How accountable can we hold the ECFs for missing or misunderstanding all of the doctrines that we take for granted today? Should we expect them to get a perfect score on a systematic theology exam that we create centuries later?
Protestants frequently seek to read their own theology back into the Fathers (or to read Catholic theology OUT of them) by claiming that the “early church” did not teach this or that doctrine. This approach fails to take into account that doctrine has developed in a more or less sequential fashion and that some primary issues had to be worked out carefully before the secondary matters could become visible. Examples of the latter include the nuanced doctrines of Papal Infallibility (following on the understanding of infallibility of the Church) or the Immaculate Conception (which flows from an understanding of Christ’s true nature), etc.
Consequently, the idea that the ECFs were more Protestant than Catholic is put forward seriously by those who have not thought the issue through.
To counter this, I offer this passage from a noted apologist, Jonathan Prejean, who has presented a reasonable explanation of how we should view the writings of the Fathers in the context of the timeline of history.
The better Protestant scholars admit that “justification by faith alone” and sola scriptura are entirely absent in the Fathers. They are left with arguing that the regula fidei is so minimal that even Protestants can endorse it, a la Eric Osborn, a view that cannot be sustained by anyone who views the Alexandrian Christology of the Councils as an authentic development. And then they must argue that the Fathers were either negligent or wrong about JBFA because of Hellenistic philosophy, ignorance, inchoate beliefs, unsophistication, or whatever excuse they can conjure (a la McGrath). This is the only road available to numerous Protestant scholars like D.H. Williams and Daniel Clendenin because their own lately-formed tradition says that the Bible allows it, absent any real historical argument for the normativity of their Tradition apart from “we like it, and we don’t want to lose it.” But no honest Protestant scholar takes the King/Webster position that there is no absence to explain; all of them concede by now that JBFA and SS simply aren’t there and that the absence MUST be explained for Protestants to advance a good faith historical claim. The last major attempt to do so was based on a supposed conflict between Alexandrian and Antiochene Christology (allegedly resolved in the “compromise” of Chalcedon) to argue that the Protestant concept of Scriptural authority was supported in the Antiochene school of theology (Bray is an example of someone who tried to make hay of this distinction, along with Harold O.J. Brown and David S. Dockery). That theory has been so convincingly brutalized by the scholarship that I can’t imagine it being taken seriously anymore. Likewise went the vain attempts to distinguish transubstantiation from the patristic doctrine of the Real Presence, which requires unsustainable connections between the supposedly Augustinian views of several Christian heretics to the patristic views. Maybe these thin reeds might have been considered a reasonable basis for a position in the early nineties, but they’ve all been broken in the last decade, and as far as I can tell, the only Protestants who are being honest are those like Williams and Clendenin who are willing to say “We consider the Fathers wrong, but since our interpretation of the Bible is the only authority, it’s OK.”
Frankly, most Catholics would simply dismiss the assertion that the Fathers need to be corrected in this manner out of hand, for which I can hardly blame them. This is what Newman means when he says “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” It is impossible to be Protestant without charging all of the Fathers with fundamental theological error (or at least serious Biblical or theological ignorance), and that is too much for most people to swallow. Newman considered it important to be on the side of St. Athanasius and not the Arians, and if one takes that view, one simply can’t be Protestant.