Saturday, October 24, 2009

Apostolic Fathers Chapter II


Introduction to the Apostolic Fathers

Last week I introduced that theme of seeking the face of Christ as it is reflected in the face of the Church. We see this resemblance most clearly in the faces of the fathers of the Church. The term "Apostolic Fathers" refers to a collection of texts of the earliest Christian writers to succeed the apostles. Although many of the works found in the Apostolic Fathers were revered in antiquity, some of them fell out of use and were actually lost until modern times. The full text of The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles or in its Greek title the Didache, was only rediscovered in 1883. In fact the excitement surrounding the discovery of the Didache in 1883 was much like the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in our era.


Geographically the writings of the Apostolic Fathers come from a region sweeping around the Mediterranean Sea. The letter of Clement to the Corinthians and the Shepherd of Hermas are from Rome, Polycarp is from Smyrna in modern-day Turkey, the Didache and Barnabas have a variety of suggested locations from Antioch to Jerusalem, to Alexandria.


The dating of the Apostolic Fathers varies considerably. Some of the materials date from the first century and are contemporary with the New Testament. The Didache is a composite document which may incorporate an earlier Jewish catechetical tract. Most to these works are dated in the early second century.


The writers of the Apostolic Fathers are not speculative theologians but most often Bishops. Clement is the bishop of Rome, Ignatius is the bishop of Antioch, Polycarp is the bishop of Smyrna, the Didache is a manual of church discipline which attempts to pass on the traditions of the apostles through the bishops as they are remembered by one community. In each case the concern is with concrete pastoral problems in the new communities founded by the apostles. Questions relating to worship, liturgy, the Eucharist, catechesis of new converts, and the authority of bishops are raised in much the same manner as the New Testament.


It is clear from the Gospels that Jesus had a community of followers and that he intended to pass down the leadership of this community to the Twelve Apostles. Jesus intended to found the Church (CCC 857). Peter and the other Apostles engaged in a missionary activity and are soon joined by the Apostle Paul. The Church expanded rapidly into the Roman Empire around the Mediterranean establishing communities in most major cities. As the Catechism reminds us;


"In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority" (DV 7). Indeed, "the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time" (DV 8) (CCC 77).


Initially the movement was considered Jewish but the Church rapidly became predominantly Gentile, though of course many Christian traditions have Jewish origins. The early Christians used the Greek translation of the Old Testament as their Sacred Scriptures. The early Christians pointed to the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. To these Scriptures they gradually add the memoirs of the apostles, the Gospels and the later writings of the New Testament.


In antiquity some of the documents found in the Apostolic Fathers were considered to be part of Sacred Scripture by early church theologians and historians. The canon established by the Church at the time of Athanasius in AD 367, excluded these writings from full canonical status.  The rejection of these documents as part of Sacred Scripture does not mean the documents were lacking in orthodoxy, but only in the judgment of the Church they are not inspired Scripture. At the time these documents were written the Church had no legal status in the Roman Empire and was subject to frequent persecutions. These persecutions lead to the martyrdom of some of the early Fathers.


The Apostles also established common patterns for worship and behavior in the churches they established and established (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:33). Most Important among these beliefs and practices were the rites surrounding the celebration of the Eucharist. St. Paul notes; "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." (1 Corinthians 11:23-24). In saying that he "received" and "delivered" this tradition the Apostle Paul is using the technical verbs of preserving the tradition. St. Paul does not give us the full Eucharistic prayers but recounts the essential story of the institution narrative. The Didache repeats some other very early prayers from this Eucharistic tradition,


And concerning the Eucharist, hold Eucharist thus: First concerning the Cup, "We give thanks to thee, our Father, for the Holy Vine of David thy child, which, thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy child; to thee be glory for ever." And concerning the broken Bread: "We give thee thanks, our Father, for the life and knowledge which thou didst make known to us through Jesus thy Child. To thee be glory for ever. (Didache 9)



It is likely that these prayers are modeled on the Jewish prayers of "sanctification" or (qiddush) that were given before a meal. Normally the form begins "Blessed are you, Lord our God." The Greek equivalent of this blessing is "We give you thanks" (eucharistein). It is from this word that we get the name Eucharist. Studying the early Fathers helps us to discern the lines of continuity and the organic development between the New Testament and the later Church.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Apostolic Fathers Chapter I

Apostolic Fathers Chapter I


Like Father, Like Son
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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