Updated: Aug 13
By Luke Lancaster
The Fathers of the Church were the earliest leaders of Christianity, and played a sort of "founding father" type of role like John Adams did for the United States. They quoted the New Testament in all of their homilies, letters, books, writings, etc. In fact, we could practically reproduce the New Testament by 150-250 years after Christianity.
The Apostolic Fathers, meaning those who were living during the times of the apostles, reference the New Testament Gospels about 130 times. This is seen in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, wrote from 107 AD, St. Clement of Rome, who wrote from 70-90 AD, St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who wrote from 155 AD in Asia Minor, and the author of the Didache, written in 70 AD. Also of note would be St. Papias, the bishop of Hieropolis in Asia Minor around 140 AD. The Christian historian Eusebius wrote in his fourth century history of the Church included the writings of Papias, who quoted from the Gospels multiple times.
The next immediate Church Fathers, following the Apostolic Fathers, are the "big three": Tertullian, Clement, and Irenaeus. Tertullian in Africa quoted the New Testament over 7,000 times, and he argues for the New Testament's reliability in the 200's in his book Against Marcion! He argues that all of the Gospels are historical and that all of the Gospels in use during his day agreed with the original autographs of the apostles or someone close to the apostles. St. Clement of Alexandria in Egypt quoted the New Testament 2,400 times. St. Irenaeus in France quoted the New Testament 1,800 times. In fact, according to his famous work Against Heresies (book 3, chapter 1) he said,
"Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia."
The Gospels are historically reliable and were written by eyewitnesses or followers of eyewitnesses. Irenaeus goes on to say in chapter 11 that this truth was universally held in the Church.
Dr. William Lane Craig confirms Irenaeus's claims about the authors of the Gospels in his book, "Apologetics." He said, "The extra-biblical testimony unanimously attributes the Gospels to their traditional authors,...testimony from the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle of Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, all the way up to Eusebius in A.D. 315...Theophilus, Hippolytus, Origen, Quadratus, Irenaeus, Melito, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Dionysius, Tertullian, Cyprian, Tatian, Caius, Athanasius, Cyril...Even Christianity's opponents conceded this: Celsus, Porphyry, Emperor Julian." Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the authors.
The Church Fathers were the pioneers of the early liturgies of the Church, celebrated throughout the world according to St. Justin Martyr (1st Apology, para. 66-67) in 150 AD. This means that all the countries of the Mediterranean world would have contained the Scriptures to be read every Sunday by every Christian.
During the time of the Church Fathers were some false gospels (such as the gospel of Thomas), which they condemned to be false. These false gospels were writings that attempted to get into the canon of the New Testament. They were not written by actual apostles, though, having been written in the 2nd century or later by followers of the Gnostic heresy. They mimicked the real Gospels, which would again indicate the trustworthiness of the New Testament. In fact, since there were so many false gospels, there needed to be an official listing of which books were considered authentic. We have that official listing in the Muratorian fragment, dating to around 170 AD, which gives a listing of which books are real. The author lists four Gospels and gives a canon of the New Testament that is very similar to our own.
So, the Church Fathers are another witness to the trustworthiness of the New Testament. Even if we did not have the vast amount of manuscript evidence for the New Testament, we could pretty much piece it all together from their quotations of it! Or maybe we could just take Tertullian and his 7,000 quotations of it!