As a Catholic, how often are you faced with the challenge that our Church teachings are some corruption of the scriptures or the influence of paganism because of the efforts of Emperor Constantine (Roman Emperor from 306 to 337AD)? This series of posts are intended to shine a light on what the early church said about itself and what they believed.
This was a time of great growth and faith of the Church. A time the laity clung to the churches and their Bishops for teaching and direction. A time before and after the canonization of the Bible. A time of heresies and leaders who fought against them. A time when calling yourself a follower of Christ was risking torture and death. A time where unity of faith and understanding was critical. It was a time of the Early Church Fathers. A time when their words and the direction of the Church of Rome helped form the orthodox understanding of the Epistles (letters) and Gospels (memoirs) of the Apostles.
Do these church fathers represent authority, that Catholic authority of scripture and tradition and the magisterium, we rely on for guidance and understanding of our faith and morals? No, but they are “witnesses”. Voices from the past, voices from the great cloud of witnesses calling us to remember and never to forget. Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote about these church fathers:
The Fathers are primarily to be considered as witnesses, not as authorities. They are witnesses of an existing state of things, and their treatises are, as it were, histories – teaching us, in the first instance, matters of fact, not of opinion. Whatever they themselves might be, whether deeply or poorly taught in Christian faith and love, they speak, not their own thoughts, but the received views of their respective ages. ~ Primitive Christianity: Essays and Sketches (1833-1836)
These posts will try to compare present-day teachings of the Catholic Church with those of the Church Fathers of the first 600 years. A period during which the Church remained, even according to John Calvin, “pure and undefiled”. I am also not attempting to propose some new thought or idea in this area of study. I see no reason to remake the wheel or try to propose new theories. I have come to understand that little is really “new” today. It is simply a reworking of greater thinkers and theologians from the past.
Let us take the time to learn from the past. As a Zen Buddhist saying goes, “A finger is a wonderful device for pointing to the moon but woe to him who mistakes the finger for the moon.” Most academics are more interested in their own fingers. They are self referential, thinking about thinking, thinking about each other, and thinking about theories. Lets for a moment assume there is nothing new under the sun, nothing that we can understand about our faith that hasn’t over 2000 years been thought or wrestled with. Let us consider how we can look at our past in a manner similar to Jesus words from Matt 13:44. As a field with hidden treasure. Will we buy that field and acquire that treasure or leave it hidden and rooting in the dirt of time? The answer to that question may help you decide whether to read further…
Here is a simple timeline to help you properly place the quotes in the upcoming posts in relations to events of the early church and in relations to each other. Many Church Fathers were within similar timeframes and knew each other:
- Christ – ~4BC to ~32AD
- Apostle Peter – 1AD to 64AD
- Apostle Paul – 5AD to 67AD
- Apostle John – 6AD to 100AD
- Nero – 37AD to 68AD
- Ignatius of Antioch (Disciple of Apostle John) – 35AD to 108AD
- Clement of Rome (Consecrated by Apostle Peter) – 36AD to 101AD
- Polycarp of Smyrna (Disciple of Apostle John) – 69AD to 155AD
- Justin Martyr – 100AD to 165AD
- Marcus Aurelius – 121AD to 180AD
- Irenaeus of Lyons – 130AD to 200AD
- Clement of Alexandria – 150AD to 215AD
- Tertullian – 155AD to 235AD
- Cyprian – 200AD to 258AD
The next and first post dealing with our Church teachings will address the topic of the Church and its nature. I leave you with these two additional quotes from Cardinal John Henry Newman:
“To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”
“If Christianity is historical, Catholicism is Christianity”