The Authority of the Early Church Fathers

Authority of the Early Church Fathers

This article is a synopsis of the second book in A Treatise Concerning the Right Use of the Fathers” by Jean Daillé (1594-1670). Click here to read Part 1: The Relevance of the Church Fathers Today.

The primary question Daillé’s second book addresses is “Whether adducing the Fathers be a sufficient and proper means for demonstrating the truth of all those articles which are at this day maintained by the Church of Rome, and rejected by the Protestants.” (p. 207). Summarizing his first book, Daillé argues that the Christian faith ought to be grounded on nothing but that which is sure and certain, and hence challenges that whoever would argue from any passage out of a Father must:

“First make it appear that the author, out of whom he cites the said passage, lived and wrote in the first ages of Christianity. And moreover, that the said person is well known to be the author of that book out of which the passage is quoted—and also that the passage cited is no way corrupted nor altered—and likewise, that the sense which he gives of it, is the true genuine sense of the passage. And that it was the opinion of the author when he had arrived at ripeness of judgment, and which he changed not, nor retracted afterwards. He must also make it appear in what degree he held it, and whether he maintained it as his own private opinion only, or as the opinion of the Church—and lastly, whether it was the opinion of the Church Universal, or of some particular Church only. Which inquiry is a business of such vast and almost infinite labour, that it makes me very much doubt whether or not we can be ever able to attain a full and certain assurance what the positive sense of the ancients has been, on the whole body of controversies now debated in this age.” (p. 207).

But supposing these things to be proven, we will now consider whether or not the authority of the early church Fathers “be such as that we ought or may, without further examination, believe on their authority what we know to a certainty was their belief, and hold it in the same degree they did.” (p. 208).

The Fathers are not of sufficient authority for deciding controversies in religion.

1. The Fathers do not always accurately represent the view of the church.

1. The testimonies given by the Fathers on the doctrines of the church are not always true and certain.

The Fathers write in two capacities: 1) as witnesses, testifying to the belief of the Church in their time, and 2) they also write as teachers, arguing for their own views from Scripture and reason. They persuade us of the former by their veracity and diligence, and they persuade of the latter by the strength of their arguments.

When writing as witnesses they are often mistaken on matters of fact and do not always accurately represent the viewpoints of the Church in their own age. Daillé briefly repeats what he discussed in great detail in the first book, chapters 9 through 11, so that material will not be repeated here (cf. Part 1). He continues with examples of certain Fathers’ testimonies about the belief of the Church which contradict what other Fathers have said. Some Fathers wrote as though a certain belief was the unanimous position of the Church, but we know from other writings that many others held contrary opinions. They often presented not just controversial views, but also their own private opinions as the universal position of the Church. Therefore, we should not automatically receive their testimony as infallibly and certainly true regarding what the doctrine of the Church was in their time.

Yet even if we did receive them as undoubtedly true, that would not help us to determine exactly what the judgment of the entire ancient church has been regarding current religious disputes. There are very few places where they directly testify what the Church believed about the points of doctrine, practice, and discipline disputed about today. And even when they do so, we can only be assured that they are relaying what was evident to them in their particular locale. They could not possibly know the opinion of every Christian layman and minister that lived in their time, as was argued more fully in Part 1, Section 11.

Secondly, when they write as teachers, we cannot deny that they were fallible men. No matter how holy they were, they were not inspired by the Holy Ghost like the authors of Scripture were. Therefore we must not accept their teaching on bare authority, but rather on the strength of their arguments, as they themselves would have us do (cf. point 2).

“Their bare assertions are no sufficient ground for us to build any of our opinions on—they only serve to incline us beforehand to the belief of the same—the great opinion which we have of them causing us to conclude that they would never have embraced such an opinion, except it had been true. This manner of argumentation, however, is at best but probable… [yet] faith is to be grounded not upon probabilities, but upon necessary truths.” (p. 214).

Hence, if, upon further examination, we find that the truth is otherwise than they relayed, our prejudice towards them on the said issue should be set aside and the truth embraced. Daillé, in conclusion of this point, exhorts:

“Let us have a reverent esteem of them and their writings as they deserve; and not be too rash in concluding that persons so eminent for learning and sanctity should maintain any erroneous or vain opinions, especially in a matter of so great importance. Yet notwithstanding are we bound to remember, that they were but men, and that their memory, understanding, or judgment, might sometimes fail them, and therefore consequently, that we are to examine their writings by those principles from whence they draw their conclusions, and not to rest satisfied with their bare assertions until we have discovered them to be true.” (p. 215).

2. The testimony of the Fathers about themselves.

2. The Fathers testify themselves that they are not to be believed absolutely, and upon their own bare assertion, in what they declare in matters of religion.

Let us see what the ancients themselves said of their own authority and attribute to them no more and no less than what they themselves would. Augustine, writing to Jerome, said this about non-Scriptural authors:

“But as for all other writers, however eminent they are, either for sanctity or learning, I read them in such a manner as not instantly to conclude that whatever I there find is true, because they have said it; but rather, because they convince me, either out of the said canonical books of Scripture, or else by some probable reason, that what they say is true. Neither do I think, brother [Jerome], that thou thyself art of any other opinion: that is to say, I do not believe that thou expectest that we should read thy books as we do those of the Prophets or Apostles; of the truth of whose writings, as being exempt from all error, we may not in anywise doubt.” (Letter 83 to Jerome, 1.3; p. 217).

This and additional citations given by Daillé, clearly show that Augustine “would have us examine the Fathers by the Scriptures, and not the Scriptures by the Fathers” (p. 220). Opinions, even of eminent theologians, are not to be accepted upon their bare authority, but rather insofar as they are consonant with Scripture or reason. Jerome likewise argues of non-Scriptural authors that, “we judge of their worth and parts only, not considering at all the dignity of their name…[the author] shall be judged not according to his degree of honor, but according to the merit and worth of his works” (Com. Hosea, b. 2, ch. 5). Daillé adds that we ought to observe “what they say, and not what they were; the ground and reason of their opinions, and not the dignity of their persons” (p. 222). Again Jerome says “I place the Apostles in a distinct rank from all other writers—for as for them, they always speak truth—but as for those other, they err sometimes, like men as they were” (Letter 62 to Theophilus). Again, Jerome speaking in general of the ecclesiastical writers:

“It may be that either they have erred out of mere ignorance, or else, that they wrote in some other sense than we understand them; or, that their writings have by degrees been corrupted, through the ignorance of the transcribers; or else, before the appearing of that impudent devil Arius in the world, they let some things fall from them innocently, and not so warily as they might have done, and such as can hardly escape the cavils of wrangling spirits.” (Apology Against Rufinus 2.17).

Jerome advises us to read the ecclesiastical authors, but with this caution, that “we should make choice of that which is good, but take heed of embracing that which is not so; according to the apostle who bids us prove all things, but hold fast only that which is good (1 Thes. 5:21)” (Letter 62 to Tranquillinus). We should not think that Jerome would have us hold him in greater esteem than he has held of those who went before him, especially when he says things like, “thus I have briefly delivered to you my opinion, but if anyone produce that which is more exact and true, take his exposition rather than mine” (Com. Hab.) and similar statements which Daillé cites. Similarly, Ambrose candidly concedes,

“I take it for a favor when anyone that reads my writings gives me an account of what doubts he there meets with. First of all, because I may be deceived in those very things which I know. And besides, many things escape us; and some things sound otherwise to some than perhaps they do to me.” (Letter 46 to Sabinus).

Likewise Cyril,

“Believe me not in whatsoever I shall simply deliver, unless thou find the things which I shall speak, demonstrated out of the holy Scriptures: For the conservation and establishment of our faith is not grounded upon the eloquence of language, but rather upon the proofs that are brought out of the divine Scriptures.” (Catechetical Lecture 4.17).

Basil the Great, writing a personal letter to a widow, assures her:

“Enjoying as you do the consolation of the holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you to comprehend your duty. You have the all-sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right.” (Letter 283; NPNF 8, p. 312).

Daillé gives many more statements of this sort from early church Fathers and asks:

“Who sees not that these holy men considered not the Fathers, who went before them, as judges or arbitrators on the opinions of the Church? And that they did not receive their testimonies and depositions as oracles, but reserved the right which Augustine allows to every man, of examining them by the rule of reason, and the Scripture?” (p. 228).

If the Fathers had not proceeded with this critical engagement with those who came before them, “the Christian faith had now been altogether replete with the dreams of an Origen or an Apollinaris, or some other similar authors” (p. 230).

“Certainly when I see these holy men on one side crying out unto us that they are men subject to errors, and that therefore we ought to consider and examine what they deliver, and not take it all for oracle—and then, on the other side, set before my eyes these worthy maxims of the Ages following: to wit, that ‘their doctrine is the Law of the Church Universal‘ and, that ‘we are bound to follow it, not only according to the sense, but according to the bare words also‘ and that ‘we are bound to hold all that they have written, even to the least tittle‘—This representation, I say, makes me call to mind the history of Paul and Barnabas, to whom the Lycaonians would needs render divine honour, notwithstanding all the resistance these holy men were able to make. Who could not forbear to rend their garments, through the indignation they were filled with, to see that service paid to themselves, which was due to the Divine Majesty alone, running in amongst them and crying out aloud; ‘Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are Men of like passions with you‘ [Acts 14:15]. For, seeing that there is none but God whose word is certainly and necessarily true, and, seeing that on the other side, the Word, whereon we ground and build our Faith, ought to be such: who seeth not, that it is all one as to invest man with the glory which is due to God alone, and to place him in a manner in his seat, if we make his Word the Rule and Foundation of our Faith, and the Judge of our differences concerning it?” (pp. 232-3).


Daillé then answers the following objection: The Fathers frequently cite those that came before them as authorities of religion.


First, “When we maintain that the authority of the Fathers is not a sufficient medium to prove an article of faith by, we do not thereby forbid either the reading or the citing of them” (p. 234). The Fathers often quoted heathen scholars and apocryphal books, but this does not mean that they thought they were of sufficient authority to ground an article of faith upon; rather, their faith was grounded upon the Word of God. Daillé continues:

“Yet to evidence the truth more fully, they searched into human records, and by this inquiry made it appear that the light of the truth revealed unto them, had in some degree shot its beams also even into the schools of men, dark and obscure as they were…But after they had derived from divine revelation the matter of our faith, it was very wisely done of them, in the next place, to prove, not the truth, but the clearness of it…For the like reason did Augustine, Athanasius, Cyril, and many others of them, make use of allegations out of the Fathers. For, after they had grounded, upon the authority of divine revelation, the necessity and efficacy of grace, the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, and the union of the two natures in Christ; they then began to produce several passages out of those learned men who had lived before them; to evince to the world that this truth was so clear in the Word of God, that all who preceded them had both seen and acknowledged the same.” (p. 234).

Secondly, it does not follow from this that these holy men would have received doctrines that were only to be found in the writings of their predecessors, rather than those which were originally set forth in the canonical Scriptures. As we’ve seen, they expressly deny this, grounding their faith ultimately on God’s infallible Word. “Human testimonies,” Daillé summarizes, “are adduced, not to prove the truth of the faith, but only to show the evidence of it after it is once well grounded” (p. 235). He concludes,

“But to begin with these [i.e. human testimony], is to invert the natural order of things. We ought first to be assured that the thing is, before we make inquiry whether it has been believed or not. For to what purpose is it to find that the ancients believed it, unless we find withal in their writings some reason of this their belief? And again, on the other side, what harm is it to us to be ignorant whether antiquity believed it or not, so long as we know that the thing is?” (p. 236).

3. The Fathers did not intend to be doctrinal authorities.

3. The Fathers have written in such a manner as to make it clear that, when they wrote, they had no intention of being our authorities in matters of religion; as evinced by examples of their mistakes and oversights.

“Whoever takes the pains diligently to consider the manner of writing by the Fathers, will not require any other testimony for the proof of this truth. For the very form of their writings witnesses clear enough, that in the greatest part of them they had no intention of delivering such definitive sentences as were to be binding, merely by the single authority of the mouth which uttered them—but their purpose was rather to communicate to us their own meditations on diverse points of our religion; leaving us free to examine them, and to approve or reject the same, according as we saw proper.” (p. 247).

If the Fathers had intended to be judges rather than teachers, they would have written in a much different manner. They would not have relayed the opinions of various others, nor been so rhetorically and logically ornate rather than frank and straightforward. But most of all, they would have been more careful and diligent in their writings. Despite this being obvious to any reader, Daillé raises many examples.

First, there are many works of the Fathers which were hastily written and many which were extemporaneous discourses. Jerome, in a prologue to Origen’s homilies, states that Origen composed and delivered them extempore. How many other homilies of the Fathers which we may think were deliberately studied and composed were actually written spontaneously? Jerome also testifies that he often hastily dictated his writings (Ep. 128 ad Fabiol. et. epitaph. Marcel. epist. 16). He says again, at the end of another letter, that it was “dictated off-hand and poured forth by lamp-light so fast that my tongue has outstripped my secretaries’ pens and that my volubility has baffled the expedients of shorthand” (Ep. 117). Daillé cites several instances where Jerome speedily dictated his writings, such as his translations of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, his commentaries on Matthew and Ephesians, etc. such that “it is his ordinary way of excusing himself, either in prefaces, or else at the closing up of all his discourses, to say that either the messenger was in haste, or some design called him away; or else some other similar cause was alleged. So that he scarcely did anything but in haste” (p. 251). If Jerome wanted us to receive everything he said with infallible authority, why would he make such excuses?

Yet even if Jerome had not said these things, it is evident in all of the Fathers’ writings that they often spent little time and diligence in composing them. “For otherwise how could so many trifling faults in history, grammar, philosophy, and the like, have escaped such great eminent persons, who were so well furnished with all sorts of literature?” (p. 252).

Daillé cites multiple instances where the Fathers made simple, inadvertent mistakes of chronology, history, philosophy, geography, science, etymology, grammar, linguistics, etc. In addition to these careless blunders, he notes that they often make such strange and unwarranted allegorical observations, “which seems not to suit so well with the character of judges” (p. 264). He tediously calls attention to these things not to denigrate the Fathers, but candidly to illustrate that they would have been more diligent if they had intended for us to accept their word on mere faith and authority. But his slew of examples clearly demonstrates that they did not feel obligated to inerrantly bind and determine our faith, nor to be the judges of controversies which would arise after their time. These considerations, and those in point 2, make it clear that the early church Fathers did not want us to embrace their opinions on their bare authority, but rather they would have us examine them by Scripture and reason.

4. The Fathers, individually and collectively, have espoused many doctrinal errors.

4. The Fathers have erred in diverse points of religion; not only singly, but also many of them together.

Daillé opens this chapter confessing his hesitancy for exposing the errors of the respected Fathers. However, he thinks it necessary to make these observations for the sake of those readers who are obstinately still not convinced by the first three arguments that the Fathers are not sufficient authorities for deciding controversies in religion. Perhaps seeing their errors in doctrines which are commonly accepted will cause obstinate readers to admit that the Fathers should not be believed on their bare authority, but rather that we should accept their views which are grounded on Scripture and reason. It would be too tedious to enumerate every example Daillé gives, and to give the Latin and Greek quotes, so this synopsis will only provide a sampling of them. The reader is encouraged to consult Daillé’s book for more details and references.

Justin Martyr, as pious and zealous as he was, held to Chiliasm, the view that “the saints shall reign a thousand years in Jerusalem before the resurrection…, which is an opinion that is at this day condemned as erroneous by the whole Western Church” (p. 273). He also seems to have held that “the essence of God was finite, and was not present in all places; where he endeavors to prove against a Jew that it was not the Father who rained fire and brimstone upon Sodom, because that he could not then have been at that time in heaven” (p. 273; Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 56, p. 113). He also speculated strange things concerning angels, such as that they rebelled and procreated with human women, which created demons (Second Apology, ch. 5). Lastly, he stated that pagans and barbarians which lived according to reason were in fact Christians (First Apology, ch. 46). He and Irenaeus both believed that departed saints would not be in the presence of God until the resurrection (p. 275).

In direct contradiction to Scripture, Irenaeus held that Christ must have lived to an elderly age before he died so that he could empathize with all the people of different stages of life he would save (Against Heresies). In the same work, he also stated that Christ did not know when the day of judgment would be according to either of his divine or human natures.

Clement of Alexandria likewise claimed that pagans who did not know Christ were justified by their reason and philosophy (Strom. 1). Many Fathers held to the erroneous doctrine of the harrowing of Hell, that Christ preached to departed souls in Hell. Some even held that the Apostles did the same (p. 278). Clement said that it would have been unjust if God had condemned those who died before the incarnation of Christ (Strom. 6.6). Origen and Clement also believed that the wicked would be purged by the fires of Hell and saved in the end (Strom. 6).

Tertullian was a Montanist for a period of his life. He also denied God’s immutability, simplicity, and impassibility and taught that God the Father has a body (Against Marcion 1.16; 1.25; 2.24; Against Praxeas 7). He believed the human soul is corporeal and with many others that angels desired and were capable of carnal intercourse with human women (On the Soul; On the Veiling of Virgins). Tertullian held that believers would not be in God’s presence until the day of judgment, but that martyrs would be in an elevated estate called Paradise, but still not quite in Heaven, and that the resurrection will occur in stages according to the merits believers earned in life (Against Marcion 3.25). Tertullian taught that the baptism of all heretics was invalid and thus practiced anabaptism in contradiction to the 19th canon of Nicaea; for others he would defer baptism as long as possible (On Baptism, ANF 3.3.2).

Cyprian was an admirer of Tertullian and likewise held to many of these same errors. He and many others held that baptism and the Eucharist are necessary for salvation, and thus administered the Eucharist even to infants (p. 285-8).

“Origen, notwithstanding all those excellent gifts of his, has not hesitated to broach very many opinions, which by reason of their absurdity have been utterly rejected (and very deservedly so) by the Church in all succeeding ages—which is an evident argument, that however ancient, learned, and holy an author may have been, we ought not at once to believe him, and to urge him as infallible.” (p. 288).

Lactantius, states Jerome, denied that “the Holy Ghost is a distinct person in the Godhead, subsisting together with the Father and the Son” (Letter 65). He also denied God’s immutability, simplicity, and impassibility in his Treatise on the Anger of God (chs. 4, 16, & 21). Hilary promoted a quasi-docetic view of Christ’s human nature, writing in several works that Christ did not genuinely suffer pain throughout his passion (p. 291-4). Hilary and Ambrose both taught that elect believers must be purged by fire to be cleansed from sin (p. 295-6). Ambrose thought that adultery was not sinful before the giving of the Mosaic law (De Abraham 4.23) and erred regarding the formula of baptism (De Spir. Sanct., ch. 3). Epiphanius claimed that the Apostles ordained that Christians should observe Passover at the same time and in the same manner that the Jews did (Panarion 70.9-10). He also thought that the devil hoped to be forgiven by God until Christ came, and has since angrily attacked the Church after finding out that he could not be saved (ibid., 39).

Jerome thought that it was below the majesty of God that his providence should extend to menial things and that it only pertained to rational beings (Com. on Hab. 1:13). He also argued against Vigilantius that the souls of departed saints are omnipresent. He also wrote many odd and reproachful things about marriage (p. 302-3) and held that the eating of meat was only permitted to the Jews due to their hardness of heart, and that it, along with divorce and circumcision, is abolished for Christians today (Against Jovinianus). He believed that oaths were entirely forbidden for Christians (Commentary on Matthew ch. 5). Daillé points out that Jerome is regularly uncharitable and contentious in his writings, and that he is even sometimes very disrespectful towards the human authors of Scripture (p. 305-10).

Augustine held that infants who died before baptism would be condemned to Hell (On Forgiveness of Sins and Baptism 1.21(16), NPNF 5, p. 22-3). In the same work he also promoted Traducianism, another common error among many of the Fathers. It is well known also that he conceived that the universe was created instantaneously and allegorized the six days of creation as referring to the different degrees of knowledge of the angels. He openly admitted that he erred in matters of religion and in his book of Retractions, so it is not necessary to belabor the point.

Daillé notes:

“He that will but exactly and carefully read the rest of the Fathers, may very easily observe in their writings diverse errors of the like nature; and a man shall scarcely meet with any one Father, of any note or repute, from whom some such thing or other hath not escaped.” (p. 311).

These brief examples, and the many more which we did not enumerate, are not trivial and inconsequential errors. They are errors in core doctrines and sometimes so bizarre that one wonders how they came to those conclusions in light of the clarity of Scripture. Listing the most well known and respected Fathers, which were the focus of this chapter, Daillé continues:

“If these holy men have been mistaken in matters of such great importance—some of them, for instance, on the nature of God; some on the humanity of our Saviour Christ; others on the quality of our souls; and some on the state and condition thereof after death, and on the Resurrection—why must they needs be infallible, when they speak of the points now disputed amongst us? Why may not the same thing have happened to them in the one case that has so manifestly befallen them in the other? It is not probable (as we have said before) that they so much as ever thought of our differences: and it is much more improbable, that ever they had any intention of being our judges in the decision of them, as we have before proved.” (p. 312).

Assuming that the Fathers were aware of modern religious disputes, and assuming that they intended to speak clearly to these issues in their writings, how can we be assured that they did not err like they did in the examples outlined above? Daillé asks, “He that erred on the subject of the resurrection, is it not possible that he should be in an error on the state of the soul after this life? He that could be ignorant of the nature of Christ’s body, must he necessarily have a right judgment on the Eucharist?” (p. 313). They erred regarding important, and often very clear, doctrines. Is it all that much more difficult to know whether the saints will live on earth after the resurrection than it is to determine whether they shall go to purgatory or not? Is it more difficult to know whether angels are capable of carnal love than to judge whether the Pope is infallible? If they got such simple and clear matters wrong, why should we automatically accept what they said about things like these on their authority? Hilary says Christ felt no pain on the cross, but he also held to the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Why must he be correct on the latter, but not the former? Daillé asks poignantly, “Since therefore in a thing which is of equal importance, and of much less difficulty, he has manifestly erred, who can assure me that in this point, which is both less necessary and more difficult, he may not also be mistaken?” (p. 315).

The church Fathers did not only err individually, but several errors were held by the consent of many (and in some cases, almost all) of the Fathers together, such as Chiliasm; Traducianism; paedocommunion [1]; election grounded on foreseen faith and good works; that departed saints are separated from God’s presence until the resurrection; the invalidity of heretical persons’ baptisms; that Christ only partook of the Passover one time after his baptism; the unlawfulness of oaths for Christians; the corporeality of angels and their capability of carnal love; etc. Daillé concludes:

“Seeing the Fathers have erred in so many particulars, not only singly, but also many of them together, neither the private opinions of each particular Father, nor yet the unanimous consent of the major part of them, is a sufficient argument to prove with certainty the truth of those points which are at this day controverted amongst us.” (p. 326).

5. The Fathers are not always unanimous.

5. The Fathers have strongly contradicted one another, and have maintained different opinions in matters of importance.

If the writings of the Fathers were capable of being judges over the controversies between Rome and Protestants, it is necessary that they should be, for the most part, if not all, unanimous on those controversial issues. If they contradict or dissent from one another, then that would not bring clarity or decisive judgment on the issues in dispute. This principle is even recognized and regularly invoked by Rome. [2] Yet even if there were unanimous consent, it would not follow that their judgment is infallibly true (as we’ve shown in point 4). But if such consent can be shown to be absent, then it is certain that “we ought to seek out for other judges of our controversies than the writings of the Fathers” (p. 328).

Daillé briefly recounts several doctrinal disputes in the early church, where there were notable and highly esteemed Fathers on both sides (pp. 328-37). There were disputes about Chiliasm; the church calendar; baptism of heretics; Traducianism; whether Paul feigned opposition to Peter or was sincere; whether the episode with the witch of Endor was the real spirit of Samuel, a demon, or an imagination; whether Christ was in his fifties or his thirties when he died; whether there is causality in the Trinity; whether there is distinct priority in the Trinity; the procession of the Holy Spirit (Filioque); the ancient condition of priests and bishops; order of precedence among the Patriarchal sees; hierarchy of the sees regarding appeal in the church courts; Councils of Hieria, Frankfort, and 2nd of Nicaea regarding icons; Council of Laodicea versus Carthage on the Deuterocanonicals; etc. Some of these disputes were so bitter and contentious that the Fathers and Councils sometimes anathematized and excommunicated each other over them. Daillé encapsulates these observations thus:

“Seeing that I find them contradicting each other in so many important points, how shall I be assured that they are all unanimously agreed on those points which are now debated amongst us? Why may they not have had the same diversity of opinion on the Eucharist, the authority of the Church, the power of the Pope, free-will, or Purgatory, that they had in those other points which we have before presented to the reader’s view—which were of as great importance as these, and no less easy to be determined—as we have proved in the preceding chapter?” (p. 337).

Lastly, we must not only consider the doctrinal positions over which the Fathers disagreed, but also their expositions on various passages of Scripture. “For if we take them for our judges, we shall then necessarily be obliged every minute to have recourse unto them for the sense of those passages of Scripture on which we disagree among ourselves” (p. 338). It would be endless to enumerate all of the various meanings the Fathers drew from the same passages, they scarcely understood the same verse in the same way. Further, there are many key passages which came to be crucial in defeating various heresies throughout Church history, which were interpreted very oddly by those who came before those heresies broke out. If we were to adopt their exegesis then we would be left defenseless against many atrocious heresies. Daillé concludes:

“Therefore as we often meet with contrariety of judgment, as well in their expositions of the Scriptures as in their opinions, we may safely conclude, that they are not of sufficient authority to be admitted as the supreme judges of our controversies: that contradiction, which is often found amongst them, evidently showing that they are not infallible judges, such as it is requisite that they should be, for establishing all those points which are at this day maintained by the Church of Rome against the Protestants.” (p. 340).

6. Rome cherry-picks the Fathers.

6. Neither the Church of Rome nor the Protestants acknowledge the Fathers for their judges in points of religion; both of them rejecting such of their opinions and practices as are not suited to their taste.

Even in cases where a judgment is good and valid in itself, being “pronounced by a competent judge, duly and according to the forms of law, yet this would not serve to determine the controversy if the authority of this judge were denied by either of the parties” (p. 341). Likewise with the Fathers; even if they had clearly laid out what they believed on a given disputed point (which, as we’ve seen, they have not always done), and even if they had all of the sufficient qualities and intentions of a supreme judge (which is not the case, as we’ve seen), this would still not be enough to persuade that the Fathers have enough authority in and of themselves to be accepted as the final determination in religious controversies. Daillé sets up this chapter, “Let us therefore see in what account the several parties hold the Fathers, and whether they acknowledge them as the supreme judges of their religion; or at least as arbitrators, whose definitive judgment ought to stand firm and inviolable” (p. 342).

Protestants and the Authority of the Fathers.

First, Daillé addresses the Protestant position on the authority of the Fathers and the authority of Scripture. Making it clear that all Protestants hold Scripture as the rule of their faith and that other ecclesiastical writings may be useful, but are not sufficient ground to build articles of faith upon. Protestants hold that the,

“pure, simple, and holy doctrine, which was taught and preached by the Apostles at the beginning of Christianity, and delivered over unto us by themselves in the New Testament, has been by little and little altered and corrupted; time, which changes all things, continually mixing among it some corruption or other; sometimes a Jewish or a Heathen opinion and sometimes again some peculiar observation; other times some superstitious ceremony or other…[the church seems] by little and little, to have become quite another thing than it anciently was.” (p. 344). [3]

Therefore Protestants advocate for going back to the sources of Christianity, the doctrine, worship, and discipline of the Apostles and Prophets in Scripture, before the great “falling away” (2 Thes. 2:3) and corruption of the church. The writings of the Fathers are not as pure as those of the Apostles, but they are much purer than what is now taught by the Church of Rome. Daillé notes:

“Although the Protestants allow the Scriptures alone for the true foundation of their faith, yet they account the writings of the Fathers to be necessary, first of all, for proving this decay which they say has happened in Christianity; and secondly, for the making it appear that the opinions which their adversaries now maintain, were not in those days brought into any form, but were as yet only in embryo.” (p. 347).

Daillé concludes his treatment of the Protestant position:

“Nor does this in any wise bind them to believe throughout whatsoever the Fathers believed; it being evident, according to their hypothesis, that some errors may have crept into their belief; though certainly not such, nor so gross, as have been since entertained by the Church in the ages succeeding. The Protestants acknowledge not, neither in the Fathers, nor in their writings, any so absolute authority, as renders them capable of being received by us, as our supreme judges in matters of religion, and such from whom no appeal can be made. Whence it will follow that although the Fathers might really perhaps have such an authority; yet notwithstanding could not their definitive sentence put an end to any of our controversies; and therefore it concerns the Church of Rome to have recourse to some other way of proof, if they intend to prevail upon their adversaries to receive the aforesaid articles.” (p. 349).

Roman Catholics and the Authority of the Fathers.

Next, Daillé addresses how even “the Church of Rome itself does not allow that the Fathers have any such authority” (p. 349). Their grounding certain articles of faith on the writings of the Fathers is very selective; they do not actually practice what they would have others think. The de facto final court of appeal for Rome is the Church of Rome itself, not the Fathers per se. Daillé prefaces this section thus:

“[Protestants] require that the authority of the Fathers be grounded upon that of the Scripture; and therefore receive nothing that they deliver, as infallibly true, unless it be grounded upon the Scripture, passing by or rejecting whatsoever they propose, either besides or contrary to the sense of the Scripture. The other [i.e. Rome] in like manner will have the judgment of the Fathers depend upon that of the Church then being in every age; and approve, pass by, or condemn all such opinions of theirs, as the Church either approves, passes by, or condemns. So that although they differ in this, that the one attributes the supremacy to the Scripture, and the other to the Church of their age; yet they both agree in this, that both of them equally deprive the Fathers of the same.” (p. 350).

While they would try to impose the bare authority of the Fathers on Protestants, they themselves do not abide by this standard. They view Roman councils and the Pope as higher authorities than the Fathers. First, Daillé cites many instances where Roman Catholic theologians expressly deny the authority of the Fathers that they otherwise would allege. Next, he cites many instances where Rome, in practice, has “both abolished and established many things expressly against the authority of the ancients” (p. 358). We will consider a sample from each, beginning with their express testimony.

Testimony from Rome diminishing the authority of the Fathers.

Cardinal Cajetan, in the preface of his commentary on the Pentateuch, speaking of his own commentary, says:

“If you chance there to meet with any new exposition, which is agreeable to the text and not contrary either to the Scriptures, or to the doctrine of the Church, although perhaps it differ from that which is given by the whole current of the holy doctors; I shall desire the readers, that they would not too hastily reject it, but that they would rather censure charitably of it. Let them remember to give every man his due: there are none but the authors of the Holy Scriptures alone, to whom we attribute such authority, as that we ought to believe whatsoever they have written. But as for others (saith St. Augustine), of how great sanctity and learning so ever they may have been, I so read them, as that I do not believe what they have written, because they have written it. Let no man therefore reject a new exposition of any passage of Scripture, under pretense that it is contrary to what the ancient doctors gave; but let him rather diligently examine the text, and the context of the Scripture; and if he find that it accords well therewith, let him praise God, who hath not tied the exposition of the Scriptures, to the sense of the ancient doctors, but to the whole Scripture itself, under the censure of the Catholic Church.” (p. 351).

Bishop Melchior Cano also states that Scripture alone is exempt from error, adding that “there is no man, however holy or learned he be, who is not sometimes deceived,” then cites some of the same examples Daillé did of the Fathers erring, and concludes, “We should therefore read the ancient Fathers with all due reverence; yet, as they were but men, with discrimination and judgment.” Later he states, “to follow the ancients in all things…is nothing else but to disparage our own parts, and to confess ourselves to have neither judgment nor skill enough for searching into the truth. No, let us follow them as guides, but not as masters” (Locus Theologicus, book 7, ch. 3, n. 4 & 7).

Influential Dominican canon lawyer, Ambrosius Catharinus also asserts, “It is very true that the sayings and writings of the Fathers have not of themselves any such absolute authority, as that we are bound to assent to them in all things” (Annot. in Caj., book 4).

Jesuit theologian, Dionysius Petavius, in his commentary on Epiphanius, confesses freely that the Fathers were fallible men and that “we ought no more to maintain or defend their errors than we ought to imitate their vices” and that “they are out sufficiently, whenever they speak of such points of faith as were not at all called in question in their time;” and regarding exegesis on the Gospel of Luke, he says that “we ought to interpret and expound the Fathers by Luke, rather than Luke by them; because they cannot herein say anything but what they have received from Luke,” and many similar statements.

Maldonatus, Jesuit theologian and exegete, regularly disagrees with the Fathers in his writings but nevertheless would hold Protestants to their judgment as a standard and rule (p. 354).

Another famous Jesuit, Salmeron claimed that “the later Doctors have been more quick-sighted” i.e. than the ancient Fathers, and again, “Against all this great multitude, which they bring against us, we answer out of the Word of God, ‘Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment’” (Ep. ad. Rom. disput. 51).

Daillé concludes with two examples from prominent Tridentine theologians:

“Michael Medina, disputing at the Council of Trent, on the superiority of a bishop above a priest, the authority of Jerome, and of Augustine being produced against him, who both held that the difference betwixt them was not of divine, but only of positive and ecclesiastical right, answers before the whole congregation that ‘it is no marvel, that they, and some others also of the Fathers fell into this heresy; this point being not as then clearly determined.’ That no man may doubt of the honesty of the historian who relates this, only hear Bellarmine who testifies that ‘Medina assures us that Jerome was in this point of Aërius‘s opinion; and, that not only he, but also Ambrose, Augustine, Sedulius, Primasius, Chrysostom; Theodoret, Oecumenius, and Theophylact all maintained the same heresy.‘” (p. 354).

Lastly, Cornelio Musso, a prominent bishop in the Council of Trent, candidly admits:

“O Rome to whom shall we go for divine counsels, unless to those persons to whose trust the dispensation of the divine mysteries has been committed? We are therefore to hear him, who is to us instead of God, in things that concern God, as God himself. Certainly, for my own part (that I may speak my mind freely) in things that belong to the mysteries of faith, I had rather believe one single Pope, than a thousand Augustines, Jeromes, or Gregories, that I may not speak of Richards, Scotusses, and Williams. For I believe and know that the Pope cannot err in matters of faith, because that the authority of determining all such things as are points of faith, resides in the Pope.” (Sermon on Rom. 14).

Rome is split on which is more authoritative, “the whole body of modern bishops assembled in a general council” or “a single Pope alone” (p. 357), but regardless, it is clear from these express testimonies that Rome does not abide by the standard they would impose on the Protestants—the bare authority of the early church Fathers.

Practice of Rome in diminishing the authority of the Fathers.

Next we will consider Daillé’s examples from the practice of Rome with regard to 1. doctrine, 2. ceremonies and customs, and 3. discipline and polity. It would be too tedious to fully repeat his arguments and historical proofs, so we will cite them as examples only. The reader is encouraged to consult the book. Daillé notes throughout that, in some cases, these changes by Rome are now so intensely held that they would anathematize and excommunicate anyone who would propose or attempt to restore the same positions, customs, and discipline the early church held to.

1. Doctrine.

We have already attended to several of the early church’s doctrines that the Church of Rome today rejects. Doctrines such as: their understanding of the Intermediate State; paedocommunion; Chiliasm; Traducianism; Epiphanius, Councils of Hieria and Frankfort regarding icons; that Mary was conceived in original sin; Council of Laodicea, Melito, Origen, Cyril, Nazianzen, Hilary, Epiphanius, Athanasius, Ruffinus, and Jerome on the exclusion of the Apocrypha from the canon; the primacy of the original languages over vulgar editions of Scripture; the equality of the Roman See with others; the grounding of Rome and Constantinople’s pre-eminence in something other than “tu es Petrus” and “pasce oves meas;” the denial that bishops are higher than priests; the rejection of the Filioque. The reader can refer to Daillé’s book for more details on these points.

2. Ceremonies and customs.

Ceremonies discussed by Daillé which were prevalent in the early church, but are discontinued in the Church of Rome include: Immersion three times in baptism; milk, honey, and the Eucharist partaken of immediately after baptism, even by infants; the deferral of baptism in many Greek, and some Latin churches; certain seasons of administering baptism; white vestments in baptism; exorcisms; the use and breaking of actual bread rather than round manufactured wafers; loud consecration of the sacramental elements rather than secret consecration; the audience of the Eucharist being limited to partakers only, rather than the inclusion of a public audience by non-communicants and even unbelievers; the retention of the Eucharistic elements for private use without a minister; transporting/partaking of the Eucharist over water, which is now superstitiously condemned by Rome; reception of the sacrament by the hands rather than being placed into the mouth by a priest; the exclusive practice of communicant masses, to which since then Rome has added single masses where only the consecrating priest partakes and others simply observe and adore the elements; communion in both kinds; the prohibition by Popes Leo I and Gelasius and others of communion under one kind only (pp. 363-73).

In addition to these ceremonies regarding baptism and the Lord’s Supper which were practiced by the ancient church but changed in later times by the Church of Rome, Daillé surveys several more customs of various kinds, including: times of fasting; appropriate times to kneel; many vigils observed by the early church which have been discontinued by Rome; disallowing parishioners to leave church on Easter-eve until past midnight; abstaining from blood and things strangled (which was prevalent early on but was slowly laid aside); praying for (not to) departed saints, which Rome now believes would be an affront to the saints (pp. 373-9). As early as A.D. 256, Firmilian observed regarding various customs and ceremonies, “They who are at Rome do not observe those things in all cases which are handed down from the beginning, and vainly pretend the authority of the Apostles” (Letter 74 to Cyprian).

Some of these may seem trivial, yet many were veritably considered important in ancient times. To the point however, “if we are to regard the authority of men, and not the reason of the things themselves,” says Daillé, there is no reason “why all the rites should not still be retained” (p. 365). He further argues:

“It seems to be no very easy matter to acquit the modern church, without condemning the ancient, their practices being manifestly contradictory to each other. The modern church forbidding that which the ancient permitted, and the ancient church seeming to have expressly forbid that which the modern commands. How can you say that the one had just reasons for what it did, unless you grant that the other, in doing the contrary, had either no reason at all, or else but very unjust ones?… For, it is impossible for any man to allege any reason for the practice of the moderns, which should not in like manner have obliged the ancients. Nor again to produce any reason for the contrary practice of the ancients, which does not in like manner oblige the moderns.” (pp. 373-4).

3. Discipline and Polity.

It is clear from history that ecclesiastical authority has little by little become more centralized in the Church of Rome. Privileges of congregations were deprived from them and assumed by the clergy. Various church orders and offices developed and grew over time. Privileges and responsibilities of lower clergy were deprived from them and assumed by higher orders, culminating in the Pope, etc. Matters of church discipline and polity discussed by Daillé which were prevalent in the early church, but are discontinued in the Church of Rome include: The election and/or approval of ministers by the congregation (rather than only by the bishops); congregations had a larger role in church discipline cases than they do now in Rome; provincial authority was more decentralized; lower church courts had more authority; bishops had more authority (now much of it is vested in the Pope); there were several degrees of penance in the early church, all of which became merged into auricular confession; Rome had introduced several severe punishments (such as depriving entire nations of the sacraments); the early Church’s insistence on persuasion and council compared with the Inquisition of  the later Church of Rome (pp. 379-96). While some of these have changed since Daillé wrote, most of them remain true to this day.

Daillé wraps up these observations by asking:

“Now after they have thus boldly slighted the doctrines, the ceremonies, and the discipline of the ancients, by changing and abolishing whatever they have thought good; with what confidence can they still laud the Fathers, and adduce their testimonies, and place them upon the seat of judicature, and make them the judges of our differences?” (p. 396).

He gives a practical example:

“Let us suppose for instance, that [the Fathers] held that there was such a place as Purgatory. But (will the Protestant say), if you have found their belief to be so erroneous on the state of the souls of departed saints till the Day of the Resurrection, why would you impose upon me a necessity of subscribing to what they held on Purgatory? The laws of controversy ought to be equal. Therefore if you, by examining this opinion of the Fathers by reason and by the Scriptures, have found it to be erroneous, why will you not give us leave to try that other on Purgatory, by the same touchstone? Certainly, should we but speak the truth, it is the plainest mocking of the world that can be, to cry out, as these men do continually, ‘The Fathers, The Fathers,’ and to write so many whole volumes upon this subject, as they have done; after they have so dealt with them, as you have seen.” (p. 397). [4]


“To adduce the testimonies of the Fathers on the differences that are at this day in religion, is no proper mode for the decision of them, seeing that it is no easy matter to discover what their judgment has been respecting the same, by reason of the many difficulties we meet with in the writings of the ancients. Nor is it of such sufficient authority in itself as that we may safely establish our belief upon it, since the Fathers themselves were also subject to error. Neither, lastly, is it of any force with either party; seeing that they both regulate and examine the opinions, ceremonies, and discipline of the ancients; the one by the rule of the Scriptures, and the other by that of the Church.” (p. 398).

Appendix. Two Objections.

An answer to two objections that may be made against what is delivered in this discourse.

1. What other course ought we to take for attaining the truth of these controversies?

Daillé leverages the reasoning of Gennadius Scholarius (1400-1473), when arguing for the Filioque at the Council of Florence (after which he became the Patriarch of Constantinople). Scholarius argued that:

“We ought not to reject all those things which are not clearly and in express terms delivered in the Scriptures; which is a pretext and shift that many of the heretics make use of—but that we ought to receive with equal honour whatsoever directly follows from that which is said in the Scriptures; and to reject utterly whatsoever shall be found to be contrary to those things which are undoubtedly true…in those things wherein the Scripture has not clearly expressed itself, we must have recourse to the Scripture itself, as our guide, to give us light therein, by some other passage where it has spoken more plainly.” (Oratio III ad Synodum Oecumenicam Florentiam de Pace, Patrologia Gracea 160, p. 484).

Daillé therefore answers the question:

“If an adversary doubt of the truth of what we propose, we are to prove it by such maxims as are acknowledged and allowed of by him, making good that which is doubtful by that which is certain, and clearing that which is obscure by that which is evident. This is the rule that I conceive we ought to abide by, in the disputes that are among us at this day. The Word of God is our common book. Let us therefore search into it, for that upon which we may ground our own belief, and by which we may overthrow the opinion of our adversary.” (p. 401).

2. How, and in what cases may the writings of the Fathers be useful to us?

Daillé answers, “although we do not indeed allow any supreme and infallible authority to the writings of the Fathers, yet we do not therefore at once account them useless…for books do not therefore profit us because they were of such a man’s writing, but rather because they instruct us in those things that are good and honest” (p. 403-4). He continues:

“First of all, therefore, you shall find in the Fathers very many earnest and zealous exhortations to holiness of life, and to the observation of the discipline of Jesus Christ. Secondly, you shall there meet with very strong and solid proofs of those fundamental principles of our religion, touching which we are all agreed: and also many excellent things laid open, tending to the right understanding of these mysteries, and also of the Scriptures wherein they are contained. In this very particular their authority may be of good use unto you, and may serve as a probable argument of the truth.” (p. 404).

Despite the diversity of time, geography, culture, personality, and their difference of opinion in other things, it is wonderful that they all agree “so constantly and unanimously in the fundamentals of Christianity; that amidst such great diversity in worship they all adore one and the same Christ” (p. 404). How likely is it that so many holy men should be all deceived to highly value and adore Christ and his religion such that they would devote their lives, and even die for it, unless it had the power of God? Their differences of opinion on some issues does not disparage their testimony, rather it bolsters it because it is evident that they did not come to the core doctrines of Christianity by mutual deliberation, but have “collected it out of a serious examination and consideration of the things themselves” (p. 406). Besides, the most important aspect of Christianity is not the number of doctrines, but the power and efficacy of them. A true Christian is one who is pious, a pure worshiper of God and a heart of charity toward men. Daillé observes, “As God forgives us our sins, so does he also forgive us our errors. The hay, stubble, and chaff shall be consumed, but yet he that builds therewith shall be saved, if he only hold fast to the foundation” (p. 407).

Lastly, there are many who would broach doctrines essential for salvation “from their own imagination which are not grounded upon any principle of the Christian religion” (p. 407). Yet, if all of the Fathers were entirely ignorant of such doctrines that are necessary for salvation, it is very probable that they are not true and were not delivered by God to the church through his Prophets and Apostles. Thus, “the authority of the Fathers is of very great use in the church, and serves as an outwork to the Scriptures, for the repelling the presumption of those, who would forge a new faith” (p. 411).

[1] The practice of paedocommunion in the early church may not be as prevalent as it would seem, cf. Winzer, Matthew. “The True History of Paedo-Communion.” Confessional Presbyterian Journal 3 (2007): 27-37.

[2] Notably by Cardinal Bessarion regarding the East–West Schism, p. 327.

[3] The Papacy: Its History, Dogmas, Genius, and Prospects by J.A. Wylie is a concise historical demonstration of this thesis.

[4] Daillé responds to an objection here:

“If it be objected that: The Protestants themselves do also reject many of those articles which we have before noticed. We answer: This is nothing at all to the purpose. Forasmuch as they take the Scriptures, and not the Fathers, for the rule of their faith, neither do they press any man to receive anything from the hands of the ancients unless it be grounded upon the Word of God. If, lastly, you say that the authority of the Fathers has no place, nor is at all considerable in the points before set down, because the church has otherwise determined on the same, this is clearly to grant us that which we would have, namely, that the authority of the Fathers is not supreme.” (pp. 397-8).



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