“To Be Nourished and Formed”

Though I, like many, can’t help but roll my eyes over the uproar created by “The Da Vinci Code” several years back, we are indebted to Dan Brown in a way.

He reminded us that the early Church is terribly important. On its authority and fidelity hang the very reliability of the Scriptures and the Creeds shared by all Christians — Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox.

Of course, the events of “The Da Vinci Code” concerning what went on in the early Church is total fabrication. So where do we go for the truth? Simple. We need direct contact with the primary sources — that is, documents written by those who were actually involved in the events in question. Fortunately, abundant documents survive from the first eight centuries of the Church. We refer to those who wrote them as the early Church Fathers. By the way, contrary to the allegations of the characters in “The Da Vinci Code,” the documents we have from this era are not falsified or interpolated. Scholarly tools have existed for centuries that are particularly effective at detecting forgeries and dating documents to within a few decades of when they were written.

The good news is that there are thousands of documents and hundreds of writers. The bad news is that there are thousands of documents and hundreds of writers. Few of us have time to read them all. In fact, it is difficult to know where to begin.

In the first part of this two-part series on the Fathers (May/June issue), I pointed out that the Church has put together a collection of short selections from the Fathers in the Office of Readings. These are the best introduction. The next step would be to read the Apostolic Fathers, the earliest of the post New Testament writings which have particular apologetic value given their proximity to the apostles.

Scripture, Liturgy, Biography

The Apostolic Fathers (ca. A.D. 95-150) were a lot like the apostles — simple men, without much formal schooling. That makes their writings easy to understand. But once we hit the middle to late second century, we run into very different kinds of writers. Justin had been a philosopher before his conversion, while Tertullian was a lawyer. Both were deeply cultured men, and concepts from the philosophy of their day, Stoicism and Platonism, surface frequently in their work. The same is true with Fathers from the fourth-to-fifth-century Golden Age, such as St. Augustine and St. Gregory of Nyssa.

So, is there any hope that the ordinary Joe or Jane can read these authors and make heads or tails of them?

Absolutely. And here’s why. Many of the most high-powered thinkers among the Fathers were also pastors. And many of their writings were originally addressed to the faithful as homilies, catechetical orations and lives of the saints. Though such writings are chock-full of insight and inspiration, they are delivered in words intended to be understood by everybody.

So my advice to those wishing to sink their teeth into the rich fare provided by these later Fathers is to focus on their exegetical and catechetical writings rather than the more philosophical treatises written for a more learned audience. What follows are a few concrete suggestions.

St. Basil and the Holy Spirit

Following the Council of Nicaea, there was a great deal of doctrinal confusion. One group of churchmen in the east said that while they accepted Nicaea’s definition of the divinity of Christ, they would not go beyond it to affirm the same of the Holy Spirit. After all, they pointed out, Jesus is called “God” (the New Testament Greek word is Theos) several times in the New Testament.

But the Scriptures never explicitly use the term “God” referring to the Holy Spirit. These “sola scriptura” bishops, called “pneumatomachoi” (fighters against the Spirit), therefore resisted the doctrine of the Trinity, one God in three distinct but equal persons.

St. Basil the Great responded to these heretics in the form of a short treatise that relies not on difficult philosophical concepts but on a common-sense examination of Scripture and the liturgy.

He demonstrated that Scripture constantly teaches the distinct personhood and full divinity of the Holy Spirit, but that it does so implicitly, as it does not explicitly call the Spirit “God.”

He then made one of the clearest cases against sola scriptura in early Christian literature, showing that Christians had never, from the time of the apostles to his day (ca. 370), relied exclusively on the text of the Bible to tell them how to pray and what to believe. He pointed to many liturgical traditions, such as the sacrament of chrismation (known in the West as confirmation), which had always been celebrated in the Church but were not clearly and explicitly spelled out in Scripture.

He also pointed to the fact that the Church had always, as far as anyone could remember, 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.

Lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer demonstrates the law of belief) is a principle first clearly argued by St. Basil.

Therefore, to deepen your understanding of the work and person of the Holy Spirit, provide insight into the relation between Scripture and Tradition, and acquaint you with one of the greatest Fathers of the Eastern Church, pick up “On the Holy Spirit,” a short book by St. Basil, available in paperback from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Two Great Lives

In defending the divinity of Christ during the Arian crisis of the fourth century, St. Athanasius of Alexandria had received constant support from the most famous hermit of the Egyptian desert, St. Antony. Personally inspired by Antony’s story and example, Athanasius decided the world needed to know about him.

Without the internet, or even the printing press, Athanasius’ “Life of Antony” quickly became the rage throughout the Christian empire, which 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.

Only a couple of generations after St. Benedict’s death, one of his monks was elected as successor of St. Peter.

Known as Gregory the Great, this monk-become-pope found time to write his “Dialogues,” the second book of which is a life of St. Benedict.

I vote that you put Athanasius’ “Life of Antony” and book two of St. Gregory’s “Dialogues” at the top of your reading list as a great way to get acquainted with two of the greatest monastic saints and two of the greatest Fathers of the Church.

Embrace Church’s Heritage

We have no right to be outraged over the historical misinformation campaign waged by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, “The Da Vinci Code” and other unreliable sources if we continue to allow ourselves to be ignorant of our own heritage and therefore unable to share it and defend it.

Yes, millions have been fed a distorted image of early Christianity.

So let’s do something about it beyond ranting and raving.

Let’s rediscover the great teachers of the early Church, allow ourselves to be nourished and formed by their writings, and share it with anyone interested in knowing the truth. TCA

In this article, I will provide some further ideas on how busy people not formally schooled in theology may best approach the later Fathers who wrote during the era of the great ecumenical councils of the Church.

Marcellino D’Ambrosio, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in historical theology under the renowned Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles. For more on his work on the early Church, see his book “When the Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers.”

The Great Augustine
This presentation of the Fathers would not be complete without a discussion of how to break into the writings of the most famous Father of the Western Church, the great St. Augustine. Many praise Augustine, but virtually no one has read all of his works (he wrote more than 4 million words!). It’s hard to know where to enter the forest of his vast literary output. His “Confessions” is a classic of Western civilization as is his massive tome “The City of God.” But keep in mind that “Confessions” is not an autobiography in the typical modern sense of the word. It is a spiritual reflection on his past life, written soon after his accession to the episcopate, but it takes the form of a long, extended prayer to God. And its last few chapters ascend into the philosophical stratosphere, losing all but the heartiest astronauts. Is it to be attempted? Yes, but it is not really a beginner’s slope. And “The City of God” is definitely not the first Augustinian peak to be attempted either.

So, where to begin? In my opinion, it is his homilies and commentaries that are perfect for everyone — meaty enough for the most experienced, but simple enough for the novice. After all, his sermons are for ordinary people and are intended to help them understand and apply the Scriptures to their lives. Who cannot use a bit more of that? His commentary on the Psalms is fabulous. And, since his favorite topic is love, I especially recommend his homilies on the First Letter of John. Given that Augustine is the most influential teacher of the faith in the Western Church before St. Thomas Aquinas, he cannot be neglected by anyone wishing to tap into the Church’s ancient heritage.
Fathers of the Church
Greek Fathers
St. Anastasius Sinaita (d. 700)
St. Andrew of Crete (d. 740)
Aphraates (fourth century)
St. Archelaus (d. 282)
St. Athanasius (d. 373)
Athenagoras (second century)
St. Basil the Great (d. 379)
St. Caesarius of Nazianzus (d. 369)
St. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215)
St. Clement I of Rome, Pope (r. 88-97)
St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444)
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386)
Didymus the Blind (d. c. 398)
Diodore of Tarsus (d. 392)
St. Dionysius the Great (d. c. 264)
St. Epiphanius (d. 403)
Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 340)
St. Eustathius of Antioch (fourth century)
St. Firmillian (d. 268)
Gennadius I of Constantinople (fifth century)
St. Germanus (d. 732)
St. Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390)
St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395)
St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (d. 268)
Hermas (second century)
St. Hippolytus (d. 236)
St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107)
St. Isidore of Pelusium (d. c. 450)
St. John Chrysostom (d. 407)
St. John Climacus (d. 649)
St. John Damascene (d. 749), last Father of the East
St. Julius I, Pope (r. 337-352)
St. Justin Martyr (d. 165)
St. Leontius of Byzantium (sixth century)
St. Macarius (d. c. 390)
St. Maximus the Confessor (d. 662)
St. Melito (d. c. 180)
St. Methodius of Olympus (d. 311)
St. Nilus the Elder (d. c. 430)
Origen (d. 254)
St. Polycarp (d. c. 155)
St. Proclus (d. c. 446)
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (sixth century)
St. Serapion (d. c. 370)
St. Sophronius (d. 638)
Tatian (second century)
Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428)
Theodoret of Cyrrhus (d. c. 458)
St. Theophilus of Antioch (second century)
Latin Fathers
St. Ambrose of Milan (d. 397)
Arnobius (d. 330)
St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430)
St. Benedict of Nursia (d. c. 550)
St. Caesarius of Arles (d. 542)
St. John Cassian (d. 435)
St. Celestine I, Pope (r. 422-432)
St. Cornelius, Pope (r. 251-253)
St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258)
St. Damasus I, Pope (r. 366-384)
St. Dionysius, Pope (r. 259-268)
St. Ennodius (d. 521)
St. Eucherius of Lyons (d. c. 450)
St. Fulgentius (d. 533)
St. Gregory of Elvira (d. c. 392)
St. Gregory the Great, Pope (r. 590-604)
St. Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367)
St. Innocent I, Pope (r. 401-417)
St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. c. 202)
St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636), last Father of the West
St. Jerome (d. 420)
Lactantius (d. 323)
St. Leo the Great, Pope (r. 440-461)
Marius Mercator (d. 451)
Marius Victorinus (fourth century)
Minucius Felix (second century)
Novatian (d. c. 257)
St. Optatus (fourth century)
St. Pacian (d. c. 390)
St. Pamphilus (d. 309)
St. Paulinus of Nola (d. 431)
St. Peter Chrysologus (d. 450)
St. Phoebadius of Agen (fourth century)
Rufinus of Aquileia (d. 410)
Salvian (fifth century)
St. Siricius, Pope (r. 384-399)
Tertullian (d. c. 222)
St. Vincent of Lérins (d. c. 450)