On the Church Fathers and the Protestant Reformers

Rock and Sand published by New Rome Press

Fr. Josiah Trenham

Calvin read and quoted many Holy Fathers. He admired St. John Chrysostom’s biblical commentaries and once had resolved to translate them into French. He was a devotee of St. Augustine, and quoted Ss. Cyprian and Athanasius and others frequently. However, his attitude towards them was not an Orthodox one. Here are his words,

“Certainly, Origen, Tertullian, Basil, Chrysostom and others like them would never have spoken as they do, if they had followed what judgment God had given them. But from desire to please the wise of the world, or at least from fear of annoying them, they mixed the earthly with the heavenly. That was a hateful thing, totally to cast man down, and repugnant to the common judgment of the flesh. These good persons seek a means more in conformity with human understanding: that is to concede I know of not what to free will, and allow some natural virtue to man; but meanwhile the purity of the doctrine is profaned.”

Here is Calvin in all his arrogance and theological overconfidence. His accusations against the likes of Ss. Chrysostom and Basil the Great are that they were too worldly, too submissive to worldly powers, and not willing enough to defy merely human judgments.

These charges are ironic in that they apply far more to Calvin himself and the Protestant Reformers than to the Holy Fathers he attacks. Chrysostom and Basil were ascetic monks who were other-worldly, and show Calvin as still quite fixed to the earth by comparison. Who was the one who rejected his tonsure and married? And that a widow? Who was the one so irascible that he could not bear to be contradicted? Who was the one who received a large salary from the state? Who was the one complicit in the execution of heretics? Who was the one who died in the comfort of his own home with the approbation of the wise of Geneva, instead of in harsh exile with the opposition of emperor? That the Holy Fathers refused to articulate Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is hardly a sign of complicity with worldly men, but rather a refusal to articulate what does not have the support of the Holy Scriptures and the consensus patrum.

…Were not the 318 Nicene Fathers bishops? Did they not believe that the Eucharist was the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ? Did they not celebrate the liturgy, honor monasticism, venerate relics, make holy pilgrimage, express devotion to the Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, pray for the departed, invoke the Saints, obey sacred canons, and read Scripture in accord with the tradition? The answer, of course, to these questions is “Yes”.

And so, the Reformers and their descendants have this question to answer: Why do they demand adherence to the Trinitarian positions of the Holy Fathers while explicitly or implicitly degrading these same Holy Fathers by their Protestant criticisms? How can Protestant teachers be consistent in demanding adherence to the dogmas of Fathers of the early councils when these same Fathers believed the Holy Eucharist to be the very Body and Blood of Christ, worshipped liturgically, prayed to Saints, venerated the Mother of God, insisted on the governance of the church by bishops, and interceded for the repose of departed souls? Why accept the creeds of these four councils but reject their canons, something that the Fathers of the councils themselves explicitly forbade? This dilemma remains unsolved even for Protestants today. Protestants say they wish to preserve the fundamental teachings of Christianity, yet denigrate the lives of those Christians who articulated these fundamental teachings. (Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings, pp. 131-134)