The clearest statement on the matter is the self-effacing declaration by Ignatius of Antioch:
I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles (Epistle to the Romans, chapter 4).
Ignatius readily acknowledges that he does not have the authority his predecessors had. When the early fathers disagreed with each other (that happened a lot), they appealed to the following sources (listed in order of priority):
- The apostolic texts that would eventually become the New Testament
- Tradition handed down from people who knew the apostles
- Other early writings whose credentials were considered very strong (e.g. the Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, the writings of Irenaeus--these highly regarded texts were referenced in doctrinal disputes for centuries)
An interesting example of this phenomenon is the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons himself. In Against Heresies 2.22 he rejects his opponents by repeatedly quoting scripture, and inserting tradition handed down by the disciples of the apostles as needed. Where the tradition makes the stronger case, he focuses on that, but far and away it is the Hebrew & Greek scriptures he uses most in this chapter in rejecting those he deemed heretics.
For a sampling of how scathing one Patristic writer could be of another, consider:
Irenaeus regarding his contemporary, Tatian:
They deny, too, the salvation of him who was first created. It is but
lately, however, that this opinion has been invented among them. A
certain man named Tatian first introduced the blasphemy. He was a
hearer of Justin's, and as long as he continued with him he expressed
no such views; but after his martyrdom he separated from the Church,
and, excited and puffed up by the thought of being a teacher, as if he
were superior to others, he composed his own peculiar type of
doctrine. He invented a system of certain invisible Aeons, like the
followers of Valentinus; while, like Marcion and Saturninus, he
declared that marriage was nothing else than corruption and
fornication. But his denial of Adam's salvation was an opinion due
entirely to himself. (Against Heresies 1.28.1)
Eusebius goes full ad-hominem in rejecting the millenarian views of Papias:
I suppose he got these ideas through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not perceiving that the things said by them were spoken mystically in figures. For he appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses. But it was due to him that so many of the Church Fathers after him adopted a like opinion. (HE 3.39.12-13)
There is value in the Patristics
If the Patristic writers were self-deprecating and quarrelsome among themselves, where is the value in their words?
As SpiritRealmInvestigator noted here:
In the context of related debates such as … [a variety of theological
topics listed]...I think it would be quite helpful to know the views
held by the Apostolic Fathers, as they had the unique privilege of
receiving direct or almost direct teaching from the Apostles
That at least some Biblical teachings can lead to more than one well-argued interpretation is demonstrated immeasurably well by this site. I agree that there is value in understanding what early Christian leaders understood–especially considering that it is on their authority that the New Testament was compiled & delimited.
This is not to argue for Patristic inerrancy–they in fact disagreed with each other all the time–but to highlight how singularly significant it is when a supermajority of Ante-Nicene fathers agree on something! Their trust in and usage of the 27 books of the New Testament we have today is the reason these books–and only these books–were repeatedly ratified in the 4th century and later (e.g. Athanasius, Synod of Hippo, etc).
To accept their authority (when nearly unanimous) regarding the contents of the New Testament but to reject their authority (when nearly unanimous) regarding theology is contradictory. There are 2 approaches that permit logical consistency:
- Reject both the New Testament and the early Patristic statements on theology
- Accept both the New Testament and the aforementioned early Patristic
statements as well-attested and more likely than not to be accurate
Note that I’m only making this argument on matters where there is broad agreement among the Ante-Nicene fathers–there are many topics where they obviously did not see eye to eye and this argument would not apply.
Even the original apostles did not always agree with each other (see Galatians 2), but where they unambiguously hold a consistent position (such as the reality of Jesus’ resurrection), there’s little ground to stand on to try to disagree with them. If Peter & Paul agree on something, that’s pretty solid ground. What about their disciples?
Irenaeus of Lyons & Clement of Alexandria were contemporaries, living on opposite corners of the Mediterranean in the late 2nd century. Irenaeus was from a region where Christianity was planted by Paul (and doubtless influenced by John); Clement was from a region where Christianity was planted by a disciple of Peter (see here). Irenaeus & Clement represent very different strands of Christian thought and their theologies don’t always align (Clement in particular is interesting for his willingness to talk about things Irenaeus doesn’t dare touch).
A useful rule of thumb: when Irenaeus of Lyons & Clement of Alexandria agree on something, we have particularly solid attestation.
If broad agreement among the Ante-Nicene Fathers is symptomatic of historical knowledge that was incontrovertible at the time, it makes an excellent case for trusting the early Patristics when they are nearly unanimous.
Modern citations of Patristic writers are usually divided between Ante-Nicene Fathers (people writing before the Council of Nicaea, they lived within a few generations of the apostles) and Post-Nicene Fathers. Much greater weight is given to the Ante-Nicene Fathers because:
- They were closer to the source
- They lived at a time when they were a persecuted minority, not a powerful, protected monopoly. As a result, these people who were already willing to risk death to teach what they believed, were under considerably less political & economic pressure to conform to the dictates of other authorities--by speaking out they had already put it all on the line and had relatively little left to lose. They said what they really believed.
(we could sub-divide groups further if we wanted, and put greater weight still on the Apostolic Fathers--the 2nd generation Christian leaders--over the remainder of the Ante-Nicene Fathers).
If these earliest writers are both nearly unanimous AND wrong, that's a pretty severe indictment of the apostles' ability to teach their message. If we were that distrusting of the earliest Christian writers, why (without engaging in circular reasoning) exactly do we trust that they handed down the New Testament to us correctly?