The Early Church Fathers?

 

Who were the Early Church Fathers?

  

Before we answer this question let us begin by asking the seemingly simple question as to what happened to the church after all the 12 apostles died? One rarely gives this a second thought. The answer is the Priests, Deacons and Bishops that the apostles appointed in the churches that the apostles set up continued the work of the original 12 apostles.  Otherwise the church could not continue. Some of those men distinguished themselves by their writings in defense of the Catholic faith against heretics and gnostics, and by their love of their Lord Jesus Christ. Others were laymen in the church who were skilled at apologetics for the Catholic faith.  Many came out of the East (Greek) and Western (Latin) part of Christian regions of the ancient world. Their writings which comprise roughly a 800 year period from Jesus death and resurrection are regarded by the church as being authoritative as worthy of being listened too as they teach us many truths about the early church.  They are also primarily to be consider as witness not as authorities since they were witnesses of an existing state of things and history. They also taught us matters of facts, not of opinions. The fathers generally speaking must meet four criteria to be considered by the church as a father:


  1. They must teach Orthodox doctrine

  2. Display holiness of life

  3. Church approval

  4. Be of antiquity.


As such their time line can be divided into roughly 4 time periods:


  1. 1. Apostolic Fathers (60AD-200AD)

  2. 2. Ante-Nicene Fathers (200AD-325AD)

  3. 3. Nicene Fathers (325AD-395AD)

  4. 4. Post-Nicene Fathers (395AD - 800AD)


A full listing of the church fathers can be found here at www.newadvent.org/fathers/.


Why should I even care about these people?


We should care because if a non-Christian or someone seeking to know about Christianity asks us where did we get the Bible from what will our answer be? God handed it to us from outer space all bound and wrapped ready to be read to our non-Christian friend?  Remember the apostle Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 3:15


But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,”


A second reason for caring is because most people never give a thought as to the origins of their faith. This often leads to a me and Jesus alone mentality and while not diminishing the importance of that relationship, we prove in the apologetics section that Jesus did not leave us a Bible alone. The Bible was written and complied by men under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and canonized by the Catholic Church. This has important implications which we shall discuss later on. Prior to its canonization many parts of the Bible can be found in the writings of the early church fathers certifying that it was faithfully transmitted over the centuries. A third and final reason is because by examining the writings of the Early church Fathers it gives us an insight into how they thought at that time as well as the workings of the early church.


How come I never heard of the Early Church Fathers?


Probably because the bible class or church you went too did not feel it was important to know your history or even appreciate it. If you are Catholic it depends on your catechist classes during your early formation years. It you had a strong catechist or priest you would have heard about the Early church fathers, otherwise they would never be mentioned.


In addition, many pastors and protestant preachers who are exposed to the church fathers in their seminaries are also only taught the texts of the Early church fathers that are specifically non-catholic or on areas common to both Catholics and Protestants.  For example why would anyone read St. Ignatius of Antioch teaching on the Eucharist when they themselves don’t believe in it! Consequently it is never passed on to pastors and preachers in protestant seminaries.


I myself never heard of the church fathers until I started reading church history and to the best of my recollection I was never taught either as a former Anglican.


Can you give me some examples of the church fathers?


Certainly there are some 60+ church fathers so only a handful are given here. Within the Apostolic period we have,

  1. St. Clement of Rome - 4th Pope ordained by Peter himself

  2. St. Ignatius of Antioch - Disciple of John and Bishop

  3. St. Polycarp of Smyrna - Disciple of John and Bishop


and within the Ante-Nicene period

  1. St. Justin Martyr - Layman and Christian apologist

  2. St. Irenaus of Lyons - Disciple of Polycarp


Within the Nicene period

  1. St. Basil the Great - Bishop of Caesarea

  2. St. Gregory of Nyssa - Bishop of Nyssa


Within the Post-Nicene period

  1. St. Augustine of Hippo - Bishop and Doctor of the church

  2. St. Gregory the Great - Bishop and Doctor of the church

  3. St. Jerome - Bishop and Doctor of the church, translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible.


To see a time line of the Apostolic Fathers download a Timeline of the Fathers.


Why aren’t the writings of the very early church fathers in the Bible?


For the simple reason that the Catholic church who decided what books should be in the bible in 397 and 405AD, decided that all direct revelation closed when the last apostle John died. their writings while instructive for teaching and rebuking are to be considered witness and not as authority.


Are all the church fathers declared Saints by the Catholic church?


No. Some of them very early on in the ministry wrote well and spoke well in defense of the Catholic faith and doctrines, but later on in life they fell into heresy or controversy.


Did the Early Church Fathers bear testimony as to Catholic beliefs and worship found in modern times?

 

Yes they did and for the most part they are too numerous to mention here. However to prove a simple point on todays mass and the Eucharistic celebration in Catholic churches worldwide and its importance to Catholics we turn to the writings of St. Justin Martyr and in particular quote #1345 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:


#1345 - “As early as the second century we have the witness of St. Justin Martyr for the basic lines of the order of the Eucharistic celebration. They have stayed the same until our own day for all the great liturgical families. St. Justin wrote to the pagan emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161) around the year 155, explaining what Christians did.” 


The writings of St. Justin Martyr are in Italics and my commentary is in plain text.


On the day we call the day of the sun, – Sunday or the Lord’s day

all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place. – Church


The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits. – Gospel and the Old testament readings in the Liturgy of the Word celebration.


When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things. – Homily or sermon on the Scripture readings and the application of the texts in the daily lives of the assembled community.


Then we all rise together and offer prayers for ourselves . . .and for all others, wherever they may be, so that we may be found righteous by our life and actions, and faithful to the commandments, so as to obtain eternal salvation. – Penitential Rite which is a general acknowledgment of sinfulness by the entire assembly, accompanied by requests for God's mercy and forgiveness.


When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss. – Sign of Peace.


Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren. – Preparation of the Gifts in the celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist


He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, –Eucharistic Prayer


through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks (in Greek: eucharistian) that we have been judged worthy of these gifts. – Consecration (bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ) and Holy Communion (distribution to the celebrant and the congregation)


When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying: 'Amen.' – Amen also called the Great Amen.


When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded, those whom we call deacons give to those present the "eucharisted" bread, wine and water and take them to those who are absent. – Ministry of taking communion to the sick.


Essentially the writings of St. Justin Martyr convey what goes on in each and every Catholic mass daily. Now it must be said that similar practices of worship exist in churches today such as the Orthodox and some Anglican and Lutheran churches. This is particularly true of the Orthodox church and less of the other “high” churches. The point to be made above, however, is that in the year 155AD St. Justin Martyr gives testimony to a Catholic (and Orthodox) belief in the Eucharistic which is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. That belief based on John 6 does not exist in the vast majority of Protestant denominations.


Can you show me some of their writings?


Many of the church father writings are available online at www.newadvent.org/fathers or at http://www.ccel.org/fathers.htmlHere is a sample of their writings adapted from Marcus Grodi of the JH network “The ECF I Never Saw”.


“Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry."

St. Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians, 44:1-2, c. AD 80


"You must follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the

bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8:1-2, AD 107


"The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things 'just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the Tradition is one and the same."

St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1, 10, 2, c. AD 190


"They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, Flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again."

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 7:1, AD 107


“We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.”

St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 66, A.D. 151


“Owing to the sudden and repeated calamities and misfortunes which have befallen us, we must acknowledge that we have been somewhat tardy in turning our attention to the matters in dispute among you, beloved…Accept our counsel, and you will have nothing to regret…If anyone disobey the things which have been said by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and in no small danger…You will afford us joy and gladness if, being obedient to the

things which we have written through the Holy Spirit, you will root out the wicked passion of jealousy.”

St. Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians, 1: 58–59, 63, A.D. 80


“Ignatius…to the church also which holds the presidency in the place of the country of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honor, worthy of blessing, worthy of praise, worthy of success, worthy of sanctification, and, because you hold the presidency in love, named after Christ and named after the Father.”

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, 1:1, A.D. 110


"It is possible, then, for every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles, and their successors to our own times…But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the Churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or

vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition."

St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3, 3, 1-2, c. AD 190


“The Lord says to Peter: ‘I say to you,’ He says, ‘that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church’…On him He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet He founded a single chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were that also which Peter was; but a primacy is given to Peter, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church

and one chair. So too, all are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the Apostles in single-minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?”

St. Cyprian of Carthage, The Unity of the Catholic Church, 1st edition, A.D. 251


“(T)hey have not the succession of Peter, who hold not the chair of Peter, which they rend by wicked schism; and this, too, they do, wickedly denying that sins can be forgiven even in the Church, whereas it was said to Peter: “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.” And the vessel of divine election himself said: “If ye have forgiven anything to any one, I forgive also, for what I have forgiven I have done it for your sakes in the person of Christ.”

St. Ambrose of Milan, On Penance, Book One, Ch. VII, v. 33, c. A.D. 390.


“For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in

the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion of Christ.”

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Philadelphians, 3.2, ca. A.D. 110


“There is nothing more serious than the sacrilege of schism because there is no just cause for severing the unity of the Church.”

St. Augustine, Treatise On Baptism Against the Donatists, Bk 5, Ch. 1, A.D. 400


Take me to the section on Authority and the Catholic Church