Understanding the Faith Received from the Early Church Fathers

Dr. Nathan Jacobs has served as a professor at Calvin College and Seminary, Trinity College and Graduate School, and University of Kentucky. His specializations include modern philosophy and Eastern patristic thought. In addition, he is a fine arts painter and filmmaker. Nathan recently was a guest on Hank Unplugged. The following is an excerpt from their discussion on the faith handed to us from the early church fathers.

Hank Hanegraaff: What I love about the conversation thus far is you keep referring back to the fathers. Maybe some definitions are in order. So often we talk about the patristics. We even use the term “pope.” That is offsetting. We say, “priest.” Oftentimes, in Protestant context, that is an offsetting word as well. We hear the word “Father,” and people immediately say, “We are not supposed to call anybody Father.” Yet, we are saying, “Father Steve,” or “Father John,” or whoever. But, Protestants say, “Do not call anybody Father.” That is kind of the thinking. Sometimes it is helpful to recognize that there is a context. Obviously, when we are talking about the term “Father,” there is a context. There is more to the passage than “Do not call anyone on earth ‘father’” (Matthew 23:9 NIV). Jesus goes on to explicate that. So often when we hear these words, they are off-putting because we do not understand what they mean.

Nathan Jacobs: Right. When we are talking about the church fathers, this is a term that recognizes the fact that Paul identifies certain people as his spiritual children. He is identifying himself as their spiritual father (1 Corinthians 4:14; Galatians 4:19; 2 Timothy 1:2). John, when he is writing to people, he identifies this hierarchy of spiritual growth: some of them are little children and others are full grown (1 John 2:12–14).

One of the things that the church — the Eastern Orthodox Church or the Christian church historically — in the first millennium recognized was that there were certain people who went before us who were fully spiritually mature, who received and lived out the things handed down to them, and they were the ones who spiritually nurtured and cared for us, and we look to them as spiritual guides and spiritual fathers. When we look at that term “patristic,” this term is derived from patros (Greek) or pater (Latin), we are referring to those Christian writers who went before us, who received, lived out, and handed down to the next generation those things that they received in turn, which is what tradition refers to — that which is handed down.

When I am referring to the church fathers, I am referring to those folks, largely and usually, those from the first millennium. That is how church fathers is typically used. These are the folks who were early Christian writers, who defended core doctrines of the faith. Oftentimes this is related to people like those at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325), who received, defended, and upheld against heretics, the Arians,1 the doctrine of the Trinity. Church fathers at Constantinople defended Christology and the full humanity of Christ over and against the Apollinarian2 heresies. Church fathers defended the doctrine that He was truly incarnate. At Ephesus, church fathers defended over and against the Nestorian3 heresies, concluding that Christ is only one person and that there is only one Son of God, the one who is with the Father, and the one who dwelt among us.

These individuals who defended the faith and handed on to us the faith that they received, those are the church fathers. This is one of the things that I think is sometimes misunderstood. In the first millennium you had ecumenical councils. Ecumenical refers to the whole house. These councils happened only seven times in the first millennium prior to the Great Schism between the Western church and the Eastern church.

You had these seven ecumenical councils — and lots of folks are unaware that there were seven ecumenical councils (that’s seven times on seven core doctrines). The Church said this is the faith that was handed down to us. Those councils form the basis for what is typically called Nicaean Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology, these core doctrines of the Trinity and Christology.

One of the things that is interesting is, for whatever reason, the presumption is when you hear the word “council,” it must have been a bunch of academics or something like that, or bishops sitting around hashing out what they thought was the best answer to a given question. But when you look at those councils and what they have to say, what is fascinating is that the question is never “What is the most philosophical savvy answer?” or “What is the latest trend in the academy?” The question is always “What is the faith we received?” “What did the apostles hand down?” That is why the declaration is always This is the faith of Peter. This is the faith that Cyril taught. They always deferred back to the prior generations who had received and handed down the faith. They never saw themselves as academics trying to solve riddles or come up with new, innovative, and creative insights. The question has always been “What have we received?” They were curators, which is the best way to put it.

Hank: By the way, just parenthetically, is not that exactly what the apostle Paul does in 1 Corinthians 15: “What I received I passed on to you as of first importance” (v. 3 NIV)?

Nathan: Absolutely! That is why he exhorts others to do the same. To hold on to what has been handed down. That is why in Jude 3 there is reference to the faith once given over to the saints. This is crucial as they saw it. Staying the course in Christianity ultimately meant sticking with and protecting and being a preserver of the faith that was handed down, which is why it was so crucial for the church fathers to look back at what was handed down to us because that is what we are entrusted with. This is the pearl of great price. What has been said about it? What is that pearl? It is our job to protect it, and to not innovate. Innovate is a very bad word among the church fathers because that is the epitome of what you are not supposed to be doing.

Hank: You are supposed to perpetuate — not innovate.

Nathan: That is right. That would be a great way of putting it. That is one of the reasons why with lots of issues, yes, I tend to go back. I look, and I say, “Well, what did the church fathers have to say on this topic? What did they hand down?” Because at the end of the day, if I am looking at a doctrine, and I cannot find it advocated by the church fathers, it is a medieval doctrine that emerges, say like from Anslem or someone like that, that is problematic theologically, since that would be prima facia, face value evidence, of an innovation, and it is not the faith that was handed down to us.

Listen to the full interview here.

Read Nathan’s article “Understanding Nicene Trinitarianism” in the Christian Research Journal volume 41, number 4 (2018). To subscribe to the Journal, click here.

We also recommend the movie Becoming Truly Human: Neither This Path Nor This Version of Me Is My Destination, directed by Nathan Jacobs, which is a documentary on the “nones” (religiously unaffiliated) and the search for spiritual wholeness.

A helpful overview on the false teachings about Christ and the Trinity, which the early church fathers addressed, can be found in Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief by Bruce Milne. For a more extensive and advanced treatment on this subject, please consult Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church by Harold O. J. Brown. Both of these resources are available through the Christian Research Institute.

For further related reading, we recommend the following articles on equip.org:

Jesus as God in the Second Century” by Paul Hartog

Is the Son Eternally Submissive to the Father? An Egalitarian-Complementarian Debate” by Robert Letham and Kevin Giles

Jesus as ‘God’: Scriptural Fact or Scribal Fantasy?” by Brian J. Wright

Begotten of the Father before All Ages” by Charles Lee Irons

Deciding Who Jesus Was” by H. Wayne House


Notes:

  1. Arians were those embracing the false teaching of Arius of Alexandria (AD 246–336). Arius taught that the Son was created, and that there was a time when Christ was not. This was a denial of Christ’s full divinity.
  2. Apollinarian refers to the false teachings of Apollinarius or Apollinaris (AD 310–390). Apollinarius taught that the eternal Logos (Word), i.e., God the Son, replaced the human soul of Jesus. In other words, the Lord was the divine Word residing in a soulless human body. This was a denial of Christ’s full humanity.
  3. Nestorian refers to the false teaching of Nestorianism, which is the idea that the two natures in Christ were separate. In other words, the God-man was two persons as opposed to one. Nestorianism denied the unity of Christ, who is one person as opposed to two. Nestorianism is associated with Nestorius of Syria (386–450), Archbishop of Constantinople. While Nestorius was opposed to identifying Mary as the theotokos (bearer of God), preferring to use either anthropotokos (bearer of man) or Christotokos (bearer of Christ), it is debatable whether or not Nestorius affirmed and taught the radical dichotomy between Christ’s humanity and divinity identified as Nestorianism.

2 Responses to Understanding the Faith Received from the Early Church Fathers

  1. Jeff says:

    The doctrine of the Trinity as defined by Trinitarians is still conjecture based on their understanding. You had a counsel some 300 years after the apostles lived and we are suppose to believe that they had a clear understanding of the faith once delivered? Please.

    • Chil Wilson says:

      That is correct. Do you believe in the history taught in schools and universities today? Those events happened with just as much time frame in which you are doubting the accuracy of the early Church fathers. The real question is what are you trying to disprove?

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