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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 13 Feb 2002

Early Church Fathers QUESTION from Tammy September 26, 2000 Dear Suzanne,
I am having a apologetics discussion(concerning purgatory) with my baptist cousin. When I suggested to her to look at some of the writings of the Early Church Fathers here is what she responded: While I do not want to discount or ignore many of the writings of the early church and its saints, I do want to caution you that alot of what is found in these writings have also been found to be inconsistant with the teaching of that time and have since been disgarded or regarded as having little or no value. However, while writings and firsthand accounts (even prayers in the catacombs)are often inspirational and edifying, they may not always been doctrinally pure and meticulously preserved (as in comprehension of what they were saying)as were the scriptures themselves. What are you thoughts on this and do you have a source where I can find out more about this? I do have links to the writings of the Early Church Fathers but cannot find anything that talks about the errors of some of these writings. I have never heard this before. Thank you in advance for your time. In Christ, Tammy
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on September 30, 2000 Dear Tammy,
The Early Church fathers sometimes did disagree with Church teaching, but that doesn't mean that the concept of Sacred Tradition is invalid.
The criteria for asserting a doctrine belongs to the Deposit of Faith, according to the authority of Tradition, is that it was preached from the beginning of the Church OR that it universally believed by the Faithful.
If a doctrine does not meet these standards, it cannot be said to be revealed according to Tradition.
Unlike the Bible, Sacred Tradition is not handed down by writing. Rather, it is handed down through our way of thinking, praying and acting from one generation to another. The writings of the Fathers are not inspired books, but rather serve as a witness to what the Church believes universally.
It is not only the pope who is infallibly protected from error. When the entire body of the faithful collectively believe in a particular doctrine at any one point in history, they are also guaranteed to be free from error by the Holy Spirit, and we can be certain that that doctrine is true.
There are examples of doctrines that were neither preached from the beginning of the Church, nor were they universally believed. For example, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception made its first appearance around the third or fourth century, and the doctrine of the Assumption first appeared in the fifth. St. Basil and Origen both implicitly denied the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception by maintaining that Mary experienced the sin of doubt at the Crucixion.
I strongly doubt that there is any Father who is perfectly consistent with the teachings of the Church as we understand them today. I am certain that just about every father cherished a belief that we condemn. Take St. Augustine, the greatest theologian of his time. He believed that unbaptized babies go to hell. Or St. Thomas Aquinas. He denied that the Immaculate Conception could be possible because he could not reconcile Mary's freedom from Original Sin with the universal need for redemption.
But, as I said, their errors do not disprove Sacred Tradition. Sacred Tradition is based on what they held in common, not what they disagreed on.
The doctrinal purity of the Church is not preserved by the Fathers, but by the Magisterium. Whenever there is any doubt as to whether what a Father wrote was correct, refer to Church teaching. If there is no teaching on that point, then search the other Fathers, especially the earliest ones, that is, the ones who were taught by the apostles, or who were only two generations from them; people like St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp, St. Irenaeus, St. Justin Martyr, etc.
I can't think of a book off the top of my head that addresses this particular topic. If anyone reading this knows of a good source, please feel free to contact me.
If you can also ask your friend for some examples of Fathers who disagreed with Church teaching, and possibly some sources, that would be a useful avenue for discussion. She may have a point. Or maybe not. We know that Tertullian, for instance, apostatized. However, his writings remain a valuable historical source of what the Church believed. She might have some misconceptions about the beliefs of the Fathers and the beliefs of the Church.
Also, I think her point that the writings of the Fathers were not well-preserved is academic. First of all, she should provide some examples. Secondly, the Biblical text often has variations, but this does not affect the substance of what is being said. Another point to consider is that while the Bible was mostly written in Hebrew and Aramaic, with some Greek, the Early Fathers wrote in the vernacular languages of their time. Latin was widely understood, as was Greek. If anyone had intentionally mistranslated or miscopied their works, it would have been readily noticed. It's easier to preserve the original meaning of a text when you understand the language and speak it fluently.
Thank you for your question.
God Bless, Suzanne
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