Why should we care what the Church Fathers said?
For many Catholics, the question may seem odd, and the answer may seem obvious. But for some Catholics, and I suspect for many Protestants, it’s a fair question.
You see, ever since the dawn of the modern age (not very long ago in the big picture), the Western world has been laboring under the mistaken assumption that simply because we live later in time than ancient people we are naturally more enlightened than they were. Then, in the last century, advances in medicine and technology have convinced us that we must be smarter than anyone who lived even a few hundred years ago, let alone almost 2,000 years ago.
But is that true? Do obvious improvements in some areas of life necessarily mean that philosophy and theology are also improving over time?
Our Catholic Faith—and really any faith that is handed down from one generation to the next—is built on the assumption that truth does not, in fact, evolve, and get “more true” over time. Instead, truth has a source. For us that source is God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This is the historical event that we call the Incarnation. “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14), which means the divine Word, the Son of the Father and Second Person of the Trinity, acquired a human nature in order to reach out to humanity and reconcile us to our Creator.
And since this happened in human history, that means that there were real people who knew Jesus personally. Some of these were called his disciples, and most of those disciples (along with some others) became the people we call apostles. The word apostle means one who is sent out, and the apostles were the ones sent by Jesus to take his message of reconciliation into the world. So, rather than thinking we are naturally smarter than people who lived in the time of Jesus and the apostles, we actually believe that it’s important to listen to the people who lived closer in time to the Source of truth.
But the apostles couldn’t live forever, and when the time came, they handed the baton to those whom they chose and commissioned to succeed them. These successors of the apostles were the first bishops of the Church. Those bishops were the custodians of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. It was their job to pass on those teachings faithfully, and we believe that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, they did (see John 14:26).
This is part of the point of my book, Handed Down. The teachings of the Catholic Faith of today are trustworthy because they have been faithfully handed down through the generations in an unbroken chain that goes all the way back to the apostles and Jesus. We call this chain of teaching authority “apostolic succession.”
So who are the Church fathers? They are the early bishops—the successors of the apostles—along with other early theologians and catechists who passed on the Faith. But in addition to passing the Faith along, every generation had to further clarify and explain the Tradition and practices of the Church as well as interpret the Scripture that is itself a part of that Tradition. To be clear, every generation confirmed the conclusions of the previous generations, so we’re not saying that later generations changed Tradition. But each generation did build on the foundation of prior Tradition.
This is important, because in many ways it was the Church Fathers who defined Christianity itself by clarifying important doctrines like that of the Trinity. Even though the word Trinity doesn’t appear in Scripture, I would say that anyone who does not believe in God as a Trinity cannot call himself a Christian (let alone a Catholic). Of course, the concept of the Trinity is quite biblical (see, for example, Matthew 28:19), but it was the Church Fathers who had to interpret and clarify Scripture regarding the Trinity—and it took them 300 years before they were ready even to begin writing the Nicene Creed.
Truth doesn’t evolve. In fact, if we’re not careful, the transmission of it will devolve over time, like a game of “telephone.” But we can be confident that our Faith has not lost anything to the passing of time because of apostolic succession and because of the promise of Jesus recorded in Matthew 16:18: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
I take that promise to mean that the Holy Spirit will guide and protect the Church so that it can never become something other than what Jesus intended it to be. Contrary to what the Protestant Reformers thought, the Church could never go off the rails to such an extent that it would cease to be the Church. If it did, then hell would win. But that can never happen, because Jesus made this promise.
Therefore, for us to remain connected to our faith, we also have to remain connected to those who came before us in the Faith. In the computer world, we hear a lot about being connected to “the cloud.” But there is a much more important cloud, what the author of the letter to the Hebrews called the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1-2). This is the communion of the saints who went before us and who now cheer us on and intercede for us as we run the race of faith.
So we as Catholics may find that we have to answer the question, Why should we care what the Church Fathers said? We care because our Faith is historical. It is not mythical; it has its origins in God’s intervention in the history of the Hebrew people, and especially in God’s revelation in the person of Jesus Christ. And the people who lived closest to that time might just have understood something about Jesus’ life and message that we will miss if we look only at the Bible, and only through our twenty-first-century eyes.
The good news is that there is a lot of material left to us by the Church Fathers, and a lot of it is accessible online. To see a selected list of writings of the Church Fathers, with links to the documents online, go to: www.EarlyChurchFathers.net, and click on “Links to Primary Documents.”