The Value of Reading the Writings of the Early Church Fathers, a Little about John Wesley

There is a lot to be found in the writings of the church fathers but there are errors too.  I didn’t see it as clearly at first.  Many years ago, I started to become lured by the sincerity of the writings and I got to be a little like John Wesley in thinking that the early church Fathers writings were pretty much right on.  But that passed and I see that while there is still a lot of basic rightly divided scripture in them there is quite a bit that is not. But they are useful in seeing how the church teaching changed over time from purely scriptural to the traditions that we have now. In fact, I think that’s their most useful feature.

Still, I want to emphasize that there are some poignant points made in a lot of the Church Fathers’ writings that are very inspiring. In fact, I would warn you not to be inspired to the point where you ignore what the original apostles taught and buy the erroneous doctrines that developed. Of course, you have to be up on exactly what the apostles taught to accomplish that.

We’re going to look at how Wesley viewed the early church fathers. For background, John Wesley is considered a hero in the Reformation movement. Wesley started the Wesleyan and Methodist movements and had a following in the tens of thousands while he was still alive. He was big on holiness which he preached as part of practicing scriptural apostolic teaching. As a result, Methodism spread and today there may be a Methodist Church near you.

Here is the inscription on Wesley’s tombstone.

To the memory of the venerable John Wesley, A.M., late fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. This great light arose (by the singular providence of God) to enlighten these nations, and to revive, enforce, and defend, the pure apostolic doctrines and practices of the primitive church: which he continued to do, both by his writings and his labours for more than half a century: And to his inexpressible joy, not only, beheld their influence extending, and their efficacy witness’d in the hearts and lives of many thousands, as well in the western world as in these kingdoms: But also, far above all human power of expectation, liv’d to see provision made by the singular grace of God, for their continuance and establishment to the joy of future generations. Reader, if thou art constrain’d to bless the instrument, give God the glory.[1]

Do you see in the statement above that Wesley is praised for his pursuit of “pure apostolic doctrines and practices of the primitive church?” The primitive church is another word for original Christianity (although the term may include more than just the apostolic period). Wesley was concerned about original Christianity! That’s what this website is all about, and one of the reasons I was interested in looking at him.

Wesley placed a high value on how the church developed, the church’s experience as it moved from the days of the apostles to the days of the church Fathers (Ante–Nicene Fathers), and so forth.

“The principle of Sola scriptura did not necessitate the abandonment of the real authority of the continuing tradition of the church. The Ante–Nicene Fathers Wesley believed to have a particular value because of their proximity to Christ and the apostles and because of the undivided nature of the church in their time. He even went so far as to say, “I regard no authority but those of the Ante–Nicene Fathers; nor any of them in opposition to the Scripture.”[2]

Do you see that? Wesley pretty much bought whatever the early church fathers wrote as gospel truth.  While he believed that the Scriptures taught that he should teach the Scriptures and what the apostles taught, he also believed in the continuation of the church through the church fathers and whatever that meant. In that sense, he was a true reformer as he believed that the Roman Catholic church was not as far off as a lot of us restorationists do because he thought there was a continuation from the apostles through the early church fathers through the church councils and so forth.

Wesley’s attitude is a common one, that the church developed steadily through the ages.  But, if so, how did it get so bad that the reformers came to call it the anti-Christ?  Sure, there was a unity, policed and reinforced by armies of crusaders (see 11.76 The Waldenses, Why Believers Complied With Roman Catholic Doctrine, Bans on Reading the Bible, The Inquisition and other Repressive Measures for an example), but the Reformation saw an explosion of movement to turn away from nonscriptural Catholic Church practices back to the traditions in the word of God.

Are the Ante–Nicene Fathers’ writings considered sacred?

There is some degree to which some students consider some of the books of the early church Fathers as sacred.

Here is a line from Encyclopedia Britannica online:

The writings of the Apostolic Fathers are the earliest examples of patristic literature. The Didache, the Letter of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas all hovered at times on the fringe of the New Testament canon in that they were used as sacred Scripture by some local churches.[3]

I am not saying they are sacred. I am saying that there is an element in the church that considers at least some of these writings sacred.

Look up the term “sacred writings”, and you will find it defined as inspired writings, religious texts that are considered divinely inspired.i[4] There are some to this day that consider at least some of the Church Father’s writings sacred.

There’s an important distinction to be made when considering whether something is holy. There have been people since man’s beginning who have dedicated themselves to godly service. Some of these godly services are not for the purposes of God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those people would consider their services holy whereas we would not and vice versa.

There are false gods still being worshiped in the world today. False gods are not holy by our Father’s standards. The worshipers of that false god consider what they are doing to be holy. But followers of the Lord Jesus Christ do not consider the worshippers of a false God holy just like the followers of the false god might not consider what we do as followers of Yahweh and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to be holy. The key difference is that what makes something holy is it’s part of the purpose of your God. So, even within the faith, only rightly divided scriptural doctrines are holy. There are doctrines based on twisted scriptures, sure, but they are not holy.

Here are just a few examples of the church Fathers’ statements that are consistent with Scripture

Justin Martyr wrote that Jesus knew that his father would raise him from the dead.

The remainder of the Psalm makes it clear that Christ knew His Father would grant to him all things that He asked and that His Father would raise him from the dead.[5]

Clement wrote that we will all participate in a bodily resurrection:

let none of you say that this very flesh will not be judged, nor rise again.… For just as you were called in the flesh, you will also come to be judged in the flesh.[6]

Irenaeus wrote that this about the resurrection:

Therefore, the Lord declares himself to be the Son of Man. For he comprised in himself that original man out of whom the woman was fashioned. He did this so that, as our species went down to death through a conquered man, so we may ascend to life again through a victorious one.[7]

These statements all look to be consistent with Scripture. As Scripture is holy, then these are holy statements to us because they are consistent with Scripture.

But not so the next ones. Look at these statements about the mystical bird called the Phoenix.

Let us consider that wonderful sign that takes place in eastern lands – that is, in Arabia and the countries around it. There is a certain bird that is called a Phoenix. This is the only one of its kind, and it lives for 500 years. When the time of its dissolution draws near for it to die, it builds itself a nest of frankincense, myrrh and other spices. When the time has come, it enters into the nest and dies. But as the flesh decays, a certain kind of worm is produced, which, being nourished by the essence of the dead bird, produces feathers.[8]

Take a most complete and unassailable symbol of our hope.… I refer to the bird that is peculiar to the east. It is famous for its singularity, and it is marvelous from its posthumous life. For it renews it’s a life in a voluntary death. It’s dying day is it’s birthday. From that day, it departs and returns – once more a Phoenix where just now there was none.… Must men die once for all time, while birds in Arabia are sure of a resurrection?[9]

Both of these references, the first by Clement of Rome and the second by Tertullian are pretty far out there doctrinally. There is no mention of a real phoenix in scripture or world history.  What’s very interesting is how they talk about the Phoenix as sound doctrine which we know is purely fictional fantasy.

Yet while it is recognized that Tertullian really blew it with the Phoenix teaching, he is credited with the birth of the term “Trinity” and some of its concepts, although not the concepts as it is taught today.  In this, we see that church Fathers can be praised for developing critical church theology in spite of the fact that they are glaringly wrong in some of the things they write.

Speaking of the Trinity, here we have more than one church father quote that talks about that subject. Here’s an interesting one:

We acknowledge a God, and a son (His Logos), and a Holy Spirit. These are united in essence – the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Now the Son is the Intelligence, Reason, and Wisdom of the Father, and the Spirit Is an Emanation, As Light from Fire[10]

That is an interesting statement by Athenagoras that is an example of how God, Jesus Christ, and the workings of the Holy Spirit were terms constantly in use in attempts to define them in relationship to each other.

But that is a little different from how Scripture talks.  One thing that is reiterated in Scripture is that Father is greater than the Son.

You heard how I told you, ‘I go away, and I come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I said ‘I am going to my Father;’ for the Father is greater than I. (Joh 14:28 WEB)

Jesus didn’t say he was equal to God despite the misunderstandings about the “I and my Father are one (in purpose) statements. Rather he said, “the Father is greater than I”. But, important to Trinitarian doctrine is that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all coequal so none of them can be inferior or superior to the others.

Before even Tertullian there was Justin Martyr (c. 150) who clearly wrote of the son as inferior to the Father so co-equal with the Father is out of the question.

“The first power after God the Father and Lord of all is the Word (Logos), who is also the Son . “ [11]

Justin wrote that God is the Supreme power and the first power after him is the son.  There is no equality there.  This is about a century after the apostles.

Look at how in scripture Jesus called God the Father the only true God.

This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ.  (Joh 17:3 WEB)

Our Lord and Savior called Yahweh, God the father, the only true God and he called himself, “him whom you sent, Jesus Christ.”  God the Father alone is God. That’s what Jesus said. Believe it.

Scripture plainly says that the Son is subject to the Father.  Here is an example:

Then the end comes, when he will deliver up the Kingdom to God, even the Father; when he will have abolished all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For, “He put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when he says, “All things are put in subjection”, it is evident that he is excepted who subjected all things to him. When all things have been subjected to him, then the Son will also himself be subjected to him who subjected all things to him, that God may be all in all. (1Co 15:24-28 WEB)

The key clause there is “the Son will also himself be subjected to him who subjected all things to him, that God may be all in all.”  The Son is subject to the Father. Could it be any plainer?

It is clear that the Church Father’s writings in the area of the unity of God (Unitarianism vs Trinitarianism) were changing, and increasingly different from scripture over time.

At this point, I want to reiterate that historically it has been acknowledged that the Trinity did not exist at the time of the apostles, rather, God was unity (one person), not trinity (three persons).

See T 1.10 Tradition in Original Christianity, Part 10, The Apostles taught the Father alone was God, one of the Most Hidden Truths in Christianity Today for more.

It is recognized below in an encyclopedia entry (and other places) that the original Christian church was Unitarian, not Trinitarian.

Even after the elimination of Gnosticism, the church remained without any uniform Christology; the Trinitarians and the Unitarians continue to confront each other, the latter at the beginning of the third century still forming the large majority.[12]

The historical evidence (especially in the writings of the Church Fathers) shows that the doctrine of the Trinity didn’t exist at the time of Christ in the original apostles. After the passing of the apostles, it slowly developed, and took centuries to be accepted, and only after Unitarianism was declared heretical with severe penalties. To say otherwise is purely revisionist history.   The above statement says that Trinitarians were in the minority and Unitarians were the majority at the beginning of the third century, a century and a half after the apostles.  The use of the word “still” means that Unitarianism (God is one person, the Father) dominated Christianity at its beginning.

The reason this is relevant to the usefulness of Church Father writings is that you can plainly see in the writings of the church fathers that there was no Trinity in what the earliest church fathers wrote, then the concepts began to be developed, and then finally the church Fathers began writing more about Trinitarianism.

There are other issues that didn’t exist at the time of the apostles that you see develop as well, the acceptance of philosophy, the supremacy of the Catholic church, apostolic succession, the replacement of the apostles by the bishops and their growing power, the development of sacraments, and so forth.

Therefore, the whole progressive development of Trinitarian doctrine and the other doctrines mentioned violates the charge of the apostles to maintain their doctrine.

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2Th 2:15 ESV)

In summary, the biggest value of the writings of the early Church Fathers is the ability to see how well or not the church followed the above charge to hold fast to the teachings and practices established by the apostles.  You can trace new traditions in the church as they developed.

The Apostle Paul in various places prophesied that false doctrines would appear, and as historical documents, the writings of the Church Fathers are a resource to look for them.


[2] John Wesley’s Theology Today,: W Williams, Abingdon press, Nashville, 1982, P. 29

[3] Ante–Nicene Father, Britannica,


[5] Justin Martyr, (C. 160, B)

[6] Second Clement (C. 150), 7.519

[7] Irenaeus, Against Heresies,

[8] Clement of Rome (C. 96, W), 1.12, Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, P. 523

[9] Tertullian (C. 210, W), 3.554, Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, P. 524

[10] Athenagoras, (C. 175, B), 2.133

[11] DICTIONARY OF EARLY CHRISTIAN BELIEFS, David W. Bercot, Editor, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 7th Printing, March 2008, ISBN 978-1-56563-357-5, p. 695

[12] The Encyclopaedia Britannica Vol.23 :  Internet Archive p.963, The belief in Unitarianism was bigger in modern times in the last century as evidenced by this entry in a century-old or so encyclopedia.

© copyright 2023 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved. Last edited 3/16/2024

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