I have been having a debate on the Baptistboard regarding the role that baptism has in salvation. Needless to say my current views on baptism haven't gone over too well over there. When making the point that the early church fathers were unanimous in stating that regeneration and remission of sins takes place during baptism, one fellow responded by pointing out how Irenaeus stated that it was a tradition received from the Apostles that Jesus was fifty years old when He was crucified. I guess the idea was that this one example of attributing an erroneous belief to "Tradition" was supposed to cancel out the Patristic consensus regarding baptism.
Well, if I recall correctly, Iraneaus was saying Jesus wasn't 50 years old, and that a false tradition had been handed on based on a misreading of where the Pharisees ask how Abraham saw Jesus, when Jesus is not even 50 years old. I certainly dont recall any of the Father's claiming that Tradition had been passed on from the Apostles, but that it was based soley on the Scriptures. (but I could be wrong, regardless the age of Jesus has about as much to do with Salvation as the length of His hair.)
Which to me is the problem with that gentleman's argument. First, if you ask him how old He believes Jesus to have been at His crucifixion, he I'm sure would say, "33 years old". Yet exactly where does it say that in the Bible??? He in fact is using Church tradition to come to the conclusion!
With Baptism, there simply are no contradictory beliefs. EVERY Church Father believed it to be where we are regenerated, where we die and rise with Christ, and where we are "born again". Every Church Father believed Communion to be the literal, but in a Mysterious way, Body and Blood of Christ. Did some disagree about the age of Jesus? maybe, maybe not, but who really cares. We're not saved by how old He was, we're saved by His teachings.
However, this did bring up a good point that I've pondered before. If there are examples of Church fathers who attribute contradictory beliefs or erroneous assertions to Apostolic Tradition, how does one separate the Patristic "wheat", so to speak, from the Patristic "chaff"? How does one know what is genuine Tradition from custom or false belief that is merely attributed to that Tradition?
I think you might be making too much out of this. While its important to know what is Tradition and what is tradition, its really not that hard or complicated to figure out. There really isn't anything to "figure out" at all. Because, its just sort of known which is which.
I think your question is asking how did the early Church figure out which was which, or how do we look back and figure out which is which? My answer would be, they already knew. The baptist gentleman brought up one little point about the age of Jesus. But I specifically remember reading Father's saying that 50 yrs old thing was based on a misreading of the Scriptures. (again, I dont recall what Iraneaus wrote)
The Church Fathers were not infallible. They weren't baptist theologians after all! :-) They never claimed to be infallible. And if there was something in dispute, enough for it to be seen as endangerment to peoples souls, then a Council was called to resolve the issue.
However the age of Jesus doesn't endanger anyone's souls. And really, most of these little disagreements between the Fathers we're not big deal. Its just not a big deal how old Jesus was. Or HOW bread and wine can become the Body and Blood of Christ. And I think this is a major difference between East and West. Is that for the Western mind, everything must be defined and put into a box, then under a microscope, and then examined 3000 times. To the East, we're simply happy with saying, "hey we dont know everything and we can't explain everything. But when it matters, we know what's True, and thats what matters."
And as someone who still thinks as a Westerner most of the time, I can say sometimes I just crack my priest up. But its just how most of us think, and he appreciates it. But cant help but smile when I ask something that to the Eastern mind seems like no big deal, but that I end up making a big deal about.
As you already know, we never take one Church Father, but we take them all. And as you said follow the consensus. And really, as far as Baptism, the Eucharist, Liturgical Worship, the Priesthood, Bishops, there isn't merely a consensus, but unanimous agreement on these things.
I really wish I could give a better answer than this hodge podge post of mine. I just really don't see it as a big deal. The only answer I can give is that the Holy Spirit guided the Church into all Truth, and where there were different traditions, God guided the Church to a consensus of one Tradition.
Originally different Churches celebrated Easter at different times, all claiming their founding Apostle told them when to celebrate it. And in fact, I have no doubt that each Church was adhering to ther Apostle's teaching. Perhaps in Ephesus the Church was taught to celebrate Pascha on a certain day because of some pagan festival they wanted to counter. Yet say in Alexandria they celebrated a week later, because a different pagan festival fell on a later date and St. Mark said to celebrate then. And probably in Jerusalem they celebrated on "the real" day. I don't know for sure. But I dont have a problem with this, because the Apostles may have had reasons for doing certain things. It doesnt mean the Apostles disagreed, or didn't know the true date, it just means they could have had reasons for what they did. The important point is that they DID celebrate Pascha, at least close to the same time as everyone else. They HAD to celebrate the Resurrection, but if the underground Church in Rome or Athens got the date wrong, is that the end of the world? Well, to us Westerners it is, but not to Greeks, or Egyptians, or anyone from the East.
So if there are different traditions handed down by the Apostles it simply means the Apostles were teaching to people in different ways. We see this with St. Paul who was "all things to all men" as he said.
Certainly St. Mark used existing customs in Alexandria and said "do it this way" and St. Thomas in India used Indian customs and said "do it this way." In reality BOTH are right. And this could account for many of the supposed contradictions in Apostolic tradition. But again, when it came to Baptism, the Eucharist, the Liturgy, the priesthood, etc...all this was the same across the board.
None of this probably helps much...but thats my take on the subject. Hope its helpful in some way.