The Early Church Fathers

Church Fathers

Recently, I decided to read a series of books by Pope Benedict XVI that just seemed like they should all go together. I started with Jesus of Nazareth, followed by The Apostles, and now his book on The Fathers. Together they paint an amazing picture of the springing forth of Christianity in history.

Jesus is of course at the source and center of it all. In the Apostles we find the manifestation of The Church. And now in studying The Fathers (the early Church fathers, that is) we see the Church’s first steps as it begins its journey through history.

I must say, of these three books, I enjoyed this one the most. The others were wonderful, and present essential information for even beginning to understand the context of The Church Fathers. Of course in comparison the Apostles would be regarded as more important, and Jesus as most and, ultimately, as solely important. But the Fathers are closer to us – closer in that it is only through them first that we are connected to the Apostles and ultimately to Jesus. It is atop their shoulders that we stand for much of what we are able to understand today. And these shoulders belong to giants.

Further, the Apostles were – respectfully – ordinary men.  They were really just regular kinda guys; most of them fishermen.  And that’s important and significant that God would choose such ordinary men as a foundation for His Church.  And what God teaches through them is, indeed, the foundation of our Faith.  But the Fathers of the Church are very interesting as well as they stand out in history as some of the wisest men to have ever lived.

From Clement to Cyril, Ambrose to Ignatius, Jerome to Gregory, Origen to Augustine and many more, we meet each of them in this book. We hear about their lives, how they lived, what they faced, and how they each uniquely shaped Christianity and the world. These men represent some of the earliest popes, bishops and theologians of the Church and that time in human history. They learned from the Apostles. They studied with disciples of the Apostles.

If we want to understand more of what the writers of scripture meant when writing a particular passage, well one way is to study their students – and the students of those students.  These are the Church Fathers.

If we want to know the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles that were not explicitly written and captured in the Bible (the Bible was never intended to be a catch-all for the teachings of Christ), well we must ask the successors of the Apostles.  This is Sacred Tradition.  And we see it first lived out by the Church Fathers.

“The true teaching, therefore, is not that invented by intellectuals, which goes beyond the Church’s simple faith. The true Gospel is the one imparted by the bishops who received it in an uninterrupted line from the Apostles.” – BXVI

It is this devotion to and communion with, specifically, the faith passed down from The Apostles that distinguishes true Christianity from schisms.  This is what binds us together in unity as a universal Church.  St. Iranaeus recognizes this even around the year 200 AD:

“The Church, though dispersed throughout the world…having received this faith from the Apostles…carefully preserves it…For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor do those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world.” – St. Iranaeus

And it was the Fathers who continued the mission of the Apostles, taking the Faith to all of these regions.  They traveled and brought Christianity to virtually every corner of the known world at that time. From Rome to Hippo, antioch to Egypt, from East to West.

They battled heresies, barbarians, emperors, corruption, and their own temptations. They impacted the world today in more ways than we realize – most especially in theology and philosophy. The book is worth reading just for all of that information.

And the wisdom imparted by these Church Fathers is just as relevant to us today as it was in their time.

“When I read St. Augustine’s writings, I do not get the impression that he is a man who died more or less 1,600 years ago; I feel he is like a man of today: a friend, a contemporary who speaks to me, who speaks to us with his fresh and timely faith.” – Pope Benedict XVI (The Fathers)

Another thing that stood out to me when studying these men is their dedication to Truth.  Many today treat Christianity as simply this thing humans made up as some superstition in the past because we could not yet explain things scientifically.  They imagine an early Christianity steeped with religious fundamentalists, martyred for their willingness to blindly follow a crazy religion at the expense of rational thought.  That shows a total lack of knowledge of history and the early Church.

It is quite the contrary.  It was often because Christianity offered a fusing of rational and philosophical thought with faith that made it so appealing to these intellectual and spiritual juggernauts.

“St. Augustine was a passionate seeker of truth: he was from the beginning and then throughout his life.”

“Philosophy, especially that of a platonic stamp, led him closer to Christ, revealing to him the existence of the Logos or creative reason. Philosophy books showed him the existence of reason, from which the whole world came, but they could not tell him how to reach this Logos, which seemed so distant. Only by reading St. Paul’s epistles within the faith of the Catholic Church was the truth fully revealed to him.” – Pope Benedict from The Fathers

In fact, far from being a religion that looked to deny rational thought, it was the Church that battled against the irrationality of many pagan beliefs in favor of a more reasonable approach found in Christianity:

“St. Justin marked the ancient Church’s forceful option for philosophy, for reason, rather than for the religion of the pagans.” – Pope Benedict from The Fathers

All that being said, in the end I believe Benedict shares a most profound thought in this book.  It occurs on the subject of Tertullian.

Tertullian was one of the great minds of the early Church.  And he contributes greatly to our understanding of the Church.  Long story short, he believed so much in his own rigid, individualistic positions that his intellectual arrogance inevitably led him away from communion with the Church.

“One sees that in the end he lacked the simplicity, the humility, to integrate himself with the Church, to accept his weaknesses, to be forbearing with others and himself.

When one only sees his thought in all its greatness, in the end, it is precisely this greatness that is lost. The essential characteristic of a great theologian is the humility to remain with the Church, to accept his own and others’ weaknesses, because actually only God is all holy. We instead, always need forgiveness.” – Pope Benedict from The Fathers

This really resonated with me.  We have had countless brilliant minds in our world.  Sadly, many have lacked the humility to remain with the Church.

These Fathers of the Church truly stood out not because of their intellect, although many of them were very intellectual. And not for dying for their beliefs, though many were martyrs. They didn’t stand out because of their positions of power that they held, though many were powerful.

They stood out for their simple and solid witness to the True Faith. They stand out because their ideas have stood the test of time, being in continuity with the deposit of faith from the beginning, in union with the Apostles, but also in union with our experiential truth that we immerse ourselves in everyday…an experience billions have shared since them.

They are historic evidence of an objective Truth. Unique not because this Truth was something they themselves created.  But because they were humble enough to allow God to illuminate the Truth through them.  And because when they found it, instead of claiming it for themselves, they had the humility to simply stand in awe of it.

No Christian’s education is complete without learning from The Fathers of the Church.  This book is a great introductory resource for doing just that.

6 comments Add comment

Joshua of Catholic Tech Tips January 10, 2009 at 10:58 am

Wow! Great review Matthew. I have this book on my list of books I want to read. I’ve read some of St. Augustine’s writings, but don’t really know a lot about the others.

God Bless.

Grace (kaesmom on Twitter) January 10, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Hi Matthew! Thanks for this review. I’m currently reading the expanded edition of “The Fathers of the Church” by Mike Aquilina. Once I’m finished with it, I will definitely get Pope Benedict XVI’s “The Fathers. I also have “Jesus of Nazareth” but haven’t started reading it yet. What are your thoughts on that book?


Terry January 11, 2009 at 1:24 pm

I’m in the process of reading BXVI’s Jesus of Nazareth. I also bought “The Apostles” and “Jesus, The Apostles, and The Early Church.” This week I will by the “The Fathers.” Thanks for the review.

Cathloicxvi January 11, 2009 at 10:18 pm

I may have to read these books. Thanks for the review! I never know what books to read, but this sounds like a good one!

Bill June 23, 2010 at 6:36 am

Matt, thanks for the review. I just finished Jesus of Nazareth, I had wished that the Pope would not have stopped where he did… but continued on. GREAT book. I am planing to read the Apostles and the Fathers in the near future. Having read your review I need to do it sooner rather than later.

Keep up the good work you do.

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