The Reformed tradition has of late found some difficulty in understanding and articulating its relationship to the early church tradition and the patristic record. It typically takes one of two approaches. The first, and unfortunately most common, is to dispense with the tradition altogether. This approach takes at least two modes: that of simply rejecting the early church as corrupted and erroneous or that of claiming appreciation of the early church while also “moving beyond it” into the infinite future of possibilities, whether they be consistent with wide-ranging traditional consensus or not. The second approach seeks to move in the opposite direction, pledging fidelity to the early church and thus using it as the primary standard (though often interpreted by non-Reformed or anti-Reformed readings) by which to critique its own dogmatics and exegesis.
The older Reformed approach, by which we mean the one held by the Reformers, was actually neither of these. What one finds among the magisterial Protestants, and especially in the Reformed tradition, is the claim that the church fathers and their tradition is an important form of consensual exegesis used in one’s discovery of the proper reading of the Scriptures and right formulation and arrangement of doctrine. This is both a pious posture of appreciation towards the fathers and a refusal to use them as the standard of doctrine or knowledge. They are thus academic and historical tools rather than a strict interpretative grid or paradigm. In this way, tradition is able to serve as the democracy of the dead, but not the oligarchy of the aged. Church history is both highly valued and subordinated to biblical exegesis and dialectic.
In his preface to the Institutes, addressed to the king of France, John Calvin gives his own view of the patristic tradition and how it relates to the historical situation prior to the Reformation. Both admiration and critique can be seen in Calvin’s outlook. He writes:
4. It is a calumny to represent us as opposed to the Fathers (I mean the ancient writers of a purer age), as if the Fathers were supporters of their impiety. Were the contest to be decided by such authority (to speak in the most moderate terms), the better part of the victory would be ours. While there is much that is admirable and wise in the writings of those Fathers, and while in some things it has fared with them as with ordinary men; these pious sons, forsooth, with the peculiar acuteness of intellect, and judgment, and soul, which belongs to them, adore only their slips and errors, while those things which are well said they either overlook, or disguise, or corrupt; so that it may be truly said their only care has been to gather dross among gold. Then, with dishonest clamour, they assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages. Still, in studying their writings, we have endeavoured to remember (1 Cor. 3:21-23; see also Augustin. Ep. 28), that all things are ours, to serve, not lord it over us, but that we are Christ’s only, and must obey him in all things without exception. He who does not draw this distinction will not have any fixed principles in religion; for those holy men were ignorant of many things, are often opposed to each other, and are sometimes at variance with themselves.
It is not without cause (remark our opponents) we are thus warned by Solomon, “Remove not the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set” (Prov. 22:28). But the same rule applies not to the measuring of fields and the obedience of faith. The rule applicable to the latter is, “Forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house” (Ps. 45:10). But if they are so fond of allegory, why do they not understand the apostles, rather than any other class of Fathers, to be meant by those whose landmarks it is unlawful to remove? This is the interpretation of Jerome, whose words they have quoted in their canons. But as regards those to whom they apply the passage, if they wish the landmarks to be fixed, why do they, whenever it suits their purpose, so freely overleap them?
Among the Fathers there were two, the one of whom said, “Our God neither eats nor drinks, and therefore has no need of chalices and salvers;” and the other “Sacred rites do not require gold, and things which are not bought with gold, please not by gold.” They step beyond the boundary, therefore, when in sacred matters they are so much delighted with gold, driver, ivory, marble, gems, and silks, that unless everything is overlaid with costly show, or rather insane luxury, they think God is not duly worshipped.
It was a Father who said, “He ate flesh freely on the day on which others abstained from it, because he was a Christian.” They overleap the boundaries, therefore, when they doom to perdition every soul that, during Lent, shall have tasted flesh.
There were two Fathers, the one of whom said, “A monk not labouring with his own hands is no better than a violent man and a robber;” and the other, “Monks, however assiduous they may be in study, meditation, and prayer, must not live by others.” This boundary, too, they transgressed, when they placed lazy gormandising monks in dens and stews, to gorge themselves on other men’s substance.
It was a Father who said, “It is a horrid abomination to see in Christian temples a painted image either of Christ or of any saint.” Nor was this pronounced by the voice era single individual; but an Ecclesiastical Council also decreed, “Let nought that is worshipped be depicted on walls.” Very far are they from keeping within these boundaries when they leave not a corner without images.
Another Father counselled, “That after performing the office of humanity to the dead in their burial, we should leave them at rest.” These limits they burst through when they keep up a perpetual anxiety about the dead.
It is a Father who testifies, “That the substance of bread and wine in the Eucharist does not cease but remains, just as the nature and substance of man remains united to the Godhead in the Lord Jesus Christ.” This boundary they pass in pretending that, as soon as the words of our Lord are pronounced, the substance of bread and wine ceases, and is transubstantiated into body and blood.
They were Fathers, who, as they exhibited only one Eucharist to the whole Church, and kept back from it the profane and flagitious; so they, in the severest terms, censured all those who, being present, did not communicate How far have they removed these landmarks, in filling not churches only, but also private houses, with their masses, admitting all and sundry to be present, each the more willingly the more largely he pays, however wicked and impure he may be,—not inviting any one to faith in Christ and faithful communion in the sacraments, but rather vending their own work for the grace and merits of Christ!
There were two Fathers, the one of whom decided that those were to be excluded altogether from partaking of Christ’s sacred supper, who, contented with communion in one kind, abstained from the other; while the other Father strongly contends that the blood of the Lord ought not to be denied to the Christian people, who, in confessing him, are enjoined to shed their own blood. These landmarks, also, they removed, when, by an unalterable law, they ordered the very thing which the former Father punished with excommunication, and the latter condemned for a valid reason.
It was a Father who pronounced it rashness, in an obscure question, to decide in either way without clear and evident authority from Scripture. They forgot this landmark when they enacted so many constitutions, so many canons, and so many dogmatical decisions, without sanction from the word of God.
It was a Father who reproved Montanus, among other heresies, for being the first who imposed laws of fasting. They have gone far beyond this landmark also in enjoining fasting under the strictest laws.
It was a Father who denied that the ministers of the Church should be interdicted from marrying, and pronounced married life to be a state of chastity; and there were other Fathers who assented to his decision. These boundaries they overstepped in rigidly binding their priests to celibacy.
It was a Father who thought that Christ only should be listened to, from its being said, “hear him;” and that regard is due not to what others before us have said or done, but only to what Christ, the head of all, has commanded. This landmark they neither observe themselves nor allow to be observed by others, while they subject themselves and others to any master whatever, rather than Christ.
There is a Father who contends that the Church ought not to prefer herself to Christ, who always judges truly, whereas ecclesiastical judges, who are but men, are generally deceived. Having burst through this barrier also, they hesitate not to suspend the whole authority of Scripture on the judgment of the Church.
All the Fathers with one heart execrated, and with one mouth protested against, contaminating the word of God with the subtleties sophists, and involving it in the brawls of dialecticians. Do they keep within these limits when the sole occupation of their lives is to entwine and entangle the simplicity of Scripture with endless disputes, and worse than sophistical jargon? So much so, that were the Fathers to rise from their graves, and listen to the brawling art which bears the name of speculative theology, there is nothing they would suppose it less to be than a discussion of a religious nature.
But my discourse would far exceed its just limits were I to show, in detail, how petulantly those men shake off the yoke of the Fathers, while they wish to be thought their most obedient sons. Months, nay, years would fail me; and yet so deplorable and desperate is their effrontery, that they presume to chastise us for overstepping the ancient landmarks!