What the Church Fathers Had to Understand


When I was a Lutheran seminarian, we rarely looked at the Church Fathers, almost never. It was therefore not surprising that a Lutheran bishop, who was to preach on the Cappadocian Fathers’ Day before a Lutheran gathering of pastors who had invited him, opened his remarks by saying that he literally did not know who they were, but that he would do the best anyway.

He should have read Rod Bennett’s two books (Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words and Four Other Witnesses: Additional Testimonies of Christians Before Constantine). Of course, Bennett hadn’t written them yet, so maybe the bishop would get a pass.

But still, if any Protestant community should read the Church Fathers with deference and appreciation, it is the Lutherans. The Lutheran defense of their reforms (the term “reform” is of course disputed) was based on their intention to restore the Church to its original simplicity.

For every assertion made in the Augsburg Confession of 1530, they usually found and footnoted a supporting Church Father, someone they believed supported what the reformers were saying. To read the Confession, said the Lutheran apologists, was to read in part a commentary on the early Fathers.

The aforementioned Lutheran bishop, with or without Bennett, betrayed his ignorance not only of early church history, but also of his own denomination’s founding document. But if the Lutherans overlook the Church Fathers (and they are), the Catholic laity (I am now one of them) probably corresponds in many ways to the Lutherans of today.

We simply don’t know enough about the history of our own Church and we certainly know too little about the Fathers. The Church Fathers are that group of pastors, bishops and theologians who write after the Apostles but before 32 5, the year in which the Nicene Creed was formulated. They are also known as the Ante-Nicene Fathers. Generally speaking, they are the “second generation” of Christians. Their writings are accessible via a simple Google search and their work is published in several collected volumes available, for example, on Amazon.

Some of the Fathers are very close to the original witnesses. Ignatius of Antioch is said to have been mentored by the Apostle John. To defend myself against those few aberrant contemporary historians who make a career out of questioning the historical existence of Jesus, I have yet to see a single one of them deal with the historicity of real and immediate second-hand witnesses such as than recorded in history. outside the Gospels.

And what we read from the Fathers is what the early Church said about themselves and how they accepted what happened in Jesus, and what that meant for the life of the world, and how to say all that faithfully to their remembrance of Christ, they received him.

There were a thousand things they had to figure out, like first inventing a vocabulary to describe who they were and what they did and how they did it. By the end of the 1st century, they certainly knew that they were a Church and that it was Catholic. But to get there, they first had to distinguish themselves from what they were not.

They were not a Roman burial and funeral society. These groups met periodically, shared meals, administered internal discipline, and debated what to do with non-paying members who went back on their promise to help other members of society with burial costs. Or how were Christians different from Roman supper clubs, for that matter? Tertullian (not in both books; that’s another story) preferred Christians to be simply called a college (or “association”; even “club” would do). Tertullian wanted common words that were intelligible even to anyone who was not a Christian. Overall, however, the Church has chosen to distinguish itself from the culture.

When Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia-Pontus (modern Turkey) in 125 AD, was confronted by a strange group of people who refused to honor the emperor, Trajan, while burning a pinch of incense, he did not know who they were or what they were doing or what to do with them. They met, had a meal and sang a few hymns to someone called Christ “as to a god”. He interrogated a few under torture (including a couple of women called deaconesses) and gave the whole group three opportunities to deny Christ. Those who refused were executed. These things had to be settled.

We also find in the Fathers the first discussions on the nature and the relation between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; on the special character and nature of Jesus; on the structure and governance of the church. All of these things and many more come to us, but they began with the Fathers. From the Fathers of the Church we know the prayers for the dead, the beginning of the development of a doctrine of purgatory, the early reverence for Mary, Mother of Our Lord, and the absolute insistence on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Above all, everything that is the Catholic Church today finds its first roots in the Fathers of the Church.

Rod Bennett’s two books are an introduction to some of the most important Church Fathers.

It includes Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch (who made the first real case for a single bishop as Catholics have since understood), and Justin, called the Martyr (for reasons you should be able to understand), who gave us a very early description of Christian worship (155 AD) that I don’t find at all different from today’s mass; and Irenaeus of Lyons, the legendary heresy killer, who was best known for fighting a mole heresy called Gnosticism (actually a collection of heresies still around).

Bennett’s second volume (written almost 20 years after his first – he wrote other things in between) features Clement of Rome, possibly the first bishop after Peter or possibly the fourth, sources differ. He is the author of the first and second Letters of Clement to the Corinthians. They were rebukes, in fact, which gives us even more insight into the many Corinthian quarrels that annoyed St. Paul so much in his two letters to Corinth.

Bennett includes another Clement, this one from Alexandria (look for it). Another is Hermès, author of Le Berger d’Hermès. The Shepherd was a popular book and a candidate for inclusion in the New Testament. His use of Greek grammar was as unlearned as it was, uh, inventive. His writing is long and repetitive. I find it difficult to read whether in Greek or English. What he produced, however, could be called the premier book of spiritual guidance (my term) for successful Christian living. It is full of supposedly useful commandments (12 if I remember correctly), parables, warnings and advice. It is heavy on prophetic allegory, and despite its many failings it was popular in the Church until the 4th century, largely, I suspect, because it was simple and straightforward.

Bennett also includes Hippolytus of Rome, the first antipope. It’s an embarrassing story. Hippolytus was passed over for election as bishop and the job went to an ex-slave, Callistus (who was also an ex-convict having once been imprisoned for embezzlement). Hippolyte left in anger, or in the words of a possibly contemporary ditty, “had a cow when Calliste took the bow”.

Of Calixte Premier (there was another later) we know little of his history and he left no surviving writings. Much of what is known has been recorded by its detractors, few of whom have even claimed objectivity. He became archdeacon in Rome, director of church cemeteries, and was appointed bishop of the Roman church when the position became vacant. His main problem was with Hippolytus and Tertullian, and others, who strongly objected to Callistus granting communion to those who had committed adultery and fornication.after due penance. Hippolyte reconciled with the Church before his martyrdom, an automatic attribution of sainthood.

The real contribution of Hippolytus, and the reason why he is included among the Fathers of the Church, was his liturgical work for the Church, not only the mass but also for occasional services like baptism, ordination ( deacon, priest and bishop) and others. To look at his liturgies is to see true theological elegance, smooth, smooth, unadorned Latin. His work is still revered and still used. Eucharistic Prayer of Hippolytus (vs.215 AD) is the foundation of the Eucharistic Prayer II in today’s Roman Rite, and the Lutherans included the Hippolytian Prayer in the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) for optional use. As a Lutheran priest, I used it every Christmas Eve. Some things look like Christmasyou know, and Hippolyte nailed the wonder of the incarnation.

Bennett produced a remarkable and accessible introduction to the Church Fathers and he chose his subjects wisely, each a theologian still quoted by theologians today. Bennett began his Christian life as a Baptist and, while still a Baptist, fell in love with the Church Fathers. It was the weight of their testimony that ultimately brought him to the Church. He should write a third book. And when that’s done, he can take some of the post-Nicene Fathers.

Here are some additional resources:

The Augsburg Confession of 1530
Both Christians and Romans saw them by Robert Wilkins (Yale University Press, 1984, 2003)

Before entering the seminary and becoming a Lutheran pastor (before becoming a Roman Catholic), Russell E. Saltzman was a journalist, press secretary to a congressman, and assistant secretary of the state of Kansas. He is a member of St. Theresa North, Kansas City, MO. This piece originally appeared at Aleteia.

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