In dealing with Roman Catholic apologetics as long as I have, I am no stranger to discussions about the Early Church Fathers.
There is a tendency for Protestants to very carefully pick and choose what quotes to share and which to ignore… It is for this reason that I wonder why Protestants are fascinated with the Fathers at all. Protestants necessarily have to discard or redefine so much of what the Fathers write. To a Protestant, the Fathers clearly have no authority unto themselves and can be used only to be pointed to make either the statement: “See, they believe exactly what we do” or, “Well clearly he is wrong about this doctrine. No Father is perfect I suppose.”
Let me first say this is a fair critique. Many protestants, including myself, have regurgitated slogans about the importance of church history, but have not really worked through their theological relationship to the early church fathers (ECF). How should the ECF influence our theology? This is an important question to which many in the protestant world have not given much thought.
Picking and Choosing
That aside, the Roman Catholic position is actually not much different from this. I grant that on the surface it seems very different. Rome certainly has a much higher view of the ECF than Protestants do in regards to our claims about Tradition. But upon deeper examination, “the Fathers clearly have no authority unto themselves and can be used only to be pointed to make either the statement: ‘See, they believe exactly what we do’ or, ‘Well clearly he is wrong about this doctrine. No Father is perfect I suppose'” accurately reflects Rome’s approach, too. No individual Father is seen as infallible to the Roman Catholic. It is only their “collective voice” that becomes infallible Tradition. Therefore, it is not uncommon for Catholics to find theology in the ECF with which they disagree. So it seems as if Catholics are required to also make note when certain Fathers agree with them, and then remind us that no Father is infallible unto themselves when a Father does disagree with them.
A Derivative Authority
But there is an additional point to make. One has to wonder how the Catholic can honestly claim the “the Fathers have real authority unto themselves.”
The Roman Catholic position essentially turns the ECF into middle men as it pertains to their theological influence and authority. For the Roman Church is the only institution with the authority to declare when the ECF have taught apostolic Tradition, or when they are in error. Thus, the Roman Catholic is not truly depending on the ECF for authority “unto themselves.” They are entirely relying on what the Church tells them about the Fathers. The Church has the authority to determine the level of authority of the Fathers, and what in their individual theology is true and false. The Church gets to decide when the Fathers are authoritative and when they are not, and the Church alone has the authority to rightly interpret what the Father’s are teaching. Thus, the Fathers only sometimes have a derivative authority. That’s not an authority “unto themselves” and still requires accepting some and rejecting some, just like the Protestantism.
Notice how the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes this,
The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him (Part 1, Chapter 2, Article 2, In Brief, 100).
The Word of God is not to be interpreted authentically or authoritatively at the lay-level, or even in any level within the Church hierarchy outside of the magisterium of the Church. (The Pope and the bishops in communion with him make up the Church magesterium.)
Now, if you’re not Catholic, this quotation may seem irrelevant. After all, this post is only addressing the interpretation of “the Word of God.” It says nothing about interpreting the Fathers. But for Protestants, “the Word of God” is assumed to only include Sacred Scripture. When we hear that phrase, we think “Bible.” But this is not the presupposition of the Catholic. Look at how the “Word of God” is defined in the same section of the Catholic Catechism.
Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God in which, as in a mirror, the pilgrim Church contemplates God, the source of all her riches (Part 1, Chapter 2, Article 2, In Brief, 100) (emphasis mine).
Thus, Sacred Tradition is part of the Word of God, and Sacred Tradition was passed through the Fathers. Therefore, it is the Church magisterium, and that magisterium alone, that possesses the authority to decide for Catholics what is Tradition within the Fathers and what is not. Only the Church magesterium can decide for the catholic how to interpret the ECF. Again, this means the Fathers are only authoritative where the Church has given them permission to be. This means that what the ECF taught is to be read as the Church interprets their words. Again, this is a derivative authority, not an authority unto themselves.
Eisegeting the Fathers
There is one final issue at hand. The Roman Catholic objector is concerned that Protestants are picking and choosing, and in effect, trying to make the Fathers look as if they believed theological positions they did not in fact hold. Again, this may happen within Protestant apologetics more often than I am aware. Nonetheless, the Roman Catholic must do this. Look at the words from the 1st Vatican Council,
Likewise I accept sacred scripture according to that sense which holy mother church held and holds, since it is her right to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy scriptures; nor will I ever receive and interpret them except according to the unanimous consent of the fathers (emphasis mine).
The church then, in order to maintain it’s claim to infallibility and not lose harmony with it’s understanding of Tradition, has effectively claimed that the way she interprets Scripture is never inconsistent with the unanimous consent of the ECF. This means, the Catholic has an outside authority instructing them in what to find in the ECF. Unlike the Protestant, the Roman Catholic is now forced to read into particular Father’s what the mother church has required. Who is it then that is truly motivated by their presuppositions to reinterpret the Fathers? Protestants are prone to do so out of fear of arrogance. It is a daunting thing to believe about Christ something that cannot be documented as a belief for the last 2,000 years. Nonetheless, the Protestant system does not collapse even if that were the case. For the Catholic on the other hand, if even one Father disagrees with that which has been defined as dogma, the entire house of cards comes tumbling down. One Father teaching against a dogma which the “infallible church” has claimed enjoys unanimous agreement ruins the entire notion unanimity, which then ruins the entire notion of infallibility. Therefore, on dogmatic issues, every Father must be reinterpreted to fit the claims Rome has made about them by all means necessary. Reinterpreting the Fathers is nearly built into the system.