8. Why read the Early Church Fathers when we have the Bible? This is a GREAT question. First, we never read the Early Church Fathers in place of the Bible. The Bible is the only written, inspired Word of God. (The Word of God is really Jesus, and everything he is, did, and taught, not all of which is contained in the Bible. In other words, there is also unwritten Word of God, primarily in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Word Himself, whose Holy Spirit, the third person of the Most Holy Trinity, keeps alive the full teachings of Christ in His Mystical Body, the Church.)
Rather, the Early Church Fathers serve as a witness to what early Christianity was like. And as faithful witnesses do, they report in their writings their beliefs and practices. Thus, they have a historical authority, even though they have no Scriptural authority. Just because their writings aren’t Scripture doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from them what it meant to be a Christian in the year 100 or 150 A.D.
The question is really about interpretation. When we read the Bible, we always do so using lenses. If I wear pink lenses, the world appears pink. If I wear green lenses, the world appears green. When I am interpreting the Bible, the same thing holds true. We all interpret the Bible using some type of filter. The question we need to start asking is: how do I know my interpretive filter is correct?
One way to begin answering that question is to begin thinking historically: how long have people been reading the Bible through my Baptist lenses? How did the people in the first two centuries of Christianity understand the Bible? What lenses did they use? How does the Bible appear when I try their lenses on?
Remember, the Bible is the Bible is the Bible. We all read the same words on the page, albeit with (usually minor) differences of translation. But we come to different interpretations because we each have a different lens through which we look.
How do we get those lenses? From a variety of sources: Bible studies, Bible footnotes, sermons, billboards, radio programs, books, magazines, conversations, experiences, etc. None of us read the Bible on an island. Not one.
The question then becomes: if one is willing to learn how to read the Bible from all of these other (fallible, uninspired, man-made) sources, why would one not want to add to that list the early church fathers, when these people studied with the apostles and their immediate successors?
So, to answer the question, why read the early church fathers, I would answer: so that you can read the Bible through the lenses of those who were there at the beginning…those who sat at the feet of the apostles and gave their lives to defend what they had been taught.
After all, who would you trust in a game of telephone, the first person to receive the message, or the last?
As Baptist convert Stephen Ray likes to say: "the waters of Christian doctrine are always cooler and cleaner at the source."
And that source, as a little research will prove, was Catholic.