It is often claimed by Protestants in general, and so-called Reformed Protestants in particular, that the Early Church Fathers were “more Protestant than Catholic.” That is, when Protestants read the Early Church Fathers, they tend to see the Early Church Fathers as proto-Protestants. Faith alone, credo-only baptism, sola scriptura, and double imputation, all distinctively Protestant doctrines are often seen in the writings of the fathers. The Catholic Church argues, on the other hand, that these Protestant doctrines are novel, and aren’t present within the teachings of the Early Church Fathers.
This dispute originated during the time of the Protestant Reformation. The great reformer, John Calvin, highlighted the views of the opposing sides, and forcefully argued that the Reformed “Calvinist” position was more consonant with the beliefs of the Early Church in a letter he wrote to Catholic Archbishop Sadoleto in 1539.
You know, Sadolet, and if you venture to deny, I will make it palpable to all that you knew, yet cunningly and craftily disguised the fact, not only that our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours, but that all we have attempted has been to renew that ancient form of the Church, which, at first sullied and distorted by illiterate men of indifferent character, was afterwards flagitiously mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman Pontiff and his faction.
I will not press you so closely as to call you back to that form which the Apostles instituted, (though in it we have the only model of a true Church, and whosoever deviates from it in the smallest degree is in error,) but to indulge you so for, place, I pray, before your eyes, that ancient form of the Church, such as their writings prove it to have been in the age of Chrysostom and Basil, among the Greeks, and of Cyprian, Ambrose, and Augustine, among the Latins; after so doing, contemplate the ruins of that Church, as now surviving among yourselves.
The purpose of the articles in this series is to show how much of a stretch it is for a Reformed Protestant to claim that the reformation was a return to the Ancient Church of Chrysostom, Basil, Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine et al.—in short, we intend to show that this “Ancient Church” was Catholic. One way to go about investigating the beliefs of the early church, and showing that it was Catholic, is to look at secondary issues. This can be helpful, we believe, because many of the primary theological issues have been addressed ad nauseum. For example, whether or not the Early Church Fathers believed in Sola Scriptura as held by the Protestant Reformers has been much discussed. There are many hundreds of articles as well as many books that have delved into and discussed this particular issue. Likewise, there are plenty of websites that purport to show how the Early Church Fathers held to the Protestant doctrine of Faith Alone. We think it might be fruitful, therefore, to attempt to look a level deeper; at a secondary issue.
For this first article, we will be exploring whether the Early Church Fathers believed that Christians can make satisfaction for their sins to God through prayer, fasting, sacrifice, almsgiving, or other works. This topic, while seemingly secondary, cuts to the heart of what the Gospel is and what the sacrifice on Calvary accomplished. We will attempt to show that not only did the Ancient Fathers hold to a Roman Catholic understanding of penance and satisfaction, but also that their view is incompatible with how Calvinists view the Gospel message.
John Calvin, in the same letter to Archbishop Sadoleto, claimed that the Early Church did not teach that man can make satisfaction to God for his sins. In his 1539 letter he said,
“The ancient Church, I admit, had its satisfactions, not those, however, by which sinners might atone to God and ransom themselves from guilt, but by which they might prove that the repentance which they professed was not feigned, and efface the remembrance of that scandal which their sin had occasioned.”
Was Calvin’s claim true? Did the Early Church’s understanding of sin satisfaction only pertain to Christians showing that they were truly repentant? Or did the Ancient Church teach that the Christian could satisfy God for his own sins through penance, almsgiving, fasting, and prayer?