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Who are the Church Fathers?

The expression "Church Fathers" refers to a group of writers in the lands around the Mediterranean Sea who shaped the foundations of Christian thought from about 200 to 600 A.D. Some wrote in Greek, others in Latin. They are called "Fathers" because of their decisive influence on the later church's understanding of the gospel.

Their era is divided into times before and after 313, when Emperor Constantine's support changed the church from an underground persecuted minority to a state-supported imperial religion.

The Fathers were theologians; some hammered out the church's full definition of the Holy Trinity and of Christ's full humanity and divinity. But they were also pastors who constantly preached, wrote spiritual works, created the church's liturgy, and invented the catechumenate, what is today called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. They also originated the Christian monastic way of life.

Above all, these first theologians of the church were learned commentators on the Bible. They answered basic faith questions from scripture, where God's voice was accessible to everyone. Gregory the Great voiced the collective wisdom of the Fathers when he encouraged people to know scripture because "the divine words grow with the one who reads them."

Before Constantine, Greek-speaking authors like the bishop Irenaeus faced down those who challenged the church's,, core belief about the basic goodness of God's, creation: The glory of God is a human being fully alive, he wrote. In the Latin West, the orator Tertullian acclaimed the martyrs, while the bishop and martyr Cyprian celebrated the church's unity as the "seamless robe of Christ."

After Constantine, the Fathers wrote dazzling reflections on Christian faith that retain their power today. In the East, Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom scorched the lazy with fiery sermons on social justice. Gregory of Nyssa wrote stunning mystical texts that spoke of inner spiritual ascent by means of a "sober inebriation" from God. In the West the teachings of Ambrose and Augustine were both acutely intellectual and permeated with prayer.

To read the Fathers today is to catch Christianity in the first flush of its self-discovery and confident exploration of the riches of the gospel. They saw Christianity as a total way of life that shapes our understanding of everything from our deepest human intimacies to our highest spiritual aspirations. Their works remain touchstones for basic Christian ideas and practices.

The Fathers had their limitations. The influence of over-spiritualizing Greek philosophy at times made them inattentive to human realities. Their antagonism toward Jews, which today's church disavows, is especially painful to read in light of the Shoah. Still, when the Second Vatican Council wished to express its teaching in positive and uplifting spiritual terms, the bishops turned instinctively to the Fathers and quoted them copiously (along with the Bible) to articulate their vision.

MICHAEL CAMERON, who teaches the history of early Christianity at the University of Portland, Oregon.
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Author:Cameron, Michael
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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