One reason why many Protestants today bought the notion that the early Church Fathers were theological infants is their ignorance of church history. The best remedy for that is getting to know the Church Fathers by actually reading their writings. The early Church Fathers are the heritage of all Christians, regardless of denomination. One way Reformed Christians, Evangelicals, and Orthodox Christians can deepen fellowship with each other is by exploring their common roots in the Fathers of the early Church. The ministry of the Church Fathers was based on the charismatic gift of teaching (Ephesians 4:11-13) and together as a collective witness they have ensured the doctrinal stability of the Church and preserved the Faith which was passed on to them as a sacred Trust (Ephesians 4:14-16, 2 Timothy 1:14).
Getting to know the early Church Fathers will not be an easy task for many Protestants. For many reading the early Christian writings will be like stumbling into a foreign land where the customs and landmarks are either unfamiliar or entirely absent. I remember struggling to make sense of the early Church Fathers when I was at seminary. Looking back, one important lesson I learned was the need to hold in suspension the assumption that the early Church was Protestant and to pay attention to the issues, vocabulary, and the methods employed by the early Christians, only then could I make headway in comprehending the early Church Fathers.
This article presents a quick sketch of Church Fathers with whom all Reformed Christians and Evangelicals should become acquainted with. I also included an early handbook and an early Liturgy widely used in the early Church; these were included because they are important for understanding early Christianity. The list of these ten sources starts with the earliest writings around the end of the first century and ends in the eighth century. The article is intended to be like a travel guide for first-time visitors who want to be ready to take in the sights and sounds of a new culture.
1. Ignatius of Antioch – The city of Antioch was the Apostle Paul’s home church (see Acts 13-14). As the third bishop of the church of Antioch Ignatius was heir to the same Apostolic Tradition as Apostle Paul. It is believed that Ignatius was the child that Jesus used as an acted out parable in Matthew 18:1-4. Ignatius was arrested by Roman authorities during the reign of Trajan (AD 98/117) and sent to Rome to be executed. On his way to Rome he composed seven letters to the churches he visited; all seven of them are available to us today.
Present day Protestants may find surprising the importance Ignatius placed on the Eucharist and the office of the bishop. In his Letter to the Smyrnaeans Ignatius stressed that a Sunday gathering could only be valid if it was done in unity with the Bishop (Smyrnaeans chapter 8).
Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. (Smyrnaeans chapter 8)
Another surprise for Evangelicals who hold to a memorialist understanding of the Lord’s Supper is Ignatius’ affirming that the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist (Smyrnaeans chapter 7). He writes of the Gnostic heretics:
They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ . . . . (Smyrnaeans chapter 7)
2. The Didache — In the late 1800s a church handbook with instructions about Christian living and worship was discovered in a monastery in Constantinople. Scholars generally date the Didache to AD 100, some even date it as early as AD 70! Christians who debate about baptism by total immersion versus baptism by sprinkling will find it informative that the early Church gave preference to baptism by immersion but allowed for baptism by pouring under certain circumstances (Didache VII). The Didache also records one of the earliest known Eucharistic prayers (Didache IX). Early documents like the Didache brings clarity to certain ambiguities in Scripture. For example, the Eucharist as a normal part of Christian worship and early Christians worshiped on Sunday, not Saturday.
And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water. But if you have not living water, baptize into other water; and if you can not in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. (Didache VII)
3. Irenaeus of Lyons – Considered the leading theologian of the second century, Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp who was the disciple of the Apostle John. The Apostle John in his three epistles combated the heresy of Gnosticism. A century later Gnosticism was still a problem for the early Church leading Irenaeus to write Against Heresies (AH), a comprehensive refutation of Gnosticism. The Gnostics did not deny the bishops’ claim to authority but insinuated: (1) that within the outward Church was a secret tradition that offered “deeper” insights into the Gospel and (2) that the bishops only gave the external meaning of the Gospel. Irenaeus refuted Gnosticism by expounding on Scripture and the Rule of Faith (Tradition).
Against Heresies is a lengthy work comprised of five books. The bulk of the book is a detailed description and refutation of Gnosticism but here and there like golden nuggets are passages of outstanding theological wisdom. Protestants would be surprised to learn that Irenaeus knew about a creed much like today’s Nicene Creed (AH 1.10.1). Irenaeus taught that in the Eucharist the bread and the wine became the body and blood of Christ (AH 4.18.4-5). Christians troubled by Protestantism’s many denominations and church splits will be daunted by Irenaeus’ claim that across the Roman Empire Christians confessed the same Faith (AH 1.10.4).
As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. (AH 1.10.2)
We find Irenaeus refuting an argument that resembles today’s “church fathers = infant” argument:
But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles . . . . (AH 3.2.2; emphasis added)
4. Athanasius the Great – Many Protestants appreciate Athanasius’ staunch defense of Christ’s divinity. His book On the Incarnation is a theological classic, in which one finds an explanation of how the uniting of Christ’s divine and human natures were needed to bring about our salvation. Many Protestants will be surprised to find that Athanasius did not follow the forensic paradigm which saw death as punishment meted out by the divine Judge but as the consequence of our loss of union with Christ (§5).
. . .to this end He takes to Himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word Who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all, and might, because of the Word which had come to dwell in it, remain incorruptible, and that thenceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the Grace of the Resurrection. (§9)
Athanasius understood salvation as the uniting of created mortal flesh with the infinite immortality of the uncreated Word (§9). He understood the goal of our salvation as theosis, a doctrine known to Orthodox Christians but largely unknown among Protestants.
For He was made man that we might be made God. (§5)
5. Basil the Great – Where Athanasius defended the divinity of Christ, Basil defended the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The Arian heresy was at root anti-Trinitarian. Consistent Arianism denied not just the divinity of Christ but also that of the Holy Spirit. Many Protestants will find it confusing that Basil opens the book by parsing the doxologies to the Trinity used in early Christian worship. Basil’s parsing of the doxologies reflects the fact that theology in the early Church was liturgical theology. What the early Christians believed was found in the Sunday Liturgy, not in thick tomes of systematic theology. Another challenge to the Protestant dogma of sola scriptura can be found in §66 where Basil affirms that unwritten tradition has equal authority to written tradition, Scripture. Protestants will be surprised to learn how many of the unwritten traditions enumerated by Basil are still kept in the Orthodox Church today.
If we attacked the unwritten customs, claiming them to be of little importance we would fatally mutilate the Gospel, no matter what our intentions. . . . (§66)
6. John Chrysostom – Many Protestants know him as “Golden Mouth” — one of the greatest preachers in Christianity. His giftedness as a preacher was such that the sermon was moved from its usual place – immediately following the Gospel reading – to the end of Liturgy so that people would stay to receive Holy Communion. Otherwise they would leave as soon as the sermon was over! His sermons were typically straightforward and didactic; many are still available today. One particular sermon, the Easter or Paschal sermon, has become part of Orthodox Tradition. This sermon is read in Orthodox churches everywhere on Easter Sunday. In this famous Easter sermon is the Christus Victor motif – Christ’s conquering death by his death.
By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. Source
7. Liturgy St. John Chrysostom – On most Sundays Orthodox worship services will be the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. In the prayers are eloquent affirmations of faith and devotion. Through faithful Sunday attendance people will find their minds and hearts shaped by the prayers of the Church. Before the Gospel reading, the priest will say this eloquent prayer:
Shine in our hearts, loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge, and open the eyes of our minds that we may comprehend the message of your Gospel.
Christians who struggle with Calvin’s harsh doctrine of double predestination will find it comforting that every Liturgy closes with: . . . for He is good and He loves mankind.
8. Cyril of Jerusalem – It was the practice of the early Church to have prospective converts undergo a lengthy course of instruction (catechumenate). It was expected that catechumens would attend the Sunday services and afterwards listen to lectures on the Christian Faith. Cyril was the patriarch or bishop of Jerusalem in the 300s. Many people undertook a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to visit the places mentioned in the Gospels, to learn about the Christian Faith from a bishop who could claim to be a successor to James the Lord’s brother and first patriarch of Jerusalem (Acts 15:12-21).
The Catechetical Lectures provide a valuable window into the theology of the early Church as articulated by one of its prominent leaders. Cyril stressed the fact that the Faith they were about to learn was part of a chain of tradition.
But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures. (Lecture 5.12.22; NPNF Vol. VII p. 32)
Cyril expected the catechumens to memorize the Nicene Creed:
This summary [creed] I wish you both to commit to memory when I recite it, and to rehearse it with all diligence among yourselves, not writing out of paper, but engraving it by the memory upon your heart, taking care while you rehearse it that no Catechumen chance to overhear the thing which have been delivered to you. (Lecture 5.12.23; NPNF Vol. VII p. 32; emphasis added)
9. Vincent of Lerins – Vincent lived in the 400s in Gaul (France) during a time when theological questions and opinions were proliferating. This led to theological confusion as people began to think that the Bible could be interpreted in various ways. In his Commonitory Vincent argued that Scripture was to be interpreted in light of the catholic tradition. This principle was summed up in a Latin phrase known as the Vincentian Canon.
Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. (That Faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.) (Commonitory 2.6)
Although more a short treatise than a full length book, the Commonitory gives the reader a concise and cogent explanation of how the teachings of the Church is based on Scripture interpreted in light of sacred Tradition.
10. John of Damascus – He was born in AD 676 under Muslim rule and is reported to have worked for the caliph of Damascus. John is known for his eloquent defense of icons, On the Divine Images, and for one of the earliest systematic theologies, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. Like other Church Fathers John of Damascus affirmed human free will (See Exposition 3.14; NPNF vol. IX, p. 58). By John’s time much of the Christological and Trinitarian controversies had been settled. The more recent debates were about energies and free-will, issues crucial to refuting the monothelite heresy which denied that Christ had two wills, human and divine. From these debates came a nuanced understanding of the Trinity in the form of the doctrine of perichoresis – the three Persons of the Trinity mutually indwelling or interpenetrating one another.
For the Son is in the Father and the Spirit: and the Spirit in the Father and the Son: and the Father in the Son and the Spirit, but there is no coalescence or commingling or confusion. (Exposition 1.14; NPNF vol. IX p. 17)
His eloquent defense of icons helped lay the groundwork for the repudiation of iconoclasm at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II).
In former times God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake. . . . (On the Divine Images)
When we speak of the Church Fathers we are talking about a diverse group of great Christians, some of whom lived in the first century on the western edge of the Roman Empire, and others who lived in the eighth century in Damascus under Muslim rule. Despite vast distances in space and time between them, they shared in a common Faith and worship. For Protestants it is important not to assume that the Church Fathers are like them. For me a major breakthrough came when I realized I had been assuming that the early Church Fathers were Protestants when clearly they were not. Another breakthrough came when I began to notice strong similarities between present day Orthodoxy and the early Church. There is no getting around the fact that early Christian worship was liturgical and its church polity episcopal. In terms of theological method the early Church Fathers did theology using the paradigm of Scripture in Tradition, rather than the Protestant paradigm of Scripture alone (sola scriptura). As a church history major I was struck by the fact that in contrast to Protestantism’s many denominations, the early Church maintained theological unity for a thousand years until the Great Schism of 1054 when Rome parted ways with the other four patriarchates.
For those interested in learning more about the Church Fathers, it is useful to know that there are collections of these writings easily accessible. One of the better known collections is the one initiated by Philip Schaff and still being published today, the Ante-Nicene Fathers and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series. See the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL). A convenient one-volume work is James Payton’s A Patristic Treasury. It should be noted that not all early Christian writers are regarded by the Orthodox Church to be “church fathers.” This title or honor is given to those notable for the orthodoxy of their teachings and the sanctity of their lives. The Orthodox Church does not have an official listing but commemorates them in its Liturgy.
Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox should get to know the Church Fathers of the first millennium. The Church Fathers represent a shared heritage among us. As we learn from the Fathers, we will be able to talk to each other using a shared vocabulary and theological paradigm. To disavow the Church Fathers is to become unmoored from historic Christianity. To embrace the Church Fathers is to be grounded in the historic Christian Faith “once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).