Sunday, July 12, 2009

Who Were The Earliest Christians and What Did they Believe?

The Apostolic, or Early Church Fathers (ECF), were the first Christians that picked up where the New Testament-era Christians left off. The ECF period is roughly considered to span the years from around 100 A.D. to about 700 A.D (the term Apostolic Father is usually given to those who knew or who are thought to have known and been taught by the Apostles themselves. St. Polycarp, for example). The study of their writings is called patristics. As Joe Gallegos on his Corunum Apologetics website explains:

Who are these guys(and gals) called The Church Fathers?The Church Fathers is a titled bestowed on men (and some women such as Egeria of Spain fl AD 448) in the ancient Church that are united by four trademarks: (1) a rigid orthodoxy in doctrine, (2) an exemplary holy life, (3) approval in the Church, and (4) antiquity. Today, some ecclesiastical writers are bestowed this title who have partially fulfilled these marks( e.g. Tertullian, Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea). These writers are included due to their invaluable service to the Church. The majority of the Church Fathers were bishops, a few held a lower clerical rank such as St. Jerome, and fewer yet, were laymen such as Clement of Alexandria and perhaps Tertullian of Carthage. In the Catholic Church the period of antiquity ends with St. John Damascene (d AD 749) in the East and with St. Gregory the Great(d AD 604) or St. Isidore of Seville (d AD 636) in the West, hence the patristic age spans 7 centuries.

Why are the ECF's important to later Christians, including those of today? Because from their writings (and there are lots of them in existence) we can see how they interpreted the Scriptures, how they addressed problems and heresies that arose in the Church, and how they practiced the Faith. Some of the ECF's had the words of the Apostles still ringing in their ears and all were zealous to have the Faith handed down just as they had recieved it from the Apostles. Also, as Gallegos points out:

Protestant Evangelical Christians often gain a keener understanding of Holy Writ either by a private reading of Scripture or by listening to or reading various interpretations of Scripture through various ministrations of the church such as a Bible study or a Sunday sermon. Many of the interpretations are harmonious with the historic tenants of the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church and some contradictory. Nevertheless, this is the primary vehicle through which many Evangelicals learn Christian doctrines and morals. Therefore, why not take advantage of a Bible study or a sermon by listening to the written words of a disciple of an Apostle or their immediate descendants rather than from someone who is 20 centuries removed from the Apostles? This is the case when one delves in the writings and faith of the early Church Fathers.

One of my favorite ECF quotes is from the 5th century apologist St. Vincent of Lerins:

Here, possibly, some one may ask, Do heretics also appeal to Scripture? They do indeed, and with a vengeance; for you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture—through the books of Moses, the books of Kings, the Psalms, the Epistles, the Gospels, the Prophets. Whether among their own people, or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings, or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavour to shelter under words of Scripture. Read the works…of those pests, and you will see an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old…

And if one should ask one of the heretics who gives this advice, How do you prove? What ground have you, for saying, that I ought to cast away the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church? He has the answer ready, “For it is written;” and forthwith he produces a thousand testimonies, a thousand examples, a thousand authorities from the Law, from the Psalms, from the apostles, from the Prophets, by means of which, interpreted on a new and wrong principle, the unhappy soul may be precipitated from the height of Catholic truth to the lowest abyss of heresy…

But the more secretly they conceal themselves under shelter of the Divine Law, so much the more are they to be feared and guarded against.
(St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, c. 450 A.D.)

There are ton of websites that one could go to to read the writings of the ECF's -- probably to the point that [a] one would not know where to start and [b] quickly be overwhelmed. A good place to get an introduction and a generous and representative sample is Gallego' site, found here:

Catholic Answers has a nice topical selection of writings, called "Fathers Know Best," found here:

Dave Armstrong has an extensive site of ECF selections:

If you want to read the patristic writings in their entirety, you can go here:

Mike Aquilina, who regularly appears on EWTN and has written several books and given numerous talks on this subject, has probably the best blog out there dedicated to patristics, called "The Way of the Fathers." You can find it here:

Finally, you can find several downloadable talks by Mike on the subject of the ECF's here:

To close, here are the words of that great Early Church Father, St. Irenaeus:

"As I said before, 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" (Against Heresies 1:10:2 [A.D. 189]).

"That is why it is surely necessary to avoid them [heretics], while cherishing with the utmost diligence the things pertaining to the Church, and to lay hold of the tradition of truth. . . . What if the apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches?" (ibid., 3:4:1).

... "It is possible, then, for everyone in 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—men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about. "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. "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" (ibid., 3:3:1–2).

1 comment:

  1. Since I posted this, I've been informed by my friend Bobbi that St. Clement, mentioned in this blog as a layman, was in fact a cleric. After doing a little research myself, it seems this was the case. I stand corrected --thanks Bobbi!