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Puritan Patristics: Protestant Catholicity

By admin | January 16, 2009

B. The Puritan use of the Fathers. This positive exposition still needs some careful qualification. No reformed writer treated any church father as if his writings were on a par with Scripture. But neither did they succumb to a naïve Biblicism, thinking that they alone with their Bibles could arrive at a satisfactory system of Christian theology. Such a notion almost always (if not always) leads the student into error. Their view must be characterized as between these polar opposites. The Fathers were of use for several purposes.

1). They evidenced the historical continuity of the Spirit’s work in the church. Even after the departure of the Apostles, He was working among Christians.
2). They evidenced the Reformed or Puritan historical continuity with both the apostles and the early fathers. This oneness was of great importance.
3). Their use of the fathers served an important polemical purpose—it removed the sting of Rome’s charge of historical novelty. To the contrary, it demonstrated theological agreement.
4). Their use of the fathers provided a means of demonstrating that Rome was actually the innovator. Her course had deviated from the straight path set down in the early church.
5). Likewise, the fathers provided a touchstone of argument against ‘protestant’ heresies.

C. The Catholic nature of mainstream Puritanism. We have already hinted at this, now let us pursue it for a moment. Vincent’s formula “always, everywhere and by all” makes an important point, but one that needs careful application. Who really was in the middle of the stream? The puritan answer would have been: we are! Isn’t the title Roman Catholic an oxymoron? In fact, Puritan polemics recognized that there was great diversity within the Roman communion. The various orders held differing views; there were significant changes over the centuries; the common thread was basically allegiance to the Roman See. But that allegiance can hardly demonstrate catholicity! Listen to how Miles Coverdale, early reformer, sometime bishop of Exeter wrote about this:

[We have already published this citation: See http://www.reformedbaptistinstitute.org/?p=224]

There is an important and very practical side for us to this discussion. Some have noted a very real and powerful movement from evangelicalism back to Eastern Orthodoxy or Rome. IN 2007, the president of ETS defected to Rome. Why is this? Because Roman and Orthodox apologists make much of the historical continuity they hold with the age of the Fathers. Evangelicalism has no real answer to this. A simplistic ‘the Bible teaches this’ cannot satisfy the demands of those who struggle with such issues. We need a better developed historical understanding of the ebbs and floes of church history. The Reformed and Puritans understood this problem very well, and addressed it in the best way possible—by showing that Rome was the innovator, not the Protestants!

Topics: Authority, Calvinism, Confessions, Doctrine of God, Puritanism, Puritans, Reformed Theology, Scripture | Comments Off

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