Worth the Read: The Church Fathers
In the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Matthew tells how people brought their children to Jesus so he could lay their hands on them. The Apostles tried to prevent this, but Christ said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt 19:14). According to tradition, one of these very children would go on to become St. Ignatius.
St. Ignatius of Antioch was a disciple of St. John the Apostle and became Bishop of Antioch. There, he was condemned to die, dragged to Rome in chains and eaten by lions in the Colosseum.
On his journey, he wrote several epistles to churches affirming the core of the Gospel and encouraging the Christian communities to follow in the path of orthodoxy. Ignatius writes, “There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassible, even Jesus Christ our Lord” (Letter to the Ephesians, Ch. 7). He extolls the churches to stay away from heterodox doctrines and teachers. Ignatius was the first to talk about the church as a universal entity.
His last letter he writes to his friend and fellow disciple of John, St. Polycarp. Polycarp was much younger than Ignatius and was somewhat of a protégé. Ignatius writes, “The only thing I ask of you is to allow me to offer the libation of my blood to God. I am the wheat of the Lord; may I be ground by the teeth of the beasts to become the immaculate bread of Christ.”
People think of martyrdom as a grim affair, and I’m not arguing it’s not, but the thing that always strikes me about the Saint’s epistles is the joy with which he meets his fate. He’s looking forward to being martyred. But it’s not just that he has a death wish; rather, he knows where he’s going. So, when he runs towards death, he’s not running towards destruction, but instead back into the arms of Christ.
I think we all wish we had faith like that. The Apostolic Fathers, as they’re called, were the generation of preachers and teachers immediately following the apostles, many of whom knew the disciples personally. Outside of the aforementioned Ignatius and Polycarp, there was also St. Clement of Rome, the third successor of St. Peter’s bishopric. His epistle to the church in Corinth, 1 Clement, is the oldest church letter outside of the canon of the New Testament.
A big problem I see with American Christianity is not so much an ignorance of the Bible (though that is an issue) but an ignorance of history. For most of the students at JBU, knowledge of church history is limited to the book of Acts…maybe some vague knowledge of the reformation…and now there’s just Hillsong.
The Doctrine of Sola Scriptura (the belief of scripture alone held by most protestant churches) doesn’t mean you only need the Bible, rather that the Bible is the highest form of authority. The reformers encouraged the church to limit itself to Scripture, but they weren’t progressives—they were reactionaries. Luther and Calvin thought the church had strayed from the vision laid out in the fathers and appealed to them (the fathers, that is) in their argumentation against the church.
But it’s not just about theology. I think we can also learn from the witness of the fathers. Sixty years after the death of St. Ignatius, St. Polycarp, now an old man in his 80’s, was also condemned to die, to be burned at the stake in front of hundreds of people. For a final time, he was asked to renounce his faith to save his life. He replied, "Eighty and six years have I served Christ, nor has He ever done me any harm. How, then, could I blaspheme my King who saved Me?” (The Martyrdom of Polycarp).
I think every JBU student should read the fathers, but, more so, I think every Christian would benefit from their wisdom. If Christ is the blueprint and the Bible is the foundation of our faith, then the fathers are the framework and the scaffolding. It’s not an understatement to say without them, Christianity would be unrecognizable.