To this day, the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds are honored among Protestants as the gold standard of a right biblical interpretation of the tri-unity of God and the two natures (divine and human) of the incarnate Christ. Reading the fathers on the Trinity and the incarnation immerses us in the rich, formative period of church life when those fundamental truths were first given clear and precise expression. The debt we owe to the early church fathers is thus incalculable.
Luther, Calvin, and the other “founding fathers” of Protestantism were disciples of the early church fathers. They had a special regard for one father in particular: Augustine of Hippo. Luther belonged to the Augustinian order of friars and found life-transforming resources of theology in his order’s patron saint. Still, the Reformers were widely read in the fathers generally. Calvin famously said to a Roman Catholic opponent, Cardinal Jacob Sadoleto:
Our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours. All we have attempted has been to renew that ancient form of the church, which was at first besmirched and distorted by uneducated men of undistinguished character, and afterwards disgracefully mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman pope and his faction. I will not press you so closely as to call you back to that form of the church which the apostles instituted (though it presents us with a unique pattern of a true church, and deviation from that pattern, even slightly, involves us in error). But to indulge you so far, I beg you to place before your eyes that ancient form of the church, such as it is shown to have been during those times in the writings of Chrysostom and Basil among the Greeks, and Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine among the Latins.1
If we are Protestants, that very fact should give us a bias toward knowing the early church fathers. We are simply doing what the original theologians of the Reformation did. They considered the fathers to be much better interpreters of the gospel than the medieval theologians were. In a careful study of the fathers, they found weighty historical testimonies to the supremacy of Scripture and justification by faith, the twin pillars of the Reformation.
But who exactly were the early church fathers? It is a name we give to the significant leaders and writers of the first few centuries of Christianity. Different historians suggest different timeframes, anywhere from the first three hundred years to the first six hundred. However, the name “father” isn’t automatically given to every Christian figure from this early period. It is normally reserved for those who came to be recognized as sound, reliable teachers.