Reclaiming Lutheranism’s Love and Respect for the Church Fathers
An aspect of Lutheranism that is somewhat unknown, unfortunately, to many Lutherans, is the fact that we never renounced, rejected or otherwise denigrated a study of, and love for, the church fathers. In fact, it was a Lutheran who coined the word “patrology” to refer to the study of the writings of the church fathers. The “church fathers” are those theologians of both East and West, who lived and produced theological works from roughly 100-500 a.d. There is remarkable consistency across their writings, and Lutherans delighted particularly in showing their opponents in the Roman Catholic Church that the Lutheran confession of the ancient faith was thoroughly consistent with the teachings of the church fathers. While never elevating extra-biblical opinions of the church fathers above Scripture, as Rome did, Lutheranism has never rejected, but rather has embraced, the early church fathers as our own. It is a false and misleading claim that the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Church are the ones who are faithful to the early church fathers, in fact, it is Lutheranism that is the most authentic and faithful confession of the faith of the church fathers.
Carl Beckwith put matters well in an article published in an issue of Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 68:3/4, July/October 2004, when he wrote:
“Lutherans have always recognized the value of studying the early church fathers. Whether Martin Luther or Johann Gerhard, C.F.W. Walther or Hermann Sasse, one finds a considerable familiarity with and appreciation of the church fathers. In his important study on post-Reformation Lutheranism, Robert Preus explains, “The Lutherans were convinced that the church fathers were worthy of being read directly, although critically, ‘dividing the straw from the gold.” ” The Lutherans appealed to the fathers, according to Jacob Preus, because they “were part of the ‘heavenly witnesses,’ men standing before the judgment seat of God and bearing witness to their faith.” By using the testimony of these heavenly witnesses, the Lutherans demonstrated the continuity of their teaching with the church catholic.”
How then can a person go about learning more about the church fathers and reading them, not uncritically, but with understanding and appreciation? For this task, I recommend a person read the works of Johann Gerhard and Martin Chemnitz, both of whom were very familiar with the early church fathers and made much use of them in their theological writings. Rather start to tackle, right away, entire works of the Church Fathers, an anthology of their writings, organized around topics, can be very helpful. The very best resource like this is rather new, it is the five volume series Ancient Christian Doctrine, offering quotes of the early church fathers around the Nicene Creed and its various points. It is very well done.
Finally, here is a nice summary of how Lutherans should regard, and make use of, the church fathers. Dr. Beckwith concludes his article:
“Martin Chemnitz’s approach to the fathers is one of esteem and discernment. He appreciates and makes use of their contribution to Christian doctrine, their guidance in theological terminology, and their many struggles to defend God’s word against the heretics. When the fathers fail to distinguish between law and gospel, distort the articles of justification and sanctification, or overemphasize works and discipline, Chemnitz seeks to understand why such statements were made. He does not see their shortcomings as an opportunity for ridicule but rather as a call for diligence that we not repeat their mistakes in our defense of God’s word. When we reverently and faithfully approach the fathers, we do so knowing they sought only to confess the faith that leads to everlasting life. Just as we pray today for brotherly correction when we stray from God’s word, so too we correct these heavenly witnesses when they stray from the only rule and norm for doctrine, God’s inspired and inerrant word.”