Sunday, March 1, 2009

Patristics: the Early Church in Her Own Words

The first few centuries A.D. was not an easy time to be a Christian. Some of the earliest Christians paid for their belief with their very lives. Indeed, many were martyred for professing faith in Jesus of Nazareth. These men and women were great witnesses to the faith. (The word “martyr” in fact means “witness.”) The early Christian witnesses were sure in their convictions; they were steadfast in faith. So certain were they in the correctness of their doctrine that they were willing to die for what they believed.

If we were asked to likewise die, could we be as certain as they? How are we to know whether our doctrine is in fact authentic – authentic enough to die for? Do we believe as the first Christians did?

Christianity today offers many competing doctrines; there are many sects and denominations. No two groups teach exactly the same beliefs about God or Jesus or salvation or any other tenet of the faith. Yet all of these various Christian churches, as different as they are, attempt to make an appeal to the early Christians. The churches and denominations of today strive to link themselves to those who first believed. Everyone wants to believe as the Christian martyrs did in the First or Second or Third Centuries, when the faith was young and the Spirit was so clearly at work.

But would these early Christians recognize our brand of Christianity? Can any of our churches today truly be in line with the Christianity of the first centuries? Would we be dying for the same beliefs?

To study this question in depth we must explore what is called “patristics” – from the Latin “pater” or “father.” We must look to what are called the “Fathers” of the Church. These early Christians left behind a written record of their belief. Before they were fed to lions or cast into the flames or finished off in any number of various gruesome methods, these Christian witnesses wrote letters, compiled histories, explained Scripture, and otherwise documented a host of details from this early period of Christianity. This is a vast treasure trove of information from which we can build an idea of what the early Christians thought and believed on a whole host of issues and matters of faith.

These records are not complete. That is, they do not present a concise summary of all doctrines and dogmas that early Christians held. They were never meant to be an all-in-one reference guide to the faith. But they do give us priceless gems of insight scattered throughout centuries of writing, which when taken together, give us a broad view of what Christianity was truly all about in the first few hundred years. By studying what these Church Fathers had to say we can survey the landscape of today’s Christianity and come to see which church, if any, can truly claim an authentic relationship with the Apostolic Church.

I propose to examine several of the earliest Fathers, one by one, to examine their lives, sample some of their writings, and explore their doctrine, in an attempt to better understand the Church as she was from the beginning...

(Next: Clement of Rome)


  1. You learn something new every day, I had no idea that "martyr" means "witness."

    As a counter-point, I must say that a willingness to die for a belief does not necessarily validate that belief, as we can see with the Jihadist suicide bombers.

    Anyway, I can't wait to read about Clement.

  2. The "jihadist" point is a very good one. You are correct that willingness to die for a belief does not mean that a belief is true. However, it does mean that such a person is truly *convinced* of his beliefs. In other words, the early martyrs would not have died for what they knew was a lie - they must have sincerely believed their doctrines to be true. What I am getting at is the *strength* and *certainty* of their faith.
    The reason I make this point becomes clear when one considers just what the early Christians believed and died for. If we want to claim any kind of unity with these early Christians, if we want to look to them as great examples of strong Christian faith we must ask, what exactly was it that they believed? What was so compelling that they gave their lives for it? Am I willing to die for those same beliefs? If we can discover those beliefs by reading their own account of their teachings then I must ask again…do I believe the same?
    If any church today wishes to claim, "We believe just as the First Christians believed," then it is important for us to check the record and see if this claim can be verified.