The term “church fathers” is a descriptive of some elasticity, depending upon who is using the expression. Generically, it refers to a number of men in those centuries following the apostolic age (A.D. 30-100), who energetically promoted and defended Christianity as they understood it. Protestants usually define the duration of these scholars to about the 6th century, while Roman Catholics are prone to extend it to the 13th century. Among these writings are defenses against heretics, commentaries on scripture, sermons, etc.
There is one series of ancient documents that began at the end of the apostolic age and continued until the Council of Nice (325); the collection is designated popularly as “The Ante-Nicene Fathers.” These writings contain the essays of dozens of writers, a few of whom likely were acquainted with the apostles, e.g. Clement of Rome (cf. Philippians 4:3?), Polycarp, and Ignatius.
The further away from the age of the apostles these writings are, the less reliable they become as a reflection of authentic Christianity. The works have varying values, yet not infrequently they are subject to abuse.
One of the great contributions of the Ante-Nicene documents is their value in citing texts from the New Testament. These writers quote from every book in the New Testament. Moreover, it has been said that if the entire New Testament were destroyed, it could probably be reproduced entirely from the writings of these men (J.H. Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism – Revised, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995, 46).
Additionally, in an era when the printing press was yet to be invented, and the Scriptures were being hand-copied—and were expensive to obtain—the patristic writings reveal how widely the sacred documents had been dispersed throughout the antique world. Clement was in Rome, Irenaeus was in France, Ignatius was in Syria, Tertullian was in Africa, Justin Martyr was in Ephesus then Rome, Polycarp was in Asia Minor, etc.Civilization had developed an insatiable appetite for the living word of God.
The Ante-Nicene writings chronicle the early stages of that great apostasy so vividly prophesied in the New Testament (see: Acts 20:28; 2 Thessalonians 2:1ff; 1 Timothy 4:1ff; 2 Timothy 4:1ff, etc.). For example, as early as the middle of the 2nd or 3rd century, “sprinkling” was being suggested as a substitute for immersion. Cyprian (c. 200-258) justified it (Epistle LXXV), as did the Didache (? date). Infant baptism was making its debut about that time as well. Irenaeus (c. 175-195) argued in favor of the practice (Against Heresies II.XXII), as did Cyprian in his Epistles (LVIII). Tertullian (c. 150-222), a teacher at Carthage in North Africa, opposed infant baptism, but nonetheless accommodated the idea in contending that the “soul,” along with the body, is inherited from one’s parents, hence infants are born with sinful souls.
Corruptions in church government also came quick and were radical. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-107) referred to himself as “the bishop” of Syria (Romans 2:2), and he makes a distinction between “the bishop” and “elders” in his Epistle to Smyrnaeans(c.8). Cyprian was designated as “the bishop of the church in Carthage” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, VII.III). These volumes are invaluable for the study of that movement which ultimately resulted in Catholicism in its various forms (Roman, Greek, and English).
There also are abuses associated with these writings. For example, the Roman Church treats many of these documents as if they were inspired of God. “Tradition,” they say, “is a source of theological teaching distinct from Scripture, and . . . is infallible” (Donald Attwater, A Catholic Dictionary, New York: MacMillan, 1961, 41). Invariably, when a Catholic scholar cannot sustain his doctrinal position by the Bible, he will appeal to the testimony of the “church fathers.” For example, in his popular book, The Question Box (San Francisco: Catholic Truth Society, 1929, 135), Bertrand Conway cited Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.III) in an effort to prove the Catholic dogma of apostolic succession. But the post-apostolic writers were not inspired. They never claimed to be. They frequently contradict one another, and especially the New Testament.
Another form of abuse is when novices attempt to quote the “fathers” in efforts to prove their “pet” ideas. One must remember that no doctrinal point can be established from the testimony of the “fathers.” And when one appeals to these uninspired writings to “prove” his case, you can be certain that he could not find support for his position in the New Testament. It is most dangerous to select a text from the Ante-Nicene writers, and apply it to a modern situation, without knowing the full context of the passage and the ancient situation that was addressed.
While the writings of the so-called “Church Fathers” are valuable contributions in matters of church history, they must be studied carefully and not taken as authoritative documents for the determination of Christian practice today. Unfortunately, misguided and inexperienced students frequently abuse these ancient writings in a variety of ways.