Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Meandering Thoughts on the Fathers

When I was a child, I went to Church in an independent bible Church that claimed to be the Church of the New Testament. In other words, we were discarding all the traditions of men that had crept into the Church since the time of the Apostles and were going to live life as the New Testament Church did--straight from the Scriptures (emphasis on the New Testament, please)!

Of course, little did I realize at the time--nor did anyone else, I think--that the early Church had no New Testament written, but only the written Old Testament, as we would call it, and the oral tradition of the Apostles for at least the first 20 years of her existence. Now what?

Tradition, as you’ve guessed, was considered a bad thing, so I don’t know what I would have done had I known of the conundrum. Of course, no one had actually done any historical study, so the way the New Testament Church worshipped, worked, dealt with discipline, etc., seemed to be made up when the need arose in our congregation to know that information.

When I found out much later that the New Testament Church looked a lot like those traditional Churches with their “dead” liturgy and empty prayers; looked a lot like the Jewish synagogues and the Jewish Temple liturgy, I was quite shocked. This made so much more sense than the “make it up as you go” school of liturgy which I had been a part of all the way through college.

So, then, if the Scripture was my authority, and the early Church looked something much different than I had been taught in Church, what had I learned? I had learned that the past, the history of the Church, shapes the Church now--or it ought to. I had rather be doing, living, continuing steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship, not someone else’s.

Thus, we have a need for the authority of tradition. I’m not talking Advent Wreaths and Christmas Carols. I am talking about the need to listen to what the Church has always said about the Scriptures, in particular. There is much more to be talked about, for sure, but let’s just stick there for a moment.

The Church I grew up in had little to no use for anything labeled “tradition.” Yet, if I want to know how to interpret the Apostles writings, who am I to listen to? Do I trust myself? Do I trust the Pope? Do I trust the pastor down the street?

Of course, in contemporary America, this becomes a real dilemma for a lot of people, because everything under the sun is said to be the doctrine of the Son.

I’ve learned that the Fathers of the Church are to be trusted. As a son of a Church that went through and was shaped by the Reformation, I have to own the desire of the English Reformers (and many others, by the way), however poorly they managed to work it out in certain cases. And that desire was to return to the doctrine and practice of the primitive Church. To do so, they returned to the Fathers, and argued their case against the anabaptists, the Roman polemicists and the Puritans.

In today’s world of polemical arguments amongst the Catholic traditions (Eastern, Roman, Anglican), in particular, the Fathers are constantly called in to buttress or make an argument, to defend a practice or doctrine, etc.

In defense of the Anglican view and use of the Fathers, let me again quote Father Arthur Middleton, who says of the Fathers of the Church: "They are not infallible, but are seen as the best-appointed judges since the apostles, and it is not the role of a judge to make laws, ...but to interpret those already made” (Fathers and Anglicans, 229).

We are not looking to the Fathers to be the revealed word of God, but we look to them as the authoritative interpreters of the same. Obviously, many of the Fathers were involved in making canon law, etc., but Middleton is talking of the the Holy Scriptures. The Holy Scriptures are the final authority and that final authority needs an interpreter. This is a happy place to come after so many various authorities asserting themselves, particularly in American Christianity.

Many want to make much more or much less of the Fathers. I leave you with 18th century Anglican divine Daniel Waterland’s thoughts:

We allow no doctrine as necessary, which stands only on Fathers or on tradition, oral or written; we admit none for such, but what is contained in Scripture, and proved by Scripture, rightly interpreted. And we know of no way more safe in necessaries, to preserve the right interpretation, than to take the ancients along with us. We think it is a good method to secure our rule of faith against impostures of all kinds, whether of enthusiasm or false criticism, or conceited reason, or oral tradition, or the assuming dictates of an infallible chair. If we thus preserve the true sense of Scripture, and upon that sense build our faith, we then build upon Scripture only; for the sense of Scripture is Scripture. Suppose a man were to prove his legal title to an estate, he appeals to the laws; the true sense and meaning of the laws must be proved by the best rules of interpretation; but after all it is the law that gives the title, and that only. In like manner, after using all proper means to come at the sense of Scripture (which is Scripture), it is that, and that only which we ground our faith upon, and prove our faith by. We allege not Fathers as grounds, or principles, or foundations of our faith, but as witnesses, and as interpreters and faithful conveyors. (qtd. in Middleton, ibid.)


We the Empress said...

That quote at the end is very good. I think alot of the problem today is a misunderstanding of what the various churches mean by tradition, church fathers, authority, etc. If you only partially understand what is going on, then of course the other guy is going to look silly. The analogy of the Fathers being judges and scriptures being the rule is excellent and extremely clear. Now I understand more!

father foos said...

Bored, my dear?

Perhaps you ought to get out a bit when you're not working....

I'm glad the quote was helpful. That's why I wanted to post it...but felt I should say something about it...and of course, I can't say anything quickly....

Miss Steinberg said...

Hear, hear.
Empress, you are quite out and about the e-universe these days!

We the Empress said...

I cheat and use Google Reader (you can sign up when you get a Gmail account) so it notifies me when anyone posts on my watched blogs. So it LOOKS like I'm always poking around without actually having to waste all that time. :D

But you're right, I should get out more. hehe.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Foos,
I appreciate Middleton's book. I am glad that you are getting the opportunity to read it. I am wondering if the quotation from Waterland contradicts your earlier statement about the early church not having the New Testament but only the Old since as Waterland says the foundation of faith is Holy Scripture. If the earliest Church did not have Holy Scripture (as we know it today) to build on, then what was the foundation of there faith? If all things necessary for salvation are found in Scripture then what did the Church, before the written Word was compiled, base there faith on? In other words, what would have they compared their faith to in order to make sure everything was consistent with a Scripture that did not yet exist? Is the quotation from Waterland consistant with the practice of the early Church?

Not George but Joseph

CMWoodall said...


The Fathers do not equal the Apostles. They came a little later, in the same stream. They would have been trained just as the Apostles were by our Lord that the OT was unveiling Christ. They would have also had some contact with the Apostolic witness, i.e. the New Testament.
Another blogger has put it this way, "It's one thing to read the Scripture with the Fathers, but quite another thing to read the Scripture through the Fathers" or as my favorite college professor would always say, "It [scripture] cannot mean today what it never meant"

father foos said...


As to your question: "Is the quotation from Waterland consistent with the practice of the early Church?"

My simple answer is yes. I don't see any contradiction here. Waterland is concerned with the Holy Scripture. That Holy Scripture was had (at least 4/5's) in written form by the New Testament Church and the new revelation of the Holy Scripture--the word of God--was had in an oral tradition, until such time as God found it right to have it written down.

Of course, Waterland is concerned with how holy tradition shapes the reading of the Scriptures and that it is the revealed word of God and not the tradition itself that is the foundation of the faith.

"We allege not Fathers as grounds, or principles, or foundations of our faith, but as witnesses, and as interpreters and faithful conveyors"

Another point for thought is that Waterland is, indeed, talking about the faith as received in his day. In other words, what he is not talking about is the Apostolic age of the Church. We should be rather tentative in arguing from his silence. 

I can't see how his argument contradicts the idea that the early Church was living in an age where the revealed Word was oral and not written.

Nobody said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nobody said...

You definitely need to post more often...I'm sure time hangs heavy on your hands at this time of year! We were talking about you recently. Were your ears ringing?

Ken said...

Do you come from a Church of Christ background from the American Restoration Movement?

father foos said...


No, I come from simple anabaptist roots with a calvanist twist.