Reading the Fathers of the Church - Part II
by: Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio
Though I like many can’t help but roll my eyes over the popularity of the Da Vinci Code, we are indebted to Dan Brown in a way. For he has 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 Da Vinci Code’s image of what went on in the early church is a total fabrication. So where do we go for the truth? As a professor, my preference was always to bypass textbooks and reviews written centuries later and instead put people in direct contact with the primary sources, documents written by those from the period who were actually involved in the events under consideration. Fortunately, abundant documents survive from the first eight centuries of the Church, written by teachers that we commonly refer to as the “Early Church Fathers.” By the way, contrary to the allegations of the Code’s characters, the documents we have from this era are not falsified or interpolated. Scholarly tools have existed for the past few centuries that have been very effective in detecting forgeries and in dating documents to within at least a few decades.
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 hard enough to know where to begin!
In my first article on this subject (This Rock, March 2006), 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 to the early Tradition and are available in the 4 volume set of the Liturgy of the Hours available at www.crossroadsinitiative.com where many of the readings can also be accessed and downloaded for free. The next step would be to read the earliest of the post New Testament writings known as “the Apostolic Fathers” since they are within anyone’s comprehension who can read the Bible and have especially great apologetic value, given their proximity to the apostles.
This article is intended to provide some further ideas on how busy people, not formally schooled in theology and philosophy, may best approach the later fathers who wrote during the era of the Great Ecumenical Councils from Nicaea onwards.
Scripture, Liturgy, and Biography
The apostolic fathers were a lot like Jesus twelve apostles–generally simple men, without lots of formal schooling, intent on being pastors, not scholars. That makes their writings easy to understand for those of us who are not scholars either. But once we hit the likes of St. Justin and Tertullian, both writing in the mid to late second century, we run into very different kinds of writers. Justin had been a philosopher before his conversion, Tertullian, 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 Golden Age of the fourth and fifth centuries, such as St. Augustine and St. Gregory of Nyssa. The concluding chapters of St. Augustine’s Confession, for example, contain a reflection on the concepts of Time and Eternity that leave graduate students in philosophy with a furrowed brow, even after three or four re-readings.
So is there any hope that the ordinary Joe 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 on Scripture, catechetical explanations of the ten commandments and sacraments, and lives of the saints, written for edification of the clergy and the faithful. Though these various 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 and dogmatic treatises written often for a more learned audience.
St. Basil On the Holy Spirit
Regarding my suggestion to steer clear of topical treatises written against heresies, there’s one exception I’d make, and I’ll mention that now. Following the Council of Nicaea, there was a great deal of doctrinal confusion. One group of churchman 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 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 this term of the Holy Spirit. These “sola scriptura” bishops, called “pneumatomachoi” (fighters against the Spirit) by their opponents, resisted the doctrine of the Trinity, one God in three distinct but equal persons.
The response of St. Basil the Great to these heretics is a short treatise that relies not on difficult philosophical and theological concepts, but common sense reasoning based on Scripture and the liturgy. He demonstrates that Scripture constantly teaches both the distinct personhood and full divinity of the Holy Spirit implicitly, even if it does not explicitly call the Spirit “God.” He then makes 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 370AD), relied exclusively on the text of the bible to tell them how to pray and what to believe. He points 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 which are not clearly and explicitly spelled out in Scripture. He also points 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, for a great read that 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, pick up this short, inexpensive book, available in paperback from St. Vladimir Seminary Press, and dive in.
Two Great Lives
Pope St. Gregory the Great lived in a different cultural milieu and a different era than the great patriarch of Alexandria, St. Athanasius. But inspiring the faithful through the lives of the saints is a pastoral responsibility that transcends time and place. And both of these great pastors were faithful to this responsibility to an extraordinary degree. In defending the divinity of Christ, Athanasius had received constant support from St. Antony and his desert companions. Athanasius was personally inspired by Antony’s story and example, and decided the world needed to know about him. The internet had not been, of course, invented yet, and neither had the printing press. Yet Athanasius’ Life of Antony quickly became the rage throughout the Christian empire, 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, the 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. Given that we now have a Pope on the throne of Peter whose name reminds us of Benedict’s pivotal importance, I vote that you put book two of St. Gregory’s Dialogues at the top of your reading list, available as a volume in Catholic University’s Father of the Church Series (also available online at www.crossroadsinitiative.com).
Golden Mouth and Golden Words
At the end of the fourth century, a monk was elected Patriarch of Constantinople who is undoubtedly one of the greatest preachers of all time. St. John was in fact so powerful a speaker that the people dubbed him “Chrysostom” or golden-mouth. Not all were as pleased with his words, however. He was no respecter of persons and was not afraid to denounce the hypocrisy of the nominally Christian Empress. This earned him an exile so harsh that it led to his untimely death. But the homilies he preached before he was silenced are some of the most accessible and practical treasures of the patristic tradition. Fortunately, small inexpensive paperback volumes of his homilies on important themes are available from St. Vladimir Seminary Press, for example “On Marriage and Family Life,” “On Wealth and Poverty,” and “On the Priesthood.”
Less than a generation after Chrysostom’s death, a bishop was elected to the see of Ravenna, Italy, who reminded those who heard him of Chrysostom’s eloquence. So this bishop, named Peter, became known as Chrysologus, or golden-worded. His preaching contains some of the most beautiful imagery and moving oratory to be found in patristic homilies. Unfortunately, no inexpensive paperbacks of his writings are available, but selected sermons of his can be read online at www.crossroadsinitiative.com or can be purchased as volume 2 in the Fathers of the Church Series from Catholic University of America Press.
Pope Gregory I was dubbed “the Great” and many would like to see John Paul II likewise honored. But the very first Pope to be so-called was Leo I. Besides persuading Attila the Hun to abandon his plans to ravage Rome, St. Leo’s claim to fame is his magnificent preaching, which he delivered to the Romans while St. Peter Chrysologus was ministering on the Adriatic side of Italy. Leo preached on just about every topic that could possibly come up in the liturgical cycle of readings. But he really shines when discussing the mystery of the incarnation. For this reason, many of the patristic selections in the Roman Church’s office of readings for Advent and Christmas are drawn from the homilies of this extraordinary pastor. Another of his strong points are his many homilies on the Beatitudes. As a Pope, he had occasion to write many letters on a variety of pastoral and doctrinal topics and fortunately many of these have come down to us. Both his letters and homilies are highly recommended reads and are available in the Fathers of the Church Series, the Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers Series or online at my web site.
High Powered Catechist
In the middle of the fourth century, only a generation after the council of Nicaea, a bishop took possession of the see of Jerusalem who can only be described as a “hands-on” sort of pastor. The Church was growing, and every year there were many completing their instruction in preparation for receiving the sacraments of initiation during the Easter Vigil. Bishop Cyril was not content to leave their formation to others. He himself gave the lectures in their RCIA class. Someone evidently took very good notes, and by Divine Providence, these notes have come down to us today. The catechetical lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, including the famous “mystagogical catecheses” which were given to the newly baptized during the Easter Octave, are goldmines of information on the faith, life, and worship of the Jerusalem Church soon after the legalization of Christianity proclaimed by Constantine. First of all they show us what adult catechesis was like in those days. Second, the many allusions to the way the Holy Week liturgies were celebrated shows us just how far back many of our current liturgical practices go! Thirdly, what the Church believed then and still believes today about the creed and the sacraments is laid out clearly and persuasively. To deepen your own prayerful understanding of these things and to demonstrate the ancient origin of Catholic doctrine and sacramental practice, by all means pick up a paperback copy of St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s lectures on the Christian Sacraments from St. Vladimir’s press, or access them online at www.crossroadsinitiative.com.
The Great Augustine
This article could not be complete without a discussion of the most famous Father of the Western Church, the Great Augustine. Many speak of Augustine, but virtually no one has read all of his works (he wrote over 4 million words!) and many find it hard to know where to enter the forest of his vast literary output. His Confession is a classic of Western civilization as his massive tome, the City of God. But keep in mind that his Confession is not an autobiography in our 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 beginners 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, put together in a contemporary translation by Harper Collins under the title Love One Another, My Friends. Given that Augustine is the most influential teacher of the faith in the Western Church until St. Thomas Aquinas, he cannot be neglected by anyone wishing to tap into the Church’s ancient heritage.
We have no right to be outraged over the Da Vinci Code’s misinformation campaign 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 recently been fed a distorted image of early Christianity. So let’s do something about it beyond rant and rave–lets rediscover the great teachers of the Early church, allow ourselves to be nourished and formed by their writings, and share them with anyone interested in knowing the truth. There is no need to go chasing the Holy Grail to find the documents dating from the earliest days of the Christian movement that tell the true story of who Jesus was, what he taught, and what he means to the human race.