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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

When the Church was Young: Voice of the early Fathers

by Marcellino D’Ambrosio

The first question we might ask is: Who is included in this class of people called the “early Church Fathers,” and why are they important? One often finds the following standard definition in encyclopedias and textbooks: The Fathers of the Church are those characterized by orthodoxy, holiness, antiquity, and Church approval. The author has his own definition: Church Fathers are those great Christian writers who passed on and clarified the teaching of the apostles from approximately the second through the eighth centuries. They brought out the issue of the Trinity and that Jesus could be both God and man. These teachings helped bring Christianity out of its diapers into adulthood. No one can ever again play the role that they played during those exciting, formative years when the Church was young.

Of course this is a fascinating time for the Church. We have the period of about three hundred years when being a Christian was a capital offense in the Roman Empire. Right after the Edit of Milan (AD 313) granted religious freedom in the Roman Empire, a groundbreaking event in Christian history occurred: the first great Universal or Ecumenical Council of the Church, the Council of Nicaea (AD 325). The Church Fathers who wrote during the age of persecution are referred to as “the ante-Nicene Fathers”. We can distinguish two sub-groups among the ante-Nicene Fathers. First comes that group of writers who were alive when the apostles were alive. They were either immediate disciples of the apostles or had some contact with them and learned from them. They are therefore called the Apostolic-Fathers.” They loved from AD 50 through about AD 150 and their writings come to us beginning around AD 95. The importance of these writings is hard to exaggerate. They help us identify both what the apostles actually meant by what they wrote and also what the apostles orally taught but neglected to include in what came to be known as the New Testament Writings.

The Fathers, following this watershed are known as the Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers. For the next two centuries, the central teachings of the faith were hammered out by four successive Ecumenical Councils. The styles of formal worship that we now know—the Roman liturgy of the West, the Byzantine and Maronite liturgies of the East, took shape during this time. The canon, or official list of the various books of the New Testament, also took its final shape during this fertile time. The fourth and fifth centuries can be considered the “Golden Era of the Fathers.” It includes such personalities as Ambrose and Augustine in the West and Athanasius and Basil in the East. Following this we have a period, the sixth through eighth centuries which I sort of an afterglow, when the remaining Fathers like Gregory the Great and John of Damascus summed up, amplified, and passed on the teaching of previous Fathers and Councils.

This book is not an exhaustive treatment of seven hundred years of patristic writings. Such a project would have resulted either in a library or a very superficial single volume. Instead, the author’s goal has been to tell the stories of some of the most intriguing fathers of both East and West from the dawn of the patristic period to its sunset. Since all roads lead to Rome, our story will both start and end in this city of Peter and Paul.

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