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Why you should know the Church Fathers and how to do it

Church Fathers

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Russell E. Saltzman - published on 04/27/22

There were a thousand things they had to figure out, like inventing a vocabulary to describe who they were and what they did and how they went about doing it.

When I was a Lutheran seminarian we rarely looked at the Church Fathers, almost never. So it was not surprising when a Lutheran bishop, slated to preach on the feast day of the Cappadocian Fathers before a Lutheran gathering of pastors who had invited him, opened his remarks saying he literally did not know who they were, but he’d make the best of it anyway. He should have read Rod Bennett’s two books. Bennett had yet to write them, though, so maybe the bishop gets a pass.

But still, if any Protestant community should be reading the Church Fathers with deference and appreciation it is the Lutherans. The Lutheran defense for their reforms (the term “reform” of course is disputed) was premised on their intention to restore the Church to her original simplicity. For every assertion made in the Augsburg Confession of 1530, they usually found and footnoted a Church Father who had their back, someone they believed bolstered the very thing the Reformers were saying. They argued that in their churches they had made only such changes as to restore something even older now lost, or eliminate something that had crept in through the years that was not in any way sanctioned evangelically. To read the Confession, so said Lutheran apologists, was to read in part a commentary on the early Fathers.

The Lutheran bishop noted above, with or without Bennett, betrayed his ignorance not only of early Church history, but also of the founding document of his own denomination.

But if Lutherans are neglectful of the Church Fathers (and they are), lay Catholics (I’m now one of those) in many ways probably match the Lutherans today. We just don’t know enough of our own Church history and we certainly know too little of the Fathers.

The Church Fathers are that array of pastors, bishops, and theologians writing after the Apostles but before 325, the year the Nicene Creed was formulated. They are also known as the Ante-Nicene Fathers (before the Nicene council), Generally speaking, they are the “second generation” of Christians. Their writings can be accessed through a simple Google search and their work is published in several collected volumes available at, say, Amazon. 

Some of the Fathers are very close to original witnesses. Ignatius of Antioch was said to have been mentored by the Apostle John. As a defense against those few contemporary outlier historians who make a career of questioning the historical existence of Jesus, I have yet to see even one of them deal with the historicity of actual witnesses as reported in history outside the Gospels.

What we read from the Fathers is what the Early Church was saying about itself and how it came to terms with what had happened in Jesus, and what it meant for the life of the world, and how to say all that in ways faithful to their memory of Christ.

There were a thousand things they had to figure out, like inventing a vocabulary to describe who they were and what they did and how they went about doing it. By the close of the 1st century they certainly knew they were a Church and that it was Catholic. But to arrive at this they first had to distinguish themselves from what they were not. They were not a Roman burial and funeral society. Such groups met periodically, shared meals, administered internal discipline, and debated what to do with non-paying members who reneged on their pledge to aid fellow society members in burial expenses. Or how were Christians different from Roman supper clubs, for that matter? Tertullian (not in either book; that’s another story) preferred that Christians call themselves a collegium (or simply “association”; even “club” would work). Tertullian wanted common words that were intelligible even to anyone not a Christian.

When Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia-Pontus (modern Turkey) in 125 AD, was confronted with a strange group of people who refused to give honor to the emperor, Trajan, he didn’t know who they were or what they did or what to do with them. They met, ate a meal, and sang a few hymns to someone called Christ “as to a god.” He questioned some under torture (including a couple of women called deaconesses) and gave the whole group of them three opportunities to disavow Christ. Those who refused were executed. These things had to be worked out. 

We also find from the Fathers the earliest discussions of the nature and relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; about the particular character and nature of Jesus; about church structure and governance. All these things and more flow down to us, but they began with the Fathers. From the Church Fathers we know of prayers for the dead, a beginning development of a doctrine of purgatory, the early reverence for Mary, Mother of Our Lord, and the absolute insistence on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Mostly, everything that is the Catholic Church today traces its earliest roots to the Church Fathers.

Rod Bennett’s two books — Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words and Four More Witnesses: Further Testimony from Christians Before Constantine — are an introduction to a few of the most important Church Fathers.

He includes Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch (who made first real argument for a single office of bishop as Catholics have since come to understand it), and Justin, called the Martyr (for reasons you should be able to figure out), who gave us a very early description of Christian worship (155 AD) which I find not at all dissimilar to the Mass of today; and Irenaeus of Lyons, the legendary slayer of heresies, who was noted especially for combating a whack-a-mole heresy called Gnosticism (actually a collection of heresies still around).

Bennett’s second volume (written nearly 20 years after his first — he was writing other things between the two) introduces Clement of Rome, perhaps the first bishop following Peter or maybe the fourth, sources differ. Clement is the author of the first and second Letters of Clement to the Corinthians. They were reprimands, actually, which gives us still more insight to the many Corinthian squabbles that so annoyed St. Paul in his two letters to Corinth. 

Bennett includes another Clement, this one of Alexandria (look him up). Another is Hermes, author of the Shepherd of Hermes. The Shepherd was a popular book and a contender for inclusion in the New Testament. His use of Greek grammar was as unlearned as it was, um, inventive. His writing is long-winded and repetitive. I find him difficult to read whether in Greek or in English. What he produced, though, might be called a spiritual how-to book (my phrase) for successful Christian living. It’s full of helpful commandments (12 as I recall), parables, warnings, and advice. It is heavy in prophetic allegory and, despite its many weaknesses, it was popular in the Church well into the 4th century, largely I suppose because the language was simple and direct.

Bennett also includes Hippolytus of Rome, the first antipope. It’s an embarrassing tale. Hippolytus was passed over for election as bishop and the job went to an ex-slave, Callistus, who was also an ex-con having once been convicted of embezzlement. Hippolytus went off in a huff, or in the words of a perhaps contemporary ditty, “had a cow when Callistus took the prow.”

Of Callistus the First we know little of his history. What is known was recorded largely by his critics, few of whom even pretended to objectivity. He became an archdeacon in Rome, manager of the church cemeteries, and was made bishop of the Roman church when the post fell vacant. His main trouble came from Hippolytus and Tertullian, others too, who took strong objection to Callistus having granted communion, after due penance, to those who had committed adultery and fornication. Hippolytus reconciled with the Church before his martyrdom, an automatic conferral of sainthood.

Hippolytus’ real contribution, and the reason he’s included among the Church Fathers, was his liturgical work for the Church, not only the Mass but also for occasional services like baptism, ordination (deacon, presbyter, and bishop), and others. To look at his liturgies is to see real theological elegance, a smooth, sleek, and unadorned Latin. His work is still revered and still in use. Hippolytus’ Eucharistic Prayer (c.215 AD) is the foundation for Eucharistic Prayer II in today’s Roman Rite, and Lutherans included the Hippolytian prayer in the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) for optional use. As a Lutheran parish pastor I used it every Christmas Eve. Some things just sound like Christmas, you know.

Bennett has produced a remarkable and accessible introduction to the Church Fathers and he chose his subjects wisely, each being a theologian still quoted by today’s theologians. Bennett started his Christian life as a Baptist and while still a Baptist fell in love with the Church Fathers. It was the weight of their witness that ultimately swayed him to the Church. He should write a third book. And when that is done, he can pick up some of the Post-Nicene Fathers.

~

Resources: 

The Augsburg Confession
The Christians as the Romans Saw Themby Robert Wilkins (Yale University Press, 1984, 2003)

~

Before entering seminary and becoming a Lutheran pastor (before becoming Roman Catholic), Russell E. Saltzman was a newspaper reporter, press secretary to a member of Congress, and deputy secretary of the state of Kansas. He is a member of St. Theresa North, Kansas City, MO.

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BooksChurch History
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