point of the Christian religion. We know what the true church has believed about doctrine necessary for salvation and the communion of the church, but not about every secondary issue. Not everyone who professes to be Christian genuinely is, and anyone’s profession is not a sufficient guide to the truth. There must be a knowable, clear, and infallible standard.

If we consider the church in the second sense, it may be easier to discern what its opinion has been on many more points of Christianity, but it is still not a sure and certain guide. If we are to take the church for the rule and foundation of our faith, the people should not be excluded and only the clergy considered. Certainly, the opinions and knowledge of each person are vastly different, but this is also true of the clergy. There is arguably more diversity of opinion among the clergy because they are more knowledgeable about various nuances and viewpoints. It cannot be denied that both ignorance and malice are proportionably present in the clergy just as much as in the people. “Who sees not, that if we must have regard to the capacity of men, there are sometimes found, even among the plain ordinary sort of Christians in a church, those that are more considerable, both for their learning and piety, than the pastors themselves? One of those Fathers, of whom we now discourse, has informed us that,

“Many times have the clergy erred, the bishop has wavered in his opinion, the rich men have adhered in their judgment to the earthly princes of this world; meanwhile the people alone preserved the faith entire.” (Ambrose, Ser. 17, t. 4, p. 725; pp. 196-7).

Even in the 17th century when Daillé wrote, where both church and state suppressed false doctrine, there was not uniformity on numerous doctrinal and practical issues. This was also the case throughout the history of the church, as Daillé says,

“In the ancient church, the whole clergy of a city or of a nation, much less of the whole world, had not necessarily one and the same sense and opinion on points of religion. So that it will follow from hence, that we cannot know certainly, whether those opinions with which we meet in the Fathers, were received or not by all and each of the pastors of the church at that time. All that you can gather thence is but this at the most—that they themselves, and some others perhaps of the most eminent amongst them (if you please), maintained such or such opinions… [we] deceive ourselves, when, from what we find in two or three of the Fathers, we conclude that there was at that time no other opinion held in the Christian Church, on those points whereof they treat, except that which they have delivered. It is a very hazardous business to take eight or ten men, however holy and learned they may have been, as sureties for all doctors of the church universal that lived in their age. This is too little security for so great a sum.” (pp. 200-1).


We have seen how difficult it is to discern the genuine meaning of the early church Fathers with regard to religious controversies that arose after their time. While the Fathers are indeed useful, we cannot make them a judge and rule for determining Christian doctrine and practice. Scripture alone was given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life (Luke 16:29, 31; Eph. 2:20; 2 Tim. 3:16; Rev. 22:18-19). [3]

In part 2 we will consider the second half of Daillé’s treatise, namely, why the early church fathers are not a sufficient authority for determining religious controversies.

[1] cf. The Corruptions of the Church During the First Century, ch. 1 of James Gibson’s “The Church in Relation to the State.”

[2] Ariel Sabar, Karen King Responds to ‘The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife’, The Atlantic, June 16, 2016. cf. The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife.

[3] cf. Scripture: The Only Rule of Faith and Life.
The Authority of Scripture and the Testimony of the Church.

7 thoughts on “The Relevance of the Church Fathers Today

  1. […] [22] “There are many additions in this chapter (I make no question) foisted in by such as make a practise of depraving authors of authority: some I will cut off, and other some I will but touch at.” (Joannes Ludovicus Vives (1493–1540), Commentary on Augustine, City of God 22.8, pp. 890-891). cf. The Relevance of the Church Fathers Today. […]


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