Let us take the analogy of a courtroom. When looking for witnesses, we want people who were closest to the action. They have a better perspective than those who are far removed. Catholics feel the Early Church fathers were good witnesses to the Christian faith. They understood Scripture the way Jesus and the disciples taught it.
Some of the criticisms of the Early Church Fathers is that they were only human and the Bible is divine so it is a better source. The Catholic Church agrees with this. Catholics believe that God used the hands of some of the early Church Fathers to write the Bible. The Early Church Fathers were only human but so were the early reformers in the 1500-1600s. They were over 1000 years before the reformers. Catholics feel that the Early Church Fathers had an excellent perspective about the meaning of Scripture because of their proximity to the events.
One of the criticisms of the Early Church Fathers is that they thought the world was flat and that the universe swirled around the earth. Actually that's not true. There was quite a bit of discussion among the Early Church Fathers. For example, Augustine described the earth as round. We should also note that most of the "reformers" such as Luther, Calvin, Wesley also rejected the "Copernican" system (a round world spinning around the sun). They interpreted scriptural references to the world being "immovable" to reject the idea that the world is spinning (i.e., 1 Chronicles 16:30, Psalm 93:1, Psalm 96:10, and Psalm 104:5). This glitch in the reformer's interpretation of Scripture also shows one of the problems with the principle of Sola Scriptura. Scripture needs to be interpreted and discerned in the context of humanity's maturity.
Some Evangelicals might say that that the Bible is self-explanatory and needs no interpretation. My response would be that the Evangelical movement itself does not support that statement. There are presently dozens of conflicting interpretations of Bible passages by different Evangelical denominations and cell groups. (i.e., the Rapture) Everyone interprets Scripture the moment they pick it up. Sometimes the Holy Spirit reveals stuff to us as we study which is great. But almost all of the conflicting views among Evangelicals are claimed to be revealed by the Holy Spirit. If I believe that Truth is not relative then there is only one truth. Catholics think it's better that it is interpreted by the authority to which Jesus gave the authority (Mathew 16:18-19). The Catholic Church doesn't claim that it understands everything about Scripture. Rather, it says that what has been revealed and defined as Dogma is true. The Church is on a pilgrimage of faith and its understanding of the mystery of God is evolving. More about the Church's interpretation of Scripture here.
The Church Fathers believed in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, honoured Mary, had elaborate ceremonies, prayed for the dead, respected the Church hierarchy, baptized babies, recognized Peter as the Rock, built the Church upon him with successors and followed a rich tradition of Christianity. That was the Christianity of the early days of Christianity and that is the Catholic Church of today. A timeline of the Catholic Church up to 500 A.D. is here
So in short Catholics feel the Early Church Fathers were kicking Christians who were plugged into the teachings of Christ and knew what the apostles were saying about the faith. The Church Fathers propagated the Church and helped bring it to the world. Catholics feel it is very useful to study what they taught and wrote about the interpretation of Scripture. It is also noteworthy that the Early Church Fathers practiced a very Catholic theology.
Apostolic Fathers are those before 200 A.D. and who were directly influenced or taught by the apostles. They include: Clement, Bishop of Rome (d. 97) and Catholics believe third successor to Peter as Pope; Ignatius (50-107), Polycarp (69-155), Justin Martyr (100-165), St. Irenaeus (130-202) and Cyprian (210-258). The Early Church Fathers lived between 200 and 800 A.D.
Here are some quotes of the early Fathers:
"See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Christ Jesus does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles. Do ye also reverence the deacons, as those that carry out the appointment of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrneans, 8:2 (c. A.D. 110).
"[A]ll the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished." Martyrdom of Polycarp, 16:2 (A.D. 155).
“…to be in honour however with the Catholic Church for the ordering of ecclesiastical discipline...one to the Laodicenes, another to the Alexandrians, both forged in Paul's name to suit the heresy of Marcion, and several others, which cannot be received into the Catholic Church; for it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey. The Epistle of Jude no doubt, and the couple bearing the name of John, are accepted by the Catholic Church...But of Arsinous, called also Valentinus, or of Militiades we receive nothing at all.” The fragment of Muratori (A.D. 177).
"[N]or does it consist in this, that he should again falsely imagine, as being above this [fancied being], a Pleroma at one time supposed to contain thirty, and at another time an innumerable tribe of Aeons, as these teachers who are destitute of truly divine wisdom maintain; while the Catholic Church possesses one and the same faith throughout the whole world, as we have already said." Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:10,3 (A.D. 180).
“For it is evident that those men lived not so long ago,--in the reign of Antoninus for the most part,--and that they at first were believers in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, in the church of Rome under the episcopate of the blessed Eleutherus, until on account of their ever restless curiosity, with which they even infected the brethren, they were more than once expelled.” Tertullian, On the Prescription Against Heretics, 22,30 (A.D. 200).
”Whence you ought to know that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop; and if any one be not with the bishop, that he is not in the Church, and that those flatter themselves in vain who creep in, not having peace with God's priests, and think that they communicate secretly with some; while the Church, which is Catholic and one, is not cut nor divided, but is indeed connected and bound together by the cement of priests who cohere with one another.” Cyprian, To Florentius, Epistle 66/67 (A.D. 254).
“But for those who say, There was when He was not, and, Before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance...these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.” Creed of Nicea (A.D. 325).
"Concerning those who call themselves Cathari, if they come over to the Catholic and Apostolic Church, the great and holy Synod decrees that they who are ordained shall continue as they are in the clergy. But it is before all things necessary that they should profess in writing that they will observe and follow the dogmas of the Catholic and Apostolic Church; in particular that they will communicate with persons who have been twice married, and with those who having lapsed in persecution have had a period [of penance] laid upon them, and a time [of restoration] fixed so that in all things they will follow the dogmas of the Catholic Church..." Council of Nicaea I (A.D. 325).
“Concerning this Holy Catholic Church Paul writes to Timothy, 'That thou mayest know haw thou oughtest to behave thyself in the House of God, which is the Church of the Living God, the pillar and ground of the truth'” Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures,18:25(A.D. 350).
"[T]he Article, In one Holy Catholic Church,' on which, though one might say many things, we will speak but briefly. It is called Catholic then because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men's knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly… for this cause the Faith has securely delivered to thee now the Article, And in one Holy Catholic Church;' that thou mayest avoid their wretched meetings, and ever abide with the Holy Church Catholic in which thou wast regenerated. And if ever thou art sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord's House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the peculiar name of this Holy Church, the mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God.” Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 18:23,26 (A.D. 350).
"I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the remission of sins, the resurrection of the flesh, and eternal life. Amen." Apostles Creed (A.D. 360).
"And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son is together worshiped and together glorified, Who spoke through the prophets; in one holy Catholic, and apostolic Church." Constantinopolitan Creed (A.D. 381).
"Those who from heresy turn to orthodoxy, and to the portion of those who are being saved, we receive according to the following method and custom: Arians, and Macedonians, and Sabbatians, and Novatians, who call themselves Cathari or Aristori, and Quarto-decimans or Tetradites, and Apollinarians, we receive, upon their giving a written renunciation [of their errors] and anathematize every heresy which is not in accordance with the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of God." Council of Constantinople I, Canon 7 (A.D. 381).
“We must hold to the Christian religion and to communication in her Church, which is Catholic and which is called Catholic not only by her own members but even by all her enemies. For when heretics or the adherents of schisms talk about her, not among themselves but with strangers, willy-nilly they call her nothing else but Catholic. For they will not be understood unless they distinguish her by this name which the whole world employs in her regard.” Augustine, The True Religion, 7:12 (A.D. 390).
“Inasmuch, I repeat, as this is the case, I believe also in the Holy Church, [intending thereby] assuredly the Catholic. For both heretics and schismatics style their congregations churches. But heretics, in holding false opinions regarding God, do injury to the faith itself; while schismatics, on the other hand, in wicked separations break off from brotherly charity, although they may believe just what I believe. Wherefore neither do the heretics belong to the Church catholic, which loves God; nor do the schismatics form a part of the same.” Augustine, On Faith and Creed, 10:21 (A.D. 393).
"For in the Catholic Church, not to speak of the purest wisdom, to the knowledge of which a few spiritual, men attain in this life…--not to speak of this wisdom, which you do not believe to be in the Catholic Church, there are many other things which most justly keep me in her bosom. The consent of peoples and nations…so does her authority…the succession of priests…[a]nd so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house. Such then in number and importance are the precious ties belonging to the Christian name which keep a believer in the Catholic Church…Now if the truth is so clearly proved as to leave no possibility of doubt, it must be set before all the things that keep me in the Catholic Church…For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church…for it was through the Catholics that I got my faith in it; and so, whatever you bring from the gospel will no longer have any weight with me. Wherefore, if no clear proof of the apostleship of Manichaeus is found in the gospel, I will believe the Catholics rather than you." Augustine, Against the Epistle of Manichaeus, 4:5,5:6 (A.D 397).
"You think that you make a very acute remark when you affirm the name Catholic to mean universal, not in respect to the communion as embracing the whole world, but in respect to the observance of all Divine precepts and of all the sacraments, as if we (even accepting the position that the Church is called Catholic because it honestly holds the whole truth, of which fragments here and there are found in some heresies) rested upon the testimony of this word's signification, and not upon the promises of God, and so many indisputable testimonies of the truth itself, our demonstration of the existence of the Church of God in all nations." Augustine, To Vincent the Rogatist, 93:7,23 (A.D. 403).
"Philip the presbyter and legate of the Apostolic See said: There is no doubt, and in fact it has been known in all ages, that the holy and most blessed Peter, prince and head of the Apostles, pillar of the faith, and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour and Redeemer of the human race, and that to him was given the power of loosing and binding sins: who down even to to-day and forever both lives and judges in his successors." Council of Ephesus, Session III (A.D. 431).
"I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical depravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or anyone else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they arise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church…Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation" Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory for the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith, 2:4,5 (A.D. 434).
"Wherefore the most holy and blessed Leo, archbishop of the great and elder Rome, through us, and through this present most holy synod together with the thrice blessed and all-glorious Peter the Apostle, who is the rock and foundation of the Catholic Church, and the foundation of the orthodox faith, hath stripped him of the episcopate, and hath alienated from him all hieratic worthiness. Therefore let this most holy and great synod sentence the before mentioned Dioscorus to the canonical penalties." Council of Chalcedon, Session III (A.D. 451).
To read the Early Church Fathers go here (opens to a new window)
Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.