Welcome to Our Savior’s Parish six week discussion series on the Church Fathers, I ask the Holy Spirit to guide my words, your words, and our ears to further our understanding of the founding and early history of the Church.
Overall, I have studied the discipline of history, so my hope is to share some of what I’ve learned with all of you. Furthermore, our discussion group here can evolve into whatever will meet our spiritual needs. My intentions to form such a group was to give an opportunity to those who work and have families to grow a truly Christian Community within our local parish—our part of the Body of Christ. Father Tom and I thought it wise to begin with only six-weeks for discussion, but I am willing to meet any and every week parishioners want to attend. If this goes well, I’d like to do future discussion themes on History of Christmas, On Prayer, The History of the Crusades, the historicity of the Exodus and more. I encourage others, if they want and feel the stir of the Holy Spirit, to lead our discussion group even during this coming six weeks. And finally, before we get started, our group can continue entirely as a discussion group but if it needs to fill other spiritual needs, we can also pray for one another and we can help others in our community, again, this group can certainly evolve into the ministerial needs of all of us who walk through those chapel doors. Our discussion topics for the six weeks begin with Tonight’s topic on the Didache (Early Catechism) followed by St. Clement of Rome, St. Justin Martyr, St. Athanasius, St. John Chrysostom, and ending with St. Augustine.
So, who are the Church Fathers? Well, in a six-week series, it would be impossible to cover them all, so I’ve selected six topics to cover each week to gain a better understanding of what and who were these early Christians.
What exactly is a Church Father? Who is included? One definition that I’ve heard is that the Church Fathers are basically the followers of the Apostles. However, the problem with this definition is that some Church Father’s like St. Augustine lived nearly 350 years after the Apostles. In Marcellino D’Ambrosio’s book When the Church was Young, the author writes, “One often finds the following standard definition in encyclopedias and text books ”The Fathers of the Church are those characterized by orthodoxy, holiness, antiquity, and Church approval.”D’Ambrosio goes on to mention that this definition is of course ambiguous as there are several Church Fathers who have not been canonized as saints like Origen and Tertullian.
The definition that is finally articulated by D’ambrosio in his book is “The Church Fathers are those great Christian writers who passed on and clarified the teaching of the apostles from approximately the second through the eighth centuries.”I believe this to be a very distinct and thorough definition but if one is looking for a more generalized definition, Catholic Apologist Jimmy Akin provides a more generalized definition explaining, “In time, the concept (Church Fathers) came to be applied in a general way to those who shaped the faith and practice of the Church in its earliest centuries. They became “Fathers” not only for their own age but for all ages that would follow. Some of these—the ones who heard the preaching of the apostles themselves or lived very shortly after the time of the apostles—came to be called the “Apostolic Fathers” or “Sub-Apostolic Fathers.” Together with the Fathers of later ages, they were important witnesses to the apostolic Tradition.
Why is studying the Church Father’s important? First off, by learning about their lives and studying their writings, we learn why we belief the doctrines of our faith, how those doctrines developed when both Christ and the Apostles were gone and how to defend what we believe.
For example, similarities can be drawn from ancient Arian heresy’s denial of Christ being consubstantial (ever wonder why we use this word in the Nicene Creed?) with the Father and Jehovah Witness beliefs on the Trinity that Christ was a creation of God—rather than begotten of the Father, and his subordinate to Him. By studying the Church Fathers, we can learn from them that the Church in its earliest conception believed Jesus to be also one with the Father and how to articulate that to those who we encounter in the world. Simply, knowing the Fathers and what they taught, gives us the tools to better evangelize the world.
Blessed John Henry Newman, the famous English convert, lays out in one of the most graceful pieces of work in the English language the Apologia Pro Vita Suathe reason for his courageous conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism lie with the Church Fathers.
Newman writes, “When they (the Church Fathers) speak of doctrine, they speak of them as being universally held. They are witnesses to the fact of those doctrines having been received not here or there, but everywhere. We receive those doctrines which they thus teach, not merely because they teach them, but because they bear witness that all Christians everywhere then held them…they do not speak of their own private opinion; they do not say, ‘This is true, because we see it in Scripture’—about which there might be differences of judgment—but, ‘this is true, because in matter of fact it is held, and has ever been held, by all the Churches, down to our times without interruption, ever since the Apostles.”
In all honesty, we could spend six weeks alone what Bl. John Henry Newman had to say about the Church Fathers but there are two lessons from Newman that I want to share with you tonight.
#1 The revelation to the truth of the Church Fathers so heavily influenced Newman to convert to Catholicism in 19thcentury England, which amounted to the end of his professional academic career of man who was arguably the premier academic of his time in England.
#2 Reflecting on Newman’s words in regards to our own doctrine of the Eucharist, we can understand that the teachings of the Church Fathers, and as such, the Apostles, reflects the Catholic understanding of the real presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in accordance with the discourse of the bread of life. As from the Church Fathers to the 16thCentury this was the understanding of all Christians until Zwingli diverted from Real Presence doctrine.
The first topic of discussion is not a single Church Father, but rather a 2ndcentury document called the Didache based on part of one of the oldest known Catechisms in existence called “The Two Way.”The Two Way, as explained by Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor of Theology at the University of Nottingham, gave early Christians a choice between a way of life, either a way of life or death.What the Didache tells us is how early Christians worshiped God and whether our development of our faith is either very different from the faith of early Christians or very much alike. An interesting fact about the document known as the Didache, which means “teaching” in Greek, is that it has been lost for nearly 1000 years before being found by a monk in Istanbul in 1873. The particular Orthodox monk’s name that discovered the Didache was Philotheos Bryennios; “born in Constantinople in 1833.”
Bryennios’ story for me is an inspiring story, as a student of history, I’ve been taught various historical methods to aid my prowess as a historian. In his Book, Professor O’Loughlin explains that Bryennios had such a great aptitude as a scholar that his superiors found funding for him to attend a prestigious school in German to mold his budding skills as a scholar.Interesting enough, it were these skills that gave him the simple perseverance while researching in the library of the Constantinople house of the Monastery of the Holy Sepulchre by simply looking through an entire manuscript that was already well known by scholars at the time.
Now, from a historical perspective, I have to ask, what can be learned by the discovery of such a document? Did we discover that in fact Catholic theology had drifted far away from early Christians or did it faithfully adhere to the early doctrines of the early Church?
Let’s take a look and find out.
Thomas O’Loughlin gives a great foundation for understanding the Christian context of the Didache by framing it within the backdrop of the Judaic understanding of Deuteronomy 30:14-18. RSV
14 But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
15 “See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil. 16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you this day, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. 17 But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land which you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess.
Prof. O’Loughlin explains that “the people of Israel are presented with this choice: the way of covenant which leads to life and rejoicing in good things, the way of death which is the result of choosing another way and ignoring the commandments.”As explained, by O’Loughlin, this challenge that was initiated by the Hebrews and adopted by early Christians by ending the idea of cosmic fatalism—being collateral damage of pagan gods—was revolutionary to a great many people in the world; therefore, was extremely attractive to new converts.
The document reminds us that early Christians viewed themselves not as single individuals but rather as a community, as the advent of this type of thinking was created during the 16thand 17thcenturies in the period commonly referred to as the Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, the primary concerns of many philosophers and politicians was natural law and natural rights being inalienable to nature and essence of humanity by the natural order of our creation. However, the detriment of this type of thinking has led to extreme philosophies of individualism, materialism, and scientism.
The Didache, in many ways, reminds us that our Western civilizations continue to move away from orthodox (small “o”) Christian thinking and culture. O’Loughlin says, in accord with choosing the way of life—following Jesus Christ—“the individual had to accept the way as a member of the people, but was the whole community that had to choose to sset out on the way of life. Moreover, when individuals abandoned the commandments then the whole community was in jeopardy.”
It’s natural to ask how this idea of community pertains to Christians in our 21stcentury Church; the idea is very much rooted in Catholic “Body of Christ” Theology. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this in section 787-789:
II. The Church—Body of Christ
The Church is communion with Jesus
787From the beginning, Jesus associated his disciples with his own life, revealed the mystery of the Kingdom to them, and gave them a share in his mission, joy, and sufferings. Jesus spoke of a still more intimate communion between him and those who would follow him: “Abide in me, and I in you.… I am the vine, you are the branches.”216And he proclaimed a mysterious and real communion between his own body and ours: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (755)
788When his visible presence was taken from them, Jesus did not leave his disciples orphans. He promised to remain with them until the end of time; he sent them his Spirit. As a result communion with Jesus has become, in a way, more intense: “By communicating his Spirit, Christ mystically constitutes as his body those brothers of his who are called together from every nation.”219(690)
789The comparison of the Church with the body casts light on the intimate bond between Christ and his Church. Not only is she gathered around him; she is united in him, in his body. Three aspects of the Church as the Body of Christ are to be more specifically noted: the unity of all her members with each other as a result of their union with Christ; Christ as head of the Body; and the Church as bride of Christ.
Recently, I’ve read the Spiritual Diary of St. John Paul II; published for the first time in English. The future Saint wrote about the importance of Christian community in 1978 in his notes, “’Koinonia,’ the community, is the third principle dimension of Christian existence.”John Paul II would return to this theme many times in his diaries and in 1984 wrote reminding us now the dangers of living as an individual in our contemporary society that “Humankind threatened by ‘deindividuation! Contemporary Man. Christianity couters this with the reality of ‘communio’ the communion with God through Jesus Christ, through the mystery of incarnation; the communion of saints.”
Naturally, this is why I have sought to call all of us here together, I desire to foster this community amongst ourselves, but there’s even more that we can do build our community. We need to follow Christ. Remember, the Apostles asked Jesus, “Where are you going?” He replied, “Come and See.” We encounter Jesus at every mass during the Liturgy of the Eucharist in our community, we become a part of the Body of Christ during our baptism, but we grow even closer to him by partaking of His body in the Eucharist. As such we use the same language during the mass, we call our celebration of the Eucharist “communion” and before receiving the sacred Body, it is held up the words “The Body of Christ” are spoken prior to reception.
Marcellino D’ambrosio explains in his text that the Didache serves as a good catechism in addressing particular questions about God’s commandments. For example, What does “Thou Shall not Kill” actually mean when God commands the Hebrews to kill the Canaanites? What does “Thou Shall not commit Adultery” mean to the unmarried? 
The Didache addresses both of these topics:
Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not corrupt boys, do not fornicate (have relations outside of marriage); do not steal; do not practice magic; do not go in for sorecery; do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant.
D’Ambrosio explains that this is earliest known documentation in Christian literature that murder in accordance with the fifth commandment includes abortion.The document also references a code for sexual relations. Modernity attempts to profess that its views on human sexuality is new and progressive, but this could not be farther from the truth as explained by the Didache’s explanation on the sixth commandment for “In the Greco-Roman society of the time, religion had little to do with sexual morality. Adventuresome sexual exploration was the fashion.”
One of the most interesting facts that we find in the Didache is the instruction of Baptism. When I was a teenager, there was a church that would have bonfires after every football game and most of the high school kids would go to eat free pizza and roast marshmallows. After awhile, the youth minister of this particular church began to attempt to convert us to his faith. The go to point of this particular youth minister was that because we Catholics, and other mainstream Protestants, were not immersed when we baptized like Jesus in the Jordan River then our baptism was not valid.
So why do we believe our Baptism to be valid? Again, I cannot stress this enough, studying the early Christians allows us to defend our faith. First off, scripture doesn’t necessarily say that Jesus was immersed, it says that “he went up immediately from the water,”“And when he came up out of the water,”So imagine yourself on a riverbank, you have go down a hill to get into the river and to get out of the river you “went up” from it, or you come “up out of the water.” Now, it’s very possible, and even probable that Jesus was immersed, but just because the Gospel records a particular event doesn’t mean it’s a formula. In fact, the only formula for baptism in the Gospel is given at the end of the Gospel of Matthew:
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
Now, this could just be my particular interpretations of these particular text, I would imagine the youth minister in Mt. Sterling would tell me that these are Catholic apologist proof texts. So, I ask, what were the early Christian understanding of baptism.
The Didache reads:
“Baptize in running water, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spririt.” (note that the only no negotiable is based on scripture) If you do not have running water, baptize in some other (form of water). If you cannot in cold, then in warm, If you have neither, then pour water on the head three times “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
The early Christians only understood two necessities: #1 The Scriptural Formula and #2 Water. Different variables of water were allowed and sprinkling was also allowed by early Christians.
D’Ambrosio illustrates in the text that early Christians wanted to differentiate from Jews by changing their patterns of fasting by fasting on different days of the week. “This Wednesday and Friday fast became virtually universal in the early Church and is preserved by the Eastern churches to this day.”The Didache also instructs Christians to pray three times per day by praying the Lord’s prayer, as well as coming together not on the Sabbath day but on Sunday—the day of Resurrection:
“Assemble on the Lord’s Day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with this fellow is not to take part with you until they have been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice. For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled.”
It important to note that early Christians had a Eucharistic doctrine, as well as placing importance on the sacrament of confession. The understanding of such believes can be found in the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians:
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.[d] 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened[e] so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
What Catholics can take from reading and understanding the Didache is that our practices can be proven to be true by both scripture and by the historical record of the practices of early Christians. Let us by recognizing are connection with the past continue to grow in faith and defend our faith as a faith that is founded on the historical record.
Marcellino D’Ambrosio, When The Church was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers(Servant Books: San Francisco, 2014), 1.
Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church(San Diego, CA: Catholic Answers, 2010), 23.
Dave Armstrong, Quotable Newman(Sophia Press: Manchester, 2012), 169-70.
Thomas O’Loughlin, The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians(Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 30.
Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 208.
Pope St. John Paul II In God’s Hands: The Spiritual Diaries of Pope Saint John Paul II (London: Harper One, 2017), 134.
Didache 2:2 Some argue that abortion was allowed in Judaism; however, we must also keep in mind that Divorce was allowed in Judaism as referenced in Mt. 19, but Christ explains the reasoning why Divorce displeases God. Regardless of Judaic arguments for or against abortion, our faith asserts that the Church has been given the authority to teach God’s will.