One gets the clear impression that these people are important. Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic writers all tip their hats to them. Official documents of the magisterium extol their authority (see, for example, Dei Verbum, No. 23).
But often the reader is left a bit bewildered. Who precisely are the Fathers of the Church and why do they matter? And if they are so important, what’s the best way to get started learning about them?
First of all, let’s make it clear who the early Church Fathers are not. The apostles and other heroes of the New Testament era stand in a class all their own. They are not regarded as Church Fathers. Neither are great theologians and Doctors of the Church from medieval or modern times, such as St. Thomas Aquinas.
So, if these venerable writers are not Church Fathers, who are, and why do they bear this title? “Church Father” is not a formally conferred title, as is “Doctor of the Church.” There is no complete, official list of the Fathers. Instead, the designation results from popular acclaim and long-standing tradition that came about in this way: In ancient times, teachers were commonly regarded as intellectual fathers. Some early Christian teachers put their teaching into writings that continued to guide the community of the faithful long after their passing. In disputes over doctrine and the proper interpretation of Scriptures, these early writers were cited as “the fathers” or “the Fathers of the Church.” This popular title stuck and the designation over time was expanded to refer to all the great orthodox Catholic authors writing about faith and morals from about A.D. 100 to about 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 the time period in which the canon of Scripture was clarified and the great liturgical traditions of the Church — including Roman, Byzantine and Maronite — took their distinctive form.
| St. Ignatius of Antioch (Shutterstock)
The Catholic teachers and writers of this period played a role that can never be played again, transmitting and witnessing to the ancient apostolic tradition and giving a decisive, classic shape to that heritage.
Most of these writers were saints. Some of them, such as Tertullian, fell noticeably short. Saint or not, none of them are personally infallible. If they should agree on anything, it would be rather remarkable, since this disparate group spans seven centuries and three continents. But their teaching does agree on a great many points, and this is a testimony that such teaching did not originate with them, but is rather being passed down to us through them. It is in their consensus (consensus partum) 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 conclusively prove otherwise simply by going to the Fathers of the Church. The same can be done when Jehovah’s Witnesses allege that Constantine invented the divinity of Christ.
But just as we read Scripture for more than apologetics purposes, so with the Fathers. We would agree with the late Cardinal Jean Daniélou, S.J.: 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 be imbued with the Catholic spirit is to read the writings of the early 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.
Where to Begin?
But then comes the next problem. A lot can be written by hundreds of men over 700 years. St. Augustine alone wrote more than 4 million words. One medieval monk quipped, “He who says he has read all of Augustine . . . lies!”
So, how can we get started in reading the Fathers? Where is the best place to begin?
Fortunately, a reading plan has already been laid out for us by the Church. 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. For each day, it includes one of the longer psalms, broken up into three parts; a page-long reading from the Bible; and a non-biblical reading about a page long, most usually from one of the early Church Fathers. This patristic excerpt is either a commentary on the biblical reading, the liturgical season or the saint of the day. Thus the Office of Readings is a ready-made collection of, as it were, the Fathers’ greatest hits, an introduction to the most accessible, inspirational and instructive nuggets from the patristic gold mine.
Intimidated by the complexity of the Divine Office? Not to worry. The Office of Readings is rather simple to follow and is more easily accessible than you might think, both in print and electronically (see sidebar). It is the most accessible entry into the world of the Fathers.
So you’ve read and loved the excerpts and are now ready for entire works. Now what do you do?
Begin at the beginning. The “Apostolic Fathers” are the earliest of the Fathers and are known as apostolic because their life span overlapped to some degree the life span of at least 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.
Beyond the simple fact that they came first and laid the foundation for later Fathers, there are two other good reasons to start with them. One is that they have undisputable apologetic value as witnesses to unwritten apostolic tradition.
| St. Augustine (Renata Sedmakova/Shutterstock.com)
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 familiar with in the New Testament — pastoral letters and “acts” of the martyrs.
Of course, it would be helpful to read a brief bit of background before delving right into the documents. There are several convenient sources of such information. But beware of making the mistake of spending so much time preparing that you never actually read the texts. The great thing about the Apostolic Fathers is precisely that there really aren’t too many necessary prerequisites to reading them.
With all due respect to my dear Jesuit friends, the original St. Ignatius (d.c. A.D. 110) was not the one from Loyola, but from Antioch. He is without a doubt the most passionate and inspiring among the Apostolic Fathers, the easiest author to read and to share with others. He was the second bishop of Antioch after the apostles, witness to the tradition of Sts. Peter, Barnabas and Paul. It was probably only about 15-20 years after the final edition of the Gospel of John that Ignatius was arrested and sentenced to die for his faith in Rome. He was marched overland from Syria through what is now western Turkey all the way to Troas (Troy) 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. They provide a fascinating window into the soul of a martyr, a fiery testimony of the love that drove the martyrs to lay down their lives as witnesses to Christ.
The goal of this article was simply to answer the question of who the Fathers of the Church were, why they are important, and how to begin exploring their writings. In the next issue of The Catholic Answer, look for guidance on how to approach the later and more challenging Fathers, such as Augustine, the writer of those 4 million words.
In the meantime, keep reading The Catholic Answer, but for God’s sake, start reading the Fathers!