The following is the first chapter of Daillé's excellent work on the right use of the fathers. (see the contents post for more background)
Reason I. — On the difficulty of ascertaining the opinions of the Fathers in reference to the present controversies in religion, deduced from the fact that there is very little of their writings extant of the first three centuries.
If we should here follow the same course of argument, which some writers of the Church of Rome pursue against the Holy Scriptures, it would be very easy to bring in question, and render very doubtful and suspected, all the writings of the Fathers; for when the Old or New Testament is quoted, these gentlemen instantly demand, how or by what means we know that any such books were really written by those prophets and apostles whose names they bear? If therefore, in like manner, when these men adduce Justin, Irenaeus, Ambrose, Augustine, and others, we should at once demand of them, how and by what means we are assured that these Fathers were the authors of those writings which at this day bear their names, there is little doubt but that they would find a harder task of it than their adversaries would, in justifying the writings of the sacred volume; the truth whereof is much more easy to be demonstrated than of any human writings whatsoever. But I shall pass by this too artificial way of proceeding, and only say, that it is not very easy to find out, by the writings of the Fathers, what has really been their opinion, in any of those controversies which are now in dispute between the Protestants and the Church of Rome. The considerations, which render the knowledge of this so difficult, are many; I shall therefore, in this first Part, discuss some of them only, referring the rest to the second Part, examining them one after another.
The first reason, therefore, which I shall lay down for the proving of this difficulty, is the little we have extant of the writings of the ancient Fathers, especially of the first, second, and third centuries; which are those we are most especially to regard. For, seeing that one of the principal reasons that moves the Church of Rome to adduce the writings of the Fathers, is to show the truth of their tenets by their antiquity, which they consider as indicative of it; it is evident that the most ancient ought to be the most noticed. And indeed there is no question but that the Christian religion was more pure and without mixture in its beginning and infancy, than it was afterwards in its growth and progress: it being the ordinary course of things to contract corruptions, more or less, according as they are more or less removed from their first institution: as we see by experience in states, laws, arts, and languages, the natural propriety of all which is continually declining, after they have once passed the point of their vigor, and as it were the flower and prime of their strength and perfection. Now, I cannot believe that any faithful Christian will deny but that Christianity was in its zenith and perfection at the time of the blessed Apostles; and indeed it would be the greatest injury that could be offered them, to say that any of their successors have either had a greater desire or more abilities to advance Christianity than they had. It will hence follow then, that those times which were nearest to the Apostles were necessarily the purest, and less subject to suspicion of corruption, either in doctrine, or in manners and Christian discipline: it being but reasonable to believe, that if any corruptions have crept into the Church, they came in by little and little, and by degrees, as it happens in all other things. Some may here object, that even the very next age, immediately after the times of the Apostles, was not without its errors, if we may believe Hegesippus; who, as he is cited by Eusebius, witnesses, that the Church continued a virgin till the emperor Trajan's time; but that after the death of the Apostles the conspiracy of error began to discover itself with open face: [see Eusebius, Church History, Book 3, Chapter 32]
I shall not oppose anything against this testimony, but shall only say, that if the enemy, immediately upon the setting of these stars of the Church, their presence and light being scarcely shut in, had yet the boldness presently to fall to sowing his evil seed; how much more had he the opportunity of doing this in those ages which were further removed from their times; when (the sanctity and simplicity of these great teachers of the world, having now by little and little vanished out of the memories of men) human, inventions and new fancies began to take place? So that we may conclude that even supposing the first ages of Christianity have not been altogether exempt from alteration in doctrine, yet are they much more free from it than the succeeding ages can pretend to be, and are therefore consequently to be preferred to them in all respects; it being here something like what the poets have fancied of the four ages of the world, where the succeeding age always came short of the former. As for the opinion of those men [Cassand. Consult. Ferdinan. p. 894. Perron. Epist. to Casaub.] who think the best way to find out the true sense of the ancient Church, will be to search the writings of those of the Fathers chiefly who lived between the time of Constantine the Great and Pope Leo, or Pope Gregory's time, (that is to say, from the end of the third century to the beginning of the seventh,) I consider this as an admission only of the small number of books that are left us of those ages before Constantine, and not that these men allow that the authority of these three later ages ought to be preferred to that of the three former.
If we had but as much light and as clear evidences of the belief of the one as we have of the other, I make no question but they would prefer the former. But if they mean otherwise, and are indeed of a persuasion that the Church was really more pure after Constantine's time than before, they must excuse me, if I think that they by this means confess the distrust they have of their own cause, seeing that they endeavour to fly as far as they can from the light of the primitive times; retreating to those ages, wherein it is most evident there were both less perfection and light than before; running altogether contrary to that excellent rule which Cyprian has given us: [Cyprian, Epistle 74, p. 195] That we should have recourse to the fountain, whenever the channel and stream of doctrine and ecclesiastical tradition are found to be the least corrupted. But, however, let their meaning be what it will, their words, in my judgment, do not a little advance the Protestants' cause; it being a very clear confession that those opinions, about which they contest with them, do not at all appear clearly in any of the books that were written during the first three centuries. For if they were found clearly in the same, what policy were it then in them to appeal to the writers of the three following centuries, to which they very well know that their adversaries attribute less than to the former? But besides this tacit confession of theirs the thing is evident; namely, that there is left us at this day very little of the writings of the Fathers of the first three centuries of Christianity for the deciding of our differences.
The blessed Christians of those times contented themselves, for the greatest part, with writing the Christian faith in the hearts of men, by the beams of their sanctity and holy life, and by the blood shed in martyrdom, without much troubling themselves with the writing of books; whether it were because, as the learned Origen [Origen Preface to "Against Celsus," p. 1, 2.] elegantly gives the reason, they were of opinion that the Christian religion was to be defended by the innocency of life and honesty of conversation, rather than by sophistry and the artifice of words: or whether, because their continual sufferings gave them not leisure to take pen in hand and to write books; or else, whether it were for some other reason perhaps, which we know not. But of this we are very well assured, that, except the writings of the Apostles, there was very little written by others in these primitive times; and this was the cause of so much trouble to Eusebius in the beginning of his history, who had little or no light to guide him in his undertaking; treading, as he saith, "in a new path, unbeaten by any that had gone before him." [Eusebius, Church History, book 1, chapter 1]
Besides, the greatest part of those few books which were written by the Christians of those times, have not come down to our hands, but were lost, either through the injury of time, that consumes all things; or else have been destroyed by the malice of men, who have made bold to suppress whatsoever they met with that was not altogether to their taste. Of this sort were those five books of Papias bishop of Hierapolis, the apology of Quadratus Atheniensis, and that other of Aristides, the writings of Castor Agrippa against the twenty-four books of the heretic Basilides, the five books of Hegesippus, the works of Melito bishop of Sardis, Dionysius bishop of Corinth, Apollinaris bishop of Hierapolis, the epistle of Pinytus Cretensis, the writings of Philippus, Musanus, Modestus, Bardesanes, Pantsenus, Rhodon, Miltiades, Apollonius, Serapion, Bacchylus, Polycrates bishop of Ephesus, Heraclius, Maximus, Hammonius, Tryphon, Hippolytus, Julius Africanus, Dionysius Alexandrinus, and others; of whom we have nothing left but their names and the titles of their books, which are preserved in the works of Eusebius, Jerome, and others. [Jerome, l. de Scriptor. Etc. Eusebius in hist. passim. Tertul. Aliquorum meminit.] All that we have left us of these times, which is certainly known to be theirs, and of which no man doubts, are some certain discourses of Justin, the philosopher and martyr, who wrote his second apology a hundred and fifty years after the nativity of our Savior Christ; the five books of Irenaeus, who wrote not long after him; three excellent and learned pieces of Clemens Alexandrinus, who lived towards the end of the second century; divers books of Tertullian, who was famous about the same time; the epistles and other treatises of Cyprian bishop of Carthage, who suffered martyrdom about the year of our Saviour 261; the writings of Arnobius, and of Lactantius his scholar, and some few others. As for Origen, Cyprian's contemporary — who alone, had we but all his writings entire, would be able perhaps to give us more light and satisfaction in the business we are now engaged in than all the rest — we have but very little of him left, and the greatest part of that too most miserably abused and corrupted; the most learned and almost innumerable writings of this great and incomparable person not being able to withstand the ravages of time, nor the envy and malice of men, who have dealt much worse with him, than so many ages and centuries of years that have passed from his time down to us.
Thus have I given you an account of well nigh all that we have left us, which is certainly known to have been written by the Fathers of the first three centuries. For as for those other pieces, which are pretended to have been written in the same times, but are indeed either confessed to be supposititious by the Romanists themselves, or are rejected by their adversaries, and that upon very good and probable grounds; these cannot have any place or account here, in elucidating the controversy we have now in hand.
The writings of the fourth and fifth centuries have, I confess, surpassed the former in number and good fortune too; the greatest part of them having been transmitted safely to our hands; but they come much short of the other in weight and authority, especially in the judgment of the Protestants, who maintain, and that upon very probable grounds, that the Christian religion has from the beginning had its declinings by little and little, losing in every age some certain degree of its' primitive and native purity. And besides, we have good reason perhaps to fear lest the number of writers of these two ages trouble us as much as the paucity of them in the three preceding: and that, as before we suffered under scarcity, we now may be overwhelmed by their multitude. For the number of words and of books serves as much sometimes to the suppressing of the sense and opinion of any public body, as silence itself; our minds being then extremely confounded and perplexed, while it labors to comprehend what is the true and common opinion of the whole, amidst so many differently biased details, whereof each endeavors to express the same; it being most certain, that amongst so great and almost infinite variety of spirits and tongues, you shall hardly ever meet with two persons that shall deliver to you one and the same opinion, (especially in matters of so high a nature as the controversies in religion,) after the same form and way of representation, how unanimous soever their consent may otherwise be in the same opinion. And this variety, although it be but in the circumstances of the thing, makes, notwithstanding, the foundation itself also appear different.
TFan note: There has been significant effort and some notable advances in recovery of ancient writings since the above was written, back in the 17th century. Nevertheless, works like the writings of Castor Agrippa against the twenty-four books of the heretic Basilides remain attested by ancient sources, but still basically lost. It is possible a manuscript out there remains to be found or catalogued, but it seems likely that many of these ancient works are simply irretrievably lost.
And, of course, these examples of works that we think are completely lost, but that we know once existed, are just some examples of the works that were written. Can anyone doubt that there were many more works that were written but immediately passed out of memory, as they were not mentioned by other writers before being lost or destroyed?
Take even Roger Pearse's recent publication of Eusebius' "Gospel Problems," book. He has identified many fragments of the book and has published them, with a translation. Nevertheless, this book remains in fragmentary form. We don't always know how much is lost, how much has been interpolated, how much is paraphrase, and what part of the fragments certainly belongs to Eusebius.
We have better records with some of the later and especially famous and popular fathers, like Augustine, but he wasn't even born until about the middle of the fourth century (around A.D. 354). But we may have an occasion to revisit some issues associated with Augustine.