When the Reformation happened, it took place upon the shoulders of giants. No, not literal giants, as Joshua and David had killed most of them. I’m talking about the Church Fathers. As just one example, a Logos search of the two volume McNeill edition of Calvin’s Institutes reveals 7 results for Justin Martyr, 18 for Irenaeus, 57 for Tertullian, 20 for Clement, 31 for Origen, 78 for Cyprian, 79 for Bernard, 89 for Chrysostom, 8 for Basil, 74 for Jerome, 14 for Eusebius, 15 for Cyril, 13 for Athanasius, and a whopping 779 for Augustine. This demonstrates that Calvin was trying to “reform” the church, not create a brand new one.
The idea is very simple. There is, as Jude says, a “Faith … once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The Church Fathers are those men–those bishops, pastors, and elders who faithfully passed down this Faith in the days of the early church. Therefore, to see if our own ideas line up with orthodoxy, we have to know what the Church Fathers believed and taught (of course, I’m not saying they all agreed on everything, or that some of them didn’t hold to unusual or even heretical doctrines on secondary issues, but on the essentials, these are the men who fought the good fight of truth and faithfully held firm to the Apostolic teaching).
This post will introduce and briefly sketch a several of the most important Church Fathers. I’ll take the famous 38 Volume Church Father’s set printed in the 19th century and still in publication to this day as my outline for this entry. This set divides the Fathers into two basic categories: Ante-Nicene Fathers are those who lived prior to the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D). They include (but are not limited to):
- Vol. 1 – The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus
- Vol. 2 – Tatian, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria
- Vol. 3 – Tertullian
- Vol. 4 – Origen
- Vol. 5 – Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian
- Vol. 6 – Dionysius, Julius Africanus
- Vol. 7 – Lactantius, Victorinus, Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, Early Liturgies
- Vol. 8 – Apocrypha of New Testament
- Vol. 9 – New Testament Pseudepigrapha
Then there are Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers who go up until around the middle of the 8th century. These include:
- Second Set – Augustine and Chrysostom
- Third Set – Basil, Jerome, Hilary, Eusebius, Cyril, Ambrose, the Ecumenical Councils, and many more.
These can be further subdivided into three to five categories which show the ethnic, geographical, and temporal diversity of the groups:
- Apostolic Fathers
- Greek Fathers: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, Cappadocian Fathers, John Chrysostom, and Cyril.
- Latin Fathers: Tertullian, Cyprian, Hilary, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory.
- Syriac Fathers: Aphrahat, Ephrem, Isaac of Antioch, Isaac of Nineveh
- Desert Fathers.
The following brief biographies come from Introduction and Biographical Information, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005). I put there here as much to provide a go-to resource as to acquaint you with these amazing men. The first set are Ante-Nicene Fathers:
- Justin Martyr (c. 100/110–165; fl. c. 148–161). Palestinian philosopher who was converted to Christianity, “the only sure and worthy philosophy.” He traveled to Rome where he wrote several apologies against both pagans and Jews, combining Greek philosophy and Christian theology; he was eventually martyred.
- Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 135–c. 202). Bishop of Lyons who published the most famous and influential refutation of Gnostic thought.
- Athenagoras (fl. 176–180). Early Christian philosopher and apologist from Athens, whose only authenticated writing, A Plea Regarding Christians, is addressed to the emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, and defends Christians from the common accusations of atheism, incest and cannibalism.
- Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215). A highly educated Christian convert from paganism, head of the catechetical school in Alexandria and pioneer of Christian scholarship. His major works, Protrepticus, Paedagogus and the Stromata, bring Christian doctrine face to face with the ideas and achievements of his time.
- Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155/160–225/250; fl. c. 197–222). Brilliant Carthaginian apologist and polemicist who laid the foundations of Christology and trinitarian orthodoxy in the West, though he himself was later estranged from the catholic tradition due to its laxity.
- Origen of Alexandria (b. 185; fl. c. 200–254). Influential exegete and systematic theologian. He was condemned (perhaps unfairly) for maintaining the preexistence of souls while purportedly denying the resurrection of the body. His extensive works of exegesis focus on the spiritual meaning of the text.
- Hippolytus (fl. 222–245). Recent scholarship places Hippolytus in a Palestinian context, personally familiar with Origen. Though he is known chiefly for The Refutation of All Heresies, he was primarily a commentator on Scripture (especially the Old Testament) employing typological exegesis.
- Cyprian of Carthage (fl. 248–258). Martyred bishop of Carthage who maintained that those baptized by schismatics and heretics had no share in the blessings of the church.
- Novatian of Rome (fl. 235–258). Roman theologian, otherwise orthodox, who formed a schismatic church after failing to become pope. His treatise on the Trinity states the classic Western doctrine.
- Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260/263–340). Bishop of Caesarea, partisan of the Emperor Constantine and first historian of the Christian church. He argued that the truth of the gospel had been foreshadowed in pagan writings but had to defend his own doctrine against suspicion of Arian sympathies.
- Dionysius of Alexandria (d. c. 264). Bishop of Alexandria and student of Origen. Dionysius actively engaged in the theological disputes of his day, opposed Sabellianism, defended himself against accusations of tritheism and wrote the earliest extant Christian refutation of Epicureanism. His writings have survived mainly in extracts preserved by other early Christian authors.
- Julius Africanus (c. 160–c. 240). First Christian chronographer who influenced later historians such as Eusebius. Born in Jerusalem, he was charged with organizing a library in the Pantheon at Rome. He was acquainted with Origen during the time he studied in Alexandria and corresponded with him. He died in Palestine.
- Lactantius (c. 260–c. 330). Christian apologist removed from his post as teacher of rhetoric at Nicomedia upon his conversion to Christianity. He was tutor to the son of Constantine and author of The Divine Institutes.
- Victorinus of Petovium (d. c. 304). Latin biblical exegete. With multiple works attributed to him, his sole surviving work is the Commentary on the Apocalypse and perhaps some fragments from Commentary on Matthew. Victorinus expressed strong millenarianism in his writing, though his was less materialistic than the millenarianism of Papias or Irenaeus. In his allegorical approach he could be called a spiritual disciple of Origen. Victorinus died during the first year of Diocletian’s persecution, probably in 304.
The Second list are Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers:
- Ephrem the Syrian (b. c. 306; fl. 363–373). Syrian writer of commentaries and devotional hymns which are sometimes regarded as the greatest specimens of Christian poetry prior to Dante.
- Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315–367). Bishop of Poitiers and called the “Athanasius of the West” because of his defense (against the Arians) of the common nature of Father and Son.
- Basil the Great (b. c. 330; fl. 357–379). One of the Cappadocian fathers, bishop of Caesarea and champion of the teaching on the Trinity propounded at Nicaea in 325. He was a great administrator and founded a monastic rule.
- John Chrysostom (344/354–407; fl. 386–407). Bishop of Constantinople who was noted for his orthodoxy, his eloquence and his attacks on Christian laxity in high places.
- Jerome (c. 347–420). Gifted exegete and exponent of a classical Latin style, now best known as the translator of the Latin Vulgate. He defended the perpetual virginity of Mary, attacked Origen and Pelagius and supported extreme ascetic practices.
- Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Bishop of Hippo and a voluminous writer on philosophical, exegetical, theological and ecclesiological topics. He formulated the Western doctrines of predestination and original sin in his writings against the Pelagians.
- Cyril of Alexandria (375–444; fl. 412–444). Patriarch of Alexandria whose extensive exegesis, characterized especially by a strong espousal of the unity of Christ, led to the condemnation of Nestorius in 431.
- Obviously, many more names could be added to both lists.
Christianity is an historic faith. We are not supposed to be reinventing the wheel all the time. In fact, that is the definition of heresy, for the word “heresy” comes from a word meaning, “to choose.” Heretics choose what they want to believe, regardless of 2,000 years of church history. Rooting ourselves in the Fathers who handed down the Faith once for all entrusted to the Saints through their worship and theology, while battling unbelieving and heretical thought, is important and invaluable.
My suggestion in getting started here is that you pick two or three of those in this list that interest you, do a little more research on them, pick one, scrap all that and start with Justin! I only say that because he’s my favorite. But seriously, pick one and then go for it. Then, before you know it, you’ll be an expert and will surely desire to read even more.
(by: Doug Van Dorn)