Question of the Week: What role do the early church fathers play in personal bible study?
When it comes to anything we use apart from the Bible in order to better understand it and how it applies to our lives practically, it is important to first understand why we are studying the Bible in the first place. Once the Bible is put in its proper place in our lives, everything else we use to equip us for a godly life will fall into line. The Bible is a collection of 66 books compiled over 1500 years of human history that were tested and verified (Deuteronomy 18:18-22) to come from authentic prophets/spokesmen of God. Though physically written by men, the thoughts and points emphasized in these historical, poetic, and prophetic writings were inspired by God. Therefore, it is the greatest possible source available to us concerning what God is like, how to have a relationship with Him, and what He expects of us personally.
And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.
2 Peter 1:19-21 (NKJV)
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NKJV)
The question then remains where the early church fathers fall in line to this equation. If the Bible is and remains the ultimate source for any consistent and authentic Christian’s understanding of what God has revealed about Himself, then anything less is speculation. This doesn’t mean we discard these observations and writings out of hand, but make sure we don’t put them at a higher position of influence in our lives then the authors themselves would want to be.
What are the “Early Church Fathers?”
The early church fathers are usually referring to church leaders and their writings between the time of the Apostles in the 1st century AD and the 13th century AD. The time of the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance would not be considered early church fathers. They would fit into their own category. Some of the more prominent names in this category would be; Justin Martyr’s Apologies, Irenaeus of Rome, Polycarp, Eusebius of Caesarea, St. Augustine of Hippo, and St. Athanasius. These are only a small handful of a long list of names that would fit into this category of early church fathers.
Why are the Early Church Fathers different from the writings of the Reformers or Modern Commentaries?
The reason early church fathers are held in a higher regard than modern writings is for one and only one reason. History. These men lived closer to the lifetimes of the original authors of scripture. Therefore, they were more familiar with cultural customs that may have been referenced that we aren’t familiar with or terms that may go over our heads when reading the text. Polycarp and Irenaeus in particular were disciples of the Apostles John and Peter respectively. Therefore their insights are something we’d want to hear given the fact they would have been able to clarify certain points from the author that we don’t have the ability to today.
How do we know we’ve gone too far with citing the Early Church Fathers?
People who err when citing early church fathers usually do so when they have already committed two kinds of mistakes. The first and most common mistake is the fallacy of equivocation when reading something in the Bible. A term is confused, deliberately or otherwise, with a word that has a different meaning and imposed on the Bible. The second mistake is what we call eisegesis. When someone reads an idea into the text of scripture rather than taking that idea out of what is plainly written. The early church fathers are cited to affirm these ideas that are either being imposed or twisted into the text of the Bible as an opinion more authoritative than either of the people discussing them. The problem with either of these mistakes is extremely straight-forward. The early church fathers aren’t infallible. Even if someone in history affirms the opinion of someone who is mistaken, that only proves that two people have now made the same mistake. The overwhelming majority of the claims made against scripture to affirm dogmas or cultic teachings can be either proven or disproven without leaving the pages of scripture. The person who insists on coming to conclusions outside of the Bible has shown where their ultimately authority lies. No Christian should want to find themselves in that position.
How do we avoid abusing the writings of the Early Church Fathers?
The best way to read the early church fathers is the same way you would read modern commentaries. It is an interesting source of insight that may point out things you weren’t familiar with. However, if you trust a fallen sinful human being without verifying what they have said or claimed, you’re treating them like an authority on par with scripture. That is a dangerous position to take without holding them to that very same standard the authors of scripture were tested by. If anyone comes to you claiming to speak with the credibility and respect due only to God, hold them to the standard of a prophet. Are they historically accurate, doctrinally consistent, accountable to capital punishment if they are lying, and able to back up their claims with miracles? The early church fathers weren’t always wrong, but they weren’t always right either. Likewise, they weren’t held to this standard. Therefore, the way we treat them shouldn’t be the same way we treat the text of scripture.
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