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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

Patristics.info has launched!

| 4 days ago | Early Church

Hey everyone, so I’ve launched a new website called Patristics.info to be a new resource for all things early church related. I’ve added a few texts which I already had formatted from my book manuscript, plus other resources like timelines, maps, recommended books etc. I’ll be adding more soon in the coming days. I’ve also created a “topical index” page too which is auto-generated from the tags on the pages to aid with searching, plus I created a word highlighter on each page so you can search keywords in a text and have them highlighted if you’re looking for particular things. If anyone would like to be involved to contribute resources or blogs, or have any book you’ve written which you’d like linked/advertised on the site then just get in touch! I want this to be as useful a tool for people who are interested in this area as much as for people who are new to Patristics (the early church fathers). Features and functionality Much of the site is ready to go in terms of functionality and resources etc for the time being. I’m still working on adding more Early Church texts to the site, but this takes a lot of time as I need to transcribe them from unformatted text into a nicer format for reading, plus inserting all of the footnotes as well (I’m currently half way through 1 Clement now). While I mention the footnotes, I’ve created a feature similar to Wikipedia where if you hover on a footnote number, it will display a popup with the footnote text in it hopefully making it simpler to read the Patristic text and quickly see any additional information from the original translators as you go. This should also work well on mobiles too. Inline footnote hover popups Another new feature I’ve created is the Quote Search page: https://patristics.info/quote-search.html This is an experimental tool at the moment while I still perfect it, but please give it a go and submit any feedback if you can. The page will allow you to search a keyword and bring up a list of contextual quotes from within the Church Father texts where that word is mentioned. As far as I’m aware, there’s nothing else like this available online in this format so I hope it will prove useful for study! Example quote search for the word “baptism” I hope that you enjoy the site and find it a useful tool. Please share it online etc. and if you want to get involved with creating blogs or resources just get in touch, or if you feel so inclined, you can support this project financially via Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/LukeJWilson Go and explore the site today: Patristics.info !...

Should Christians get tattoos, and is it Biblical?

| 31st August 2019 | Tattoos

I was in a discussion not so long ago about tattoos, and I was asked about the historical view on this practice. It wasn’t something I had looked into before from a Church Fathers point of view, so it was an interesting topic of study. In my searching, I found this article from a Catholic site which seems to give a pretty interesting overview of some of the views about tattoos in the earlier centuries. The following is a quote about a Church Council in the context of native Britons, who still practiced tattooing at that time for pagan ritual, something which Tertullian also gives a fleeting reference to around 213 AD in his On the Veiling of Virgins, ch. 10. In the 787 Council of Northumberland — a meeting of lay and ecclesial leaders and citizens in England — Christian commentators distinguished between religious and profane tattoos. In the council documents, they wrote:“When an individual undergoes the ordeal of tattooing for the sake of God, he is greatly praised. But one who submits himself to be tattooed for superstitious reasons in the manner of the heathens will derive no benefit there from.” But, contrasted with Basil the Great of the fourth century, who supposedly (I say “supposedly” because I can’t find an original source for this quote, nor the quote above, though many other books and websites cite both; see end note) said: “No man shall let his hair grow long or tattoo himself as do the heathen” — it highlights that the views of this practice have been wide and varied over the centuries; as over in Egypt, the Coptic Church has been marking themselves with tattoos since the sixth or seventh century, even up to present times. All of this debate stems from one seemingly clear verse in Leviticus: Leviticus 19:28 (WEB)You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you. I am Yahweh. In the manner of how Hebrew works, the clause “for the dead” is applying to both phrases. The cuttings and the marks are not to be “for the dead”. Those Hebrew phrases which seem to repeat a similar thought are generally connected and are saying the same thing in two different ways to emphasise the point (just look at the Psalms for many examples of this). Not to mention that the word “tattoo” didn’t exist until the 17th century, prior to that it was translated as “marks on the skin” or something similar, which has much different connotations than the word “tattoo” has in our contemporary society. An ancient, obscure word is translated as “tattoo” in one place, and we impose our modern thinking of what that word implies onto Scripture making it anything but clear and moving us a little farther away from the original intent. This verse is more than likely admonishing against copying the surrounding pagan practices of the time than being a blanket rule against any form of “tattoo”. Arguably there are passages that say that Jesus’ body was “marked” in some way, as in the book of Revelation which some see as a reference to a tattoo of sorts: Revelation 19:16 (WEB)He has on his garment and on his thigh a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” Or in the Old Testament, Isaiah speaks of God in a similar manner as having “engraved” the names of his people on the palm of his hand — a word with a much stronger and more violent visual than simply tattooing ink into the skin. Possibly even a nod towards what Jesus would eventually do for us when he would literally have his hands “engraved” (or “hacked” as this root word can also mean) for us on the cross! Isaiah 49:16a (WEB)Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. Similarly, a couple of chapters previously to this one in Isa. 44:5, it speaks of the people writing the name of the LORD of their hands in celebration, and a similar, but less violent, word for “engraving” is used here too. Going back to the passage in Leviticus, the word ...

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...