Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Early Church Fathers Sampler

In my discussions with other professing Christians, I often encounter those who employ quotes from the early church fathers as a means of establishing the truth of some doctrine or practice. It seems as though a great many Christians believe that if you can demonstrate that some first or second century, post-apostolic Christian believed some particular thing, and documented it outside the canon of scripture, that this somehow establishes that this particular belief is correct beyond any further dispute. But let me say this very, very clearly so that there can be no misunderstanding on the matter:
The early church fathers were a cornucopia of error and confusion that are often at great variance with the word of God, which alone is able to throughly furnish us with respect to matters of doctrine and practice. (TETH)

That is an incredibly profitable truth for all of God's people to embrace. While I will admit that familiarity with the early church fathers may be of some historical benefit, we must be very clear to uphold the truth that their writings, practices, and opinions carry absolutely no authority in establishing biblical truth, none whatsoever.

A Sampling of Church Fathers

In one recent exchange I was presented with a host of quotes that I believe are helpful in demonstrating why the early church fathers are unfaithful guides for establishing doctrine and practice, and why we do well to ignore their teaching in favor of the more sure word of prophecy we have in the word of God itself (II Peter 1:19). Consider the following:

Ignatius of Antioch

"If any one is truly religious, he is a man of God; but if he is irreligious, he is a man of the devil, made such, not by nature, but by his own choice." (Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians, Chapter 5, Paragraph 2
There are three statements made here. I can agree with Ignatius's first statement that, "if any one is truly religious, he is a man of God," per the testimony of I John 3:7. But his second statement, is categorically false. The biblical example of Solomon, who openly practiced the false religion of idolatry while in a state of regeneracy, is sufficient to defeat Ignatius's claim. The practice of sin does not constitute ironclad proof that someone is an unregenerate, non-elect, child of the devil. The bible’s testimony is that since the fall all men are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3) So Ignatius’s short statement is wrong on several points of doctrine. Let’s take a look at Justin Martyr.

Justin Martyr

"We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, chastisements, and rewards are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Otherwise, if all things happen by fate, then nothing is in our own power." (The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Chapter XLIII)
This statement is only true provided one allows for the corollary, gospel truth of penal substitutionary atonement wherein the sins of God’s people were imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us.
"Unless humans have the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions-whatever they may be." (The First Apology of Justin Martyr, Chapter XLIII)
This is simply false. The bible plainly states that man in his natural state is incapable of doing good or avoiding evil (Romans 3:10-18). It also teaches that men are accountable for their sins (Matthew 12:36). Justin's argument implies that if a pauper runs up a tab at a local restaurant, that he cannot be accountable for paying it by virtue of his poverty. That logic is demonstrably false – accountability for one’s actions is in no sense a function of one’s capacity for settling the account.
"For neither would a man be worthy of reward or praise if he did not of himself choose the good, but was merely created for that end." (Justin Martyr)
God’s chosen people are not worthy of any reward based on our own actions (Isaiah 64:6). We are objects of grace, and that by Christ’s worthiness, not our own (Revelation 5:12).
"Likewise, if a man were evil, he would not deserve punishment, since he was not evil of himself, being unable to do anything else than what he was made for." (Justin Martyr)
This too is directly contradictory to the teaching of scripture. Man became evil as a result of Adam’s transgression (Romans 5:12). He deserves punishment for his sins as the proper wages thereof (Romans 3:23, 6:23a). The idea that a man is not really evil unless he makes himself evil is not found in the bible. Since the fall of Adam, man is born evil (Psalm 51:5) and we did not make ourselves that way (Romans 5:12).
"God, wishing men and angels to follow His will, resolved to create them free to do righteousness; possessing reason, that they may know by whom they are created, and through whom they, not existing formerly, do now exist; and with a law that they should be judged by Him, if they do anything contrary to right reason: and of ourselves we, men and angels, shall be convicted of having acted sinfully, unless we repent beforehand." (Justin Martyr)
Here Justin denies the effects of the fall, essentially giving fallen man the same capacity to choose good and evil that Adam possessed. The bible teaches that man in his natural state is incapable of choosing good (Romans 3:10-18).

Clement of Alexandria

"Neither praise nor condemnation, neither rewards nor punishments, are right if the soul does not have the power of choice and avoidance, if evil is involuntary." (Clement of Alexandria)
The bible is very clear that man's condition after the fall is such that he is incapable of choosing to do good (Romans 3:10-12) because his carnal mind is enmity against God (Romans 8:7). Perhaps we should not be surprised at this error as it persists in our day even as it did hundreds of years ago.


"All the creatures that God made, He made very good. And He gave to every individual the sense of free will, by which standard He also instituted the law of judgment.... And certainly whoever will, may keep the commandments." (Archelaus)
"Whoever will may keep the commandments?" That assertion is once again completely obliterated by Paul's testimony regarding man in his fallen state - namely that he cannot do "good." (Romans 3:10-12). This same error crops up over and over again. It is a fundamental denial of depravity. It is for this reason that many have well said, "If you don't understand what happened in the fall of man, then you don't understand that salvation is by sovereign, monergistic grace."
"Whoever despises them and turns aside to what is contrary to them, shall yet without doubt have to face this law of judgment.... There can be no doubt that every individual, in using his own proper power of will, may shape his course in whatever direction he pleases." (Archelaus)
This statement makes man the ultimate arbiter of where his soul will spend eternity. If one coupled this view with a proper understanding of man's condition after the fall (Romans 3:10-18) one would have to embrace the hopeless doctrine of universal damnation, because man's wicked heart would never choose to seek God for salvation, because the pride of his countenance will not permit it (Psalm 10:4).


I hope this quick sampler of a handful of quotes from the early church fathers is sufficient to demonstrate the squirrelly nature of a great many of their beliefs. They are completely unreliable guides for gaining a proper understanding of Christian doctrine. What's more, they are completely unnecessary, provided we simply believe the bible's own testimony regarding its ability to "throughly furnish" us unto every good work (II Timothy 3:16-17). While I do not doubt the sincerity, regeneration, good works, zeal, dedication, or martyrdom of many early church fathers, I must admit that in many respects their beliefs are found wanting when held alongside the bible. Truly, the word of God is the one and only standard of truth for God's people.

email theearstohear

*Some links are to secondary sources which employ these quotes as a means of supporting the false doctrines of the early church fathers. They were submitted to me from someone who supports that view. TETH's article is intended to rebut that position.  


  1. I really enjoy and glory in the truths you represent, I just want to know who you are?

    1. Thank you for the kind comment. As to who I am: I'm just a simple Galilean fisherman, a sinner saved by grace, delighted that the Lord would see fit to allow someone like me to serve him. Speaking of the Lord, the book of Deuteronomy says, "thou shalt find Him if thou seek Him with all thy heart." (Deuteronomy 4:29) I can only say that finding out who I am requires far, far less diligence than that. :)

      God bless,