What do protestant scholars think of the church fathers?

I’ve not read the church fathers extensively, but I’ve seen dozens and dozens of quotes from them that seems to make it obvious that the Christian church of the first century was catholic. I’ve seen quote after quote of things like the papacy, eucharist, purgatory,etc. from the Christians of the first few centuries AD. What do protestant scholars think of this? A protestant friend of mine once told me that the church fathers are very confusing and often contradict each other, but I didn’t get a particular example.

JND Kelly is one my favorite Non Catholic scholars I highly encourage you to pick up one of his books to get a good idea of what some of the best non-catholic scholarship has to offer. IMO Catholics have been playing catch up to Protestant scholarship the last 50 years.

Depends on what scholar one reads.

Those I think that have the most compelling understanding…IMO…believe it was the ECF’s that developed the “proto-catholic/orthodox” tradition. They were instrumental in forming what came to be the Catholic church as the dominant version of Christianity out of the various expressions that had developed by the second century. The ECF’s are the “voice” of the group that gained dominance at the suppression of all the other traditons that had developed.

They had the forsight to develop the belief of “apostolic succession” and were very well connected with one another…something the other traditions hadn’t necessarily considered.

Lutheran scholars have held them in high regard since Luther’s time. Luther referenced them regarding the Eucharist, for example, and the Lutheran Confession make regular reference to them.


There is no simple answer to your question.

The various Protestant churches would have very different thoughts about the early Church Fathers. Their feelings about those people would be as varied as their beliefs about their church.

The term Protestant is applied to virtually all non-Roman Catholic Christian Churches. But, there is no monolithic belief system among those churches. Some of them are very close to the teachings and beliefs of the Catholic church, others are so far removed that one could wonder if they are even followers of the teachings of Jesus at all.

So, asking a question like you asked is impossible to answer.

What do Lutheran scholars believe about the early Church Fathers would be a very different answer than what the Nazarene Church scholars would believe. The beliefs of the Free Methodist Scholars would be very different from those of scholars of the United Methodist Church. Anglican scholars would have very different beliefs from Southern Baptist scholars. And most of those church scholars would disagree with each other too.

For me, what the early church fathers have to say is compared with scripture. Whatever is said in agreement with scripture is appreciated. Whatever doesn’t agree is tossed out into “file 13”.

The ECF’s will say things about the papacy, but they won’t speak of papal supremacy. They will speak of the Eucharist, but they will not speak of transubstantiation. They will speak of purgatory, but only in the west- and even then, I’m not sure what kinds of examples you could come up with that are sufficiently early.

In my experience, it depends on the degree to which the church fathers have to do with what they study. When it is of great importance, though, they tend to have a great deal of respect for their work and it informs their beliefs and theology. This kind of influence is spoken highly of, is noticable in contrast to what students of such a person (if it’s a professor) will come into class with, and the results are referred to as “orthodox” rather than “catholic.” Regardless of what denomination or tradition has the forefront in their background, that is the kind of influence they have, and it’s roughly the same for pretty much anyone who gets into it.

Generally speaking, the students of any Evangelical professor with a solid background in early Christianity are virtually guaranteed of a more positive outlook on Eastern Orthodoxy than they would otherwise have, and even if/when the professor is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, you can expect a few of their students to actually become Eastern Orthodox and gain support rather than discouragement from their professor in doing so.

It is very rare for an Evangelical scholar/professor (or the students under their influence) to walk away from the ECF’s with the realization that Rome is the way home. This only happens if someone grows up Catholic, drifts away without acrimony, and then acquires an appreciation for ancient Christianity on their own time. All other things being equal (ie., if you don’t grow up in either Catholicism or Orthodoxy), you’re almost always going to choose Orthodoxy. The only time you’d choose Catholicism is for completely individualized reasons having to do with your childhood.

How do I know this, you ask? I’ve had the opportunity of knowing and studying under some of these types of people, and I know how it is and was for me and my classmates to interact with this material. And that is exactly what happens.

Here’s an example of a scholar that you can take a look at. Maybe you can track down some of his work and get a feel for what he does with it.


Apparently, you’ve never heard of John Henry Newman - the famous Anglican convert to the Catholic faith from the 19th century who brought thousands of Anglicans with him to the Catholic Church.

It was HE who, after studying the ECFs extensivly, coined the phrase, "To be steeped in history is to cease being Protestant".

Personally - I have known dozens of people who have converted to the Church from various Protestant denominations that never even considered Orthodoxy. Your statements are extremely general and broad. Unfortunately, they’re simply not true. :shrug:

Many Protestants read the EFCs. What I would suggest is although many quotes you read might suggest to you they thought the “Catholic” Church was the true church, it is not nearly so clear that what they mean is what a modern Catholic means. That is why the Catholic Church uses the idea of “development of doctrine” to explain how these understandings developed. The modern papacy, with the Pope appointing or deposing bishops, is a good example of this.

Of course I’ve heard of him. He’s the most over-quoted Catholic convert of all time, and this news is over a century old.

It was HE who, after studying the ECFs extensivly, coined the phrase, "To be steeped in history is to cease being Protestant".

There’s the quote! He’s not the best counter-example, though, because he started Anglican and had to work through the reasons behind his church’s departure from Rome. My examples have to do with Evangelicals who grew up in Christian traditions that didn’t break directly from Rome. (I would say “or Orthodoxy,” except there are no relevant examples on that side). Consequently, these are people who grow up as Christians, yet the degree to which they’re influenced by either Orthodoxy or Catholicism is close to zero until they start getting into the ECF’s. Being raised as an Anglican (particularly in the 19th century) hardly qualifies.

Now, there are a few prominent examples of converts from Evangelicalism to Catholicism that are a lot more recent. But many of those- Francis Beckwith comes to mind- are examples of people who were raised in Catholicism, drifted away, and eventually returned to the religion of their childhood.

**Personally - I have known dozens **of people who have converted to the Church from various Protestant denominations that never even considered Orthodoxy. Your statements are extremely general and broad. Unfortunately, they’re simply not true. :shrug:

I’m sure you know a lot of people who converted to Catholicism. I probably know three times as many who converted from Catholicism, but that’s beside the point. If they never considered Orthodoxy, it’s probably because they wound up talking to Catholics who made them believe the only two choices are Catholic or Protestant. That seems pretty typical, even around these forums. Additionally, what I said of my experience has a lot more to do with what the OP is looking for than yours does.

The OP wanted to know what Protestant/Evangelical scholars tend to think of the ECF’s, and the implication is that “somewhat current” information is preferred. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing some of these scholars and the way it works with them and their students on campus and in their classes, and what I said about them is true. You counter with a former Anglican from the 19th century as if that’s supposed to negate my personal experience of what Evangelical scholars are doing right now? Really? Okay, that’s how it was with some Anglicans in the 19th century. Why don’t you pick up some material from, I don’t know, this lifetime and get a look at what’s happening right now. I’ve had the chance to meet some of these people, take their classes, hear their lectures, and maybe grab something to eat with them. Maybe you can take the opportunity to read some of the things they’ve written.

Let me remind you of who we’re talking about: Protestant scholars who do in-depth studies pertaining to the ECF’s. Not your buddies from home who use them for proof-texting and barely know what Orthodoxy is, and not your favorite convert from the 19th century- I’m talking about people in academia right now. These are people whose research of the ECF’s is done for the purpose of getting a doctorate, publishing their work, and making meaningful contributions to the Protestant body of work on this topic. I’m talking about scholars- people you can rightly call “experts in the field.”

These are my people. I know them. You will defer to me on this one.

The ECFs did not suppress “other traditions that had developed.” They exposed heretics and their false teachings and declared doctrines based on the Gospel instead of these burgeoning heresies.
You make it sound like there were “denominations” in the early centuries of the Church - which is a complete fabrication.

The Church was called “Catholic” from the 1st century and resembled the Church of today in its practices. Denominations are nothing but men attempting to splinter the Body of Christ.

Yes friend, I realize that is your belief and the belief your church fosters…it is not a universally held belief by scholars today however. New archeological evidence and a more critical look at the development of early Christianity simply does not bear your position as credible…but I understand…THAT is your position and the position of your church tradition…completely understandable your position.

Just a side note…I believe the growing version of proto-orthodox/catholic tradition wasn’t called “catholic” until the 2nd centruy…not the first.

Someone asks a question, someone gives an honest answer, and then the high school forensics spat begins.

Welcome to CAF. :rolleyes:

There were small bands of heretics in earliest times, and those were the ones who did not partake in the Mass and did not believe in the presence of God in the Eucharist and the sacred gathering of Oneness.

I always draw on St. Justin the Martyr who described the Mass to a Roman Emperor around 155 AD, about 60 years or so after the death of the last apostle. So just 60 years and the world in that time already had a general practice of the daily Mass.

Recall as well that there were those who would show up to the apostles having different takes on what Christ was preaching…some times the Lord would excuse them, others to reject them.

Fine** – except for one thing: You were speaking in sweeping general terms – not from personal experience. Go back and read your original post.
Get your story straight.

As for present day examples of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists converting to Catholicism – you need to crack open a book or 2. The “Surprised By Truth” series will show you quite a few of them. Scott Hahn, Jimmy Akin, Newt Gingrich, Tim Staples, Julie Swenson, Mark Shea and Marcus Grodi are all famous examples of former Evangelical Protestants, many of whom are now some of the leading Catholic theologians and apologists of our time.
Many of these converts give credit to the writings of the ECFs for their conversions.

Finally – regarding John Henry Newton – he is a perfect example of what these people discovered. You disregard his testimony simply because he is from another century.
Using his famous quote was perfectly in line with the OP but you can’t handle it because it doesn’t bolster your position.

On topic - what is the best place to start reading the ECF’s ? Is the internet a good place or can you recommend some books?

I have heard Catholic apologists say that the fathers are what triggered their conversions and I have seen books by Protestants saying that the fathers supported Protestant doctrines. Has anyone ever read any of McCarthy’s books?

My, we’re getting personal!

Ignatius of Antioch wrote about the “Catholic Church” on the way to his death, which occurred somewhere between AD 105-110. He didn’t invent the term as you can see in his letter to the Smyrnaeans. He wrote the letter as if it were already a long-used term – not a new invention. You don’t invent new teachings right before your death - unless you are copmpletely bogus in the first place.

**In the seven letters he wrote shortly before his death, he speaks of the authority of the Church and the Bishops, the Real Presence in the Eucharist and the unbelief of the heretics of his day who rejected these teachings.

If you want to rationalize what he said – that’s your prerogative. I have read volumes on the modern take of what the ECF’s written from Evangelical and Fundamentalist points of view. My brother in law is a pastor who holds a PhD in Theology and we have debated on several occasions.**

They all do what you are doing: Rationalizing the truth to justify your particular belief system. The main problem I see with this is that you ALL come from different Protestant traditions, claiming that the ECFs are on your side. You can’t all be right about that.

I’ve even debated some Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who completely reject the ECFs when they are overwhelmed by the Catholicity of their writings. The ECFs were – simply put – Catholic.**

Early Christian Doctrines? Would this be a good one to START with?

Friend, I do not make any claim that the ECF’s are “on my side”…in fact I have stated quite plainly that the ECF’s are the originators of “catholic/orthodox” Christianity and through their efforts “orthodox/catholic” understanding took dominance over and above the other Voices of Christianity in those first centuries…branding all other Voices “heretic” and through their very organized “heirarchy” became the dominant form of Christianity.

Your caricature of Protestant belief is yours to foster.

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