An increasing number of people in the evangelical and Reformed tradition are becoming aware of the importance of engaging with the writings of the early church Fathers. The Reformers themselves would of course have taken this for granted, a point regularly made, for example, by students of Calvin - notice the huge number of quotations from the Fathers in his Institutes and elsewhere. In a similar vein, if we turn to Cranmer on the Lord’s Supper or Jewel’s Apologia for the Church of England, once again we find not only a heavy dependence on the writings of the church Fathers, but also a deep-seated conviction that a theological (and indeed historical) continuity with the Fathers is a vital part of what it means to hear the truth of God in the Scriptures.
It’s therefore very encouraging to see the self-identified heirs of Calvin, Cranmer, and the rest following in their footsteps in this matter, since working hard at this connection with the early church is really the only way to ensure that we acquire a vision of the Christian faith with the deepest possible roots in the (small-c) catholic tradition of which we rightly consider ourselves to be a part.
Yet the enterprise of reading the Fathers is not always as easy as it seems. As more than one historical theologian has noted, while people regularly recognise the need for careful historical-grammatical-literary-contextual exegesis of the biblical text, they often neglect such careful reading of the church Fathers. We approach the Bible with an explicit awareness of the need to take care in our exegesis, since statements that seem obvious at first glance might easily mean something rather different from what they seem to be saying. When we approach the Fathers, on the other hand, we’re tempted to read them as though "exegesis" weren't necessary at all; we treat them as though they were written yesterday, using all the same words as us in exactly the same ways that we do.
This is a serious mistake, and one that can lead to some unfortunate consequences. In particular, we run the risk of projecting our own theological perspective onto the Fathers, so that what we see in them is simply a reflection of our own prejudices.
Let’s take an example. Consider the words of Ignatius in his Letter to the Smyrneans, 7.1. Here Ignatius criticizes his docetic opponents, who “abstain from the Eucharist ... because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, that flesh which suffered for our sins but which the Father raised in his kindness.”
It is easy to see how this statement could be read as endorsing the view of Christ’s local presence in the elements of bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper that became explicit in later Medieval Catholic theology. For an example that at least tends in this direction, check out the chapter on “The Eucharist in the Theology of Ignatius” in Kenneth J. Howell’s (illuminating, but at times infuriating) Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. And this reading looks pretty persuasive at first glance – after all, Ignasius says that “the Eucharist” (the bread and wine, we presume?) “is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ”, right? This begins to look like a very early patristic endorsement of the Roman Catholic doctrine of the real presence, and indeed that is exactly what many Roman Catholics today say it is.
But look more closely for a moment at exactly what Ignatius says. Then compare it with what Jesus says in Luke 22 and John 6: “he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body’”; “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood”; “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”; and so on. We immediately notice that Jesus and Ignatius seem to be saying pretty much the same thing. But Reformed theologians don’t get thrown into a terminal tailspin by Luke 22 and John 6 (at least, they shouldn’t; if your favourite Reformed theologian does, I suggest you find yourself another Reformed theologian), for we readily realise that neither of these texts actually teaches what Roman Catholics claim they do.
To cut an extremely lengthy discussion short(er), our Lord speaks here of the fact of his presence; he doesn’t specify the mode of his presence. There is no dispute between the best Reformed and Roman Catholic theologians about whether or not Christ is present at the Lord’s Supper. All agree that he is present. The disagreement concerns how he is present, and answering this question is not merely a matter of reading Jesus’ words from the surface of the Gospels and projecting our own favourite metaphysics onto them. No, this is a more demanding theological task, which requires us to draw together in a consistent and nuanced way a number of other theological loci, such as the doctrines of the resurrection, the ascension, the incarnation, the communication of attributes between Christ’s divine and human natures, and so on. No responsible Roman Catholic or Reformed theologian (or for that matter Lutheran or Orthodox theologian) would presume to read John 6 as though it were obvious that Jesus’ words endorsed his theology of the Lord’s Supper.
But for some reason, this is exactly what some are tempted to do with Ignatius. And this is what we must resist at all costs. For Ignatius no more specifies a particular mode of Christ’s presence at the Eucharist than does our Lord himself.
In short, Ignatius words in and of themselves do not settle the question of what the early church believed about the Eucharist. They do not even settle the question of what Ignatius believed. Rather, they leave us with an exegetical task that is no less complex than that of exegeting the Bible. Indeed, if anything the task is more difficult still, for at least when it comes to Scripture we are all agreed that there are no errors or contradictions, for there we are dealing with the word of God.
So by all means let us return to the Fathers, but let us do so in the right spirit, and with the appropriate care. It would be a shame indeed – not just for evangelical and Reformed Christians , but also for Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Lutherans – if our reading of the Fathers amounted to nothing more than an attempt to plunder them for proof-texts endorsing our own sacred cows.