From the blog: Early Church Fathers:
Today, as Protestant theologians study the Fathers of the Early Church, they are awakening to the truth of Blessed John Henry Newman’s conclusion: "You cannot study the Fathers and remain a Protestant."
Is this true?
It’s obviously not universally true because I’ve been studying the "fathers" for over 20 years, and I’m still not only non-Catholic but actively opposed to the Roman Catholic Church. I know many in the same position.
It is true, however, that a lot of Protestants who begin to study the early church fathers soon convert to Roman Catholicism, or perhaps more commonly, to an Eastern Orthodox Church.
Why haven’t I?
I do not believe that a close doctrinal agreement with the early Christianity or even the apostles is the purpose of the Gospel. The purpose of the Gospel is to bring humans into relationship with their Creator through Jesus Christ.
Roman Catholics are correct in asserting that it is not just individual relationships that God is looking for. He is building a church with Jesus as head, which will be his body. As such, unity is critically important.
It is also true that most Protestants are either unaware of this or apallingly negligent of it.
What should be my reaction to this? Because Protestants are divided, should I then consider the Roman Catholic Church the only alternative and return to it?
Should I weigh which group of Christians, Catholics or Protestants, have a more correct view of the Lord’s Supper, of baptism, or of church government?
I think not.
Jesus said that we are to judge a prophet by his fruit.
The goal, as far as I can see in Scripture, is that Christians would received the Spirit of God, walk by that Spirit, and thus experience unity, love, and a holy life, astounding the world by their lovely, united discipleship to Jesus Christ.
I’m sorry to say it, but as a person who was raised Catholic, I never saw such fruit in a Roman Catholic congregation, not even one of them. In fact, I saw nothing remotely resembling it, and I attended Catholic mass regularly in North Dakota, Taiwan, Kansas, and Germany.
I rarely see such fruit in Protestant churches, either.
Here’s the problem:
- In Roman Catholic congregations, the Mass, rituals, and a few correct beliefs have replaced discipleship. Most members show no signs of having the Spirit of God, and thus they do not have a practical unity, do not live as family to one another, and do not live holy lives.
- In Protestant churches, meetings and correct beliefs have also replaced discipleship. Further, Protestant meetings have become almost excusively evangelism meetings, not the building up of the body of Christ described in Scripture. Thus, those who are living as disciples feel forced into boring "fellowship" with those who are not disciples. They do not feel free to form as the church with only those who truly follow Christ.
I assert that it is undeniable that the Christians of the second and early third centuries would have been horrified at what passes for the church in this century, and in fact in any century since the fourth.
Would they have been so horrified that they would have left the church to form a new church composed of only those who agree with them?
I don’t know. In the fourth century, I would not have left the church, either. However, like the monks who first appeared in the fourth century, I would have found real disciples to pursue Christ with, and I would have limited my contact with nominal Christians to evangelism (including friendship evangelism).
In the 20th century, however, Christians are already split into thousands of denominations. I have written repeatedly refuting the claims of the Roman Catholic Church (for example) to have succession and to be the only denomination to be authorized by God, so I will not bother with that here.
Suffice it to say that what would have mattered to third century Christians, and possible most third-century Christians, is the local church. They would have known that the Church as a whole consists of united churches, not one hierarchy with a pope, cardinals, and archbishops over it—nor a denominational board, as the Protestants often have.
The goal of the commandment, according to 1 Timothy 1:5 is "love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith." The early Christians would most certainly have agreed with that, and they would have rejected as Christian all who simply attended services as a spectator.
The earliest Christian writings enjoin daily fellowship, the sharing of possessions, and a walk with Christ so close and holy that reading those writings convicts the most godly of modern Christians. They knew nothing of the sort of Christianity lived by the vast majority of Catholics and Protestants.
Thus, my pursuit has remained to free Christians from their false obligation to attend "services," as though God had called them to a once a week performance. The gathering of the saints is important, but it is for the building up of the body, a place where each member exercises his gift, though most gifts are exercised in the daily lives of believers as they share their course together as one family.
I have chosen as my course to encourage the godly to be in fellowship with the godly and to treat the ungodly, even if they are baptized attenders of church, as those who need to be evangelized and delivered from their false religion as surely as a gnostic needed to be delivered from his false religion in the second century.
I do not agree with Cardinal Newman. To me, the early church fathers—at least the ones from before the fourth century when suddenly anyone could call themselves Christian—do not lead a person to the mostly nominal Catholic churches and to the later invented hierarchy that they wrongly refer to as the Church. The writings of the early church fathers lead us to deep commitment to Christ, to reliance upon the Holy Spirit, and to a Spirit-inspired close family relationship with those who pursue Christ as we do.