Justifying the Use of the Church Fathers in Deciding between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism


In the latter months of my preparation for Confirmation in the Catholic Church, my local priest, Fr Jason Cargo, recommended that I read several books by Scott Hahn. Scott Hahn had been a Protestant minister like myself who had converted to Catholicism. Throughout his books and CD's, he mentioned constantly the role of the early Church Fathers in determining which interpretation of Scripture was true, the Catholic vs. the Protestant one.

I personally had come many months earlier to the conclusion that the early Church Fathers are pivotal to this discussion. Yet, whereas I heard Hahn frequently refer to the Church Fathers, he never (as far as I could tell) justified this claim that the Church Fathers are pivotal in deciding which interpretation trumps the other. He had his interpretation of the Scriptures based on the writings of the early Church Fathers, and yet he didn't really provide a warrant for using them.

Why is it important to provide such a warrant? The main reason is that if you approach Protestants (especially the conservative evangelicals) and cite the Church Fathers, they are going to look at you like deer caught in the headlights. First, they may not even know who you are referring to, and second, they would not understand why you would refer to them at all. The Church Fathers, in their opinion, would be at no greater advantage than you and me because we like they are operating on the same premise that all Christian truth is based upon the Bible. Conservative evangelicals, they claim, have access to the Biblical documents as much as the Church Fathers did. Protestants would go on to say that whereas the Church Fathers' interpretation of the Bible is incorrect, theirs is correct. Case closed. That is the claim which must be addressed.


Although the statement that the apostles existed before the early Church Fathers is self-evident, its implications are not; yet those implications are critically important for this discussion. Right after the demise of the apostles and their generation, there emerged the Church Fathers, e.g., Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus, to name some of the earliest. There was not an elapse of a hundred years or even a few decades between the death of the apostles and the emergence of the Church Fathers. The Church Fathers followed right on the heels of the apostles and their generation. This truth is important first because of the significance of the apostles and second because of the close relationship of the Church Fathers with the apostles.

Unfortunately, many conservative evangelical Christians simply do not understand the significance of the apostles for Christianity. They start with the claim that the Bible is God's Word (with special importance attached to the New Testament, especially Paul's writings), and proceed from there to interpret the Scriptures. They laudably pull out their Greek/English dictionaries to analyze any difficult and confusing words, try to determine the context of the passage both from the standpoint of the author and that of the Bible as a whole, and proceed from there. After spending much time in analyzing the passage, they feel confident that they have understood the passage as well as could be understood and assert that their interpretation of the passage is as valid as that of anybody else's, including some ancient Christians (such as the Church Fathers) who they think were restricted in their knowledge as much as we are. "All the Church Fathers had was the Bible, just like that is all we have. Their views are no more credible than ours. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we can understand the Bible as well as they! First John 2:27 supports this."

On the surface that sounds good, but two issues need to be addressed. First, this approach has led not only to a multitude of contradicting interpretations of the Bible, it has also engulfed Protestantism in a sea of moral relativism. Second, a major problem with this is that the early Church Fathers might have had one advantage we don't have—they were actually taught by the apostles OR were taught by the generation which was taught by the apostles who actually wrote the NT and therefore would understand it far better than anybody else. The early Church Fathers had the interpretations and expanded teachings of the apostles still ringing in their ears when they were interpreting the Scriptures. Now that would give them a HUGE ADVANTAGE OVER US! That is, it would give their views on the Bible much more authority than ours.

Why would that give them authority? Because the apostles were and are the official spokespersons for Christ. Just a quick glance at the Word itself would underscore their significance. Although we believe that Jesus is God the Son and that His Word is authoritative, we have no documents coming from the hand of Christ Himself. Rather, all our information about Christ comes either from the apostles or from an associate of the apostles. For example, the following NT documents came directly from the hands of the apostles:

  1. Matthew (apostle Matthew)
  2. John (apostle John)
  3. Romans-Titus (apostle Paul)
  4. 1-2 Peter (apostle Peter)
  5. 1-3 John (apostle John)
  6. Jude (apostle Jude)
  7. Revelation (apostle John).
The other NT books were written by associates of the apostles:
  1. Gospel of Mark (Mark an associate of Peter)
  2. Gospel of Luke and Acts (Luke an associate of Paul)
  3. Hebrews (an associate of Paul, or at least one very acquainted with his thought)
  4. and James (half brother of Jesus).

Moreover, the Bible itself attests specifically to the significance of the apostles:

  1. When Peter reminds Jesus that he and the other 11 disciples have forsaken all to follow Him, Jesus replies: "Truly, truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man sits upon His glorious throne, you yourselves also shall sit upon 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of the sons of Israel" [we see the intensive use of "you" (humeis) here (Matt. 19:28)].
  2. Paul claims that the apostles and prophets are nothing less than the foundation of the church: "having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone" (Eph. 2:20).
  3. Paul understands very well the significance of the apostles for the early church. He knows that they are the authoritative, official spokesmen for Christ. For this reason, in order to defend his gospel he first has to establish and defend his credentials as an apostle (Gal. 1-2 and 2 Cor. 1-7, 10-13).
  4. After pretty much shaking the confidence of the disciples just after He has announced that someone who eats with Him will betray Him, Jesus reaffirms the apostles: "He who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me" (John 13:20).
  5. In 1 John, the apostle is dealing with a group of people who have abandoned the apostolic church for one of their own creation. This was serious indeed. Why? "What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also that you may have fellowship with us, and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3). Fellowship with God and Christ depends upon one's relationship to Jesus' apostles, His official spokesmen.

The early church understood the significance of the apostles. In fact, the early church claimed that a document had to come either from an apostle or one of his associates to be counted as canon, that is, authoritative. This criterion distinguished what we now know as the NT from other writings, such as, the Gospel of Thomas and Gospel of Judas. Few if any believe that these latter writings come from the hands of the apostles or their associates, not to mention that the teachings in these books contradict the thought of those documents which we know came from the apostles and their associates.

How important was this apostolic criterion for the early church. The early church accepted writings which they didn't feel all that comfortable with simply because they thoroughly believe that those uncomfortable writings came from the hands of the apostles, for example, Jude. The role of the apostles is HUGE in the formation and development of Christianity. This must be established and recognized before the role of the early Church Fathers can be appreciated.


In light of what the Scripture claims about the apostles, most Protestants would have little trouble with the above statements, although they seldom think in those categories. The issue now moves to the question, "What though establishes the early Church Fathers as authorities? Or rather, why would their interpretation of the Scripture be weightier than mine since we are both interpreting the same texts?" The answer is easy: at least some of these early Church Fathers were actually taught by the apostles or taught by those who themselves were mentored by the apostles. That is the decisive difference.

For many Protestants, for all practical purposes the apostles wrote a few books and then dropped off the face of the earth. In fact, according to many Protestants, the church then misinterpreted the apostles' texts1 until Martin Luther came and rescued the church. That is a gross misinterpretation of the facts. The apostles didn't just write some texts and vanish into thin air. To claim otherwise would be intellectually irresponsible.

Why? The Book of Acts AND the NT Letters reveal that these apostles were heavily engaged in teaching ministries over a period of many years. Whereas it takes only 30 mins. to read 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul actually spent 18 months teaching the nascent church in Corinth. Ephesians takes less than 15 minutes to read and yet Paul spent a full 3 years in Ephesus instructing the church. Either he repeated these 15 mins. of teaching from his letter for 3 years (which is totally improbable), or else he went far deeper into Christianity than we have in his writings. These apostles didn't simply leave behind a few texts, they left behind churches which they had taught extensively throughout their ministries:

Peter and Paul alone taught churches throughout the Roman Empire for approximately 30 years, whereas John taught for approximately sixty years. Whereas the documents we have from them are scant, the churches they left behind were full of their teachings. These early Church Fathers were either taught personally by the apostles, for example Ignatius and Polycarp by John, or else by someone taught by the apostles, for example Clement of Rome (taught by those mentored by Peter and Paul) and Irenaeus and Justin Martyr (taught by Polycarp and Ignatius respectively).

Some will rebut, though, that the early church perverted the teachings of the apostles. They will point to Corinth as an example of quick perversion of the church. There are two problems with this challenge. First, this is actually the charge Islam levels against Christianity. It started out good, but then went south immediately after the death of the apostles. I seriously do not think they want to go there. Second, John actually commends Ephesus for its adherence to good doctrine. Most of the problems in the churches were ethical in nature, not doctrinal, the main point under discussion. (The church of Ephesus is HUGE in this discussion because not only did Paul and John minister there for many years, but they left behind them the Church Fathers Ignatius and Polycarp who in turn left behind them Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.) The main reason people will charge that the church of the early Church Father was corrupt was that the interpretation of the early Church Fathers conflicts with their interpretation, a dubious charge indeed. Simply because someone doesn't agree with me doesn't make them wrong. It might just happen that I am the one in the wrong.

One issue which might cloud our present understanding of the early second-century situation in the church is the nature of the church at that period of time. We relate our experience to a church to that of the early church. We just go to church for minimal Bible study and worship. The early churches, especially the great church centers of Christianity, were far more significant than that. They served not only as publishing houses (copying and dispersing the NT texts), they were also seminaries engaged in training the ministers of the gospel. Paul himself had instructed Timothy: "The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim. 2:2). Fr. R.E. Brown, the great Catholic commentator on the Gospel of John, claims that the community which finalized the last edition of the Gospel of John had not only been influenced by John but had also most likely been guided directly by John in the construction of his gospel. 2 and 3


Let's see how this principle would work. One of the major dividing issues among Catholics (also Orthodox Christians), mainline Protestants (Episcopalians and Lutherans), and conservative evangelicals (Baptists) revolves around the Lord's Supper. The traditional Catholic belief is that during the Lord's Supper, the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of the risen Christ. Lutherans and Episcopalians assert that the actual presence of Christ is with the two elements (consubstantiation) but that the elements are not transformed into the literal body and blood of the resurrected Christ. Baptists, on the other hand, simply claim that the elements are purely symbolical of the body and blood of Christ. There is neither transubstantiation nor consubstantiation. The Lord's Supper is purely a memorial of the first Lord's Supper.

Let us look at the NT passages on the Lord's Supper.

    "While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is My body.' And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom'" (Matt. 26:26-29; see also parallels in Mark 14 and Luke 22).

    "and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, 'This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.' In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (1 Corinthians 11:24-26).

    "So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever" (John 6:53-58).

    Also, some verses which tend to get overlooked:

    "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16).

    "Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep" (1 Cor. 11:27-30).

Just a casual look at the passages creates problems for the Baptists and for any group which asserts that the elements are purely symbolical. Baptists, et al can assert the symbolical nature of the meal only if they focus on the first 2 set of passages: the Gospel passages and the 1 Cor. 11:24-26 passage. On the basis of these first 2 sets of passages, a case can be made for the Lord's Supper being totally symbolical. That claim, though, runs into serious problems after the next three passages are examined: "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ?" That is very straightforward. Moreover, the elements are so deadly important that if a person approaches the elements incorrectly, that person could die. Maybe the elements are purely symbolical; however, such a claim is hard to maintain in light of just a natural reading of these latter passages.

The consubstantiation claim does seem to harmonize with the passages better than the symbol claim. Although a natural reading of the passages seems to support transubstantiation, just maybe these same passages harmonize with consubstantiation. Such an interpretation removes the sticky problem of explaining how these elements literally become the body and blood of Christ.

It is not our burden, though, to remove sticky problems. It is not our burden to make interpretations more palatable to people. It is our responsibility to seek truth and present it in a loving fashion, even if people are offended, something Jesus experienced in John 6 (especially v. 66 in which most of His disciples abandoned Him after speaking about the Lord's Supper).

Although a case can be made for each of the 3 interpretations, when we read the early Church Fathers, those trained by the apostles or by their disciples, the issue is totally made clear. There is unanimous agreement among the early Church Fathers that the elements are transformed into the literal body and blood of the risen Christ:

    Justin Martyr (110-165 AD) who was trained by Ignatius a disciple of John the apostle: "For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh" (First Apology of Justin, chap. 66, or 1:66:185).

    Irenaeus (135-202 AD) who was trained by Polycarp a disciple of John the apostle: "When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him? . . .that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives from the bread which is His body . . . . having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ" (Against Heresies 1:3:528).

Nowhere is there any mention of Christ being present "with" (con) the elements and certainly no mention at all of these elements being symbols. According to these two Christian giants, the elements are literally the body and blood of Christ. In fact, there is NO DISAGREEMENT AMONG THE CHURCH FATHERS AT ALL that these elements are nothing less than the literal body and blood of Christ. Only the Gnostics at that period of time denied that they were the literal body and blood of Christ. Their denial came out of the fact that they denied the incarnation of Christ Himself.

Moreover, notice that these two giants of Christianity are not arguing for their claim that the elements are the actual body and blood of the risen Christ. They are simply stating what the early church, which was taught by the apostles, believed. This teaching was not an new innovation on the part of the Church Fathers.

Moreover, this teaching was taught universally by the entire early church. There is no scintilla of evidence that the early church taught otherwise. Two of the criteria textual critics use in determining which reading of the NT is correct are 1. the earlier the date of the reading the more likely it is authentic, and 2. the universality of the reading. If only one region of Christendom held to a certain reading, then that reading is probably not authentic. On the other hand, if nearly all of Christendom held to a reading (the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the western part of the Roman Empire, Armenia, etc.), then that reading was most likely authentic. The view of the early Church Fathers that the bread and wine were literally Christ's resurrected body and blood were not only the earliest known interpretations of the Lord's Supper, they were also universally held by the early church. Both those facts are compelling support for this claim. In fact, it won't be for another 1500 years that Luther who had zero physical contact with the apostles claimed that the NT taught consubstantiation and not transubstantiation. In our studies on logic, we would classify Luther as an inappropriate authority.

Finally, as an important side note, let us return to the fact that the early Church Fathers were the ones who determined the final make-up of the canon. Now let us add the fact that the early Church Fathers were universally sacramentalists. It would be strange, improbably strange that the early Church Fathers would select as canon writings which were anti-sacramental which many of our Protestant brothers declare. Either they were undermining their own theology by selecting these writings, or else they knew that the apostolic writings promoted a view which many Protestants today deny, a sacramental view of the Lord's Supper and baptism. Moreover, it would be strange for us to accept the decision of the early Church Fathers as to what constitutes the canon and then with breathtaking speed reject their interpretation of that canon, especially when their interpretation regarding the sacramental nature of the Eucharist was so universally held by the early Church Fathers.


No claim is airtight. You must always check for probability. The claims of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the sacraments are far more justified than those of Protestantism because of the direct link the Catholic Church had with the apostles through the early Church Fathers Now we are ready to hear what the Church Fathers teach on other topics.

1 Robert Baker's Summary of Christian History.
2 R.E. Brown, The Gospel of John, 2nd ed., The Anchor Bible, vol. 29 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), c-ci; see also 107 where he speaks of "the Johannine school." It is interesting that Clayton N. Jefford sees the relationship between the early church fathers and the apostles without explaining that relationship. He writes, "In the final analysis, it is clear that the wrold, the authors, and the issues that served to frame the structure of the New Testament are essentially the same as those that provided direction to the production of the apostolic fathers. . . . the relationship fo the two collections is somewhat analagous to adjoining steps within a staircase: one leads to the next, and the yvery much resemble each other" Claytono N. Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers and the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006), 252. He makes it almost sound as if the similarities between the two are coincidental. The truth may be that instead of being coincidental, the teachings of the apostles are nothing less than the logical outgrowth and further development of the apostolic teachings because these men had actually been trained by the apostles themselves. See again the reference to Brown.