Church Fathers – Leaders in Early Post-Apostolic Christianity

church fathers

The stories of the Christian Church Fathers are essential reading for any believer in Christ. They encountered many of the same struggles that we do. They helped Christianity to develop, and form a vital part of who we are.

By Mark D. Harris

I was cleaning out some boxes in the basement when I happened upon several books my grandmother had owned. They were dirty, with bindings breaking down and covers coming off. The pages had yellowed and become wrinkled and stiff with time and atmospheric moisture. Some of the texts were covered by a thin layer dust. Clearly these books had not been read for a long time. Little wonder that it should be so, because the publication dates on some were nearly 100 years old, and when I looked further inside one of them I struggled with some of the words, expressions and illustrations. Closing the book that I had opened, I placed it softly back in the box, and closed it. Someday I may open the box again and spend the time needed to study these texts and gather the needles in the haystack. Until then, whatever insight I expect to gain from these books will be lost to me because I have other “more important” things to do.

Studying the Church fathers can be very similar to opening a box full of old books. Augustine, Polycarp and Justin Martyr seem far away, out of date and unreachable to the modern Christian. Their experience with animals and gladiators in the arena seems more geared for Hollywood than it does Mainstream America. Nonetheless, the church fathers were real people in real situations and their lives, writing and experience are as relevant today as they were nearly two millennia ago.

Review of the Fathers (and One Mother)

Ignatius (c. 50-117 AD), possibly a student of the apostle John, was the third bishop in Syrian Antioch. Little is known of his life. In 115 AD, Ignatius was condemned to death and was being taken to Rome for execution. During his journey he wrote seven letters to churches throughout Asia Minor. His letters were intended to protect his readers from the dangerous twin foes of the church at that time; Judaizing Christianity and Gnosticism. One of his major themes was that disunity and false teachings in the early church would be decreased if each city had only one bishop, in the direct teaching line of the apostles, whose orthodox teaching would safeguard the truth.

Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) was a pagan with a background in philosophy who became a Christian around 130. Borrowing from the Apostle John (John 1:1) and using the Platonic concept of Logos, the “rational mind of God” to explain Christ, Justin contextualized the Christian faith so that Greek thinkers could understand and believe it. His works, including Dialogue with Trypho and First and Second Apology are classics in early Christian apology.

Irenaeus (c. 130–202), grew up in Smyrna and was a student of Polycarp. He moved to Lyon in southern Gaul and became the bishop there. The Bible as we know it was not yet complete and there was great confusion about what the fundamentals of the faith actually were. Irenaeus taught that three things were reliable guides to Christian truth, safeguarding believers against the heresies of Gnosticism, Judaization, and other dangers. These included 1) a universal church whose leaders’ authority came teaching the doctrines from the apostles, 2) a Bible with two testaments comprised of the writings of the apostles and prophets, and 3) interpretations consistent with the early creeds, such as the Apostles’ Creed, summaries of the truths of Christ.

Tertullian (c 160–220) of Carthage was one of the greatest early Christian apologists. His writings directly attacked the most dangerous heresies of his day (Prescription Against Heretics, Against Marcion) and others engaged issues of daily life, such as his treatise on marriage (To My Wife). To Tertullian the Rule of Faith, an accurate summary of what the apostles taught as the word of Christ, was the best safeguard against heresy.

Perpetua (c. 181–203) was the daughter of a high ranking Roman official in Carthage named Vibius. During one of the many intermittent persecutions there, Perpetua and her handmaiden Felicity were imprisoned and eventually martyred for their faith in Christ and refusal to worship the Roman emperor. Their story, the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, reflected early Montanism, a rigorous and, at that time, orthodox expression of Christian faith.

Origen (c 186-254) was the son of a Christian martyr (Leonides) who became one of the most respected, renowned and prolific Christian writers in Alexandria, one of the most educated cities in the Roman world. One of his most important works was a line by line comparison of translations of Scripture in Greek and Hebrew, including scholarly commentary. Origen believed that since Jesus Christ was the Logos, the spiritual realm had been finally opened up for exploration by man. As such, he took the Scriptures and found both historical-literal and allegorical-spiritual-moral meanings in many passages. Some of his interpretations, such as universal salvation, were and are suspect. Nonetheless, Origen, with his team of scribes and copyists, produced an amazing body of Christian literature that has lasted through the ages.

Athanasius (c 293-373) lived in a far different time with his predecessors. With the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313), martyrdom became a distant memory for most Roman Christians. The biggest problems were theological questions that threatened the unity not only of Christians but also of the entire Empire. Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria and his protégé, Athanasius, later Bishop of Alexandra, resisted Arianism, one of the greatest heresies in the history of the Church. Arius (250-336), the leader, taught that Jesus Christ was not God. Despite being declared heretical by the Council of Nicaea (325), Arianism remained popular in the Eastern half of the Empire. Over his lifetime, Athanasius was exiled five times from (to Trier, Rome, and the Egyptian desert 3 times) for his stubborn refusal to compromise. By his death, the truth of Christ’s divinity was recognized as the Truth of God.

John Chrysostom (c 349-407) was born to a high ranking, affluent army family in Antioch and trained as an orator by the greatest of his day, Libanius. Martyrdom had been replaced by monasticism as the way to greater piety, and under the influence of his devout Christian mother Anthusa, John abandoned his secular pursuits. He went alone into the nearby mountains to experience God, and eventually became a leader in the early monastic movement. Solitude took its toll on his health and John, a gifted speaker, ultimately became the Bishop of Constantinople. His 900 surviving sermons illustrate his expository style. Unfortunately, John’s candor earned him enemies, he was driven into exile from Constantinople, and he died.

Augustine (354-430) is one of the most towering figures in early Christianity. Born to a devout Christian mother (Monica) and a pagan father (Patrick) who was a petty Roman official in the town of Tagaste (modern Souk Ahras, Algeria), Augustine took a circuitous route to Rome and Milan, and through Manichaeism, Platonism, and even a bit of mysticism until after a spiritual crisis in 386 he accepted Christ, and the asceticism that he believed accompanied being a Christian. Augustine returned to Tagaste, lived as a monk for several years, and then became a presbyter and later a Bishop at Hippo. 113 books and treatises, 250 letters and more than 500 sermons remain of Augustine, among which his Confessions and the City of God are the most influential. He was also a major defender of orthodoxy in the conflicts with the Donatists and the Pelagians.

Cyril (378-444) was born in Theodosios (modern El Mahalla El Kubra, Egypt), the nephew of the powerful and controversial Bishop Theophilus (who persecuted John Chrysostom), and scion of the finest education available. He became bishop when his uncle died in 312, making good use of personal connections, oratorical and theological excellence and political skill. Jesus’ dual nature continued to puzzle His adherents, with factions emphasizing His humanity and others His divinity. The Nestorians emphasized His humanity, and Cyril proved their tenacious opponent. His theological contribution is best seen at the Council of Chalcedon (451), which reaffirmed that Christ was one person with two natures, one human and one divine.

Church fathers and the modern Church

Modern Christians should have knowledge of the church fathers. Christians and otherwise have many misconceptions about the early post-apostolic church. Some see them as unbiblical, others as “Roman Catholics”, and still others as “fallen” from the beauty and purity of the early church.

There is much strength to these opinions. From our position as evangelicals in 2010, with firm opinions about what constitutes genuine biblical teachings, it is sometimes hard to imagine how difficult it would have been to define Christian orthodoxy without the New Testament. The importance of the Apostles’ Creed, the testimony of a single teacher of orthodoxy in each city, the bishop, and the writings of the apostles become understandable when seen in this context. The rise of the papacy makes sense, given this theological background and the fact that the Roman church was the only major institution to survive the fall of the Empire. Movements like Gnosticism, Arianism, Manichaeism, Donatism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism conjure shrugs or puzzled glances in the modern church, but were extremely important in understanding why our forebears thought and acted as they did, and do much to explain the history of the time.

The church leaders noted above held the Bible in highest esteem and were Scriptural scholars of the first rank. As humans, they were neither more nor less “fallen” than any other human, and some reached great heights in Christian service. The fact that most of them did or taught things that were sinful or at least objectionable proves no more than that they were sinners. Until the 5th century, the church was catholic in that it was universal but the institution of the Roman Catholic Church as we think of it was a creation of the Middle Ages.

According to a 2000 Gallup poll, only 59% of Americans read the Bible even occasionally, only 39% read it at least once per week. Most people, even Evangelical Christians, care little about the true nature of Christ. Americans are notorious for their lack of interest and knowledge of history. Knowing the Bible and knowing church history are important for Christians in the modern day.

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