Before that, though, maybe a definition is in order. The Church Fathers are those men (yes, this group is basically entirely male) whose writings made up the bulk of Christian teaching and doctrine for the first several centuries of the Church's existence, from the early 100s and on. These are the ministers and theologians who represent the "Tradition" of the Church: their works have countered heresies, encouraged the Church in times of persecution, been subject to centuries of pious study, and guided God's people in interpreting the scripture throughout the history of the Church. Some of these were martyrs, some were monks, some bishops, others philosophers. Many were saints. Names like Augustine, Ignatius of Antioch, Athanasius, Origen, and Jerome come to mind. These men have, to varying degrees, shaped the Church over the millennia, laying the foundation for the churches of today.
If you would like to know my take on the authority of the Fathers, I'll just point you to my earlier post, "why not sola scriptura?". That's not an issue I want to take up here. Instead, I want to offer some brief responses to what are common misgivings that many modern Protestants--like the Southern Baptists whom I grew up among--have about the Tradition and the Church Fathers. Most of what I have to say is adapted from the introduction to a nice little book by an Evangelical scholar, Bryan M. Litfin: Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. Litfin addresses Evangelical distrust by going to the very issues that his students have struggled with over the years, and which he's had to confront.
So, let's jump right in.
- The Fathers aren't "unbiblical." This idea, to me, suggests that someone hasn't read the Fathers. To be sure, 'many Protestants today associate the sayings of the church fathers with the nebulous concept of "tradition"... "the doctrines of men," as opposed to the divine revelation given in scripture,' and this is exactly where the Fathers go. But just because something is written by fallen human beings doesn't mean that it is therefore wholly wrong. These are Christian human beings, led by God the Holy Spirit... and they love the Bible. Scriptural quotations and themes echo throughout their writings. As Saint Athanasius put it so well, the scriptures are "the fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take [anything away] from these." These men do nothing other than apply themselves to scripture, in hopes of thereby proclaiming the truth of God in their own words.
- The Fathers were not Roman Catholics. Before the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, there was no such thing as the "Roman Catholic Church." There was just the catholic Church (the word "catholic" just means "universal"), which included all Western Christians, and whose head was the Pope in Rome. Most of the Fathers were writing before the Pope really rose to power, and none of them would understand themselves to be anything other than catholic Christians. To try and dismiss the Fathers as Roman Catholics is just silly history.
- The Church Fathers do not represent the "fall" of Christianity. And a great many Christians, especially evangelicals, if they had to plot the history of the Church on a graph, might offer something like this parabola:
The Church in Acts is on the left, then about 1400 years of dismal failure, then we see the effects of the Reformation on the right. This is probably a pretty natural assumption to make for Protestants--after all, the idea was that the Church had been corrupted through papal abuse and was in dire need of 'reforming'. But the Reformers did not include the Church Fathers in this estimation of Church history. The late-medieval Church of the 16th century was in need of reform; the Fathers, like Augustine or John Chrysostom, who lived and ministered after the Church arose to power in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, were revered and relied upon by Luther and Calvin. This is partly due to the above two points.
These three points were taken from Litfin, but they've also been confirmed for me through experience. I've found the Fathers to be an indispensable source of wisdom and guidance as I've seriously studied scripture and given thought to my faith over the last few years. I hope that others might give them a chance and find the same.
And of course, the best way to form an opinion about the Fathers is to just read them and see for yourself. To anyone thinking of dipping their toes into the writings of these brilliant and godly men, I highly recommend St. Athanasius's On the Incarnation, with an introduction by C. S. Lewis. This is a fantastic little volume, and really accessible... the Lewis introduction doesn't hurt my opinion of it, either.
If anyone would like to share your experience of getting to know the Church Fathers--good or ill--I'd love to hear about them in the comments.