Sunday, July 26, 2015

In the footsteps of the early fathers

Early Christians faced not only challenges outside the community of believers, but also from within. Jesus had not spoken on every subject imaginable and had not set down anything in writing, giving rise to disputes as to what was in consonance with what he had taught.

Who, for example, was right concerning circumcision of baptized Gentiles: Peter, who said the males should be circumcised as prescribed by Jewish law (Leviticus 12:3), which Jesus said he came to fulfill, or Paul, who argued that there could be a circumcision of the spirit for Gentiles who follow the ethical norms of the law (Romans 2:25-29)? Jesus had not addressed the issue although he treated Gentiles and Abraham's Samaritan descendants with great gentleness.

The Council of Jerusalem decided in Paul's favor (read Acts 15 for an account). The apostles urged Gentiles only to "abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication," lifting the obligation to mark themselves with the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, circumcision. But even this ruling brings up questions: Why the dietary rules? What does "fornication" mean?

Into this and many other gaps stepped forward a group of people known collectively as the Church Fathers or "doctors" (from the Latin for teachers), the study of whose writings is called Patristics.

These were Christian men of learning—often but not always ordained as priests or bishops, and only some revered as saints. Some lived early enough to have met one of the apostles, others lived just a bit later and only knew those who knew the apostles. They each marked the faith in special ways.

St. Ignatius (35-110), third bishop of Antioch (the first was the evangelist Matthew), wrote a series of letters as he was being taken to his martyrdom in Rome. In one of them, he coined the term "ekklesia katholike" (Greek for catholic, or universal, church), referring to all the Christian communities collectively, or what Christians today call the Church with a capital C.

Better known for his martyrdom than for his life, is St. Polycarp  (69–155), bishop of Smyrna (today Izmir, Turkey), a disciple of the evangelist John. He was one of the first to spot differences in Christian ritual practices in the East (Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor) and the West (Rome and Western Europe) and seek, without success, to unify them. In 155 he was arrested but, according to Christian witnesses' account, flames from the fire built to burn him to death would not touch him. He was then stabbed but blood gushed in such volume that it quenched the fire. Finally, he was speared dead.

A Smyrnean disciple of Polycarp, St. Ireneaus (130-202), became bishop of Lyons, where he died in persecution. His Against Heresies is the first response against Gnosticism, of which we shall hear later.

My personal favorite is Origen Adamantius of Alexandria (185-254). Origen lived a tragic life and was a bold thinker.

His fiancée was killed when Roman soldiers ransacked a home where Christians were gathered and, in the depths of despair, he castrated himself. Later in life, he was ordained a priest, but deposed by a bishop who fancied himself an academic disputant. Origen was tortured during the Decian persecution, but lived past the death of the Emperor Decius in 251 and was released. He died three years later at the age of 69 from the effects of torture.

Origen was also a scholar and a theologian. He was a student and later teacher at the Didascalium, or Catechetical School of Alexandria, where the learned began to develop the first Christian variants of Greek philosophy, particularly Platonism. Ever wonder how come theology is so much like philosophy? Origen and his associates are where it all started.

Among Origen's great gifts to Christianity was his list of the books of the New Testament (which was not yet called that, as we shall see) and his insights as a biblical exegete, or interpreter, concerning symbolism, textual criticism and historical context of the various texts.

He was also an early advocate of universal salvation and, in a work that is lost, of reincarnation—later integrated into Christianity as apocatastasis, a restoration of our human bodies to their original or primordial condition, but in the heavenly afterlife. Many of his admittedly original views (pun intended) drew harsh criticism in the Church while he was alive and after.

I shall close this summary of early church fathers with Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (155–240), better known as Tertullian, from Carthage. Like Origen, he was polemical and controversial, which is why he is also not named a saint, although he is widely recognized as the "father of western theology."

Tertullian was the first to use the term "trinity" to describe the divine Father, Son and Holy Ghost mentioned in the gospel of Matthew by Jesus himself (Matthew 28:19). He also coined the term "New Testament" used specifically for the Christian biblical books.

My favorite of his sayings concerns war and peace. Writing as Roman soldiers, many influenced by the heroics of martyrs, themselves converted, Tertullian delivers a withering declaration that should make every pacifist proud: "Shall a Christian serve in war? Nay, how shall he serve even in peace?"

Like Origen, not all of Tertullian's views found their way into the mainstream of Christian beliefs. The last one mentioned, however, still enlivens the Quaker and Anabaptist traditions, about which we shall yet speak, much later.


vincent f. a. golphin said...

That was very informative. I wish I would have found this sooner. Keep writing!

Luis baliña said...

Muchas gracias. Los franceses dicen que Orígenes es grand père de la Iglesia.