The Early Church Fathers – Who are They and why are They Important

By Evan Kardaras, Sub-Deacon at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.

(Talk given to a servants preparation class, February 2017)

The Early Church Fathers are persons who were influential in the Early Church through their writings and their Spirit filled lives. Generally speaking they’re usually from the period between the end of the Apostolic Age, after 100 AD, until about the 6th century. There are still some persons that can be considered Early Church Father’s by our Church that lived after this period due to the significance of their works and influence they had on the Church. An example of one such father would Saint Severus of Antioch who reposed in the mid 6th Century. After this we’re stretching it a little, to call someone an Early Church Father.

They were people who loved God with all their being. They held nothing back in relation to their service and sacrifice for the Lord.  Our Lord taught “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”.

Through their deep ascetic lives, fasting, prayer, sacrifice, unrelenting obedience to the Gospel commandments and burning faith in the Lord, they were purified from the passions, purified from sin, to the extent that they ‘saw God’ with the eyes of their heart. This vision of God, which is not a physical vision but a spiritual one, is what produces Theology.

After all Theology means ‘words about God’ Theos = God, Logoi = words.

What do I mean by this? Through purity of heart, purity from sin, a person starts to experience a deeper union with the Lord through the Holy Spirit. This imparts a true and deep knowledge of God. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. Think about it, if I love God as much as I can, with time, as I become purified from sin, God can come and abide in my heart as our Lord said: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” John 14:23

If the Lord can come and dwell in my heart, then I can truly know Him and therefore be able to speak about Him, through this deep and intimate relationship and union with the Lord in love. It’s not a theoretical knowledge like one may gain from reading books, but a knowledge that proceeds from communion with God and burning love for Him, and His Spirit abiding in us.

As our Lord said: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. Matthew 5:8.

One of the great desert fathers Evagrius Ponticus once said “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” (Treatise On Prayer, 61). This vision of God with the eyes of the heart; being filled with God’s presence through His Spirit, gave the Early Church Fathers great grace and experiential knowledge of God, making them great teachers and theologians of the Church. Some were Bishops or Clergy of the Church, others were simple monks. Most are considered Saints by the Church, others are not Saints as they erred during their lives and fell into error, but their writings can still be quite useful if used with discretion. Examples of great Fathers who are not considered Saints in our tradition are Origin and Tertullian.

Today the Early Church Fathers are generally categorised into the Ante-Nicene Fathers, those who lived and wrote before the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, those who lived and wrote after the First Ecumenical Council.

 

The Great Fathers of the Church

Different Churches consider different Fathers with greater esteem and thus give them special titles of honour. This depends on the influence the individual Father played that particular Churches history. We as the Coptic Church for example have a special love and honour for St Cyril of Alexandria, the Pillar of Faith, which means his teaching was like a strong pillar which gave the Church solid foundations, and St Athanasius whom we call the Apostolic, meaning with the wisdom and honour that equals the Apostles.

The Roman Catholic Church has deemed four fathers as Great in both the East and the West. These are as follows:

Western Church: St Ambrose, St Jerome, St Augustine and Gregory the Great.

Eastern Church: St Basil the Great, St Athanasius the Apostolic, St Gregory of Nazianzus the Theologian and St John Chrysostom.

In the Roman Catholic Church, they are also collectively called the “Eight Doctors of the Church”

In the Eastern Church which includes both Orthodox families, Oriental and Eastern, three of theses Fathers (St Basil the Great, St Gregory of Nazianzus and St John Chrysostom) are honoured as the Three Holy/Great Hierarchs. Our primary Liturgy as Copts is by St Basil the Great, and we also use St Gregory the Theologian’s and St Cyril’s Liturgies. The Eastern Orthodox primarily use the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.

 

The Cappadocian Fathers

There are also the three Great Cappadocian Fathers: St Basil the Great, his younger brother St Gregory of Nyssa, and their close friend St Gregory the Theologian. St Basil and St Gregory also had an older sister St Macrina and a younger brother St Peter of Sebaste.

 

Apostolic Fathers

These are the Church Fathers that directly succeeded the Apostles or lived in the first century. These Fathers either had direct contact with the Apostles or were spiritual grandchildren of the Apostles.

  • St Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – c. 108)
  • St Clement of Rome (c. 1st century AD – c. 101)
  • St Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69 – c. 155)

We can say with confidence, that what these fathers wrote about and taught, is what they received from the apostles as they were disciples of the apostles.

 

Greek Fathers

These are the Fathers who wrote in the Greek language. Generally speaking they lived in the regions of Eastern Christendom, such as the regions of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.

  • St Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165)
  • St Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 120 – c. 202)
  • St Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215)
  • Origen (c. 185 – c. 254)
  • St Athanasius (c. 296 – c. 373)
  • St Gregory of Nazianzus (the Theologian) (329 – 389)
  • St Basil of Caesarea (c. 330 – 379)
  • St Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330 – c. 395)
  • St John Chrysostom (c. 349 – c. 407)
  • St Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444)
  • St Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 313 – c. 386)
  • St Severus of Antioch (c. 465 – 538)

 

Latin Fathers

These are the Fathers who wrote in the Latin language. They lived primarily in the Western regions of Christendom including Rome and North Africa.

  • Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225)
  • St Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258)
  • St Hillary of Poitiers (c. 310 – c. 367)
  • St Ambrose of Milan (c. 340 – c. 397)
  • St Jerome (c. 347 – c. 430)
  • St Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430)

 

Syrian Fathers

These are the Fathers who wrote in the Syriac language. They lived in the regions of modern day Syria.

  • St Isaac the Syrian (c. 613 – c. 700)
  • St Ephraim the Syrian (c. 306 – c. 373)

 

Why did they Start Writing?

In the years following the establishment of the Church many false teachings started to be spread within the Church. There were people outside the Church that challenged Christian thought like philosophers and Jews, and also people from within the Church that taught incorrect teaching, which is known as heresy. These people would misinterpret the Scriptures and thus introduce great errors into the faith.

People from within the Church including bishops, clergy and monks began to write specifically to challenge the writings of these other people. The Early Church Fathers used the Scriptures or Canonical writings as the base of their teaching and through their deep relationship with God, and purity of heart, were able to interpret the Scriptures correctly.

 

What Did They Write About?

Each of the Church Fathers wrote on different themes depending on the era in which they wrote. It must be stressed that their writing are in full accord with the Scriptures and in most cases help us understand the scriptures correctly.  They lived the bible, and studied the bible with a great love and passion. They didn’t read the bible simply for academic reasons, but rather as a manual on how to grow as deeply as possible in their love for God. Thus all the writings of the Early Church Fathers use the bible as their base and quote the scriptures regularly.

As mentioned earlier there are writings written against heresies or false teachings that began to sprout within the Church. These writings in turn help us then understand our faith better. Others wrote as form of instruction for existing Christians in the form of Cathechism. Others wrote specifically on the spiritual and contemplative life. How to pray, how to approach God, how to practice spirituality. Others focused on writing commentaries on different books of scripture. They’d pick one book and then write extensively to explain its meaning. Other works have come down to us in the form of correspondence or letters to their friends or people they were having dialogue with, such as letters to other Bishops, or even to officials of the state.

Examples of themes they focused on and wrote about are:

  • The relationship between Christianity and Judaism
  • Christianity as compared to paganism and their modern day philosophies
  • The establishment of the New Testament Canon (St Athanasius Easter letter of 367)
  • Apologetics which is the defence or explanation of Christianity against different Heresies within the Church
  • The fixing of the Ecumenical Creeds
  • The Nature of Christ
  • The Holy Trinity
  • The Holy Spirit
  • The Doctrine of the Church
  • Salvation
  • Prayer and Asceticism
  • And more

 

The Importance of Their Writings

The writings of the Early Church Fathers are extremely important for us as Orthodox Christians. They helped to clarify what we believe and also laid down the foundation for all our theological understanding of our Christian faith. Without knowing it, the heretics and non believers during this period, through their own writings, forced the Church to produce writings which in turn helped the Church to express and formulate her teaching in such a way that is clear and allowed this teaching to be passed on from Generation to Generation.

It must be stressed that the Early Church Fathers did not create new teachings. They simply helped clarify what the Bible taught and what the Apostles believed. There writings are also extremely important as they teach us what it means to live an authentic Christian life. There are thousands of different churches today, and each has its own idea of what it means to be a Christian and also what’s necessary for salvation.

This is why it’s so important for us to go back to the Early Church and see what they believed. What were their thoughts of prayer, fasting, good works, Church attendance, partaking of the mysteries, etc.? Their writings should inform every aspect of our Christian mindset and lifestyle. We can see thus how extremely important their writings are for us today.

 

How did the Church decide which Writings are Orthodox?

Unlike our brothers and sisters who are Protestants, the Orthodox Church doesn’t believe that each person can pick up a Bible and interpret by themselves. This is why there are over 40,000 Protestant denominations that are independent of each other. Each Protestant Christian can pick up the bible and interpret it as they please and they believe this is the right way for biblical interpretations.

We also don’t believe one person is infallible in relation to faith and morals, and that his teaching is above whole councils of Bishops, like the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church believes that even if a whole council of Bishops disagrees with the Pope, that the Pope’s decision is correct above the councils, and his decisions in relation to Church teaching or doctrine can never have any error. This is the doctrine of the Catholic Church of the infallibility of their Pope.

As Orthodox Christians the Bible and its interpretation only takes place within the Body of the Church with all her Bishops in council. The Bible was written in the Church, by the Church, and explained by the Church. It cannot be done by an individual by themselves independent of the Church as a whole body.

This is why the Church has always operated through Councils of Bishops. In the same way the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Ecumenical Councils, were all the testing grounds where writings of each Father were deemed as Orthodox or as Heresy. Thus hundreds of Bishops would gather and discuss the faith and through prayer and fasting decide what was Orthodox and what was not and thus deemed heresy. The bishops would then agree on certain definitions and expressions of the faith and declare others as heresy. This is why their writings are extremely important for us today.

We cannot claim we are the Church of the Apostles if our teaching and Theology is not a continuation of the teachings of the Early Church Fathers. What this means for us today is that we must all be acquainted with the writings of the Early Church Fathers if we want to be Orthodox, especially if we are in a teaching capacity in the Church.

I think it’s scary indeed if there are servants in the Church who do not read the writings of the Early Church Fathers. What is the servant teaching? Who’s interpretation of the Bible? Once again this underlines the importance of reading the Early Church Fathers.

 

What We Believe Today as Defined by the Early Church Fathers

I’d like to finish this talk, by having a look at what other churches teach today and what the Early Church Fathers taught on these topics. This will give us some insight into how much most modern day churches have rebelled against the mindset of the Apostles and thus have made themselves extremely foreign in their appearance to the Early Church.

 

The Church

Early Church Fathers:

“Follow your bishop, every one of you, as obediently as Jesus Christ followed the Father. Obey your clergy too as you would the apostles; give your deacons the same reverence that you would to a command of God. Make sure that no step affecting the Church is ever taken by anyone without the bishop’s sanction. The sole Eucharist you should consider valid is one that is celebrated by the bishop himself, or by some person authorized by him. Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as, wherever Jesus Christ is present, there is the Catholic Church.” – St Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to the Smyrneans 8:2 [A.D. 110]).

Protestants:

“There are only TWO offices: Pastor and deacon (1 Tim 3). The Biblical terms ‘Bishop’ and ‘Elder’ are in effect the same office as that of the Pastor.” – http://www.christianbaptists.com/baptist-beliefs/#salvation

 

Holy Bible and Tradition

Early Church Fathers:

“Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in mystery” by the tradition of the Apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will contradict; – no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in these matters…” – St Basil the Great – (On the Holy Spirit 27 [A.D. 375]).

“So then brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Hence it is manifest, that they did not deliver all things by epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit.” – St John Chrysostom (Homilies on Second Thessalonians [circa A.D. 400]).

Protestants:

“We believe that the Bible is the Word of God; without error as originally written.  Its content has been preserved by Him, and is the final authority in all matters of doctrine and faith-above all human authority.” http://www.evangelicalbeliefs.com/

“That the scriptures are the final authority for all faith and practice—not the pastor, deacon, church, or denomination (2 Tim 3:16-17).” http://www.christianbaptists.com/baptist-beliefs/#salvation

 

Salvation

Early Church Fathers:

“You, then, who are rich and wealthy, buy for yourself from Christ gold purified in fire, for with your filth, as if burned away in the fire; you can be like pure gold, if you are cleansed by almsgiving and by works of justice. Buy yourself a white garment so that, although you had been naked like Adam and were formerly frightful and deformed, you may be clothed in the white garment of Christ. You who are a matron rich and wealthy, anoint not your eyes with the antimony of the devil, but with the salve of Christ, so that you may at last come to see God, when you have merited before God both by your works and by your manner of living.” –  St Cyprian (Works and Almsgiving 14 [A.D. 252]).

“He that believes in the Son has everlasting life.” Is it enough, then, to believe in the Son,’ someone will say, ‘in order to have everlasting life?’ By no means! Listen to Christ declare this himself when he says, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord! Lord!” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven’; and the blasphemy against the Spirit is alone sufficient to cast him into hell. But why should I speak of a part of our teaching? For if a man believe rightly in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit, but does not live rightly, his faith will avail him nothing toward salvation.” – St John Chrysostom (Homilies on the Gospel of John 31:1[circa A.D. 391]).

Protestants:

The Bible teaches “once saved, always saved” — that we can be saved once and for all only through a repentant, saving faith in Jesus Christ. Once a person has accepted Christ as Savior, they may wonder if it is possible to lose that salvation. What if they commit a sin? What if they commit a lot of sins? What if they do something very, very wrong? Is it possible to be saved, and then lose that salvation? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding “no.” Once a person has accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, he/she is forever saved. This fact is referred to as the doctrine of “eternal security,” often summarized as “once saved, always saved.” http://www.allaboutgod.com/once-saved-always-saved.htm

 

Baptism

Early Church Fathers:

“As to what pertains to the case of infants: You [Fidus] said that they ought not to be baptized within the second or third day after their birth, that the old law of circumcision must be taken into consideration, and that you did not think that one should be baptized and sanctified within the eighth day after his birth. In our council it seemed to us far otherwise. No one agreed to the course which you thought should be taken. Rather, we all judge that the mercy and grace of God ought to be denied to no man born” – St Cyprian of Carthage – (Letters 64:2 [A.D. 253]).

“As many as are persuaded and believe that what we [Christians] teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, and instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we pray and fast with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father… and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit [Matt. 28:19], they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Unless you are born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” –  St Justin Martyr, (First Apology 61 [A.D. 151]).

Protestants:

“One of the most nagging questions in Christianity is whether or not baptism is necessary for salvation. The answer is a simple, “No, water baptism is not necessary for salvation.” But you might ask, “If the answer is no, then why are there verses that say things like ‘ . . . baptism that now saves you . . . ‘ (1 Pet. 3:21) and ‘ . . . Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins . . . ‘ (Acts 2:38)?” These are good questions, and they deserve a good answer so we will look at these verses later. But for now, the reason baptism is not necessary for salvation is that we are justified by faith (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 2:8) and not by faith and a ceremony (Rom. 4:1-11). You see, a religious ceremony is a set of activities or forms performed by someone. In the Bible circumcision was a ceremony where one person performed a religious rite on another person. Likewise, baptism is also a ceremony where one person performs a religious rite on another person; but, we are saved by faith alone, and anything else we do, including ceremonies, will not help.” Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry – https://carm.org/is-baptism-necessary-salvation

“The Baptism of the Holy Ghost and fire (Matthew 3:11), is a gift from God, as promised by the Lord Jesus Christ to all believers in this dispensation of time, and is received subsequent to the new birth (John 14:16, 17; Acts 1:8; 2:38, 39; 10:44-48). The Baptism of the Holy Ghost is accompanied by speaking in other tongues as the Holy Spirit Himself gives utterance as the initial physical sign and evidence (Acts 2:4).” http://www.pcg.org/beliefs

 

Holy Communion

Early Church Fathers:

“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 [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these, but since Jesus Christ our Saviour 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]).

“He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood) from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receive the Word of God and become the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported) how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life — flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord and is in fact a member of him?” – St Irenaeus, (Against Heresies 5:2 [A.D. 189]).

Protestants:

“The Lord’s Supper is a reminder of what Jesus did in the past, a symbol of our present relationship with him and a promise of what he will do in the future. Let’s examine these three aspects.

The bread and wine are memorials of Jesus’ death on the cross. In the Lord’s Supper, we each eat a piece of bread in remembrance of Jesus. When we drink the “fruit of the vine,” we remember that Jesus’ blood was shed for us, and that it signifies the new covenant. The Lord’s Supper looks back to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.”

– Grace Communion International Church – https://www.gci.org/church/lordssup

 

Intercession of Saints

Early Church Fathers:

“Then [during the Eucharistic prayer] we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition…” – St Cyril of Jerusalem, (Catechetical Lectures 23:9 [A.D. 350]).

“Remember me, you heirs of God, you brethren of Christ; supplicate the Savior earnestly for me, that I may be freed through Christ from him that fights against me day by day.” – St Ephrem the Syrian (De Timore, Anim. in fin. [A.D. 370]).

“You say in your book that while we live we are able to pray for each other, but afterwards when we have died, the prayer of no person for another can be heard . . . But if the apostles and martyrs while still in the body can pray for others, at a time when they ought still be solicitous about themselves, how much more will they do so after their crowns, victories, and triumphs?” St Jerome, (Against Vigilantius 6 [A.D. 406]).

Protestants:

“One of the erroneous teachings of the Roman Catholic Church is the doctrine of praying to the saints. Catholicism teaches that it is okay to offer prayers not only to God but also to creatures such as Mary, Joseph, and others who have entered heaven. Is it biblical to pray to anyone other than God? We firmly hold that it is not biblical and that to pray to anyone other than God is idolatrous.” – https://carm.org/praying-saints-biblical

“Conclusion: The nagging question you must answer here is: Why would the Catholic church rather have members pray to dead men than to the living, all-powerful, prayer-answering God?  Keep in mind that if these traditions of men are not true, then all your prayers to “saints” are but worthless chatter.” – http://jesus-is-savior.com/False%20Religions/Roman%20Catholicism/praying_to_saints.htm

 

Confession

Early Church Fathers:

“Confess your sins in church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life… On the Lord’s Day gather together, break bread, and give thanks, after confessing your transgressions so that your sacrifice may be pure.” – The Didache, (Didache 4:14,14:1 [A.D.70]).

“[Regarding confession, some] flee from this work as being an exposure of themselves, or they put it off from day to day. I presume they are more mindful of modesty than of salvation, like those who contract a disease in the more shameful parts of the body and shun making themselves known to the physicians; and thus they perish along with their own bashfulness.” – Tertullian, (Repentance 10:1 [A.D. 203]).

“[A filial method of forgiveness], albeit hard and laborious [is] the remission of sins through penance, when the sinner . . . does not shrink from declaring his sin to a priest of the Lord and from seeking medicine, after the manner of him who say, “I said, to the Lord, I will accuse myself of my iniquity”.” – Origen, (Homilies in Leviticus 2:4 [A.D. 248]).

Protestants:

“The concept of confession of sin to a priest is nowhere taught in Scripture. First, the New Testament does not teach that there are to be priests in the New Covenant. Instead, the New Testament teaches that all believers are priests.” – https://www.gotquestions.org/confession-sin-priest.html

“Yes, we are Protestant Christians, and no we do not confess our sins to a priest. The reason we don’t confess our sins to a priest is that Christ was crucified and the curtain in the Temple was torn and we were granted direct access to God. In repentance, we must confess our sins to the Lord. However, we no longer require a human mediator to stand between us and God. The fact remains, public Confession is biblical, and Protestant Christians should do it.” – http://truthbygrace.org/protestant-confession-of-sins/

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