Early Church Fathers
Who are the “Early Church Fathers”?
The Church Fathers are those who have "continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship (Greek, "communion"). They help to form a continuous and unbroken testimony to the earliest way of Christian life and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.
The early Church Fathers in particular are those who historically followed the apostles and are a tangible link to the teachings of the apostles. Some of them were direct disciples of the apostles or ordained as bishops by them, those who held fast "the pattern of sound words" (2 Tim. 1:13) of the apostles and passed them on to others. As the Apostle Paul commanded Timothy (whom he ordained as bishop of Ephesus): "And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (1 Tim. 2:2).
By following the Church Fathers in every generation, the Orthodox Church discerns and maintains the teachings and way of life that Christ passed down to His apostles and is able to "stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or epistle" (2 Thess. 2:15). The Orthodox Church heeds the words of St. Paul to, "Remember those who have ruled over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith imitate, considering the outcome of their conduct. [Because] Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb. 13:7-8).
The early Church Fathers include Ignatius of Antioch (AD 35-108), a disciple of the Apostle John, who as bishop of that prominent 1st century Christian community left us seven letters as he was being taken to Rome to be fed to the lions for His confession of Christ. Five of these letters are written to the church communities of Asia Minor, one to Rome, and one to Ignatius' younger counterpart, Polycarp (AD 69-155), Bishop of Smyrna, also a disciple of the Apostle John.
From St. Polycarp we have a letter written to the church in Philippi as well as an eye-witness account of his martyrdom which reveals the spirit and practice of the early Church. We also have two letters from Clement, bishop of Rome, who was ordained by the Apostle Peter.
Justin the Martyr (AD 103-165), a former philosopher, although not a bishop, is also a witness of the early Church's life. He wrote of the Church's theology and provides testimony of the Sunday worship of the second centuries.
Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon (died AD 202), a disciple of St. Polycarp, was the greatest Church Father and theologian of the 3rd century. He wrote a number of works against the Gnostic heretics and other works including The Demonstration of the Apostle's Preaching. Melito, bishop of Sardis (died 180), Hippolytus, bishop of Rome (AD 170-235), Anthony the Great of Egypt (AD 251-356), Athanasius the Great of Alexandria (AD 328-373), and many others are counted among the early Church Fathers, who form a continuous and consistent thread of testimony of the apostolic interpretation of Scripture and apostolic doctrine and way of life.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
Why are the Church Fathers important to us in the 21 century?
Since "Christ is the same today, yesterday, and forever" (13:8), the Church Fathers are essential to us in understanding the apostolic faith and nature of Christ's Church. They are early testimonies to a pure and authentic Christian faith. Therefore, we have no need to guess, to rely upon our own faulty "wisdom," or to "reinvent the wheel" of the Christian Church. Rather we should conform to the consensus left to us by the Church Fathers, who are faithful guideposts that lighten the path of salvation.
And the Church Fathers did not become extinct through the centuries. Rather faithful men in every generation sacrificed even unto blood to maintain this faith. Thus we have the testimony of many others who received the faith from the earliest Fathers, e.g. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Dorotheos of Gaza, Ambrose of Milan, Hillary of Poitier, John of Damascus, Theodore the Studite, Photius Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory Palamas, etc.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour
Why do we need to refer to the Church Fathers if we have the Bible?
The idea of solo Scriptura (the Scriptures only) was a newly conceived idea, unheard of until the 16th century. Even Martin Luther, who was the first to conceived of such an idea did not literally follow it. In his defense of Holy Communion as more than a mere "symbol" Luther actually appealed to the Church Fathers!
Without the consistent testimony of the Church Fathers how can we be sure that "we" have found the correct interpretation of Scripture, especially when so many around us disagree? The doctrine of solo Scriptura has resulted in at least 30,000 denominations all claiming to follow the Bible. Even mainstream Protestants--Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians--have splintered into a number of contradictory denominations. Martin Luther lamented that he had left one Pope but created 1,000 popes, all with their own interpretation of Scripture.
Without a Pope and without a doctrine of solo Scriptura, the Orthodox Church has maintained a common faith for 2,000 years, by following the consensus of the Church Fathers.
For a comprehensive answer to this question see: http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/tca_solascriptura.aspx.
© Fr. Michael Shanbour