Today I answered the charge that the early church fathers are unreliable because Irenaeus, one of the most trustworthy early fathers, said Jesus lived to be over 40 and ministered for at least a decade. I was writing to someone whose friend had brought this up. I wrote the following.
The answer to your friend’s question is to explain why we read the early church fathers. Obviously, he doesn’t know. Here’s the short answer:
“We are not looking for individual opinions among the fathers, as though they were a Bible. We are looking for what all the churches agreed was true and was taught to them by the apostles. Along with the occasional odd opinion on unimportant subjects, like how long Jesus’ life and ministry was, we do find a consensus on all the most important facets of the faith.”
And here’s the longer one, complete with an explanation from Irenaeus. All of the following quotes are from Against Heresies, Book I, chapter 10.
When we read the early church fathers, we are trying to find out what the apostles taught their churches. In the process, we have found that there is a core set of teachings to which all the churches held. We also find that outside those core set of teachings, Christians (and especially gifted teachers) were not only allowed to speculate, but encouraged to do so. Irenaeus wrote:
As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. … Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.
It does not follow because men are endowed with greater and less degrees of intelligence, that they should therefore change the subject-matter [of the faith] itself. … But the fact referred to simply implies this, that one may bring out the meaning of those things which have been spoken in parables, and accommodate them to the general scheme of the faith; and explain the operation and dispensation of God connected with human salvation; and show that God manifested longsuffering in regard to the apostasy of the angels who transgressed, as also with respect to the disobedience of men . . . and discourse how it is that this mortal body shall put on immortality, and this corruptible shall put on incorruption; and proclaim in what sense [God] says, “That is a people who was not a people; and she is beloved who was not beloved”; . . . For in reference to these points, and others of a like nature, the apostle exclaims: “Oh! the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God; how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!”
Okay, that is really long, but the point is that there are things that are part of the “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” that everyone must believe and not change, and there are other things that teachers are encouraged to “bring out the meaning of.” (There are many more things Irenaeus says we can “bring out the meaning of” at the link above.)
Though everyone is certain nowadays that Jesus ministered for three years (or three and a half), that is nowhere said in the Gospels or the New Testament. I admit that Irenaeus probably had not read our modern scholars who figured out that timing. On the other hand, I argue that Irenaeus knew as well as any person in history “the subject matter of the faith itself” and the one truth that shines like the sun above on all churches. He was raised in Smyrna, just over 50 years after they were one of two churches that Jesus commended without rebuke in the Revelation, chapters 2 and 3. He left there as a missionary to Gaul (modern France), and was something of a counselor to the bishops in Rome.
You can skip this paragraph if you want; it is an interesting aside. The churches in Gaul of which he was a part helped prevent one bishop (Eleutherius’) from allowing the Montanist heresy into Rome. Later, Irenaeus himself intervened to prevent Victor from excommunicating Ephesus and its surrounding churches over the timing of Passover (which has been called Easter for just a couple of centuries).
We are not turning Irenaeus, nor the other early church fathers, into a second Bible. There are many witnesses to this one faith that was delivered to the saints by the apostles. We know what ALL churches of the second century believed on communion, the Trinity, faith and works, and baptism. We know what they did when someone wanted to be saved. We do not have to guess or speculate on what they believed about these things because there is plenty of testimony to it.
The fact that Irenaeus had the crazy idea that Jesus lived to be over 40 does not affect that truth at all.
There are evil, cunning men who “quote mine” the early fathers in order to make them seem to say what they do not say. This is true in every field. Sadly, young-earth creationists, supposedly Christians, do this to scientists all the time. Worse, it is the unfortunate habit of modern Christians to quote mine the Bible the same way. It is like they think that if they pull out 25 verses that seem to say we cannot lose our salvation, then 2 Peter 2:20-21 and Galatians 5:19-21 will just disappear. They say senseless things, like that the judgement of the sheep and the goats is a judgment of the nations, not of individuals. Has anyone ever thought that through? Is it Russia that is sent into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels? Or maybe Iran? How does Russia or Iran get sent anywhere without actual people involved? The judgment of the sheep and the goats is a judgment of people and those people either inherit the kingdom or are sent into the fire, and the difference is solely based on what they did and didn’t do.
The early church fathers did not quote mine the Bible. Their beliefs do not involve ignoring 2 Peter 2:20-21 by saying it only applies to false prophets and teachers. Their beliefs do not involve changing James words from “justified by works and not faith only” to “justified by faith alone but not by faith that is alone.”
Irenaeus gives a description of what is the basic truth held by all churches:
The church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, earth, and the sea and everything in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations, the advents, the birth from a virgin, the suffering, the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his appearance from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things into one and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that every knee should bow—of things in heaven, things in earth, and things under the earth—and that every tongue should confess to him, and that he should execute just judgment towards everyone; that he may send spiritual wickednesses and the angels who transgressed and became apostates together with the ungodly, unrighteous, wicked, and profane among men into everlasting fire, but may, in the exercise of his grace, confer immortality on the righteous, holy, and those who have kept his commandments and persevered in his love—some from the beginning of their course and others from their repentance—and may surround them with everlasting glory.