It is quite common, in Protestant circles at least, to say that the church was messed up from the beginning. We see signs of this even in the New Testament where the epistle writers are often trying to help people see the true message of the Gospel through the forest of competing traditions and false teachers. We see Jesus giving warnings about false teachers on the right (Pharisees) and on the left (Sadducees). Through out his ministry, Jesus points us more to a relationship with God than a pattern of observances—an attitude of grace rather than ridged legalism. In fact, the whole council of the Bible points us to a simple and direct relationship with God.
The further along in history we get man makes things more complicated. For us humans, our thinking gets in the way of our relating. We see this pattern of drifting from God repeated in the Bible. From Adam, mankind's rebellion increased until the judgment of the flood. After Noah there is a great falling away with Nimrod and the boys but out of all of that Abram is called. After the call of Abraham, it is pretty much Abraham's family alone that are faithful—and they do not do a good job. When Israel is becoming a nation they stray constantly even in light of miraculous provision. Once Israel is in the promised land they go after other gods until they are taken into captivity in Babylon. It would not be surprising then to see that the Church has similar problems.
So we see intellectualism beginning with Origen and those who follow him in the academy. There are attempts to reconcile Greek philosophy with the Christian message that produce an uncomfortable hybrid that becomes Gnosticism. Appeals to a developing Christian tradition and the beginnings of the institutional church. Christianity becoming the state religion that produce cultural and political Christianity with its converts of convenience rather than conscience. While some of this may seem good on the surface, most of these are outward rather than inward. This may sound like the failures of the church today but this page talks about the first four centuries of the Church.
Ulfilas Gothic Wulfila (310 – 383) is a bit problematic for my stated goal to trace Christian orthodoxy through early writers. He is pivotal for several reasons not the least of which is his ability to compromise.
He was the missionary who evangelized the Goths,
reputedly created the Gothic alphabet, and wrote the earliest
translation of the Bible into a Germanic language (which he created).
Although his life cannot be reconstructed with certainty, fragments have
come from 4th- and 5th-century ecclesiastical historians.
Gregory the Illuminator (c 257-337) is often said to have converted the Armenians in 301.
The Catholic Encyclopedia says that he was not the first who introduced Christianity into that country but he is revered as a national saint. The Armenians maintain that the faith was preached there by the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddaeus. It is certain that there were Christians, even bishops, in Armenia before St. Gregory. A certain Dionysius of Alexandria (248-265) wrote them a letter "about penitence" (Eusebius, Church History VI.46). This earliest Church was then destroyed by the Persians. Ardashir I, the founder of the Sassanid dynasty (226), restored, even extended, the old power of Persia. Armenia, always the exposed frontier state between Rome and Persia, was overrun by Ardashir's army (Khosrov I of Armenia had taken the side of the old Arsacid dynasty); and the principle of uniformity in the Mazdean religion, that the Sassanids made a chief feature of their policy, was also applied to the subject kingdom. A Parthian named Anak murdered Khosrov by Ardashir's orders, who then tried to exterminate the whole Armenian royal family. But a son of Khosrov, Trdat (Tiridates), escaped, was trained in the Roman army, and eventually came back to drive out the Persians and restore the Armenian kingdom.
Augustine of Hippo
(354-430 AD) was a Latin philosopher and theologian from Roman
Africa. His writings were very influential in the development of Western
In his teens Augustine decided that Christianity was intellectually second rate as it presented a picture of God that was problematic. In particular, he wondered, how could a good God could allow evil? (This sounds quite contemporary.) Having rejected Christianity, much to his mother's chagrin, Augustine pursued Manichaeism, a form of Gnosticism. Many forms of Gnosticism are dualistic or nearly so and Augustine was content with a Gnostic cosmology that asserted that there was not a single good and all-powerful God, but two divine powers that rule the universe. The principal of light was the good force and the principal of darkness was the origin of evil.
When Manichaeism was no longer tenable to him he turned briefly to skepticism and then to the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus. Platonism shares a similar view of cosmology with Gnosticism. Creation emanates from The One but it would be something of a stretch to call Platinus' The One God in the Christian sense. The notion is that the closer you get to The One, which is at the center of emanations, the closer you are to correctly understanding the world and living properly in it.
Augustine's turning point came when some time in the year 386, Augustine and his friend Alypius were spending time in Milan. While outdoors, Augustine heard the voice of a child singing a song, the words of which were, "Pick it up and read it. Pick it up and read it." He thought at first that the song was related to some kind of children's game, but could not remember ever having heard such a song before. Then, realizing that this song might be a command from God to open and read the Scriptures, he located a Bible, picked it up, opened it and read the first passage he saw. It was from the Letter of Paul to the Romans. Augustine read:
Reading this scripture, Augustine felt as if his heart were flooded with light. He turned totally from his life of sin. He was Baptized by Ambrose during the Easter Vigil April 24, 387. His friend Alypius and his son Adeodatus were Baptized at the same time.
conversion to Christianity and baptism in AD 387, Augustine developed
his own approach to philosophy and theology, accommodating a variety of
methods and different perspectives. He believed that the grace of Christ
was indispensable to human freedom, and he framed the concepts of
original sin and just war. According to his contemporary, Jerome,
Augustine "established anew the ancient Faith."
When the Western Roman Empire was starting to disintegrate, Augustine developed the concept of the Catholic Church as a spiritual City of God (in a book of the same name), distinct from the material Earthly City. His thoughts profoundly influenced the medieval worldview. Augustine's City of God was closely identified with the Church, the community that worshipped God.
He would write 93 books that would influence the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Churches.
Cyprian (Latin: Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus) (died September 14, 258) was bishop of Carthage and an important Early Christian writer, many of whose Latin works are still extant. He was born circa the beginning of the 3rd century in North Africa, perhaps at Carthage, where he received a classical education. He converted to Christianity in his middle age and became a bishop in 249. He eventually died a martyr at Carthage because he live during the time of two official persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire.
Christians in North Africa had not suffered persecution for many years; the church was assured and lax. Early in 250 the "Decian persecution" began that lasted until 251. Measures were first taken demanding that the bishops and officers of the church sacrifice to the emperor. The proconsul on circuit, and five commissioners for each town, administered the edict; but, when the proconsul reached Carthage, Cyprian had fled.
It is quite evident in the writings of the church fathers from various dioceses that the Christian community was divided on this occasion, among those who stood firm in civil disobedience, and those who buckled, submitting in word or in deed to the order of sacrifice and receiving a ticket or receipt called a "libellus". Cyprian's secret departure from Carthage was interpreted by his enemies as cowardice and infidelity, and they hastened to accuse him at Rome. The Roman clergy wrote to Cyprian in terms of disapproval. Cyprian rejoined that he fled in accordance with visions and the divine command. From his place of refuge he ruled his flock with earnestness and zeal, using a faithful deacon as his intermediary.
At the end of 256 a new persecution of the Christians under Emperor Valerian I broke out, and both Pope Stephen I and his successor, Pope Sixtus II, suffered martyrdom at Rome. In Africa Cyprian courageously prepared his people for the expected edict of persecution by his "De exhortatione martyrii," and himself set an example when he was brought before the Roman proconsul Aspasius Paternus (August 30, 257). He refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and firmly professed Christ.
On September 13, 258, he was imprisoned; the day following he was examined and sentenced to die by the sword. His only answer was "Thanks be to God!" The execution was carried out at once in an open place near the city.
His most important work is his "De unitate ecclesiae." In it, he states: "He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother; . . . he who gathereth elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ" (vi.); "nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church" (ix.).
John Cassian (ca 360-435) (Latin: Jo(h)annes Eremita Cassianus, Joannus Cassianus, or Joannes Massiliensis), John the Ascetic, or John Cassian the Roman, was a Christian theologian celebrated in both the Western and Eastern Churches for his mystical writings. He is known both as one of the "Scythian monks" and as one of the "Desert Fathers."
John Cassian wrote two major spiritual works, the Institutions and the Conferences. In these, he codified and transmitted the wisdom of the Desert Fathers of Egypt.
In Books 1-4 of Institutions, Cassian discusses clothing, prayer and rules of monastic life. Books 5-12 are rules on morality, specifically addressing the eight vices - gluttony, lust, avarice, hubris, wrath, envy, acedia (spiritual or mental sloth), and boasting - and what to do to cure these vices.
The Conferences, summarize important conversations that Cassian had with elders from Scetis (the location of what is thought to be the first monastery) about principles of the spiritual and ascetic life. This book addresses specific problems of spiritual theology and the ascetic life.
His third book, On the Incarnation of the Lord, was a defense of orthodox doctrine against the views of Nestorius.
Spirituality of John Cassian
The Desert ascetics of Egypt followed a three-step path to mysticism: Purgatio, Illuminatio, and Unitio.
During the first level, Purgatio (in Greek, Catharsis), young monks struggled through prayer and ascetic practices to gain control of "the flesh"—specifically by purging their gluttony, their lust and their desire for possessions. This period of purgation, which often took many years, was intended to teach young monks that whatever strength they had to resist these desires (grace) came directly from the Holy Spirit. As the monks underwent this stage of their spiritual education, they identified with Christ's temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1–11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13), so that by the end of the Purgatio, they could trust peacefully in the Lord for all their needs.
At this point, the Illuminatio (theoria in Greek) commenced. During this period the monks practiced the paths to holiness as revealed in the Gospel, identifying strongly with the Christ who taught the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). Many monks took in visitors and students and tended the poor as much as their resources allowed. The monks continued their life of humility in the Spirit of God; the stoic acceptance of suffering was intended to make them capable of taking on heroic or difficult responsibilities for the local Christian community. Many monks died never having moved past this period.
The final stage was the Unitio (theosis in Greek), a period in which the soul of the monk was meant to bond with the Spirit of God in a union often described as the marriage of the Song of Solomon (also called the "Song of Songs" or the "Canticle of Canticles"). To find the solitude and peace that this level of mystical awareness demanded, elderly monks often fled into the deep desert or into remote forests, identifying with the transfigured Christ, who remained hidden from his disciples both during his life and often after his resurrection.
Hippolytus of Rome (c 170 – c 236) was an important 3rd-century theologian in the Christian Church in Rome. Photios I of Constantinople describes him in his Bibliotheca (cod. 121) as a disciple of Irenaeus, who was said to be a disciple of Polycarp. He came into conflict with the popes of his time and seems to have headed a schismatic group as a rival bishop of Rome. For that reason he is sometimes considered the first Antipope by Rome. He opposed the Roman bishops who softened the penitential system to accommodate the large number of new pagan converts. However, he was very probably reconciled to the Church when he died as a martyr.
Surviving works include fragments on commentaries on scriptures. A treatise on Christ and Antichrist and several volumes of Refutation of all Heresies.
Julius Africanus (c. 160-c. 240) is the father of Christian chronography (giving modern dates to the stories in the Bible using the genealogies as a guide). He wrote his Chronicle (Chronographiai) between the years 212 and 221, estimating that the period between the creation and the birth of Christ was 5,500 years. Little is known of his life and little remains of his works. He is important chiefly because of his influence on Eusebius, on all the later writers of Church history among the Fathers, and on the whole Greek school of chroniclers. His name implies that he was from Africa although it could mean that he was famous in relation to Africa.
He knew Greek (in which language he wrote), Latin, and Hebrew. He was at one time a soldier and had been a pagan; he wrote all his works as a Christian.
Tertullian Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, anglicised as Tertullian, (ca. 155–230)
Tertullian was the first great writer of Latin Christianity, thus sometimes known as the "Father of the Latin Church". He introduced the term Trinity as the Latin trinitas, to the Christian vocabulary and also probably the formula "three Persons, one Substance" as the Latin "tres Personae, una Substantia" (itself from the Koine Greek "treis Hypostases, Homoousios"), and also the terms vetus testamentum ("old testament") and novum testamentum ("new testament"). In his Apologeticus, he was the first Latin author who qualified Christianity as the 'vera religio' (true religion), and symmetrically relegated the classical Empire religion and other accepted cults to the position of mere 'superstitions'. (Wikipedia 5/5/07)
Tertullian left the Church of Rome late in his life and joined the Montanists. The Montanists were considered controversial at least and later heretical. They believed in new prophecy which the Church had not experienced for some time. Tertullian tells us (in the quote by 'Praedestinatus' and in De Ieiunio) that the Spirit proclaimed no innovation in doctrine, but only gave directions about matters of church discipline, which were coming to be the prerogative of the bishop. It would seem that the Montanists were orthodox in all matters of doctrine.
Some modern Pentecostals see the Montanists as the last flicker of the apostolic gifts of the spirit, although it seems that the apostolic age was already over before the Montanists began. Whether they were or not, thereafter no-one claiming to have the gift of prophecy was likely to be well-received in the church, and any genuine move of the spirit was certainly quenched. (Tertullian.org 5/5/07)
Origen (185-254) Is referred to by many as an heterodox. His teaching was judged heretical by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553. Although today he is listed as one of the respected Church Fathers. He is credited with one of the first intellectual attempts to describe Christianity.
Origen's most famous work On First Principals rebutted Gnosticism at length. Origen was well educated and quite familiar in the Greek philosophers and so well qualified for this task. It is common these days to consider Gnosticism a melding of the Christian message with pagan philosophy.
According to Epiphanius (Haer., lxiv.63) Origen wrote about 6,000 works. A list was given by Eusebius in his lost life of Pamphilus (Hist. eccl., VI., xxxii. 3; Eng. transl., NPNF, 2 ser., i. 277), which was apparently known to Jerome (Epist. ad Paulam, NPNF, vi. 46). His writings fall into four classes: text criticism; exegesis; systematic, practical, and apologetic theology; and letters; besides certain spurious works.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia the heresy that bears the name Origenism is understood not so much as Origen's theology and the body of his teachings, as it is a certain number of doctrines, rightly or wrongly attributed to him, and which by their novelty or their danger called forth at an early period a refutation from orthodox writers. They are chiefly:
His work in text criticism includes his Hexapla, a parallel Greek Old Testament that compared 5 translations of the Hebrew scriptures with the Hebrew. This was an attempt to find a standard Greek text of the Old Testament.
Pantaenus (d. ca. 216) Not much is known directly about Pantaenus except for his influence on others. He founded the Catechetical School of Alexandria in 190. This school is known as the earliest catechetical school, and influential in the development of Christian theology.
In 185 Pantaenus was a Stoic philosopher teaching in Alexandria. He converted to the Christian faith, and sought to reconcile his new faith with Greek philosophy. His most famous student, and his successor as head of the Catechetical School was Clement of Alexandria. Clement described Pantaenus as "the Sicilian bee". Although no writings be Pantanus are extent, his legacy is known by the influence of the Catechetical School on the development of Christian theology, in particular in the early debates on the interpretation of the Bible, the Trinity, and Christology. (Wikipedia 5/7/07).
Eusebius (c. 275 – May 30, 339) is often referred to as the father of church history because of his work in recording the history of the early Christian church. An earlier version of church history by Hegesippus, to which he refers, has not survived for us.
In his Church History (Historia Ecclesiastica), Eusebius attempted to present the history of the Church from the time of the apostles to his own time, with special regard to the following points:
There are 10 books in his history. He grouped his material according to the reigns of the emperors, presenting it as he found it in his sources. The contents are as follows:
Jerome (340-420) was certainly one of the foremost scholars of his day. Perhaps best known for his Latin Translation of the Bible which became known as the Vulgate he did much work to bring the work of scholars from previous generations into a form that the Western Church could use. His work includes transitions of the homilies of Origen on Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah.
Jerome produced commentaries of his own on the books of Hosea, Joel, Amos, Zachariah, Malachi, Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah. He also left us sermons and treatises on Mark, homilies on the Psalms, on various subjects, and on the Gospels. Also from Jerome we have "Dialogi contra Pelagianos" or Dialogue with the Pelagians. Which is a denunciation of Pelagianism.
Athanasius (c. 296 - May 2, 373)
St. Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria from 328. He became known as the Father of Orthodoxy. He wrote a "Contra Gentes" (Against the Heathen) and "Oratio de Incarnatione Verbi" (On the Incarnation of the Word) between 318 and 323, which St. Jerome refers to together as "Adversum Gentes Duo Libri." Athanasius opposed the Arians, and was involved in the council of Nicaea and the formulation of the Nicene Creed. Athanasius wrote the first list of the 27 books recognized by Christians as the Bible that corresponds exactly to the books we have today. (http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/earlychurch/tp/EasternFathers.htm)
Basil the Great (329 - January 1, 379)
Basil was born in Caesarea of Cappadocia and went to school with Gregory of Nazianzus and the future emperor Julian the Apostate. He toured the monasteries in Egypt and then founded a monastic settlement near his home with emphasis on the communal life. He wrote "Longer Rules" and "Shorter Rules" for monastic life. Basil sold his family's holdings to buy food for the poor. Basil became Bishop of Caesarea in 370, at a time when an Arian emperor, Valens, was ruling. (http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/earlychurch/tp/EasternFathers.htm)
Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 325 - 389)
Gregory Persuasively preached his "Five Theological Orations" on the Trinity and defending the divinity of Christ (against the Arian position) in Constantinople, in 379. The next year Gregory was made Bishop of Constantinople. Presiding at the Council of Constantinople in 381, the Nicaean Council's position was confirmed. He then resigned and went into retirement. Gregory is also known as Gregory Nazianzen.
St. John Chrysostom (c. 347 - September 14, 407)
John Chrysostom was known for his eloquence; hence, his name Chrysostom (golden mouth). John was born at Antioch, the second city of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. John became bishop in Constantinople, but his preaching against corruption led to his exile.
Ambrose, (c. 338 – 4 April 397) was a bishop of Milan who became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the fourth century. At issue in the church at the time were the nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit (Arians and Macedonians) and the readmission of those who renounced their faith for fear of persecution (Novatians). History also shows the coupling of the government and the church that began with Constantine in 313 and the story of Ambrose shows in part how it developed.
Ambrose was born into a Frankish Christian family between about 337 and 340 and was raised in Trier. He was the son of a praetorian prefect of Gallia Narbonensis; his mother was a woman of intellect and piety. He was educated in Rome, studying literature, law, and rhetoric. Ambrose was an excellent administrator and had quite a career in government becoming prefect himself before becoming bishop.
There was a deep conflict in the diocese of Milan as well as the rest of the Church between the Trinitarians and the Arians. In 374, Auxentius, bishop of Milan, died, and the Arians challenged the succession. Ambrose went personally to the basilica where the election should take place, to prevent an uproar which was probable in this crisis. His address was interrupted by a call "Ambrose for bishop!" which was taken up by others upon which he was univocally elected bishop.
Ambrose was known to be personally Trinitarian, but also acceptable to Arians due to the charity shown in this regard. At first he energetically refused the office, for which he was in no way prepared: Ambrose was neither baptized nor formally trained in theology. Upon his appointment, Ambrose fled to a colleague's home to seek hiding. Upon receiving a letter from the Emperor praising the appropriateness of Rome appointing individuals evidently worthy of holy positions, St. Ambrose's host gave Ambrose up. Within a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained and duly installed as bishop of Milan.
Most of Ambrose's writings that have come down to us are really homilies, spoken commentaries on the Old and New Testaments, taken down by his hearers, and afterwards recorded in their present form. He uses the allegorico-mystical interpretation of Scripture. That is, while admitting the natural or literal sense he seeks everywhere a deeper mystic meaning that he converts into practical instruction for Christian life. In this, says St. Jerome (Ep.xli) "he was disciple of Origen, but after the modifications in that master's manner due to St. Hippolytus of Rome and St. Basil the Great". He was also influenced in this direction by the Jewish writer Philo. There is a danger in allegorizing scripture and also to relying on non-Christian writers. It is to be noted, however, Ambrose never abandons a strictly Christian attitude (cf. Kellner, Der heilige Ambrosius als Erklärer das Alten Testamentes, Ratisbon, 1893).
In his writings Ambrose draws abundantly from the ideas of some earlier writers, Christian or pagan, but adapts these thoughts with tact and intelligence to the larger public of his time and his people. He is especially conversant with the writings of the classical Roman poet Virgil.
For convenience sake his extant writings may be divided into four categories: exegetical, dogmatic, ascetico-moral, and occasional.
The exegetical writings deal with the story of Creation, the Old Testament figures of Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham and the patriarchs, Elias, Tobias, David and the Psalms, and other subjects. Of his writings on the New Testament only the lengthy commentary on St. Luke has reached us (Expositio in Lucam).
The most influential of his ascetico-moral writings is the work on the duties of Christian ecclesiastics (De officiis ministrorum). It is a manual of Christian morality, and follows closely the work of the Roman philosopher Cicero.
His dogmatic writings include: A defense of the true divinity of Jesus Christ against the Arians, and another on the true divinity of the Holy Ghost against the Macedonians; also a work on the Incarnation of Our Lord, these were written at the request of the young Emperor Gratian (375-383). His work "On Penance" was written in refutation of the rigoristic tenets of the Novatians and abounds in useful evidences of the power of the Church to forgive sins, the necessity of confession and the meritorious character of good works.
We see in Abrose's writings the developing sacramentalism of the Roman church. Indeed the above excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia We also see a man who came to the post in a rather unusual way because of the commingling of the church and the empire.