2007 - Vol. 8
Early Church Fathers
of Christ Pancrator (Christ Ruler of All)
century, Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai, Egypt
can the early church fathers teach us about Scripture?
Why read the early church fathers
and what can they teach us about the scriptures? It is easy to underestimate
the contributions of the past and to exaggerate the wisdom of the present.
Can we trust the Christian teachers of the early church period? Did
they read the scriptures well? Did their own cultural and religious blind
spots prevent them from understanding the heart of the gospel? Today there
is renewed interest in the writings of the early church fathers among Protestants,
Catholics, and Orthodox. Many are rediscovering the rich treasure of wisdom
and insight of the early church scholars, pastors, and teachers who devoted
their lives to the study of the scriptures. The early fathers had a tremendous
zeal for God and the Scriptures. What we see from a distance of some 2000
years, they saw close-up because of their access to the teachings of the
apostles and the disciples of the apostles who also passed on their wisdom
the early church fathers?
The age of the church fathers begins
with the apostles and the first disciples who had the privilege of personal
contact with the Lord Jesus. They are the hearers of the Incarnate Word
who kept and handed on the words of the Word. The age of the apostles ends
with the death of John the Evangelist at the close of the first century.
The patristic period began with some
of the fathers who remembered the apostles John or Peter personally. They
did not see Jesus in the flesh, but they had a personal share in the transmission
of the apostles' testimony.
The golden period of the fathers
runs from the fourth to the sixth century. Most date the end of the
age of the Fathers of the West with the death of Isidore of Seville in
636, and the age of the Fathers of the East with the death of John Damascene
characterizes a father of the church?
What qualified someone to be recognized
as a "father of the church"? There are four key characteristics.
First, their antiquity. The first church father is Clement of Rome,
who wrote his letter around the year 96 AD. The early fathers lived and
breathed the scriptures and the teachings of the apostles. They were the
disciples ofand the disciples
of the disciples ofthe apostles.
They demonstrate how Christ is present in all the Scriptures, from Genesis
through Revelations. [See quotes from the Early Fathers in the box
A second characteristic of the church
fathers is their holiness of life. They studied, meditated, and
lived as faithful witnesses of the gospel. And they exhibited a tremendous
zeal for God and the Scriptures. They have much to teach us about reverence
for God's word and for study and meditation upon it.
A third characteristic is their orthodox
doctrine. Their teaching is recognized as sound within the bounds of
Scripture and church tradition. They affirm the central truths of the faith,
such as belief in the triune God, that Christ was fully divine and fully
human, the redemptive efficacy of Christ's death on the cross, the absolute
authority and infallibility of Scripture, the fallen condition of humanity,
the significance of baptism, the vital importance of prayer and of the
disciplined spiritual life. They were not just theologians, but pastors
of the church. Most of the early fathers were bishops. As shepherds
of the church they spoke to the hearts and needs of those in their care.
The fourth characteristic is ecclesiastical
approval. They were affirmed as such by the church itself. Within the
broader classification of "Church Fathers" eight are designated as "Doctors
of the Church": Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great in the
West; Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Athanasius and John Chrysostom
in the East. They are eminent among the fathers for the depth of their
Scripture is a spiritual activity
How did the early church fathers
approach the reading of the Bible? They show us that it's not just an intellectual
activity, but more importantly a spiritual one. In fact we need to prepare
our hearts and minds for the fruitful study and meditation of the Scriptures.
Listen to what the early fathers say about reading the Scriptures:
Origen, who lived between
185-254 AD, wrote: "The Word of God is in your heart. The Word digs
in this soil so that the spring may gush out."
The reading of the Bible should impact
daily living. The Scriptures must be put into practice and translated into
daily experience. We must be living testimonies of the Word of God. Reading
the church fathers can be very rewarding, but it requires some serious
effort. We have to transcend our modern culture and way of looking at things
in order to understand the mind and culture of the early church and its
way of thinking. If we are willing to hunt and dig a little in our study,
then we will find a rich treasure of wisdom and inspiration from the writings
of early fathers on the Scriptures.
Jerome, who lived between 342-419
AD, wrote: "You are reading? No.Your betrothed is talking to you. It is
your betrothed, that is, Christ, who is united with you. He tears you away
from the solitude of the desert and brings you into his home, saying to
you, 'Enter into the joy of your Master.'"
John Chrysostom, who lived between
347-407 AD, wrote: "Listen carefully to me..Procure books [of the Bible]
that will be medicines for the soul. At least get a copy of the New Testament,
the Apostle's epistles, the Acts, the Gospels, for your constant teachers.
If you encounter grief, dive into them as into a chest of medicines; take
from them comfort for your trouble, whether it be loss, or death, or bereavement
over the loss of relations. Don't simply dive into them. Swim in them.
Keep them constantly in your mind. The cause of all evils is the failure
to know the Scriptures well."
The Scriptures are one book
Irenaeus writes from the 2nd century:
"If one carefully reads the Scriptures, he will find there the word
on the subject of Christ and the prefiguration of the new calling. He is
indeed the hidden treasure in the field the field in fact is the world
but in truth, the hidden treasure in the Scriptures is Christ. Because
he is designed by types and words that humanly are not possible to understand
before the accomplishment of all things, that is, Christ's second coming."
Origen writes from the 3rd century:
"[Christ's words] are not only those which he spoke when he became
a man and tabernacled in the flesh; for before that time, Christ, the Word
of God, was in Moses and the prophets. ...[their words] were filled with
the Spirit of Christ."
Hilary of Poitiers writes from the 4th century:
"Every part of Holy Writ announces through words the coming of our
Lord Jesus Christ, reveals it through facts and establishes it through
examples. ..For it is our Lord who during all the present age, through
true and manifest foreshadowings, generates, cleanses, sanctified, chooses,
separates, or redeems the Church in the Patriarchs, through Adam's slumber,
Noah's flood, Melchizedek's blessing, Abraham's justification, Isaac's
birth, and Jacob's bondage."
Augustine of Hippo writes from the 5th century:
You recall that one and the same Word of God extends throughout Scripture,
that it is one and the same Utterance that resounds in the mouths of all
the sacred writers, since he who was in the beginning God with God has
no need of separate syllables; for he is not subject to time."
"The Scriptures are in fact, in any passage you care to choose, singing
of Christ, provided we have ears that are capable of picking out the tune.
The Lord opened the minds of the Apostles so that they understood the Scriptures.
That he will open our minds too is our prayer.
[Don Schwager is a member
of The Servants of the Word
and the author of the Daily Scripture
Reading and Meditation website.]