21 June 2021

The “Early Church Fathers”: Ancient Christians. Who wrote stuff.

Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament ends with Paul of Tarsus in Rome, awaiting his trial before Nero Claudius Caesar, and encouraging the Christians of Rome. And that’s it. Its author Luke never tells us what came next; most scholars figure Luke didn’t know what came next, ’cause he wrote the book while Paul awaited trial. That’s likely so.

But when I was a kid, I wanted to know what happened next. How’d the trial go? And there, my Sunday school teacher was no help; nobody had told her how it went, and she hadn’t bothered to investigate.

So I did. Turns out it went well. Paul was released, and went back to traveling the Roman Empire and founding churches. But about a decade later he got arrested during the Neronian persecution (and possibly wrote 2 Timothy while awaiting trial), stood before Nero Caesar again, and this time things didn’t go his way. He was condemned and beheaded.

I shared this info with one of my youth pastors, who told me, “Well that probably happened. But we don’t know whether it happened.”

Why don’t we know?

“Because Catholics wrote it.”

This pastor believed as soon as the New Testament was finalized, Roman Catholics swooped in and took over Christianity big time. Everyone in the church, and everything they did after that, was “Catholic”—and therefore, to his mind, heretic—until Martin Luther gave ’em the finger in 1517. And while he was a huge fan of Luther doing that, he wasn’t so sure about Lutherans either. Dude had a lot of prejudices. So the stories of Paul after Acts were “Catholic,” and therefore not to be trusted. And the stories of the ancient church, the teachings of ancient and medieval Christians, and really all of Christianity’s first 15 centuries: “Catholic,” and not to be trusted.

Thanks to him, and most of the folks in that church, I was pretty much ignorant of Christian history—and okay with that, ’cause I imagined it was unreliable, ’cause heretics. I had a lot of gaps in my knowledge which my bible college had to fill in. By which point I had changed churches, had learned enough about Catholics to know better than to think them heretic, and most importantly had learned there were no “Roman Catholics” until the Orthodox/Catholic schism developed. All those ancient Christians who recorded the church’s earliest ideas, history, teachings, and testimonies: They were a fairly loose network of people who were trying to follow Jesus as best they could in the predominantly pagan, and occasionally murderous, culture of the Roman Empire.

The guy with the dorm room next to mine was an Orthodox Christian, and he had splurged on a 38-volume set of the ante-Nicene, Nicene, and post-Nicene fathers. This was before ebooks were a thing, and the print edition set him back at least a thousand dollars. (Which is why I was so jazzed when a CD-ROM version came out five years later, and was only $39.95!) “Borrow whatever you like,” he told me. “The school library isn’t always that accessible, so it’s good to have your own library.” True that. I borrowed his volumes regularly till he graduated at the end of my sophomore year.

Know your fathers.

I should probably explain what some of these titles mean. Nicene refers to the council of Nicea in the year 325, which generated the Nicene creed. So Nicene fathers would be the guys who attended the council, or their contemporaries; ante-Nicene fathers would be the Christians before them, and post-Nicene fathers the Christians after them.

Sometimes people refer to “the apostolic fathers,” and no this doesn’t mean the first apostles. This means the students of the first apostles; the guys whom they trained to succeed them in leading churches and Christians. The earliest of the anti-Nicene fathers would be the apostolic fathers, like Clement of Rome who studied under Paul, and Polycarp of Smyrna and Irenaeus of Lyons who studied under John.

Certain Protestants are leery of reading ancient Christians ’cause they’re referred to as the church fathers, which triggers ’em and gets them to quote Jesus’s statement,

Matthew 23.9 KJV
And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.

Fair enough. But in reply I’m gonna quote Paul:

1 Timothy 5.1-2 KJV
1 Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; 2 the elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity.

It’s not about revering the ancient Christians as if they’re infallible masters of the faith, whom we should never, ever question. Christianity doesn’t work like that. (And if your church ever does, you’re in a cult. Get out.) It’s about recognizing these guys are elders, mature Christians who spent their whole lives trying to follow Jesus, and have wisdom and insights to share. But when we disagree with them—and we might!—we’re not to fling them away as if they’re unclean things. They’re fellow Christians. Disagree with them as you would a father—in a healthy relationship, not a dysfunctional one. Maybe even agree to disagree. But they’re still fellow Christians.

These guys are definitely not infallible. Other ancient Christians knew this—and it’s precisely why they didn’t keep expanding the New Testament to include all the new writings of their infallible prophets. The church fathers made mistakes same as any Christian might, based on their inadequate knowledge, prejudices, lapses of character, and the way-too-common tendency to play connect-the-dots with the scriptures instead of quoting them in context. In fact two of the ancient Christians in these volumes, Tertullian of Carthage and Origen of Alexandria, aren’t even known as saints in the ancient, Orthodox, and Catholic churches, because some of the ideas they taught are heretic. Never read anything, ancient Christians included, without your eyes open.

But again these are elders. The Holy Spirit showed ’em stuff. What might we learn from them?

Orthodox and Catholic doctrines are frequently based on a combination of scripture, and the stuff the people they consider “fathers” (or as the Catholics sometimes call certain clever fathers, “doctors”) taught. If you wanna understand where they’re coming from, it doesn’t hurt to read the guys they venerate.

Sometimes they’re a bit of a slog to read, and I’m gonna blame the translators for that. A good translator keeps their subject easy to read, understandable, and interesting. Too many people think it’s more important for translators to be exact than readable, and demand as literal a translation as possible. So that’s what the translators of these volumes went for. But that doesn’t make ’em good translations. It’ll sometimes feel like you have to dig the good stuff out of all the wordiness. That’s fine.

Other times they’re gonna frustrate you, as they did me, because of how dense some of these guys can get. Or impatient, uncharitable, unkind, and otherwise insufficient in good fruit. Sometimes they sound mighty antisemitic—usually because they’ve been debating Pharisees, and are frustrated with their unwillingness to concede; but sometimes because they actually are bigoted gentiles or Christian chauvinists. I’m not gonna defend that behavior; it’s sinful. It’s a reminder these guys aren’t infallible. Try not to let it distract you, and don’t repeat it.

What’s in there?

The 38-volume set, which you’ll find free at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) and the Catholic site New Advent, and which’ll cost you at most other sites, booksellers, and bible software publishers, is actually a combination of multiple sets, containing English translations of the essential writings of Christianity’s first five centuries:

  • The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Originally edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson in Scotland, and published between 1867–73, an American edition was produced (well, pirated) by A. Cleveland Coxe, who replaced Roberts and Donaldson’s prefaces with his own, and published ’em 1885–96.
  • A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church It came in two series: The eight St. Augustine and six St. John Chrysostom volumes, edited by Swiss-American theologian Philip Schaff; and the 14-volume second series of various other ancient Christians, edited by Schaff and British historian Henry Wace. Both were published in the U.S. from 1886–1900.

Around the very same time I was digging through my hallmate’s volumes, Harry Plantiga was developing CCEL at Wheaton College. (It’s now hosted by Calvin University, where Plantiga is a computer science professor). The volumes of the early church fathers were among the first books added to the site. They began as text-only documents, then were upgraded to HTML, then were further upgraded to an XML format Plantiga calls ThML, “Theological Markup Language,” which allowed him to format it any which way, but didn’t require licenses from software manufacturers. When I first came across his site, more than half the church fathers’ volumes were still in the process of conversion—and if you wanted, you could check out page scans of the print volumes, which they provided to help their volunteers proofread the text.

Anyway you can read the entirety of these volumes here. And can download them in PDF, or in Kindle format, for free.

Were you curious about the history of Christianity after Acts concluded? Eusebius Pamphili’s Church History is included in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers volume 2.1. Wanna read some of the books the ancient Christians chose not to include in the New Testament? Hermas’s The Shepherd (here called “The Pastor”) is in there, and many of the New Testament apocryphal books are in Ante-Nicene Fathers volume 9. There’s Augustine’s Confessions and City of God. There’s Irenaeus’s Heresies. There’s John of Damascus’s On the Orthodox Faith. There’s a lot of reading material in there.

Check ’em out, and fill in some of the blanks in your own deficient knowledge of Christian history.