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.”