My wonderful friend, Pr. William Weedon recently published on his blog a selection of quotes from the Fathers of the Church which, in his opinion, showed them upholding Lutheran doctrines such as Sola Scriptura and Penal Substitutionary Atonement. While I disagree with this opinion, I can see how one could arrive at it. After all, one reads the Fathers much as one reads Holy Scripture: through whatever lens one happens to be wearing. (I once knew a woman who thought selling dogs was a sin, based upon Deuteronomy 23:18, which I think is probably more about dog fighting.)
Then Pr. Weedon’s list of quotes was published by another blog,
under the heading of “Where Were the Lutherans Before Luther?” and this goes way too far. There is no way in the world one could draw an informed and honest conclusion that the Fathers of the Church were Lutheran. Most of them were bishops; that alone ought to be enough to tell us they weren’t Lutherans, since Lutherans don’t have bishops.
Moreover, when we read the Fathers, it is not necessarily legitimate to assume they meant the same things Lutherans do by the same words. St. Augustine, for example, when appearing to support Sola Scriptura, has a different Scriptura in mind. Here is a partial listing of the books he recognizes as canonical:
The whole canon of the scriptures, however, in which we say that consideration is to be applied, is contained in these books: the five of Moses . . . and one book of Joshua [Son of] Nave, one of Judges; one little book which is called Ruth . . . then the four of Kingdoms, and the two of Paralipomenon . . . . [T]here are also others too, of a different order . . . such as Job and Tobit and Esther and Judith and the two books of Maccabees, and the two of Esdras . . . . Then there are the prophets, in which there is one book of the Psalms of David, and three of Solomon. . . . But as to those two books, one of which is entitled Wisdom and the other of which is entitled Ecclesiasticus and which are called 'of Solomon' because of a certain similarity to his books, it is held most certainly that they were written by Jesus Sirach. They must, however, be accounted among the prophetic books, because of the authority which is deservedly accredited to them. (St. Augustine Christian Instruction 2:8:13)
Similarly, when the Fathers speak of faith, they mean a faith that by definition includes faith’s inside, trust, and its outside, faith’s works. “Justification,” for them, is not basically or primarily a legal declaration. And so forth. Part of the necessary context for the Fathers is their own understanding of their terms.
Another part of the context needed properly to understand the Fathers is the rest of what they wrote. For example, St. John Chrysostom, quoted in support of Sola Scriptura, comments on 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Hence it is manifest, that they [the Apostles] did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther.”
St. Augustine, in Against the letter of Mani, famously said, "I would not believe in the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so."
He also said (Letter to Januarius, 54.1.1):
As to those other things which we hold on the authority, not of Scripture, but of tradition, and which are observed throughout the whole world, it may be understood that they are held as approved and instituted either by the apostles themselves, or by plenary Councils, whose authority in the Church is most useful, e.g. the annual commemoration, by special solemnities, of the Lord's passion, resurrection, and ascension, and of the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven, and whatever else is in like manner observed by the whole Church wherever it has been established.
What the Fathers do not say is as important as what they do say. For example, St. Basil, quoted by Pr. Weedon, says the Lord is faithful in all His words; who wishes to disagree with that? He says to delete or add anything to Holy Writ is unacceptable, and who would take exception to that? The sacred text of Holy Scripture (like that of the Creed) is to remain unaltered. We Orthodox emphatically agree. He quotes, “My sheep hear my voice,” and to this we uniformly assent. But St. Basil does not say this Voice is only reliably to be found in Holy Scripture. He does not say the source of doctrine or practice is the Holy Scripture alone. He does not say something is to be judged by Scripture alone. He does not say Scripture is always and everywhere self interpreting. In short, he does not advocate any form of Sola Scriptura. If we read his works more comprehensively, this becomes clear, as when he says (The Holy Spirit, 27,66)
Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us "in a mystery" by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay;--no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching.
As for St. Gregory of Nyssa, also quoted in support of Sola Scriptura, I very much doubt Lutherans would want to interpret Scripture as he did, sometimes allegorizing the literal meaning away entirely!
The proper context for reading the Fathers of the Church must also include what they themselves did (besides having and/or being monks, bishops, and patriarchs) and how they worshiped. They invoked saints, venerated relics, and engaged in all manner of un-Lutheran behavior.
The same St. Cyril of Jerusalem who urged his catechumens to check all he said against Scripture also taught them in detail (Lecture III) about Holy Chrismation; that is, Confirmation using holy oil – quoting Scripture copiously all the while.
St. Ambrose, on martyrs and relics and miracles associated with them, can be found here.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (Catechetical Lecture 23:5:9) says:
Then we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition; next, we make mention also of the holy fathers and bishops who have already fallen asleep, and, to put it simply, of all among us who have already fallen asleep, for we believe that it will be of very great benefit to the souls of those for whom the petition is carried up, while this holy and most solemn sacrifice is laid out.
In Lecture 23:9, St. Cyril adds: “Then [during the Eucharistic prayer] we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition . . .
St. Gregory of Nyssa (Sermon on Ephraim the Syrian) prayed to St. Ephraim: “[Ephraim], you who are standing at the divine altar [in heaven] . . . bear us all in remembrance, petitioning for us the remission of sins, and the fruition of an everlasting kingdom.” And St. Ephraim himself (Commentary on St. Mark) prayed, “You victorious martyrs who endured torments gladly for the sake of the God and Savior, you who have boldness of speech toward the Lord himself, you saints, intercede for us who are timid and sinful men, full of sloth, that the grace of Christ may come upon us, and enlighten the hearts of all of us so that we may love him." Here are some other examples:
St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Orations 17): "May you [Cyprian] look down from above propitiously upon us, and guide our word and life; and shepherd this sacred flock . . . gladden the Holy Trinity, before which you stand."
St. John Chrysostom (Homilies on Second Corinthians 26) says, "He that wears the purple [i.e., a royal man] . . . stands begging of the saints to be his patrons with God, and he that wears a diadem begs the tentmaker [Paul] and the fisherman [Peter] as patrons, even though they be dead."
St. Augustine (Homilies on John 84): "At the Lord’s table we do not commemorate martyrs in the same way that we do others who rest in peace so as to pray for them, but rather that they may pray for us that we may follow in their footsteps."
St. John Chrysostom (on John, Homily lxxxviii, n. 1, tom. Viii) even appears to support the claims of the pope to universal supremacy:
And why, then, passing by the others, does He converse with Peter on these things? (John 21:15). He was the chosen one of the Apostles, and the mouth of the disciples, and the leader of the choir. On this account, Paul also went up on a time to see him rather than the others (Galatians 1:18). And withal, to show him that he must thenceforward have confidence, as the denial was done away with, He puts into his hands the presidency over the brethren. And He brings not forward the denial, nor reproaches him with what had past, but says, 'If you love me, preside over the brethren,' ...and the third time He gives him the same injunction, showing what a price He sets the presidency over His own sheep. And if one should say, 'How then did James receive the throne of Jerusalem?,' this I would answer that He appointed this man [Peter] teacher, not of that throne, but of the whole world.
And this is no wonder, for I took most of these quotes from a website whose mission is to prove conclusively that the Fathers of the Church were – Roman Catholics!