Hunting Heresies in the Fathers

hyperekperissou: Hunting Heresies in the Fathers.

I am a biblical fundamentalist; I am an Economist, believing that Jesus Christ is God, according to the Economy of God. I do not believe in doctrinal development past the point of the Apostles. I do not believe in new revelations, historical Tradition, or the that tradition defines and develops Doctrine. I stand with Marcellus of Ancyra in appreciating the early Church Fathers, but finding the sole source of Doctrine as the Scriptures from the Apostles and Prophets. I do not give any doctrinal significance to the Councils, nor will I call anyone a Saint, except for the broader body of the Church. I see no greatness in Rome or the so-called Apostolic Church which she leads.

To be honest, I relish the thought of being a heretic hunter, of stamping out false doctrines where they arise, with a steady word and a heavy hand. The Church has no room to allow these cancers to grow. I have no problem, as many would read this blog, of stating that this one or that one is a false prophet and a heretic.

However, in my study of the Church Fathers, I have come to a deep appreciation of their writings and their tribute to biblical studies and would rarely use the word ‘heretic’ (except for maybe Origen). I have been criticized for my use of them, however, I will continue to use them and their quotes in my own development and maturity as a Christian.

John Chrysostom has become a favorite of mine, as has Irenaeus, Tertullian, and even Cyprian. Most of these men I would have disagree with in nearly every way, yet, they have measures of Truth. I fully recognize

“So, we see Justin Martyr accused of ditheism and/or subordinationism. Or, we see Gregory Nazianzus accused of proto-Nestorianism.”

However, in doing so, I also recognize that there was not a sudden shift from what I would consider orthodox doctrine (except maybe Origen), and these men still have a measure of contribution to every self-proclaimed theologian – or otherwise – not in refuting any doctrine, or building any doctrine, but in tracing what theological development took place and when and in understanding the Christian community in a historical viewpoint.

Let me say quickly that if you believe that Christianity suddenly ceased after Peter and Paul and that Rome immediately appeared, then you have no faith in Christ or His Church. If Christianity ceased after the Apostles, then Gamaliel was right, and we have all been wrong for nearly 2000 years.

I find that Irenaeus, who is roundly despised by biblical fundamentalists, must be understood as the defender of the faith against well-learned Gnostics, versed and steeped in the Bible. He defended the Faith as one would in these circumstances, and more often than not, stayed within the pattern established by Ignatius and Polycarp. We have Justin, who I find in error as a ditheist, who has great strength in defending the Church against the Jews and further in defending the Septuagint. Tertullian provides us with a rigorous approach to Christian living while Cyprian fought for Church unity against the rising power in Rome. This is not to say that I judge them Christian, as that is in God’s hands, but even the most radical anti-Catholic (which rarely makes any sense) can see that some measure of Truth existed in this learned men.

Personally, I agree that

“Tertullian’s extreme temperament led him to rigid views about asceticism and prophecy which drove him from the orthodox church.”

Except for the part about the prophecy and his Montanist days, I find little wrong in Tertullian’s rigidness. I do however, find a great deal wrong with Origen and the entire school from Alexandria. I find it a break from Orthodoxy, no matter the century and cannot rightly see him in any positive light.

Returning to the others, however, I realize that many of them do not share the doctrines that I might hold, in total; however, it does not erase their value. We have to remember that History is rarely kind to even Inspired Writings, much less the writings and thoughts of men, albeit inspired men. (Look at the war that history as waged on the epistles from Ignatius) Interpretation of these writings is the same way. Do not take them in the light of theologians 1800 years removed from them, but attempt to understand them in the world in which they wrote. Unlike the Bible, their words are not timeless, and must be understood against the world that they fought.

I agree with the writer of the above post when he says,

A second less innocent motive is heresy hunting in the context of inter-denominational apologetics and polemics. In this kind of heresy hunt, we see writers (often, but not always Protestant) search the Fathers in order to find something wrong in what they are saying. What they are doing in reading the Fathers isn’t reading them to understand them or to take insight from them, but rather they are reading them the way that a lawyer reads a hostile brief–they are looking for dirt and evidence to beat the other side with.

There a few things that I no longer like to see, and that is anyone on my ‘side’ calling the theologians of the 2nd and 3rd century, Roman Catholic. Most them would have rebelled against the idea of the Roman Church as we know it now. Instead, we must look at these as cousins, rather distant, and stop the labeling, often times done in error. We must not succumb to the ‘violence’ of apologetics, but instead place these people in their respective places, learning and valuing their input.

Finally, even Paul used non-Christians to highlight Christianity, and if we dismiss the entire corpus of post-Apostle’s writing simply because they might not agree with us in every way, then we do a great deservice to the Church.

Post By Joel Watts (10,078 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

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40 thoughts on Hunting Heresies in the Fathers

  1. Concerning Marcellus of Ancyra (d.c. 374) here is just a little history.

    Bishop of Ancyra in central Anatolia. The oldest Greek text of the Old Roman Creed is preserved in his letter to Pope Julius I as recorded by Epiphanius. At the Council of Nicaea, Marcellus was a supporter of Athanasius and a defender of the Homoousian position, but was deposed from his see in 336 because of his notion that the Son and the Holy Spirit were only emanations from God who became distinct persons at the time of creation and the Incarnation and in whom they will be reabsorbed at the consummation. The words in the Nicene Creed, “whose kingdom shall have no end,” were added to debar his teaching. In exile, he sought asylum with Julius in Rome who secured his clearance from charges of heresy at the councils of Rome (341) and Sardica (343). He was temporarily restored to his see but was deposed again under Constantius. After his death, his teachings were condemned at the first Council of Constantinople in 381.

    Some historians say that his offending ideas were merely conjectures? But the Eastern Orthodox have been more critical of his orthodoxy and here the Nicene party found his support embarrassing. Thus the clause added.

    Fr. Robert

  2. Joel,

    Perhaps one of my favorite books on the Fathers is by a German scholar from the 1950’s and 60’s. Hans von Campenhausen, one time chair of ecclesiastical history at Heidelberg. Also he was an honorary fellow of the British Academy. He was then one of the leading authorities on the thought and doctrines of the early Church. He had several other books therein. He is more Western friendly perhaps?

    I have his two books combined into one: The Fathers of the Greek Church, and The Fathers of the Latin Church: The Fathers Of The Church. It is a very good read! He is not Catholic, Roman or Anglo..and no doubt Reformed in some manner.

    Fr. Robert

  3. Fr. Robert, I think that these comments fits here properly.

    As I stated, I fill strongly aligned with Marcellus’ Economic position and intend on studying him a bit more.

  4. Joel,

    I am glad then..as to my posts. Though we obviously don’t agree on many things, we do agree that we must study the Fathers. The history of the Church is ours warts and all! The Church is always a Pilgrim reality as “In Christ”!

    Yours and really everyone’s myself,

    Fr. Robert

  5. As I’m the original writer of the post, I just wanted to clarify my point. I’m not saying don’t point out heresies, even in the Fathers, but I am saying understand that the formulations of early Fathers are not going to be as precise as later ones. That, I think, is good historical analysis and understanding. The Fathers can be critisized on many fronts, but let’s, at least, be fair in our critisism and don’t expect precision on a point that hasn’t been clarified yet.

    Peace,
    Phil

  6. Phil, I believe that I understood your point, and in turn was attempting to stress the point to my fellow fundamentalists. There is much to be gleaned from the Church Fathers, far more than to be dismissed, even by those of us that might strongly disagree with them in many areas.

  7. Phil Snider

    Is there not a doctrinal development in the Fathers, early to later. Apostolic to post-Nicene?

    Fr. Robert

  8. As Eric Osborn said in his book: ‘Tertullian, first theologian of the West’…with the strength of known scripture, Tertullian had “the rarer gifts of paradox, metaphor and wit, all necessary for a thinker who fashions a language.”

    I so agree, we simply must have paradox and metaphor…these are also Pauline!

    Fr. Robert

  9. Sorry, Father Robert, I had forgotten to get back to you until I was going back over Polycarp’s site for Patristics Carnival material.

    The answer to your questions is, yes, there is doctrinal development which was rather my point in my original entry. That is, I was arguing that, before we decide a Church Father was a heretic using a later standard, we take into account doctrinal development and that, frequently, early Fathers might either lack precision or put things in ways that later Fathers or theologians might avoid in order to escape a confusion which has come up since.

    Peace,
    Phil

  10. Phil,

    I would agree, I had made my statement for I know our friend Polycarp does not believe in doctrinal development. I find it hard not see both historical and doctrinal development myself. From GOD’S giving both the Biblical Canon, and the doctrinal and spiritual oversight in the first seven Church Councils. The Oecumenical Councils, though certainly part of the pilgrim church, are to be held in great theological esteem and honor. There is also some real aspect to oecumenical authority. And here is God’s promise of divine tradition but within an again pilgrim Church. Again the Holy Spirit is the vicar of Christ within the Church! But also here we find the gift of the Fathers to the Church, not infallible but still very highly esteemed! (See, 1 Cor.12:28 / Eph.4:11-13)

    One of the very good writers on the second-century is the Aussie Eric Osborn! He has also written a good book on Irenaeus.

    Fr. Robert

  11. “I relish the thought of being a heretic hunter, of stamping out false doctrines where they arise, with a steady word and a heavy hand.”

    In the immortal words of Capt. Jack Sparrow: “You need a girl, mate.”

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