Apostolic Fathers Chapter I
As the father of a modestly large family of five children, I have the opportunity to learn many lessons about parenting and family life. I become more aware of who I am, as I see myself reflected in the lives of my children.
Over the past three years, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI has been giving an extended series of Wednesday audience talks on the mystery of the relationship between Christ and the Church or the light of the face of Christ that is reflected in the face of the Church. We see this reflection on the face of the earliest apostles and then on the faces of the fathers of the Church. As each of us deepens in our desire to see the face of Jesus we are reminded that we do so as part of a great family. In a world where family life is often given a low priority, the Holy Father is inviting each of us to grow in our relationship with our spiritual family.
Today when we speak about the 'Church Fathers' we are referring to the writings of a series of early Christian teachers which the Church has deliberately held up as profitable for study and reflection. Many of these writers were bishops who ministered in direct succession to the first Apostles. Their teachings give us a glimpse of the face of Jesus as reflected in Sacred Tradition. These writers took the deposit of faith that they received from Christ through the Apostles (1 Corinthians 11:2, 16; 1 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6) and began the slow process of reflecting on its meaning in the life of the Church.
The title, 'father' probably stems from Jewish usage. The Gospel accounts speak of the "traditions of the elders" (Matthew 15:2) and "the elders of the people" (Matthew 21:23). The Jewish title 'elders' (prebuteroi) was taken over by the early Church to describe their own leaders along with the term 'episcopoi' or bishops (1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17-20; Titus 1:5-9). Initially the terms 'presbyter/elder' and 'bishop' are used somewhat interchangeably. Early in the second century the terminology became more stabilized with a single 'bishop' being assisted by 'presbyters' and 'deacons'. The Greek 'presbuteros' was translated into Latin as 'presbyter' and into Old English as 'preost' or 'priest.' In Jewish tradition the wise older person is also connected with the term 'father.' For example Luke refers to 'Father Abraham' (Luke 16:24) and the Apostle Paul to the 'patriarchs' or 'fathers' (Romans 9:5; Cf. Romans 4:12). These men are seen as models and teachers of the tradition of the elders. This leads St. Paul to affirm; "For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church" (1Corinthian 4:15-17). From this verse we can see how an apostle and later the 'bishop' could be regarded as the teacher and model of tradition and thus be called a 'father.'
The study of the lives, the writings and the doctrine of orthodox writers of Christian antiquity is called 'Patrology' (from the Latin patres). Specifically the term refers to the Greek writers of the East up to St. John Damascene, (c. A.D. 750), and the Latin writers of the West up to St. Gregory the Great (A.D. 540-604). These apparently differing dates may seem confusing but they relate to specific decisions in the East and West about when ecclesiastical approval for new fathers ended.
In order to qualify as an "orthodox writer from Christian antiquity" it is generally necessary to fulfill four conditions that are summarized for us by St. Vincent of Lérins (The Commonitory of Vincent of Lérins III.8, 77). In order to be considered a "Father" of the Church, the writer must demonstrate: (1) orthodoxy of doctrine, (2) holiness of life (3) ecclesiastical approval, and (4) antiquity. Orthodoxy relates to a judgment by the Church of how well the writings of a particular person harmonize with the deposit of faith and its exposition in various Church councils. The orthodoxy of the writer needed to be matched by holiness of life.
Ultimately these criteria flow out of the 'mark' of apostolicity held by the Church. The Church is apostolic in three ways (CCC 857). The Church has apostolicity of origin. The origin of the Church is found in Christ rather than early heretics such as Marcion, Valentius, or Montanus. The Church has apostolicity of doctrine. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit the Church is the guardian of the deposit of faith. Finally the Church has apostolicity of succession. The authority of Christ granted to the Apostles is passed down to bishops who minister in succession to them. The 'Church Fathers' are held up as teachers and models of this apostolic tradition.
In the series I am beginning today I wish to introduce us to the earliest of the Fathers of the Church. In modern times the earliest collection of the Church Fathers, during up to the second century, are called the Apostolic Fathers. This term
is used to describe the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament. These writers are described as still hearing the very echo of the Apostles in their ears. The Apostolic Fathers generally include the writings of bishops and early popes such as St. Clement of Rome; St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp, as well as other church documents such as the Didache; letter of Diognetus, the Letter of Barnabas, and the Shepherd of Hermas. In this series on the Apostolic Fathers we will begin with an introduction to the history and background of this time period and then we will briefly examine each of these writings.
© Scott McKellar 2009
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