Luther, Calvin, and the other “founding fathers” of Protestantism were disciples of the early church fathers. They had a special regard for one father in particular: Augustine of Hippo. Luther belonged to the Augustinian order of friars and found life-transforming resources of theology in his order’s patron saint. Still, the Reformers were widely read in the fathers generally. Calvin famously said to a Roman Catholic opponent, Cardinal Jacob Sadoleto:
Our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours. All we have attempted has been to renew that ancient form of the church, which was at first besmirched and distorted by uneducated men of undistinguished character, and afterwards disgracefully mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman pope and his faction. I will not press you so closely as to call you back to that form of the church which the apostles instituted (though it presents us with a unique pattern of a true church, and deviation from that pattern, even slightly, involves us in error). But to indulge you so far, I beg you to place before your eyes that ancient form of the church, such as it is shown to have been during those times in the writings of Chrysostom and Basil among the Greeks, and Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine among the Latins.1
If we are Protestants, that very fact should give us a bias toward knowing the early church fathers. We are simply doing what the original theologians of the Reformation did. They considered the fathers to be much better interpreters of the gospel than the medieval theologians were. In a careful study of the fathers, they found weighty historical testimonies to the supremacy of Scripture and justification by faith, the twin pillars of the Reformation.
But who exactly were the early church fathers? It is a name we give to the significant leaders and writers of the first few centuries of Christianity. Different historians suggest different timeframes, anywhere from the first three hundred years to the first six hundred. However, the name “father” isn’t automatically given to every Christian figure from this early period. It is normally reserved for those who came to be recognized as sound, reliable teachers. This means that the two most famous and influential theologians of the third century, Tertullian of Carthage and Origen of Alexandria, are often not acknowledged as “fathers,” owing to some of the more questionable aspects of their theology. This, incidentally, is the same reason they were never granted the status of “saint” by the Roman Catholic Church.
Accepting these qualifications, the lives and writings of the fathers are well worth knowing. There is a noble spirit breathing through their words. These were people who—at least for the first few centuries—lived on the margins of their society. They belonged to a despised religious minority, always liable to being persecuted by the authorities of the pagan Roman Empire. Hollywood did not invent the spectacle of Christians being thrown to lions in the arena; it really happened. It gave the early Christians a deep sense of not belonging to this world, of being exiles and pilgrims, journeying to heaven. This can be challenging and edifying for us today. As the anonymous second-century author of the Epistle to Diognetus says of Christians:
They live in their own countries, yet as pilgrims. As citizens they share in everything with their fellow citizens, and yet experience all things as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is to them their native country, and every birthplace as a land of strangers. They marry, like everyone else, and beget children; but they do not kill the unborn. They share their food with all, but not their sexual favors. They live in the flesh, but not according to the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but are citizens of heaven.
The fathers were also the first theologians of the church. The basic bedrock doctrines we often take for granted—the Trinity and the incarnation—were first hammered out by the fathers on the fierce anvil of controversy. Not a few fathers suffered exile, torture, and even death for giving a voice to these truths and seeking to define them more clearly when others in the visible church were undermining them. The great Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria, spent seventeen years in exile for his heroic championing of the doctrine of Christ’s deity, sometimes even having to hide in the trackless wastes of the Egyptian desert. Calvin would later hail Athanasius as “the principal defender of the orthodox faith, a divine writer worthy of immortal praise.”
The understanding of the Trinity and the incarnation thrashed out by the orthodox fathers was expressed preeminently in two great creeds. These were the Nicene Creed (finalized at the Council of Constantinople in the year 381) and the Creed of Chalcedon (produced at the Council of Chalcedon in 451). To this day, the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds are honored among Protestants as the gold standard of a right biblical interpretation of the tri-unity of God and the two natures (divine and human) of the incarnate Christ.
Reading the fathers on the Trinity and the incarnation immerses us in the rich, formative period of church life when those fundamental truths were first given clear and precise expression. The debt we owe to the early church fathers is thus incalculable. They were not infallible; but after the prophets and Apostles, they were truly our fathers in the faith.