The Church Fathers 2

10 Jun

Part Two: The ante-Nicene Fathers:

7. Justin Martyr: Of Greek parents, Justin was born in Palestine near the modern city of Nablus in Samaria. He went to Ephesus and studied the philosophies of the time, especially Platonism. Although deeply impressed by the death of Christian martyrs, he was actually converted (as he himself related) by a humble old Christian. For awhile he taught Christian philosophy at Ephesus, but left in 135 and went to Rome, where he taught and wrote until he was martyred under Marcus Aurelius. Only two or three of his treatises are still extant: his first Apology (the second may not be authentic) and his Dialogue with Trypho. The Apology was addressed to Emperor Antoninus Pius (adoptive father of Marcus Aurelius); the Dialogue was earlier. The Dialogue was a discussion with a Jewish rabbi (possibly the historical Rabbi Tarphon) about the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. The Apologies were defenses of Christianity presented to Roman authority. Justin was one of the first apologists striving to offer Christianity to the world of his day in the current Hellenistic modes of thought. He believed, as did Philo the Jew, that the pagan philosophers had studied and learned from the Old Testament. To him Christianity was Platonism and Stoicism corrected and completed by the Bible and by the Logos that enlightens everyone. He opposed the early Christian heresies of Gnostic origin, in particular Docetism, by standing for the historicity of Jesus. He also opposed Marcionism, which tried to separate Christianity from its Old Testament precedents. To Justin the culminating act of God was the Incarnation—when God became man. He remained within the early Palestinian tradition by his stress on the church as the true Israel and by his doctrine of the Millennium. It is in Justin’s writings that one first encounters, outside of Scripture, the teaching that Mary by her obedience reversed the effects of Eve’s disobedience. And it is from his first Apology that the church has its first description, apart from Scripture, of early Christian worship. He also gave evidence of the emerging canon of the New Testament.

8. Ireneaus: Irenaeus grew up in Asia Minor under the preaching of the apostolic father Polycarp and moved to southern France, becoming “elder” (presbyter) in Lyons. When the aging bishop was martyred, Irenaeus succeeded him as bishop in the West. In his primary work, Against Heresies, Irenaeus gave his theology as statements of the Christian faith to refute the heresies of Valentinus (the Gnostic) and Marcion. For Irenaeus the authority of “the faith” is established through the direct line of elders in the church back to the apostles. This authentic message of the church confirms the Christian Bible. He was the first to state four Gospels as canon. To these he also added a list of apostolic writings, quoting all as “Scripture” along with the Old Testament. In his argument for the direct line of elders, he was the first to list the succession of Roman bishops as an example of this line, and thus he opened the way for later church officials to elevate the bishop of Rome. Irenaeus opposed the Gnostic attitude toward creation by affirming both creation and redemption as the acts of God. From the beginning, the “One Creator God” worked through his “two hands,” the Son and the Spirit, without intermediary angels. He considered the Atonement as a “recapitulation” made by Christ—that is, his going over the ground again in obedience where Adam and man failed. To this biblical thought he added the theme “the Virgin Mary is the obedient Eve.” As others in the second century, Irenaeus taught an earthly millennial kingdom at the second coming of Christ. Irenaeus was more Pauline than the apostolic fathers. He was also more biblical and less philosophical than the Greek church fathers who came later. Although a contemporary with the apologists and their work, Irenaeus was the first to write as a theologian for the church.

9. Hermas: Known very little otherwise, Hermas cites some details about himself in his writing. His extant work is one book, a writing called The Shepherd (referring to the work’s central shepherd figure). In The Shepherd, Hermas states that he was originally a slave, gained his freedom, married and started a business, lost nearly everything material, saw his children lapse, and finally, brought his family together by acts of repentance. Hermas indicates also that he knew Clement of Rome, late first-century bishop of Rome. From internal evidences, it is impossible to tell if this biography is fictional or not. As to external facts, references to Hermas are contradictory. Some authorities, most eminently the Muratorian Canon, a late second-century document, make Hermas a brother of Pius, bishop of Rome about 150. In the third century, Origen thought Hermas was the individual Paul named in Romans 16:14, an identification upholding Hermas’ own statements. Modern scholarly commentators lean much toward the first opinion.

10 Tatian: Originally from Assyria (upper Mesopotamia), Tatian acquired extensive Greek learning. He became a Christian in Rome following a long period of travel. For several years, Tatian was an adherent of Justin and his teaching. But after Justin’s death, he retreated into the Encratite sect and lived mostly thereafter in the empire’s far eastern provinces. The Encratite doctrines were heavily Gnostic in character. The sect believed that matter is evil and maintained varied ascetic practices, including prohibition of marriage. Tatian was the author of numerous early works defending Christianity. According to Eusebius of Caesaria, some of these writings were entitled On Animals, On Demons, On Perfection, and Book of Problems. But just two of Tatian’s works are still extant: Address to the Greeks, a defense of Christian ideas and life, and Diatessaron, a harmony of the four Gospel accounts of Christ’s life. The first was a generally orthodox presentation of Christian apologetics. Its main theme was the superiority of Christianity over Greek learning and culture. Not an attractive work, it assumes a harsh, denunciatory posture and fails to depict the person of Christ, the Incarnation, and atonement for sins. The second writing was used widely by the Syrian Church until the fifth century. Its value lies with its easy use for educational and liturgical purposes. But in the early 400s, Rabbula, bishop of Edessa, pronounced Tatian a heretic and ordered employment of other translations of the Gospels. A little later, Theodoret, another Syrian bishop, did the same.

11 Theophilus: Little is known of the personal history of Theophilus of Antioch. We gather from the following treatise that he was born a pagan (1. 14), and owed his conversion to Christianity to the careful study of the Holy Scriptures. Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., 4. 20) declares that he was the sixth bishop of Antioch in Syria from the apostles, the names of his supposed predecessors being Eros, Cornelius, Hero, Ignatius, and Euodius. We also learn from the same writer, that Theophilus succeeded to the bishopric of Antioch in the eighth year of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, that is, in A.D. 168. He is related to have died either in A.D. 181, or in A.D. 188; some assigning him an episcopate of thirteen, and others of twenty-one, years. Theophilus is said by Eusebius, Jerome, and others, to have written several works against the heresies which prevailed in his day. He himself refers in the following treatise (2. 30) to another of his compositions. Commentaries on the Gospels, arranged in the form of a harmony, and on the Book of Proverbs, are also ascribed to him by Jerome; but the sole remaining specimen of his writings consists of the three books that follow, addressed to his friend Autolycus

12 Athenagoras: Athenagoras’s familiarity with pagan philosophy is evident in his works. Athenagoras wrote an Apology (177) defending Christians to the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius (ruled 161–180) and Commodus (ruled 180–192). In it he refuted three charges brought against Christians: that Christians were atheists, that they practiced incestuous immorality, and that they ate human flesh as part of their ritual. Athenagoras argued that Christians, like the philosophers, recognized only one God who is uncreated, immaterial, and known to the understanding alone. As for the false gods, he wrote, the pagans did not even agree on who they were and, further, they described them as doing immoral deeds. The wonders which the false gods were thought to perform were really done by demons. Christians could not be called immoral since they believed that it was wrong to sin even in one’s thoughts and since they believed that sins would be punished eternally. Finally, Athenagoras argued, no people would engage in cannibalism who refused to watch combats in the circus, who did not expose infants to die, and who thought abortion was wrong.

13 Clement of Alexandria: Titus Flavius Clement was probably born in Athens of pagan parents and became a Christian through his study of philosophy. After traveling to the centers of learning in the Greek-speaking East, he joined Pantaenus’s school in Alexandria. Pantaenus impressed Clement by his ability to interpret the Scripture. The school which began with Pantaenus in 180 later became the official church catechetical school of Alexandria under Origen. Clement succeeded Pantaenus as head of the school circa 190. The nature of the school in that early period and the writing of Clement reflected the cultural mixture of Alexandria. It was a mixture in which an independent school operated by Clement could have pagans, Christians, and Jews seeking an education together. Thus an Alexandrian philosopher, Ammonius Saccas (c. 175–c. 242), could teach both the Greek philosopher Plotinus, founder of Neoplatonism, and Origen, influential Christian theologian and successor of Clement. During his years as a teacher in Alexandria (190–202) Clement wrote most of his works. In them he followed Philo (c. 20 b.c.–a.d. 50), an Alexandrian Jewish writer who had used Greek philosophy to interpret the Old Testament. Clement adopted Philo’s allegorical method of interpreting Scripture, often quoting Philo at length and using his thought. To pagans, Clement wrote Exhortation to the Gentiles with the same arguments employed by the Christian writers known as the Apologists, but with a more sophisticated style. Also, by using extensive quotes, he tried to show an ascending revelation upward through the poets, the philosophers, the Sybil prophetess, and the Hebrew prophets to the highest revelation, the “Divine Word,” Christ. In the Instructor he covered almost every aspect of Christian conduct, including even a long section on “laughter.” The pattern of conduct he recommended was one of moderation. The authority he quoted most often in the Instructor was Ecclesiasticus, a book from the Apocrypha.

14 Tertullian: Besides what is known about Tertullian through his lifelong residency in Carthage, personal facts about him can be traced only in outline. He enjoyed a superior education, including literary, rhetorical, and legal training, and instruction in Greek and Latin. Very probably he practiced law at some point. Sometime in his late thirties, Tertullian was converted to belief in Christ. He was married to a Christian wife, and after her death he remained a widower. In succeeding years, he served the church at Carthage as a gifted teacher. Out of his intense Christian commitment, Tertullian’s experiences with the Carthage church prompted much dissatisfaction over perceived laxities. Consequently, about 206, he joined the Montanists, a separatist yet largely unheretical Christian sect. Eventually he led a segment of this group called the Tertullianists. Except for separatist ideas on Church life, Tertullian remained doctrinally orthodox until his death. The Tertullianists rejoined the church at Carthage several decades later. Soon after conversion, Tertullian began the large output of Christian writings occupying his last twenty-five years. Sizable portions of this production, thirty-one Latin works, are yet extant; and these may be divided by three types of content: apologetic, dogmatic, and moral…Except for the indicated thirty-one works, everything by Tertullian, including his Greek writings, has been lost. While Jerome and Augustine and a few others give him brief mention, Tertullian’s own works are the only extensive early source of information about him.

15 Minucius Felix: Though Tertullian is the founder of Latin Christianity, his contemporary Minucius Felix gives to Christian thought its earliest clothing in Latinity. The harshness and provincialism, with the Graecisms, if not the mere Tertullianism, of Tertullian, deprive him of high claims to be classed among Latin writers, as such; but in Minucius we find, at the very fountain-head of Christian Latinity, a disciple of Cicero and a precursor of Lactantius in the graces of style. The question of his originality is earnestly debated among moderns, as it was in some degree with the ancients. It turns upon the doubt as to his place with respect to Tertullian, whose Apology he seems to quote, or rather to abridge. But to me it seems evident that his argument reflects so strikingly that of Tertullian’s Testimony of the Soul, coincident though it be with portions of the Apology, that we must make the date of the Testimony the pivot of our inquiry concerning Minucius. Now, Tertullian’s Apology preceded the Testimony, and the latter preceded the essay on the Flesh of Christ. If the Testimony was quoted or employed by Minucius, therefore, he could not have written before A.D. 205; and the statement of Jerome is confirmed, which makes our author, and not Tertullian, the copyist. The modern discussion of the matter is an interesting literary controversy; not yet settled, perhaps, though the dip of the balance just now sustains my own impressions.

16 Origen: Born of a Christian family (most likely in Alexandria), the oldest of seven children, Origen was initially trained in both secular and religious literature by his father Leonides (who was exceedingly proud of his son’s learning). Very early Origen developed a passion for martyrdom, but he was restrained by his mother when he attempted to join his father in martyrdom. The burden of caring for the family fell upon Origen at the age of seventeen, so he began to teach. His classes proved so popular that he had to divide them, leaving beginners to an assistant, reserving the more advanced for himself. Origen lived in extreme austerity. Eusebius related that in his rashness he castrated himself, but that account may not be accurate. He was bold in his admiration for martyrs, and many of his students suffered in the persecutions. Despite his lack of care for his own life, he was spared because many pagan philosophers and Christian heretics came to him for instruction. (The Neoplatonist Porphyry was an early acquaintance.) Origen was apparently free to travel, for he visited Rome, Palestine, and Arabia briefly, where he gained approval from many foreign bishops…The details of Origen’s life were recorded by his student Gregory Thaumaturgus in a panegyric, by Eusebius in his history, and by Jerome in several references. The first two were favorable. So was Jerome at first, but he later came to disapprove of Origen’s exegesis. Yet, Jerome called him the second teacher of the church after Paul. Some of Origen’s teachings were condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. The West was more favorable to his writings, albeit usually not by name. But in quite modern times, his fame and his thought have been more or less rehabilitated, owing to the effort to distinguish his doctrines from those attributed to him by his later followers.

17 Hippolytus: Though Hippolytus was the most important theologian of the Roman church in the third century, the facts concerning his life were soon forgotten in the West. Probably this was due to his schismatic activities and that he wrote his works in Greek. Hippolytus was a presbyter while Zephyrinus was bishop of Rome (c. 199–217), whom he attacked as a modalist. Although Hippolytus was recognized as a scholar with many assets, he was passed over for bishop in favor of the deacon Callistus. Hippolytus withdrew from the Roman church with a few followers to become the first anti-pope in history. The major disagreement between him and Callistus concerned the question of absolution for mortal sins. Hippolytus supported a rigorist discipline while Callistus took the opposite view. This attack by Hippolytus continued against Callistus’ successors, Urban (222–230) and Pontianus (230–235). Under the persecution of the Emperor Maximin (235–238), however, Hippolytus and Pontianus were exiled together to Sardinia, after which they were united. Both then resigned to allow for a successor, Anteros (235–236), thus ending the schism. Hippolytus was a champion of the Logos doctrine, which distinguished the persons of the Trinity, as opposed to modalism, which believed the persons of the Trinity to be simply different manifestations of the same person. He was not an original-thinking theologian but rather a dedicated and learned compiler whose writings too often were marked by a bitter, controversial tone. His most important work among several writings was the Refutation of All Heresies, which sought to demonstrate that all Christian heresies could be traced to pagan philosophies.

18 Cyprian: Cyprian, the son of wealthy pagan parents in Carthage, was trained in rhetoric and probably in law. His conversion to Christianity, which came late in life (246), was described in his treatise To Donatus. Within two years of his conversion, he was elected bishop of Carthage, the largest church in Africa. During a persecution by the Roman emperor Decian (250–251), Cyprian hid himself near the city and continued to conduct the affairs of the church. In the bishop’s absence, however, those who had “lapsed” (i.e., made sacrifices to the pagan gods) during the persecution received easy readmission into the church from the “confessors,” those steadfast survivors who had confessed Christ before the Roman officials, but without suffering martyrdom. From exile Cyprian insisted that the lapsed Christians perform severe penance to atone for their apostasy, a hard-line position that bred division in the Carthaginian church. On his return after the Decian persecution, Cyprian convened two synods (church councils) of African bishops (in 251 and 252) that resolved the controversy in his favor. In the end, Cyprian’s position steered a middle course between the lax discipline of the Carthaginian elders and those who viewed apostasy as a “sin unto death” (1 John 5:16 kjv). The threat of another persecution interrupted any further division and unified the African church in 252…A strong spokesman for Latin Christianity, Cyprian stood in a continuity of prominent Carthaginian Christian writers, which included both Tertullian and Augustine of Hippo. He is remembered for his strong position on church discipline. Cyprian also made a close identification of the church with “the visible church”—as his famous dictum states: “There is no salvation outside the church.”

19 Caius: During the episcopate of Zephyrinus, Caius, one of his presbyters, acquired much credit by his refutation of Proclus, a Montanist. He became known as an eloquent and erudite doctor, and to him has often been ascribed the Philosophumena of Hippolytus, and also The Labyrinth. He wrote in Greek, and finally seems to have been promoted to an episcopal See, possibly among the Easterns. To him also has been ascribed the celebrated “Muratorian Canon,” which is therefore given in this volume, with other fragments less dubiously associated with his name. He has been supposed by some to have been a pupil of Irenaeus, but of this there is no conclusive evidence. If his reputation suffers somewhat from his supposed rejection of the Apocalypse

20 Novatian: THE biography of Novatian belongs to the ecclesiastical history of the third century. He was, or is reputed to have been, the founder of a sect which claimed for itself the name of “Puritan” (kaqaroi>). For a long time he was in determined opposition to Cornelius, bishop of Rome, in regard to the admission of the lapsed and penitent into the Church; but the facts of the controversy and much of our information in regard to Novatian are to be got only from his enemies, the Roman bishop and his adherents. Accordingly, some have believed all the accusations that have been brought against him, while others have been inclined to doubt them all. It is not known where Novatian was born. Some have appealed to Philostorgius in behalf of the opinion that he was a Phrygian; but others maintain that, supposing this to be a statement of the historian, it is a mere conjecture of his, based on the character of Novatian’s teaching. It is also stated by Cyprian, that he was a Stoic before he passed over to the Christian Church; but this also has been doubted. While amongst the catechumens, he was seized by a violent disease, attributed to demoniac agency; and, being near death, he received baptism. He was ordained presbyter by Fabian, bishop of Rome, against the wishes of the rest of the clergy, who objected thereto because he had received clinic baptism. The subsequent circumstances of his schism and his contest with Cornelius, are stated at length with no friendly spirit in a letter to Antonianus by Cyprian. Socrates states that he suffered martyrdom; but his authority, amid the silence of all others, is not sufficient to guarantee the fact.

21 Gregory Thaumaturgus: Gregory (named Theodore from birth) was a member of a wealthy family. He studied law with his brother Athenodorus in the famous school at Berytus only to become an enthusiastic pupil of the famed theologian Origen from 233 to 238. Gregory’s oration on Origen is a first attempt at Christian biography. In turn, details of Gregory’s life are related in a similar fashion by Gregory of Nyssa. On return home, Gregory and his brother were consecrated bishops by Phaedimus of Amasea. Tradition states that Gregory ministered in this diocese in Pontus for thirty years. He began his ministry with seventeen Christians and ended it with as many converts. Gregory assisted with his brother at the first synod of Antioch (264), which condemned Paul of Samosata. There are three or four accounts of Thaumaturgus, which in Greek means “miracle-worker.” Gregory of Nyssa’s eulogy is a trustworthy account of his life while his own Panygeric on Origen preserves some detail. St. Basil in the De Spirito Sancto as preserved in Eusebius adds material, and Rufinus’s account of the miracles in his Ecclesiastical History completes the account. These legendary lives, in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Armenian, preserve details of his life. The Exposition of Faith given in Nyssa’s biography is a brief Trinitarian affirmation. Gregory prepared a Greek exposition of Ecclesiastes adapted into classical Greek from the Septuagint. His Canonical Epistle answers questions arising from the Gothic invasion of Pontus when Christians pillaged and apostasized. Other writings ascribed to Gregory are doubtful.

22 Dionysius the Great: Known in his time as a great leader and theologian, Dionysius was head of the catechetical school in Alexandria before becoming bishop there in 247. He learned theology from Origen, perhaps the greatest original thinker of the early church. Dionysius used his training to develop a coherent, biblical doctrine of God against various contemporary heresies. Although his views may be judged as incomplete by later standards, for his own time they were adequate to withstand error. When Roman persecution of Christians came in 250, Dionysius fled from Alexandria to the desert. When the troubles were over he had to make important decisions about how to treat church members who had betrayed Christianity (become apostate) in the persecution. He took a lenient position, readmitting them if they expressed sorrow. Another problem Dionysius faced was whether to rebaptize people who had been baptized by heretics or schismatics. Again he took a moderate position and accepted as valid all baptisms done in the name of the Trinity. None of his writings has been fully preserved; fragments appear in the works of Athanasius, a later bishop of Alexandria, and Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea. Although Dionysius died from old age rather than as a martyr, he is regarded as a saint in Roman Catholic and Eastern churches.

23 Julius Africanus: Julius was born in Jerusalem and was well educated. In his younger years he traveled extensively, visiting various biblical sites. For a time he lived in Emmaus and eventually went as an ambassador from that city to Rome. He so impressed Emperor Alexander Severus with his learning that the emperor appointed him to build the library at the Pantheon. Julius’s most famous work was a five-volume world history, Chronographia. The complete manuscript has been lost, but fragments are preserved in the writings of Eusebius, an early church historian. Julius argued that the world was created fifty-five hundred years before Christ and would come to an end five hundred years after Christ’s birth. His presentation was so powerful that the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry wrote to refute it. Other writings reveal Julius’s scholarship, antiquarian interests, and critical abilities. He prepared an impressive collection of miscellaneous writings ranging from military science to magic. He entered into debate with Origen, an early Christian theologian, on whether the story of Susanna was a genuine part of the Old Testament book of Daniel. Julius’s linguistic insights caused him to argue correctly that the story had been written in Greek and could not have been part of Daniel’s original work.

24 Lactantius: Very little is known about Lactantius’s life. Born probably in North Africa, and said to have been a pupil of Arnobius, he was in mid-life appointed by the emperor Diocletian as a teacher of rhetoric in Nicomedia, the imperial capital. After Diocletian began to persecute Christians, Lactantius returned to the West about 305. His Divinae institutiones (seven volumes, c. 304–313), his principal work, is hailed as the first systematic Latin account of the Christian attitude toward life. It combats polytheism as the basis of all errors, identifies the demons as the source of error, and exposes the frailty of philosophy. The latter part of the work discusses fundamental ethical ideas, the proper way of worshipping God, and immortality. Although he was later called the “Christian Cicero” by Pico della Mirandola, Lactantius’s theology was considered somewhat superficial, perhaps because he became a Christian only in mature years. Other works of his that have survived include De Ira Dei, which upholds God’s punitive justice, and De Mortibus persecutorium, a product of his last years, which is a valuable historical source, though criticized for having dwelt overmuch on the terrible fates of persecuting emperors. About 317 Lactantius evidently came out of retirement to tutor Crispus, son of the emperor Constantine.

25 Dionysius of Rome: Known in his time as a great leader and theologian, Dionysius was head of the catechetical school in Alexandria before becoming bishop there in 247. He learned theology from Origen, perhaps the greatest original thinker of the early church. Dionysius used his training to develop a coherent, biblical doctrine of God against various contemporary heresies. Although his views may be judged as incomplete by later standards, for his own time they were adequate to withstand error. When Roman persecution of Christians came in 250, Dionysius fled from Alexandria to the desert. When the troubles were over he had to make important decisions about how to treat church members who had betrayed Christianity (become apostate) in the persecution. He took a lenient position, readmitting them if they expressed sorrow. Another problem Dionysius faced was whether to rebaptize people who had been baptized by heretics or schismatics. Again he took a moderate position and accepted as valid all baptisms done in the name of the Trinity. None of his writings has been fully preserved; fragments appear in the works of Athanasius, a later bishop of Alexandria, and Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea. Although Dionysius died from old age rather than as a martyr, he is regarded as a saint in Roman Catholic and Eastern churches.


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