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Why read the Early Church Fathers?

Maybe for some of you reading this, the question might better be phrased as: who are the Church Fathers?

No doubt you will be familiar with some of their names: Augustine, Jerome, Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr et al. You may have even read portions or quotes by some of these men. But that still doesn't really explain to you who they are and why you should care, much less actually read any of their works.

My new book deals with a selection of some of the most influential Early Church Fathers, sometimes also referred to as the Apostolic Fathers (if they lived between AD 70-150), or collectively as the Ante Nicene Fathers for all of those in the period of time preceding the Council of Nicea (AD 325). It is these men who wrote doctrine and defences against heresy and helped to continue and shape the Church in its most formative years.

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Some of the earlier Christian leaders of the 2nd Century were discipled and taught by the Apostles themselves. Those include Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna. Still others in mid-2nd century were then taught by those who knew the men who were taught by some of the Apostles. One of the more well-known Bishops who was second generation to the Apostles was Irenaeus (best known for his extensive apologetic works, Against Heresies).

From chapter 21 onward in my book, I look at a few writers from beyond this period (around 356) up until AD 449 where we can observe some distinctive changes in thought and practice.

These people who came before us, those great men of faith, many of whom suffered persecution and martyrdom to preserve the Church and Christ's mission, bridge the gap between the Bible and the present day. They fill the void we sometimes wonder about when we get to the end of reading Acts or the Epistles and think, “what happened next?” or “what happened to the Ephesian church after Paul left?”.

So Why Read What They Wrote?

The Bible didn't just drop out of the sky, all leather bound and ready to read for us to pick up today. There was a lengthy process of selecting and preserving the apostles teachings which spanned nearly four centuries, and it was due to the Fathers and their faithfulness to the Scriptures that this was possible. Not only that, but due to their close links to the Apostles — some who were even taught directly by an apostle — we now have valuable resources and insights into aspects, teaching and issues within the very early Church which we can learn from and measure our doctrine and interpretation against.

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This isn't to say that everything the Church Fathers said, did or wrote is perfect; or that we should elevate their texts to the level of Scripture, but we can glean much from those who knew and were discipled by the Apostles (or those who knew them second hand). We can read what certain portions of Scripture meant to them, or see how they interpreted things in the years following the Apostles, and can compare that to how we might read those same Scriptures today.

This is a highly valuable resource for us to still have available; to be able to check our beliefs and doctrines against accepted, historical orthodoxy, which was quite literally shaped through blood, sweat and tears.

It's a wonderful thing to be able to look back millennia and know that what we believe and follow as Christians has been faithfully passed on and preserved for all this time. Many doctrines we now take for granted were actually developed and defended during this time; carefully worded and formed to ensure that the truth of God doesn't get lost, diluted or warped for selfish gain.

We owe much to these men of God and can still learn a great deal from them, as they still speak to us today as part of that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us (Heb 12:1).

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This is an excerpt from the introduction to my new book.

You can read more from the Early Church Fathers in my new book, 40 Days with the Fathers: A daily reading plan, which is available now on Amazon.

See fortydays.co.uk for more details and to begin your journey through the first four centuries of the Church!

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Recent Posts

Spiritual Disciplines of the Early Church: Ancient Practices for the 21st Century

| 17th June 2019 | Early Church

I was asked not so long ago what kinds of things Christians did in the Early Church (first to fourth century) as a form of spiritual discipline, on a personal level as well as a corporate one. Though the concept of an individual “personal spiritual life” would have been quite foreign to first century believers as faith and Church was very much a corporate venture that had personal implications, rather than the other way around as it can often appear to be thought of today. Much of what made Christianity structured, disciplined and set apart from society, has largely been lost in practice, or forgotten and relegated to the annals of history by many practicing Christians today. With that said, let’s take a look at what the most common practices were of the ancient Church.   Reading/Memorising Scripture Memorising Scripture – specifically the Psalms and Gospels Singing/praying the Psalms as worship to God Both of these principles are based on Psalm 1:1–3 and Colossians 3:16. “Every Psalm brings peace, soothes the internal conflicts, calms the rough waves of evil thoughts, dissolves anger, corrects and moderates profligacy.” Commentary on Psalm 1, Basil the Great (4th century)   Prayer and Fasting Another common practice that was expected of believers was regular fasting, since Jesus had said “when you fast”, not “if”. Typically, fasting was done every week on Wednesday and Friday, based on Matthew 6:16–18, and also to honour the days of the Passion and crucifixion in later tradition. “But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; … but fast on the fourth day (Wednesday) and the Preparation (Friday). … [But pray] as the Lord commanded in His Gospel (the Lord’s Prayer) … Thrice in the day thus pray.” Didache (c. 50 – 70) Alongside fasting, praying the Lord’s Prayer three times a day (morning, noon, evening) was a common discipline. From around the third century, liturgy and prayers in a church service would start to face East as that was seen where God’s glory arose, and in baptism ritual turning East was a sign of turning away from the devil towards Christ (Jews similarly prayed facing Jerusalem). This is also why many old church buildings are cross-shaped and have the alter end pointing Eastward. For it is required that you pray toward the east, as knowing that which is written: ‘Give ye glory to God, who rideth upon the heaven of heavens toward the east’ (Ps 67.34 LXX [Ps. 68:33 – 34]). Didascalia, Ch. XII (c.250) The various spiritual benefits to fasting are marked throughout the Church Fathers' works on the subject, but I find this quote from Augustine sums it up succinctly: “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself.” Augustine; Sermon, On Prayer and Fasting, LXXII (c. 393–430) Fasting was also not just total denial of food all day, but often only until sundown (or evening meal), and would comprise of bread and water with some oils to dip the bread in. Some may be more like a vegetarian diet, but with no oil, fish or alcohol either. Meal times should be replaced with prayer, and in all times during the fast (as well as generally also), to bear in mind the true fast that is pleasing to the Lord as seen in Isaiah 58:6–9. “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh?” Isaiah 58:6 – 7 (WEB)   Signing the Cross Another ancient custom is making the sign of the cross over yours...

Creedal Christians: The Nicene Creed

| 02nd June 2019 | Early Church

The Nicene Creed — what is it and why is it called that? This creed gets its name from a time and place: the first ecumenical Church council held at Nicaea, which is now known as İznik in northwestern Turkey, in 325 AD. Now that may raise another question for you: what is an ecumenical council? Well, to explain more about the Nicene Creed, we are going to have to take a look at The First Council of Nicaea in order to better understand why this creed was written. First things first though; an “ecumenical council” is ideally a Church-wide meeting where all the Bishops from all across the Church come together to hold a very large and very important meeting to discuss topics and issues affecting the whole Body of Believers, with the results intended to be binding on all believers. Most often, these Councils were called to combat heresy and false teachers who had come about and gained enough popularity that it warranted an official response, with the creeds being the result after proper orthodoxy had been ratified. Seeking unity, the Council was convened by Constantine I in response to the Arian controversy which had gripped the Greek-speaking East. The teaching of Arius of Alexandria were considered heretical by most bishops of the time, fearing that it would cost people their salvation. 1800 bishops were invited by Constantine (that was every bishop across the Roman Empire), but only around 250-320 turned up from across the Empire, except Britain, according to the various surviving documents from different attendees. This Council was an extremely historic event as nothing quite like it had happened before since the Council of Jerusalem around 50 AD (Acts 15), which convened in a similar manner to counter controversial and false teaching which was upsetting the Church Body. As with that Council, the Nicene Council and its outcome was intended for the whole of the Church global. What actually happened at Nicaea I won’t go into too much detail about everything the Council discussed, but other than condemning and exiling Arius for his false teaching that the Son of God was a created being (or “creature”) out of nothing like the rest of creation, the council aimed to settle on a uniform date for celebrating Easter as the East followed Jewish customs of Passover for the date, and the West followed another custom. Other than that, the other decrees (“canons”) declared were to do with how bishops should be consecrated, how bishops and priests should stay within their parishes and some rules on lending money with interest. There were 20 short canons/rulings in all which you can read here, if you’re interested to see exactly what went on. For another viewpoint of what occurred during the Council, Eusebius of Cæsarea (who you may know as the author of Ecclesiastical History) was in attendance and wrote a letter covering the events to send back to his Diocese explaining the formation of the creed and why and how they came up with it. You can read his letter here, or you can also read the letter of Athanasius who was also present at the council as a secretary to the Bishop of Alexandria, here. It’s also often said that Nicholas of Myra (also known as Saint Nicholas – yes, that St. Nick) attended and actually slapped Arius across the face(!), but that is most likely an exaggeration at best, or an urban legend. If you do read the canons of the council and the letters of Eusebius and Athansius, you’ll see that the Nicene Council had some specific goals to achieve and that their main objective was that of the divine nature of Christ and how to deal with the teaching of Arius. What they didn’t do, as some pervasive myths claim, was to “decide what went in the Bible”, “create Catholicism”, “change the Sabbath to Sunday”, or “invent the deity of Christ”! The internet allows for a lot of nonsense to get spread, especially when much of the disinformation was proliferated by a Hollywood film and orig...

Fasting: A spiritual and physical discipline

| 27th May 2019 | Fasting

The topic of fasting often comes up in online discussion groups that I'm a part of, more often in Protestant circles where the practice is more often sidelined in low churches. So let's take a look at the practice of fasting from a practical and historical view, as it seems to be a spiritual discipline which has been pushed aside in many churches today, with prayer, worship and bible reading taking more precedence in a Christian's life instead (not that those are bad things to do!). Why fast? There are many reasons to fast, and recent studies have shown a lot of health benefits that can be derived from fasting. But on the spiritual side of life, there are also many benefits, one of the main ones being self-control. Fasting is participation in the Gospel. It is the ‘death’ of the flesh through denial, so that we can enjoy the resurrection of Christ in the spirit (Rom 8:13, Col 3:5). It’s pure discipline and obedience (Jesus did say when not if – Matthew 6:16-18; Mark 2:20). It’s putting to death the body – killing the flesh in order to live by the Spirit. (Gal 5:17) It’s training you in self-control, discipline and willpower; growing and nurturing the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23; 2 Timothy 1:7; 1 Peter 4:7; 1 Peter 5:8). For healing and deliverance of others (Mark 9:29; Matthew 17:21). To prepare to hear from God via visions and revelation (Acts 10:30). For preparation for Church leadership (Acts 13:2-3; Acts 14:23) To not be ruled by your desires and cravings – impulse control (1 Corinthians 7:5). To focus on God and not ourselves, in prayer and worship (Luke 2:36-38). To be in control of your body and to make your desires subject to you, not vice versa (1 Corinthians 7:5). For self-denial to overcome temptations and learn discipline (1 Peter 5:8). For repentance. For prayers for your enemies/persecutors and forgiveness.(For a more in-depth examination of early Christian thought on fasting and the reasons for doing so, see here: Fasting through patristic era.) Some Fasting Guidelines If you want to fast in the same way as the Early Church and keep with historical Christianity, fast every day until sunset (or 3pm) during your fasting period. Historically also, the Church has always had a weekly partial fast on Wednesdays and Fridays alongside other times (such as Lent). Generally, you can drink what you like (except soup, as it’s still a food), though there are different types of fasts the Church has kept throughout the year (the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches still do this) which have different restrictions, like no alcohol and oils etc., but plenty of water is ideal in any case. The first five days or so will be the hardest if you observe the strict fast for a longer period of time. Persevere past this as it does get easier! I've always been told to drink a large glass of milk if you experience headaches, I'm not sure why this helps but it does seem to! It’s not a sin to tell people you are fasting! The warnings of Jesus in Matt 6:16 about not looking dismal and sad, is like the warnings against public prayer – it’s all down to motivation. If you do it for the praise of others, or to look “super spiritual” then you have gained an earthly reward and lost a heavenly one. If people notice and ask, tell them. It may be an opportunity to witness about your faith, as it’s fairly unusual for people to hear of these days; just don’t go around advertising it or boasting, that’s all! Remember what Jesus says in Matthew 6:16-18 – go about your days as normal! As with the historical tradition: don’t fast on Sundays – this is because it is a day of celebration in remembrance of the resurrection; a “mini-feast day” as it’s known! Also, this is why and how during Lent the forty days “fits” from Ash Wednesday to Easter Saturday, by not counting the Sundays of Lent, otherwise it would be 46 days. Types of Fasts There’s a whole variety of diff...

40 Days with the Fathers: Companion Texts OUT NOW!

| 08th May 2019 | Early Church

40 Days with the Fathers: Companion Texts is now available to buy as Paperback or Kindle! I am happy to say that the new book is now available in paperback and Kindle format on Amazon! Other eBook formats will be available soon as it rolls out. This book is the companion to my other book (40 Days with the Fathers: A Daily Reading Plan), and includes twenty-three Early Church texts in full—including all additional footnotes from the original editors and translators so that you can get as close as possible to reading these ancient texts without needing to know ancient Greek or Latin. It's structured in such a way to read a chapter a day over a 40 day period which will help digest these long texts, and also serve as an easy introduction to what is often the more scholarly/academic side of things. Order your copy today to get the Paperback at the special low price of £19.99 (RRP: £21.99)! In the UK? Go to Amazon.co.uk In America or worldwide? Go to Amazon.com Thank you for your interest and support of my work! Luke J. Wilson...