The “Church Fathers” Who Died 1,500 Years Ago Still Influence Christianity Today



(The Conversation) — Nearly 60 years ago, in October 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council. For the 21st time in the history of the Catholic Church, the Pope brings together bishops from all over the world – many thousands of them – to deal with matters of Church doctrine and practice.

Today, Vatican II is remembered as an historic council that shaped modern day Catholic life. Leaders agreed to reforms, such as greater use of local languages ​​in the Mass, to reinvigorate the mission of the church in a changing world.

In the council official documentshowever, the bishops frequently cite spiritual guides who died more than 1,000 years before: the fathers of the Church.

The spiritual and theological authority of the fathers is recognized not only by Catholics, but also by other Christians, including Eastern Orthodox and Protestant communities. Not everyone agrees on the same list of church fathers, but Christian leaders have been deeply influenced by the teachings of the fathers, from medieval theologians and Protestant reformers to today’s Pope Francis.

And if there are no women among the “fathers”, the “mothers of the desert” – influential religious women of the same period – also left their mark.

spiritual fathers

As a scholar of early ChristianityI am often asked about the origins of the concept of the church father.

In Christianity, the honorary title of “father” comes from Greco-Roman and biblical ideas on the father as the head of the family. The Roman “pater familias” was responsible for the well-being, education and direction of the family. He was also considered a priest or religious representative of the house.

In the Bible, the first-century apostle Paul speaks of himself as spiritual father to other Christians. The apostles and bishops of the church were treated as the “fathers” of believers insofar as they were charged with preaching, teaching, and leading worship.

Evolutionary idea

Early Christians began to use the title “father” for bishops, but in the fifth century it was also applied to some priests and deacons.

Over time, theologians began to refer to a specific group of “Church Fathers” to support their positions amid debates – beginning in the 4th century, with Greek bishops Eusebiuswho wrote a history of the first three centuries of the Christian Church, and Basil of Caesarea, who lived in present-day Turkey. Saint Augustine – the Roman Catholic bishop of North Africa who became famous for his “confession— frequently cited the teachings of the fathers to support his arguments in controversies with theological opponents.

A page from “Eusebius’ Epistle to Carpianus” in a 13th-century Armenian manuscript.
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The position of the fathers in the church was refined in the 5th century by a Gallic monk named Vincent de Lerins. Not all ancient Christian writers had the same authority, he wrote, but the opinions of the true fathers could be trusted because their teachings were consistent, as if they formed a council of masters “all receiving, holding and transmitting the same teaching”.

In the modern era, four traits were used as criteria distinguish the fathers of the church: 1) orthodox or correct theological teachings on essential points, in accordance with the public doctrine of the Church; 2) the holiness of their lives; 3) recognition of them and their teaching by the Church; and 4) antiquity, meaning they lived in the early Christian era that ended around the seventh or eighth century.

The title is distinct from the later honorary title”church doctorfor spiritual teachers who have made significant contributions to Christian doctrine at any time in history, although some theologians hold both titles.

Unlike the fathers of the Church, who are all men, four women figure among the doctors: Teresa of Ávila, a mystic famous for her ecstatic visions; Catherine of Siena, who persuaded Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy to Rome from Avignon; Thérèse of Lisieux, known for her “little path” to holiness through small acts of love; and Hildegard of Bingena medieval German nun, scientist and composer.

desert mothers

Modern scholarship has also drawn attention to the significant influence of women on the church in the time of the fathers.

For example, the 4th-century fathers Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, who were brothers, considered their older sister, Macrina the Younger, to be the greatest theologian among them. Grégoire composed a treatise in his honor,Macrine’s lifewhich portrays her as a true philosopher. A “consecrated virgin” who pledged her life to the church instead of marriage and family, Macrina led a religious community of women and was renowned for her holiness, her teaching and her miraculous healings.

Her paternal grandmother, Macrina the Elder, was also a great teacher and leader who suffered persecution for being a Christian in the late 3rd century. She was responsible for transmitting the teachings of great theologiansas Origen of Alexandria and “Gregory the Miracle Worker”.

In addition, women exercised leadership in the growing movement known as monasticism. During the first five centuries of Christianity, many women fled the urban cities to the desert to engage in a life of prayer, fasting and virtue. Known as the “mothers of the desert”, they were sought after for their wisdom.

A gold and green religious icon depicts a man in a robe extending Holy Communion to a woman in a tattered robe.

‘The Holy Communion of Saint Mary of Egypt,’ from the Museum of Fine Arts of the City of Paris.
Heritage Images/Hulton Fine Arts Collection via Getty Images

Their words or sayings have been collected and preserved for centuries. For example, Amma Theodora, spiritual mother of a community of women near Alexandria in Egypt, was famous for saying that only humility, and not ascetic practices such as fasting, could overcome the temptations of the devil. Similarly, “The Life of Mary of Egypt” was written on a humble and penitent woman who lived in the desert for 47 years. She was considered a model of humility and her story was often told during Lent, a time when many Christians practice penance.

The future of fathers

Today, church leaders continue to rely on the teachings of the fathers as authoritative sources of wisdom. Pope Francis, for example, often refers to Vincent de Lérins to explain how Christian doctrine develops over timelike a seed that takes root and becomes a tree.

History has shown that Christians often disagree on matters of doctrine, and they always will. At such times, future leaders can look to fathers as sure-footed spiritual guides.

(James Kang Hoon Lee, is an associate professor of early Christian history at Southern Methodist University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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