In the preface to Jonathan Edwards’s aptly named Humble Inquiry Concerning the Qualifications for Membership in the Visible Church, Edwards quotes his grandfather and predecessor to the pastoral office in Northampton, a quote which deals with the Church Fathers. The quote, as Edwards cited it, was as follows:
It may possibly be a fault to depart from the ways of our fathers: But it may also be a virtue, and an eminent act of obedience, to depart from them in some things. Men are wont to make a great noise, that we are bringing in innovations, and depart from the old way: But it is beyond me to find out wherein the iniquity does lie. We may see cause to alter some practices of our fathers, without despising of them, without priding ourselves in our wisdom, without apostasy, without abusing abusing the advantages God has given us, without a spirit of compliance with corrupt men, without inclination of superstition, without making disturbance in the church of God: And there is no reason, that it should be turned as a reproach upon us. Surely it is commendable for us to examine the practices of our fathers…If the practices of our fathers in any particulars were mistaken, it is fit that they should be rejected; if they be not, they will bear examination.
The point in Edwards quoting this is related to the background of Humble Inquiry: Edwards was entering a debate with many in his congregation regarding whether communion should be taken only by those who had made “a profession of sanctifying grace” (Edwards’s own position), or if it was in fact “a converting ordinance” (as the people of Northampton held) and hence such a profession was not necessary from those partaking it. One of the arguments made by opponents was that Stoddard had argued in favor of their position (indeed, he had been the one to introduce it). Stoddard had been a well respected and much beloved pastor in Northampton, and so they considered, in practice, his opinion as canon. Edwards therefore quoted Stoddard against them, pointing out that Stoddard did not believe in such glorification of the words of men, and would in fact be perfectly fine with Edwards’s own evaluation of Stoddard’s words and beliefs. As Edwards himself wrote:
Thus in these very seasonable and apposite sayings, Mr. Stoddard, though dead, yet speaketh: And here (to apply them to my own case) he tells me, that I am not at all blameable, for not taking his principles on trust; that notwithstanding the high character justly belonging to him, I ought not to look on his principles as oracles, as though he could not miss it…nay, surely that I am even commended, for examining his practice, and judging for myself; that it would be ill become me, to do otherwise…
The point Edwards was trying to make against his critics was simply this: Stoddard was a noble and spiritual man, but he was still a man first and foremost, and his theology should not have been treated on the same level as scripture. In critiquing or reviewing what he taught on a few subjects, Edwards was not declaring Stoddard erroneous in toto, let alone was he questioning the sincerity of Stoddard’s salvation. All the same, Stoddard’s high standing, whether among his studies or among his congregation, did not make what he said automatically canon.
The issue continues today on how we treat past divines. While individual persons who hold to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, etc., may subscribe to an ideology that might be referred to jokingly as Sola Patres, Protestants are just as guilty in some regard. There are those who will quote the Reformers more than they will scripture, and some base their theological positions on “Well, the Reformers believed this, so I guess I should too.” While studying the history of the orthodox Christian faith and how Christian doctrine has been understood through the ages is important, there’s a danger in attempting to group men together under labels they themselves would never apply to themselves, or reading backwards into history beliefs or definitions which are not as the individual divines themselves may have understood them. It is likewise dangerous to group men together in such a way that we ignore differences (regardless of how small) there exist between them.
This leads us to the opposite extreme, seen in treating past divines in a harsh manner. One can see an example of this with how the team at The Berean Call treat the Church Fathers, writing them all off as heretics since they do not see eye to eye with them on every single theological matter. If a Church Father isn’t a Premillennial Dispensationalist General Baptist, then they must be a heretic who’s burning in hell as we speak. The Church Fathers aren’t alone in receiving this kind of abuse: some think John Calvin is in hell simply for being a paedobaptist, while some think John Wesley is in hell for not being a Calvinist.
Should we read, honor and respect men like the Church Fathers, the Reformers, or any great theologian who lived after them? Of course. It is vital not only for the study of church history (and history often repeats itself), but to build upon that which has already been laid for us. Does that mean we have to accept everything that was said before us? Not at all. We should hold everything by the standard of scripture and what Holy Writ speaks to us – anything else is the work of man and should be treated accordingly. Many are hesitant to do this, because they desire to see scripture through a certain filter, and instead of reading the works of men with the discernment of God’s holy word says, they will permit the opinions of later men to affect how they view the plain reading of a text. If the words of an uninspired man is true and in accordance with the will of God, then we should not fear it being held to the light of scripture, for the two will prove compatible. As Edwards’s grandfather wrote: “If the practices of our fathers in any particulars were mistaken, it is fit that they should be rejected; if they be not, they will bear examination.”
Permit me to join with this the sayings of some men in centuries past – in fact, I’ll let them have the last word:
“Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth.” [Basil of Caesarea; On the Spirit]
“Those hearers who are instructed in the Scriptures should examine what is said by the teachers, receiving what is in conformity with the Scriptures and rejecting what is opposed to them.” [Basil of Caesarea; Ascetical Works]
“…let us come to ground that is common to both [of us], the testimony of the Holy Scriptures.” [Augustine; To Maximin the Arian]
“Let us not hear: This I say, this you say; but, thus says the Lord. Surely it is the books of the Lord on whose authority we both agree and which we both believe.” [Augustine; De Unitate Ecclesiae]
“Neither dare one agree with catholic bishops if by chance they err in anything, with the result that their opinion is against the canonical Scriptures of God.” [Augustine; ibid]