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Yuri Koszarycz


I now want to examine some of the key beliefs and perspectives held by the early Church Fathers in the first three centuries of the Christian era. It is important to stress that these centuries were often characterized by violent persecution and tension between the fledgling Christian communities and the State authorities. Yet, the preserved early writings of this period show us a fascinating portrait of diverse theological developments relating to the way in which the Church understood itself, the role and character of the primacy, the episcopate, and the notion of the Church's infallibility in teaching and guiding its flock.

In the writings of these earliest Fathers of the Church, we are faced for the first time with questions that have equal importance, and are still debated in our own twentieth century : What is the hierarchical (and monarchial) structure of the Church? What is the true meaning of collegiality? How does one ascertain what is orthodox doctrine? What is authentic history of the primitive Church? Did Jesus Found the Church or did it pre-exist from the beginning of all time? How is the Church the continuance of the life of Christ on earth? How does the Church deal with heretics and schismatics, the good and the wicked within its fold? What is the true relationship that should exist between the secular and spiritual powers? Why is it that Rome and not Jerusalem or one of the early Christian Churches that is to be regarded as the center of unity? How is the transmission of apostolic jurisdiction to be made in the primitive Churches? Why did the Church, particularly in the personage of the Pontiff, consider itself to be infallible?

Below I will list some key passages for your reflection that will address some of these issues. The quotes are taken from William A. Jurgens' excellent translations of early patristic writings : The Faith of the Early Fathers, (Vol.I), The Liturgical Press, Minnesota, 1970. Beneath each passage, in the space provided, write a brief reaction from your own personal standpoint. Remember, the quotes come from people who lived under persecution, in a culture and society very different from your own. Note the changes (if any) that have occurred in the past two millenia that either confirm or challenge the presented perspectives. What does each statement say about the theology of the time? How was the Church perceived and understood? Do we have similar or different opinions or beliefs today? What are they in the context of our own understanding of Church? Does the ancient teaching have relevance for us today? How would we re-phrase the "truths" contained in each statement?

  • I presume that you are not ignorant of the fact that the living Church is the body of Christ. The Scripture says, "God made man male and female." The male is Christ, and the female is the Church. Moreover, the Books and the Apostles declare that the Church belongs not to the present, but has existed from the beginning. She was spiritual, just as was our Jesus; but He was manifested in the last days so that he might save us. And the Church, being spiritual, was manifested in the flesh of Christ. [From the so called Second Letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, ca. A.D. 150], in: Jurgens, 1970: 43].

  • From what has been said then, it seems clear to me that the true Church, that which is really ancient, is one; and in it are enrolled those who, in accord with a design, are just... We say, therefore, that in substance, in concept, in origin and in eminence, the ancient and Catholic Church is alone, gathering as it does into the unity of the one faith which results from the familiar covenants, - or rather, from the one covenant in different times, by the will of the one God and through the one Lord, - those already chosen, those predestined by God who knew before the foundation of the world that they would be just. (From St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, after 202 AD, in Jurgens, 1970: 185).

  • Furthermore, the more anyone observes that a bishop remains silent, the more he should stand in fear of him. For anyone whom the master of the house sends to manage his business ought to be received by us as we would receive him by whom he was sent. It is clear, then, that we must look upon the bishop as the Lord Himself. (St.Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, ca. 110 AD, in Jurgens, 1970: 18).

  • The Bride of Christ cannot be defiled. She is inviolate and chaste... Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adultress is separated from the promises of the Church; nor will he that forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is an alien, a worldling, and an enemy. He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his Mother... Does anyone believe that in the Church this unity which proceeds from the divine stability and which is welded together after the heavenly patterns can be divided, and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills? Whoever holds not fast to this unity holds not to the law of God; neither does he keep faith with the Father and the Son, nor does he have life and salvation. (St. Cyprian of Carthage, The Unity of the Catholic Church, [AD 251/256], in: Jurgens, 1970: 221).

  • The Church, instituted by the Lord and confirmed by the Apostles, is one for all men; but the frantic folly of the diverse impious sects has cut them off from her. It cannot be denied that this tearing asunder of the faith has arisen from the defect of poor intelligence, which twists what is read to conform to its opinion, instead of adjusting its opinion to the meaning of what is read. However, while individual parties fight among themselves, the Church stands revealed not only by her own doctrines, but by those also of her adversaries. And although they are all ranged against her, she confutes the most wicked error which they all share, by the very fact that she is alone and one. (St. Hilary of Poitiers, The Trinity, ca. 356 - 359 AD, in Jurgens, 1970: 376).

  • Confess your offenses in Church, and do not go up to your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life. (Didache, ca. AD 140, in Jurgens, 1970: 2).

  • What the soul is to the body, that the Christians are to the world. The soul is spread through all parts of the body, and the Christians through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but it is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, though they are not of the world. The soul is invisible, but it is sheathed in a visible body. Christians are seen, for they are in the world; but their religion remains invisible. (Letter to Diognetus, AD 125/200, in Jurgens, 1970: 41).

  • It is evident that no one can terrify us or hold us to servitude, who have believed in Jesus over all the earth. For, though beheaded and crucified, and thrown to the beasts and in chains and fire and subjected to all the other tortures, we do not give up our confession. On the contrary, the more do such things happen, the more do others in greater numbers become faithful worshippers of God through the name of Jesus. (St. Justin the Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, (ca. AD 155), in Jurgens, 1970: 62).

  • Elect for yourselves, therefore bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, humble men and not lovers of money, truthful and proven; for they also serve you in the ministry of the prophets and teachers. Do not therefore despise them; for they are your honourable men, together with the prophets and teachers. Correct one another, not in anger but in peace, as you find it in the gospel; and let no one speak with you who has done a wrong to his neighbour, nor let him hear, until he repents. (Didache, in: Jurgens, 1970: 4).

  • There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one Chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord. It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood. Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering. (St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letter to all his People, AD 251, in Jurgens, 1970: 229).

  • Peter alone among the Apostles do I find married, and through mention of his mother-in-law. I presume he was a monogamist; for the Church, built upon him, would for the future, appoint to every degree of Orders none but monogamists. (Tertullian, Monogamy, post AD 213, in: Jurgens, 1970: 158).

  • In like manner let everyone respect the deacons, as they would respect Jesus Christ, and just as they respect the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and college of Apostles. Without these, it cannot be called a Church. (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Trallians, ca.AD 110, in Jurgens, 1970: 20 - 21)

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Copyright ©1999, Yuri Koszarycz. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.