Turretin: Who Are The Church Fathers, When Did They Live, and What Authority Do They Have?

Are the writings of the fathers the rule of truth in doctrines of faith and in the interpretation of the Scriptures? We deny against the papists

I. Although from the preceding question we are already satisfied that the fathers cannot sit as judges in controversies of faith, yet because the papists frequently recur to them and are accustomed to obtrude upon us the consent of the fathers as a rule of truth, we must devote a separate question to this argument which is of the greatest importance in the controversies of the present day.

II. By “the fathers” we do not mean with Augustine the apostles as the first founders and patriarchs of the Christian church (Psalm 45, NPNF1, 8:153), but (in accordance with the present usage which is sanctioned by the ancients) the teachers of the primitive church who (after the death of the apostles) taught and illustrated the doctrine of salvation, orally and in writing. On account of age, they lived many years before our times; on account of doctrine (for by inculcating it upon their disciples), they begat sons to God in the church.

III. Although some extend their age down to the tenth century, we do not think it ought to be carried down further than the sixth. For it is certain that purity of doctrine and worship became greatly corrupted after the six hundredth year (in which Antichrist raised his head)—error and superstitions increasing by the just judgment of God. In the first century after the death of the apostles, the principal fathers were Ignatius and Polycarp, fragments of whose writings are extant. In the second, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. In the third, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian, Arnobius, Lactantius. In the fourth, Athanasius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Hilary of Poitiers, Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory of Nyssa, Epiphanius, John Chrysostom. In the fifth, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoret, Hilary of Aries, Prosper of Aquitania, Leo I. In the sixth, Fulgentius the African, Gelasius (Cyzicus), Gregory the Great and others.

IV. There are three opinions among the papists as to the authority of the fathers. First, those who put them on an equality with the Scriptures: to which belong those decrees of the Glossator asserting, “the writings of the fathers to be authentic, individually as well as collectively” (Dist. 9+). Second (just the opposite), those who hold their writings to be merely human and therefore incapable of being a rule of faith. This was the opinion of Cajetan (“Praefatio,” Commentarii … in quinque Mosaicos libros in Sacrae Scripturae [1639], vol. 1) and of the wiser papists. Third, those who, holding a middle ground, concede that the authority of individual fathers is human and fallible, but think that the common and universal consent of the fathers in controversies is infallible and divine. This was the opinion of the Council of Trent, affirming that “the traditions of the fathers pertaining both to faith and practice must be received with an equal affection of piety with the Old and New Testaments” (Session 4, Schroeder, p. 17). And, in the same place, “It prohibits anyone from daring to interpret the Scriptures contrary to that sense which the holy mother church has held, or now holds … or even against the unanimous consent of the fathers” (Session 4, Schroeder, p. 19). Most of the papists—Stapleton, Bellarmine, Canus, Valentia and others—agree with this.

V. The orthodox (although they hold the fathers in great estimation and think them very useful to a knowledge of the history of the ancient church, and our opinion on cardinal doctrines may agree with them) yet deny that their authority, whether as individuals or taken together, can be called authoritative in matters of faith and the interpretation of the Scriptures, so that by their judgment we must stand or fall. Their authority is only ecclesiastical and subordinate to the Scriptures and of no weight except so far as they agree with them.

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 1 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 2.21.1–5 [p. 162–163].

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