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Reading the Early Church Fathers: Part II

Many people are incredulous or angry over the popularity of The Da Vinci Code. But Catholics should be indebted to Dan Brown for reminding us that the early Church is very important and that its authority and fidelity hinge on the reliability of Scripture and the creeds shared by Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians.

Of course, The Da Vinci Code’s depiction of events in the early Church is a fabrication. But where do we go for the truth? In fact, thousands of documents from the first eight centuries—written by people who were actually involved in the events—have survived. The authors are teachers commonly referred to as the “early Church Fathers.” Despite the allegations of The Da Vinci Code’s characters, these sources have not been falsified or interpolated. Scholarly tools available for the past few centuries have been very effective in detecting forgeries and dating documents to within a few decades.

The first place to turn to is the Office of Readings, which contains a collection of short selections from the Fathers and is the best introduction to the early Tradition. The next resource is the earliest of the post-New Testament writings, known as “the apostolic Fathers.” The apostolic Fathers were a lot like Jesus’ twelve apostles: simple men without formal schooling who were intent on being pastors, not scholars. That makes their writings easy to understand for those of us who are not scholars either. Their writings have great apologetic value given their proximity to the apostles.

After that come the later Fathers, who wrote during the era of the great ecumenical councils from Nicaea and after. They, too, are accessible to busy people not formally schooled in theology and philosophy.

Insight and Inspiration for All

St. Justin and Tertullian both wrote in the mid- to late-second century and were very different from the apostolic Fathers. Justin had been a philosopher before his conversion, Tertullian a lawyer. They were deeply cultured men; concepts from Stoicism and Platonism, the philosophies of their day, surface frequently in their work. The same is true for the Fathers from the fourth and fifth centuries, including St. Augustine and St. Gregory of Nyssa. The concluding chapters of Augustine’s Confessions, for example, contain a reflection on the concepts of time and eternity that furrows the brows of graduate students even after many re-readings.

Yet an ordinary Joe can read the Fathers and benefit from them. Many of the Fathers were pastors, and much of their writing was addressed to the faithful as homilies on Scripture, catechetical explanations of the Ten Commandments or the sacraments, or lives of the saints written for edification of the clergy and the faithful. They offer great insight and inspiration in words intended to be understood by everybody.

People wishing to sink their teeth into the rich fare provided by these later Fathers should focus on their exegetical and catechetical writings rather than the more philosophical and dogmatic treatises written for a more learned audience—with one exception.

St. Basil and the Holy Spirit

There was a great deal of doctrinal confusion following the Council of Nicaea. A group of churchmen in the East said that while they accepted Nicaea’s definition of the full divinity of Christ and equality with the Father, they would not affirm the same of the Holy Spirit. They pointed out that Jesus is called “God” (the New Testament Greek word is theos) several times in the New Testament, but this term is never applied to the Holy Spirit. These sola scriptura bishops, called pneumatomachoi (fighters against the Spirit) by their opponents, resisted the doctrine of the Trinity.

St. Basil the Great responded to this heresy in a short treatise entitled De Spiritu Sancto, which relies on common-sense reasoning based on Scripture and the liturgy rather than philosophical and theological concepts. Basil wrote that Scripture teaches the distinct personhood and full divinity of the Holy Spirit implicitly, even if it does not explicitly call the Spirit “God.” In one of the clearest cases against sola scriptura in early Christian literature, he showed that Christians had never—from the time of the apostles to his day (c. A.D. 370)—relied exclusively on the text of the Bible to tell them how to pray and what to believe. He points to many liturgical traditions, including the sacrament of chrismation (known in the West as confirmation), that had always been celebrated in the Church but were not explicitly spelled out in Scripture. He also pointed out that the Church had always prayed the Trinitarian doxology “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,” which clearly assumes the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The principle that the law of prayer demonstrates the law of belief (lex orandi, lex credendi) was first clearly argued by Basil.

De Spiritu Sancto will deepen your understanding of the work and person of the Holy Spirit, give you insight into the relation between Scripture and Tradition, and acquaint you with one of the greatest Fathers of the Eastern Church.

Two Great Lives

Pope St. Gregory the Great lived in a different era as well as a different cultural milieu from the great patriarch of Alexandria, St. Athanasius. But both of these great pastors inspired the faithful through the lives of the saints, a pastoral responsibility that transcends time and place.

In defending the divinity of Christ, Athanasius received constant support from St. Antony and his desert companions and was inspired by Antony’s example. His Life of Antony quickly became the rage throughout the Christian empire as it was copied, translated, and passed from hand to hand. It inspired many, including Augustine, to a deeper conversion to the gospel and even to embrace religious life. Antony, a hermit, was the godfather of religious life in the East.

A few centuries later, St. Benedict established a communal form of life that made him the godfather of monastic life in the West. A few generations after St. Benedict’s death, one of his monks was elected as successor of St. Peter: Gregory the Great. His Dialogues include a life of St. Benedict.

Golden Mouth and Golden Words

At the end of the fourth century, a monk who is undoubtedly one of the greatest preachers of all time was elected patriarch of Constantinople. St. John was so powerful a speaker that the people dubbed him “Chrysostom,” or “golden mouth.” Not everyone, though, was pleased with his words. He was not afraid to denounce the hypocrisy of the nominally Christian empress, and this criticism earned him a harsh exile that led to his untimely death. But the homilies he preached before he was silenced (including “On Marriage and Family Life,” “On Wealth and Poverty,” and “On the Priesthood”) are some of the most accessible and practical treasures of the patristic tradition.

Less than a generation after Chrysostom’s death, a bishop named Peter was elected to the see of Ravenna, Italy. His eloquence reminded those who heard him of St. John, and he became known as “Chrysologus,” or “golden-worded.” His preaching contains some of the most beautiful imagery and moving oratory in the patristic homilies.

The First Great Pope

The very first pope to be called “the Great” was Leo I. In addition to persuading Attila the Hun not to ravage Rome, St. Leo is famous for his magnificent preaching, which he delivered to the Romans while St. Peter Chrysologus ministered on the Adriatic coast. Leo preached on every topic that could come up in the liturgical cycle of readings, but he is best known for his discussion of the mystery of the Incarnation. Many of the patristic selections in the Office of Readings for Advent and Christmas are drawn from the homilies of this extraordinary pastor. He also wrote illuminating homilies on the Beatitudes. As pope, he had occasion to write many letters on a variety of pastoral and doctrinal topics, and many of these have come down to us.

Cyril the Catechist

A generation after Nicaea, Bishop Cyril, a “hands-on” pastor, took possession of the see of Jerusalem in the middle of the fourth century. The Church was growing, and Cyril was not content to leave the formation of new Christians to others. He himself gave the lectures in their RCIA class, and someone evidently took very good notes. By divine Providence, these notes have come down to us as the catechetical lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, including the famous “mystagogical catecheses” that were given to the newly baptized during the Easter Octave. They are goldmines of information on the faith, life, and worship of the Jerusalem Church soon after the legalization of Christianity proclaimed by Constantine. We learn what adult catechesis was like in the fourth century, and the many allusions to the way the Holy Week liturgies were celebrated shows us how far back many of our current liturgical practices go. What the Church believed then and still believes today about the Creed and the sacraments is laid out clearly and persuasively. Reading these lectures will deepen your own prayerful understanding and demonstrate the ancient origin of Catholic doctrine and sacramental practice.

The Great Augustine

The most famous Father of the Western Church is St. Augustine. His Confessions is a classic of Western civilization, as is The City of God. Yet few have read all of his works—he wrote over 4 million words—and many find it hard to know where to begin.

Confessions is a spiritual reflection on Augustine’s past life—not an autobiography in the modern sense—written in the form of a long, extended prayer to God. But Confessions is not really a beginner’s slope; it ascends into the philosophical stratosphere, losing all but the heartiest climbers. The City of God, too, is not the first Augustinian peak that should be attempted.

Fortunately, Augustine’s homilies and commentaries are perfect for everyone: meaty enough for the most experienced but understandable enough for the novice. As with the other Fathers, Augustine wrote his sermons to help ordinary people understand and apply Scripture to their lives. Augustine’s favorite topic is love, and his homilies on the first letter of John are representative. He was the most influential teacher of the faith in the Western Church until the appearance of St. Thomas Aquinas and cannot be neglected by anyone studying the Church’s ancient heritage.

Our Own Heritage

We have no right to be outraged over The Da Vinci Code’s misinformation when we are ignorant of our own heritage and are unable to share and defend it.

Sadly, millions have recently been fed a distorted image of early Christianity. By rediscovering the great teachers of the early Church, we ourselves will be nourished and able to share them with anyone interested in knowing the truth.

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