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Foundations for Christianity:
202 Foundations of Our Theology
and Hermeneutics



Early Church Confirmation Rubric

The subject of this article is why and how the "Early Church Fathers" (we prefer "early Church writers") are used on this website and in our analysis of doctrine. The use of the Early Church Fathers (or ECF's) has been a point of criticism. Our goal through writing this segment is to respond to the common criticisms and to clarify exactly what role the ECF's have, as well as what role they do NOT have, in our theology.

There are two reasons behind our use of the ECF's.


1. Double checking your work.

Whether you are a layperson or a theologian, once you conclude your examination of scripture on a particular topic, it is always a good idea to compare your own analysis and conclusions with the analysis and conclusions of someone else perhaps including friends, family, pastors, theologians, or fellow bible study or church members. It is always possible that you missed something or made some slight wrong turn along the way. In this way, comparing your findings to those of another theologian acts as the one of the only available means to double check your own work. Such comparison and double-checking is very common among Christian theologians. The only difference between other modern theologians and the writers of this website in this respect is who we double-check against.

In the nearly 20 centuries since the days of Christ Jesus and his apostles, there is no shortage of theologians and Bible commentators that could be selected with which to double check one's own studies. However, among all these theologians and scholars, the early church writers stand head and shoulders above all the rest for a few obvious and simple reasons.

First, the early Church writers not only have the closest proximity to Jesus and the apostles in comparison to any other theologian, but in quite a few cases their lives or their writing actually overlap with those of the apostles. This means that the beliefs of some of the early church writers were in part developed under the supervision of the apostles themselves.

Second, as we will see, all of the early Church writers that we are primarily concerned with have some direct link to the apostles. Some worked with the apostles. Some were taught by the apostles directly. Others have the apostles as their "grandfathers" in the faith and were taught by those who were the apostles' direct students. In short, the early church fathers are head and shoulders above all other theologians because they had different teachers. They had the apostles as teachers with little or no intervening persons. While this does not guarantee that they themselves or the single teacher between them and the apostles did not alter the doctrine, to whatever extent such alterations are possible, they become only more possible and more probable with later theologians, given that there are even more intervening teachers.

Third, the early Church writers have few, if any, but in either case much, much less intervening historical and cultural baggage to cloud their interpretation of the scripture than we ourselves or any other Christian scholar of any other era. This is important because one of the main challenges that modern Christians have today when applying the grammatical-historical method as we are studying the Bible is to avoid infusing our own 20th century western views into the scripture.

By contrast, if we compare our study results with those of other moderners we may still have trouble overcoming this difficulty since our double-checkers share the same or a similar handicap as we do. If we compare our study results with Christian theologians or scholars of intervening centuries we may avoid reading our modern views into the scripture only to then force a 4th, 16th, or 18th century perspective onto the text instead.

Fourth the early Church writers employ the grammatical-historical method, which we are using and so we should arrive at the same results. Many scholars from intervening (and even modern) periods don't subscribe to the grammatical-historical method of Biblical interpretation.

Fifth, the early Church writers have doctrinal consensus. The specific group of early Church writers that we quote from will be defined momentarily. But, it is important to note that this group of writers present among themselves in their writings a consensus and harmony of beliefs. In other words, their doctrinal understanding does not contradict or clash with one another. Instead, the Christianity of their time is a single, cohesive, unified, system of theology.

The reason that this is significant is because it is yet another area, which distinguishes this set of Christian writers as far superior from any other that we might employ to double-check our own scriptural study. All successive periods of Christian history contain internal doctrinal contradiction. The result is that the 150-year period of time covered by the earliest post-canonical Christian writers contains an exceedingly greater amount of agreement and unity than any other group of Christian writers in any other 150-year period since then, than the entire 1800 years since then, and certainly more than we have in the Church today.

For these five reasons, when we double-check our work we chose to recheck our studies against the writings of the earliest post-canonical Church authors.


2. Determining the ancientness of your doctrine.

Double checking our analysis and conclusions against the early church writers allows us to identify whether or not our views are the most ancient in the Christian sphere. And this is important because the chief goal of any Christian and of any individual Bible study is to discover and embrace the original doctrine taught by Jesus and his apostles rather than an invention of men that has arisen in the nearly 20 centuries since their day as a byproduct of a wide variety of influences and/or syncretistic blending with either pagan or secular cultures. Since the early church writers represent the period overlapping and immediately following the time of Jesus and his apostles, if our conclusions are shown to be the understanding of the early church writers as well, we are only one step away from showing that our beliefs are the original beliefs of the New Testament church as taught by Jesus and his apostles.

The first step of course is whether or not our analysis of scripture itself is sound. But if it is and the early church writers also hold the same conclusions, then we have both the most ancient record (scripture itself) and the second most ancient record (the early church writers) testifying that our conclusions are the original teachings of Jesus and his apostles. Because all other theologians are so much farther removed from the New Testament church, sometimes even by centuries or more than a millennium, no other theologian in Christian history after the early church writers can so efficiently help to demonstrate that our doctrines actually originate with the teaching of Jesus Christ and his apostles.

It is for these two reasons and in these two ways that we use the early church writers in our analysis of doctrine on this website. Now we arrive at some points of criticism against our use of the early church writers.


Criticism Number 1 - The Early Church Writers Have a Diversity of Views

Who do we quote from?

On this website, after a thorough exegetical examination of scripture is concluded, we will also provide a comparison to the comments of the early Church writers on that subject. Concerning this facet of our studies, the objection has arisen that the group often generally referred to as the "Early Church Fathers" includes a variety of writers with divergent views spanning a significant amount of time from the second to the fourth century AD. The core of this objection is that we simply handpick early church fathers that agree with us and then conveniently ignore or discard the rest. Here we arrive at the next important point of clarity.

For the comparison purposes described in the rubric below, it must be clearly stated that the authors of this website are PRIMARILY concerned with a very specific group of early Church writers.

Early Christian authors writing before the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. are known collectively as the "Ante-Nicene Writers." Obviously a three hundred year period of time covers a relatively large number of authors. However, within this larger category of early writers, there are various sub-groupings of authors. One particular sub-grouping, in fact, the first sub-grouping of Ante-Nicene Writers, is known commonly as the "Apostolic Fathers." (We prefer to call them the "Apostolic Writers.") And this is the group of writers with which we are chiefly concerned and quote from as we double-check our own work.

This group is not arbitrarily selected by us as some might suggest. Rather, this sub-grouping is an existing category already identified by scholars and we simply borrow that already existing understanding.

Specifically, the group of writers known as the "Apostolic Fathers" includes 8 authors. These 8 authors are:

1. Barnabas
2. Clement
3. Ignatius
4. Ireneaus
5. Justin Martyr
6. Mathetes
7. Papias
8. Polycarp

The sub-grouping of these particular 8 authors, known as the "Apostolic Fathers," can be seen independently CCEL.org (Christian Classics Ethereal Library) at the following URL:

http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/

CCEL.org is operated by the Development Office of Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI. CCEL.org also provides introductory comments for the Ante-Nicene Fathers from A. Cleveland Coxe, D.D. written in December of 1884 and including the following summary description of the sub-grouping known as the "Apostolic Fathers." The date of 1884 further demonstrates that the distinction of these 8 men from the rest of the Ante-Nicene authors is not a distinction of our own invention or convenience.

"Introductory Notice - [a.d. 100-200.] The Apostolic Fathers are here understood as filling up the second century of our era. Irenaeus, it is true, is rather of the sub-apostolic period; but, as the disciple of Polycarp, he ought not to be dissociated from that Father's company." - A. C. C. December, 1884

We should take note from the paragraph above that the "Apostolic Fathers" are distinguished from the rest of the Ante-Nicene authors, which can be generally termed "sub-apostolic." On CCEL.org, the categorization of the Ante-Nicene authors that includes this 8 member group is listed as follows:

"Volume I. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus Clement of Rome, Mathetes, Polycarp, Ignatius, Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus." - Christian Classics Ethereal Library, CCEL.org

It is important to note that CCEL.org begins its next set of Ante-Nicene writers, the "Fathers of the Second Century," and continues to group Ante-Nicene writers largely according to the period in which they wrote.

"Volume II. Fathers of the Second Century
Hermas, Tatian, Theophilus, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria

Volume III. Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian
Three Parts: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical

Volume IV. The Fathers of the Third Century
Tertullian Part IV; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen

Volume V. The Fathers of the Third Century
Hippolytus; Cyprian; Caius; Novatian; Appendix

Volume VI. The Fathers of the Third Century
Gregory Thaumaturgus; Dinysius the Great; Julius Africanus; Anatolius and Minor Writers; Methodius; Arnobius

Volume VII. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries
Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, Liturgies

Volume VIII. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries
The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementia, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages" - Christian Classics Ethereal Library, CCEL.org

This is where we draw our line of demarcation also, distinguishing these first 8 Christian writers from the rest of the early writers after them.

At this point, it must be stated clearly and emphatically that when we speak of consensus in the post-New Testament early Church's doctrine, we are specifically referring to these 8 men and NOT to the views espoused by other Ante-Nicene writers after them. Because of their proximity and the fact that they have consensus (no disagreement between themselves) concerning doctrine, these 8 writers make up what we consider the PRIMARY LEVEL of Ante-Nicene writers. All other Ante-Nicene writers are on the SECONDARY LEVEL.

When discussing these 8 writers of the PRIMARY LEVEL (the "Apostolic Fathers") we should note, as mentioned earlier, their overlap and connection to the Apostles themselves. We do this to point out one of the main characteristics that distinguishes this group of men from any other post-canonical author or any other era of history.

Of these 8 men, one is potentially the apostle Barnabas. And at least three were themselves discipled directly by apostles. These three men are:

1. Clement (of Rome), disciple of Paul (and perhaps Peter as well).
2. Polycarp, a disciple of John the apostle.
3. Ignatius, a disciple of John the apostle.

Of the remaining four men, two were discipled by two of John's disciples. Irenaeus was discipled by Polycarp. And Papias was an associate of Polycarp.

In addition, as we stated above, these men lived in close proximity in time to the apostles. Some of them even lived for several decades before the deaths of the apostles. (Keep in mind that Peter and Paul died in the mid-60's A.D. and John lived until around the year 100 A.D.)

1. Clement lived between 30-100 A.D.
2. Ignatius lived between 30-107 A.D.
3. Polycarp lived between 70-156 A.D.

Here are the dates for the rest:

4. Justin Martyr lived between 110-165 A.D.
5. Irenaeus lived between 120-202 A.D.
6. The other three men (Barnabas, Mathetes, and Papias) all lived and wrote before 130 A.D.

We might also mention that five of these men were bishops over the early Church, appointed to guard Christian teaching:

1. Clement was bishop of Rome.
2. Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna.
3. Ignatius was bishop of Antioch.
4. Papias was bishop of Hieropolis.
5. Irenaeus was bishop of Lyons.

(NOTE: In the cases of Ignatius and Polycarp this appointment may have been made directly by the Apostle John.)

It is for all of these reasons that these 8 men are distinguished from other early Church writers (and from Christian theologians of later periods). Their superiority to later Christian writers is established by these characteristics, which we have discussed above and summarize here now:

1. Proximity in time - at least 3, but probably 6, of these 8 men lived for decades before the deaths of the apostles. The remaining few lived in the decades immediately following. Thus, not only was the theology of several of these men subject to direct apostolic oversight, but even the others did not have anywhere near as much time as we or other later scholars have had to bring outside influences to their theology.
2. Direct discipleship - 1 may have been an apostle himself, at least 3 of these men were directly taught by apostles, and another 2 were taught by 2 of these men. This again means that they are much, much less likely to have cultural or historical baggage to cloud their scriptural study as we and other scholars of later centuries have had.
3. Concensus - these men have doctrinal unity and consensus. Such consensus is unparalleled by any group of Christian writers or theologians in any era since.

For comparison, the earliest Christian theologian to influence modern Christian thinking is Augustine. Augustine wrote between 354-430 A.D. This is over 250 years after the death of the last apostle (John). Augustine is acknowledged to have significant influence over modern Christianity though his doctrines are equally acknowledged to have fused Christian teaching with Platonism, a mystical pagan worldview, which heavily influenced Augustine's own understanding of Christianity. It is Augustine who bears much influence on significant Reformation and modern theologians alike, beginning with Martin Luther and John Calvin. Yet neither Augustine nor any of these men were instructed by apostles, nor appointed by apostles, nor were overseen by apostles in their theological development, nor were those who taught them.


Can the writing of 8 men be enough to establish the views of their era?

Some may ask, even if the 8 writers who make up the "Apostolic Fathers" have consensus among themselves, are 8 men a sufficient amount to establish concretely what the views of the Church were as a whole during the period in which they lived and wrote?

The answer to this question must be yes. The reason that it must be yes comes by comparing the "Apostolic Fathers" to the New Testament authors in three areas: 1) the number of contributors, 2) the amount of material, and 3) the individual contributions of the writers.

When we perform such a comparison, we find that the two groups are nearly the same or exactly the same on all 3 criteria. The following chart shows the large similarity between these two groups in each of the 3 areas under discussion.

Quantity of Information and Contribution Comparison Chart
New Testament

1. Jude
2. James
3. Peter
4. Mark
5. Matthew
6. John
7. Luke
8. Paul
Total:


0.75 pages
2.25 pages
4 pages
14 pages
22.25 pages
31.5 pages
46.75 pages
49.75 pages
171.25 page

Timeframe Covered:
First Century Christianity.
Apostles live until the year 100 AD.

Number of Writers: 8
Number of Pages: 171.25

Average Page Contribution of the Lowest 3 Contributors:
2.33 pages

Average Page Contribution of the Middle 3 Contributors:
22.5 pages

Average Page Contribution of the Highest 2 Contributors:
48.25 pages
Apostolic Fathers

1. Papias
2. Mathetes
3. Barnabas
4. Clement
5. Polycarp
6. Ignatius
7. Justin Martyr
8. Irenaeus
Total:


1.5 pages
3.5 pages
7.75 pages
11 pages
13 pages
35 pages
100 pages
180.75 pages
352.5 page

Timeframe Covered:
Second Century Christianity.
The last apostolic father dies in 202 AD.

Number of Writers: 8
Number of Pages: 352.5

Average Page Contribution of the Lowest 3 Contributors:
4.25 pages

Average Page Contribution of the Middle 3 Contributors:
19.5 pages

Average Page Contribution of the Highest 2 Contributors:
140.5 pages

What the above chart shows is that:
1.) Both the New Testament and the "Apostolic Fathers" have a total of 8 writers.
2.) In terms of shear volume, the "Apostolic Fathers" wrote more than 2 times as much information than the New Testament itself contains.
3.) Both the New Testament and the "Apostolic Fathers" have roughly the same stratification of contributions. That is, in both groups, some writers contribute more, while others contribute a lot less in comparison. When we compare, head-to-head, the lowest, middle, and highest contributors to each group, we find that the "Apostolic Fathers" do not come up short in any area. On average, the lowest 3 contributing "Apostolic Fathers" wrote than 2 pages more than the lowest 3 contributing New Testament authors. Likewise, concerning the "Apostolic Fathers" and the New Testament authors who contributed a middle amount, the average contribution in both groups was right around 20 pages. And concerning the highest 2 contributors to either group, the "Apostolic Fathers" wrote an average of 100 pages more than Paul or Luke, the highest 2 contributing New Testament authors.

In summary, since collective writings of the "Apostolic Fathers" contain nearly twice as much information by the same number of authors making roughly the same relative contributions as the New Testament authors do, the "Apostolic Fathers" cannot be said to be too few in number or too little in information to accurately define the doctrines held by the post-apostolic Church of their day. If 8 authors writing anywhere from 1 page to 50 pages provide enough information content to record and define the beliefs of the New Testament Church, then 8 authors writing anywhere from 1 to 180 pages and twice as much total material as the New Testament certainly provide enough information content to record and define the beliefs of their generation.


Conclusion Regarding Criticism Number 1 - The Early Church Writers Have a Diversity of Views

This first criticism that is offered regarding our usage of the early Church writers is false. The specific group of writers that we are concerned with is neither arbitrarily chosen by us because they align with our views, nor do they have a diversity of opinion among themselves. Instead, the writers we refer to (known as the "Apostolic Fathers") are grouped together not by us, but by other academics and theologians based upon the specific scholarly criteria listed above. Likewise, a study of these men's writings reveals a unified, consistent, and cohesive system of Christian theology during the earliest post-New Testament period of Christianity. If someone wishes to deny that the Apostolic Fathers had consensus then they must demonstrate disagreement in this group rather than simply making a sweeping assertion.


Why do we quote from authors in the Secondary Level of early Christian writers at all?

As we will see below, the New Testament itself both predicts that deviations in doctrine will inevitably arise in the Church as well as instructs the early Church to preserve the doctrine that they received from the apostles without corrupting it in any way. In accordance with this Biblically predicted deviation, Christian writers of the "sub-apostolic" period (and of later centuries as well) begin to express some divergence of opinion on Christian thinking.

We do quote from the Secondary Level of ECF's. However, we quote from men of later groups only WHEN a particular belief that they hold also has representation in the "Apostolic Fathers" and ultimately in the scriptures. In this way, although they may not hold consensus with the 8 "Apostolic Fathers" on all points, authors on the Secondary Level can help to trace the origin of doctrines by further establishing a particular thread of doctrine that continued to be held uncorrupted from the New Testament times. This is the only potential usage that we assign to the Secondary Level of Ante-Nicene writers.


Criticism Number 2 - Deviation from Jesus' teaching occurred in the Early Church.

Does the fact that deviation does occur within the larger category of the Ante-Nicene writers demonstrate that even the early sub-group of the "Apostolic Fathers" should not be used for double-checking doctrine?

There are several things to address in response to this criticism. The first is that we do recognize ourselves and acknowledge that deviation from Jesus' teaching was Biblically predicted and did occur as a matter of historical fact.

On the topic of preserving sound doctrine, the New Testament tells us in no uncertain terms that:

1. The doctrine of Jesus' Christ was complete, understood, and passed on by the apostles from the beginning of Christianity.
2. Jesus' teaching (as taught by the apostles to the Church) was commanded to be preserved without alteration and passed on to successive generations.
3. In spite of 1 and 2, people would abandon and deviate from Jesus' teaching as taught by the apostles to the Church and listen to teachers who taught their own doctrine and what the people wanted to hear.

There are many, many verses, in the New Testament, which attest to these 3 facts. John 14:23-24, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 1 Timothy 4:16, 2 Timothy 1:13-14, 2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 1:9, Titus 2:7, 1 John 2:24, Jude 1:3 are just a few of such passages.

As time continues after the "Apostolic Fathers" there is a trend away from Apostolic teaching and toward deviation through syncretistic blending with either pagan or secular cultures. This trend comes to a notable head in the 4th century A.D. with the events surrounding the Romanization of the Church under figures like Constantine, Eusebius of Ceasarea, and Augustine. For more information on these important events please see our articles entitled "Roman Catholicism."

The following two charts illustrate the Biblical models for both preservation of sound doctrine and prediction that deviation would occur.




CHART NOTES: This model (which is actually asserted in the New Testament) predicts the infusion of false doctrine into the church over time, particularly starting after the deaths of the apostles. Therefore, while the underlying historic/philosophical model employed by this website DOES predict the overall consensus among the earliest non-canonical writers, this model ALSO predicts the presence of deviant doctrine among successive generations of non-canonical writers even in the early centuries. Thus, the loss of consensus and the corresponding presence of deviant doctrine as time moves on after the earliest non-canonical writers does not contradict the underlying historic/philosophical model employed by this website.



CHART NOTES: Although this model was enjoined upon the church in the hopes of preventing the predicted deviation as much as possible and for as long as possible, it was understood that this prescription to preserve the original doctrine would NOT eventually prevent the widespread deviation/corruption of doctrine that was to come. However, the eventual emergence of deviant doctrine within the church did not mean that in time original Christian doctrine would be lost altogether because the original doctrine had been preserved in the scriptures.

What these scriptural statements and charts tell us is that deviation from sound doctrine was to be avoided, but was expected to eventually occur. Our use of the "Apostolic Fathers" recognizes this trend toward deviation, takes it into account, and offers a means to avoid our own participation in it as we study the Word of God 20 centuries later.

The question, then that separates us from our critics is not whether doctrinal deviation has occurred, but when it occurred. On this point our opponents might criticize us by asserting their assumption that even the earliest post-canonical Church writers (which we employ as a means to check our own study) seriously deviated from Jesus' teaching. Therefore, they might say, that it is faulty for us to employ such men's writings to check our own Biblical studies since such writings contain serious and numerous doctrinal deviations from Jesus' teaching.

However, this is not a fair criticism.

First, the simple fact that deviation does occur at some point in the nearly three hundred years covered by the larger category known as the "Ante-Nicene" era, does not in any way demand or prove that such deviation was already present within the first 100-150 years known as the time period of the 8 "Apostolic Fathers."

Second, any claim that the "Apostolic Fathers" were in error, disagreed with one another, or deviated from Jesus' teaching must be demonstrated. It cannot simply be assumed to be true without evidence. Nor does evidence of error occurring in a later period of the Ante-Nicene writers AFTER the "Apostolic Fathers" demonstrate error among the "Apostolic Fathers" themselves. And, a reading of the "Apostolic Fathers" yields no substantive evidence of error or disagreement among them specifically.

Third, some critics may employ the circular reasoning that the "Apostolic Fathers" are in error simply because they disagree with the modern theology of the critics themselves. Thus, they attempt to prove the "Apostolic Fathers" deviate from Jesus' teaching simply by showing that the "Apostolic Fathers" disagree with their own teaching.


Conclusion Regarding Criticism Number 2 - Deviation from Jesus' teaching occurred in the Early Church.

Of course, the need for modern theologians to assert error in the "Apostolic Fathers" is apparent. In order to justify their own deviations from the earliest post-canonical Christian understanding of Jesus' teachings by men who were taught by the apostles themselves, it is first necessary to allege uncertainty and confusion in the "Apostolic Fathers." In other words, the insertion of uncertainty is the necessary vehicle for introducing greater latitude of action and belief.

Or, in simpler terms, modern theology is quite different from that espoused by the "Apostolic Fathers." In order to justify their own deviation from the understanding of Jesus' teachings held by the earliest Church and their theological disagreement with men of such extraordinarily close proximity to the apostles, modern scholars must necessarily discredit the understanding of the "Apostolic Fathers." Or to put it even more simply, they cannot trace their views back to the earliest times of Christianity, so they seek to make these times irrelevant by saying that they were filled with much doctrinal error and deviation. Of course this is mere circular reasoning and a completely biased and baseless assumption.


Furthermore, When It Comes To Deviationů

As we discuss deviation from Jesus' teachings an important distinction must be made. It is one thing to suggest that the positions articulated by the early church writers on a particular topic were not authoritative and were only one of a variety of possible acceptable positions on that topic. It is another thing to suggest that the positions articulated in the New Testament itself were not authoritative and were only one of a variety of possible acceptable positions on a given topic.

Very often, in order to disagree with the conclusions asserted on this website, at some point critics have to assert at least one or more of the following 5 positions concerning, not the views of the early Church writers, but regarding the New Testament itself:

1. The New Testament authors themselves didn't completely understand Jesus' teaching.
2. The New Testament authors weren't clear or can't be understood.
3. The New Testament writing wasn't authoritative then and could be deviated from.
4. The New Testament writing isn't authoritative now and can be deviated from.
5. A New Testament author's meaning is not the true or ultimate meaning.*

Of course, for obvious reasons, our opponents will never openly acknowledge these views as the basis of their disagreement. Nor, would they be so forthcoming as to inform their audiences or congregations that they hold to such notions.

By contrast to our opponents, we wish to affirm the following view of the New Testament:

1. The New Testament authors themselves did completely understand Jesus' teaching.
2. The New Testament authors were clear and can be understood.
3. The New Testament writing was authoritative then and cannot be deviated from.
4. The New Testament writing is authoritative now and cannot be deviated from.
5. New Testament author's meaning is the true and ultimate meaning.*

*NOTE: The idea expressed in No. 5 (above) is that while the author might have had one idea in mind, the Holy Spirit used his words as a shell to convey an alternate idea, distinct from what the author had in mind. Thus, as is stated, the author's meaning is not the true or ultimate meaning. Really, this is just a restatement of Nos. 3 and 4, because it's another way of asserting that the grammatical, contextual, and historical meaning of a text as intended by the author is not authoritative. And while it might be conceivable to think of certain Old Testament passages as having more than one meaning, such as Paul's recounting of the Exodus in 1 Corinthians 10 illustrates, to do the same thing with plain, instructional New Testament texts is a completely different story. It's one thing to say that the Israelites passing through the Red Sea is both historic fact and a symbolic foreshadowing of baptism. It is quite another to suggest that instructions from a New Testament author like Paul are really only authoritative on some symbolic or abstract level. Understanding the extent to which the Old Testament prefigures the work of Christ's first advent does not give us license to turn the passages of the New Testament itself into a symbolic prefiguring of our own imagination. Furthermore, in passages like 1 Corinthians 10, Paul certainly considered both the literal and the symbolic meanings to be true and authoritative.


Criticism Number 3 - The use of the "Apostolic Fathers" by this website is equivalent to making the "Apostolic Fathers" infallible.

The suggestion that we treat the "Apostolic Fathers" as authoritative and infallible is patently false. First of all, if quoting from other Christian writers or using them to check your study conclusions is tantamount to making them equal to scripture, then that means that any Christian scholar who has ever quoted any other text besides the Bible or any other author besides the Biblical authors must have considered them to be equivalent to scripture in authority and infallibility.

Of course, this is not the case. Many modern scholars quote from other modern scholars, Reformation scholars, and other Christian theologians from other ages, but this does not mean that they hold such scholars to be divinely authoritative or infallible. Does citing Martin Luther mean you think Luther was an infallible authority on Jesus' teaching? Or does quoting John Calvin mean that you think Calvin never erred in any respect in his theology or that you cannot disagree with Calvin on any point? Because you study Augustine does that mean that he has replaced the Bible as the source of your theology. Perhaps this is the case with others, but the "Apostolic Fathers" are not employed by us in such ways.

Rather, as we have stated above we simply employ these 8 men in the same manner as other theologians often quote other Christian scholars. We reference them only after, and not before, we perform our own thorough scriptural analysis. We quote them to check our own conclusions. We use them to show that other honorable Christian men also held our views. And we use them to show that our views were present in early Church history and by those who were personally taught by the apostles.

We do not hold the "Apostolic Fathers" to be inerrant, but instead hold that they are completely open to error just as any of us are and just as any Christian would say of any theologian that they are fond of quoting. Likewise, we do not hold them to be divinely inspired authorities on Jesus' teaching. And lastly, we do not use them as the source of our theological understanding, but only refer to them AFTER we have thoroughly studied the Word of God itself.

Also, we must recognize that this type of criticism is a catch-22. We are "darned if we do and darned if we don't." If we agree with the "Apostolic Fathers" on all points, then we are accused of making them infallible. On the other hand, if we disagree with the "Apostolic Fathers" in so much as one detail we are accused of violating our own rules. Therefore, it is wrong to use them if they are considered infallible and wrong to use them if they are considered fallible. Of course, those who might suggest such criticisms do not equally apply either of these two criticisms to the quotation of Christian theologians from other eras by modern scholars.

The following charts help depict the way in which critics often falsely caricature our use of the "Apostolic Fathers." The views stamped "WRONG" (Figures A-C) represent false understandings of our use of "Apostolic Fathers." Beside these we have presented (Figure D) an accurate depiction of our use of the "Apostolic Fathers" (stamped "Correct") and in contrast (Figure E) a depiction of the approach by which modern theology often arrives at its understanding of Jesus' teachings.


Figure A: As discussed in our articles on the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), the RCC holds that the Bible AND sacred tradition (= the writings of RCC church leaders since the Bible's completion) are both equally authoritative in the formation of doctrine. This RCC position undermines the principle of sola scriptura (scripture alone) so that the writing of men outside of the Bible becomes just as valid as the Bible, even when it disagrees with the Bible.

This portrayal of our views is wrong for several reasons. First, we do not consider the ECF's infallible or inspired or of equal weight with the Bible. Second, we do not determine doctrine by using the ECF's as a standard. Third, we do not value ECF's "sight unseen" or "on their own merit." Instead, we give value to a particular set of ECF's (the "Apostolic Fathers") BECAUSE they line up with a grammatical-historical interpretation of scripture. Thus, the critical analysis of the text of scripture comes FIRST and the ECF's are judged and valued according to it, rather than being equal to it. Fourth, as can be readily seen by the studies on this website, the examination of doctrine is spent overwhelming in the scriptures with the ECF's usually tacked on at the end as an addendum rather than as part of the analytical process upon which doctrines are formed.

By falsely depicting our approach in this way, critics hope to equate us with the RCC in order to incite a pre-emptive prejudice against our views and approach among Protestant audiences, rather than dealing with the facts and addressing our views and approach as they truly are. (It should be noted that a select few doctrinal topic areas - namely the studies on Preterism, Roman Catholicism, and the Charismatic gifts - do create a peculiar relevance for the historic record itself. In these cases, a wide variety of early writers are more relevant than in the majority of purely doctrinal studies on this website, i.e studies where the historic record is not particularly relevant. However, in these few studies, historic writers are used for their witness to history and are still not used as the authority driving the examination of the doctrine.)


Figure B: In what is perhaps the cheapest shot at our theological system and approach, some critics suggest that this website uses the ECF's as the primary determining factor for doctrine, even elevating them over scripture itself. The idea presented in this false portrayal is that we start with the views of the ECF's on all topic areas and then we work backwards to reconstruct scripture to line up with the views of the ECF's.

This criticism is most obviously false. First, our familiarity with the Bible preceded familiarity with ECF writing by years and years. So, doctrine was being formulated on the basis of scripture while our experience and familiarity with ECF writing was just developing. Thus, our familiarity with ECF writing was not sufficient to base any doctrine on. Second, and more importantly, even the casual reader of this website will quickly notice that the overwhelming bulk of each and every doctrinal investigation is spent analyzing scripture, not the ECF's. ECF writings are only tacked on in the addendum. This means that our reasons for adopting certain doctrinal conclusions is driven by an analysis of scriptural texts, to the tune of what equates to more than 2000 printed pages. In contrast, there is relatively little or no analysis of the ECF writings.

Critics who falsely portray our approach in this manner defy the obvious and are attempting to dismiss our views without having to analyze or refute the hundreds and hundreds of pages of scriptural analysis on this website.


Figure C: We do not employ the ECF's as the interpreters of scripture for us. For all of the 2000 plus pages in which we analyze and formulate interpretations of Biblical passages one by one, to build doctrinal conclusions, there are less than a dozen instances where we even mention or cite an ECF's interpretation of a text or passage. And even in those very few and scattered instances the quotation of an ECF interpreting a passage, the purpose of including such a quote is not to appeal to it as the authoritative interpretation of the passage in question, but instead, such quotes only occur AFTER an analysis of the passage using the GH method has been performed and articulated.

And more to the point, the reason for those quotes is for comparison's sake, to demonstrate to the audience that other significant Christian writers share the interpretation that we have derived from a passage. In this regard it is no different than when scholars cite Reformers or other Post-Reformation theologians to show widespread support for their interpretations of passages. Why should the few quotations of ECF interpretations of passages be treated or portrayed any differently that when modern scholars quote how Reformation or Post-Reformation theologians interpreted a passage? When modern authors quote the interpretations of passages articulated by other well-known theologians, their quotation is not taken to imply that they view the Reformation or Post-Reformation writers, which they quote, in the role of interpreter or that these modern writers derive their doctrine merely by adopting the interpretations of the theologians that they quote. Likewise, neither does our scarce inclusion of such ECF quotes equate to such an elevated regard for the ECF's. Nor should it be portrayed this way simply on the basis of these quotes, particularly in light of the infrequency of their occurrence.

With virtually no quotations of ECF's interpreting scripture passages in the analysis that builds our doctrine, it is not possible to suggest that the analytical process, which leads to our doctrine, is primarily or even partially the adopting or borrowing of ECF interpretations of scripture.


Figure D: Because the ECF's views were developed using a grammatical-historical (GH) approach to scripture, the doctrine we derive using the GH method and the ECF views line up, without coaxing. Essentially, both parties are applying the same method (the grammatical-historical method) to the same source (the Bible) and getting the same resulting doctrine. Both rely on the Bible as the determining authority for doctrine and both hold that doctrine must be preserved as it was originally rather than modified or revised. In this way, they affirm each other as well as affirming the grammatical-historical method, particularly in terms of its consistency and the singularity of doctrinal views it produces in each topic area. This gives comfort and confidence to the student of doctrine in the knowledge that his interpretive method and his understanding of the Gospel were shared by the earliest Christians and students of the apostles, and therefore are not merely a more modern contrivance of men. This confidence level is described in the "Early Church Confirmation Rubric" (see BELOW.)

Because an analysis of the text of scripture according to the grammatical-historical method remains the overwhelming composition of our doctrinal studies, while the ECF's are relegated to a mere referencial addendum, we cannot be branded with the criticism that we elevate the ECF's to equality with or superiority above the scriptures or to a position of infallible interpreters as some critics suggest.


Figure E: For all the erroneous criticisms concerning the use of the ECF's on this website, a consideration of both the common criticisms described in this essay and the common arguments used to defend and assert many modern doctrinal positions yields the filtration process by which a great deal of the contemporary theological landscape is formed. The "filters" or "factors" prominently featured in this process include the historical adoption of pagan or Gnostic philosophical influences, the notion that doctrine evolves over time through the ongoing views and interpretations put forward by theologians over the nearly 20 centuries since the apostles, and last but not least an accommodation for what people in general will find "practical" or "do-able."

 




Criticism Number 4 - The "Apostolic Fathers" are legalistic.


The criticism that the "Apostolic Fathers" are not a good group to check our views against because they were legalistic is another very bad and circular argument. There are several reasons for this.

First, when we in the modern Church identify something as "legalistic" we must define what we mean by that term. In a New Testament sense the type of "legalism" that was spoken against and rebuked by the apostles was Judaic legalism. That is, the New Testament authors and the apostles rejected the idea that Christians must comply with the whole of the Law of Moses in order to be saved in Jesus Christ.

By contrast, the "Apostolic Fathers" cannot be said to exhibit this type of Judaic legalism. In fact, two of the chief concerns of the "Apostolic Fathers" were to prevent Gnostic thinking and Judaic legalism from infiltrating the Church and corrupting sound doctrine. The "Apostolic Fathers" wrote against both of these corrupting forces and any "legalism" that they profess is only what the New Testament itself demands concerning obedience to the Law of Christ.

The "Apostolic Fathers" do exhibit a definitive emphasis on obeying the laws and teachings of Jesus Christ in regard to both doctrine and lifestyle or behavioral issues. This may seem "legalistic" to many modern Christians, but it is a completely different type of legalism than that which is condemned in the New Testament itself. And anyone who seeks to reject or malign the "Apostolic Fathers" for any supposed "legalism" of this type should not rely upon such equivocation.

Second, just because the "Apostolic Fathers" expressed a need for strict or "legalistic" adherence to the teaching of Jesus Christ, does not mean that "legalism" of this kind is an error. Just because the modern Church might consider a requirement for strict obedience to the commands of Christ to be a form of "legalism" similar to the Judaic legalism to the Law of Moses, it doesn't follow therefore, that the modern Church is correct in its condemnation of this new definition of legalism.

To suggest that the "Apostolic Fathers" were in error simply because the modern Church does NOT demand strict adherence to the teaching of Jesus Christ is circular reasoning. The inherent presumption being that the modern Church cannot be wrong in rejecting a strict adherence to the teaching of Jesus Christ.

But it would be a very dangerous assumption. How would we know if the modern Church was correct in rejecting such a strict adherence to the teaching of Jesus Christ. Instead, the presence of uniform "legalism" of this kind so immediately in early Church history would beg the question as to whether or not Jesus' teaching required such "legalism" at all. It would beg the question as to whether the modern Church's rejection of such "legalism" is, in fact, itself a deviation from Jesus' teachings. By contrast, we in the modern Church might be considered lawless (or antinomian) in a New Testament sense.

For these reasons the idea that the "Apostolic Fathers" were "legalistic" in some sense can in no way justify rejecting their value as a means to double-check our own Bible studies. Instead it is only an exercise in name-calling, circular reasoning, question begging, and equivocation.


Early Church Confirmation Rubric

In conclusion, here is our Early Church Confirmation rubric, which describes how we use the "Apostolic Fathers" as a means of double-checking our own thorough, grammatical-historical study of the Bible.

1.) Upon completing a thorough analytical Bible study, we arrive at a doctrinal view.

Survey of Early Writers: Upon review of the "Apostolic Fathers" we find that all the comments regarding this particular doctrinal view are refuted by the "Apostolic Fathers" and/or that the only persons holding this particular doctrinal view were the heretics.

Status and Recommendations: We should recheck our analysis, our hermeneutic, and our application of that hermeneutic. This may indicate that there is an error in our hermeneutic system itself, and not just in our application of it.


2.) Upon completing a thorough analytical Bible study, we arrive at a doctrinal view.

Survey of Early Writers: Upon review of the "Apostolic Fathers" we find that there are no comments by the "Apostolic Fathers" regarding this particular doctrinal view.

Status and Recommendations: Our doctrinal accuracy simply rests on the strength of our analysis, our hermeneutic, and our application of that hermeneutic. This scenario trumps scenario No. 1 above.


3.) Upon completing a thorough analytical Bible study, we arrive at a doctrinal view.

Survey of Early Writers: Upon review of the "Apostolic Fathers" we find that there are only a few comments on this subject but that all of those comments agree with our findings or that there are perhaps a variety of comments and views on this subject but our findings are represented by at least a few of the orthodox writers.

Status and Recommendations: Our doctrinal analysis is shown to be an ancient and orthodox Christian view. This scenario trumps scenarios Nos. 1 and 2 above.


4.) Upon completing a thorough analytical Bible study, we arrive at a doctrinal view.

Survey of Early Writers: Upon review of the "Apostolic Fathers" we find that there are more than a few comments on this subject and that all of those comments agree with our finding.

Status and Recommendations: Our doctrinal analysis is shown not only to be an ancient and orthodox Christian view. The accuracy of our analysis and hermeneutic are confirmed in the strongest terms. This scenario trumps scenarios Nos. 1, 2, and 3 above.


Conclusion:
This is how the comparison to the "Apostolic Fathers" operates on this website. In this way we do not make the early Church writers into infallible interpreters of God's Word or into the Word of God itself. We do not simply adopt whatever doctrinal positions they express or even specific interpretations of individual passages, but instead a sound hermeneutic applied to the Word of God remains the sole, driving engine of our doctrine. Operating in this way, the early Church writers simply provide for us a confirmation rubric against which we can "check" or "double-check" our findings.