I was reading a commentary on the Bible that said it used the “early Church fathers” as a guide in interpreting the various passages of the Bible. Who are the “early Church fathers” and how much weight should their writings have in our understanding of the Bible?
The early Church fathers are those men from the first few centuries of the Church who, both in their lives of holiness and in their writings, testified to the true and Catholic faith. This patristic age ends with St. John Damascene (d. 749 AD) in the East and with St. Gregory the Great (d. 604 AD) or St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636 AD) in the West. Hence, the early Church fathers come from the first seven centuries of the Church. By popular acclamation, the four “Great Fathers of the West” are St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory the Great. The four “Great Fathers of the East” are St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nazianzen, and St. John Chrysostom. Their contributions to the growth of the Church are unparalleled.
If you want to know what the Church has taught from the very beginning, turn to the writings of the early Church fathers. Their writings are also very important when it comes to understanding Scripture. After all, the early Church fathers are from the very same community that wrote the Bible by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They know what the Bible means because the Bible is the written testimony of what they themselves were teaching, and learning, and believing.
Note what Paul writes to Timothy: “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2) and again, “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Tim 6:20, ESV). Before anything was ever written down, Christians learned by the mouths of the apostles, and by the “faithful men” that they established in every place to “guard the deposit” handed on to that church.
This deposit was passed on with the utmost care and fidelity. Nothing was true that did not come from the mouths of the apostles or from the “faithful men” that they established (cf. Gal 1:8). In time, much of this teaching was written down as circumstances in the various churches required. And so, the deposit lives on, both in the written record and in the ordinary teaching of the Church. The early Church fathers give witness to this deposit in their writings and in their very lives, and so they are an important resource when it comes to interpreting Scripture.
Peace of Christ to you,
Nicholas Hardesty, WIMM Board Member
Director of Religious Education, Blessed Mother Catholic Church
Feel free to email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org