I often hear this from non-catholics. “Oh, I’ve read the early church fathers, they are not the apostles so they have no authority. Besides, they contradicted themselves all the time. They couldn’t agree on much.” Really?? This, coming from a person who professes to be a “Bible Alone” Christian, who by the way, is not really a Bible Alone Christian because they follow the interpretations of the Scriptures from men that came at least 1500 years and more after the Apostles. Think about it, no one is Bible Alone, no one just reads the Bible in a vacuum without the influence of a teacher, i.e. Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, R.C. Sproul, Charles Wesley or James White. If you go to any protestant church, your pastor is teaching you to interpret the Bible, that’s his job. He does not say “I want you to go home, read your Bible and interpret it on your own. Go where the Spirit leads you.” They may tell you to go home and read your Bible, but if you come back to church next Sunday and say “I read this passage and this is what it’s telling me” and it goes against what they believe it’s teaching, they will say nope, this is what such and such passage means.
So, you are following a fallible man who is interpreting scripture some 2000 years after the apostles, and who is in disagreement with many other protestant pastors all over the world. This is evident by the fact that there are so many different denominations in the world. Some believe that we have free will, others don’t. Some believe that only a select few are predestined to be saved, and others see everyone being saved. Some say if you pray hard enough, God will grant you your every wish and desire, health or wealth. Some even deny the presence of Original Sin. Logically, think about it. Is it more logical to follow the teachings of a man that came some 1500 or more years after the apostles, or to rely on the teachings of men, some of them who were actually taught by the Apostles, who lived 50 to 350 years after the Resurrection?
This is why the Early Church Fathers are so important. I agree, they aren’t the apostles, but they are authoritative. Why? Because, we can see at an early date, in some cases less than a hundred years after the apostles, the consistent teaching of the Church from the beginning to the present day, when it comes to Church doctrine. The teachings of Jesus Christ on the matters of faith and morals. Their teachings are not only in union with each other, but also consistent with scripture.
“Yeah, but the Church has changed it’s doctrines over the years.”
Really? The big problem is, most non-catholics and even many Catholics who do not understand what the Church teaches, confuses doctrines with practices and customs. For instance, an early controversy in the early Church was a debate on which day of the year should the Resurrection of the Lord be practiced. The first Christians recognised that Jesus’ Resurrection occurred on the first Sunday following the feast of Passover. However, the date of Passover from year to year is a complicated thing. Theoretically, the date should be the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan, and it should correspond to a full moon (the Jewish calendar being partly lunar). The Church in the west however, decided to observed the Resurrection on the first sunday after Passover and to not strictly stay with the 14th of Nisan. This was a cause of debate in the early Church as early as 150 AD as we can see as the early Church historian, Eusebius reports in the following:
“Neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it, as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him.” Eusebius, History, ch 24.
Anicetus was the Bishop of Rome at the time of Polycarp. Polycarp came all the way from Smyrna to convince the Bishop of Rome, to allow the Church in the East to continue to the practice of celebrating the date of the Resurrection as they had learned it from John. Of interest is, why did Polycarp care if the Church was not a unified Church? Because it was unified, and the Bishop of Rome had primacy.
So, is the date on which we celebrate Easter a doctrine? Of course not. It is a custom as Eusebius reports. Doctrines are those divinely revealed truths that cannot be changed. I repeat, doctrines are truths that have been revealed to us that are necessary for our salvation and cannot be changed, not then and not now, and none have ever been, period. This is where I ask anyone who is not Catholic to show me any proof that a doctrine has changed in the 2000 year history of the Church, and if they can, I will gladly leave the Catholic Church and join any church they want me to. No one has shown me this proof yet!
What most non-catholics mistakenly show me as proof that the Church has changed its doctrines are actually, practices, customs and disciplines. The doctrines of the Catholic Church are the total deposit of faith revealed by Jesus Christ, taught by the apostles, and handed down in their entirety by the apostles to their successors. Since revealed truth cannot change, and since the deposit of faith is comprised of revealed truth, expressed in Scripture and Sacred Tradition, the deposit of faith cannot change. The Church does not have the power to do the impossible, to change or delete divinely revealed truth which forms the deposit of faith.
Our Lord did however give authority to the Apostles and their successors in Matthew 18:18-19 to “bind” the members of the Church to believe the doctrines of the Church (“He who listens to you listens to me. He who rejects you rejects me and the one who sent me” [Luke 10:16]), the “loosing” spoken of in Mathew. 18:18 does not mean the apostles can modify doctrine. This authority concerns practices, customs and disciplines.
There are many examples of this authority to bind and loose in the arena of Church discipline, customs, practices and governing the Church. Here are a few: (Source: Can the Church change its doctrines? on Catholic Answers)
- In the early Church married men were permitted to be ordained as priests in the West. This custom was changed in the tenth century and since then, in the Latin Rite, candidates for the priesthood must be celibate. (This is a custom)
- Until recent years it was forbidden under pain of mortal sin to eat meat on Fridays. The Church has “loosed” this discipline and now allows the faithful to eat meat on Fridays provided some other act of mortification is performed. (This is a discipline)
- Prior to Vatican II, the pre-Communion fast extended from midnight until the time one received Communion; no food or water were to be consumed. This discipline was relaxed first to a three-hour fast and then to the one-hour fast the Church now observes. (This is a discipline)
- Matthew 18 also refers to the Church’s authority to bind and loose with regard to sin. Every priest has the authority of Christ to “loose” (absolve) penitents from their sins through the sacrament of confession (Jn 20:21-22, 2 Cor 5:18-20). The priest also has the obligation, in rare cases when he sees no evidence of contrition or an unwillingness on the part of the penitent to stop committing sin, to “bind” someone in their sins by refusing to grant him absolution until he evinces genuine contrition. (This is a discipline, in order to bring about conversion in an unrepentant person…penance.)
- The faithful may gain indulgences through corporal and spiritual acts of charity, certain prayers, and pilgrimages, and are thus, by the authority of the Church’s power to bind and loose, able to receive partial or complete remission of all temporal punishment due to sin. Through indulgences the Church may loose Christians from the duty of penance which would otherwise need to be performed. (This is a discipline, one is not obligated to participate in order to be saved but it serves as a “help” to increase ones faith)
- Certain forms of excommunication may be “loosed” only by a bishop or, in graver circumstances, only by the Holy See. (This is a discipline, in order to bring about conversion in an unrepentant person)
- Priests and religious who request it can be “loosed” (dispensed) from their vows of celibacy (and, in the case of religious, the vows of poverty and obedience). (This is a church administrative issue, it has no bearing on ones salvation unless the person requesting a release does so without the authority of the Church, then they are in direct disobedience of the authority that Christ established.)
- The Early Church practiced immersion for Baptism, though not always, now immersion, pouring or sprinkling is permitted. (This is a practice, all of which are valid.)
None of these issues deal with doctrine as such (since doctrine is unchangeable) but with Church discipline, practice, government, and penance.
More to Come…
In the posts to follow in the days to come, I will talk about the Doctrines of the Church and how the Early Church shows unity in those doctrines. Such doctrines as the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Resurrection, and the Ascension of Christ. The doctrines of the Trinity, Justification, Baptism, the Mass, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Confession, the doctrine and importance of Mary as the Mother of Jesus, her Immaculate Conception, her Perpetual Virginity and her Assumption into Heaven. The unity of the Church, the Primacy of Peter, the Authority of the Apostles and Apostolic Succession, the Intercession of the Saints, Tradition, Purgatory, etc. These are the areas that the Early Church Fathers show unity in their teaching, and even further are consistent with Holy Scripture, and it is what made me Catholic!
BTW, here’s a video you may be interested in: “The Issue of Authority in Early Christianity” by Dr. Kenneth Howell