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By Roger Salter
August 3, 2023

In the interests of establishing the principle of continuity and historical reliability within the Church of God the Reformers were aware of proving themselves not only as being loyal to apostolic proclamation, their honorable central claim, but affirmative of much that was inculcated by the so-called church fathers. These learned, ingenious, and brave pioneers in the faith carved out a sound testimony concerning the great and fundamental features of the basic content of Scripture, especially with attention to the nature of God and the Person of Christ. In biblical and philosophical form, they wrestled with sufficient definition for the Church's understanding as to how the Divine Being and the Person of Christ could be understood and described to the People of God and the surrounding pagan world. The great and enduring creeds for formal and public confession, namely the Apostles', Nicene and Athanasian [authorship uncertain] were hammered out in the keen debate between leading thinkers of the time, and in the early Church councils, and these happen to be the fathers' permanent and invaluable legacy to subsequent generations of believers and enquirers.

This primitive, important and immensely able witness, encompassed within the creedal formulae of the ecumenical Church, however, remained in need of a more extensive and comprehensive alignment with the divine revelation relating to further topics that could only emerge within the passage of time and the broader reflection that only time, together with controversy and the needs of Christian experience, [especially in the most vital area of soteriology] along with many key aspects of essential doctrine that the Reformers so ably provided in various confessions of faith to complement where the fathers may have been deficient and incomplete in significant matters.

The fathers as individuals bequeathed to us much that is edifying, spiritually stimulating and interestingly and charmingly useful in our Christian nurturing, particularly those who have come to be regarded as the most significant and well-known as the "oft-quoted" in matters of pastoral concern and development of life in Christ. Many Protestant publications are raising the profile of the fathers in our time. But there is no ground for thinking that collectively they form a council of appeal for a consensus on all-round orthodoxy that becomes the basis of a tradition. It is significant that the fathers only spoke of tradition in the sense of an emanation from the ministry of the apostles with which they did not equate themselves or their efforts. It is a well-worn observation that chronological proximity does not guarantee correctness. The nearness of the fathers to the age of the apostles is no assurance of the safety of the divine deposit of truth that the apostles bequeathed to us when we recognize from church history how quickly the faith can be corrupted. The church fathers cropped up here and there but not as a united team. Our hindsight can lead to simplistic conclusions and history is usually quite messy and necessarily selective. By nature, we favor a neat perspective.

There was much inconsistency and difference of opinion among the fathers, and even marked contradiction among these various men, deemed by Historical Theologian William Cunningham as like 'infants' in the sense that they were functioning at a level conspicuously lower than that of the apostles and were living prior to the unfolding of more developed and mature Christian knowledge discovered and discussed by later generations: Historical Theology, Volume One, pages 134-178. In his writings this distinguished Scottish academic is abundantly beneficial in assessing the earliest advocates Christianity:

"Enough has been said to show the grounds on which all true Protestants have ever refused to admit that the authority of the fathers should be held to be binding and conclusive, either in the interpretation of particular passages of Scripture, or in the exposition of the scheme of divine truth [172].

Men sometimes talk as if they had a vague notion of the early church fathers having had some inferior species of inspiration,--some peculiar divine guidance differing from that of the apostles and evangelists in degree rather than in kind,--and somehow entitling their views and statements to more deference and respect than those of ordinary men. All notions of this sort are utterly baseless and should be carefully rejected. Authority, properly so called, can be rightly based only upon inspiration; and inspiration is the guidance of the Spirit of God, infallibly securing against all error . . . Where there is not inspiration, there is no proper authority . . . the fathers individually or collectively were not inspired , , , their statements must be estimated and treated just as those of ordinary men [174-5].

We have seen, in surveying the writings of the fathers of the first three centuries, that they were not in general judicious or accurate interpreters of Scripture; most of them have given interpretations of important scriptural statements which no man now receives; that many of them have erred, and have contradicted themselves, and each other in stating the doctrines of the Bible; and that, in so far as their views are accordant with Scripture upon subjects that have been, and still are converted, they are not brought out more fully or explicitly than in Scripture itself, or in a way in any respect better adapted to convince gainsayers, even if it were admitted to be authoritative [175].

The notion that the fathers created a coherent tradition at all is manifestly dubious, given the confusion and fallibility of the church's first apologists as a band and the internal differences of opinion. It is good that recent attention has been drawn in popular studies to the efforts and courage of the fathers (e,g. J.N.D. Kelly-ACBlack, Hudson, Sharrer and Vanker-Hendrickson Publishers, Hall-IVP Academic, I.D.E Thomas- Hearthstone). Such publications compensate for the Evangelical oversight with regard to the fathers and their era, for a more complete record of the development of the life and thought of the Church of God is a necessity. Protestants need to gratefully acknowledge all of the great representatives of The Gospel of Grace between the Apostolic age and the Reformation, the latter a culminate event of centuries-long preparation pioneered by Augustine of Hippo.

We must not tilt too greatly toward the presumed corporate authority of the fathers as a court of appeal for flawless judgments on any issue theological or ecclesiastical. Some of their pronounced views were not beneficially nuanced [Origen on Apocatastasis; Tertullian on Episcopate]. It is of importance to note that the advocacy of the wisdom of the fathers should not in any sense reduce the full force of the disclosures of the Reformation period. Appeal to the fathers must never surreptitiously nudge the Reformed Church away from the clear and valid conclusions of the confessional statements of the Reformation, nor should any inexactness in their various statements contribute to the tendency to undervalue the pursuit of the principles of systematic theology, as some compromising churchmen are wont to do. God-given logic in religious thought and articulation is the gift of the Word himself to the understanding of his inspired truth [John 1:17- Christ as Word. 1 Peter 1:11ff - The Spirit of Christ as revealer and instructor. These two pointers are the basis of all sound theological enterprise, and it must not be forgotten that the fundamental mood of a theologian -general temperament - may affect the degree of tenacity with which he or she supports a distinct proposition].

Our saints and scholars of the 16th/17th centuries reform movement were well schooled with considerable expertise in the comprehension and selective deployment of the views of the fathers and any accurate thought that was propounded in the early church. In general they far surpassed the learning in patristics of many of their Romish opposition and as advocates of a more thorough and continuing reference to the biblical text, simply through the passage of time allotted to them, contributed to the welcome refinement of the church's confession. Their skill was inevitably necessitated due to the Roman Church's inflated esteem of the fathers and the Reformers needed to show, in vindication of their orthodoxy, that they were satisfactorily au fait with the with the merits of patristic theology, and its inadequacies.

The Augustinian revival the 16th and 17th centuries flourished in Europe And in England. In that blessed era the founding theologians of Reformed Anglicanism grasped the thought of Augustine with enduring firmness until Laudian Arminianism invaded the scene and cleared the way for the eventual rise of Anglo-Catholicism, banishing the Calvinists, heirs of the Reformation, from their effective guidance of the Ecclesia Anglicana. In that same period resulting in the separation of the majority of the Puritan party from the national church, a noble phalanx of reformational-minded men, many of them gifted poets, including Donne, Hall, Greville, Marvell, Quarles Spenser, Herbert, Wotton remained. These remaining celebrated Anglican poets celebrated the magnificent theme of the grace of God, sovereign and effectual, that dominated the mind and mood of our spiritual and cultural leadership of that day. There was a consensus in the comprehension of truth revealed by God and the tradition of holy and obedient reflection on the truth by the sanctified minds of godly and scholarly men, who even remained faithful to the point of martyrdom tied to the fiery stake if need be as was the case with the mainline Reformers. There has been no "golden age" of the church ever, but there were times when the glint of the precious metal was detected as visible, thus contributing to the encouragement of the people of God.

Revisionism is the fashion of our day and well established views on movements and men are unnecessarily questioned with plausible but shallow subtlety perpetrated by persons unhappy with strong and clear doctrine and testimony and desirous of fame. Uncertainty is being sown everywhere and we need to be watchful for the developing cracks in the received heritage created by those who chip away at our firm foundation - if we have a mind to defend it and not be cowed by academic pretensions and theological sleight of hand. The quest for originality and novelty of opinion is rife in the scholarly world - books have to be sold!

PS. Watch out for the misleading and deceitful twisting of the term "Reformed Catholicism" with the bogus adjustment to "re-formed Catholicism. Keep an eye out for the "little foxes" that ruin the vineyard.

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