How much weight should be given to the early church fathers’ theological positions?
The simple answer is that their theological position should be given zero weight. When Irenaeus or Polycarp or Origen or Clement of Rome or Justin Martyr spoke on theological or doctrinal matters, they are not speaking inspired truth. Their ideas should be taken “for what it is worth.” They bear no authority whatsoever.
That is the simple answer, but I believe that reading these early writers can be very helpful in evaluating or own theological positions. How much weight should be given to the early church writers would depend on the kind of question. When it comes to matters of practice (as opposed to doctrine or theology) the early church fathers’ ideas can be quite helpful and illustrative. Less so for doctrine and even less so for theology.
For example, in a matter of practice, we know from the early church fathers that the early church took the Lord’s Supper on Sunday every single week. This practice is not specifically spelled out in the New Testament, although some would say it is implied. The fact that the earliest church had this practice increases the likelihood, in my mind, anyway, that the apostles themselves put this practice in place, and I find it to be helpful advice for church practice today. It does not prove that this practice is doctrinally required, but it fairly strongly supports the conclusion that God would be glorified best if we take the Lord’s Supper weekly.
For another example, Acts 2:38 teaches baptizing in the name of Jesus Christ, whereas Matthew 28:18 teaches baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Apparently, both are acceptable, but we can look at the writings of the Church fathers, see what they did, and glean suggestions about their theology. BTW, they used the Father, Son, Holy Spirit version. This does not prove that Jesus is God, but it does support the conclusion that the church itself, from the very beginning, saw Jesus to be deity. Again, this is not authoritative, but it can be used as a secondary argument, with scriptural arguments taking precedence, in a debate over the nature of Jesus.
As a doctrinal example, we can look at what the fathers wrote on baptism. All are absolutely clear that the point in time of salvation—of forgiveness of sins—is at baptism. This can be helpful to show how the apostles apparently interpreted passages over which some have argued the interpretation. I believe that this example should not be used as the source of doctrine, but it can illustrate which is the more likely correct interpretation as it is extremely unlikely that this doctrine would have been changed in less than a century.
But their ideas on theology and doctrine in general should always be taken with a fairly big grain of salt. If a Church father said something theologically that seemed at odds with New Testament statements, then I believe the thing said by a Church father should be rejected. The Church fathers worked out the accepted idea of the Trinity over time. This idea is helpful, but we should always take our source of truth back to the scriptures and not be overly influenced by what the fathers wrote. Like Paul said in 2 Tim 3:17, the scriptures are sufficient for every good work. We can use the church fathers to help illuminate questions, but they are not a source of authority.
Another illustration of how to, or more accurately, how to not use the Church fathers is found in the history of the early church. By the late second century, the church was being torn apart by debates over Gnosticism. Gnostic teachers were teaching innovations. In debates over the doctrines, they had their scriptures and the orthodox teachers had their passages. Those without sufficient biblical training could persuaded by either camp. Church fathers such as Irenaeus began to use apostolic statements as a sort of trump card in such debates. They could claim that there is no record, either from the apostles, or from their immediate successors of teaching such as those from the Gnostics. They generally won the debate using this argument. Unfortunately, this became a kind of slippery slope. By the third and fourth century influential church leaders were using the statements of earlier church fathers as proof-texts for various doctrinal discussions. Today, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches use writers such as Jerome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus and Augustine with virtually equal authority as they use biblical passages. This is clearly a distortion of how the Church fathers should be used.
With this example in mind, it should give us pause in using the Church fathers in the wrong way to “prove” a point. I am not against studying and using their writings. Not at all. In fact I have published a volume on Church History to AD 450 which largely relies on the writings of the Church Fathers. It is available at www.ipibooks.com. I find Church history to be very illuminating and very helpful in discussions about how to “do” Christianity, but I believe we need to stay very far away from allowing the fathers to be a source of final authority for Christian truth.
Follow up question:
I had never heard that the early church fathers supported regenerative baptism. Would you mind, when you have the opportunity, to supply a few statements in their writings which support the above doctrine?
Below is a sample of quotes from early Church writers which supports the idea that salvation occurs at baptism. There is an almost unlimited number or quotes of this type. We are putting on a weekend seminar on this topic Sept. 15-16 in LA if you are available. The Origen thing is a paraphrase. I could get the exact quote if needed, but I am heading off to work.
Here is a book by a friend which might be helpful. http://www.greatcommission.com/BornOfWaterInEnglish.pdf
Epistle of Barnabas AD 110
“We indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement. However, we come up, bearing fruit in our heart…”
Shepherd of Hermas AD 95
“The seal, then, is the water. They descend into the water dead, and they arise alive.”
Irenaeus of Lyon AD 185
“This class of men have been instigated by Satan to denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God. Thus they have renounced the whole faith.”
Tertullian of Carthage AD 205
“Without baptism salvation is attainable by no one.”
Origin: Baptism without repentance does not save: in fact the person is worse off than at first.
Second follow-up question:
Interesting. I had heard the early church fathers supported transubstantiation and premillennialism, but never had I heard they also supported regenerative baptism.
The very early church fathers did not support transubstantiation. Some of the early Church fathers did use language which sounds a bit like transubstantiation, but they are speaking mystically and they did not state that the actual elements are actually changed during communion. It is not until you get to the fourth and more particularly the fifth centuries that you see something like this idea. Even then, it was not a full-blown transubstantiation of Gregory in the 6th century. I believe there is no true transubstantiationist before about the fifth century.
As for premillennialism, this was not a major topic of discussion in the early church. The early church fathers had a stronger sense of the imminence of the return of Jesus than we have. Some but not all of the very early Church fathers did have a kind of premillennialism in their teachings, including Papias, Irenaeus, Justin and Tertullian. For example, Justin Martyr said: “But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then he built, adorned, and enlarged, as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare.” On the other hand, Origen, Jerome and Augustine strongly opposed chiliasm (premillennialism).
There were dissenting voices on premillennialism in the early church, but there were none on baptismal regeneration.