The Church Fathers … in a Greek Orthodox icon
Church of Ireland Theological Institute,
16 January 2012:
Spirituality: Introducing Patristic Spirituality
Opening hymn: 262: ‘Come ye faithful, raise the strain’, by John of Damascus (ca 675-ca 750).
Revelation 5: 11-14
There was a time when a course in Patristics would have been one of the core First Year modules for ordinands in an Anglican theological college. Scholars like Bishop JB Lightfoot (1828-1899) and Bishop Brooke Westcott (1825-1901) placed Patristics at the heart of Anglican theology from the late 19th century on, for many generations.
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 use 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.
But do not be frightened by this topic. Already, some of you are 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 most of you recall 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 Constantinople.
The Patriarchal Institute of Patristic Studies in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
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) to either the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, or even to the Second Council of Nicaea in the eighth century.
Many scholars 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 how 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 a spirituality that found its expression too in our Creedal and Trinitarian formulas.
The Church Fathers
The prominent early Church Fathers whose writings form the basis for Patristics include Justin Martyr (ca 100-ca 165), Irenaeus of Lyons (ca 130- ca 200), Clement of Alexandria (ca 150-ca 215), Cyprian of Carthage (died 258), Athanasius of Alexandria (ca 296-ca 373), Gregory of Nazianus (329-389), Basil of Caesarea (ca 330-379), Gregory of Nyssa (ca 330-ca 395), Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca 350-428), Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Vincent of Lérin (died before 450) and Cyril of Alexandria (died 444).
Their thinking and their writings are found in epistles or letters, apologetics or defence of the developing and unfolding doctrine of the Church, in sermons, in accounts of their saintly lives and their martyrdom – for it was 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 Church Fathers are generally divided into the Ante-Nicene Fathers, who lived and wrote before the First Council of Nicaea in 325, and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, who lived and wrote after 325. In addition, the division of the Fathers into Greek and Latin writers is also common.
Some of the most prominent Greek Fathers are: Justin Martyr, John Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexander. The Latin Fathers include Cyprian, Jerome, Ambrose of Milan, Gregory the Great and Augustine of Hippo. They lived and wrote across the Mediterranean world, in Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Rome and the area of north Africa around Carthage, as well as Milan and Jerusalem.
The view of the Coliseum from the Irish Dominican church at San Clemente (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Apostolic Fathers
The Apostolic Fathers, who are a small number of Early Christian writers, lived and wrote in the second half of the 1st century and the first half of the 2nd century. They are acknowledged as leaders in the Early Church, and although their writings are not included in the New Testament, many are regarded as contemporaries of or students and followers of the Apostles, the generation that had personal contact with the Disciples. In this way, they are seen as the link between the Apostles, who had personal contact with Christ, and the later generations of Church Fathers.
The Apostolic Fathers include: Clement of Rome, who was alive around 96 AD; Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna.
Saint Clement of Rome was the author of the epistle known as I Clement (ca 96 AD). This is generally considered the oldest surviving Christian epistle outside the canon of the New Testament. In this letter, he calls on the Christians of Corinth to maintain harmony and order.
A colonnade of 14 Corinthian columns on the west side of the Stoa of Smyrna, the only surviving classical site in Izmir. Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote four of his letters, including one to the Church in Smyrna, while he was a prisoner in Smyrna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Saint Ignatius of Antioch (ca 35-110) is said to have directly known Saint John the Evangelist. On his way to martyrdom in Rome, he wrote a series of letters that provide an example of the theology of the early Christians. In his letters, he discusses ecclesiology, the sacraments, and the role and authority of bishops.
He identifies a local church structure of bishops, priest and deacons, with the bishop in the place of God, the priests in the place of Apostles, and the deacons serving as Christ served: “Let the bishop preside in the place of God, and his clergy in the place of the Apostolic conclave, and let my special friends the deacons be entrusted with the service of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father from all eternity and in these last days has been made manifest” – To the Magnesians, 6 (Andrew Louth).
Hear how Ignatius weaves together, in one of his letters, his Trinitarian faith, his understanding of the threefold order of bishop, priest and deacon, and links his Christology with his Ecclesiology: “Do your utmost to stand firm in the precepts of the Lord and the Apostles, so that everything you do, worldly or spiritual, may go prosperously from beginning to end in faith and love, in the Son and the Father and the Spirit, together with your most reverend bishop and that beautifully woven spiritual chaplet, your clergy and godly minded deacons. Be as submissive to the bishop and to one another as Jesus Christ was to his Father, and as the Apostles were to Christ and the Father; so that there may be complete unity, in the flesh as well as the spirit.” – To the Magnesians, 13 (Andrew Louth)
Ignatius claims to have spoken in some of the Churches through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In an early Patristic poem, he teaches the deity of Christ and his human and divine natures:
“There is only one Physician –
Very Flesh, yet Spirit too;
Uncreated and yet born;
God-and-Man in One agreed;
Fruit of God and of Mary’s seed;
At once impassible and torn
By pain and suffering here below:
Jesus Christ, whom as Lord we know.” – To the Ephesians, 7 (Andrew Louth).
Saint Ignatius of Antioch ... referred to the Church as a “Eucharistic community” which realises its true nature when it celebrates the Eucharist, and defined the Church as the local community gathered around its bishop, celebrating the Eucharist
He is the second writer after Clement to mention Saint Paul’s Epistles, and he is also responsible for the first known use of the Greek word katholikos (καθολικός), meaning “universal,” “complete” and “whole” to describe the Church, writing:
“Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is present, we have the catholic Church. Nor is it permissible to conduct baptisms or love-feasts [the Eucharist] without the bishop. On the other hand, whatever does have his sanction can be sure of God’s approval too.” – To the Smyrnaeans 8 (Andrew Louth).
Ignatius is also the first of the Church Fathers to speak about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He thought of the Church as a Eucharistic society which only realised its true nature when it celebrated the Supper of the Lord, receiving His Body and Blood in the Sacrament.” [Ignatius, quoted in Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 242.]
The 42-hectare Kültürpark was laid out on the ruins of the Greek quarter of Smyrna ... Saint Polycarp was Bishop of Smyrna and was martyred there (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Polycarp (ca 69-ca 155) was the Bishop of Smyrna (present-day Izmir in western Turkey). Irenaeus says “Polycarp also was not only instructed by the apostles, and conversed with many who had seen the Lord, but was also appointed bishop by apostles in Asia and in the church in Smyrna.” (Adversus haereses, 3.3.4).
According to the early Church historian, Eusebius, Irenaeus says that as a boy he had listened to accounts by Polycarp of his friendships with “John and with the others who had seen the Lord.” Polycarp died as a martyr in Smyrna in 155 AD.
The Greek, Latin and Desert Fathers
The Apostolic Fathers were followed by the Greek Fathers, including: Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Athansius of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, the Cappdocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzus, Peter of Sebeste and Gregory of Nyssa), Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus.
Irenaeus, who was a disciple of Polycarp, wrote that the only way for Christians to retain unity is to humbly accept one doctrinal authority – episcopal councils, and he proposed that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John should all be accepted as canonical Gospels.
Clement of Alexandria united Greek philosophical traditions with Christian doctrine.
Athanasius of Alexandria is remembered for his role in the conflict with Arianism and for his affirmation of the Trinity. At the First Council of Nicaea (325), he argued against Arius, who said Christ is of a distinct substance from the Father.
The Cappadocian Fathers made major contributions to the definition of the Trinity, finalised at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and the final version of the Nicene Creed, which was agreed there.
Among the Latin Fathers of the Church were Saint Cyprian of Carthage, Saint Hilary of Poitiers, Saint Ambrose of Milan, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Gregory the Great.
The Desert Fathers were early monastics in the Egyptian Desert. Although their writings are not as extensive, their influence was immense. They include Saint Anthony the Great and Saint Pachomius. Many of their short and pithy sayings are collected in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
A small number of Church Fathers wrote in other languages: Saint Ephrem the Syrian and Saint Isaac the Syrian, for example, wrote in Syriac, although their works were widely translated into Latin and Greek.
An icon of the Church as a boat, including Christ, the Apostles and the Church Fathers
In patristic writings, we find a non-negotiable concern for the poor, the sick, and those in prison, balanced with demands for personal responsibility, honest work, and an orderly social life.
Saint Basil the Great wrote: “The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.”
The Monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos has the skull of Saint John Chrysostom (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Saint John Chrysostom, the great conscience of the Church on these matters, closed his second sermon on Lazarus and the Rich Man, preached in Antioch in the late 4th century, imploring his congregation to keep one main thing in mind: “I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life. We do not possess our own wealth but theirs.”
It is a common Patristic saying that of the two, schism is worse than heresy. Behind this thinking is the presumption that a heretic is sincere in his belief — however erroneous — and so it could be that God may at least judge him on the basis of his sincerity, his personal integrity, and his consistency of action in regard to his principles. The schismatic, on the other hand, has willfully separated himself from others who share the same beliefs, thus denying the truth that unity and communion exist in the very confession of the same truth. Heresy might be seen as a sin of error, while schism is a sin against truth itself.
If I ever had any doubts about the potential for humour among the Early Fathers, my misgivings were dispelled a few years ago by Dr George Bebabwi, an Egyptian scholar now living in Indianapolis.
In the course of a lecture in Cambridge, he told a story from the Abbot Sophronius of a desert monk who was called on for an exorcism. The monk slowly took out the scroll of the Book Genesis and started to read methodically and carefully at Chapter 1, Verse 1, not verse-by-verse, or even word-by-word, but letter-by-letter: “I-N T-H-E B-E-G-I-N-N-I-N-G, G-O- …”
Before he got any further, the Devil interrupted the monk, demanding in an outraged voice: “This is an exorcism – aren’t you supposed to be reading the Psalms.”
“I’ll get to them, in my own good time,” the monk replied nonchalantly.
“I can’t wait that long,” was the impatient response. “I’m out of here now.”
If you are in danger of thinking the Desert Fathers are concerned only with their own personal salvation, and not with the salvation of the whole world, then they also warn against what may be described as “learning wisdom.” The Egyptian Desert Father, Abba Poemen, said: “A man who teaches without doing what he teaches is like a spring which cleanses and gives drinks to everyone, but is not able to purify itself.”
There was a monk in Egypt who wanted to be martyr. His abbot warned him against false heroism and told him it was easy to be unusual. True heroism, the abbot said, is found in daily life, looking for reality and finding God’s will there. The monk persisted in his quest for martyrdom, however, and headed off to an area controlled by nomadic tribes, and he demanded to become a martyr.
But once the nomadic people captured the monk, he was unable to resist, and rather than accept the pain of martyrdom he worshipped their idols. He returned to the monastery, where the abbot reminded him that true heroism often lies in dealing with daily realities rather than seeking to be dramatic or unusual.
If your image of the Early Fathers, particularly the Desert Fathers, is of humourless men stuck on the top of pillars or columns, sending down baskets with human waste and hauling them back up again full of food and drink, then think again of Saint Anthony, the founder of monasticism, saying: “Joy and not fear are the signs of the holy.”
When we look at the spirituality of the Church Fathers we should also remember those who were later regarded as heretics, including Tertullian (ca 160-ca 225), Origen (ca 185-ca 254), Pelagius and 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 it was Tertullian who first said: “The blood of the martyrs is seed of the Church.”
Nor were all the Patristic writers men, either. One of the greatest descriptions of pilgrimage we have at 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
The rediscovery of Patristic texts and writings in the 15th and 16th centuries, following the exodus of Greek scholars with the fall of Byzantium is a major factor in understanding the Reformations, in particular the Anglican Reformation. And so, I conclude this part of our session this morning with the “Prayer of Saint Chrysostom” introduced to Anglicanism by Thomas Cranmer:
“Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfil now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.”
As you bring your desires and petitions before God in our time of silence, take with you the collection of prayers attributed to Saint John Chrysostom, or meditate on some of the quotations included in the hand-out. We come back together at about 9.50 for a closing prayer and hymn.
Let us pray, in the words of the Collect of the Day:
in Christ you make all things new:
Transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Closing Hymn: 446, ‘Strengthen for service, Lord the hands’, from the Liturgy of Malabar and attributed to Saint Ephtraim the Syrian (ca 306-373).
Westcott House, Cambridge … the theological college is named in honour of the great Anglican patristic scholar, Bishop Brooke Westcott (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Selected Reading and Bibliography
SA Harvey, DG Hunter (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies (Oxford: OUP, 2008/2010).
MB Cunningham, E. Theokritoff (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology (Cambridge, CUP, 2008).
JB Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers (London: MacMillan, 1891, 1907)
Andrew Louth (ed), Early Christian Writings (London: Penguin, 1987).
Cyril Richardson (ed), Early Christian Fathers (London: SCM Press, 1953).
JWC Wand, The Greek Doctors (London: Faith press, 1950).
Benedicta Ward, The Destert Fathers, Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London: Penguin, 2003).
Hand-out for a time of meditation:
The Ladder of Divine Ascent … is an icon from Mount Sinai based on a book of the same name on the ascetic and monastic life, written ca 600 AD by Saint John Klimakos
Prayers of Saint John Chrysostom:
Saint John Chrysostom
1. O Lord, deprive me not of your heavenly blessings.
2. O Lord, deliver me from eternal torment.
3. O Lord, if I have sinned in my mind or thought, in word or deed, forgive me.
4. O Lord, deliver me from every ignorance and heedlessness, from pettiness of the soul and stony hardness of heart.
5. O Lord, deliver me from every temptation.
6. O Lord, enlighten my heart darkened by evil desires.
7. O Lord, I, being a human being, have sinned; I ask you, being God, to forgive me in your loving kindness, for you know the weakness of my soul.
8. O Lord, send down your grace to help me, that I may glorify your holy Name.
9. O Lord Jesus Christ, inscribe me, your servant, in the Book of Life, and grant me a blessed end.
10. O Lord my God, even if I have done nothing good in your sight, yet grant me, according to your grace, that I may make a start in doing good.
11. O Lord, sprinkle on my heart the dew of your grace.
12. O Lord of heaven and earth, remember me, your sinful servant, cold of heart and impure, in your Kingdom.
13. O Lord, receive me in repentance.
14. O Lord, leave me not.
15. O Lord, save me from temptation.
16. O Lord, grant me pure thoughts.
17. O Lord, grant me tears of repentance, remembrance of death, and the sense of peace.
18. O Lord, grant me mindfulness to confess my sins.
19. O Lord, grant me humility, charity, and obedience.
20. O Lord, grant me tolerance, magnanimity, and gentleness.
21. O Lord, implant in me the root of all blessings: the fear of you in my heart.
22. O Lord, grant that I may love you with all my heart and soul, and that in all things I may obey your will.
23. O Lord, shield me from evil persons and devils and passions and all other lawless matters.
24. O Lord, who knows your creation and what you have willed for it; may your will also be fulfilled in me, a sinner, for you art blessed for evermore. Amen.
Excerpts from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
1, “A hermit said, ‘Take care to be silent. Empty your mind. Attend to your meditation in the fear of God, whether you are resting or at work. If you do this, you will not fear the attacks of the demons.”
2, Abba Moses, “Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you all.”
3, “Somebody asked Anthony, ‘What shall I do in order to please God?’ He replied, ‘Do what I tell you, which is this: wherever you go, keep God in mind; whatever you do, follow the example of Holy Scripture; wherever you are, stay there and do not move away in a hurry. If you keep to these guidelines, you will be saved’.”
4, “He (Evagrius) also said, ‘A monk was told that his father had died. He said to the messenger, ‘Do not blaspheme. My Father cannot die’.”
5, Abbot Pastor said, “If someone does evil to you, you should do good to him, so that by your good work you may drive out his malice.”
6, An Elder said, “A man who keeps death before his eyes will at all times overcome his cowardliness.”
7, Blessed Macarius said, “This is the truth, if a monk regards contempt as praise, poverty as riches, and hunger as a feast, he will never die.”
8, “It happened that as Abba Arsenius was sitting in his cell that he was harassed by demons. His servants, on their return, stood outside his cell and heard him praying to God in these words, ‘O God, do not leave me. I have done nothing good in your sight, but according to your goodness, let me now make a beginning of good’.”
Some of this morning’s quotes:
“Do your utmost to stand firm in the precepts of the Lord and the Apostles, so that everything you do, worldly or spiritual, may go prosperously from beginning to end in faith and love, in the Son and the Father and the Spirit, together with your most reverend bishop and that beautifully woven spiritual chaplet, your clergy and godly minded deacons. Be as submissive to the bishop and to one another as Jesus Christ was to his Father, and as the Apostles were to Christ and the Father; so that there may be complete unity, in the flesh as well as the spirit.” – Ignatius, To the Magnesians, 13 (Andrew Louth)
“There is only one Physician –
Very Flesh, yet Spirit too;
Uncreated and yet born;
God-and-Man in One agreed;
Fruit of God and of Mary’s seed;
At once impassible and torn
By pain and suffering here below:
Jesus Christ, whom as Lord we know. – Ignatius, To the Ephesians, 7 (Andrew Louth).
“Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as wherever Jesus Christ is present, we have the catholic Church. Nor is it permissible to conduct baptisms or love-feasts [the Eucharist] without the bishop. On the other hand, whatever does have his sanction can be sure of God’s approval too.” – Ignatius, To the Smyrnaeans 8 (Andrew Louth).
“The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.” – Saint Basil the Great.
“I beg you, remember this without fail, that not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life. We do not possess our own wealth but theirs.” – Saint John Chrysostom
Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This essay is based on notes used for a lecture on Patristic Spirituality on 16 January 2012 in the Spirituality Programme as part of the Pastoral Formation module on the MTh course.