When to Use the Church Fathers

The first rule of hermeneutics is to read the passage in it’s context. That means the verses surrounding the passage of study, the genre of the book, the historical context, and the grammatical context. We don’t just read the Bible however we want to interpret it. That being said, it can be useful to look at what the church has said through the centuries about passages of scripture that a not as clear as other passages.

We do not live in a vacuum. Our interpretation of scripture has been influenced by those who have preceded before us. The great Martin Luther studied the book of Romans very intensely and when looking at verse 17 in chapter one he noticed that righteousness is by faith. Tradition says that he wrote in his Bible “sola”. Which means alone. Anyone who believes that salvation is by faith alone has Martin Luther to thank for dragging that out of the text in a time when the Papacy was suppressing the truth of the scriptures from the common people.

Yet, Martin Luther didn’t get his interpretation from himself either. He labored over the text, but he was also influenced by Augustine, who was a church father in the fourth and fifth centuries. His stance on we must live by scripture alone also came from Augustine, “The authority of the Scripture is greater than the comprehension of the whole of man’s reason, as St. Augustine says” (Luther’s Works Vol 48, 207). As long as the church father’s line up with what the Bible says, it is alright to use them.

However, many people try to use the church fathers as an authority over the scriptures. Many times these people say that tradition is above the scripture. Yet, the church fathers would not have approved of this. They viewed the scripters as absolutely authoritative to the Christian. They never would have dreamed that the church would one day go against the writings of the prophets and apostles. This fact can be seen in that if we lost all of the Greek manuscripts today, the entire New Testament could be reproduced by the writings of the church fathers.

They also fought for the truth of the New Testament. When they gave an argument they would say it is written. Irenaeus said, “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1, in ANF, 1:414). Irenaeus was a church father from 130- 202 AD.

The best that can be said about the church fathers is that they were early interpreters of the scriptures, leading the church through intense persecution. We can admire their faith, their commitment to the gospel, to the scriptures, and to each other. They did not write about every theological matter and they are not inerrant. They were Christians dealing with the issues of their times.

In interpreting the Bible, they can be consulted through their writings. The apostolic fathers can be seen in the collection by J.B, Lightfoot The Apostolic Fathers: The Early Writings of Church Leaders Who Followed Soon After the Apostles of Jesus Christ. It is available on amazon.com for $13.95. Complete volumes of the Anti-Nicaean Fathers, Nicaean Fathers, and Post- Nicaean Fathers are a little pricey and can range from anywhere from $499- $900. Yet, the only way to really interpret the Bible is through reading it in its grammatical literary- historical context. It is nice to consult scholars, early Christian writers, and pastors but nothing beats the source in it’s context.


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