The Consensus of the Fathers

How can you be sure what the Bible teaches? I get this question a lot from inquirers and catechumens. Most of them come from Protestantism, where their experience has taught them that the Bible is not self-interpreting and that appeals therefore to sola scriptura are in vain. Indeed this was not a recent lesson; from the early days of the Reformation it became apparent that Scripture needed a lens through which it could be read—hence the famous fight between Luther and Zwingli and between the Anabaptists and everyone else. The Pope then said, of course, that he was the lens, a conviction echoed later in the Roman Catholic assertion that an official Magisterium is needed if chaos was to be avoided. (Roman Catholic polemicists still make that point.) Classic Protestantism, while rejecting the Pope and the traditions he embodied, were quick to produce their own lenses through which to read the Bible—lenses such as the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, and the Dordrecht Confession. While not precisely a “confession” like those others, even the Church of England produced its Thirty-nine Articles to set the boundaries for what was and was not an acceptable way of reading the Scriptures regarding certain topics.

How then can we Orthodox be sure what the Bible teaches? What is our lens? We have no “confession” or document authoritatively pronouncing on controversial issues. The so-called “Confession of Dositheos”, ratified in 1672 by the Synod of Jerusalem, does not possess the same weight for the Orthodox as the Augsburg Confession possessed for classical Lutherans. And the Seven Ecumenical Councils did not claim to offer a complete compendium of teaching on such things as sacraments, Scripture’s authority, predestination, saints, the fate of the soul after death, or other details of Orthodox doctrine and praxis. Rather the Councils dealt exclusively with the controversial matters that concerned them, especially questions of Christology. For help answering such questions as, “How are we to interpret certain Old Testament passages and what is the proper use of typology? What happens to us immediately after we die? Does God predestine individuals to eternal damnation?”, we cannot turn to the Seven Councils. Something more is needed.

That “something more” is the consensus of the Fathers. Here however we have to be careful and see the Fathers as they really were. In an age of chaos and uncertainty like ours when everything around us seems to be coming unglued, the temptation to fundamentalism can be particularly strong. Of course everyone has their own definition of fundamentalism, and the term is often used as a kind of theological swear-word (often paired with the ad hominem dismissal of someone as a “convert”). By “fundamentalism” I mean an approach to Scripture or history which ignores nuance, complexity, and historical context to create an authority which can pronounce on all questions and provide certainty in all matters, even in matters when no legitimate certainty is possible.

One can treat the Fathers like this too. In this non-historical reading of the Fathers, one seeks and finds total unanimity in everything because, it is asserted, the Fathers were completely indwelt and inspired by God. Here the Fathers are almost superhuman Spirit-bearers, and their authority resides in their individual and collective sanctity and closeness to God. It is thought inconceivable that one could dwell so close to God and yet make theological mistakes. So, since all the Fathers walked with God in this way, the teaching of each Father must be completely correct in all details and must therefore agree with all the other Fathers in all details. In this reading, general consensus is replaced by complete uniformity, and differences concerning (for example) different ways of using typology in reading the Old Testament or different views regarding the eternity of hell are ignored and (worse yet) misconstrued to force them into the same mould.

This approach to the Fathers minimizes history as well, and is disturbed when finding that the Fathers had vices and weaknesses as well as virtues. I remember, for example, one such hagiographical approach to the famous conflict between St. John Chrysostom and St. Epiphanius, who clearly had little time for each other. One story, anecdotal but accurately expressing the mutual rancour, reported that when Epiphanius left Constantinople for his native Cyprus, he sent John a message saying, “I hope you will no longer be a bishop when you die”, and John responded, “And I hope you will not set foot in your city again.” Ouch. How could two holy bishops and Spirit-bearing saints become so exasperated that they traded such barbs? Therefore one hagiographical account presents them not as trading barbs but prophecies: “Chrysostom wrote Epiphanius a letter: ‘My brother Epiphanius, I hear that you have advised the Emperor that I should be banished: know that you will never again see your episcopal throne.’ To this Epiphanius wrote in return: ‘John, my suffering brother, withstand insults, but know that you will not reach the place to which you are exiled.’ And these two prophecies of the two saints soon came about.” Such holiness! Such untroubled harmony! Here history with all its gray shading, complexity, and variety gives way to fundamentalist ideology. A better approach would be to recognize that both saints had their gifts which enriched the Church, as well as their weaknesses, and that they were canonized because of the gifts. They were both holy, but holiness does not mean sinlessness. Even saints could slip and make mistakes. In fact they can be exemplars for us precisely because they struggled with the same vices and temptations that afflict us as well. Finding a consensus among the Fathers does not involve sandpapering away all their differences.

So then what does it involve? In a word, the recognition that the Fathers share a tremendous amount of doctrine and practice, and this was the result of them having received it from the apostles before them. The amount of agreement shared, though general, is wide, and the diversity of patristic temperament and geography makes this large area of agreement all the more impressive.

This is what Irenaeus says too. “The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth” (Against Heresies, 1,10,2). Though there were many diverse teachers in the Church throughout the world, one could still discern among them a single identifiable teaching.

We find this recognition of an identifiable faith in St. Vincent of Lerins also: “But someone perhaps will ask, ‘Since the canon of scripture is complete and sufficient of itself for everything, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation?’ For this reason—because owing to the depth of Holy Scriptures, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another, so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters…Therefore, it is very necessary that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of ecclesiastical and catholic interpretation. In the Catholic Church, all possible care must be taken that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all…We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses” (A Commonitory, 2.5-6).

These citations show that there was an identifiable faith, something solid and consistent, to be found in all the churches throughout the world. This is expressed in the consensus of the Fathers. It consists most importantly in the “rule of faith”, embodied in our Creed, but it is not confined to that. St. Basil wrote that is also included such things as making the sign of the Cross, facing east for prayer, the content of the Eucharistic anaphora, and baptism using a triple immersion (On the Holy Spirit, chapter 27). To these we might add: the basic meaning and form of baptism and of the Eucharist, the tradition of ordaining only men to the presbyterate and episcopate, the sinfulness of abortion, the sinfulness of homosexual acts, the legitimacy of baptizing infants, the proper use of the Old Testament Scriptures, the proper understanding of the place of the nation of Israel, the place of fasting and asceticism in the Christian life, the authority of the Scriptures, the existence of angels, demons, and the unseen world, and many others.

We see this same reference to the Fathers as authoritative in some of the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils. Thus the second council of Constantinople in 553: “We further declare that we hold fast to the decrees of the four Councils, and in every way follow the holy Fathers, Athanasius, Hilary, Basil, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, Theophilus, John [Chrysostom] of Constantinople, Cyril, Augustine, Proclus, Leo…” Thus too the second council of Nicea in 787 regarding the use of icons: “Thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which is from one end of the earth to the other…Thus we follow Paul who spoke in Christ, and the whole divine apostolic company, and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received”. St. Cyril too, writing to Nestorius, refers to the Fathers: “I take little reckoning of the words of [my detractors], for the disciple is not above his Master, nor would I stretch the measure of my narrow brain above the Fathers”. In these citations too we see that the Fathers were viewed in antiquity as an identifiable and authoritative source of orthodoxy, and that one could appeal to their teaching.

There are many things not included in the consensus, such as for example whether or not women may receive the Eucharist during their monthly periods, the importance of celibacy, and the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews. But as it stands, the amount of consensus among the Fathers is formidable—and sufficient to constitute a lens through which the Church may read Scripture.

Moreover this consensus came to include new questions that arose as well—things such as the legitimacy of Christian involvement in the State and in military service, the divinity of Christ, and the legitimacy of icons. The Church believes that ultimately it is guided by the Holy Spirit so that when it reaches a settled consensus and the majority of its members eventually agree about a considered controversial opinion, this represents the guidance of God. One here stresses the word “eventually”, for it took time before a consensus finally emerged, and a majority of the faithful reached agreement. The process was all lengthier and messier than the Emperor usually wanted, which is what makes Byzantine Church history both so interesting and occasionally depressing. But ultimately we believe that the Church as a whole was guided to the truth, as Christ promised (John 16:13). If this were not so, how then could one be sure that the Church was right about anything and that (for example) the Arians were not correct after all?

A belief in the reliability of the Church’s received doctrine as the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) is the foundation for a belief in the consensus of the Fathers, for we access the former through the latter. God may indeed guide all the Christians so that it is the consensus fidelium that really counts. But most of the faithful live and die without leaving written records; their consensus therefore lives in the consensus of those who did leave written records—namely the Fathers. Through the broad agreement which the Fathers share we can discern the faith of the Church. To do otherwise is to cast any ultimate certainty to the wind. Arius no doubt would want to argue now that such a solid and lasting consensus counts for nothing, and that one should give greater credence to a minority report (like his). The Church has decided against such an approach.

In the absence of a patristic lens for reading the Scripture we Orthodox are left at the mercy of the loudest voices—either the voice of the latest popular author writing the latest best-seller, or perhaps the voice of the scholar whose theories happen to be currently ascendant in the academic world. But all such popularity fades, as best-sellers are relegated to the dusty shelves of second-hand bookshops, and as one academic theory succeeds another. Contemporary popularity is thus a very poor lens through which the read the Scriptures. So, if we Orthodox reject the consensus of the Fathers, when someone asks us the question, “How can you be sure what the Bible teaches?”, we are reduced to answering, “Actually, when it comes right down to it, we haven’t a clue.”






  1. ” better approach would be to recognize that both saints had their gifts which enriched the Church, as well as their weaknesses, and that they were canonized because of the gifts. They were both holy, but holiness does not mean sinlessness”

    I’ve heard that we stop praying for people if they become canonized. If the above quote is true, then why would we not pray for them?

      1. I’m not sure I follow. The question is whether they are in fact sinless, and that their theosis is the criteria for canonization. You said that when we canonize Saints, we canonize because of their gifts, gifts that they had despite not being sinless.

        It seems to me that if we stop praying for them at the time of canonization, the Church is teaching that they are canonized based on their sinlessness, and not just gifts.

        Further, isn’t a person’s life in this age the primary basis for canonization?

        1. Sorry to be unclear. Yes, their life in this age, with all its weaknesses, was the basis for their canonization. After their death, they need our prayers less than while they lived. I think it is here a question of balance and proportion: in one sense we do pray for them, in that the Eucharist is offered for all the Church, including those in heaven. And those in heaven who are not canonized also pray for us, as the canonized saints do. But on balance we need the prayers of the saints more than they need our prayers.

  2. “Arius no doubt would want to argue now that such a solid and lasting consensus counts for nothing, and that one should give greater credence to a minority report (like his). The Church has decided against such an approach.”

    Isn’t there a major problem with this statement? Namely, that the Arians were in the majority, and that the language of the Council didn’t really resolve the issue decisively (the language being appropriated by Arian and non-Arian alike)?

    1. You are correct of course that at one point Arians were the majority. My point was that eventually the Church decided that Arianism was wrong, and that therefore we need to view the consensus as it finally evolves over time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *