"The Fathers of the Church" – Review
What were there worship services like?
Who were the major leaders and thinkers of the early Church?
What have Christians believed throughout the past centuries and how have our current beliefs developed?
These questions--along with many more--are tackled within the book I just finished, "The Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers" (Our Sunday Visitor, softcover, 240 pages, $13.95) by Mike Aquilina.
After converting from Protestantism to Catholicism, my ignorance of the first 1,500 years of Christianity became quickly evident. I was pretty sure that 'historical' Christianity began with the writings of Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. While I don't think they were actively hidden from me, the early Fathers of the Church were passively ignored.
However, once I was introduced to the rich writings of those who lived even before the Reformation, I was quickly overwhelmed. When you consider how relatively young most Protestant denominations are, you quickly realize that for every great Protestant thinker there was, there have been dozens of Catholic equivalents and superiors throughout history.
When I went from complete ignorance of these writers to a mass introduction of them all at once, it was like going from eating a small piece of chocolate to entering Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. It's easy to get overwhelmed with the hundreds of voices coming from the saints and Fathers of the Church throughout time, which brings me back to Aquilina's book.
This book introduces each of the Early Church Fathers through two methods. First, there is a page or two summarizing the life, major events, and writings of each Church Father. Second, there are lengthy sections from each of the Father's most important writings, written in the first-person voice. These writings breed a deep sense of closeness to each Father; hearing each man's own voice make his thoughts come alive.
Rather than some old men with some dusty ideas, the majority of their writings could be repackaged and circulated today as contemporary solutions to many problems, within and beyond the Church. The early Church Fathers are surprisingly relevant to today's world.
According to the book's introduction, there are "around hundred" Church Fathers. The designation of 'Father' is applied by different groups, so there is no official list accepted universally, but the majority of the Fathers are accepted as such by all.
The title of "Father" is quite appropriate; these men--living from the middle first century until the middle of the eighth--were "intensely concerned with preserving the unity and integrity of the company of those who believed." Their main occupation was to preserve and pass down the original Christian faith as it was defined by the Apostles who followed Jesus in the flesh. They are usually categorized into three distinct groups:
- The Apostolic Fathers - Those who were disciples of the original Apostles themselves
- The Ante-Nicene Fathers - Those living between the Apostolic Fathers and the First Council of Nicea (325 A.D.)
- The Post-Nicene Fathers - Those living after the First Council of Nicea through the eighth century
Some of the names--like Origin, Eusebius, Augustine, and Benedict--may be familar to life-long Catholics or Church historians, but there are many other 'hidden' Fathers who also have much to offer like Clement and Cyrprian.
This book was filled with so many quotable gyms from the Fathers. Here are some of my favorites:
- "The kingly man and Christian ought to be a ruler and a leader. For we are commanded to be lords over not only the wild beasts around us, but also over the wild passions within ourselves." - St. Clement of Alexandria
- On doubting that reading the Bible is worthwhile: "We must, however, know that we often profit without perceiving it...Believe that your soul profits from the mere reading, even though your understanding does not receive the fruit of profiting from these passages." - Origen
- On the importance of the unity of the Church (also known as the Bride of Christ): "The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch." - St. Cyprian of Carthage
More than a pure, dry theology, this book is filled with practical advice from the Fathers on everyday life. This becomes clear just from the chapter titles, which include "On Riches", "To Work and to Pray", "On Bashing the Clergy", and "When Someone Gossips About You".
Overall, this was a fantastic and empowering read; the foundation of my faith grew firmer with each page. After finishing I only want to dig deeper into the words of each of these great Fathers.