Posted on April 30th, 2014
I’ve been enjoying reading Jordan Cooper’s The Righteousness of One: An Evaluation of Early Patristic Soteriology in Light of the New Perspective on Paul. In discussing Thomas Oden, Cooper critiques his view that the first four centuries of Christian teachers produced unanimity on the doctrine of justification:
Oden’s proposal that there is an “orthodox consensus” at all in the first four centuries is highly debatable. There are few issues in which one would find agreement among such varied fathers as Jerome, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Theodoret, Augustine, and Chrysostom. Even the nature of the Trinity and the nuances of the two natures of Christ have no unanimous approval by the fathers Oden chooses to cite. Much less would there be any consensus on an issue that was not at center stage in the theological battles of the day.
Oden’s premise is admirable, and should be explored further. However, this must be done with an honest admission that there is a great diversity among the fathers on this issue. Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox alike can find traces of their soteriology in the fathers. However, each tradition has taken strands of teaching from various fathers.
I think this is an exceedingly important point to make. Many polemicists assert that their denomination of Christianity is the one true catholic orthodox church, and all the church fathers agree with them. My own reading has found that not to be the case. For better and for worse, theology has developed, and this is true in both east and west. The right approach to reading the fathers is not simply amassing quotations that one agrees with and ignoring the others, but as Cooper suggests:
Each father needs to be studied individually, and the subject of justification placed in their overall theological framework.
What is true for justification is also true comprehensively. Important as all this is, the one source that matters most is Scripture. If an angel from heaven, or a seeming consensus among selected fathers, preaches otherwise, remain with the Scriptural doctrine.