Almost as soon as a person begins any serious exploration of the Christian heritage, he invariably runs across references to “the Fathers of the Church” or “the early Church Fathers.” Obviously, these people are important. Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic writers all tip their hats to them. Official documents of the magisterium (see Dei Verbum 23) extol their authority.
But who are the Fathers of the Church, and why do they matter? And if they are so important, what’s the best way to learn about them?
Who They Are and Why They Matter
Let’s get clear about who the Fathers are not. The apostles and other heroes of the New Testament era are not regarded as Church Fathers, nor are great theologians and Doctors of the Church such as St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Robert Bellarmine.
So who are the Fathers, and why do they bear this title? First of all, “Church Father” is not a formally conferred title, as “Doctor of the Church” is. There is no official and exhaustive list of Church Fathers. Instead, the designation results from popular acclaim and long-standing tradition. In ancient times, teachers were commonly regarded as intellectual fathers. Some great Christian teachers from the early centuries put their teaching into writings that continued to teach and guide the faithful long after the passing of their authors. In doctrinal disputes, these writers were cited and referred to as “the Fathers” or “the Fathers of the Church.” This popular title stuck, and the designation now refers generally to all the great orthodox, Catholic authors from about A.D. 100 to A.D. 800.
This time period is not as arbitrary as it may seem. It is roughly coterminous with the first seven ecumenical councils of the Church, which defined and defended the two most fundamental dogmas enshrined in the Creed: that we believe in one God in three Persons and that Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, is true God and true man. This is also the time period in which both the canon of Scripture was clarified and the great liturgical traditions of the Church (including Roman, Byzantine, and Maronite) took their distinctive forms.
Most of these Church Fathers were saints. Some of them, such as Tertullian, fell into heresy. Saint or not, none of them are personally infallible. It would be remarkable if they agreed on anything, as this disparate group spans seven centuries and three continents. But their teaching does agree on many points, and this is testimony that such teaching did not originate with them but was transmitted by them. It is in their consensus that the Church, from the earliest times, has regarded them as infallible commentators on Scripture and the unwritten apostolic Tradition.
Their importance to apologetics and dogmatic theology goes without saying. When people claim that devotion to Mary is a medieval invention, you can prove otherwise simply by going to the Fathers of the Church. The same can be done when The Da Vinci Code alleges that Constantine invented the divinity of Christ.
But just as we read Scripture for more than apologetic purposes, so we should with the Fathers. The late Jean Cardinal Danielou said that the Fathers “are not only the truthful witnesses of a bygone era; they are also the most contemporary nourishment of men and women today.” One of the greatest ways to grow in the spiritual life and to be imbued with the Catholic spirit is to read the writings of the Church Fathers. In approaching their work, we should not simply be looking for information but formation—to receive from them an authentically Catholic vision and a truly passionate zeal for holiness.
Fathers’ Greatest Hits
But then comes the next problem: A lot can be written by hundreds of men over 700 years’ time. Augustine alone wrote over 4 million words. One medieval monk quipped: “He who says he has read all of Augustine lies!”
So how can we get started reading the Fathers? Where is the best place to begin?
Fortunately, the Church has already laid out a reading plan for us. In the revision of the Divine Office mandated by the Second Vatican Council, the late night hour of “vigils” was transformed into the “Office of Readings,” which can be done at any hour of the day. It includes one of the longer psalms (broken up into three parts), a page-long reading from the Bible, and a non-biblical page-long commentary—usually from one of the Church Fathers—on the biblical reading, the liturgical season, or the saint of the day. Thus the Office of Readings is a kind of “Fathers’ greatest hits,” an introduction to the most accessible, inspirational, and instructive nuggets from the patristic goldmine.
Intimidated by the complexity of the Divine Office? Not to worry. The Office of Readings is simple to follow and more easily accessible than you might think, both in print and online (see “Where to Get Started”). It is the most accessible entry into the world of the Fathers.
No Philosophy Required
So you’ve read and loved the excerpts and are now ready for entire works. Now what do you do?
My advice is to begin at the beginning. The “apostolic Fathers” are the earliest of the Fathers and are known as “apostolic” because their life spans overlapped the life spans of some of the apostles. In some cases, there is evidence that some of these apostolic Fathers, notably St. Polycarp, had personal contact with an apostle.
There are two other good reasons to start with the apostolic Fathers. First, they have undisputable apologetic value as witnesses to unwritten apostolic Tradition. Second, they are, for the most part, simple, pastoral men like the apostles and are therefore easy to understand. You don’t need to take a course in Platonic philosophy to make sense of their writings. In fact, many of the documents of this period follow the same basic format as what we’re already used to in the New Testament: pastoral letters and “acts” of the martyrs.
There are several convenient sources of biographical and historical background (see The Father’s Know Best). But beware of spending so much time preparing that you never actually read the texts. The great thing about the apostolic Fathers is that there aren’t many prerequisites to reading them.
Now let’s look briefly at some of the apostolic Fathers.
The Original Ignatius
With all due respect to my dear Jesuit friends, the original St. Ignatius (d. c. A.D. 110) is not the one from Loyola but the one from Antioch. He is without a doubt the most passionate and inspiring among the apostolic Fathers and the easiest author to read and share with others. He was the second bishop of Antioch after the apostles and witness to Peter, Barnabas, and Paul. It was probably only about fifteen to twenty years after the final edition of the Gospel of John that Ignatius was arrested and sentenced to die for his faith. He was marched from Syria through what is now western Turkey all the way to Troas near the Dardanelles, where he was put on a ship to Italy. As he passed through the Asian countryside, he wrote short letters to the various congregations of the region.
His letters were lost for awhile and then marred with interpolations; thankfully, though, we have the authentic texts today. They are a fascinating window into the soul of a martyr and a fiery testimony of the love that drove the martyrs to lay down their lives as witnesses to Christ. They are also evidence of the problems a bishop of the era faced and of the true apostolic teaching that provided a corrective to the heresies of the day. In unambiguous fashion, Ignatius calls Jesus “God” sixteen times, arguing forcefully for his full divinity and authentic humanity (over 200 years before Constantine). He identifies the Eucharist as the true flesh and blood of Christ and condemns those who fail to value it. In his letter to the Church at Smyrna, we find the earliest surviving description of the one, universal community of Christ as “the Catholic Church.”
The First Papal Encyclical
A writing by another apostolic Father is even earlier than the letters of St. Ignatius. Many scholars believe that it dates from about the same time as St. John’s Gospel.
In response to a revolt against the clergy of the Church in Corinth, the bishop of Rome wrote a letter to the Corinthians around A.D. 95. Clement, remembered in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) as the third bishop of Rome after Peter, humbly but firmly calls the Corinthians to reinstate the deposed clergy of the city, but he does so through a lengthy discourse on humility, faith, and love as taught throughout Scripture. It is a wonderful example of what first-century preaching must have been like, providing a distinctively Christian commentary on Hebrew Scripture before the New Testament as we know it was fully assembled and recognized as Sacred Scripture.
Rather than being rejected by the Corinthians as Roman interference in their internal affairs, Clement’s letter was warmly received and taken to heart. The Corinthians continued to read the letter aloud alongside Scripture in Sunday liturgy for generations afterwards. In fact, they saw such value in this letter that they copied it and circulated it throughout the Christian world, making it the first papal encyclical (not counting the New Testament letters of Peter, of course). It was so widely acclaimed that when bookbinding was invented in the fourth century, some prominent volumes of the Bible included the letter of Clement alongside those of Peter, Paul, and John.
Several of the apostolic Fathers are not persons but writings. We don’t know for sure who their authors are; we’re not even sure who the original audience was. But we do know that they are treasures that build up our faith and provide us intriguing glimpses into early Christianity.
Interested in apologetics? Then you must read the earliest surviving “apology,” the letter to Diognetus (c. A.D. 125). Whoever Diognetus was, one thing is sure: He was an important pagan. And whoever the author is, his purpose is clear: He wished to defend a faith that was misunderstood, maligned, and persecuted. In just twelve paragraphs he distinguishes Christian religion from both paganism and Judaism and provides a description of Christians as the soul of the world. His sense of the drama of salvation and the newness of Christianity is invigorating.
Interested in moral or liturgical issues? Then you have to read the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” popularly known as the Didache. Lost until the end of the nineteenth century, this mysterious work, dating also from about A.D. 125, appears to be a combination of two earlier documents: a moral catechism and a liturgical manual. These component parts may have come from the New Testament era. In the Didache we find the first clear equation of abortion with murder and the earliest affirmation that baptism may be done by pouring water over the head as well as by immersion.
Just the Beginning
The few writings we’ve mentioned so far are just the beginning of the apostolic Fathers and the larger body of the Fathers of the Church. The goal of this article is to answer the question of who they were, why they are important, and how and where to begin exploring their writings. Stay tuned to future issues of Catholic Answers Magazine for a subsequent article on how best to approach the later and more challenging Fathers, such as Augustine—the writer of those 4 million words—and the only popes in history to be called “the Great,” Sts. Leo, Gregory, and Nicholas.
Between then and now, keep reading Catholic Answers Magazine, but for God’s sake, start reading the Fathers!