The Fallibility of the Early Church Fathers: Why
Christians Should Look to
the Bible Alone for Doctrine
by Jason Engwer
"I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears....and remember the words of the Lord Jesus" -- the apostle Paul (Acts 20:29-31, 35)
When we hear names such as Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Augustine, we usually respond with some reverence. These are early church leaders who lived either at the time of the apostles or within a few centuries of the apostles. Religions such as Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy base many of their doctrines, at least in part, on what these men wrote. Surely we can learn from these early church fathers, and some of them were right on most issues, but they were not infallible.
Many of them taught salvation through faith alone, sola scriptura, that Mary had sinned during her life, and other doctrines that Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox would reject today. The church father Origen taught that the Holy Spirit was a created being, that Satan and the demons will all eventually be saved, and other false doctrines. Yet, he was one of the most influential of the early church fathers. By the fourth century, when church fathers like Jerome and Augustine became prominent, much of professing Christianity had become so corrupt as to enter into unholy alliances with Constantine and the Roman Empire, and Arianism, a heresy that denied Christ's deity, became a majority viewpoint for a while. The early church fathers who are exalted so often today were fallible. The post-apostolic early church was not doctrinally pure. Those who attempt to portray it otherwise are revising history.
We can learn from the early church fathers, from both their successes and their failures. They can bring up arguments that we haven't thought of before. They can draw our attention to portions of scripture to which we hadn't paid much attention before. Irenaeus wrote some valuable material against the heresy of Gnosticism. Athanasius wrote some valuable material supporting such important doctrines as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and sola scriptura. Many other church fathers wrote valuable material on these and other subjects as well. At the same time, though, the church fathers often made mistakes, and taught false doctrines. How, then, do we know what to believe and what doctrines to follow?
Paul and Peter answered that question in Biblical passages such as Acts 20:28-35 and 2 Peter 1:13-15. In Acts 20, Paul knew that he was seeing the Ephesians for the last time. He warned them that false teachers would try to influence them after his departure. How did Paul want the Ephesians to avoid being deceived by these false teachers? Were the Ephesians to just do whatever some "apostolic successor" would tell them to do? No, they were to remember Paul's words (Acts 20:31), as well as the words of Jesus Himself (Acts 20:35). And we see a similar situation in 2 Peter 1:13-15. Peter knew that he was soon going to die. What did he do, so that people would remember after his death what he had taught? Did he tell them to just follow a "successor", or to believe whatever a hierarchy of men in a particular city (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, etc.) would tell them? No, he wrote his teachings down (2 Peter 1:13-15, 3:1-2). So how do we today remember what the apostles taught? Do we turn to a group of men in Rome? To a seeming "consensus" among modern church leaders? To thousands of pages of church father writings, church council declarations, and proclamations from church leaders of the last two thousand years? No, we turn to the teachings of the apostles themselves, the New Testament. That doesn't mean that we can't learn anything from other sources, but rather that these other sources are not as authoritative as the New Testament, and are not binding to the Christian, nor are they an acceptable foundation upon which to build doctrine.
If people were to decide what to believe by examining the "traditions" of the early church, what would they believe about whether Mary was a perpetual virgin? The church father Tertullian denied that she was a perpetual virgin. The church father Jerome argued that she was, and attempted to explain away the references to Jesus' "brothers and sisters" in the New Testament by assuming that they were actually cousins. The church father Epiphanius, while agreeing with Jerome that Mary was a perpetual virgin, tried to explain away the "brothers and sisters" mentioned in scripture by assuming that they were children of Joseph from a former marriage. So, for those who want to establish doctrine based on post-apostolic "tradition", which view of Mary is to be accepted? When three different church fathers give three different views, which one is to be followed? If the scriptures speak for themselves, the obvious conclusion is that while Mary was a virgin until Christ's birth, she had other children later. The New Testament writers were familiar with the Greek terms for "cousin" and "relative". They used them. When referring to Jesus' "brothers and sisters", though, they used terms with a primary meaning of shared parentage. Since people who want to believe that Mary was a perpetual virgin cannot find evidence for that belief in the New Testament, they try to find evidence in material written long after Mary and the apostles had died. So the New Testament evidence against Mary being a perpetual virgin is overlooked, as is the testimony of men like Tertullian, who didn't support the doctrine. People who want to believe that Mary was a perpetual virgin search through the writings of the church fathers until they find something they agree with, then they read that doctrine back into the New Testament, even if the New Testament actually doesn't support it. This is how Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy go about supporting many of their doctrines.
Another example of how important it is to follow the scriptures first and foremost, as opposed to following the early church fathers, is the issue of baptismal regeneration, the teaching that baptism is a requirement for salvation. The scriptures are overwhelmingly in opposition to baptismal regeneration. Every scripture passage cited by those who argue that baptism is a requirement for salvation has a reasonable alternate interpretation that reconciles it with the larger number of passages that are in opposition to that doctrine (see Rebutting Baptismal Regeneration). Yet, most of the early church fathers taught baptismal regeneration. (Contrary to popular conception, not everybody in the post-apostolic early church did, however. The earliest church father, and possibly the only one who wrote during the first century, is Clement of Rome. In the only material we have from him, his letter to the Corinthians, he explicitly teaches salvation through faith alone (1), and he says nothing about baptism being a requirement for salvation. Though people often make generalizations about how "everybody" in the early church believed in baptismal regeneration, the truth is that not everybody did.) One of the church fathers who taught that baptism is a requirement for salvation was Tertullian. An examination of his treatise On Baptism reveals just how unscriptural and weak were the arguments of those church fathers who did advocate baptismal regeneration.
Near the beginning of On Baptism, Tertullian writes:
As clever and memorable as Tertullian's analogy may be, Christians are not born in the water of ceremonial baptism. When Jesus referred to being "born of water" in John 3:5, he was speaking to Nicodemus, a Jewish teacher of the scriptures, who probably would have associated the water reference with repentance and spiritual cleansing (Psalm 51:2, Isaiah 1:16, John 7:37-38, Ephesians 5:26, etc.), not the ceremony of water baptism. If this isn't obvious from John 3:5 and its immediate context, then it is from what Jesus goes on to say. In verses 15, 16, and 18 of John 3, Jesus mentions faith as the means of salvation, and says nothing of water baptism. When John explains why he was writing his gospel (John 20:31), he tells us, "these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name". How do we have life? By believing. As much as advocates of baptismal regeneration may want to add more requirements to that verse, John only mentions "believing" as the means to salvation.
Not only is Tertullian mistaken about John 3:5, but he's also mistaken when he claims that Christians are safe only in the water. The truth is that they're safe in Christ's blood (Romans 5:9, 1 Peter 1:18-19, Revelation 1:5), and nowhere else.
Tertullian goes on to say, later on in this treatise:
No, Tertullian, Christians are not under any "law of baptizing" or any other law of works (Galatians 3:15-25). We're under the law of grace and liberty (Galatians 5:1, James 2:12). The sting of eternal death has been removed from sin for those who believe in Jesus Christ. We still suffer consequences from sin, such as loss of rewards (1 Corinthians 3:11-15), but the consequences, once we've trusted Christ, are no longer eternal death. In other words, once we become a Christian, all things are lawful for us, but not all things are profitable (1 Corinthians 6:12). Paul didn't criticize the Galatians because they were trying to maintain salvation through the wrong type of ritual (circumcision rather than baptism). He criticized them for thinking that they could maintain salvation through any ritual, through any work of the flesh (Galatians 3:3).
Tertullian argues against the people of his day who believe in salvation through faith alone, apart from baptism, by claiming that Abraham was an exception to the rule. He acknowledges that Abraham was saved through faith alone, apart from baptism or any other work, but he dismisses Abraham as an exception to a new rule. However, we read in Romans 4:
On the issue of salvation, Abraham is not an exception to the rule. He is the rule. Everybody is saved through faith alone. Abraham was saved that way, and so are all of Abraham's children, since he is "the father of us all" (Romans 4:16). Tertullian makes a miserable mistake when he attempts to dismiss Abraham's example rather than learning from it. There is no new "law of baptizing" whereby people are now saved. People always have been and always will be saved through faith alone. There's only one gospel (Mark 1:15, Galatians 1:8-9), and it will never change (Romans 2:16). Salvation is a free gift of God's grace, accepted through faith alone, based upon Christ's perfect work. Tertullian suggests that the means of salvation changed after Jesus' resurrection, yet it was after His resurrection that Romans 4 and so many other passages that teach salvation through faith alone were written. In Acts 10:44-48, people receive the Holy Spirit, the seal of salvation (Ephesians 1:13-14), before being baptized. Peter confirms in Acts 15:9 that they had been "cleansed through faith", not baptism, and he goes on to say that everybody is saved in the same way (Acts 15:11). That was after Jesus' resurrection as well.
While Tertullian claims that the ceremony of water baptism is a means to salvation, he also writes:
So he adds martyrdom, a "baptism of blood", as another means of salvation, and he suggests that the effects of water baptism can be lost. Even worse, he goes on to write:
Tertullian has now suggested six different works that a person should do before being saved, and he's suggested that salvation can even be lost after these works are done, and that salvation can be restored by means of martyrdom. Nowhere in any of the writings of the apostles do we find what Tertullian is teaching. To the contrary, Paul writes:
Paul describes the person who is saved as somebody who is "ungodly" and "does not work" (Romans 4:5). Tertullian describes the person who is saved as somebody who "pray[s] with repeated prayers, fasts, and bendings of the knee, and vigils all the night through, and with the confession of all by gone sins", then is baptized. Paul says nothing of a baptism of martyrdom, and he assures the Roman Christians of their future in Heaven based on their faith (Romans 5:9). Tertullian, on the other hand, teaches a baptism of martyrdom, and suggests that even after a person does all of the works he's listed, that person still may not get to Heaven.
About 150 years after Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans, we find one of the most influential of all of the "church fathers" contradicting in numerous ways what Paul had written. It wasn't long after Tertullian's time that the church father Origen would teach that the Holy Spirit was a created being, among other heresies. Much of professing Christianity would soon make unholy alliances with Constantine and the Roman Empire, Arianism would become popular, and men like Augustine would contribute to the popularization of false doctrines such as Purgatory. Yet, religions like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy would have us look to these post-apostolic church fathers for sound doctrine. The truth is that we are much better off today studying the Divinely inspired words of the apostles and their approved associates (the New Testament) than we are relying on the church fathers to shed light on what the apostles "really meant." As James White explains:
The scriptures are sufficient for leading us to salvation, making us adequate, and equipping us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17). The reason why some religions want to go beyond the scriptures is because they cannot find support for their false doctrines in the only material we have today that can actually be traced back to the apostles (the New Testament). They let the "traditions" of the church fathers, or at least the particular church fathers they approve of, determine how they interpret the scriptures and which portions of the scriptures they'll actually obey. What Jesus said of the Pharisees is true of these religions today:
"Although these [New Testament] books were called forth apparently by special and accidental occasions, and were primarily addressed to particular circles of readers and adapted to particular circumstances, yet, as they present the eternal and unchangeable truth in living forms, they suit all circumstances and conditions. Tracts for the times, they are tracts for all times; intended for Jews and Greeks of the first century, they have the same interest for Englishmen and Americans of the nineteenth century. They are to this day not only the sole reliable and pure fountain of primitive Christianity, but also the infallible rule of Christian faith and practice. From this fountain the church has drunk the water of life for more than fifty generations, and will drink it till the end of time ... Theological systems come and go, and draw from that treasury [of scripture] their larger or smaller additions to the stock of our knowledge of the truth; but they can never equal that infallible word of God, which abideth forever. 'Our little systems have their day, they have their day and cease to be: they are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God, art more than they.' The New Testament evinces its universal design in its very style, which alone distinguishes it from all the literary productions of earlier and later times. It has a Greek body, a Hebrew soul, and a Christian spirit which rules both. The language is the Hellenistic idiom; that is, the Macedonian Greek as spoken by the Jews of the dispersion in the time of Christ; uniting, in a regenerated Christian form, the two great antagonistic nationalities and religions of the ancient world. The most beautiful language of heathendom and the venerable language of the Hebrews are here combined, and baptized with the spirit of Christianity, and made the picture of silver for the golden apple of the eternal truth of the gospel. The style of the Bible in general is singularly adapted to men of every class and grade of culture, affording the child the simple nourishment for its religious wants, and the profoundest thinker inexhaustible matter of study. The Bible is not simply a popular book, but a book of all nations, and for all societies, classes, and conditions of men. It is more than a book, it is an institution which rules the Christian world ... We now descend from the primitive apostolic church to the Graeco-Roman; from the scene of creation to the work of preservation; from the fountain of divine revelation to the stream of human development; from the inspirations of the apostles and prophets to the productions of enlightened but fallible teachers. The hand of God has drawn a bold line of demarcation between the century of miracles and the succeeding ages, to show, by the abrupt transition and the striking contrast, the difference between the work of God and the work of man, and to impress us the more deeply with the supernatural origin of Christianity and the incomparable value of the New Testament....Not one [of the church fathers] compares for a moment in depth and spiritual fullness with a St. Paul or St. John; and the whole patristic literature, with all its incalculable value, must ever remain very far below the New Testament. The single epistle to the Romans or the Gospel of John is worth more than all commentaries, doctrinal, polemic, and ascetic treatises of the Greek and Latin fathers, schoolmen, and reformers ... If we compare these [post-apostolic] documents with the canonical Scriptures of the New Testament, it is evident at once that they fall far below in original force, depth, and fullness of spirit, and afford in this a strong indirect proof of the inspiration of the apostles ... For by the wise ordering of the Ruler of history, there is an impassable gulf between the inspiration of the apostles and the illumination of the succeeding age, between the standard authority of holy Scripture and the derived validity of the teaching of the church. 'The Bible' - to adopt an illustration of a distinguished writer -- 'is not like a city of modern Europe, which subsides through suburban gardens and groves and mansions into the open country around, but like an Eastern city in the desert, from which the traveler passes by a single step into a barren waste.' The very poverty of these post-apostolic writings renders homage to the inexhaustible richness of the apostolic books which, like the person of Christ, are divine as well as human in their origin, character, and effect ...The Bible is a book of holy men, but just as much a book of God, who made those men witnesses of truth and sure teachers of the way of salvation." (Philip Schaff, from his History of the Christian Church)
Clement (flourished c.80-101 A.D.):
"And so we, having been called through His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we wrought in holiness of heart, but through faith, whereby Almighty God justified all men that have been from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever."