Gospel Gazette Online
Vol. 15 No. 7 July 2013
Page 12

Who Were the Church Fathers?

Joel Stephen Williams

Joel Stephen WilliamsVery often people want to know what the phrases “church fathers,” “fathers of the church” or “early church fathers” mean. The use of the terms “father” and “son” to refer to a relationship other than a biological one is ancient. It is found in the Old Testament and the New Testament (e.g. 2 Kings 2:12; 6:21; 1 Corinthians 4:17; Galatians 4:19; Philippians 2:22; 1 Timothy 1:2, 18; 2 Timothy 1:2; 2:1; Titus 1:4). Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15).

The use of “father” and “son” or similar terminology for a “teacher” or a “mentor” to a “student” relationship was common in the ancient world, even beyond Judaism and Christianity. It was found, for example, among the philosophical schools. In Christian circles the idea of a “church father” brought to mind a great teacher of theology in the past who guided the church in sound doctrine. These theologians, teachers and scholars were thought to have preserved the Christian faith against heresy and to have passed good teaching along to the next generation.

Who in particular were considered to be the “church fathers” in the era of the early church after the apostolic age? Four key criteria were generally used to designate someone as a church father (see Christopher A. Hall. Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove: InterVarsity P., 2002, 20-21).

Antiquity – To be a church father one needed to have lived in the earlier centuries from the close of the apostolic age until the eighth century (the time of John of Damascus) for the eastern half of the church and until around 600 A.D. (the time of Gregory the Great) for the western half of the church.

Holiness of life – This measure did not mean absolute perfection, because some of the church fathers had obvious character flaws and none of them were sinless. Nevertheless, they needed to be men of devotion and faith who lived a life of Christian service.

Substantial orthodox doctrine – The fathers were not heretics. Some of them held an occasional odd opinion or two, but on the whole, each of them believed the chief, important doctrines of the Christian system. They were champions of what was considered the true faith. This depended, of course, on who defined what was true and false doctrine. Orthodoxy ended up being defined by the majority. Contrary to what some skeptics are claiming today, it was a very large majority that held to a general consensus of what the cardinal tenets of Christian doctrine were. Today, some people would refer to this as the “mainstream” church. For example, on teachings such as the deity of Jesus, the virgin birth of Christ, and the resurrection of our Lord, only a miniscule minority denied these cardinal truths.

Widespread ecclesiastical approval – The point of this gauge is that one cannot claim the title “church father” for oneself. As Old Testament wisdom says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2).

The terms “church fathers” or “fathers of the church” do not place these men in a position of supremacy over the apostles or Jesus in any way. The meaning of the terms is simply that these men were considered to be reliable teachers, on the whole, who helped guide the church in the early centuries after the apostolic age in an effort to defend the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and to pass the Gospel treasure along to the next generation. They did not found or establish the church. That credit goes to Jesus Christ (Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthians 3:11; 6:19-20; Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 5:9), a fact for which many of those church fathers contended very zealously.

The Three Crosses of Calvary

Mark N. Posey

Mark N. PoseyThe theme of God’s redemptive plan runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. At its heart is Calvary, the place where Jesus died so we could be forgiven. Isaiah foretold that Christ would be “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12). As we look to Calvary, we see three crosses.

The Cross of REBELLION (Luke 23:39) This man was dying because of crimes he had committed. Jesus had done nothing against him, yet this man used some of his last minutes in life to mock and scorn Jesus. As death approached, he was not moved to sorrow by thoughts of being punished forever for his wicked life. He was returning another’s love with bitterness. Jesus was dying for him also. Even the solemnity of death could not restrain the blasphemies from his lips. This man died scoffing; he died in sin.

The Cross of REPENTANCE (LUKE 23:40-43) This man saw his horrible situation and considered his eternal fate (i.e., Remorse is moral anguish arising from repentance for past misdeeds; it is bitter regret.). He was moved to repentance, and Jesus rewarded him with forgiveness. Before he died physically, this man died to sin.

The Cross of REDEMPTION On this cross was the sinless Son of God. His mission on earth was to seek and save the lost, climaxing in the sacrifice of His life to pay the price for our sins. Jesus “committed no sin,” but He “bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:22, 24). Many people taunted and challenged Him to show He was the Christ by coming down from the cross. Instead, He demonstrated His love for you and me by staying on the cross. The man on the middle cross died for sin.

God’s Old Covenant with the Jews separated the Jews from all other nations. He removed it when Jesus died (Ephesians 2:11-16; Colossians 2:14; Romans 7:6-7; Galatians 3:24-25). In its place, the death of Jesus brought the New Covenant for all people of all nations (Hebrews 9:15-17; 12:24; Mark 16:15-16). Now, after His death, a believing sinner receives the benefit of the death of Jesus by repenting, confessing his faith and being baptized into the death of Christ (cf. Romans 6:3-4).

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