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Reading Scripture with the early church fathers 

Who were the early church fathers and what can they teach us about the scriptures? The age of the church fathers begins with the apostles and the first disciples who had the privilege of personal contact with Jesus Christ.  They are the hearers of the Incarnate Word who kept and handed on the words of the Word.  The age of the apostles ends with the death of John the Evangelist at the close of the first century. 

The patristic period began with some of the fathers who remembered the apostles John or Peter personally.  They did not see Jesus in the flesh, but they have a personal share in the transmission of the apostles' testimony. 

The golden period of the fathers runs from the fourth to the sixth century.  Most date the end of the age of the Fathers of the West with the death of Isidore of Seville in 636, and the age of the Fathers of the East with the loss of John Damascene in 749. 

What characterizes a "father of the church"?  First, their antiquity.  The first church father is Clement of Rome who wrote his letter around the year 96.  The early fathers lived and breathed the scriptures and the teachings of the apostles.  They were the disciples and the disciples of the disciples of the apostles.  They demonstrate how Christ is present in all the Scriptures, from Genesis through Revelations.  (See How the Scriptures are one book in Christ.) 

A second characteristic of the church fathers is their holiness of life.  They studied, meditated, and lived as faithful witnesses of the gospel.  And they exhibited a tremendous zeal for God and the Scriptures.  They have much to teach us about reverence for God's word and for study and meditation upon it. 

A third characteristic is their orthodox doctrine.  Their teaching is recognized as sound within the bounds of Scripture and church tradition.  They affirm the central truths of the faith, such as belief in the triune God, the fully divine and fully human natures of Christ, the redemptive efficacy of Christ's death on the cross, the absolute authority and infallibility of Scripture, the fallen condition of humanity, the significance of baptism, the vital importance of prayer and the disciplined spiritual life.  They were not just theologians, but pastors of the church.  Most of the early fathers were bishops.  As shepherds of the church they spoke to the hearts and needs of those in their care. 

The fourth characteristic is ecclesiastical approval.  They were affirmed as such by the church itself.  Within the broader classification of "church fathers" eight are designated as "doctors of the church": Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great in the West; Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Athanasius and John Chrysostom in the East.  They are eminent among the fathers for the depth of their learning. 

What do the church fathers think about the reading of the Bible?  They show us that it's not just an intellectual activity, but more importantly a spiritual one.  It's going to school with the Holy Spirit. How can one prepare for fruitful study and meditation?  Origen says, "The Word of God is in your heart.  The Word digs in this soil so that the spring may gush out."  Jerome wrote: "You are reading?  No.  Your betrothed is talking to you.  It is your betrothed, that is, Christ, who is united with you.  He tears you away from the solitude of the desert and brings you into his home, saying to you, "Enter into the joy of your Master." 

The reading of the Bible should impact daily living.  The Scriptures must be put into practice and translated into daily experience.  We must be living testimonies of the Word of God.  Reading the church fathers requires serious effort.  We have to transcend our modern culture and way of looking in order to understand the mind and culture of the early church.  If we are willing to hunt and to dig we will find a rich treasure of wisdom and inspiration.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved