Interpreting the Bible: Beware the Patristics

bible.jpgThe “Patristics” are letters and such written by uninspired Christians in the centuries shortly after the founding of the church. Sometimes the authors are called the “Church Fathers.”

We are blessed by having a considerable volume of these writings. We learn from them a lot about how the early church thought and acted. Some of these writings date back to the late First Century!

However, if you take the time to read these materials, they are clearly inferior to the books of the Bible. There’s a noticeable drop off in quality from the canonical books to the Patristics.

The Catholic and Orthodox churches gives these writings considerable authority, considering them to reflect true apostolic teaching, and so they consider many of their teachings binding, such as infant baptism, even when, as in the case of infant baptism, there’s no evidence that the apostles ever engaged in the practice.

As a result, in the Reformation, the Protestant churches adopted the principle of sola scriptura, which is Latin for “the Bible only.” The Protestant churches insisted that no binding doctrine could be imposed unless expressly found in scripture.

Thomas Campbell adopted a similar principle when he declared, “We speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent.” Although in principle this slogan is the same as sola scriptura, in practice, the slogan has led to a stricter application of the rule. The Churches of Christ have, for example, rejected the practice of infant baptism, as it was unknown to the apostles.

On the other hand, just like the older Protestant denominations, we’ve been unable to stay away from the Patristics. We cannot discuss our views on instrumental music without arguing our case from the Patristics. And it’s true that the Patristics prove that the church was exclusively a cappella in its worship going all the way back to the apostles.

But making this argument flatly violates our principles! I mean, how can we build our case from the writings of Thomas Aquinas and such and then scoff when others cite the same authors to argue for infant baptism?

The Patristics are instructive as to apostolic practice. They teach us nothing about how to go to heaven! God never meant for us to read Justin Martyr or Tertullian to know how to please him! These men were no more inspired than I am.

Moreover, if the apostles established a certain practice but the Holy Spirit inspired no one to command that practice in the Bible, surely that practice wasn’t meant to be binding!

On the other hand, apostolic practices are obviously wise and prudent–at least, they were in that time and place. Therefore, prudently, we should consider these practices very carefully.

But are they salvation issues? Don’t be ridiculous. We are silent where the Bible is silent. And when the Bible doesn’t say very much, neither should we.

Now, the fact of the matter is that many Christian practices are established much more firmly in the Patristics than in the Bible. Sunday as the day of worship is built on very strong Patristic evidence. So is weekly communion. A cappella singing is very clearly evidenced by the Patristics.

The Bible, at best, indirectly refers to these practices, and we’d not feel compelled to honor them if it were not for the Church Fathers. The Biblical evidence is scant and offhand. I mean, the fact that Troas met to “break bread” on a Sunday hardly means we are commanded to do so.

We have very plain teaching regarding taking the Lord’s Supper, but very little guidance regarding how often or on what day outside the Patristics.

You see, our thinking has been greatly impacted by Thomas Campbell’s teaching that the New Testament is as much a blueprint or constitution for how to worship and organize a church as the Law of Moses was.

This statement is hardly self-evident, as the New Testament reads nothing like the Law of Moses! But Campbell assumed there must be rules for such things. After all, as his son Alexander argued, if the New Testament doesn’t give the rules, then we’d be left with no guidance!

Well, as much as respect the Campbells, they got this one wrong. The Holy Spirit did not inspire men to write a book of laws. In fact, when the New Testament addresses law, we’re told that the only law is love. Indeed, we’re told that we’ve been freed from the law to serve in the way of the Spirit.

(Gal. 5:18)  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

(Rom. 7:6)  But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

It would be surprising indeed if Paul could write these words while simultaneously writing a constitution (by definition, a law!) for how to worship and organize!

And so, we went looking for laws, because the Campbells taught us they were there, and (lo and behold!) we found laws–in the silences and examples but not in the commands. You see, the laws were rarely expressed as, well, you know, laws. Rather, the laws were given in the form of riddles and inferences to be drawn in pages and pages of tortuous logic.

And we’d never have gotten there if we had read the Patristics back into the Bible, subconsciously assuming that the Spirit needed help to make his true intentions clear.

If we’d never read the Patristics, we’d never have had come to the conclusions we did. And this proves our conclusions to be in error. Our practices are apostolic and appropriate –perhaps even wise. But they are not binding.

So where do we go for guidance? Where are the rules? Well, God gave us his Spirit and wise men and women within our community. He gave us our good sense to use.

And we should take the time to ask why the Spirit did not impose these rules on us as commands. Why? Well, you’ve got to figure it’s because the Spirit is wise enough to know that times change and cultures change and what was wise and prudent in one century may not be wise in prudent in every century.

And so, be very, very careful when studying the Church Fathers. Don’t give them authority they don’t have. It’s not your place. Don’t usurp the Spirit’s role.

Rather, let God act within us through his Spirit to make wise decisions in love, in community, and for mission. It’ll work out just fine. God said it would.

(John 14:16-18) And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

(Matt. 28:20b) “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Interpreting the Bible: Beware the Patristics

  1. rey says:

    "But making this argument flatly violates our principles! I mean, how can we build our case from the writings of Thomas Aquinas and such and then scoff when others cite the same authors to argue for infant baptism?"

    The answer to this question is simple, Jay: Although many late 'fathers' (250 AD and on) refer to infant baptism as an established practice, we find that that earlier 'fathers' refered to the practice as taking place but opposed it (e.g. Tertullian, circa 209 AD), and even earlier Justin Martyr in explaining Christianity to pagan rulers in Rome simply asserts that only believers are baptized (not in argument with anyone teaching infant baptism, but as an explanation of baptism to an outsider). It is clear, therefore, that infant baptism's introduction was manmade and not apostolic (as if it wasn't clear from the Bible already). We don't see, however, any of the early writers say anything about the church worshiping with instruments of music, nor do we see anyone opposing the removal of instruments (because there weren't any to begin with). What we see, however, is a spiritualized interpretation of the Psalms that refer to instruments. When the Psalm says "an instrument of 10 strings" they interpret it as the 10 emotions of man or movements of the soul that man goes through when reading the Psalms. This obviously purposeful spiritualizing of every instance of instrumental music being mentioned in the Psalms shows that the lack of instrumental worship from the beginning was no mere accident but there was a positive apostolic injunction against it.

  2. Jay Guin says:


    I'm glad to have you commenting on the blog. You obviously know your Patristics.

    But I'm not persuaded. My argument is that we can't prove the sinfulness of instrumental music in worship from the Patristic evidence. You seem to argue that the Patristic evidence may be relied upon when the early Patristic evidence consistently supports a single position. Hence, you argue, infant baptism is no problem as the early evidence is against it.

    But my objection is that the Patristics aren't scripture and hence cannot be the basis for doctrine based on sola scriptura and "We are silent where the Bible is silent."

    Of course, then, neither do the Patristics argue for instrumental music. Rather, the argument — either way — must proceed solely from the scriptures. And yet it is conventional in the Churches for the clinching argument on a cappella music to come from Patristic evidence — and that, I think, violates our principles.

  3. rey says:

    You argument essentially boils down to this, Jay. The apostles did not set up the church to use instrumental music. The succeeding ages could have used instrumental music if they had wanted, but they were too stupid to know it so they kept not using instrumental music. But now we're really smart, so although the apostles did not set up the church to use instrumental music and although the succeeded ages up until around 667 or so did not use instrumental music, we're going too because we're way smarter than all of them.

    Now, I am not arguing from a "church of Christ" perspective, nor from sola scriptura, but from sheer logic. You well know, however, that the conservative churches of Christ do not teach against instrumental music on the basis of patristics but on the basis of an argument that the silence of the Scriptures is authoritative. They would bring up the fact that Paul says in Hebrews that Jesus was unable to be a priest while on earth "Because he came from a tribe of which moses SPAKE NOTHING concerning priesthood." And hence, they would say, when the Scriptures SPEAK NOTHING about the appropriateness of a class of praxis, then that praxis is as good as thou shalt notted. Just as God never specifically told Nadab and Abihu "do not offer strange fire" but rather he slew them, not for violating a specific command but for doing something of which he says "I commanded them not." That would be their argument. You are misrepresenting when you assert their argument is based on patristics. Some of them may mention patristics in as a sort of secondary proof, but you know good and well what their primary point is, and shame on you for misrepresenting.

    But as to my manner of arguing on this point, we can easily establish, for example, that man has free will from patristics. Let me go here because Arminians and Calvinists argue and wrangle forever on whether man has free will or not, and seeing as how both can make a seemingly convincing case from Romans 9 (which is not written in a clear manner, you must admit) I can go and show that from the beginning of the church until Augusitne NOT ONE ecclesiastical writer taught Determinism (i.e. that God pre-scripts our actions). Prior to Augustine, ALL the writers defend free will against the Pagans. Even Augustine himself, in fact, in one of his early works (not well know, not widely translated into English) called "Propositions from the Epistle to the Romans" taught that men have free will and that election is based on foreknowledge of faith. Yet, it was Augustine, who later in life, namely after becoming an Imperial Bishop, invented the doctrine of Arbitrary Election and Deterministic Salvation with Once-Saved-Always-Saved as the resulting end. But I can show from Patristics that this is heresy. While the Arminians and the Calvinists wrangle on the proper interpretation of Romans 9, I know it already from the history of the church. So also, while some say "baptism is essential to salvation" and others say "baptism is not essential" and each can make their points from Scripture (I know also that Scripture shows believer's baptism is essential) I can know from the earliest of all extra-biblical writers on the subject, Justin Martyr, that believers baptism was considered essential and baptism was considered to be for believers only LONG before infant baptism was ever dreamed up. I will not, therefore, claim that Patristics is worthless (as you seem to be claiming) because when properly used it helps confirm the Biblical truth, and when a passage is weighed down in controversy, as Romans 9 is, we can rescue it from the controversy by showing that the Calvinistic opinion did not exist until after Constantine made his own State Church and even then, it did not exist until Augustine became an Imperial Bishop of the State Church because prior to becoming a bishop even he taught that man has free will.

  4. Jay Guin says:


    Rather than positing a series of strawman arguments I didn't actually make, it would be better to argue against what I actually did say.

    Did I call the Church Fathers stupid? No. Did I say we're smarter than they? No. Did I say the Patristics are worthless? No — no more so than Rick Warren or Stanley Hauerwas or Alexander Campbell are worthless. But they are all uninspired, none has written scripture, and therefore none can be a source of doctrine.

    All I said is that we in the Churches of Christ have always said that we are silent where the Bible is silent (from Thomas Campbell, a very smart man). And if we have to go to the Patristics to win our case, then we're violating our principles. Doctrine is only truly scriptural doctrine if the case is made from scripture.

    Now, regarding my "misrepresenting," I've been a member of the Churches of Christ all my life. I graduated from Lipscomb. I know the Churches of Christ pretty well. And treatises on a cappella music often try to cinch the argument based on church history. And I know that those I've discussed the issue with generally find the argument from history the most persuasive.

    I suspect you are of a different generation from me (I'm 54), and your experience may well be different. But I know what I've experienced.

    Regarding the scriptural arguments to which you allude, I've addressed them under the topic "The Regulative Principle" indexed at…. I'd be delighted to discuss your scriptural arguments over there.

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