Patristics/Church History

Why You Should Read the Fathers of the Church

by Steve Ray on March 13, 2019

Written by Dr. David Tamisiea from St. Philip Institute. It is a nice introduction to the Fathers of the Church – the guys that made me Catholic. For the whole article, click here.

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Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 5.38.11 PMThe terms “Fathers of the Church,” “Church Fathers,” “early Church Fathers,” or simply “the Fathers,” are used by Catholics and other Christians to refer to the outstanding teachers of the Christian faith from antiquity. The underlying idea behind calling these men “Fathers” is that a teacher of the Christian faith is a spiritual father who helps give spiritual birth to those who receive his teaching.

St. Paul, for example, claims to be a spiritual father to those who receive the Gospel through his ministry: “I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (1 Cor 4:14–15). St. Irenaeus (c. 125 – 202 ad), a Church Father himself, explains the idea of spiritual fatherhood in his famous work Against the Heresies: “For when any person has been taught from the mouth of another, he is termed the son of him who instructs him, and the latter [is called] his father” (IV, 41, 2).

There are literally hundreds of Church Fathers whose writings could easily fill up an entire library all by themselves. The Fathers are generally divided into two major groups: The Greek or Eastern Church Fathers, and the Latin or Western Church Fathers. The Greek or Eastern Church Fathers are those outstanding Christian authors who lived in the Eastern part of the ancient Christian world. Most of these men wrote in Greek, although there are some Eastern Fathers who wrote in Syriac, in Coptic, or in Armenian.

The most significant Eastern Fathers are St. Irenaeus, St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, and the three Cappadocian Fathers, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. Gregory of Nyssa.

46739The Latin or Western Church Fathers are those Fathers found in the Western part of the ancient Christian world, all of whom wrote in Latin. The most important Western Fathers include St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great. Most of the Church Fathers are bishops (e.g., St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom), but there are also a few popes (e.g., St. Clement of Rome, St. Leo the Great, St. Gregory the Great), some priests (e.g., St. Jerome), some deacons (e.g., St. Ephrem the Syrian), and even a few laymen (e.g., St. Justin Martyr).

There are three really good reasons for why you should read the Church Fathers. First, there is tremendous value in reading works written by authors who lived at a time and in a place other than our own. The great Christian author C.S. Lewis, in his introduction to the Church Father St. Athanasius’ great work, On the Incarnation, recommends that everyone regularly read some of “the old books” to balance the reading of modern works. As Lewis explains, every age is especially good at seeing certain truths, and each has its characteristic blindness that prevents it from seeing its own errors and faults.

“The only palliative,” he says, “is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” When we read “the old books,” we can receive the knowledge and wisdom of earlier ages that enable us both to grasp forgotten truths and better recognize the errors of our time. Lewis suggests that a good rule of thumb is that, after reading a contemporary book, never allow yourself to read another one until you have read an “old book” in between. But this rule about reading “the old books” extends beyond the Church Fathers to all the great books of earlier ages. So why read the Church Fathers in particular?

The second and more specific, reason you should read the Church Fathers is to become better equipped to defend your Catholic faith from its detractors. As Catholics, we have a serious obligation to know our faith, to share it with others, and, when necessary, to defend it against distortions, misrepresentations, and other forms of attack: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15).

Do you want to show a friend that the Catholic Mass is in essence the very same form of worship practiced by the early Christians? Read and then share with your friend St. Justin Martyr’s account in his First Apologia (c. 155 ad) sent to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, explaining how Christians actually worship by celebrating the Mass (I, 65–67).

download (1)What if someone objects to the Catholic doctrine on the papacy as a post-Constantinian perversion? Read and then share with the person St. Clement of Rome’s First Letter to the Corinthians (c. 92 – 101 ad), where St. Clement, as Bishop of Rome and the fourth pope, in the first century answers an appeal by the Church of Corinth to intervene in a dispute there over whether laymen can take the place of the priests in celebrating the Eucharist (Note: he says no).

If that does not convince, then read and share St. Irenaeus of Lyons’ work Against the Heresies, where he stresses that Christian orthodoxy depends upon union with the Church of Rome, “It is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority” (III. 3).

ignatiusantioch-lions-360What about someone who claims the Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is just a medieval creation? First read and then share with that person St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Philadelphians (c. 117 ad), where he writes to an early Christian community on his journey toward martyrdom in Rome, “Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup that leads to unity through his blood” (No. 4), or again share St. Justin Martyr’s First Apology where he explains to the Roman Emperor the Christian belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, “This food is called among us the Eucharist. … For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh” (I, 66).

While it is true that Catholic doctrines on the papacy, Eucharist, devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, Sacred Tradition, infant Baptism, the necessity of faith and works, and the like, are not found in the full developed form of later ages, the essential elements of each of these is present from the very beginning, just awaiting the Church’s deeper insight, fuller understanding, and further development.

download (2)As Bl. John Henry Newman observes in his masterful work, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, just as a seed grows into a full-grown tree and a child into a man over time, and yet each remains essentially the same thing, so too authentic Christian doctrines grow and develop over the centuries while preserving their original type or essence. Indeed, for Newman, it was reading the Fathers that led to his conversion to Catholicism from Anglicanism: “I am not ashamed still to take my stand upon the Fathers, and do not mean to budge. … The Fathers made me a Catholic” (Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching, pp 357, 376).

The third reason for reading the Church Fathers is probably the most important of all: to deepen and enrich your faith. The Church Fathers, together with the Apostles, are rightly considered the “Founding Fathers” of the Church, who helped to lay the foundations of Christianity at the very beginning by teaching, explaining, defending, and spreading the saving truths of the Gospel. I recall when I began in earnest to read the Church Fathers in graduate school, it was as if a whole new world was being opened up to me: the same will hold true for you as well.

By reading the Fathers, you will most certainly become a much better informed, knowledgeable, and faithful Catholic. St. John Paul II explains why the Church Fathers are so important to the faith of the Church: “The Church still lives today by the life received from her Fathers and on the foundation erected by her first builders she is still being built today in the joy and sorrow of her journeying and daily toil. … Guided by these certainties, the Church never tires of returning to their writings – full of wisdom and incapable of growing old – and of constantly renewing their memory” (Patres Ecclesiae 1).

For the whole article, click here.

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A Critique of William Webster’s article: The Eucharist

Steve Ray here: I have tangled with William Webster often in the past. You can read my debates with him at www.CatholicConvert.com/resources under the heading “My Books, Talks & DVDs: Reviews and Defense. Go to the end of the list.

Screen Shot 2019-03-02 at 3.16.44 PMBut this article, response and critique of William Webster was written by my good friend and apologist Gary Michuta. If you don’t him, it would be smart to get to know him. He is a great guy and a marvelous defender of the Catholic Faith.

William Webster, in his article “the Eucharist” attempts to pit the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Eucharist (among others) against the teaching of the early Church Fathers in regards to the substantial Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the Eucharist as a sacrifice, two doctrines that Webster rightly sees has interdependent.

This is not light reading but it is thorough and detailed. If you are interested in the foundations of our beliefs on the Eucharist as found in Scripture and the Early Church– and how Protestants try to twist the writings of the Fathers — you will thoroughly enjoy Gary’s defense.

(For more about Gary Michuta, his radio show, his books and his excellent apologetics, visit his website Hands On Apologetics)

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Webster says that:

“The Roman Catholic Church teaches that when the priest utters the words of consecration, the bread and wine are changed into the literal body and blood of Christ. He is then offered to God on the altar as a propitiatory sacrifice for sin.

The Council of Trent explicitly states that ‘in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner who once offered himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross’. There are thus two aspects of the Roman doctrine: transubstantiation, which guarantees the ‘real presence’ of Christ; and the mass, in which Christ, thus present bodily, is re-offered to God as a sacrifice.”

Before continuing, it’s important to correct Mr. Webster in that we do not believe that the bread and wine are changed into the literal body and blood of Christ, but rather that their substance is changed into the substance of Christ, body, blood, soul, and divinity. Hence the name “transubstantiation.” If Mr. Webster’s description were accurate, we would have flesh and blood on our altars after consecration.

My correction may seem like nit-picking, but as we will soon see the theology concerning the Eucharist is complex and at points very subtle. We are describing a supernatural reality and it requires us to use precise language. Otherwise, confusion results. Unfortunately, this is not the only time Mr. Webster fails to speak with the precision necessary for this topic.

Mr. Webster continues by arguing that since transubstantiation “is not the only view which has been expressed in a consistent way throughout the history of the Church” the Catholic position cannot be said to be that of the early Church because “the Fathers of the first four centuries reveal…[a] diversity of opinion.”

To his credit, Webster does concede that there were early Church fathers who “maintained that the elements are changed into Christ’s body and blood and that his presence is physical.” In other words, they affirmed what Trent taught. However, he argues that this was only one of several (contradictory?) opinions.

The main difficulty in Webster’s argument is that he has over-simplified what the Catholic Church actually does teach about the Eucharist, which is considerably more complex and fuller than mere Transubstantiation. The same can be said about the Eucharistic sacrifice. By presenting a stick-figure presentation of the Church’s position, he is able to present quotes from the Early Church fathers that supposedly express other views than that of the bare notion of Transubstantiation. Therefore, he wrongly concludes, the early Church did not fully agree with the Catholic position.

The best way to refute this argument is to present a fuller and more comprehensive summary of what the Church does believe about the Eucharist. Once this is done the tension that some of these quotes seem to have with Catholic teaching will disappear.

WHAT THE CHURCH ACTUALLY TEACHES AND BELIEVES

First, the Church teaches that the Eucharist is one of the seven Sacraments. What is a Sacrament? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (CCC 1131, emphasis added).

What’s important here is that all the Sacraments are visible signs (or symbols, if you will) instituted by Christ to give grace (his divine life). Although they are all signs or symbols, they are not merely signs or symbols; they are “efficacious signs” in that they both “signify and make present the graces” they signify. For example, the efficacious sign of Baptism is water. That is the outward sign of that Sacrament. The sign or symbol of Baptism, the washing of water, points to what the Sacrament does, namely, it cleanses us from sin.

There are two aspects to every sacrament, the outward visible sign and the inward invisible reality accomplishes. The sign or symbolic aspect of a Sacrament is very important since it points the graces that are proper to the sacrament.

This is not a new idea. The older Catechism of the Council of Trent (or the Roman Catechism) says:

“But of the many definitions, each of them sufficiently appropriate, which may serve to explain the nature of a Sacrament, there is none more comprehensive, none more perspicuous, than the definition given by St. Augustine and adopted by all scholastic writers. A Sacrament, he says, is a sign of a sacred thing; or, as it has been expressed in other words of the same import: A Sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace, instituted for our justification” (RC, Part II)(emphasis mine).

Here again, a Sacrament as a “visible sign of an invisible grace.” In regards to the Eucharist, the Catechism of the Council of Trent says:

“Besides the different significations already mentioned, a Sacrament also not infrequently indicates and marks the presence of more than one thing. This we readily perceive when we reflect that the Holy Eucharist at once signifies the presence of the real body and blood of Christ and the grace which it imparts to the worthy receiver of the sacred mysteries…”

Here the Roman Catechism spells out the two things signified by the Eucharistic elements, namely (1) the presence of the real body and blood of Christ and (2) the grace which it imparts. Webster focuses on the first part (the substantial presence), but completely ignores the second part – what the grace does or imparts to the recipient.

Therefore, we can break the teaching down into various elements:

Outward Sign Bread and Wine Signifies physical nourishment
Signifies Christ’s body and blood (death) [1]
Invisible Reality The whole Christ: body, blood, soul, and divinity. Spiritual nourishment
The substantial Presence of Christ

 

As you can see, the Eucharist is much more complex than mere Transubstantiation. We can speak about it in terms of its elements (bread and wine), their signification (food and drink, signs of figures of Christ’s body and blood), their invisible reality (Christ), and the graces that the Sacrament brings about (spiritual nourishment and the substantial presence).

Since there are many distinctions here the Church wisely adopted a more precise way of referring to the Eucharist by using the philosophical terminology of Aristotle. The outward appearances are called accidents. That which stands under the accidences is the substance. How Christ gives us his flesh and blood is called the species. The change that occurs at consecration is called transubstantiation.

By using this terminology, it is very easy to understand what is being spoken about. The problem is, however, before this terminology became standardized in the Church, the early Church fathers made use of imprecise language in which it is not always easy to understand exactly what is being referenced. It is here that Mr. Webster focuses the bulk of his attention.

[1] The separate consecration of the bread and wine signify the separation of blood from the body, namely death. This is what is meant by “proclaiming the death of the Lord until he comes again” (1 Cor. 11:26) and perhaps Galatians 3:1.

For the whole article, click here.

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When I was last on Catholic Answers Live last week Constantine Regas called in to defend the Eastern Orthodox position against the Catholic Church’s teaching on Peter and the Primacy of Rome. Constantine’s words are in BLUE and my responses are in BLACK. I appreciated Constantine’s irenic tone and honest demeanor. 

CONSTANTINE REGAS (CR): I called the “Catholic Answers Live” show last Monday to clarify the Orthodox position on authority in the Church.

STEVE RAY (SR): I remember Constantine. And the studio cut us off before we got very far in our conversation.

CR: My exact question was that, if Christ gave St Peter the Keys to the Kingdom, why isn’t the current Bishop of Antioch the head of the universal Church since St Peter was the founding bishop of that city several years before he became the bishop of Rome? Part of your response was that he was also the first bishop of Jerusalem. The Apostle James was Jerusalem’s first bishop.

SR: Jesus promised him the keys to Peter in Matthew 16:19. The Royal Steward steps up to his position of authority when appointed, especially to fill in for the King in his absence. Once Jesus ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit fell Peter picked up those keys and exercised his authority on the day of Pentecost. From that point on we hear no words of the other Eleven. Except for Paul, none of the others have any recorded words in Acts. Peter is the Bishop, the Pope and the visible Head of the Church from that point.

In his massive history of the Church, Warren Carroll gives a very cogent outline of Peter’s movements. You can read this list here as I provided in my book Upon this Rock.

30 AD Death and Resurrection of Jesus
30-37 Peter head of the Church in Jerusalem
38-39 Peter’s Missionary journeys along Mediterranean Coast and Samaria
40-41 Peter in Antioch
42 Imprisonment in Jerusalem and departure to “another place.’
42-49 First sojourn to Rome
49 Expulsion from Rome by edict of Claudius
49-50 In Jerusalem for the Apostolic Council (Acts 15)
50–54 In Antioch, Bithynia, Pontus, Asia, and Cappadocia (or some of them)
54–57 Second sojourn in Rome; Gospel of Mark written under Peter’s direction
57–62 In Bithynia, Pontus, and Cappadocia (or some of them); Mark in Alexandria, Egypt
62–67 Third sojourn in Rome; canonical Epistles of Peter; Mark with Peter in Rome
67 Martyrdom in Rome and burial near the Necropolis at the Vatican

You say that the Apostle James was the first bishop of Jerusalem. If you referring to James the son of Zebedee, you are incorrect because he was killed by the sword about 42 AD as recorded in Acts 12:2. The James that became bishop of Jerusalem was James “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19). He was referred to as James the Righteous. He became bishop of Jerusalem after Peter’s departure for Antioch around 40-41.

Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom (an Eastern bishop) says, “‘And having spoken thus,’ the Evangelist declared, ‘he said, “Follow me.” ’ In these words He was once again referring indirectly to His solicitude for Peter and to the fact that He was on terms of intimate friendship with him. And, if someone should say: ‘How is it, then, that it was James who received the bishop’s chair in Jerusalem?’ I would make this reply: that Christ appointed this man [Peter], not merely to a chair, but as teacher of the world.” (John Chrysostom, Commentary on Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist: Homilies 48–88, trans. Thomas Aquinas Goggin, vol. 41, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1959), 473.)

Peter was the leader of Jerusalem for 10 years before going to Antioch for 2 years then ending up as the leader of the Church in Rome about 42 AD.

CR: The point I was making is that primacy of honor (not authority which rests with Christ alone) was given to the bishop of Rome because it was capital of the empire.

SR: Unfortunately, you are incorrect again. Never was the phrase “primacy of honor” used until after the Eastern churches broke away from Rome, took a new name (Orthodox) and used this phrase as a justification for rejecting the honorary and jurisdictional authority of Rome. One only needs to read history to find the Eastern churches in heresy for much of their existence and always depending on Rome to establish the truth of the faith and to appoint orthodox bishops in Eastern churches.

Rome was established as the See of Peter because Peter chose it to be. Jerusalem had become a backwater city after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus and the 10th Legion. Yes, Rome was the capital of the Empire and the hub of the wheel (“all roads lead to Rome”). Peter and Paul established the Church of Rome by their blood and it was by their appointment, the See of Peter and the Head of the Church.

Of course, Jesus is the head of the Church. But he left his royal steward with the keys of the kingdom as a visible head of the Church and a source of unity. There is no contradiction here.

CR: The second canon of the Second Ecumenical Council A.D. 381 explains this clearly. After the capital was moved to Constantinople, primacy of honor became shared. Feel free to investigate.

SR: I see you do not provide the quote from the source you cite. It is easy to say a council said this or that, but proving it is quite another thing. And claiming the primacy was “shared” is an eastern idea and refuted by the facts of the first 1000 years of the Church. This I have made abundantly clear in my book Upon this Rock.

Yet in that very Council, in the beginning of the very next Cano  it contradicts tour claim. Here is the except from that Canon of that Council:

Canon III
The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome; because Constantinople is New Rome.
Ancient Epitome of Canon III: The bishop of Constantinople is to be honoured next after the bishop of Rome.

CR: I also noticed that the above comment (among others) was edited out of yesterday’s rebroadcast.

SR: I am not aware of that, nor is that under my care. The sound techs at Catholic Answers Live handle what is posted in the podcast.

CR: One last point if I may: All the Eastern bishops can trace their authority back to one of the Apostles. The Vatican recognizes this and therefore acknowledges the validity of the Orthodox priesthood and sacraments.

SR: We have no argument here. That is why we consider the eastern churches to be legitimate churches. We don’t consider Protestants to be churches since they have lost the apostolic succession, which the Eastern Orthodox churches have maintained. However, that has nothing to do with the fact that Rome has the primacy both in honor and in jurisdiction. The Eastern churches are in schism and we all hope that one day there will again be unity.

St. Pope John Paul II said it best when he stated his desire that the Western and Eastern lungs be breathing together again in one united Body of Christ.

If you are interested in my thorough study on all of these matters, in which I interact a great deal with Orthodox theologians, I suggest you get my book referenced below.

I appreciate your irenic tone and honest discussion. God bless you my brother in Christ!

(Stephen K. Ray, Upon This Rock: St. Peter and the Primacy of Rome in Scripture and the Early Church, Modern Apologetics Library (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 67.)

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Feast of Chair of St. Peter: “Chair of Moses, Chair of Peter” Steve’s Article, YouTube Video and Resources

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