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Intro to the Fathers, Part 1

Through this week, I’ll be posting bits of my article introducing the Church Fathers that appeared in a recent edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.

Almost every Wednesday since March 7, Pope Benedict XVI has been greeting large audiences of pilgrims with brief sketches of the lives and works of individual saints — saints, in fact, who have been dead for more than a thousand years, and who lived their lives in cultures remote from our own.

He’s talking about the early Christians, the so-called Fathers of the Church, and he’s telling their stories as if they should be of universal interest to his audiences. To give a point of comparison: At the same point in his predecessor’s reign, Pope John Paul II had just launched his own series of 129 audience talks on the subject of sex.

Pope Benedict, it seems, is betting that the Church Fathers have powerful appeal.

It’s a good bet. For the Fathers — teachers like Clement, Justin, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine — have exercised a mighty influence on the Church’s life, not only in their own day, but down to our own. The Catechism describes the Fathers as “always timely witnesses” to the Church’s tradition (n. 688).

And there’s further reason to bet on their appeal. Consider how often, in recent years, ancient Christianity has proven a draw at the box office and the bookstores, in offerings as varied as “The Passion of the Christ” and the Gospel of Judas, “The Da Vinci Code” and the so-called “Family of Jesus” tomb.

People have demonstrated a powerful curiosity about early Christianity, and the giants of the early Christian era were the Fathers of the Church.

* * * * * * * * * *

Indeed, Christians have always honored their ancestors with the title of “Fathers.” They did this in imitation of Jesus and Jewish custom (see Jn 6:31,49). St. Peter uses the same Greek word, pateres, to describe the first generation of Christians (see 2 Pt 3:4). Those who held authority in the Church, from the very beginning, considered themselves to be “Fathers” to their congregations. We find this idea in St. Paul, who reminds the Corinthians that he is their “father in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor 4:15), as well as in St. John (3 Jn 4). Those who later inherited the office of the apostles — the bishops — would also inherit the paternal role in God’s earthly family. They would be Fathers of the Church.

And one of the marks of the Fathers is their reverence for the doctrine passed on from the apostles. The Fathers preserved, preached, and passed on the rule of faith — the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the moral counsel of the apostles, and the sacred rites of the Church, the sacraments. They viewed this body of doctrine as a patrimony, a sacred trust. Thus, they were not given to experimentation, and they looked askance at innovation. “Whoever interprets [the Scriptures] according to his own perverse inclinations,” wrote St. Polycarp about the year 110 A.D., “Is the firstborn of Satan. Let us dismiss the vanities of the crowd and false doctrines, and return to the teaching given to us from the beginning.”

Polycarp speaks with powerful authority, for he was himself a hearer of the apostles, a disciple of St. John. Polycarp was also the master of the most illustrious teacher of the next generation, the brilliant and prolific bishop St. Irenaeus of Lyons. Irenaeus wrote of his teacher: “he only taught what he received from the apostles, what the Church transmitted and what alone is true.”

Irenaeus’s influence extended to St. Hippolytus in the next generation and then on to many others. At the end of Irenaeus’s life, we have not yet arrived at the year 200. And yet the Church’s pattern of invoking, studying, and honoring the Fathers was already well established.

When a bishop or a council made a public statement about a doctrine or practice, it often included an appeal to precedents in the witness of “the holy Fathers.” Sometimes, churchmen would make a chain (Latin, catena) of such precedents, with quotations representing every generation between their own and that of the apostles. Thus, they would demonstrate the pure pedigree of their own teaching.

The study of the Fathers grew increasingly important, then, as the decades and the centuries wore on. The churches took care to preserve the paper trail of their own heritage. Some, like the Syrian city of Edessa, created vast archives. The historian Eusebius, conducting his research in the late third century, was able to take advantage of several of these collections. In the fourth and fifth centuries, monastic communities would also begin to preserve the traditions of their “Fathers” in writing; and so we have inherited many anthologies of the lives and sayings of the so-called Desert Fathers.

Around the same time, at the end of the fourth century, St. Jerome set out to write a biographical encyclopedia of ancient Christianity. He called it On Illustrious Men; and with his profiles of individual writers, he included bibliographies as well. Jerome’s book, like Eusebius’s, became a standard reference work for later study of the Fathers.

In the year 434, a monk in Gaul (modern France), set down rules for the study of the Fathers. His name was Vincent of Lerins, and he would himself one day be honored as a Church Father. His guidelines have become a byword in theology. They are known as the “Vincentian Canon.”

“Now in the Catholic Church,” writes Vincent, “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all …We hold to this rule if we follow universality, antiquity, and consensus. We follow universality if we acknowledge that one faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no way depart from those interpretations that our ancestors and fathers clearly proclaimed; consensus, if we keep following the definitions and opinions of all — or nearly all — the bishops and teachers of antiquity.”

Stay tuned. I’ll be posting more of the article later this week.

One thought on “Intro to the Fathers, Part 1

  1. This outght to be good, Patrology/Patristics is one of my favourite topics.

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