Did the Reformers Read the Church Fathers?

This is just a light touch on the subject. I will try to get more specifics about how the Reformers, as well as fathers of denominations such as John Wesley with the Methodists and Alexander Campbell with the Churches of Christ, applied the writings of the early church to their respective movements.

From Reformation scholar David Steinmetz of Duke Divinity school, as cited by ChristianHistoryInstitute.org in an interview:

“The Reformation is an argument not just about the Bible but about the early Christian fathers, whom the Protestants wanted to claim. This is one of those things that is so obvious nobody has paid much attention to it—then you look and you see it everywhere.

“The reformers use the fathers all over the place. We know Calvin read Augustine, and we discovered recently that Luther read Jerome—he had copies annotated in his own hand. The index of Calvin’s Institutes is filled with an enormous number of quotations from the fathers. And in the first preface to that work, addressed to Francis I, Calvin did his best to show his teachings were in complete harmony with the fathers.”

Steinmetz then gives examples, which include John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Jerome. These are all fourth and fifth century fathers, and thus, they are after the great changes under Constantine.

There is a really awesome quote on there. I agree with the Reformers’ sentiment on this:

“The Protestants did this because they were keen to have ancestors. They knew that innovation was another word for heresy.” (ibid.)

If we could just get moderns to believe that! Boy, would there be some massive changes in what we say and, more importantly, do! We have twisted several Reformation ideas into something the Reformers would never recognize.

This quote from John Wesley, founder of the Methodists, is somewhat well-known:

Can any who spend several years in those seats of learning, be excused if they do not add to that reading of the Fathers the most authentic commentators on Scripture, as being both nearest the fountain, eminently endued with that Spirit by whom all Scripture was given. It will be easily perceived, I speak chiefly of those who wrote before the council of Nicea. But who could not likewise desire to have some acquaintance with those that followed them with St. Chrysostom, Basil, Augustine, and above all, the man of a broken heart, Ephraim Syrus. (Cited by Wesley Center Online)

Wesley agrees with me that the pre-Nicene fathers are best, and I agree with him that the fathers of the next century or two are also of benefit.

well, that’s a start. More to find out.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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4 Responses to Did the Reformers Read the Church Fathers?

  1. Thanks for the post. I share your view that we should be very wary of innovation in theology and that the pre-Nicene writings are an important part of trying to interpret the Scriptures.

    • paulfpavao says:

      The rejection of innovation is what caused the victory for the Nicene Creed in the late 4th century. Sissinnius, a Novatian elder (a heretic!) told the bishop of Constantinople that the solution was simple. Ask the Arians and semi-Arians to provide proof from those who came before them that this was belief of the ancients near to the apostles. If they said the ancients didn’t matter, then the people would reject them. If they could not produce evidence from their writings, then their arguments would come to an end.

      It worked, but it wouldn’t have worked today because there’s been so much innovation already. We don’t trust the ancients like Sissinnius and the Christians did in the 4th century.

      Thanks for you note MikeB. I appreciate your support of the faith “once delivered to the saints.”

  2. Ruth says:

    wonderful reading and exhortation. I am so blessed to read and be encouraged by these posts. I do so love truth and be embraced by it’s light (LIGHT).

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