The grand myth of Roman Catholic dogmatics (enshrined in her own statements), is the idea of the “unanimous consent of the Fathers.” Outside of monotheism, I do not believe you could create a “unanimous consent” based upon the currently existing historical record for any doctrine, any belief, without engaging in “tradition editing,” that is, without picking and choosing which sources you will allow into your “unanimity.” Obviously, a serious, open-eyed examination of the patristic corpus reveals wide divergences of viewpoint, just as any examination of the current theological literature reveals the same phenomenon. Only conservative Roman Catholics seem to labor under the idea that since they know their church has been around for two thousand years, and the Pope has always been the Pope, etc., then there must be some kind of unified body of doctrinal belief that looks just like…them! The selective reading of patristic sources is the inevitable result.
In the book Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges (Baker, 2006), Dr. Nick Needham addresses the topic of justifiction in the early church (pp. 25-53). I would like to cite his own words on this topic:
It is easy to be misled by terms such as “patristic teaching” and “patristic corpus.” We need to bear in mind that this survey takes in three hundred years of Christian thinking and writing. If we consider the last three hundred years, from 1700 to the present, we will immediately see how misleading it might be to speak about “Christian teaching” or “the Christian corpus” over that period (or we could replace the word “Christian” with “Roman Catholic” or “Protestant” to the same effect). The phraseology could imply a uniform body of thought when the reality is anything but. When therefore I speak about different strands of thought in the fathers of the first four centuries, I am not claiming that all these strands always existed together in a single coherent monolith that was universally embraced by the fathers (or even in the writings of the same father). I am simply highlighting various aspects of Christian thought and piety that can be found within the documentary residue of the first three hundred years of postapostolic church life. I am not convinced that these formed a monolith, and doubt whether the “consensus of the fathers” over that period extended much beyond the Apostles’ Creed. (p. 27).
There are so many things that preclude the establishment of some kind of “patristic hermeneutic lens” that it is hard to know where to begin in listing them all. Obviously, some writings no longer exist. We do not have an unbiased sampling of the writings of the entirety of the faithful during those centuries. The quality of each writer can vary wildly, sometimes even within the corpus of the individual father (i.e., some writers are better in one area than they are in another). The level of biblical knowledge can vary tremendously from writer to writer and place to place. And often interpreting what a particular writer means is far more problematic than determining what any individual writer of Scripture intended.
I addressed this very issue at the end of my debate with Mitch Pacwa in 1999. I posted this recently, but in light of the events of the past few days, I thought I would post it again: