Copyright © By Dr. Adel Elsaie, Book Title: "History of Truth, The Truth about God and Religions"
6.8 The Fathers of the Church
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Clement of Alexandria
A father of the Church is a name given by the Christian Church to the writers who established the Christian doctrine. The writings of the Fathers consolidated Christian doctrine as found in the Bible, especially the Gospels, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, and decisions of Councils of Church. They provided an authoritative body of Christian teaching to the peoples of the Roman Empire. They also introduced ambiguous concepts and interpretations that had not been stated by Jesus himself. The Fathers of the Church consist of four Western Fathers, including Saints Ambrose, Augustine, Pope Gregory I, and Jerome, and four Eastern Fathers, including Saints Athanasius, Basil, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianzus. The earlier Eastern Fathers, including Clement of Alexandria, St. Justin Martyr, and Origen, were strongly influenced by Greek philosophy. The Western Fathers, however, including Tertullian and Saints Gregory I and Jerome, generally avoided the mixing of pagan and Christian theology. In the east, Clement and Origen preached a peaceful joyous return to God, but in the western Church a more frightening God demanded shocking death of his son as a condition of salvation.
It is important to know that when the Fathers of the Church were teaching Christianity, there was no official doctrine. No one knew for sure if Jesus was human, God, or the Son of God. No one knew for sure how a human being had been divine. No one knew for sure if God is one, two, or three. During that time Christianity was so vague to the extent that the preachers themselves were struggling to understand it. They were attempting to develop a Christian doctrine that can be reconciled with Jewish concepts and Greek philosophy. They had to do that to attract many Jewish and pagan converts to Christianity. All previous efforts to incorporate the Greek and the Roman cultures with the Judeo-Christians had provoked fierce resistance. The Jews fought placing of a statue of Zeus in the Temple. The Jews perceived the Roman Empire and the pagan society as intolerant and anti-Semitic. Educated Greeks and Romans thought of Judaism as a strange cult with no sacrifices except in Jerusalem, with weird food law excluding pork, with circumcision, and a distinctive calendar. The acceptance of the Gentile Christians without a requirement to observe the Mosaic Law seemed to the rabbis as excessive liberalism.
But persecution mainly came upon the Christians from the Roman government. Nero at Rome set the precedent in 64 when Paul was executed. Provincial governors soon followed Nero. The mere profession of Christianity was considered a crime. The Roman government ordered burning of all Christian texts. A Christian defendant could be set free by offering incense on a pagan altar, to refuse it was to suffer imprisonment, torture, being thrown to wild beast, or in the case of Roman citizen, being beheaded. When the Romans executed Christians, they were accused of atheism because their concept of divinity seriously offended the Roman tradition. Christianity seemed to the pagans as a barbarian creed that ignored the achievement of the civilized Romans. The persecution of Christians and burning their texts were on and off until the beginning of the fourth century. It was in the middle of this theological confusion, persecution, and burning of Christian texts that the doctrine of Christianity was established.
The Fathers of the Church attempted to answer the following questions:
What is Jesus?
Does Jesus have one or two natures?
Does Jesus have one or two wills?
Is the Son co-eternal with God or not?
What is the relation of Christ to God the father?
How could a human being incarnate the Logos?
What exactly did it mean that Jesus was a divine?
How could an omnipotent God have suffered in Jesus?
Is Jesus made of same or similar substance as that of God?
Did the Lord, to whom and through whom Christians pray, pray?
Was the Logos the same as such Biblical terms as Word or Wisdom?
What is the relation between the Logos and the concept of one God?
How can God be the father, son, and the holy spirit, and yet still be one?
How could Christians believe that Jesus was divine, and in the same time believe in one God?
Justin Martyr (100-165) was a philosopher, theologian, and one of the earliest apologists of the Christian church. He sought to reconcile Christian doctrine and pagan culture. He was born in Nabulus, West Bank in Palestine. His parents were pagans. As a young man Justin devoted himself to the study of Greek philosophy, notably the writings of Plato and the Stoic philosophers. However, he had clearly failed to understand what was involved in the Greek philosophy. He lacked the diligence and intelligence for philosophy. An elderly Christian converted him to Christianity. Justin moved on to Rome where he offered lectures in his own school on the Christian philosophy. He strove by his teachings and writings to bring others to the truths he had discovered. Justin was beheaded during the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius because he refused to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. Justin was included in the martyrology of the Roman Catholic Church in the ninth century.
The books that are credited to him with certainty are the two Apologies for the Christians, which consist of a defense of Christians against charges of atheism and rebellion in the Roman state, and the Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, which professes to be the record of an actual discussion at Ephesus. He maintained that the God of Plato is the same God of the Christians. Both Greek philosophers and Jewish prophets had prophesied the coming of Jesus. Abraham and Socrates were Christians before Christ! He also claimed that Jesus was the incarnation of the Logos, or the divine Word and Reason. Justin maintained the distinction of the Father as God transcendent from the Son as God. Like the Stoic philosophers, he believed that the logos had been active in the world since its beginning. One can easily see his ideas at the first verses of the Gospel of John. Justin probably knew the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He affected the thinking process of Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons.
Justin accepted the Apocalypse of John as inspired book and interpreted it to mean that Jesus would return to rebuild Jerusalem and reign for a thousand years. This was based on the Babylonian mythology of the concept of millennial periods of the seven planets. Justin understood Psalm 90:4 "For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past" to provide interpretation of the seven days of creation with the Sabbath as a divine day of rest. Irenaeus developed this notion further to suggest that the world history will last for six thousand years, followed by a seventh millennium of reign under Jesus. Very few Fathers of the Church accepted this version, but this notion persisted in the west.
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria (150? -215?), was a Greek theologian and an early Father of the Church. He was probably born in Athens and was educated at the catechetical school in Alexandria. Some time after Clement's conversion from paganism, he was ordained a presbyter. In about 190 he became the head of the catechetical school, which became famous under his leadership. During the persecution of the Christians, Clement moved from Alexandria to Caesarea. He was sometimes considered a saint; his name appeared in early Christian martyrology. Many scholars believe Clement to have been the founder of the Alexandrine school of theology. According to Clement's system of logic, the thought and will of God warns, educates, and perfects the true Christian. This process takes place in three stages, described in A Hortatory Address to the Greeks, The Tutor, and Miscellanies, Clement's major works. The first work is a defense of the faith; the second contains instructions in manners and morals; and the third is a discussion of various points of doctrinal theology. Clement had no doubt that Yahweh and the gods of the Greek philosophers were one and the same. Yet, Clement believed that Jesus was God, the living God that suffered and is worshipped. If Christians imitated Jesus, they too would become deified.
Clementís doctrine became fundamental to the Christian concept of God. Yet, his theology left many crucial unanswered questions about the relationship between God and Jesus. Later an unknown Christian suggested that the biblical terms: Father, Son, and the Spirit could be compared to the masks worn by an actor to assume another role to make their message audible. At that time, it was clearly difficult to find a way of adapting the Christian theology that Jesus had been divine with the equally strong belief that God is one.
Irenaeus (Greek, "Peacemaker") (130-202) was an early Father of the Church. He was born in Asia Minor. There, as a child, he heard the preaching of St. Polycarp the disciple of St. John. In 177 Irenaeus was appointed bishop of Lyons. He converted many pagans and was an ardent opponent of Gnosticism. About 180 he wrote a work against the Gnostics, known as Against the Heresies, which has contributed to the knowledge of Gnosticism. Irenaeus taught a similar doctrine like Clement that Jesus had been the incarnate Logos, the divine reason. Both Irenaeus and Clement were adapting the Jewish God to concepts that were accepted by pagan converts of that time and culture. Justinís language about the distinction of the Father as God transcendent from the Son as God, which Irenaeus had made his own, precipitated sharp debate in Rome. In combating Gnostic dualism, orthodox writers had insisted that there is one Supreme God. Irenaeus skillfully vindicated the four Gospels on numerological ideas. For example, four was a sacred number that corresponded to the four winds, or the four faces of the cherubim in Ezekiel. He defended the Gospel of John, to whom he also ascribed the Revelation.
Irenaeus declares that Christians believe "in one God the father Almighty, maker of the heaven and earth and the seas and all that is therein, and in one Christ Jesus the son of God, who was made in flesh for our salvation and in the Holy spirit who through the prophets preached the dispensations and the comings and the virgin birth and the passion, and the rising from the dead and the assumption into heaven in his flesh of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ"
Tertullian (160? -220?) is the first important Christian writer in Latin, whose work is remarkable for its vigor, candid sarcasm, intolerant, and skillfulness. He was born in Carthage. His training was in law and practiced his profession in Rome. He became a convert to the Christian faith while still in Rome. In 197 he returned to Carthage, where he became a presbyter of the church. In 207 he became the leader of the Montanists. Montanus who was seized by the Spirit, and together with two women delivered religious utterances to which other Christians objected formed this sect. The Montanists, increasingly in conflict with church authorities, were finally declared heretical.
Tertullian would rank among the great Fathers of the Church if he had not embraced the Montanist heresy. He profoundly influenced all Christian theologians of the West. The Roman Catholic Church accepts many of his works as orthodox. After espousing Montanist doctrines, he was a severe critic of orthodox Christians.
Tertullian reveals a profound knowledge of Greek and Latin literature, both pagan and Christian. He was the first writer in Latin to formulate Christian theological concepts. Using Greek mythology and the legal vocabulary of Rome he coined the terminology that was to dominate the future of Christianity, such as the nature of the Trinity "three persons in one substance", or in Christ "two substances or natures in one person". Tertullian enjoyed paradox. He believed that a human mind could not invent the divine doctrine of Christianity. The crucifying of the Son of God sounds ridiculous and scandalous: "I believe because it is outrageous." Moreover, Tertullian had castigated women as evil temptresses and an eternal danger to mankind.
Origen (185-254) was a famous Christian writer, teacher, and theologian. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt. When Clement left Alexandria to become Bishop in Caesarea, Origen, his student, assumed his position when he was twenty years old. His father died a martyrís death, and Origen tried to join him, believing that martyrdom was the way to heaven. Origen taught for about 28 years, lecturing Christians and pagans. He composed his major dogmatic treatises there and began his many critical works. During the persecutions of the Christians in 250 AD under Emperor Decius, Origen was imprisoned and tortured. Released in 251, but weakened by injuries, he died about 254, probably in Tyre.
Origen stands as a giant among biblical scholar of the early church. His accomplishments in the critical examination of the text of the Old Testament were outstanding. He discovered discrepancies between the Septuagint and a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. For example, the History of Susanna did not exist in the Hebrew text of the book of Daniel. The Synagogue suppressed this story, because it was critical to the Jewish elders. Origin believed that the story could have been added by the translators, but that did not prove that there was no Hebrew original.
He was a voluminous writer whose works include letters, treatises in dogmatic and practical theology, apologetics, exegeses, and textual criticism. In addition, Origen is regarded as the father of the symbolic method of scriptural interpretation. He taught the principle of the threefold division of the person into body, spirit, and soul, which was then a common concept. He was a Platonist and endeavored to combine Greek philosophy and the Christian religion. He developed the idea of Christ as the Logos, or Incarnate Word, who is with the Father from eternity, but he taught also that the Father is greater than Son in power and dignity. Some of Origen's contemporaries accused him of failing to understand the language about the pre-existence of the Word. Paul never mentioned anything like that. Others regarded Origen as a heretic who had corrupted Christianity with the poison of Greek culture. Origin adjusted his Platonic philosophy to Semitic scriptures by developing a figurative way of understanding the Bible. For example, the virgin birth of Jesus in the womb of Mary was not to be understood literally but as the birth of the divine wisdom in the soul. Origenís view of Jesus did not conform totally to the later Christian theology. For example, he did not believe that humans had been saved by the death of Christ.
Born in Alexandria, (293-373), Egypt, Athanasius received a classical education before entering the famous theological school in his native city. He was ordained a deacon as a young man and served as secretary to the bishop of Alexandria. It was then that he began to take a prominent position in the intense theological struggle that ended in the Council of Nicaea in 325. At Nicaea, Athanasius opposed Arius (256-336), the Alexandrine priest who advanced the doctrine known as Arianism. Athanasius was by far the most formidable antagonist encountered by Arianism. Athanasius formulated a doctrine, according to which the Son of God is of the same essence, or substance, as the Father. Arius, on the other hand, maintained that the Son was of an inferior substance from that of the Father and that Jesus was merely a creature that was more perfect than any other creature. After the creed was signed, it was clear that crucial terms of the creed were not understood.
Athanasius became bishop of Alexandria around 328. During the Arian argument, politics mixed with theology, and each side struggled to win the approval of the Roman emperor Constantine I. Athanasius used his powerful skills of argument to impose his theology on the bishops with the support of the atheist emperor. Later, Athanasius was exiled five times. He spent the rest of his life quietly at his post in Alexandria. The theological battle was practically over, and the victory rested with the cause of Nicene orthodoxy. Athanasius was a rich writer, especially in his attack on Arianism; Discourses Against the Arians, History of the Arians, Apology Against the Arians, and On the Decrees of the Nicene Synod.