The Church Fathers—Advocates of Bible Truth?
Whether you profess to be a Christian or not, your perception of the God of the Bible, of Jesus, and of Christianity may well have been influenced by them. One of them was called Golden-Mouthed; another, Great. Collectively, they have been described as “the supreme embodiments of the life of Christ.” Who are they? They are the ancient religious thinkers, writers, theologians, and philosophers who have shaped much of today’s “Christian” thinking—the Church Fathers.
“THE Bible is not the totality of God’s word,” claims Greek Orthodox professor of religious studies Demetrios J. Constantelos. “The Holy Spirit that reveals the word of God cannot be confined to the pages of a book.” What could possibly be another reliable source of divine revelation? Constantelos asserts in his book Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church: “Holy Tradition and Holy Scriptures [are] viewed as two sides of the same coin.”
The core of that “Holy Tradition” includes the teachings and writings of the Church Fathers. They were prominent theologians and “Christian” philosophers who lived between the second and fifth centuries C.E. How much have they influenced modern “Christian” thought? Did they hold fast to the Bible in their teaching? What should be the solid basis of Christian truth for a follower of Jesus Christ?
In the middle of the second century C.E., professed Christians were defending their faith against Roman persecutors and heretics alike. However, this was an era of too many theological voices. Religious debates regarding the “divinity” of Jesus and the nature and workings of the holy spirit caused more than just intellectual rifts. Bitter disagreements and irreparable divisions over “Christian” doctrine spilled over into the political and cultural spheres, at times causing riots, rebellion, civil strife, even war. Writes historian Paul Johnson: “[Apostate] Christianity began in confusion, controversy and schism and so it continued. . . . The central and eastern Mediterranean in the first and second centuries AD swarmed with an infinite multitude of religious ideas, struggling to propagate themselves. . . . From the start, then, there were numerous varieties of Christianity which had little in common.”
During that era, writers and thinkers who felt that it was imperative to interpret “Christian” teachings using philosophical terms began to flourish. To satisfy educated pagans who were new converts to “Christianity,” such religious writers relied heavily on earlier Greek and Jewish literature. Beginning with Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 C.E.), who wrote in Greek, professed Christians became increasingly sophisticated in their assimilation of the philosophical heritage of the Greek culture.
This trend came to fruition in the writings of Origen (c. 185-254 C.E.), a Greek author from Alexandria. Origen’s treatise On First Principles was the first systematic effort to explain the main doctrines of “Christian” theology in terms of Greek philosophy. The Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.), with its attempt to explain and establish the “divinity” of Christ, was the milestone that gave new impetus to interpretation of “Christian” dogma. That council marked the beginning of an era during which general church councils sought to define dogma ever more precisely.
Writers and Orators
Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote at the time of the first Council of Nicaea, associated himself with Emperor Constantine. For slightly more than 100 years after Nicaea, theologians, most of them writing in Greek, worked out in a long and bitter debate what was to be the distinguishing doctrine of Christendom, the Trinity. Chief among them were Athanasius, the assertive bishop of Alexandria, and three church leaders from Cappadocia, Asia Minor—Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus.
Writers and preachers during that age achieved high standards of eloquence. Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom (meaning “Golden-Mouthed”) in Greek as well as Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo in Latin were consummate orators, masters of the most respected and popular art form of their time. The most influential writer of that period was Augustine. His theological treatises have pervasively shaped the “Christian” thinking of today. Jerome, the period’s most distinguished man of letters, was chiefly responsible for the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible from the original languages.
However, important questions are: Did those Church Fathers adhere closely to the Bible? In their teaching, did they hold fast to the inspired Scriptures? Are their writings a safe guide to an accurate knowledge of God?
Teachings of God or Teachings of Men?
Recently, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Methodius of Pisidia wrote the book The Hellenic Pedestal of Christianity in order to show that Greek culture and philosophy provided the infrastructure of modern “Christian” thought. In that book, he unhesitantly admits: “Almost all the prominent Church Fathers considered the Greek elements most useful, and they borrowed them from the Greek classical antiquity, using them as a means to understand and correctly express the Christian truths.”
Take, for example, the idea that the Father, the Son, and the holy spirit make up the Trinity. Many Church Fathers after the Council of Nicaea became staunch Trinitarians. Their writings and expositions were crucial to making the Trinity a landmark doctrine of Christendom. However, is the Trinity found in the Bible? No. So where did the Church Fathers get it? A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge notes that many say that the Trinity “is a corruption borrowed from the heathen religions, and ingrafted on the Christian faith.” And The Paganism in Our Christianity affirms: “The origin of the [Trinity] is entirely pagan.”*—John 3:16; 14:28.
Or consider the teaching of the immortality of the soul, a belief that some part of man lives on after the body dies. Again, the Church Fathers were instrumental in introducing this notion to a religion that had no teaching about a soul surviving death. The Bible clearly shows that the soul can die: “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4) What was the basis for the Church Fathers’ belief in an immortal soul? “The Christian concept of a spiritual soul created by God and infused into the body at conception to make man a living whole is the fruit of a long development in Christian philosophy. Only with Origen in the East and St. Augustine in the West was the soul established as a spiritual substance and a philosophical concept formed of its nature. . . . [Augustine’s doctrine] . . . owed much (including some shortcomings) to Neoplatonism,” says the New Catholic Encyclopedia. And the magazine Presbyterian Life says: “Immortality of the soul is a Greek notion formed in ancient mystery cults and elaborated by the philosopher Plato.”*
The Solid Basis of Christian Truth
After even this brief examination of the historical backdrop of the Church Fathers, as well as the origins of their teachings, it is appropriate to ask, Should a sincere Christian base his or her beliefs on the teachings of the Church Fathers? Let the Bible answer.
For one thing, Jesus Christ himself ruled out the use of the religious title “Father” when he said: “Do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One.” (Matthew 23:9) The use of the term “Father” to designate any religious figure is unchristian and unscriptural. The written Word of God was completed about 98 C.E. with the writings of the apostle John. Thus, true Christians do not need to look to any human as the source of inspired revelation. They are careful not to ‘make the word of God invalid’ because of human tradition. Letting human tradition take the place of God’s Word is spiritually lethal. Jesus warned: “If . . . a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”—Matthew 15:6, 14.
Does a Christian need any revelation besides the word of God as contained in the Bible? No. The book of Revelation cautions against adding anything to the inspired record: “If anyone makes an addition to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this scroll.”—Revelation 22:18.
Christian truth is embodied in the written Word of God, the Bible. (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 John 1-4) The correct understanding of it does not hinge on secular philosophy. Regarding men who tried to use human wisdom to explain divine revelation, it is fitting to repeat the apostle Paul’s questions: “Where is the wise man? Where the scribe? Where the debater of this system of things? Did not God make the wisdom of the world foolish?”—1 Corinthians 1:20.
Moreover, the true Christian congregation is “a pillar and support of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15) Its overseers safeguard the purity of their teaching within the congregation, preventing any doctrinal pollutant from creeping in. (2 Timothy 2:15-18, 25) They keep out of the congregation ‘false prophets, false teachers, and destructive sects.’ (2 Peter 2:1) After the death of the apostles, the Church Fathers allowed “misleading inspired utterances and teachings of demons” to take root in the Christian congregation.—1 Timothy 4:1.
The consequences of this apostasy are evident in Christendom today. Its beliefs and practices are a far cry from Bible truth.
An in-depth discussion of the Trinity doctrine can be found in the brochure Should You Believe in the Trinity?, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
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“The Orthodox Church . . . has a particular reverence for the writers of the fourth century, and especially for those whom it terms ‘the three Great Hierarchs,’ Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and John Chrysostom,” states the writer Kallistos, who is a monk. Did these Church Fathers base their teachings on the inspired Scriptures? Regarding Basil the Great, the book The Fathers of the Greek Church states: “His writings show that he retained a lifelong intimacy with Plato, Homer, and the historians and rhetors, and they certainly influenced his style. . . . Basil remained a ‘Greek.’” The same was true of Gregory of Nazianzus. “In his view the victory and the superiority of the Church would best be shown in its complete adoption of the traditions of classical culture.”
Regarding all three of them, Professor Panagiotis K. Christou writes: “While they occasionally caution against ‘philosophy and empty deception’ [Colossians 2:8]—in order to be in harmony with the commandment of the New Testament—they, at the same time, eagerly study philosophy and the relevant disciplines and even recommend the study of them to others.” Obviously, such church teachers thought that the Bible was not enough to support their ideas. Could their seeking other pillars of authority mean that their teachings were foreign to the Bible? The apostle Paul warned Hebrew Christians: “Do not be carried away with various and strange teachings.”—Hebrews 13:9.
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CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA—A CONTROVERSIAL CHURCH FATHER
One of the most controversial figures among Church Fathers is Cyril of Alexandria (c. 375-444 C.E.). Church historian Hans von Campenhausen describes him as “dogmatic, violent, and cunning, permeated by the greatness of his calling and the dignity of his office,” and adds that “he never considered anything as right unless it was useful to him in the furtherance of his power and authority . . . The brutality and unscrupulousness of his methods never depressed him.” While he was bishop of Alexandria, Cyril used bribery, libel, and slander in order to depose the bishop of Constantinople. He is considered responsible for the brutal murder in 415 C.E. of a renowned philosopher named Hypatia. Regarding Cyril’s theological writings, Campenhausen says: “He initiated the practice of deciding questions of belief not solely on the basis of the Bible but with the aid of appropriate quotations and collections of quotations from acknowledged authorities.”
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