26 January 2015

Patristics (2015): 1, Introducing Patristic studies

Seven Fathers of the Church carved above the south door of Lichfield Cathedral (from left): Saint Augustine, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Athanasius and Saint Basil (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Introduction to Patristics,

Brown Room,

Mondays, 10.30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m.

Outline of Module:

10.30 a.m., 26 January 2015: Introducing Patristics

2, 11.30 a.m., 26 January 2015: The Apostolic Fathers

3, 10.30 a.m., 2 February 2015: The Greek Fathers

4, 11.30 a.m., 2 February 2015: The Latin Fathers

5, 10.30 a.m., 9 February 2015: The Desert Fathers

6, 11.30 a.m., 9 February 2015: The Legacy, especially for Anglicans

Monday, 26 January 2015:

1, 10.30 a.m., 26 January 2015: Introducing Patristics

Early Christian Fathers and Early Christian Writings:

The Church Fathers … in a Greek Orthodox icon

Patristics, Patristic Studies or Patrology is the study of the Early Christian writers who are designated Church Fathers. The names derive from the combined form of Latin pater and Greek πατέρας (father).

The period is generally considered to run from the end of New Testament times or the end of the Apostolic Age (ca AD 100) to either the date of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), or to the Second Council of Nicaea (787).

There are several good reasons why it is important to study Patristics:

● Their theological and scriptural insights are very valuable in their own right.

● The Patristic writers lived much closer to the days of the Apostles and had to crystallise the apostolic teachings in response to heresies and errors.

● Their formulation of Trinitarian and Christological formulas and doctrines is foundational for Christianity.

● Their homilies, apologetics and other writings contain innumerable valuable insights.

● Studying the Patristic writers gives us a clearer understanding of the history of the early Church, the apostles and the churches they founded.

● This field of theology provides a sense of continuity with the Early Church and the Communion of Saints.

● Patristics also offers a bridge between the different traditions of doing theology – Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant – all of which claim continuity with the Church Fathers.

In addition, we may also look at some of the canons of the seven ecumenical councils are also important reading for the Patristic period.

Terminology and time span:

Many theologians and historians today would prefer to refer not to Patristics but to Early Christian Studies.

But Patristics is more than the study of historical figures and historical writers. It is not merely an exploration in antiquity that has the church as its main field of interest. It is the very study in which we come to understand the continuity of the Apostolic and the post-Apostolic Church in prayer life, in spirituality, in sacramental life, in trying to hold together our unity as the Body of Christ, and in which we come to understand the spirituality that found its expression too in our Creedal and Trinitarian formulas.

But please do not be frightened by this topic. On the Liturgy module in Year II, you will become familiar with the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, anonymous works dating from the same period as the Apostolic Fathers, and perhaps with the Apostolic Constitutions, important texts in understanding the Liturgical practices and beliefs of the Early Church.

And you come across the teachings of the later Church Fathers, in the debates over the Canon of the Bible and the formulation of the Creed of Nicaea and the Creed of Constantinople.

So, the field of Patristics is that of the Early Christian writers known as the Church Fathers and their writings. The name comes from the Greek πατέρας (pateras) and the Latin pater (father). The period is generally considered to run from the end of the New Testament period or the end of the Apostolic Age (ca 100 AD), say after the death of Saint John the Evangelist, the last living apostle, to either the Council of Chalcedon in 451, until about 604, when Gregory the Great died, or even to the Second Council of Nicaea in the eighth century.

The key figures:

An icon of the Church as a boat, including Christ, the Apostles and the Church Fathers

The prominent early Church Fathers whose writings form the basis for Patristics include:

● Polycarp of Smyrna (ca 69-155 or later), a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist, Bishop of Smyrna, and an early martyr;

● Ignatius of Antioch (ca 35-ca107), who insists on the reality of the Humanity and the Divinity of Christ, and has important teachings on the Eucharist and the role of the bishop in the Church;

● Clement of Rome (fl ca 96, died ca 101), a contemporary of the Apostles, author of the earliest surviving Christian sermon;

● Justin Martyr (ca 100-ca 165), who bridges classical philosophy and Christian apologetics;

● Irenaeus of Lyons (ca 130-ca 200), provides a link between East and West, the first great theologian, principal critic of the gnostics;

● Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-ca 215);

● Cyprian of Carthage (died 258), engages in important correspondence about papal authority and claims;

● Eusebius of Caesarea (ca 265-ca 340), the father of Church History;

● Athanasius (ca 296-373), the most articulate opponent of Arianism;

● Gregory of Nazianzus (329/330-389/390), one of the Cappadocian Fathers;

● Basil of Caesarea (ca 330-379), his childhood friend;

● Gregory of Nyssa (ca 330-ca 395), the younger brother of Saint Basil;

● Ambrose of Milan (ca 339-397), one of the four traditional ‘Doctors of the Church’, writer on Arianism, ethics and church-state relations;

● Jerome (ca 345-420), translated the Bible into Latin;

● Augustine of Hippo (354-430), opponent of Pelagius, has immeasurably influenced Western theology;

● Vincent of Lérins (died pre-450), who gives his name to the ‘Vincentian canon’;

● Cyril of Alexandria (died 444), the leading opponent of Nestorius.

Not all of the writers included in Patristic studies were necessarily orthodox in their views. Some of the writers who are regarded as heterodox or even heretical who we are likely to come across in this mini-module include:

● Tertullian (ca 160-ca 225);

● Origen (ca 185-ca 254);

● Arius (ca 260/280-336);

● Pelagius (ca 354-post 418);

● Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca 350-428), Biblical exegete, his teaching on the Incarnation was condemned at two councils;

● Nestorius (died ca 451).

Although they never came to be regarded as Church Fathers, their writings help us to understand what the Church Fathers were countering, and who they were debating with. Indeed Tertullian was the first to say: “The blood of the martyrs is seed of the Church.”

Nor were all the writers men. One of the greatest descriptions of pilgrimage we have at that time is by Egregia, who travelled from Gaul (France), spending three years in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor, describing the churches and the liturgies, and seeking out healing centres such as that of Saint Thecla in Isauria, an inland district in south-central Anatolia.

We might also ask why Patristic studies do not include within their scope:

● Saint Patrick of Ireland.

Key divisions and categories:

The Church Fathers are sometimes divided into:

● the Ante-Nicene Fathers, who lived and wrote before the First Council of Nicaea in 325,

● the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, who lived and wrote after 325.

Another common classification is:

● the Greek Fathers, who generally lived in the East and wrote in Greek;

● the Latin Fathers, who lived in the West and wrote in Latin.

The Latin Fathers include:

● Cyprian;

● Jerome;

● Ambrose of Milan;

● Gregory the Great;

● Augustine of Hippo.

Some of the most prominent Greek Fathers are:

● Justin Martyr;

● John Chrysostom;

● Cyril of Alexandria;

● Maximus the Confessor.

Even within these groupings, there are important groupings. For example the Greek Fathers include the Cappadocian Fathers:

● Basil the Great (330-379), who was bishop of Caesarea;

● Gregory of Nyssa (ca 332-395), Basil’s younger brother, who was bishop of Nyssa;

● Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), their close friend, who became Patriarch of Constantinople.

And the Desert Fathers, including:

● Saint Anthony.

● Saint Pachomius.

● Saint John Cassian, who bridges early Egyptian monasticism and Western and Benedictine monasticism.

And Greek and Latin divisions do not happily include writers in Syrian and Coptic, including:

● Ephraim the Syrian (306-373), theologian-poet and the most important writer in Syriac among the Fathers; a hymn in our hymnal, No 446, ‘Strengthen for service, Lord the hands’, is from the Liturgy of Malabar and is attributed to Saint Ephraim the Syrian.

● Isaac the Syrian, briefly Bishop of Nineveh, who wrote several treatises against the Nestorians and Monophysites and a lament on the destruction of Antioch by an earthquake.

● Aphraates the Sage, a Persian bishop who wrote in Syriac.

Key centres:

The major locations of the early Church Fathers are the five traditional patriarchal sees:

● Rome

● Constantinople

● Alexandria

● Antioch

● Jerusalem

But they also include places such as:

● The Western Desert of modern Egypt;

● Many regions of modern-day Turkey, including Cappadocia, Smyrna and Ephesus;

● The area of western north Africa around Carthage;

● Mount Sinai and Saint Catherine’s Monastery;

● Milan and Turin in northern Italy;

● Parts of Gaul (France), which gives us the writings of Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, Saint Hilary of Poitiers, and Vincent of Lérins.

What is included in Patristic studies or theology?

The thinking and writings of the Early Fathers are found in their epistles or letters, apologetics or defences of the developing and unfolding doctrine of the Church, in sermons, in accounts of their saintly lives and their martyrdom – for, as Tertullian said in those days, the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church – in philosophical writings, and in accounts of pilgrimages, particularly to Jerusalem.

Their concerns include the Liturgy, personal and corporate prayer, how to live an ascetic life that remains appropriate, penance, the corpus of scripture, schism and heresy, creation and ethics.

The earliest Christian writers discuss a wide range of topics that are important to the Church in their time, most of which remain important for the Church today. Several major areas of theology developed during the Patristic Period, with the major focuses for these theologians and the debates during the period including:

● Christianity’s relationship with Judaism;

● the establishment of the New Testament Canon;

● the organisation and discipline of the Church, and the role of the bishop;

● the sacramental life of the Church, especially the centrality of the Eucharist in the worship life of the Church;

● agreeing on the date of Easter;

● Apologetics, or the defence or explanation of Christianity;

● doctrinal discussions that sought to achieve consistency of faith;

● sacramental theology;

● the role of tradition;

● formulating the ecumenical creeds;

● understanding the two Natures of Christ;

● the doctrine of the Trinity;

● the doctrine of the Church;

● the centrality of the bishop in the organisation of the Church;

● our understandings of Divine grace.

Traditional Anglican theology and Patristics:

‘The Cambridge Triumvirate’ ... Lightfoot, Westcott and Hort are commemorated side-by-side in the Ante-Chapel in Trinity College Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There was a time when a course in Patristics would have been one of the core First Year modules for ordinands in Anglican theological colleges. Scholars like Bishop Joseph Lightfoot (1828-1899), Bishop Brooke Westcott (1825-1901) and Professor Fenton Hort (1828-1892) – known as the ‘Cambridge Triumvirate’ – placed Patristics at the heart of Anglican theology from the late 19th century on, for many generations.

Anglican theology has traditionally seen its foundations as Scripture, Reason and Tradition, and has sought to be rooted in the writings of the Early Fathers and the Early Church.

John Jewel (1522-1571), who is known as the first Anglican Apologist, appealed regularly to the following sources of authority:

● old Catholic Doctors;

● the Fathers;

● the General Councils;

● the Holy Scriptures of God;

● the example of the Primitive Church.

John Jewel wrote in his Apology: “What, have Christ and his Apostles, and so many Fathers all erred? What, are Origen, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Gelasius and Theodoret Apostates from the Catholick Faith? Was the Consent of so many Bishops and Learned men, nothing but a Conspiracy of Hereticks? or that which was commendable in them, is it now blameable in us?” His implied answer is obvious – he clearly thinks that this would be self-evidently false.

The Elizabethan Canons of the Church of England (1571) stated of the clergy: “But chiefly they shall take heed that they teach nothing in their preaching, which they would have the people religiously to observe, and believe, but that which is agreeable to the doctrine of the old Testament, and the new, and that which the catholic fathers, and Ancient Bishops have gathered out of that doctrine … He that doth otherwise, or troubleth the people with contrary doctrine, shall be excommunicated.”

Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), who had oversight of the translation of the Authorised Version or King James Version of the Bible, summarised the sources of Anglican theology, saying: “One Canon of Scripture which we refer to God, two Testaments, three Creeds, the first four Councils, five centuries and the succession of the Fathers in these centuries, three centuries before Constantine, two centuries after Constantine, draw the rule of our religion.”

One Canon:

By this we mean one canon of the Scriptures. But even the debate about which books are canonical and which books should be regarded as Apocrypha is a debate that has its roots in Patristic debates.

Two Testaments:

We often think of Scripture being closed with the last full stop being placed at the end of the last verse of the last chapter of the Book of Revelation.

But Saint Athanasius provides us with the first reference to the present canon of the New Testament in his Festal Letter, written as late as 367. Until then, what was meant by Scripture, the Bible and the Old and New Testament? The writings and ebates in Patristuic writings help us to ask these questions.

The Three Creeds:

The Three Creeds are the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the “Creed of Saint Athanasius.”

The Four Councils

The “Four Councils” are:

● 1, Nicaea I (325): the Defeat of Arianism
● 2, Constantinople I (381): definitive teaching on the Holy Spirit
● 3, Ephesus (431): the defeat of Nestorianism
● 4, Chalcedon (451): the triumph of orthodox Christology

What about three later ecumenical councils?

● 5, Constantinople II (553): the victory over Monothelitism
● 6, Constantinople III (680-681)
● 7, Nicaea II (787)

Anglican writers usually affirm these as orthodox to the degree that they are consistent with, while adding nothing to, the substance of dogma defined by the first four councils.

The Elizabethan Act of Supremacy of 1559 makes the first four Ecumenical Councils standards for judging heresy, while the Homilies (authorised at a secondary level) and a consensus of later divines reaffirm the universal acceptance of the first six councils.

The rejection of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II (787), was initially based on a Latin translation that actually misrepresented a key teaching of the Council and supported λατρεία (latreía) being given to icons or images, rather than dulia (Greek δουλεία). Did the council mean honour, veneration or worship?

Iconoclasm was never the official Anglican policy either in theory or in practice. Various Caroline Divines used better translations of Nicaea II to defend it as legitimate in itself, although they still decried the way its teaching had been applied or even ignored in the West. So, John Bramhall, Archbishop of Armagh, could say succinctly of the decrees of the Seven Ecumenical Councils: “I know of none we need to fear.”

The Five Centuries

The “Five Centuries” form the Patristic era, with the writings and testimonies of the great Fathers of the first five centuries, from the Apostles to Gregory the Great.

A note on terminology

In the past, some scholars have tried to distinguish between patrologia from patristica.

They defined patrologia as the science that provides all that is needed to use the works of the Fathers, dealing with their authority, the criteria for judging their genuineness, the difficulties to be met within them, and the rules for their use.

On the other hand, patristica was seen as the theological science that collected and sorted all that concerns faith, morals, or discipline in the writings of the Fathers.

These distinctions are not much observed, and they all fall within the ambit of patristic studies as a key part of theology.

Some cultural difficulties

Saint John Chrysostom

Today, there is may be less enthusiasm for Patristics, and Professor Alister McGrath, looking at the obstacles to our understanding of Patristics in the 21st century, identifies four reasons why understanding Patristics can be difficult today:

● Some of the debates appear to have little relevance to the modern world;
● The use of classical philosophy;
● The doctrinal diversity;
● The divisions between East and West, or between Greek and Latin methods of theology, and the extent to which they think in the categories of classical philosophy.

He might have added that some of them think in ways that are totally alien to us today, such as Saint Simeon the Stylite (ca 390-459), who achieved fame as an ascetic because he lived on a small platform on the top of a pillar near Aleppo in Syria for 39 years.

And we also have to face up to the anti-semitic ideas found in the writings of many the Early Fathers. For example, Augustine argued that the Jews should be left alive and suffering as a perpetual reminder of their murder of Christ.

Saint John Chrysostom used Christ’s words in Luke 19: 27 in his Eight Homilies Against the Jews:

“The Jewish people were driven by their drunkenness and plumpness to the ultimate evil; they kicked about, they failed to accept the yoke of Christ, nor did they pull the plough of his teaching. Another prophet hinted at this when he said: ‘Israel is as obstinate as a stubborn heifer.’ … Although such beasts are unfit for work, they are fit for killing. And this is what happened to the Jews: while they were making themselves unfit for work, they grew fit for slaughter. This is why Christ said: ‘But as for these my enemies, who did not want me to be king over them, bring them here and slay them’ (Luke 19: 27).”

Saint John Chrysostom’s sermons against Jews gave momentum to the idea that Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Christ.

The Jewish philosopher Professor Steven Katz of Boston University, director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies, goes as far as to say says Saint John Chrysostom’s homilies are “the decisive turn in the history of Christian anti-Judaism, a turn whose ultimate disfiguring consequence was enacted in the political anti-semitism of Adolf Hitler.”

The Revd James Parkes (1896-1981), an Anglican theologian known for his strong writings on anti-semitism, called these writing on Jews “the most horrible and violent denunciations of Judaism to be found in the writings of a Christian theologian.”

So, it may not be all easy-going in this module. We are certainly not going to be unquestioning or going without the opportunity to question or to challenge. We need be afraid to ask questions.

Bibliography, reading and finding the texts:

The Patriarchal Institute of Patristic Studies in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

1, Collections of Patristic texts:

Most Patristic texts are available in their original languages in Jacques Paul Migne's two great patrologies, Patrologia Latina and Patrologia Graeca.

For Syriac and other Eastern languages the Patrologia Orientalis is less complete and can be largely supplemented by the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium.

Noted collections containing re-edited patristic texts (also discoveries and new attributions) are the Corpus Christianorum, Sources Chrétiennes, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Oxford Early Christian Texts and Fontes Christiani (also Etudes Augustiniennes).

2, English translations of Patristic texts and collections:

A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark).
The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the Twenty-First Century (New York: New City Press).
The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press).
Ancient Christian Writers (New York: Paulist Press).
The Early Church Fathers (London/New York: Routledge).
The Popular Patristics Series (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

3, Relevant journals:

Augustinian Studies, published by the Philosophy Documentation Center, in co-operation with the Augustinian Institute at Villanova University.

Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture (published by the American Society of Church History, and edited by Amanda Porterfield and John Corrigan, the Religion Department, Florida State University.

The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, published by Cambridge University Press and edited by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of Church History, Oxford, and James Carleton Paget of Peterhouse, University of Cambridge).

The Journal of Early Christian Studies, the official publication of the North American Patristics Society and published by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Studia patristica, published by the Oxford International Conference on Patristic Studies and edited by Allen Brent and Markus Vinzent of King’s College London.

Vigiliae Christianae, a review of Early Christian Life and Language edited by J den Boeft (Free University of Amsterdam) and J van Oort (Nijmegen/Pretoria).

4, Recommended reading:

Mike Aquilinia, Companion Guide to Pope Benedict’s The Fathers (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2008).
Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans RS Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin, 1061 &c).
Lewis Ayers, Nicaea and its Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, pbk ed, 2006).
Angelo Di Berardino (ed), Patrology: The Eastern Fathers from the Council of Chalcedon (451) to John of Damascus (+750) (2nd ed, London: James Clark, 2008).
John Chryssavgis, Light through Darkness: the Orthodox Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2004, Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series).
Mary Cunningham, Faith in the Byzantine World (Oxford: Lion, 2002).
MB Cunningham, E Theokritoff (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Charles Freeman, A new history of Early Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011).
SA Harvey, DG Hunter (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008/2010).
Derek Krueger (ed), Byzantine Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006, A People’s History of Christianity, vol 3).
JB Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers (London: MacMillan, 1891, 1907).
Andrew Louth (ed), Early Christian Writings (London: Penguin, 1987).
John A McGuckin, The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology (London: SCM Press, 2005 ed, the SCM Press A-Z of Christian Theology Series).
John Anthony McGuckin, Standing in God’s Holy Fire: the Byzantine Tradition (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001, Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series).
Cyril Richardson (ed), Early Christian Fathers (London: SCM Press, 1953).
JWC Wand, The Greek Doctors (London: Faith Press, 1950).
Benedicta Ward, The Desert Fathers: sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London: Penguin, 2003).


Patristics 2,
11.30 a.m., 26 January 2015: The Apostolic Fathers.

Westcott House, Cambridge … the theological college is named in honour of the great Anglican patristic scholar, Bishop Brooke Westcott (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This lecture on 26 January 2015 was part of the Year I MTh module, Introduction to Patristics.

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