Did Early Christians Believe the Bible was Inspired, Inerrant, and Authoritative?
Confession: I read a lot.
I read books I agree with.... books I don't agree with....books that are a bit over my head....books on subjects I'm interested in....books on subjects I'm not particularly interested in....and books that are just mindlessly entertaining. I read books about philosophy, science (remember those books that are a bit over my head?) and history. I devour theology like it's the latest teen fiction craze to take over Barnes and Noble.
But one of my favorite things to do just before I go to bed is read the Church Fathers. Oh, how I love the Fathers. Whenever I read something a bit "heady" or confusing, I head over to consult with Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Justin, Irenaeus, and Augustine. These guys were dead serious about Jesus and were not messing around when it came to their faith. They were flawed like the rest of us and were certainly fallible—but they help us understand Christianity as it was expressed in their times and cultures.
In fact, hop on over to Amazon and pick up The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection and read them for yourself. It's only $2.99 on Kindle, which is an amazing value. Where else can you get 1,000 books containing sixteen million words for less than three bucks? (Seriously...click the link and buy it and then come back and read the rest of this article.)
Ok, you're back now. Hi.
One thing I regularly encounter on social media is the idea that the early Church Fathers didn't see the Bible as inerrant, authoritative, and inspired by God—that somehow these concepts are modern inventions of the evangelical world. As an avid reader of the Fathers, I find this notion perplexing. What did the Fathers think about the Bible? There isn't enough space in one blog post to contain it all, so I'll just let some of them speak for themselves.
Clement of Rome
Clement was a first-century Christian who became the leader of the church in Rome. We know from Irenaeus and Tertullian (we'll get to them in a minute), that Clement personally knew the apostles and was ordained by Peter himself. (1) In fact, it is possible that he is the very "Clement" mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3. (Church Father Origen and historian Eusebius thought so!) Here's what he said about the Bible:
Clement equated the words of Scripture with the very words of God.
Justin was a philosopher who lived in the early second century. He came to faith in Christ and became one of the first apologists for Christianity, even writing a letter to the Roman Emperor defending Christianity after persecution broke out against it. He was ultimately arrested for his faith and beheaded—thus earning him the name "Martyr." Here's what he said about the Bible:
Justin understood that the Bible was written by men, but it was God speaking through them.
Irenaeus was a late second-century theologian and apologist who learned from Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John. (4) He is most famous for his seminal work, Against Heresies, in which he refuted one of the earliest heresies to invade Christianity—Gnosticism. To do this, he used a lot of Scripture. Here's what he said about the Bible:
Even though the doctrine of inerrancy hadn't been hammered out, Irenaeus knew that the Scriptures were without falsehood.
Like Irenaeus, Tertullian was another late second-century theologian and apologist who refuted Gnosticism. A prolific writer, he was known as the father of Latin Christianity. Here's what he said about the Bible:
Tertullian believed that the Bible had authority over him....that the truths of God's Word were not suggestions, but commands.
I've saved the best for last. Anyone who knows me knows I'm quite partial to Augustine. When I read his Confessions, I felt as though I had time-warped into the heart of fourth century Christianity and found a kindred soul. Almost no one in the history of the Church has had a more profound influence on the way Christians think. So much so, that you'll often find two people on opposite sides of a theological debate both using Augustine to make their point! Augustine loved Christ and he loved the Bible. In fact, he wrote so much on the subject that it was very difficult to narrow it down for this blog post:
Augustine also wrote:
A lot can be said of Augustine's view of Scripture. I highly recommend reading Confessions to see for yourself. But here he expresses his belief that Scripture was like reading something written by the very hand of God—incapable of containing anything false or contradictory.
Clearly, these Church Fathers had a deep love, reverence, and respect for Scripture. They believed that it was inspired by God, fully authoritative, and truthful. This is the legacy that has been passed down to us, and we would be wise to embrace it.
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(1) Ireneaus, Against Heresies, 3.3.3; Tertullian, The Prescription Against Heretics, XXXII
(2) Clement, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, XIII
(3) Justin Martyr, First Apology, XXXVI
(4) Ireneaus, Against Heresies, 3.3.3
(5) Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.28.2
(6) Tertullian, On Exhortation to Chastity, 4
(7) Augustine, Harmony of the Gospels, 1.35.54; Letters, 23.3.3
(8) Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaeans, Book XI, 5.
(9) Augustine, Confessions, Book 7.14
8/8/2017 06:15:03 pm
8/8/2017 07:54:15 pm
Hi Daniel, thanks for your comments. In reference to their own works, both Clements were speaking of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that is common among all believers. In fact, the Fathers were continually differentiating themselves from the Apostles. Many stated outright that they were not Apostles, and should not be thought of on that same level.
8/8/2017 08:25:34 pm
In some regard I would agree with your first point. The Fathers did hold to the inspiration of all believers. However, in the example I cited from 1 Clement 62.2, Clement is not simply referring to this inspiration of all believers. He is making the same claim about his current letter to the Corinthians being inspired as he did of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in 1 Clement 47.3.
8/8/2017 09:45:04 pm
I think you'll like Kruger. His model of canon is the one I hold to as well. His Canon class is available online for free here: http://subsplash.com/reformtheosem/s/xjduvb5
8/9/2017 06:37:12 am
Love these quotes! The issue at hand is the fact that the Church forgot that it is a disciplic institution. The Church moved from discipleship to scholasticism. The Church must look outside of its borders and study other disciplic religions in order to grasp what Christ meant when He said: "Make disciples of all nations." On the other hand, discipleship requires a loving submission to Pastor-Teachers that the West, and specifically America, will not conform to. We love our independence and the illusion of being our own teachers. Blessings.
8/15/2017 10:06:16 pm
First of all, I'd like to say that you remind me very much of Ravi Zacharias in the way you construct your assertions and identify the philosophical underpinnings. Please keep your posts and podcasts coming - they are full of wisdom.
7/22/2020 03:34:00 pm
Hi Alisa! I'm having a hard time finding resources responding to the progressive idea that the early church fathers were mystics, non-dualistic, and that they had different ideas on salvation, hell, etc. than we do now. Do you have any articles on this or podcast episodes that you'd recommend?
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