The voices of the early Church Fathers are as present today as they were centuries ago. Their lives, their teachings, their guidance and their sacrifices have shaped the church as we know it. These holy men have developed our theology, hammered out the Creed, defined our worship and shaped our understanding of the Holy Bible. Here are ten reasons why the early church fathers are as relevant today as ever before.
1. Great Pearls of Wisdom
The writings of these ancient fathers are a gold mine! Ancient patristic writings are full of great pearls of wisdom when it comes to matters of Christian living and spiritual growth. To read these ancient writings is to be a disciple to the most renowned and authoritative figures in the life of the church. The fathers studied the Holy Bible rigorously and authored various commentaries, homilies, devotionals and even theological treaties. Not only that, but many of them were highly educated in Greek, Latin and Hebrew and were well trained in the art of rhetoric. As a result many of the patristic texts are rich in style and content. Ancient patristic literature has stood the test of time and has been continuously read throughout the ages and up to the present day.
2. Models for Christian Living
The fathers were spiritual giants who modelled for us the life of holiness as grounded in Christ and the Holy Bible. In most instances, and often against their will, these fathers were chosen to fill high ecclesiastical positions within the church on account of their wisdom, their high level of spirituality, their personal conduct, and their extreme asceticism. By reading their writings, we not only get a glimpse of their personal traits, but we also get to encounter each of them intimately. We become aware of the circumstances they faced in their personal and public lives. We are introduced to their worldview, the culture in which they lived, the battles they had to fight, their strengths, their weaknesses and most importantly, how they strived for Christian perfection. Meeting the fathers by delving into their words can help us become better Christians since it is through the writings of these fathers that we become closely connected to them. As we begin to emulate these saintly figures, they become our moral compass and can help us navigate our walk with God.
3. Reliable Christian Theologians
As the earliest adopters of the apostolic faith, it was these great fathers who dedicated their lives to the preservation of the faith as entrusted to them. These great men took courage to defend the church against many foreign ideologies and beliefs that were contrary to Christ’s teachings, the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Tradition. Numerous battles were waged against the True Faith of Christ and His church, and it was some of these fathers, who in an attempt to avoid confusion amongst their flock, defined and explained the sound orthodox faith. Not wavering in the face of danger, these defending fathers fought so rigorously to preserve the faith, and many ultimately payed the price with their own blood. For them the preservation of the faith was worth dying for.
4. Teachings are Timeless
The writings of the church fathers are generally classified as ancient literature, but their works are as relevant to the modern reader as they were the day they were written. The timeless teachings of these great men speak powerfully to the modern reader, providing instruction, correction and a contrast between the Life in Christ as opposed to the way of the world. The fathers dedicated their time to nurture their church communities, and in doing so they addressed many of the same tribulations, temptations and struggles that we face today, and even discussed many of the contemporary moral and ethical issues, such as abortion, divorce, and homosexuality. These courageous men did not shy away from these provocative topics in fear of their opposition; rather they took to the podium to boldly proclaim the teachings of Christ and His Church.
5. Authoritative Figures
The apostolic and early church fathers inherited the faith from Christ and the apostles. These fathers not only preserved the faith, but were meticulous in passing it on as received. Many of these fathers were well educated, and were quite familiar with the teachings, methods of operation, and rhetorical styles of their time. And they employed these methods of education not only to learn the faith, but to teach, defend and spread the truth of the Gospel. These fathers were influential characters who were seen to demonstrate a great understanding of sound theology and matters of Christian living.
6. Shaped our Understanding of Scripture
Several of the early church fathers were biblical exegetes who dedicated their lives not only to the study of Scripture, but also to the memorization of many books and passages of the Holy Bible. Many writings of these fathers illustrate the depth of their understanding of Scripture, which is likely due to their close historical proximity to the time in which the holy bible was written. In other words, a biblical exegete who lived only a few centuries after the biblical text was written is likely to have a better appreciation of the context and meaning of the text than the contemporary biblical scholar. Not only that, but many of these fathers were well acquainted with the languages of the Bible. The Greek fathers for instance spoke the language in which the New Testament was written, and many fathers were well educated in Hebrew. There is no doubt that these fathers understood the Scriptures in light of the historical, political, sociological context because they understood the culture and the environment in which it was written.
7. Offer a Unique Perspective
The writings of the fathers are as unique in style, content and form as the different books of the Bible. In fact each author’s works reveals a great deal about who they are; their imminent concerns, personality, pastoral instructions, spiritual practices, struggles and social environment.
A brief list of some of the patristic works illustrates the diversity of topics that are covered by these ancient authors:
- Fancy learning about the structure and order of the infant church as well as the church sacraments? St Ignatius of Antioch has got you covered!
- St Irenaeus of Lyons delves deep into the crucial role of the Apostolic Tradition in the Church.
- St Athanasius’ work ‘On the Incarnation’ ever so eloquently explains Christ’s response to our imminent death through the works of His salvation.
- St Basil the Great succinctly defends the divinity of the Holy Spirit and sets forth to describe the perpetual communion of the Holy Trinity.
- St Cyril of Alexandria’s ‘On the Unity of Christ’ is crucial in defending the divinity and humanity of the personhood of Jesus.
- And St John Chrysostom, an outstanding biblical exegete whose vast collection of commentaries are essential to understanding the Holy Bible. Especially noteworthy are his Pauline commentaries!
8. Members of the Communion of Saints
The church fathers, generally speaking, are members of the communion of saints. They may have passed on from this earthly life centuries ago, but they live on as members in the mystical Body of Christ. In fact, these saints are more alive in Christ now than we are, and we are united to them spiritually in an unbroken relationship as long as we are living members of the Body of Christ. Therefore reading the writings of the fathers brings these living saintly and pious spiritual giants into our midst. For when separation prevents a face-to-face dialogue, the writings of a loved one are able to bridge the divide. The writings of the fathers are therefore a representation of their self, and their words are a living instruction.
9. Helped Dispel False Teachings
The first few centuries of the church saw Christianity threatened by a number of theological heresies. Before the turn of the first century, we see the apostle Paul warning his church communities to watch out for false teachings and false gospels (2 Cor. 11:4, and Gal. 1:6-9). To dispel these false teachings, a number of great and holy leaders arose to lead the Church, explain the faith, and meet the unique challenges posed by these heresies. The church fathers defended the faith emphatically, whether through theological discourses or through Ecumenical Councils in order to ensure the safe passage of the church through the treacherous waters of heresy. Sadly, many of these ancient heresies that the fathers have had to address have been rehashed and presented in modern times. Reading the fathers therefore helps us accurately define the orthodox faith and defend it against the ongoing threat to the gospel.
10. Models for Christian Suffering
Reading the church fathers gives us a glimpse into the hardships they faced. Many of these fathers faced persecution, oppression, exile, torture and even martyrdom for the sake of Christ. Their life exemplified what it means to take up the cross and follow the Lord (Matt. 16:24-26). Reading the writings of the fathers therefore helps us to understand what it means to suffer for righteousness sake since the Life in Christ is not free from suffering and persecution. The fathers clearly understood and taught that this world is passing away, and as sojourners in this world it important to discern the things that matter, and focus on the everlasting. As our secular society becomes increasingly more hostile towards Christians, reading the fathers becomes ever the more relevant in providing encouragement for dealing with persecution.