The Early Church Fathers and the Foundations of Dispensationalism -- By: Larry V. Crutchfield

Journal: Conservative Theological Journal
Volume: CTJ 02:5 (Jun 1998)
Article: The Early Church Fathers and the Foundations of Dispensationalism
Author: Larry V. Crutchfield

The Early Church Fathers and the
Foundations of Dispensationalism

Larry V. Crutchfield

Professor of Early Christian History & Culture
Columbia Evangelical Seminary, Longview, WA

Part II—The Apostolic Fathers: Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias


The first article in this series laid the foundation for an examination of the works of the early fathers for rudimentary features of dispensational theology. Our basic premise is that these fathers, while not dispensationalists in the modern sense, nevertheless set forth principles that foreshadowed contemporary classic dispensational concepts. The task of the present article is to present the views, relevant to the subject at hand, of the first four of the “apostolic fathers.”

The Testimony of History

Perhaps it is fair to ask at the outset, “What value can be placed on the testimony of history to doctrine in general, and on the testimony of the fathers in particular?” The question’s answer should avoid two extremes. On the one hand, for example, the Roman Catholic editors of the Ancient Christian Writers series state that “It is important for the modern reader to realize that Clement, representing the Occident, and Ignatius, representing the Orient,” were “convinced” that apostolic tradition and Scripture supported “the Church’s monarchical form of government.” And this belief, say the editors, was “true of the rest of the Apostolic Fathers.” On this basis they ask, “Under such circumstances, is it any wonder that the Council of Trent requires Catholic theologians to interpret Scripture ‘according to the unanimous consent of the Fathers?’”1

The practice of placing the church fathers—or any other human intermediary or institution—between Scripture and interpretation is pregnant with peril. Martin Luther realized that the decidedly biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone through grace, though clearly taught in Scripture by the Apostle Paul and others, was absent from Catholic teaching. And for our study, it is instructive to note that the equally biblical doctrine of the premillennial return of Christ—which was the dominant view of the ante-Nicene church, though not of Augustine and others—was rejected by Rome and is rejected by the Vatican today. It would seem that at the Council of Trent “unanimous consent” regarding the meaning of the word “unanimous” was never reached.

On the other hand, the opposite extreme of total neglect of the teachings of those who have gone before can be just as detrimental t...

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