Introduction to the Early Church Fathers

An introduction to eight of the Early Church Fathers: Clement, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria. Important witnesses to the Christian faith in its earliest days who everyone should know about.

Introduction 

With this episode I’d like to give a brief introduction to eight of the Early Church Fathers. This is a subject that interests me immensely and one that occupies much of my personal study. I’m fascinated by the lives and writings of these men. But I don’t find that they are especially well known. So I’d like to introduce them here. It’s an introduction in two ways. First, I won’t be going into much depth this time around. And second, I’m just focusing on some the earliest of the Church Fathers from the second century. Maybe later I’ll go into more depth on these eight and also introduce later Church Fathers. 

One of the things I focus on in my study of these men is how they faithfully transmitted and carried on the teachings that had been handed down to them by Jesus and his Apostles. They were immersed in the scriptures: the Hebrew Bible, the epistles of the Apostles, and the Gospels. They maintained continuity of the faith. And their writings were fresh and vibrant. They didn’t always have the systematic rigor of later Church Fathers, but they were steeped in the life of the faith and you can see it in their lives and in their writings.

The eight Church Fathers who I want to introduce today are: 

Clement of Rome (c. 35 – c. 99)
Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – c. 110)
Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69 – c. 155)
Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165)
Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 202)
Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155 – c. 222)
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215)
Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 – c. 254)

All or most of their dates are “circa” or approximate.

First, let’s situate them in the history and timeline of early Christianity. Jesus’s ministry was in the 30s. And our earliest Christian writings are Paul’s letters; to the Galatians, Thessalonians, Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, etc. These date around the 50s and 60s. The four Gospels were written in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. At that point we start to transition and overlap with the period of these Early Church Fathers of the next generation.

Those of the generation immediately following the Apostles are known as the “Apostolic Fathers” because of their contact with the Apostles of Jesus. These include Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna. According to tradition, Clement was consecrated by Peter and Ignatius and Polycarp were disciples of John. These three left important epistles to the churches of their day and were active at the end of the first century and beginning of the second century.

The generations just after these Apostolic Fathers included Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria. These men were active in the later second century. And their writings tend to be works of apologetics, reasoned defenses of the Christian faith.

Clement of Rome (c. 35 – c. 99)

The Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians is the earliest of the writings we have from one of the Church Fathers. Clement is also known as Pope Clement I since he was bishop of Rome from 88 to 99 AD. His most important contribution to Church history is his Epistle to the Corinthians, sometimes called 1 Clement. It was probably written sometime in the 90s.

Funny enough, the situation that called for the letter to be written was quite similar to the situations that called for Paul to write 1st and 2nd Corinthians: community strife. In the case of 1 Clement the specific issue was that members of the Corinthian congregation were trying to depose their bishop. The letter is quite long and before even addressing the issue of the attempted deposition of these Corinthian bishops Clement recounts a history of Israel in which he creatively highlights examples of humility and envy, attributes he later uses as examples for the case he is addressing.

“Our Apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned, and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. As for these, then, who were appointed by them, or who were afterwards appointed by other illustrious men with the consent of the whole Church, and who have ministered to the flock of Christ without blame, humbly, peaceably and with dignity, and who have for many years received the commendations of all, we consider it unjust that they be removed from the ministry.” (1 Clement 44:1-3)

Clement traces the authority to appoint bishops back to the Apostles and to Jesus. It’s not a matter of popularity or something that can be arbitrarily changed. These offices are managed through the church hierarchy established with Jesus and the Apostles.

In addition to that specific issue, the letter is also valuable for its doctrine and Gospel teaching. A few highlights:

“Let us fix our gaze on the blood of Christ and know how precious it is to His Father, because it was poured out for our salvation and brought the grace of repentance to the whole world. Let us look back over all the generations, and let us learn that in generation after generation the Master has given a place of repentance to all those who have the will to turn to Him.” (1 Clement 7:4-5)

“Let us consider, beloved, how the Master is continually proving to us that there will be a future resurrection, of which He has made the Lord Jesus Christ the firstling, by raising Him from the dead. Let us look, beloved, at the resurrection which is taking place seasonally. Day and night make known the resurrection to us. The night sleeps, the day arises. Consider the plants that grow. How and in what manner does the sowing take place? The sower went forth and cast each of the seeds onto the ground; and they fall to the ground, parched and bare, where they decay. Then from their decay the greatness of the Master’s providence raises them up, and from the one grain more grow, and bring forth fruit.” (1 Clement 24:1-5)

“We, therefore, who have been called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, neither by our wisdom or understanding or piety, nor by the works we have wrought in holiness of heart, but by the faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the beginning: To whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.  What, then, shall we do, brethren? Shall we cease from good works, and shall we put an end to love? May the Master forbid that such should ever happen among us; rather, let us be eager to perform every good work earnestly and willingly.” (1 Clement 32:4 – 33:1)

Good stuff. Good Christian teaching. And definitely worth reading.

Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – c. 110)

Ignatius is a personal hero of mine and an inspiration, as he was to the Christians of his day. Ignatius was so prominent because died. He died a martyr’s death and he knew he was going to be martyred when he wrote the letters that we have from him. We have seven of these letters:

The Epistle to the Ephesians
The Epistle to the Magnesians
The Epistle to the Trallians
The Epistle to the Romans
The Epistle to the Philadelphians
The Epistle to the Smyrnaeans
The Epistle to Polycarp, a bishop of Smyrna

Ignatius addressed many issues with the communities he wrote to. And again, because he wrote these letters while traveling, being taken with his full knowledge, to Rome to be fed to the wild beasts, his counsels and teachings carried a lot of weight. They still do as I see it.

One of the issues he addressed was, like Clement, dissension and opposition to church leaders. It’s important to note that in these days being a church leader was not a cushy job. And Ignatius was the perfect example of this. As a bishop he was on the front lines during persecution and a prime target for execution. Church leaders sacrificed for their faith in Christ, often with their very lives.

His Epistle to the Romans is famous for his anticipation of his death by wild beasts. It seems quite morbid and I suppose it is. But nonetheless remarkable and heroic.

“I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep, I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body.” (Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 4)

“From Syria even unto Rome I fight with beasts, both by land and sea, both by night and day, being bound to ten leopards, I mean a band of soldiers, who, even when they receive benefits, show themselves all the worse. But I am the more instructed by their injuries [to act as a disciple of Christ]; yet am I not thereby justified. 1 Corinthians 4:4 May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray they may be found eager to rush upon me, which also I will entice to devour me speedily, and not deal with me as with some, whom, out of fear, they have not touched. But if they be unwilling to assail me, I will compel them to do so. Pardon me [in this]: I know what is for my benefit. Now I begin to be a disciple. And let no one, of things visible or invisible, envy me that I should attain to Jesus Christ. Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.” (Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 5)

He considered this martyrdom the ultimate witness of his life for Christ.

In addition to his counsel to submit to the authority of the bishop and his anticipated martyrdom, Ignatius taught important doctrines regarding the nature and person of Jesus Christ. Some examples:

“There is one Physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and not born, who is God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first able to suffer and then unable to suffer, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Letter to the Ephesians 7:2)

“He underwent all these sufferings for us, so that we might be saved; and He truly suffered, just as He truly raised Himself, not as some unbelievers contend, when they say that His passion was merely in appearance. It is they who exist only in appearance; and as their notion, so shall it happen to them: they will be bodiless and ghost-like shapes. I know and believe that He was in the flesh even after the resurrection. And when He came to those with Peter He said to them: ‘Here, now, touch Me, and see that I am not a bodiless ghost.’ Immediately they touched Him and, because of the merging of His flesh and spirit, they believed. For the same reason they despised death and in fact were proven superior to death. After His resurrection He ate and drank with them as a being of flesh, although He was united in spirit to the Father.” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 2:1-3)

Here Ignatius is speaking against the heresy of docetism, which was the teaching that Christ’s body was not human but either a phantasm or of real but celestial substance, and that therefore his sufferings were only apparent.

One more I’ll share from the Epistle to Polycarp:

“Become more diligent than you are. Observe well the times. Look for Him that is above seasons, timeless; invisible, yet, for our sakes, becoming visible; who cannot be touched; who cannot suffer, yet, for our sakes, accepted suffering, and who on our account endured everything.” (Letter to Polycarp 3:2)

Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69 – c. 155)

Polycarp was also a great martyr for the Church. We have some of his writing in his Epistle to the Philippians. And he is also known through a document about his death called the Martyrdom of Polycarp. The account is quite miraculous and dramatic. I’ll share part of it:

“And he, placing his hands behind him, and being bound like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God, looked up to heaven, and said,”

“‘O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before you, I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.’”

“When he had pronounced this amen, and so finished his prayer, those who were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we, to whom it was given to witness it, beheld a great miracle, and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace. Moreover, we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.”

“At length, when those wicked men perceived that his body could not be consumed by the fire, they commanded an executioner to go near and pierce him through with a dagger. And on his doing this, there came forth a dove, and a great quantity of blood, so that the fire was extinguished; and all the people wondered that there should be such a difference between the unbelievers and the elect, of whom this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna. For every word that went out of his mouth either has been or shall yet be accomplished.”

Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165)

Justin Martyr is one of this next generation of Church Fathers with whom we see a great focus on apologetics. Two of his most significant works are First Apology and Dialogue with Trypho. Both are works of apologetics.

Justin was trained as a philosopher prior to his conversion to Christianity and he brought a philosopher’s way of thinking to Christian apologetics. For example, he bridged the philosophical concept of logos, reason and intelligibility, with the Christian doctrine of Logos as the person of Jesus Christ. For example, he said in his First Apology:

“We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them” (Apol. I, 46)

The Apology also has some interesting and important information about the Eucharist and moral standards of the Christians of the second century. One highlight:

“We who formerly delighted in fornication now cleave only to chastity. We who exercised the magic arts now consecrate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God. We who valued above all else the acquisition of wealth and property now direct all that we have to a common fund, which is shared with every needy person. We who hated and killed one another, and who, because of differing customs, would not share a fireside with those of another race, now, after the appearance of Christ, live together with them. We pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who unjustly hate us that, if they live according to the excellent precepts of Christ, they will have a good hope of receiving the same reward as ourselves, from the God who governs all.” (Apol. I, 14)

Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho is a dialogue, through the persons of Justin and Trypho, between Christianity and Judaism. The Dialogue includes in its first few chapters an account of Justin’s early philosophical education and his conversion to Christianity. He had searched for truth among Stoics, Peripatetics, Pythagoreans, Platonists. His conversion came with a chance meeting on the sea-shore with an elderly man, a Christian, who told him that the truth he sought could be obtained only by divine revelation. Here’s a part of the Dialogue:

“Old Man: There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them, although, indeed, they were entitled to credit on account of the miracles which they performed, since they both glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed His Son, the Christ [sent] by Him: which, indeed, the false prophets, who are filled with the lying unclean spirit, neither have done nor do, but venture to work certain wonderful deeds for the purpose of astonishing men, and glorify the spirits and demons of error. But pray that, above all things, the gates of light may be opened to you; for these things cannot be perceived or understood by all, but only by the man to whom God and His Christ have imparted wisdom.”

“Justin: When he had spoken these and many other things, which there is no time for mentioning at present, he went away, bidding me attend to them; and I have not seen him since. But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me; and while revolving his words in my mind, I found this philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher. Moreover, I would wish that all, making a resolution similar to my own, do not keep themselves away from the words of the Saviour. For they possess a terrible power in themselves, and are sufficient to inspire those who turn aside from the path of rectitude with awe; while the sweetest rest is afforded those who make a diligent practice of them. If, then, you have any concern for yourself, and if you are eagerly looking for salvation, and if you believe in God, you may— since you are not indifferent to the matter — become acquainted with the Christ of God, and, after being initiated, live a happy life.” (Dialogue with Trypho, 7-8)

I love Justin’s account and find in him a kindred spirit. He is a philosopher because he is a seeker. And I admire his humility in recognizing that a person cannot obtain knowledge independently, without it being imparted by God. And I very much relate to that experience when he says, “But straightway a flame was kindled in my soul; and a love of the prophets, and of those men who are friends of Christ, possessed me.” Yes. That fire of Spirit being kindled in the soul. That’s where it’s at.

Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 202)

Irenaeus has actually been in the news recently because Pope Francis just this year officially made him a Doctor of the Church. On January 21, 2022. I think everyone had assumed he already was one before that. But now it’s official. Irenaeus was also a kind of apologist but more specifically against Christian heresies. In particular he wrote against Gnostic Christian heresies. His great work was Against Heresies.

What stands out to me about Irenaeus is his continuity with the other Church Fathers, the Apostles, and the earliest Christian texts that we now have in the New Testament. There’s a narrative about early Christianity that what we now call “orthodox” Christian doctrine should, in the context of the first and second centuries, only be called “proto-orthodox”, because it was one of several competing Christianities. This is the view of New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. I have nothing but high regard for Ehrman’s scholarship and I’ve learned a lot from reading his work on the New Testament. But I don’t find that particular idea very convincing. For one thing, as a believing Christian I have an understanding of orthodoxy as something objectively true, regardless of whatever competing views may have been around. But even beyond that, I think Irenaeus himself made a good case that the Gnostics were the ones coming out of left field, whereas the teachers of orthodoxy had a continuous line of authority and tradition going back to Jesus and his Apostles. The oldest documents by the people closest to Jesus are orthodox in their doctrine. All the Gnostic documents come later. And this, I think, is Irenaeus’s strongest point:

“For all these [heretics] are of much later date than are the bishops to whom the Apostles handed over the Churches; and this fact I pointed out most carefully in the third book. It is of necessity, then, that these aforementioned heretics, because they are blind to the truth, walk in various and devious paths; and on this account the vestiges of their doctrine are scattered about without agreement or connection. The path of those, however, who belong to the Church, goes around the whole world; for it has the firm tradition of the Apostles, enabling us to see that the faith of all is one and the same.” (Against Heresies, 5,20,1)

Gnosticism was highly varied and Irenaeus documented much of that diversity. The 20th century discoveries of the Nag Hammadi documents, which included Gnostics texts, corroborated many of Irenaeus’s accounts of Gnostic ideas which, though he disagreed with them, he actually portrayed fairly and accurately. Some common Gnostic ideas include that the material world was created by an incompetent deity, who was lower in status than the higher deities. Gnosticism disparaged Judaism and the God of the Hebrew Bible. They understood Jesus to be one who imparted secret knowledge, gnosis, that would enable the elect to escape from materiality. Irenaeus would have none of this.

“It is possible, then, for everyone in every Church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the Apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the Apostles, and their successors to our own times: men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about. For if the Apostles had known hidden mysteries which they taught to the elite secretly and apart from the rest, they would have handed them down especially to those very ones to whom they were committing the self-same Churches. For surely they wished all those and their successors to be perfect and without reproach, to whom they handed on their authority.” (Against Heresies, 3,1,1)

“The true gnosis is the doctrine of the Apostles, and the ancient organization of the Church throughout the whole world, and the manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of bishops, by which successions the bishops have handed down the Church which is found everywhere; and the very complete tradition of the Scriptures, which have come down to us by being guarded against falsification, and which are received without addition or deletion; and reading without falsification, and a legitimate and diligent exposition according to the Scriptures, without danger and without blasphemy; and the pre-eminent gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and more honored than all the other charismatic gifts.” (Against Heresies, 4,33,8)

One of the ideas I especially like from Irenaeus is that the Christian Gospel is not elitist. There is not a superior, secret version that is taught only to the most intelligent and superior people. It is taught openly. It’s not about trying to get some secret knowledge. Along with Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, Irenaeus affirms that “the pre-eminent gift of love” is a “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31) “more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and more honored than all the other charismatic gifts”.

Tertullian of Carthage (c. 155 – c. 222)

I wondered whether I should include Tertullian in this introduction because in one respect he was the complete opposite of Irenaeus: by the end of his life Tertullian was a heretic. But I include him for two reasons. The first is that his contributions to Christian theology when he was orthodox were substantial and significant. The second is that the way he became a heretic is quite interesting and instructive.

Tertullian was highly intelligent, prolific, eloquent, and feisty. He was the kind of person you’d want on your side in a debate. His Latin style was superb. And he was highly adept in Roman legal styles of argumentation. Some of his major works include: The Apology, Ad Nationes, On Prayer, On Patience, On Repentance, and On Baptism. His writing is often entertaining but also very edifying. Some famous passages from The Apology:

“If the Tiber rises to the city walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the weather continues without change, if there is an earthquake, if famine, if pestilence, immediately, “Christians to the lion!” So many for one beast?” (The Apology 40,1)

“Crucify us, torture us, condemn us, destroy us! Your wickedness is the proof of our innocence, for which reason does God suffer us to suffer this.. Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, accomplish anything: rather, it is an enticement to our religion. The more we are hewn down by you, the more numerous do we become. The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians!” (The Apology, 50,12)

Some of Tertullian’s feisty side. There’s also this passage on Christian character, which is quite moving:

“Now I myself will explain the practices of the Christian society.…We are a body joined together by religious conviction, unity of discipline, and by hope. We assemble in a meeting and comprise a congregation, so that we might surround God with our prayers, as if by force of arms. Such violence is pleasing to God. We pray even for the emperors, for their ministers and those in power, for the condition of the world, that peace may prevail, and that the end may be stayed. We assemble to recall the divine Scriptures, if any condition of the present times makes it needful to be forewarned or to reflect. And in any case, with holy words we nourish our faith, uplift our hope, strengthen our trust, and confirm the discipline by the inculcating of precepts. In the same place there are exhortations, corrections and divine censure. Judgment is passed with the greatest of gravity, as among men who are certain of the presence of God; and it is the greatest foretaste of the future judgment, when anyone has sinned so grievously that he is cut off from communication in prayer and assembly and from every holy transaction. Certain approved elders preside, who have received that honor not for a price but by the witness of character; for nothing that pertains to God is to be had for a price. Even if there is some kind of a treasury, it is not made up of huge grants, as if they were the price of religion. Each one puts in a small amount on the monthly day, or when he wishes, accordingly as he wishes and is able. No one is compelled, and it is given freely. These are, as it were, the deposits of piety. For they are not expended therefrom on feasts and drinking parties and in thankless houses of gluttony, but for the support and burial of the poor, for boys and girls without parents and destitute of means, for the aged quietly confined to their homes, for the shipwrecked; and if there are any in the mines or in the islands or in the prisons, if it be for the reason that they are worshippers of God, then they become the foster-sons of their confession. But it is mainly the practice of such a love which leads some to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’; for they themselves hate each other. ‘And how ready they are to die for one another,’ they themselves being more inclined to kill each other. (The Apology, 38,1-7)

Some comments on Tertullian’s heresy. He eventually followed a movement known as the Montanists, named after its charismatic founder Montanus. Won’t get into the details of Montanism at the moment but what’s interesting about Tertullian’s trajectory is that you can track his slide into heresy by the increasing rigor and extremism of his ideas. Scholars divide his work into three periods:

Catholic period (197 – 206)
Semi-Montanist period (206 – 212)
Montanist period (213 – 220)

William Jurgens describes his Semi-Montanist period as one “marked by rigorist tendencies and a developing attitude of anticlericalism” and the Montanist period in which “his rigorism has become extreme, his anti-clericalism has reached the point of invective”. (The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 111-112) Works from his full Montanist period include On Monogamy, in which he condemned re-marriage even after the death of a spouse, Flight in Time of Persecution, in which he condemns those who flee persecution, and On Modesty, in which he declared that there is no forgiveness for the gravest sins. It’s interesting to me that Tertullian’s heresy was marked by increasing rigor and extremism. These days we usually think of heresy as compromising and softening of the hard doctrines. And it can certainly take that form and often does. But extremism and ratcheting rigor is an especially dangerous path to heresy because it can seem like ever-increasing enlightenment and religiosity, even as it is actually leading away from God.

All that being said, the earlier Tertullian was a remarkable man and a devoted Christian whose writings are inspiring, instructive, and edifying. Well worth reading.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215)

Clement is regarded as one of the most intellectual of the Early Church Fathers. He was well educated in and knowledgeable of the philosophy of his day. Residing in Alexandria, he confronted numerous heresies that were rampant in that city. But he also had to confront an overreaction among orthodox Christians under his influence who, wary of philosophically-influenced heresies, had retreated into anti-intellectualism. Critics of Christianity were already accusing Christians of being simplistic and anti-intellectual. So it was up to Clement to confront heresy but also defend the use of the intellect and philosophy to Christians. He was adept at this. But what I also admire about Clement is that for all his familiarity with contemporary philosophy he was still grounded primarily in the scriptures. In his four major extant works he quotes the New Testament 3000 times and the Hebrew Bible 1500 times. Historian Robert Louis Wilken, in his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought commented on this heavy use of scripture among the Church Fathers generally:

“I have tried to give a sense of how fresh, even astonishing, the Bible appeared to thinkers schooled in ancient literature. The Scriptures disclosed a world unlike anything they had known before, and reading and expounding the Bible left a lasting imprint on their vocabulary and altered their patterns of thought.”

“As intellectuals formed by the classical tradition, the first Christian thinkers belonged to a learned and contented club, secure in the confidence they knew whatever was useful to know… Yet when they took the Bible in hand they were overwhelmed. It came upon them like a torrent leaping down the side of a mountain. Once they got beyond its plain style they sensed they had entered a new and mysterious world more alluring than anything they had known before.”

For Wilken this was especially true of Clement:

“How fresh the water of the Bible seeped drop by drop into the mind of the early church can be observed best in the writings of Clement of Alexandria… In Clement’s writings the Bible emerges for the first time as the foundation of a Christian culture. His writings are suffused with its language, its forms of expressions, its images and metaphors, its stories.”

“Clement cites Greek literature to illustrate a point, to give flourish to an argument, to delight and amuse his readers. When he cites the Scriptures there is a sense of discovery, that something extraordinary is to be learned in its pages, that it is not one book among many.”

William Jurgens summarized the thrust of Clement’s thought as a deep concern with “the educative function of the Logos, the Divine Word, throughout the history of mankind”. In this he was very similar to Justin Martyr. A few characteristic quotes:

“The Word, then, the Christ, is the cause both of our ancient beginning—for He was in God—and of our well-being. And now this same Word has appeared as man. He alone is both God and man, and the source of all our good things. It is by Him that we are taught to live well and then are sent along to life eternal.… He is the New Song, the manifestation which has now been made among us, of the Word which existed in the beginning and before the beginning. The Savior, who existed before, has only lately appeared. He that has appeared is in Him that is; for the Word that was with God, the Word by whom all things were made, has appeared as our Teacher; and He, who bestowed life upon us in the beginning, when, as our Creator, He formed us, now that He has appeared as our Teacher, has taught us to live well so that, afterwards, as God, He might furnish us abundantly with eternal life.” (Exhortation to the Greeks, 1,7,1-3)

“When the loving and benevolent Father had rained down the Word, that Word then became the spiritual nourishment of those who have good sense. O mystic wonder! The Father of all is indeed one, one also is the universal Word, and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere.…  The Word is everything to a child: both Father and Mother, both Instructor and Nurse. ‘Eat My Flesh,’ He says, ‘and drink My Blood.’ The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutriments. He delivers over His Flesh, and pours out His Blood; and nothing is lacking for the growth of His children. O incredible mystery!” (The Instructor of Children, 1,6,41,3)

“But that man in whom reason (λόγος) dwells is not shifty, not pretentious, but has the form dictated by reason (λόγος) and is like God. He is beautiful, and does not feign beauty. That which is true is beautiful; for it, too, is God. Such a man becomes God because God wills it. [2, 1] Rightly, indeed, did Heraclitus say: ‘Men are gods, and gods are men; for the same reason (λόγος) is in both.’ That this is a mystery is clear: God is in a man, and a man is God, the Mediator fulfilling the will of the Father. The Mediator is the Word (Λόγος) who is common to both, being the Son of God and the Savior of men.” (The Instructor of Children, 3,1,1,5)

And then a couple more quotes just to get a feel for his writing and thought:

“For into all men in general, and indeed, most particularly into those who are engaged in intellectual pursuits, a certain divine emanation has been instilled, by reason of which they confess, if somewhat reluctantly, that God is one, indestructible and unbegotten, and that somewhere above in the heavenly regions, in His proper and familiar vantage point, He truly and eternally exists.” (Exhortation to the Greeks, 6,68,2-3)

“When we are baptized, we are enlightened. Being enlightened, we are adopted as sons. Adopted as sons, we are made perfect. Made perfect, we are become immortal. ‘I say,’ he declares, ‘you are gods and sons all of the Most High.’ This work is variously called grace, illumination, perfection, and washing. It is a washing by which we are cleansed of sins; a gift of grace by which the punishments due our sins are remitted; an illumination by which we behold that holy light of salvation—that is, by which we see God clearly; and we call that perfection which leaves nothing lacking. Indeed, if a man know God, what more does he need? Certainly it were out of place to call that which is not complete a true gift of God’s grace. Because God is perfect, the gifts He bestows are perfect.” (The Instructor of Children, 1,6,21,1-2)

Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 – c. 254)

Origen is the last of the Church Fathers for this introduction. Origen was also a diligent scholar and extremely prolific. His largest work, the Hexapla, is no longer extant in its entirety but we know what it was and it must have been massive. The Hexapla was a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible with six versions of the text lined up in columns. The six versions were:

1. the Hebrew consonantal text
2. the Hebrew text transliterated into Greek
3. the translation of Aquila of Sinope into Greek (2nd century)
4. the translation of Symmachus the Ebionite into Greek (late 2nd century)
5. a critical edition of the Greek Septuagint showing differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew text
6. the translation of Theodotion into Greek (mid 2nd century)

Clearly, this was a massive scholarly undertaking. Especially considering that this would all have been done by hand.

Two other important works by Origen that we do have are Against Celsus and On the First Principles.

Against Celsus was a work of apologetics responding to criticism from the philosopher Celsus. Celsus’s criticisms were challenging and, to many, intimidating. As a man of learning and eloquence Celsus’s challenge that no self-respecting philosopher of the Platonic tradition would ever be so stupid as to become a Christian required a response from someone of Origen’s intellectual stature. And Origen proved himself up to the challenge and well in the same league as Christianity’s sophisticated critics. After Origen it was no longer possible to so easily dismiss Christian thought.

On the First Principles was arguably the most comprehensive work of systematic theology written up to that time. It’s a marvelous text and one that, even in our day of digital texts – ebooks and pdfs – I have selected to have in print on my bookshelf.

Some selections. First, here’s an example of Origen’s overview of the basic Christian teachings:

“The specific points which are clearly handed down through the apostolic preaching are these: First, that there is one God who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into existence; … and that in the final period this God, just as He had promised beforehand through the Prophets, sent the Lord Jesus Christ.… Secondly, that Jesus Christ Himself, who came, was born of the Father before all creatures; and after He had ministered to the Father in the creation of all things,—for through Him were all things made,—in the final period he emptied Himself and was made man. Although He was God, He took flesh; and having been made man, He remained what He was, God. He took a body like our body, differing only in this, that it was born of a Virgin and the Holy Spirit. Moreover, this Jesus Christ was truly born and truly suffered; and He endured this ordinary death, not in mere appearance, but did truly die; for He truly rose again from the dead, and after His resurrection He conversed with His disciples, and was taken up. Third, they handed it down that the Holy Spirit is associated in honor and dignity with the Father and the Son.” (On the First Principles, 1, Preface, 4)

In his systematic theology he touched on many significant philosophical points. For example, free will and choice:

“After these points, it is taught also that the soul, having a substance and life proper to itself, shall, after its departure from this world, be rewarded according to its merits. It is destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its deeds shall have procured this for it, or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments, if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this. And it is also taught that there will be a time for the resurrection of the dead, when this body which is now sown in corruption will rise in incorruption, and that which is sown in dishonor will rise in glory. This also is clearly defined in ecclesiastical teaching, that every rational soul has free will and choice; also, that it has a struggle against the devil and his angels and opposing powers, in which they strive to burden it with sins, while we, if we live rightly and properly, should endeavor to shake ourselves free of any such disgrace. Whence it follows also that we do not understand ourselves as being subject to necessity, so as to be entirely compelled, even against our will, to do either evil or good. For while we make our own decisions, some powers may perhaps impel us to sin, and others help us to salvation. We are not, however, forced by necessity to act either rightly or wrongly, as is maintained by those who say that the course and movement of the stars is the cause of human actions, and not only of those events which take place apart from the freedom of choice, but of those also which are placed within our power.” (On the First Principles, 1, Preface, 5)

He also developed ideas and explanations of the nature of God:

“Since our mind is in itself unable to behold God Himself as He is, it knows the Father of the universe from the beauty of His works and from the elegance of His creatures. God, therefore, is not to be thought of as being either a body or as existing in a body, but as a simple intellectual Being, admitting within Himself no addition of any kind. Thus, He cannot be believed to have within Himself something greater and something lesser. Rather, He is in every part μονἀς [alone] and, so to speak, ἑνάς [the One]. He is the mind and source from which every intellectual being or mind takes its beginning.” (On the First Principles, 1,1,6)

“John says in the Gospel, ‘No one has at any time seen God,’ clearly declaring to all who are able to understand, that there is no nature to which God is visible: not as if He were indeed visible by nature, and merely escaped or baffled the view of a frailer creature, but because He is by nature impossible to be seen. And if you should ask of me what I think even of the Only-begotten Himself, whether I could say that the nature of God, which is naturally invisible, is not visible even to Him, let not such a question seem to you to be at once either impious or absurd: for we will give you a logical answer. For it is just as unsuitable to say that the Son is able to see the Father, as it is unbecoming to suppose that the Holy Spirit is able to see the Son. It is one thing to see, another to know. To see and to be seen belongs to bodies. To know and to be known belongs to an intellectual being. That, therefore, which is proper to bodies, is not to be attributed to either the Father or to the Son; but that which pertains to deity is common to the Father and the Son. Finally, even He Himself did not say in the Gospel that no one has seen the Father except the Son, nor anyone the Son except the Father. But He did say, ‘No one knows the Son except the Father, nor does anyone know the Father except the Son.’ By this it is clearly indicated that whatever among corporal natures is called seeing and being seen, is termed, between the Father and the Son, knowing and being known—by means of the power of knowledge, and not by the frail sense of sight. Inasmuch, then, as neither seeing nor being seen can be properly predicated of an incorporeal and invisible being, neither is the Father, in the Gospel, said to be seen by the Son, nor the Son by the Father; rather, They are said to be known.” (One the First Principles, 1,1,8)

Origin, unlike Tertullian, never fell into heresy and was always in communion and good standing with the Church. Some of his ideas were later deemed unorthodox but they had not been so determined during his lifetime. After his death there were groups of people called “Origenists” who persisted in holding to unorthodox ideas not upheld by the Church. But this was not something that Origen himself ever did. He always strove to follow and teach correct doctrine and be in conformity with the Church.

Conclusion

When it comes to ancient history we never have as much documentation and information as we would like. But with early Church history we are actually quite fortunate to have a fair amount. It certainly helped that the documents were treasured and revered with literally religious devotion by people who preserved, copied, and distributed these documents throughout the Christian world. So we know a fair amount. There’s plenty there for any one person to devote an entire lifetime of study toward and never exhaust. Even after reading a text that’s merely the beginning of a process of digging into its profundities.

I think these ancient texts can be as instructive or even more instructive than many modern ideas. It’s interesting to me how the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s combined both aggiornamento, “updating”, with ressourcement, a return to the sources in scripture and these Church Fathers. Theology develops but, paradoxically, inspiration for the future often comes from the past. In the case of the Church Fathers their ability to inspire and guide us is rich indeed. 

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