The patristic fathers are an important group of people for the church to hear. They stand the closest to the Apostles in time and place when it comes to understanding doctrines and Christian beliefs. The Roman Catholic Church even uses their words to create traditions that Christians must follow and believe.
This raises the question for us about how we are to read and understand them. Should they have an authoritative word for us when we think through doctrines? Should what they say be the decisive factor if there is a debate over a certain issue? Are we to assume that they are closer to the truth because of their relative closeness to the early church?
Mark R. Saucy raises an important point about the teachings of the Church Fathers in his article, Canon as Tradition: The New Covenant and the Hermeneutical Question. He states the logical flow of his thesis,
1. The theology of the new covenant is central to the story of the Old and NT and so comprises the canonical tradition.
2. The patristic church did not pay sufficient attention to the canonical tradition of the new covenant.
3. Therefore, by implication, the claims for the patristic church’s necessity and normativity in the hermeneutical question must be moderated accordingly.
He then explores each one of these points. The hope of the bible is placed in the New Covenant planned by the Father, brought about by the death of Christ and activated by the work of the Spirit in the hearts of believers promised in the Old Testament and inaugurated in the New. This is an essential grid to have when coming to the Bible. Without it we miss the grand story of redemption that is portrayed in the scriptures. Dr. Saucy writes ( διαθήκη means “covenant”),
As is clear from this brief survey of the canonical tradition, Johannes Behm’s assessment accurately reflects the view of the NT writers: “Jesus conceived of His Messianic work fulfilled in His death from the standpoint of the fulfillment of prophecy of the eschatological διαθήκη.”(J. Behm, “διαθήκη,” TDNT 2:133. Themelios) In this fulfillment, Jesus truly continues the Great Covenant Story of restoration of the creation promised to Abraham back to the earliest parts of Israel’s Scriptures. But he also advances that Story by moving it beyond and cancelling earlier transitional elements. The final resolution of the sin-problem accomplished in Christ’s cross made obsolete earlier mediated approaches to God in the temple cult. With the life of God’s own Spirit pulsing within, the believer in Jesus has new knowledge of the Holy One of Israel as Father, giving the new, true power of full acceptance and sonship from within that enables obedience and holy living. As heirs of God’s irrevocable promises, the blessing of all flesh could be expected in the future restoration of Israel itself. Here then is the canon of Scripture’s tradition of the new covenant’s continuity and discontinuity that founded the church by the apostles’ inspired witness.
After reading Jason Meyer’s book, End of the Law, I find myself in more and more agreement with this point as I look at the bible. The New Covenant is not an interesting point that the biblical authors refer to now and then. But the reality of God’s actions through the New Covenant is foundational to the Apostle’s understanding of God’s redemptive workings in this world.
Then Dr. Saucy looks the different patrisitc fathers and how they departed from this central point. He lists four main areas of departure,
- First, dominance of the Christus Victor model of the atonement in the early patristic tradition means that things other than forgiveness of sins occupy center stage.
- Second, the second-century church tended to dissipate the power of Christ’s cross to other mediating objects and human moral striving.
- Third,…, the ecclesiology of the church’s tradition developed along vectors alien to the canonical tradition’s new-covenant ideals.
- Fourth, the growing institutionalization of the patristic tradition also correlated well to a perception of God quite alien to the new-covenant canonical tradition.
- Whereas the new-covenant Story climaxes in the unbroken communion between creature and Creator provided in the forgiveness of sins, God the Father in the patristic tradition waxes again strangely distant and becomes shrouded in the mist of absoluteness, impassibility (ἀπάθεια) and apophatic discourse as the maxims of Neoplatonism are enlisted to talk of him and battle pagans.
Now, I do not have the personal knowledge of the writings of the patrisitic fathers to give authoritative backing to what he says. But Dr. Saucy does work through the actual writings of the fathers to back up his points.
What we have with the apostolic and church fathers are men who were susceptible to error like the rest of us. If Saucy’s findings prove true then we see the fathers departing from a central motif of the Scriptures. This should cause us to not treat the patrisitc church as a final authority over matters of doctrine but as simply other righteous voices that we should listen to as we allow the bible to be the final authority on all things. And where they agree with Scripture we should embrace their teaching but where they depart we should depart from them as well.
You can read the article in full if you want the full explanation of backing of all these point.