I think I was about twenty one when one of my former pastors converted to Eastern Orthodoxy.
It hit me pretty hard.
I was a young man. I wanted to serve Christ and here this man who knew so much more than I did was in many ways fundamentally turning his back on many of the truths he once held dear. The reason, he kept saying you’ve got to study the church fathers.
The church fathers, the church fathers.
He’s not the first obviously to use that argument against some of the truths that people who really are in line with the Reformation have come to love. It’s funny, John Calvin has to deal with that very objection in the Institutes.
“Moreover…” he writes, “they unjustly set the ancient fathers against us (I mean the ancient writers of a better age of the church) as if in them they had supporters of their own impiety.”
I think it’s helpful to consider his response.
1.) It’s been said Calvin had quite a command of patristic literature and having studied the fathers he came away saying, “If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory – to put it very modestly – would turn to our side.”
2.) Yet while that may be true, he continues, we must remember that the church fathers were men, fallible men. They wrote many good things but they also wrote some bad things as well. That means if you look hard enough you can find a church father to defend all kinds of strange teachings, which is exactly what Calvin said his opponents were doing. “The good things that these fathers have written they either do not notice, or misrepresent or pervert. You might say that their only care is to gather dung amid gold.”
3.) When it comes to studying the fathers or really anyone, their teaching is meant to serve us not to lord it over us. We belong to Christ. He is the one we have to obey. “He who does not observe this instruction will have nothing certain in religion, inasmuch as these holy men were ignorant of many things, often disagreed among themselves, and sometimes even contradicted themselves.”
Reading that you know, I can’t help thinking I bet most of us don’t know what many of the early church leaders taught very well and that’s probably to our detriment. As long as we keep a biblical perspective on it, they were men, we’d go away helped…at least according to Calvin, because from his perspective there was a whole lot more gold there than dung.