I believe that every Catholic should learn WHO the Early Church Fathers were, and WHAT they taught and wrote. Let me revise that, I think if EVERY Christian got to Know the Early Church Fathers, they would cease to be protestant!
Yesterday I wrote why the Early Church Fathers are so Vitally Important. For many protestants the period between the Apostles and Martin Luther is a void, nothing of any importance happened. Or at the worst, they claim the early church went into apostasy at a very early age and was not brought back to it’s original state until Martin Luther, or Calvin or Joseph Smith, or whoever they claim revived the original church. They barely acknowledge that 1500 year period between the apostles and the Protestant Revolt and often just discount it as being irrelevant. Many protestants haven’t a clue what the Early Church Fathers actually wrote or at worst, claim they do by reading excerpts off of anti-Catholic websites. If they truly wanted to know what these earliest Christians believed they would read the original sources themselves. That’s what I did in 2002…I printed off of the internet the first 300-400 years of the writings of the Early Church Fathers and put them in a huge binder.
Interestingly enough, these same folks will claim that they follow the bible alone, which is a misnomer, because nobody follows the bible alone (see my mild rant on this yesterday). They will look to men who came some 1500 or more years after and see them as the true interpreters of the Bible, never mind nobody had that interpretation prior to them, or worse they based their belief on a misinterpretation of the teaching of an Early Church Father. As is the case of John Calvin and his teaching on predestination as it is a misinterpretation of Saint Augustine’s teaching on predestination, a noted Early Church Father!
So who were these Early Church Fathers? Well, the Early Church Fathers were the leaders and teachers of the earliest Church. Their writings are widely available and are accepted as authentic by Catholic and non-Catholic scholars alike. Thus they provide common ground for establishing the beliefs and practices of the early Church. We can read their writings and see what the church looked like, what they believed and how they understood the teachings of Jesus.
The earliest writings belong to those men known as the “Apostolic Fathers.” They were the direct successors to the Apostles. Three of them were in fact disciples of the Apostles. They actually knew and were taught by them. Clement of Rome was a disciple of both Peter and Paul. Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp of Smyrna were disciples of the Apostle John. So logically and naturally we would expect that those who were personally taught by the Apostles would themselves believe and teach correctly. At least more so than any man who came 1500 or more so years later!
Much of protestantism is based on the allegation that the Catholic Church became corrupt shortly after 312 AD when the emperor Constantine converted and made Christianity the state religion. They will claim that when pagan converts came into the Church bringing with them many of their pagan beliefs and practices. According to Protestant historians these pagan practices that were brought into the Church and became the distinctive doctrines of Catholicism. Thus, they will claim, the Catholic Church was born and true Christianity was lost until the Reformation. But history tells us a different story. By the way, Medieval European History was my major in college. Any true historian scholar will tell you, if you want to know the truth about a period in history, don’t read history books, but read the primary sources. The writings of the people who lived in the period you are studying.
In the very earliest writings of the Early Church Fathers we can see a Church with bishops that had authority to bind and loose and they had governing authority over priests and deacons. We also see that they recognised the prime authority of the Bishop of Rome (which by the way, was prophesied in the old testament – Read Daniel 2:34-36, 44-45 and Daniel 7:19-27), We also see a Church that emphasised Baptism for the forgiveness of sins, baptising infants, and believed in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and the importance of confession and penance. We also see that they believed in the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the intercession of the saints in heaven. The early church was even called the Catholic Church at least by the year 107, shortly after the death of the apostle John, as is evident in the writings of his disciple, Ignatius of Antioch. He wrote the following in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans:
“Where the bishop is present, there is the Catholic Church” (8:2 [A.D. 107]).
I found the writings of the Early Church Fathers to be very important in my own conversion to the Catholic Church in 2002. Their writings showed me that for 2000 years they held beliefs and doctrines that are still being taught by the Catholic Church today. It was not as protestants claim that many Catholic doctrines were invented in later years. Interestingly enough, protestants will claim that if a teaching appears after the apostolic age without evidence of previous support, or if it can’t be found in scripture explicitly, then it must be false. Curiously enough they abandon this line of reasoning when it comes to many of their own beliefs. For instance, the doctrine of Scripture Alone (mid 1500’s), The Rapture (late 1800’s), the doctrine of Eternal Security (Once Saved, Always Saved) and the doctrine of Double Predestination are just some of the examples that can be given.
It is also important to note that some doctrines existed in a primitive form during the early years. The doctrine existed, but our understanding of that doctrine became clearer over time. One such example is the Doctrine of the Trinity. All of its elements were present at the beginning but it wasn’t clearly defined the way it is today. It wasn’t until later that it was fully understood. This would not make it a late teaching as all of the information was there from the beginning. Other doctrines were developed in this same way such as the true Nature of Christ being both divine and human, or the Immaculate Conception of Mary. All these teachings were there in the beginning, but our understanding had to grow. There even great heresies that came about that forced the Church to clearly define what we had believed from the beginning. For instance Arianism. Arius taught that Christ was a creature made by God. So the Church had to clearly define what indeed was the true nature of Christ, as was taught from the earliest times. Arianism was solemnly condemned in 325 at the First Council of Nicaea, which defined the divinity of Christ, and in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople, which defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit. These two councils gave us the Nicene creed, which Catholics recite at Mass every Sunday.
Did the Early Church Fathers ever disagree on things? Of course, they were human after all. They would occasionally disagreed on minor issues, not major doctrine, that were not yet settled by the Church. This does not present us with a problem as we do not claim that the Fathers were infallible. Yet, ALL the doctrines the that the Church teaches to this day, were there in the early church. While the Early Church Fathers were not infallible they were unmistakably Catholic. This clearly illustrates the fact that the early Church had no resemblance to Protestantism.
John Henry Newman was one of the more famous converts to Catholicism. After studying the Early Fathers he wrote:
“The Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth it is this, and Protestantism has ever felt it so; to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant” (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine).
Christianity was started by Jesus Christ 2000 years ago and it has existed for 2000 years. It didn’t go away for 1200 years and then come back. Indeed to say that would be either calling Jesus a liar or not keeping His promise to protect the Church from error. In Matthew 16:18 as He was establishing His Church Jesus gave us a guarantee. He said: “I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” If the Protestant hypothesis is correct, the gates of hell did some serious prevailing and that would make Jesus Christ a liar. But of course such is not the case! Tomorrow…What did the Early Church look like in the writings of the Early Church Fathers?