The Church Fathers

Who are the Church Fathers?

I. A Biblical Foundation for "Fathers of the Church"

It is a biblical imperative that we honor our forerunners in the Faith:

"Honor thy mother and father" is both a physical as well as a spiritual command. The term "father" in the New Testament is a position of protest to the Protestant faith. (Matt 28:9) says, "Do not call anyone on earth your father; for one is your Father, He who is in heaven." Christ also said, "And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ" (Matt. 23:10). Yet, Christ called Nicodemus a "teacher of Israel" (John 3:10). Christ was protesting the abuses of the rabbis who were using their position to their own end. Christ's command when taken literally would also limit us from calling our earthy parents "father" as well.

St. Paul was Timothy's Father in the faith: St. Paul was the father of a community. In speaking to the Corinthians, St. Paul addresses, "For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every Church." (I Cor. 4:15-17).

Abraham was (and is) the Father of all the faithful: "What shall we say about Abraham; the purpose was to make him the father of all who believe (have faith) without being circumcised; but also follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised; to those who share in the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all." (Romans 4:1, 11, 12, 16)." And again, the words, of the holy and glorious forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." (Dismissal prayer of the memorial service).

II. What is a "Father?"

The "Body of Christ" cannot change because Christ is always the same. The Fathers continued what the Apostles began. The Orthodox Church identifies itself as being related to the early Church (1-2 C.) both "spiritually" and "ontologically." Ontologically, related would be equivalent to saying that we are spiritual relatives and share in a common and identical character. Our faith, is identical; the manner in which we worship is identical; and our expression of a life in the Spirit, our spirituality, is identical. The meaning of the below hymn is precisely that we (the Orthodox Church) are identifying ourselves, as being not just in historical continuity with the early Church but that we are in fact, that very same Church.

"This is the Apostolic faith, this is the faith of the Fathers, this is the Orthodox faith, this faith has established the Universe." (from the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the first Sunday in Lent,).

St. Athanasius identifies three inseparable pillars of Truth; Christ, the Apostles, and the Fathers.

"Let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the catholic (complete) Church from the very beginning, which the Logos (Word) gave; the Apostles preached; and the Fathers preserved. Upon this the Church is founded." (St. Athanasius, First Letter to Serapion, 28-Bishop of Alexandria 4 C.)

The Fathers were "Holy Witnesses" to the Truth: Many of the doctrinal statements from the Councils of the Church began with the introduction, "Following the Holy Fathers..." It was at the seventh Ecumenical Council that the decision regarding the Icon controversy was proclaimed. The Council was quoted as saying,

"Following the Divinely inspired teaching of our Holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic (Universal) Church;"

The Orthodox Church is Apostolic and Patristic:

"The Fathers testify to the Apostolicity of the tradition. Only by being Patristic is the Church continuously Apostolic." (Florovsky, Vol. 4, p. 16).

III. There Are Two Stages to the Proclamation of the Christian Faith

The Apostles gave the "Message" (kerygma) this message is of the salvation offered by Christ-upon the Cross-given freely to all humanity.

The Fathers gave the dogma (Dogma). The religious truths issuing from a divine revelation and defined by the Church. The dogma of the Fathers issued from the "Good News" of the Apostles-thus it can be said that:

"The teachings of the Fathers are a permanent category of Christian faith, a constant and ultimate measure of criterion of right belief. In this sense, Fathers are not merely witnesses of the old faith but, above all and primarily, witnesses of the true faith." (Florovsky, Vol. 4, p. 17).

"The mind of the Fathers" cannot be separated from Holy Scripture because they bear witness to the truth found in scripture.

"The Fathers were always servants of the Word. And there theology was intrinsically exegetical. Thus...the Catholic Church of all ages is not merely a child of the Church of the Fathers, but she is and remains the church of the Fathers." (Florovsky, Vol. 4 p. 16).

The Orthodox Church proclaims this Theology always in relation to life of prayer and the practice of virtue. Thus it is found in the:

Preaching in the services
Hymnology & Iconography
Personal Devotional Practices (i.e. prayer and meditation) 

IV. The History of the Fathers

"The Spirit breathes in all ages" (St. Jerome).

"Tradition is the continuity of divine assistance, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit...The same Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, which "spoke by the Prophets," which guided the apostles, which illumined the evangelist, is still abiding in the Church, and guides her into the fuller understanding of divine truth, from glory to glory." (Florovsky, Vol. 4 p. 16).

It is "theologically" wrong to limit the "age of the Fathers" to any particular period of Church history. The "Fathers" in the Church continue to be born just as the Spirit continues to bring the Church from glory to glory.

V. The Fathers and the Biblical Interpretation

Two schools or methods of interpretation that dominated the early centuries. The first one being the Antiochene historical, literal interpretation. This method was concerned more with the direct meaning of the old prophecies and stories. The school was founded in 312 AD. St. John Chrysostom confirms this understanding in his work on Theodore of Mopsuestia, in The Interpreter.

The second method was the Alexandrine contemplative, allegorical. The school of Alexandria is the oldest center of "sacred science" in the history of Christianity. They believed that the scriptures are divinely inspired and as such, they must carry with them a universal application for all ages to come. Even when God spoke under special circumstances, there was always something in His words that passes beyond historical limitations. Sts. Clement (150 AD), Origen (202 AD), Dionysius 248 AD), Peter (300 AD), Athanasius (328 AD), Didymus (358 AD), and Cyril (431 AD) supported this understanding.

The third method was the Cappadoci Fathers (Christological/Salvific) and these Fathers saw the interpretation to be a balance between the first two methods; Sts. Basil the Great (379 AD), Gregory of Nyssa (394 AD), Gregory of Nazianzus (374 AD) and John Chrysostom (407 AD).

The basic Patristic views about the Bible were that:

The Old and New Testaments form a single revelation.
The Psalms became the pattern of hymnography in the Church.
The worship of the Church stresses the unity of the two revelations. On Major Feast's of the Church, Old Testament Prophecies are read and thus interpreted by the Church.
The "Covenant" is One, Prophetic and Apostolic agree.

All Old Testament sinners are remembered and called upon as examples of repentance for the Christian. (The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, sung during Lent).

VI. The Beginning of the Fathers

The Apostolic Fathers (1-2 C) can be found in the sources of The Apostles Creed and The Didache. The Apostolic Fathers gave us writings that are pastoral in character and are closely related in style to the writings of the New Testament.

There were three major themes found in the Apostolic Fathers:

One was the encouragement to remain faithful in the face of persecution. 
Another was that of the defenders of the "True Faith" against heresies as explained in Tit. 1:9, I Tim. 6:4-5, and II Tim. 4:3-5. 
A Heretic is someone who chooses his own doctrine against the doctrine of the Church, or someone who reduces the doctrine to only one of its aspects; thus heresy means reductionism. Most heresies contain a portion of Truth but not the whole Truth. 
The third major theme found in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers was a concern for Church order.

The Apostolic Fathers who wrote about these major themes were men like St. Ignatius of Antioch who wrote at least seven Epistles. Some say he was a disciple of John the Apostle, St. Ignatius died in Rome in 107. St. Clement Bishop of Rome was another; he was a disciple of Sts. Peter and Paul. He wrote at least one letter to the Corinthians (perhaps 2) and was martyred around 101. St. Polycarp of Smyrna was a disciple of St. John, and was martyred in the year 155. There are other Apostolic Fathers such as Papias of Heiropolis and other writers of letters such as The Epistle of Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hemas. All of these Saints provided the early church with written material and a witness to the teachings of Christ.

The Apologetic Fathers were called by the Church, to defend the Church: St. Athanasius, "The Pillar of Orthodoxy" (339 AD) wrote On The Incarnation: a Defense against Arius. St. Irenaeus wrote others materials in defense of the Church.

The Cappadocian Fathers were Sts. Basil the Great (379 AD), Gregory of Nyssa (394 AD), and Gregory of Nazianzus (374 AD).

The Desert Fathers were the Monastics: Monasticism originated in the deserts of Egypt, during the middle of the 2 C., during the Decian persecution (250 AD). Many Christians fled from the populated parts of Egypt for the desert. By the 4 C. the second great surge in monasticism occurred during the reign of Constantine. St. Anthony (born 285 AD) is considered the founder of monasticism. A native Egyptian, he was inspired by Matthew 19:2. He lived as a hermit (eremos-desert) in isolation, this type of monasticism is also called anchoritism, (anachoresis-departure, flight). He was followed by Macarius the Egyptian, and he in turn was followed by Evagrius of Pontus (399 AD). Monasticism was further developed by St. Pachomius (346 AD), who started a Cynobitic (from koinos bios: communal life) community in Southern Egypt. The Cenobites received a great push forward by St. Basil the Great, Archbishop of Ceasaria in Cappadocia. He was the first to put forth a set of rules for monastic life (The Great Rules and the Brief Rules).

From Egypt monasticism spread to Sinai, Palestine and Syria: Among these monastic Fathers were, St. John Climacus (St. Katherine monastery of Sinai, 580-650). He is celebrated on the 5 Sunday of Great Lent and wrote The Ladder of Divine Accent. Sts. Maximus the Confessor (681) and St. John of Damascus, "The Holy Doctor of Theology" (675-749) lived at St. Sabbas monastery near Jerusalem. St. John of Damascus wrote, Dogmatics, Polemics: On Divine Images, and Ascetic, Orations, poems and hymns. He also wrote the Ochtoehos, the book of the eight tones for the resurrectional hymns used in the Divine Liturgy.

The Byzantine Fathers were from the Byzantium era:

They were Sts. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) 
Gregory Palamas (1296)

Nicholas Cabasilas (1354)

Nicodemus (1749-1809) St. Nicodemus was declared a saint in 1955 and his feast day is celebrated July 14.

VI. How Do The Fathers Influence The Life of The Church Today?

Our Worship was shaped by the Fathers. 
The interpretation of biblical prophetic writings. 
The dogmas of the Church, the Nicene Creed
Apologetical writings defended the Truth. 
The Spiritual Life and Disciplines - The Philokalia (an encyclopedia of Eastern piety and asceticism: from St. Anthony 1400). St. Nicodemos: Spiritual Counsels-a classic in spirituality
Biblical interpretation in Truth of the Word of God.
Hymnography of the Church is theological and interprets scripture in a context.
The formation of the Lectionary