I’m confused by the term “church fathers.” I have wondered about men like Thomas a Kempis. Were these individuals believers? Are they our spiritual fathers in some way? (I was saved out of the Catholic church 15 years ago.)
As I read your letter, I thought of Jesus’ words to His disciples: “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). As we study church history, we realize the spiritual struggles of believers in the centuries since Christ lived on earth. We think that we live in a difficult time, but we have many advantages that believers in the first centuries after Christ lived on earth did not have. One of the impressions we get concerning the early centuries of Christianity is that of a continual fight against error—both within and without the community of believers.
Various church historians have used a number of terms to identify the early leaders of the church. Under these terms, which also identify periods of time in the early centuries, we have the loose designation that you mention—”church fathers”—to label individuals who standout. Irenaeus, Tertuffian, Clement, and Origen are a few.
The “apostolic fathers” make up the first group. They lived in a period from about AD 90 to 150. This group included Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyma, Barnabas of Alexandria, and others. These men produced letters and other writings, and they tried to understand Christ better. For the most part, their writings reveal a zealous church without the trappings of hierarchy. Persecution occurred almost from the Day of Pentecost and has continued ever since, in varying degrees.
Persecution, while hideous, has been used of God to further the message of the Bible, to keep Christians awake and alert, and to purify from sin. Undoubtedly God has had a multitude of reasons for allowing persecution. The world has had many reasons for persecuting Christians. Those occupied with religion, whether Jews or heathen, saw Christianity as a threat to their beliefs and practices. The Romans and others persecuted Christians because they were suspicious of Christians’ teachings about Christ as a ruler with a future kingdom. Other persecution took place for pure enjoyment or sport or because others saw Christians as scapegoats for problems and calamities. And, of course, the unsaved didn’t like the way Christians tried to bring non-Christians to conversion. They, like the masters of the girl of divination in Acts, would rather have been left alone to pursue their sinful lifestyles. We see the same attitudes displayed today as believers and their influence are increasingly being removed from public life.
The “apostolic fathers” were not necessarily completely sound in their theology. Some thought that being a martyr or a celibate, for example, atoned for sin. The doctrine of baptismal regeneration also began to creep in.
The second period, from AD 130 to 180, includes a group of people often called “the apologists.” As heretics falsely accused Christians and misrepresented their teachings, various individuals wrote to defend the believers. Justin Martyr, perhaps the best-known apologist, got the name “Martyr” because he was beheaded for his faith a few years after writing his famous Apology.
During the latter part of the second century, two heresies became especially serious: Gnosticism and Montanism. Gnosticism, which did not originate in Christianity, had many forms and sects within it, making it difficult to pinpoint a common belief. It would be safe to say that human knowledge prevailed and that the Gnostics scoffed at the believers’ practice of walking by faith. They also doubted that Christ had lived on earth in human form. Montanism, on the other hand, came from within the church. About AD 156, Montanus proclaimed himself as the instrument through which the Holy Spirit was speaking. He preoccupied himself with the idea that the Holy Spirit did not come at Pentecost but that Christ’s promise was about to be fulfilled and a new dispensation was about to begin. He and his followers practiced extreme asceticism, including fastings and celibacy. Some believers considered a growing worldliness in the church a cause for welcoming Montanism.
Other serious heresies also existed. Whatever we think about the early “church fathers” and their aberrations of doctrine and practice, we still have to concede that they probably did the best they could with what light they had. Fortunately, while such movements as Gnosticism and Montanism posed a grave threat in those years, the majority of true Christians did not embrace them.
The third group, the “polemicists,” came right after the apologists and went to approximately AD 225. They were the “giants” most commonly associated with the term “church fathers”—men such as Irenaeus, Flippolytus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement, and Origen. These periods and personalities overlap somewhat. The polemicists, we should note, were fastidious in holding to the New Testament books as the source of right doctrine. We find emerging from this period what some have termed the “three Cs”: a creed, the canon, and catholicity. In other words, we find that the church adopted the Apostles’ Creed so that everyone could know what the church accepted as the truth. Canonists also determined which books belonged to the Scriptures, as people were confused concerning which writings were valid and which ones were not.
And, from this period to the Reformation, we find the beginnings and development of the Catholic concept of church government, as opposed to the simple organization of the early New Testament church.
Next we have the period of “scientific theologians” who attempted to apply scientific methods of Biblical interpretation and textual criticism. These men include Jerome, Augustine, Theodore and John Chrysostom, Ambrose, and others who defended the faith. They gave us writings and creeds that serve as a basis for summarizing what we believe and that strengthen a common belief in the church as an institution. Unfortunately many wrong teachings began to germinate during this period of time; for example, doctrines and practices associated with the Roman Catholic Church, such as purgatory, sacramentalism, and priestly mediation.
The scene changed dramatically when Constantine, the emperor of Rome, nominally embraced Christianity. He moved to make Christianity a state religion with an act known as the Edict of Milan in AD 313. Suddenly Christendom went from a persecuted minority to a fat, established majority. Constantine gave large sums of money to the clergy, built magnificent church buildings, and forbade Sunday work. However, since Christianity had become an advantage, heathen people joined the church in droves, and corruption poured into it. Several councils, including Nicaea and Chalcedon, further expressed the fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith.
You mentioned Thomas a Kempis. We must jump many centuries of “Dark Ages” to the time of the Reformation. He, along with others of the pre-Reformation period, wrote works that linger to this day. They reflect on the simple piety that characterized those in a monastic frame of reference.
What do we conclude? First, we take history and learn what we can from it. Error creeps in when people do not learn from past error. I am concerned that, for the most part, we are not teaching our children and teens church history. And while we’re at it, we should familiarize them with the history of our own GARBC fellowship and the reasons it came into existence.
Second, we don’t worship these early “church fathers.” They were human and often embraced false doctrines and practices. We also consider the times they lived in and appreciate what many of them went through. We will know who the believers are when we get to Glory. Third, we see the sovereignty of God and how He controls history. We appreciate the fact that He perfectly preserves His Word and His people in a hostile world.
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