One Danger of Using the Church Fathers to Settle Theological Disputes

The Church Fathers are valuable resources. Their exegesis (before things got really wonky in Christendom) is on a par with modern exegesis and they often make connections between the text and real life that sound remarkably relevant to the problems in our own day. (I do sometimes take issue with their “Greekness,” i.e., their willingness to interpret Scripture in light of Greek philosophy rather than Hebrew thought, but that’s for another post.)

A problem arises, however, when we try to settle theological disputes simply by appealing to the Church Fathers. This is especially the case when those disputes relate to things like Eschatology or the Sacraments, theological loci that have broadly differing interpretive positions.

One notorious (in some circles) example is Charles Ryrie’s book The Basis for the Premillennial Faith, in which he tried to demonstrate that Chiliasm, the belief in a literal thousand-year-reign of Christ, is the de facto historic belief of the church because it was taught in the Church Fathers. He was later called to task for cherry-picking the evidence (one writer was a ThM student at, of all places, Dallas Theological Seminary) by citing only those writers that agreed with him and conveniently ignoring (or twisting, a cynic might say) those who didn’t.

This illustrates the biggest problem with using the Church Fathers in this fashion:

For every Father you can cite to support a position, it is likely you will find another Father who holds the opposite position or who is at the least unconvinced. The later in history the Father is that you cite, the more likely it is that you will be able to find a Father with an opposing view.

The Fathers are great for studying the development of doctrine (or the decline, depending on what theological topic you’re exploring). They have great insight into the interpretation of texts, remarkable defenses of Christian theological positions, and provide for us a wealth of knowledge into previous controversies (obviously), but we’re not going to get any closer to settling a theological dispute once we start citing the Church Fathers.

This is especially true if you hold to some variation of Sola Sciptura. As I told one guy recently, “We can play ‘Dueling Church Fathers’ all day long but, in the end, we’re going to have to come back to Scripture to settle the issue. And, if it’s an ecclesiological issue, we’re going to have to see how the Scriptural teaching has been understood in our particular theological tradition. But citing Fathers is not going to get us anywhere.”


About Michael R. Jones

Pastor and PhD candidate writing on Paul's theology of suffering.
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