One of the things I've been amused to notice in my ten month career as a patristiblogger is the surprise I get from my Orthodox and Catholic readers that a Protestant is interested in the Fathers at all. I don't blame their surprise because I know that many Protestants have rejected the need to look at the history of the Church between, say, the apostolic era and Luther hammering the 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg (or, in more extreme cases, the establishment of one's own particular sect). Patristic authors, in this view, mark the beginning of the corruption of the Church in late antiquity and the Middle Ages.
I am, however, an Anglican, which, in itself, should explain my interest in the Fathers because we have a long tradition of considering ourselves both Protestant and Catholic. What that means varies according to the particular Anglican being addressed, but, for me, it means that I am Protestant to the Reformers had the right idea in their ideas about many things including their subordination of tradition to the authority of Scripture. And I'm just Catholic enough to think that tradition is an important aid in helping to read Scripture properly. For me, the Fathers represent a recovery of tradition, but one which must be subordinate to Scripture.
Now, I'm not arguing sola scriptura strictly here, but rather something closer to prima scriptura. That is, Scripture is uniquely authoritative, offers a unified worldview and can be interpreted within its own confines without the medium of outside authorities. Any theological proposition, whether our own or that of the past, must be referred back to Scripture in order to discern whether it is, in fact, appropriately considered a Christian position. That has led to some Protestants rejecting the Fathers (and anyone else before the Reformers), but I don't think it needs to. So, what I want to do is set out some points about what a Protestant Patrology might justify itself or look like.
The Reformers were influenced by the Fathers
The fact that many of the Reformers knew their way through the Fathers and were willing to use that knowledge comes as a surprise to many non-Protestants. I understand that, but the record is clear that many Reformers, including Luther and Calvin, not only recognized a debt to the Church Fathers (especially Augustine), but used their understanding of these Fathers as a tool to cut through what they perceived as the tangle of late mediaeval tradition. Some of this came out in biblical scholarship, but, by far the most popular use of the Fathers, was the polemical use in the characterization and appropriation of the values of the early Church, in establishing precedents for Reform practices such as priesthood of all believers, rejection of the episcopal system of church government, even infant baptisms and in trying to establish just when the Church slide into corruption. Now, whether one agrees with their conclusions or not (I apologize to my Roman Catholic readers for the tone of the above argument, but I was trying to give a sense of the tone of the Reformers on these issues), we can see the Reformers were interested in patristics, even if only for polemical purposes. That does suggest to Protestant today that, perhaps patristics isn't an un-Reformed interest, after all.
The Fathers are relentlessly Scriptural
Contrary to that strong Protestant trend to dismiss as human tradition any non-Biblical writer, my reading of the Fathers has brought me to see how intensely steeped in the Fathers were in Scripture. Just read a Father or two and what one carries away is the impression of a way of writing theologically whose expressions and images constantly allude to and appropriate Scripture in the way they argue and are constantly concerned with interpreting Scripture in such a way that make a direct connection to one's own life. The Fathers had a high view of Scripture and tended to view it as intelligible, often through interpreting particularly difficult passages by reference to other more sure passages of Scripture. This should sound vaguely familiar to any Protestant reader because this seems to be what Luther was driving at when he declared his slightly hyperbolic slogan, sola scriptura. For the Fathers, Scripture was authoritative and coherent on its own, even if they used tools (drawn from the same source, the apostolic tradition) such as the Rule of Faith) to guide the interpretation of it.
BUT: The Fathers can be wrong
At this point, I may have shocked some of my Roman Catholic and Orthodox readers for a moment, but, I hope, that if they think about it, they have to recognize that this recognition of the fallibility of the Fathers has been understood in their own tradition by referring the teachings of the Fathers to the magisterium (for Catholics) or the patristic consensus (for Orthodox) before deciding on the orthodoxy of a given statement. Sometimes a Father is insufficiently precise, given later doctrinal formulations, because he hasn't been challenged by heresy or schism to speak more precisely. Sometimes a Father is just out and out says something that is wrong, when it is tested against Scripture or tradition. Thus, we get Fathers like Tertullian and Origen who say a lot of right things, but must be handled with care because they also say some just wrong things.
For the Protestant, the filter to decide whether a particular statement is right or wrong is, ultimately, Scripture. Implicit in this statement is a belief that, while the meaning of the Bible is always static, our understanding can be affected by our sin or sloth and sometimes something that a culture or cultures decide is okay is suddenly recognized as not truly supported by Scripture. Mind you, this is proven by reference to Scripture, not through outside standards like experience. In a sense, this is what another Reformation slogan, semper reformanda, is getting at because there is a recognition that we, as Christians, have to continually challenge our own reading of Scripture to make sure that we aren't engaged in a case of self-delusion in our (mis-)reading of the Bible. The Fathers can help us in that because they are reflective of a culture without the same assumptions or blindnesses as ours (they had plenty of their own), but their own statements are subject to the same evaluation before we accept them in their entirety.
I'm quite sure that I haven't plumbed the depths of this topic, but this seems a good place to stop and ask for feedback. What other issues should a Protestant consider in his or her patrology?