Phillip Schaff on the Ante-Nicene Fathers (with a bit of Medieval churchmen and Reformers thrown in)

“In strictness, not a single one of the ante-Nicene fathers fairly agrees with the Roman standard of doctrine in all points. Even Irenaeus and Cyprian differed from the Roman bishop, the former in reference to Chiliasm and Montanism, the latter on the validity of heretical baptism. Jerome is a strong witness against the canonical value of the Apocrypha. Augustin, the greatest authority of Catholic theology among the fathers, is yet decidedly evangelical in his views on sin and grace, which were enthusiastically revived by Luther and Calvin, and virtually condemned by the Council of Trent. Pope Gregory the Great repudiated the title “ecumenical bishop” as an antichristian assumption, and yet it is comparatively harmless as compared with the official titles of his successors, who claim to be the Vicars of Christ, the viceregents of God Almighty on earth, and the infallible organs of the Holy Ghost in all matters of faith and discipline. None of the ancient fathers and doctors knew anything of the modern Roman dogmas of the immaculate conception (1854) and papal infallibility (1870). The “unanimous consent of the fathers” is a mere illusion, except on the most fundamental articles of general Christianity. We must resort here to a liberal conception of orthodoxy, and duly consider the necessary stages of progress in the development of Christian doctrine in the church.

On the other hand the theology of the fathers still less accords with the Protestant standard of orthodoxy. We seek in vain among them for the evangelical doctrines of the exclusive authority of the Scriptures, justification by faith alone, the universal priesthood of the laity; and we find instead as early as the second century a high estimate of ecclesiastical traditions, meritorious and even over-meritorious works, and strong sacerdotal, sacramentarian, ritualistic, and ascetic tendencies, which gradually matured in the Greek and Roman types of catholicity. The Church of England always had more sympathy with the fathers than the Lutheran and Calvinistic Churches, and professes to be in full harmony with the creed, the episcopal polity, and liturgical worship of antiquity before the separation of the east and the west; but the difference is only one of degree; the Thirty-Nine Articles are as thoroughly evangelical as the Augsburg Confession or the Westminster standards; and even the modern Anglo-Catholic school, the most churchly and churchy of all, ignores many tenets and usages which were considered of vital importance in the first centuries, and holds others which were unknown before the sixteenth century. The reformers were as great and good men as the fathers, but both must bow before the apostles. There is a steady progress of Christianity, an ever-deepening understanding and an ever-widening application of its principles and powers, and there are yet many hidden treasures in the Bible which will be brought to light in future ages.

In general the excellences of the church fathers are very various. Polycarp is distinguished, not for genius or learning, but for patriarchal simplicity and dignity; Clement of Rome, for the gift of administration; Ignatius, for impetuous devotion to episcopacy, church unity, and Christian martyrdom; Justin, for apologetic zeal and extensive reading; Irenaeus, for sound doctrine and moderation; Clement of Alexandria, for stimulating fertility of thought; Origen, for brilliant learning and bold speculation; Tertullian, for freshness and vigor of intellect, and sturdiness of character; Cyprian, for energetic churchliness; Eusebius, for literary industry in compilation; Lactantius, for elegance of style. Each had also his weakness. Not one compares for a moment in depth and spiritual fulness with a St. Paul or St. John; and the whole patristic literature, with all its incalculable value, must ever remain very far below the New Testament. The single epistle to the Romans or the Gospel of John is worth more than all commentaries, doctrinal, polemic, and ascetic treatises of the Greek and Latin fathers, schoolmen, and reformers.”

A History of the Christian Church, Book 2, Chapter 13, Section 160 (1859?)

Many of Schaff’s works are readily available for e-Sword, from CCEL, Google Books and the Internet Archive.


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