(This is intended as a companion piece to Dustin Germain's excellent article.)
People everywhere within Christendom want to claim the "Church Fathers" as supporters of their own position. Eastern Orthodox cite Chrysostom against Rome, which counter-cites (sometimes-imaginary quotes from) Augustine, whom Protestants then cite against Rome, who then counter-cites Irenæus, who then gets claimed by the Eastern Orthodox... on and on it goes.
For the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, it's understandable that they do this, for a few reasons. One is that their concept of spiritual authority is pretty murky and leaves room for "Church Fathers" to hold sway in persuading people. If Basil of Cæsarea believed it, well, who am I to question such a Great Man? Another is that for a great deal of the distinctive doctrines of Rome and the East, there is no legitimate or remotely convincing biblical proof, so really all they have are quotes from church history and naked appeals to their own authority.
But for the adherent to Sola Scriptura, the usage of the appellation "Church Father" is puzzling and unnecessary and should be jettisoned. Further, Sola Scripturists ought to take great care in how they cite "Church Fathers", for what reason, and in which context. Let's explore this more.
First of all, the word "Father" has to do with generation and origin, parenthood. In no way are any of the men usually referred to as "Church Fathers" actually fathers of The Church. The Father of The Church is God the Father. The Founder of The Church is Jesus Christ. He who inducts people into The Church is the Holy Spirit.
Jesus handpicked men who would be the first preachers of His Church. Their names are recorded in the Gospel accounts and Acts. There are twelve of them, give or take one.
"And He went up on the mountain and summoned those whom He Himself wanted, and they came to Him. And He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach, and to have authority to cast out the demons. And He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom He gave the name Peter), and James, the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James (to them He gave the name Boanerges, which means, “Sons of Thunder”); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Zealot..."
Throw in Paul and maybe Matthias, subtract Judas, and you have your human Church Fathers.
Second, there is no reason for confidence that we in modern times, so far removed from the context in which these "Church Fathers" lived, taught, and wrote, have sufficient understanding of their writings. Here are some challenges to hubristic overestimation of what can be gleaned for our use today from their extant writings:
You don't know that what these guys said is what most Christians of their time believed.
You don't know how many Christians of their time would have agreed.
You don't know how what they wrote was received by other churches. Any mere claims to "we believe thus" are not necessarily true. Not without proof, and more proof than their say-so.
You don't know whether they were held in the highest respect by their contemporaries. Maybe you're reading the Charles Stanley of their time - not really all that bad in certain ways, but pretty bad in others, and quite shallow compared to other people, most of the time. Maybe you're reading Joseph Prince, a lesser-known heretic. It could be anyone. Point is, you don't know (and neither do I).
You don't know whether you have all their writings.
You don't even know what percentage their today-extant writings constitute of the total things they wrote over their lifetime.
Thus you don't know if they ever took it all, or part of it, back, in a book or letter that has since not (yet) become widely known to have been recovered.
You don't know whether what they said in public or in private teachings actually comports with the extant writings you have.
You don't know whether the names we usually assign to these writings are correct. In the case of writings where the name is included in the text, you don't know whether it's pseudonymous.
These are just some of the challenges that must arise when critically assessing how much we can learn from these writings. It is of course acceptable to say "this is what we have to work with, and when I cite, say, Chrysostom, it's generally assumed I am referring to his extant writings." Yes, quite so, that's fine, as long as the discussion in which you cite them centers around "What do Chrysostom's extant writings say?" and do not ascribe too much authority or certainty that you have good answers to the above challenges. Because, let's face it - you do not.
Third, your beliefs are not identical to any given "CF". Which means that any implication their writings are authoritative in some way is disingenuous, for if you really thought that, you'd believe it consistently. But you don't; rather you pick and choose because you think you have good reason to reject the beliefs you reject. Which means that "CF" is not your father at all, nor is he authoritative. Something (or someone) else is the authority, for it has judged that particular belief from that individual "CF" to be false. Let's be clear - they were fallible men, to my knowledge never claiming to be infallible, and they made mistakes.
So, why do people call them "Church Fathers" at all? Seems to me a traditional nomenclature that fails to take the above into consideration, fails to think through the divide between what any of them believed and what anyone in modern times believes, whether Sola Scripturist, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or otherwise, and has served as a useful tool for you, so you decided to keep it. And I think I know why - it is useful. Selectively citing these men and then slapping the label "Father" on it sounds so imperial, so high-fallootin', so mysteriously powerful, that often it causes a brain block within the mind of the listener. I myself have experienced this many times (before, by God's grace, I grew out of it).
Now, to be clear, the same brain-blocking phenomenon occurs today when you attribute a quote to other Great Men as well, modern "heroes of the faith" and such. For some, it's Spurgeon. For some, MacArthur. For others, Bahnsen. It doesn't matter whom; the point is that none of the writings or speech of Bahnsen or Spurgeon appears in the pages of the Bible. At a moment of lucidity, none of those men would claim the level of self-abiding authority many people today would apply to them, and usually neither would those breathless followers either, at least not explicitly, not out loud. It merely shows in their actions, the way they cite MacArthur instead of Scripture, the way they refuse to attempt to interact with the Scripture when on the table is the credibility of a position MacArthur holds.
This is a human problem, not unique to Sola Scripturists or these well-known Reformed teacher men. The point is that Sola Scripturists must rise above this faulty thinking, and take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ, not your favorite Sunday lecturer.
Is this overzealous, unreasonably radical skepticism? Depends on whom you're asking, I suppose (although the honest answer is: No way).
What this illustrates for certain is that our certain guide, our certain lamp for our feet, is the Scripture. The Scripture is simply not subject to these kinds of questions (at least not within Christendom) (atheists need to prove the outside world exists first, which is a tough ask) (liberals need to prove that their own communication isn't demolished by the deconstructionist attacks to which they subject the text of Scripture), for we all accept its authority and sourcing - it is the very Word of God.
Such is demonstrably not the case for "Church Fathers", however. They are not God's speech. They are not breathed out by God. We are to read them like we read DA Carson today - to understand who they are, what they taught, and their theological contexts. They are not authorities. Neither you nor I think so. They (and I, or Billy Graham, or Jonathan Edwards) have power and truth only insofar as they repeat the Word of God. Where they do so, let us praise God for the insight they have shared. Where they have not, let us learn not to repeat their mistakes.
The only sense in which they are "Fathers" is that they are older and came before us. But other men we don't consider "Fathers" also precede our time.
Nobody invests them with great authority - not Sola Scripturists, not RCC, and not EOC.
Sola Scripturists - obviously. And how can we know when they spoke truth or error? By assessing their arguments on the merits. To the Scripture we must go!
And please spare me the "Solo Scriptura" objection. None of this means nor is intended to communicate that the "CF"s' extant writings are unhelpful or without merit or that we shouldn't listen to anyone else. Read what I said, not what you want me to say.
But for us who love and follow Jesus and believe His words in Mark 7:1-13 wherein He told us to test traditions by Scripture, our Church Fathers are named: Jesus, Mark, Luke, Paul, Peter and John and the rest of the 11, James, Jude, and the guy who wrote Hebrews. Do you want to know what the earliest church believed? Read the New Testament.