How trustworthy is early Church literature?


#1

I’ve been in weekly Sunday evening discussions with my Protestant girlfriend’s fundamentalist father. He’s definitely a fundy, but a rational man who I believe to be sincere. Since our last conversation, he has done some “research” on the Catholic Church, and he’s now more opposed to it than before. Before, he was mildly opposed–as far as he knew, we were Christians who “believed in some odd stuff.” I expected this, as push came to shove, and now my work has quadrupled.

I’ve surprised him on a number of issues, but he said that Catholic Church doctrine has changed over the years. I say that’s nonsense, and I asked him to provide examples. He didn’t or couldn’t, but he had obviously “researched” enough to say confidently that the early Church contradicted itself several times, as it did in later centuries.

So, my question is this: we who do apologetical work rely on numerous early Church writings, but is it possible that we are highly selective in what we chose to use? I’m not a historian (yet), so I take the Church’s word that the vast majority of the writings we use represent the bulk of Church history. Do we use representative works from this time period? What do we say when we have disputes among the Fathers? He also says that the early Church relied (solely) on an extant canon long before the Council of Hippo.

I’m on the verge of getting a good perspective on all of it, but I’m also beginning to suspect that our quick references, cheat sheats, and pop-apologetics books paint a MUCH simpler picture of the early Church than actually existed. I suspect that while the Church is still all the things it claims to be, it’s not as simple.

Thoughts?


#2

Anyone who claims that the Early Fathers were unanimous in their teaching is, indeed, presenting an overly simplistic historical picture. In fact, there were several subjects which generated considerable debate and disagreement.

Perhaps the best example is the question, “is baptism by heretics valid?” Suppose someone was influenced by one of the early Christian heretical sects. S/he was baptized with the Trinitarian formula (but by a heretic). But s/he came to realize the error of the sect, and sought Communion with the true Catholic Church. Is his/her Baptism valid? Do we accept the heretical Baptism, or “re-Baptize” the person?

This question was HUGELY controversial in the Early Church. Great Saints (particularly St. Cyprian) and provincial councils (Carthage 255 and 266) maintained that those baptized (or “made wet” as St. Cyprian said) by heretics could not be regarded as validly baptized. Their position was overturned. The Catholic Church (still to this day) maintained that Baptism was valid regardless of the worthiness of the minister, as long as it was done according to the proscribed form.

Catholic theologians (Popes, Bishops, Priests, and learned scholars) have rarely been in complete agreement about matters of Faith that have not been definitively decreed. This situation continues today – for example, many Catholic theologians disagree about matters of eschatology (of great importance to many protestants, but a topic that the Catholic Church has not chosen to make many authoritative pronouncements).

But this knowledge of historical disunity will be of little comfort to our fundamentalist brethren. There are certain subjects which we find very little historical disunity.

But our fundamentalist brethren are not very interested in our early debates about heretical baptism – they consider baptism entirely symbolic – who cares if the minister is a heretic? The “ceremony” is just symbolic – so what if the MC is a heretic?

But, on topics of interest to our fundamentalist brethren (Church authority, eucharistic theology, Papal authority, infant baptism, etc) you will find very little (if any) disagreement among our Early Fathers.


#3

Well what cound of research did this pastor do?

The whole study of the church fathers is quite complicated in fact it is a study of itself. The study of Patristics is a legitamate one within Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican communions. In other semanires it is quite dummed down and a lot of out of context conclusions are given since in context the fathers would contradict thier unsacramental unhierarchal view of christianity which the fathers diffiniely held to. You have to know the context, poltics, heresies, and topics discussed by the fathers in their letters you need some background workd done lest you completely interpret what they are saying. And yes I have seen some butcher of the fathers by many protestant apologist. If your read James White, Geisler, Svendsen, Godfrey,and William Webster you would swear the fathers were either protestant, never agreed on anything, disagreed with the catholic church on everything. Nothing could be further from the truth all of them agreed with the church of its day but since dogma was defined over time each indiviudal might have diverse opinions on matters that have not yet been settled. Many of these so called quotes are taken out of context and butchered beyond recognition. I suggest your pastor friend study the fathers though catholic authors to give equal time to these apologist who have no idea what patristics is all about its not about copy and paste any sentence that remotely appears to protestant and cutting out the explicit catholic writings. Yes this is done all the time.
Patristics like the Bible itslef can be misinterpreted and used against the church from which these gifts of wisdom came from. Ironic isn’t it?


#4

He didn’t or couldn’t, but he had obviously “researched” enough to say confidently that the early Church contradicted itself several times, as it did in later centuries.

In terms of the deposit of faith–the Church has not strayed from that. In reading the Fathers one has to understand that the writings are not inspired. The Fathers do disagree on some issues. However, on core issues the Fathers do not disagree. Most notably: the Real Presence of the Eucharist and its sacrificial nature–this fact is held by all the Church Fathers. The idea of apostolic succession is also prominent in the writings of all the Fathers so far as I know. The idea of one single and visible Church which has the authority to loose and bind–this too is a feature in the writings of the Fathers.

So, my question is this: we who do apologetical work rely on numerous early Church writings, but is it possible that we are highly selective in what we chose to use? I’m not a historian (yet), so I take the Church’s word that the vast majority of the writings we use represent the bulk of Church history.

Well, unfortunately for us, many of the works which opposed the writings of the Fathers we have today became lost. This is not because the Church necessarily sought down and burnt these documents; it’s much more likely that the parchments became destroyed when people lost interest in heretical sects. However, many Gnostic texts have been rediscovered in years of late; and so we have a better picture of what early Christian history was like.

I think it is important to note that history shows no evidence, so far as I know, of any fundamentalist groups as we have today. Most of the heretical groups had really bizarre ideas which fundamentalists do not submit to.

There are many so-called Apocryphal works which are still extant. Many of these portray a different view of Jesus. They have remained with us to this day. However, since they do fully not conform with the four genuinely-accepted gospels, they are rejected as canonical.

Do we use representative works from this time period? What do we say when we have disputes among the Fathers? He also says that the early Church relied (solely) on an extant canon long before the Council of Hippo.

Especially in the early period of Christian history, we use represenative works of one kind of Christianity–the kind which has direct links with Christ and the apostles. There were other Gnostic groups who were in competition with the orthodox Christians. Lately some Gnostic gospels have been unearthed; but nearly all of these Gnostic gospels are proven to be of a late period, and they have no historical context, as do the four canonical gospels.

(continued)


#5

I would be interested to see the historical sources your fundy friend uses to back this claim. According to Eusebius, who once held the orthodox view of Christ but later turned into an Arian heretic, there was little dispute as to four gospels. Paul’s letters were accepted with little difficulty. Peter’s first letter was accepted without much problem. However, the Apocalypse of John, 2 Peter, and the epistle of Hebrews were less discernable as authentic. Many early Christian writers also thought about including other works as on par with the New Testament canon, like the Pastor of Hermas.

I think more importantly, however, is the fact that early Christians used the Septuaginut version of the Old Testament extensively. This means that early Christians used the 7 books which Catholics still include but which Protestants have dropped. Your friend may be referring to the Muratorian canon, which lays out some books of the New Testament accepted by many as canonical. The list is little different from the one we have today, with the exception of the Pastor of Hermas and the Apocalypse of Peter being given a higher place than they are today.

It is the additional books in the Septuaginut version of the Bible which really disturbs evangelicals. However, from what I understand, the Septuaginut version (the Greek translation of the OT) was used by far more people than was the original Hebrew version of the Old Testament. Hebrew then is like Latin now–mostly understood by a select few. The Septuaginut contains the 7 extra books which Catholics contain but which evangelicals have dropped because St. Jerome personally did not believe that they should be considered canonical. However, St. Jerome made that personal decision before the councils which added those books to the Church’s canon.

The idea of a canon was fairly foreign to the early Christians. In the writings of the early Fathers there is a much stronger emphasis on what the apostles personally taught them–although quotes are made from their works. Please ask your fundy friend to show you in the Fathers where Scripture is shown as having the sole authority in a matter. Ask him to show your where the sense of Apostolic Tradition and the authority of the Church are outright rejected. He cannot do it.

I’m on the verge of getting a good perspective on all of it, but I’m also beginning to suspect that our quick references, cheat sheats, and pop-apologetics books paint a MUCH simpler picture of the early Church than actually existed…

Yes, the cheat sheats and pop-apologetics books do just that. We may never fully understand what went on that long ago. However, in reading the Fathers our minds are opened to new possibilities in how to read the Bible. It is true that many of the Fathers have disagreements on some issues; but the same can be said of Christian Fundamentalists. The important fact to keep in mind is that the Church Fathers agreed on many key issues of Christianity–particuarily the importance of water baptism and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Read the Fathers, take notes; compare the Fathers views with what you read in Scriptures. If possible, learn some about the Greek and Hebrew language.

The best way to show a fundamentalist wrong is to beat him at his own game. You need to know the Bible inside and out. Become aware of how words like “salvation” and “saved” do not always mean the same when used in different places. Ask your fundy friend, if one understands the Bible through a private interpretation of the Holy Spirit, why the Bible must be translated into English, and why so many Christian fundamentalists write Bible commentaries. If possible find certain commetaries of famous Christian fundamentalits throughout the years and show how they contradict each other in interpretation. Ask how this is possible if it is the Holy Spirit privately interpretting the text for the individual.


#6

Montanaman, I hope your girlfriend is just a friend, because Catholics should not date non-Catholics. Priests tell me over 90% of mixed marriages end in divorce, so why ask for trouble?
As for her father, you will have to challenge him to do some legitimate research, because the only thing fundies “research” about the Catholic Church is anti-Catholicism, or hate literature.

Evangelical/fundies have no use for Early Church Fathers for the simple reason that none of the ECF are evangelical/fundies. They dismiss everything as “uninspired”, and have no use for historical facts, because the facts prove that the early Church, I mean early Church, was totally Catholic, especially all the church fathers.

“Bible-alone” theory makes re-writing history a necessary consequence, because all that “uninspired” information doesn’t support the sola scriptura heresy. The remark about the canon of scripture before the council of Hippo is an example of revisionist history, because not all the early Christians agreed all the time about all the books in the second century. In fact, some of the books in his bible were once not accepted by the majority of Christians as inspired, so he is blind, invincibly ignorant, or brainwashed. Plus, there were 16 “books of Acts” floating around, and your fundie fellow would have no way of knowing the right one from the wrong one, if he lived in those times. List of books NOT to be in the bible, but were mixed in with all the other ones:

scborromeo.org/truth/fig4.htm

The Witness of the Church Fathers With Regard to Catholic DistinctivesWith Examples of Protestant Corroboration of Catholic Doctrines or Clear Contradiction of Patristic Consensus

http://web.archive.org/web/20030604071746/http://ic.net/~erasmus/RAZ429.HTM

The following overview of the history of acceptance of biblical books (and also non-biblical ones as Scripture) will help the reader to avoid over-generalizing or over-simplifying the complicated historical process by which we obtained our present Bible.

A Visual Diagram of the History of the New Testament Canon (all from Protestant sources)

http://ic.net/~erasmus/RAZ45.HTM

kepha1


#7

Montana Man,

Protestants already butchered the Holy Scriptures by taking out some of the OT books and adding words into the NT to perfectly suit their imperfect doctrines.

Since they have the guts to butcher the inspired books of the Bible, how much more for the writings of the Early Church Fathers? They already done the worst, so expect more. They are headed to their own destruction if they don’t comeback to the true faith. God have mercy on these wandering souls.

Pio


#8

but he said that Catholic Church doctrine has changed over the years.

Its been my experience that Protestants that make this charge do understand the difference between doctrine and discipline.


#9

Kepha1 has raised importaant points. "Evangelical/fundies have no use for Early Church Fathers for the simple reason that none of the ECF are evangelical/fundies. They dismiss everything as “uninspired”, and have no use for historical facts, because the facts prove that the early Church, I mean early Church, was totally Catholic, especially all the church fathers.

“Bible-alone” theory makes re-writing history a necessary consequence, because all that “uninspired” information doesn’t support the sola scriptura heresy. "

When considering the “Bible Alone Theory”, ask him to find a place in the Bible where it actually states that the Bible alone is sufficient.


#10

Ugh. My biggest frustration with fundamentalists is the same one I have with relativists. I put in so much work researching and thinking, but it’s never returned. They want the quick, easy answer. And now it looks like the amount of work I’ll have to do has been quadrupled. Again.

Kepha: I know, I know. But she’s the first sincere Christian girl I’ve ever met who’s not only normal, but beautiful. What can I say?

We’re not unaware of the difficulties, though. After Thanksgiving, we’re going to cut the romance short and spend all our time on theology. (“Romance” being dates and time spent in a non-theological context). If, at the end of a reasonable time, we realize our differences are insurmountable, we’re going to go our separate ways. I’ll be doing novenas like crazy…


#11

Make sure that the research you do is dual pronged. Since the charge is that Catholics have changed, obviously you need to look at the early church fathers, (not forgetting the important point of the difference betweendiscipline, or dogma). But make sure you show the ECF in context with the Bible. For example: The papacy. St. Chrystydom(sp?) spoke of the primacy of Peter and refered specifically to John 21:17. I know while I was in fundamental churches, and even researching the Catholic Church, I put zero weight to anything not in the Bible. So the church fathers must be placed in context of the Scripture 100%.

God Bless, and I will put you in my prayers.

Your sister in Christ,
Maria


#12

[quote=montanaman]I’ve been in weekly Sunday evening discussions with my Protestant girlfriend’s fundamentalist father. He’s definitely a fundy, but a rational man who I believe to be sincere. Since our last conversation, he has done some “research” on the Catholic Church, and he’s now more opposed to it than before…I expected this, as push came to shove, and now my work has quadrupled.
[/quote]

[snip]

So, my question is this: we who do apologetical work rely on numerous early Church writings, but is it possible that we are highly selective in what we chose to use? I’m not a historian (yet), so I take the Church’s word that the vast majority of the writings we use represent the bulk of Church history. Do we use representative works from this time period?

That depends on the answer to the question: representative of what? Of whom ? of when ? of where ?

What do we say when we have disputes among the Fathers?

Admit they happened - surely no one is suggesting we should tell lies about the past :mad: ? A Church that hasn’t the courage to be honest about its past, is morally worthless. Hardly anything could be more destructive to Christian attempts to evangelise, than to prefer easy fictions to inconvenient or painful truths. Dishonesty, lies, fraud, deceit, are the worst possible means of telling the truth. :frowning:

He also says that the early Church relied (solely) on an extant canon long before the Council of Hippo.

I’m on the verge of getting a good perspective on all of it, but I’m also beginning to suspect that our quick references, cheat sheats, and pop-apologetics books paint a MUCH simpler picture of the early Church than actually existed. I suspect that while the Church is still all the things it claims to be, it’s not as simple.

Thoughts?

You’re right - it’s not that simple. Fortunately for any temptation we may have to prettify or whitewash the Apostles, the NT shows that they had plenty of disagreements, clashes of character, misunderstandings, and other differences. Paul disagreed with Barnabas, and with Peter; James and John irritated the other disciples by wanting top places in the Kingdom. Peter swore blind he would never deny Jesus, and then denied with curses that he had ever heard of Him. That was after the rest of them fled, when Jesus was arrested. The disciples could be very slow to understand Jesus at times. Even after the Resurrection, some of them still had wonky ideas about the time of the Coming of Christ.

They were a pretty useless lot. And that is how the power of Christ was able to work in them - because, of themselves, they were nothing. So they could not boast that the success of their efforts, was theirs.

If the Apostles, of all people, had so many shortcomings, why should later generations be free of them ? Jerome had a nasty way of writing at times, and a spiteful temper. He was scathing about St. Ambrose, and did not see eye to eye with St. Augustine. Augustine was severely criticised in the East for his views on original sin.

IOW - Church History is full of flawed people, because it is full of people. There were scandals in the first century - so there are scandals now.

To say that people, even those we look up to, made mistakes, and were not perfect, is not to dishonour them, but to be truthful about them. It is to admit that God’s grace, which is always present in His Church, is able to work even through imperfect people, and to do more through us than we can imagine. Holiness shines the brighter, for having had to overcome our flawed humanity.

Which is very encouraging - if the faults of fourth-century Christians did not stop them being Saints, or the Church being the Church, then our sins won’t stop the Church being the Church either. God’s grace is always stronger than we are - which is very good news.:slight_smile:

Plenty has been lost ; fortunately, plenty has not ##


#13

Warning, montanaman, the Fundies and Evangelicals have hijacked the Church Fathers to “prove” that they believed in “Sola Scriptura.” You’ll probably get a healthy dose of selected quotes from the Fathers, so be prepared. They “proof-text” the Fathers just as they do the NT.

Not by Scripture Alone (Queenship) is the best book I can suggest. You’ll get specific help on the ECF’s from Patrick Madrid’s article. You might want to give the book to Dad. It’s a collection of excellent articles edited by Robert Sungenis – before he went off the deep end and became a geocentrist. The foreword is by Peter Kreeft.

My advice: marry the girl only if she converts first. Otherwise, plan on cutting down your Purgatory time considerably, because your life will be hell on earth.

JMJ Jay


#14

My advice: marry the girl only if she converts first. Otherwise, plan on cutting down your Purgatory time considerably, because your life will be hell on earth.

Elegantly said. And that’s pretty much my plan. (The conversion before marriage part, not the hell on earth). I WAS thinking I could live with it if she gave me no flack about raising the kids Catholic, but I admit that was a starry-eyed impossiblity. But to give you an idea of why I’m even entertaining the thought–if she was Catholic, I wouldn’t hesitate. This girl is amazing.

Perhaps this is a question for another thread, but do any of you find it difficult to do fruitful apologetics work from the Bible alone, leaving early Church fathers out of it? Admittedly, few of us ever see the fruits of our labors, if indeed there ever are fruits, but even I find that even if I get a fundy’s back to the wall, he just changes definitions or quotes verses with no bearing on the discussion at hand. So, is it even possible, using 99% Bible, to get anywhere?


#15

[quote=montanaman]Elegantly said. And that’s pretty much my plan. (The conversion before marriage part, not the hell on earth). I WAS thinking I could live with it if she gave me no flack about raising the kids Catholic, but I admit that was a starry-eyed impossiblity. But to give you an idea of why I’m even entertaining the thought–if she was Catholic, I wouldn’t hesitate. This girl is amazing.

Perhaps this is a question for another thread, but do any of you find it difficult to do fruitful apologetics work from the Bible alone, leaving early Church fathers out of it? Admittedly, few of us ever see the fruits of our labors, if indeed there ever are fruits, but even I find that even if I get a fundy’s back to the wall, he just changes definitions or quotes verses with no bearing on the discussion at hand. So, is it even possible, using 99% Bible, to get anywhere?
[/quote]

I know of a couple that went through the same thing the female was catholic and the male was an evangelical both tried to convert each other during courtship! She won thank God! They have a great catholic family now. I wouldn’t cut and run so soon as long as she is open to dialoge what unites you is Christ and he is greater than what seperates you. If she is closed off from what you have to say and there is no communication in sharing your faith then it would be time to end the relationship. I think eventually before you get married the situation needs to be resolved but don’t put artificial time limits conversion takes time and conversion of mind and heart these things can take a very long time and a deadline is not the best way to go about it.


#16

[quote=montanaman] Admittedly, few of us ever see the fruits of our labors, if indeed there ever are fruits, but even I find that even if I get a fundy’s back to the wall, he just changes definitions or quotes verses with no bearing on the discussion at hand. So, is it even possible, using 99% Bible, to get anywhere?
[/quote]

With God all things are possible.

My church is full of converts. I don’t think any of them were directly converted through apologetics. i.e. “Your right…I should become Catholic now…”

Almost invariably, some little seed, almost a bi-product of a conversation, was planted that grew into the conversion.

Chuck


#17

[quote=Maccabees]I know of a couple that went through the same thing the female was catholic and the male was an evangelical both tried to convert each other during courtship! She won thank God! They have a great catholic family now. I wouldn’t cut and run so soon as long as she is open to dialoge what unites you is Christ and he is greater than what seperates you. If she is closed off from what you have to say and there is no communication in sharing your faith then it would be time to end the relationship. I think eventually before you get married the situation needs to be resolved but don’t put artificial time limits conversion takes time and conversion of mind and heart these things can take a very long time and a deadline is not the best way to go about it.
[/quote]

But unless you also convert the fundie dad, you will have to put up with his anti-Catholic BS the rest of your life. He will disrupt the relationship between you and your wife, effectively forcing her to choose between you and daddy. He may boycott your wedding, try to undermine the Catholicity of your children, turn other relatives against you, etc.

Believe me, being hated by your in-laws will affect your marriage in a very negative way. And it will get worse, not better, after you marry - after all, everyone is on their best behavior now.

You don’t just marry the girl, you marry the whole family.
Think about it,
Paul


#18

You all make perfect sense, of course, but there have been some things she’s said and done to make me consider going forward with the risky enterprise.

#1, she once said it was obvious you needed to go to extra-Biblical sources to understand the fullness of the truth. (I paraphrase, but she has no problems with going to the ECF.)

#2, she said she’d “follow me anywhere,” though whether than includes Rome has yet to be seen.

#3, her devotion to Christ is without doubt.

#4, she strives to obey her father, even though she’s 26, but she refuses to compromise her convictions. This tells me that she believes in truth, and doesn’t equivocate.

#5, she sees beauty in the Church, even though she has problems with our devotion to Mary. On other hot topics between Cats and Prots, she doesn’t knee-jerk react and waits to hear the whole argument.

#6, she says I’m the first Catholic she’s ever met who knows his stuff AND is devoted to Christ. This causes her to question a number of assumptions.

#7, she loves me very much.

Now, all that doesn’t in itself make me think a conversion is certain, but they keep me hopeful and open. And I’m not unaware of the hell interfaith families can wreak. My dad converted for my mom, but my dad’s hyper-fundamentalist family made her life a living hell. I got to watch the whole thing, with Catholic debriefings after each one. In comparison, my girlfriend’s dad is a level-headed Aristotelian. He has already threatened to “cut her off” if she marries me, but I’m prepared to deal with that. I’ve been through different kinds of hell in my life already…

I know this topic has slipped it’s rails, but I’m going to ask him another question next week: If, as he says, the early Church was made up of autonomous communities of believers with no central authority, and if there were divisions among them, that WHAT, pray tell, is his problem with me? He already agreed that we agree on “the essentials,” after all. So, aren’t we, by his definition, just members of different Christian communities with divisions?


#19

#20

[font=Verdana]**Yes, you can do this through Bible alone. That is how I got here. I ignored anything that was not in the Bible, yet here I am. ** Actually, you can’t do this through the Bible alone. It can only be done through Christ! Pray, Pray, and Pray some more. Pray together before you open the Bible, pray when you are done, and pray every minute you have.

[/font]What you describe tells me she very much believes the man is the head of the household. If she converts, There may be hassles with her Dad, but I think she would do everything in her power to honor her vows to you first. You both would have to remember that you are on the “front lines” of battle when you visit, but as long as you stand united, it could bring you closer together.
The Real Presence of Christ is what got me. That primarily and the oral traditions we are told to hold fast to. Where are they in her church? Catholics can tell you where they are, where is the spoken word of God we are told to hold fast to?

:bible1: 2 Thess 2:15 hold fast to traditions whether oral or by letter
:bible1: Jn 21:25 not everthing Jesus said is recorded in Scripture
:bible1: Mk 13:31 heaven and earth shall pass away, but My word won’t

Those are my favorite three concerning oral traditions of the church. Bible tells us to hold fast, tells us not everything was written down, and that His word will never pass away. So where is the oral word of God?

After that, things fell like dominos. Confession Jn 20:21-23 was another great verse. I love the fact that the only other place in the Bible that God breathes on man is in Genesis when God breathed the soul into man. And here, Christ breathes on the apostles to pass on the authority to forgive sins in His name. (Nowhere does it say go and teach forgiveness. Very important. That is what they believe, go and teach forgiveness, but it say go and forgive! Another literal interpretation for the Catholic Church!)

God Bless,
Maria


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