THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS.
I now want to examine some of the key beliefs and perspectives held by
the early Church Fathers in the first three centuries of the Christian era.
It is important to stress that these centuries were often characterized
by violent persecution and tension between the fledgling Christian communities
and the State authorities. Yet, the preserved early writings of this period
show us a fascinating portrait of diverse theological developments relating
to the way in which the Church understood itself, the role and character
of the primacy, the episcopate, and the notion of the Church's infallibility
in teaching and guiding its flock.
In the writings of these earliest Fathers of the Church, we are faced
for the first time with questions that have equal importance, and are still
debated in our own twentieth century : What is the hierarchical (and monarchial)
structure of the Church? What is the true meaning of collegiality? How does
one ascertain what is orthodox doctrine? What is authentic history of the
primitive Church? Did Jesus Found the Church or did it pre-exist from the
beginning of all time? How is the Church the continuance of the life of
Christ on earth? How does the Church deal with heretics and schismatics,
the good and the wicked within its fold? What is the true relationship that
should exist between the secular and spiritual powers? Why is it that Rome
and not Jerusalem or one of the early Christian Churches that is to be regarded
as the center of unity? How is the transmission of apostolic jurisdiction
to be made in the primitive Churches? Why did the Church, particularly in
the personage of the Pontiff, consider itself to be infallible?
Below I will list some key passages for your reflection that will
address some of these issues. The quotes are taken from William A. Jurgens'
excellent translations of early patristic writings : The Faith of the Early
Fathers, (Vol.I), The Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 1970. Beneath each passage,
in the space provided, write a brief reaction from your own personal standpoint.
Remember, the quotes come from people who lived under persecution, in a
culture and society very different from your own. Note the changes (if any)
that have occurred in the past two millenia that either confirm or challenge
the presented perspectives. What does each statement say about the theology
of the time? How was the Church perceived and understood? Do we have similar
or different opinions or beliefs today? What are they in the context of
our own understanding of Church? Does the ancient teaching have relevance
for us today? How would we re-phrase the "truths" contained in
- I presume that you are not ignorant of the fact that the living
Church is the body of Christ. The Scripture says, "God made man male
and female." The male is Christ, and the female is the Church. Moreover,
the Books and the Apostles declare that the Church belongs not to the present,
but has existed from the beginning. She was spiritual, just as was our
Jesus; but He was manifested in the last days so that he might save us.
And the Church, being spiritual, was manifested in the flesh of Christ.
[From the so called Second Letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians,
ca. A.D. 150], in: Jurgens, 1970: 43].
- From what has been said then, it seems clear to me that the true
Church, that which is really ancient, is one; and in it are enrolled those
who, in accord with a design, are just... We say, therefore, that in substance,
in concept, in origin and in eminence, the ancient and Catholic Church
is alone, gathering as it does into the unity of the one faith which results
from the familiar covenants, - or rather, from the one covenant in different
times, by the will of the one God and through the one Lord, - those already
chosen, those predestined by God who knew before the foundation of the
world that they would be just. (From St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis,
after 202 AD, in Jurgens, 1970: 185).
- Furthermore, the more anyone observes that a bishop remains silent,
the more he should stand in fear of him. For anyone whom the master of
the house sends to manage his business ought to be received by us as we
would receive him by whom he was sent. It is clear, then, that we must
look upon the bishop as the Lord Himself. (St.Ignatius of Antioch, Letter
to the Ephesians, ca. 110 AD, in Jurgens, 1970: 18).
- The Bride of Christ cannot be defiled. She is inviolate and chaste...
Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adultress is separated
from the promises of the Church; nor will he that forsakes the Church of
Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is an alien, a worldling, and
an enemy. He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church
for his Mother... Does anyone believe that in the Church this unity which
proceeds from the divine stability and which is welded together after the
heavenly patterns can be divided, and can be separated by the parting asunder
of opposing wills? Whoever holds not fast to this unity holds not to the
law of God; neither does he keep faith with the Father and the Son, nor
does he have life and salvation. (St. Cyprian of Carthage, The Unity of
the Catholic Church, [AD 251/256], in: Jurgens, 1970: 221).
- The Church, instituted by the Lord and confirmed by the Apostles,
is one for all men; but the frantic folly of the diverse impious sects
has cut them off from her. It cannot be denied that this tearing asunder
of the faith has arisen from the defect of poor intelligence, which twists
what is read to conform to its opinion, instead of adjusting its opinion
to the meaning of what is read. However, while individual parties fight
among themselves, the Church stands revealed not only by her own doctrines,
but by those also of her adversaries. And although they are all ranged
against her, she confutes the most wicked error which they all share, by
the very fact that she is alone and one. (St. Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity,
ca. 356 - 359 AD, in Jurgens, 1970: 376).
- Confess your offenses in Church, and do not go up to your prayer
with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. (Didache, ca. AD 140,
in Jurgens, 1970: 2).
- What the soul is to the body, that the Christians are to the world.
The soul is spread through all parts of the body, and the Christians through
all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but it is not
of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, though they are not of
the world. The soul is invisible, but it is sheathed in a visible body.
Christians are seen, for they are in the world; but their religion remains
invisible. (Letter to Diognetus, AD 125/200, in Jurgens, 1970: 41).
- It is evident that no one can terrify us or hold us to servitude,
who have believed in Jesus over all the earth. For, though beheaded and
crucified, and thrown to the beasts and in chains and fire and subjected
to all the other tortures, we do not give up our confession. On the contrary,
the more do such things happen, the more do others in greater numbers become
faithful worshippers of God through the name of Jesus. (St. Justin the
Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, (ca. AD 155), in Jurgens, 1970: 62).
- Elect for yourselves, therefore bishops and deacons worthy of the
Lord, humble men and not lovers of money, truthful and proven; for they
also serve you in the ministry of the prophets and teachers. Do not therefore
despise them; for they are your honourable men, together with the prophets
and teachers. Correct one another, not in anger but in peace, as you find
it in the gospel; and let no one speak with you who has done a wrong to
his neighbour, nor let him hear, until he repents. (Didache, in: Jurgens,
- There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one Chair founded
on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another
altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and
that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering. (St.
Cyprian of Carthage, Letter to all his People, AD 251, in Jurgens, 1970:
- Peter alone among the Apostles do I find married, and through mention
of his mother-in-law. I presume he was a monogamist; for the Church, built
upon him, would for the future, appoint to every degree of Orders none
but monogamists. (Tertullian, Monogamy, post AD 213, in: Jurgens, 1970:
- In like manner let everyone respect the deacons, as they would respect
Jesus Christ, and just as they respect the bishop as a type of the Father,
and the presbyters as the council of God and college of Apostles. Without
these, it cannot be called a Church. (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to
the Trallians, ca.AD 110, in Jurgens, 1970: 20 - 21)