Custom without truth is the antiquity of error.
St Cyprian, Epistle 73
We are not content simply because this is the tradition of the Fathers. What is important is that the Fathers followed the meaning of the Scripture.
Basil, Moralia, 72:1.
I recently had a conversation with a friend about my use of quotes from the “Fathers” and traditional Church writings and I would like to formalise the fruits of that discussion here in this post.
As a Protestant, I am committed to sola scriptura, which means that neither the writings of the Fathers nor decrees of church councils has any relevance to the validity of a theological claim or argument. Theological truth is purely a function of Scriptural witness, not patristic or historical witness.
To what end then do I cite or quote the Fathers if not to buttress or support a theological conclusion?
My end is primarily rhetorical. I cite the Fathers not to lend evidence or validity to my arguments but merely to render it more subjectively persuasive or credible.
To be more precise, there are two specific rhetorical ends for my citation of the Fathers, one positive and the other negative:
(1) The Positive Aim is to establish Bare Continuity. That is, merely to prove that my theological claims are not unprecedented and that it has been argued or believed before. This is merely to prove that my theological claims are not novel propositions simply invented out of the thin air but has always been part of the Church.
But this is bare as opposed to substantive continuity. That is, I am not interested to demonstrate that the correct people or correct authorities or correct writings “everywhere, always” have believed what I have said. This is because the set of “correct” people or councils or writings is a constantly gerrymandered phenomenon and shifts according to the theological needs of the interlocutor. It is an incredible waste of time to determine “overall” or substantive shape of tradition or historical continuity which is bogged down by incredibly pedantic and complex arguments over who said what and when, what they “really” mean and in what context, etc, whereby the time and attention spent on such cumbersome discourse is rarely commensurate with the conclusions or insights which results from it. And this brings me to my Negative Aim.
(2) The Negative Aim is to prevent others from using the Fathers or Church history to establish any theological conclusion. To understand the negative aim, we need to understand the high church proponent’s arguments which we are negating. Their argument occurs in two stages.
(a) They claim that the “Tradition” or writings of the Fathers or some set of ecclesiastical councils is necessary to illuminate and interpret the Scriptures, because the Scriptures are difficult to understand and conflicting interpretations which can only be settled by their Traditions or “consensus patrum”, etc.
(b) Then they would go on to claim that their “Tradition” or “Councils” or “Fathers” teach such and such doctrines which contradicts the Protestant teachings.
The negative aim refutes this by citing the Fathers who do seem to apparently contradict specific particular claims of the high church proponent concerning the contents of these so-called patristic witness or traditions, etc, thereby showing that the “Fathers” or “Tradition” does not outright support their theological conclusions but instead frequently and often disagrees with it. Thereby we refute (b).
However, the usual move of the high church proponent is to argue that the writings or quotes which one has cited from the Fathers “does not really mean that” and has to be looked in context, etc, etc. Again, as I’ve already said, I do not need to actually determine in exquisite or precise detail what the Church fathers or Tradition “really” says. Given the horrendous complexity and obscurity of the writings of the Fathers, the vast amount of material which one must sift through in order to determine their views or the “shape” of Tradition, and given the cacophony of contradictions of these various Fathers which makes the formation of the “patrum consensus” or whatever incredibly difficult, then we can proceed to refute (a). We can claim therefore that the Fathers or traditional writings of the patristics, far from facilitating the illumination of Scripture’s meaning and a necessary interpretive guide and settler of Scriptural disputes, themselves are also badly in need of interpretation and are a cacophony of contradictions and does not illuminate the Scriptures or bring coherence to its meaning but merely increases our theological confusion and difficulties by drowning us in a deluge of even more obscure and confusing contradictory texts.
Furthermore our argument against (a) can be strengthened by pointing out that no high church proponent accepts every writing of the Fathers or Church Fathers. Those writings of the Fathers which are cited as “evidence” or proof of some claim are merely selective and determined after the theological fact which one has already arrived. Therefore, far from illuminating Scripture’s meaning, the use of the Fathers by the high church proponent is merely that of legitimising some predetermined theological conclusion.
Therefore the TL;DR version of this post, it is this: The rhetorical purpose of citing the Fathers is primarily to sow confusion about them, to demonstrate the infinite regress of the need to interpret the interpreters of the Bible by showing the cacophony of contradictory opinions which can be found among them, as well as the selectivity in which the high church proponent cites their texts, and thereby to turn people away from the Fathers or any other pretended external authority as an aid to reading the Bible and back to the Scriptures themselves.
In short, as long as the high church proponent admits something like this:
The challenge, then, is not merely to read or quote the Holy Fathers, but to interpret them. Doing so is not an easy task, nor is it an individual one: it can only be accomplished from within the life of the Church Herself.
Thereby admitting that the so-called interpreters of the Bible are themselves in need of interpretation and hardly an illuminating guide, my task is done.