Popular and prolific Christian figure, Lee Strobel, has made a case for an “early church father,” Ignatius of Antioch (not Loyola). Strobel, author of nearly 20 books, is currently a member of Saddleback Church. He was a teaching pastor at Willow Creek for many years, then joined the teaching staff at Saddleback Church in 2000. (from Strobel’s site)
Strobel was a speaker at Robert Schuller’s Rethink conference in 2007 and spoke of the early church father, Ignatius of Antioch. (watch video) Strobel speaks as one with authority when he describes the life of Ignatius, but he has left out some vital information about the early post-disciple “church fathers.”
In view of the ancient-future emphasis on “early church fathers” by major evangelical and emerging church leaders today, and in light of the ecumenical move toward Catholicism and the Eucharistic christ, further insight is important. Roger Oakland, in his timely and crucial book, Faith Undone, offers these comments:
Going back to the past to find experiences that will attract the postmodern generation is one goal of the emerging church movement. However, a serious question needs to be asked at this point. Why only go back to the Middle Ages, the turn of the first millennium, or the third century? Wouldn’t this open the door for some devious doctrines that may have crept into the church? Why not just stay with Scripture in order to remain in the truth?
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” (II Timothy 3:16)
Those convinced that great spiritual insight can be gleaned from church fathers and mystics often overlook such definitive, God-inspired instruction. The Bible is stable and eternal; thus the truths penned in it centuries ago are still relevant today. I propose it isn’t biblical truths that emergents say we need to go hunting for in previous historical periods, but rather unscriptural methods, rituals, and mystical experiences to be gathered and brought into the present time.
Vintage spirituality proponents have an apologetic for those who question leaving scriptural doctrine behind for post-New Testament extra-biblical revelation. (The late emerging leader] Robert Webber wrote:
I once believed that the church became apostate at the close of the first century and hadn’t emerged again until the Reformation. I jokingly say to my students, “We Protestants act as though Pentecost occurred October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther tacked his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenburg church.” This attitude results in a negative view of the early church fathers and Christianity prior to the Reformation. The fact is that God’s church has existed from the Pentecost described in Acts. We belong to the whole church and need, for our own spiritual health, to affirm every part of it.1
Webber recognized some are suspicious about taking instruction from the church fathers, especially when the church fathers are the fathers of the Catholic Church. In order to answer this concern, he wrote:
Because evangelicals fear that a respect for early church fathers will turn them into Roman Catholics, a distinction needs to be made between catholic and Roman Catholic. The early Fathers are catholic in the sense that they defined the classical Christian tradition for the whole church. This is a tradition, as I have been presenting, common to every branch of the church. Roman Catholicism, as such, is a tradition that has added to the common tradition. I believe in the common tradition and share that tradition with my Catholic brothers and sisters. But I do not believe in some of the added traditions of the Romanization of the church in the medieval era.2
Webber, like many emergent leaders, was trying to differentiate between Roman Catholic and catholic (as a universal body). However, the Roman Catholic Church does not make this distinction because they claim an apostolic succession of papacy (popes) beginning with the apostle Peter. Therefore, all of Catholicism is Roman Catholicism. Some in the emerging church do not show an attachment to the authority of the papacy but embrace the practices and early history of the Catholic Church as described above by Webber. But many Protestants who began by attaching themselves to the history, teachings, and practices of the early Catholic Church have now taken the natural next step of becoming Roman Catholic.
Webber’s statement may convince some there is no danger in embracing the Catholic Church fathers from the first to third centuries who promoted many ideas without biblical basis. However, before you are convinced, consider another statement Webber makes:
The early Fathers can bring us back to what is common and help us get behind our various traditions, not in a sense that we deny our own tradition, but that we give a priority to the common teaching of the church. Here is where our unity lies. To summarize, the words One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic point to the oneness of the church, as a matter of faith. Christians do not believe something about the oneness of the church; they believe in the oneness of the church. Consequently, evangelicals need to go beyond talk about the unity of the church to experience it through an attitude of acceptance of the whole church and an entrance into dialogue with the Orthodox, Catholic, and other Protestant bodies.3
By Webber’s estimation, listening to the Catholic Church fathers is as safe as mother’s milk. He and other emerging church teachers insist there are so many spiritual insights to gain by studying the church fathers that we can only benefit from them.
This of course would be true if the church fathers point us to God’s Word. But what if that is not the case? The unsuspecting could actually be led away from biblical doctrine toward the doctrines made up by man and even inspired by demons when trusted leaders and professors espouse these mystics as safe and equal to Scripture. If it can be shown that heretical teachings had already entered in through many of these early church fathers, shouldn’t we be leery, to say the least?
With this in mind, let’s look at these early Catholic Church fathers. The following is an excerpt from a lecture by the International Catholic University titled “Importance of Studying the Church Fathers.” The author states:
But why do we study them? The Holy Father has given us the basic reasons. They are the framers of the structure of the Church built upon Christ Jesus as the cornerstone and the Apostles as the foundation. Specifically, they are the privileged witnesses to traditions. Founders, whether they be founders of institutions or founders of religious societies, always have a privileged position…. They were the closest to the sources; the early Fathers, referred to as Apostolic Fathers, personally knew the Apostles and the Disciples. They had access to the purity of the sources of the living tradition, the very teachings of those closest to Christ, and they were the ones that developed the first structures of the Church.4
If we embrace the teachings of these early church fathers, where will it lead us? Well, according to the author of this lecture, right into the arms of the Catholic Church:
The Church Fathers are the guarantors of an authentic Catholic tradition…. Many great Christian men and women have found their way either back to, or into, the Catholic Church through meditating and reflecting upon the writings of the Church Fathers. John Henry Cardinal Newman, a great nineteenth century English Cardinal who in his younger years was a member of the Church of England, fell in love with the writings and thought and spirit of the Church Fathers. And in his Apologia pro vita sua, he points out that he saw in them the true Church, the universal Church, the Catholic Church, and they became very instrumental in his acceptance and embrace of the Roman Catholic Church.5
For John Henry Cardinal Newman, his conversion to the Catholic Church took place after he began “meditating and reflecting” on the writings of the Catholic Church fathers. This same story can be repeated thousands and thousands of times now that we are in the 21st century….
The emerging church, through its emphasis on the teachings of the church fathers (the mystics), based upon a foundation that ancient-future faith is the answer to reaching the postmodern generation … is leading possibly millions into the arms of Rome.
Do you recall what Paul prophesied would happen to the early Christian church? He stated:
Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. (Acts 20:28-30)
Paul actually warned the church that after he was gone, “grievous wolves” would enter the church and hurt believers. A look at church history validates Paul’s prophetic warning. He said it would happen, and then it happened. Numerous church leaders emerged during the first to the third centuries. Scriptural principles were ignored, and many followed the experiential teachings of men who claimed they had discovered new and innovative methods to get in touch with God.
The reason why this happened is simple. We know God’s Word is light. When we replace the Word of God with the words of man, which are considered to bring enlightenment, we have a perfect formula for returning to darkness. The early mystics added ideas to Christianity that cannot be found in the Bible–a recipe for spiritual detriment. Jude also warned about the coming apostasy in the early church:
For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ. (Jude 4)
Many emerging church leaders are suggesting the need to study the ideas and beliefs of church leaders of the post-disciple era. They say if pastors and church leaders reintroduce these teachings from the past, we will have spiritual transformation and successful churches in the 21st century.
But wait a minute! If the church that emerged from the New Testament church was based on ideas and beliefs foreign to Scripture, why would we want to emulate a previous error? When doctrines of men replace the doctrine of Scripture, many are led astray. It has happened in the past, and it is happening now. Following doctrine not based on the Word of God always results in the undoing of faith. (from Chapter 5, Faith Undone)
1. Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, pp. 88-89, italics in original.
2. Ibid., p. 89.
4. Douglas Mosey, “Importance of Studying the Church Fathers” (International Catholic University, http://home.comcast.net/~icuweb/c01701.htm).
For further information on the Eucharist Christ, the early post-disciples church fathers, and the new evangelization program by the Catholic church, read Another Jesus by Roger Oakland.