Introduction to Church Fathers

NO ONE AFTER DRINKING OLD WINE DESIRES NEW….. (LUKE 5:39)

That which was from the beginning,

which we have heard,

which we have seen with our eyes,

which we have looked upon and touched with our hands,

concerning the word of life. . . ,

we proclaim also to you,

so that you may have fellowship with us;

and our fellowship is [fellowship]

with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

The above is a reference from 1 John 1:1-4. This relates to the current theme of the blog. In the present theme, we focus on learning orthodoxy by referring to the Holy Father’s of the Church’s early period.

It is not our purpose at all to bring the latest to the reader at the beginning of the twenty-first century, but instead to present, in prayer and humbleness, that which was “delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”[1] as stated by St. Luke in his opening verses to his Gospel.

Below is a short step wise approach as to how one should strive to remain in fellowship with the group of Saints from the beginning ( first from Christ and the Apostles), who are always standing in presence of God and who had have lived their earthly life Christ-like. These Holy Fathers have shown us the time tested ‘Way’. We follow this fellowship so that in our efforts to reach that Christ-like stage (Theosis) and to obtain a place to be with Christ, we don’t get diverted on our ‘Way’, and correctly accomplish His purpose in our life.

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Resorting constantly to “that which was from the beginning” requires some justification in an age when people like to regard the novelty of a thing as a standard of its value. Why this high esteem for “what was handed down” and this unique rank that is accorded to the “beginning”?

“That which was from the beginning” (1 John 1:1)

The sayings of the Holy Fathers has its basis in the nature and meaning of what the oldest witnesses from apostolic times, call “tradition” (The word “tradition” as mentioned from The Holy Scripture itself). This is the reason we turn to for assistance to the sayings of holy Fathers. The term “tradition” has several meanings, and hence the attitude of Christians towards “traditions” is ambivalent or uncertain. The value of a “tradition” —in the realm of revealed truth—essentially depends on its “origin” and on its relation to this origin. There are merely human “traditions”, of which God is not the “origin”, even though they may in a sense correct in their claim to rely on him—as in case of divorce sanctioned by the Mosaic Law “. . . But from the beginning it was not so”,[2] since God had originally joined man and woman in an inseparable unity.[3] Christ rejects such “human traditions”, since they keep man from the actual will of God [4] and the Lord came after all, “to do his will”, [5] namely that genuine will of the Father which was “from the beginning”, which has been obscured only because of sin and the Fall, with all of their consequences. It is in fact the distinguishing mark of the disciple of Christ that he does not abide by the “traditions of elder” (see Mt 15:2-“Why do your disciples transgress the traditions of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread”).

What is tradition and why is tradition important?

It is an entirely different matter with the traditions about “what was from the beginning”, namely, the “old commandment which you had from the beginning”, [6] ever since Christ gave it to his disciples. It was reliably “delivered to us by those who from the beginning were the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”, [7] that is, by the apostles, who from “the beginning of the gospel”, [8] that is, the baptism of John [9] and the corresponding manifestation of Jesus as the Christ, “have been with [him].” [10]

These are the “traditions which you were taught” and which we are to “hold” [11] if we are not to lose our association with the “beginning” itself. Therefore, even if it were brought by “an angel from heaven”, there cannot be “another gospel” [12] besides the one that was preached to us from the beginning, because it would not be the Evangelium Christi.

By its very nature, genuine tradition means having and preserving fellowship with the “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” and through them, with him about whom they testify.

How does this genuine tradition give a definition to “The Church”?

This “fellowship” of believers among themselves and with God is what the Scripture calls “Church” and “Body of Church”. It embraces all “members” of this Body, the living and also those who have already “died in the Lord”. For the members are bound to one another and to the Body so closely that those who have died are not “dead members”, since “all live to God”.[13]

Whoever wants to have “fellowship with God”, therefore, can never disregard those before him who were made worthy of this fellowship! In his response of faith to their “proclamation”, the one who was born afterward enters into that selfsame fellowship of which those “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” were “from the beginning” and forever remain a living part. Hence only that church is genuinely “Christ’s Church” which stands in an unbroken, living fellowship with the apostles, upon whom the Lord, indeed, founded his Church.[14]

What has to be considered when looking at tradition?

What is said here about holding fast to “the good thing committed to thy trust”,[15]that is, the apostolic tradition as it is set down in the writings of the apostles, is also true in an analogous way of those “original, unwritten traditions” as explained by our church father Evagrius, which, though not contained explicitly in these apostolic testimonies, are still no less apostolic in their origins. For whether they are “written” or “unwritten”, “with regard to piety, both have the same force” as quoted by St. Basil the great.

Both forms of apostolic tradition possess what one could call the “grace of the origin”, since it was in them that the deposit entrusted to us at the beginning took shape.

How Church Fathers understood their faithfulness with regard to the “origin”?

The same attitude that Basil the Great exhibits toward the Church’s tradition is to be found in his disciple Evagarius Ponticus with regard to the spiritual tradition of monasticism. This is how he writes to the monk Eulogios, for whom he wishes to explain several questions about the spiritual life:

“Not because of deeds done by us in righteousness”[16] did we attain this, but rather because we have “the pattern of sound words”[17] which we have heard from the Fathers, and because we have become witnesses to some of their deeds.

Everything, though, is a grace from above, which points out even to sinners the schemes of the tempter, and which also says for our safety, “What have you, then, that you did not receive?”—in order that, in receiving, might thank the Giver, so as not to give ourselves the praise and the honor and thus deny the gift.

Therefore grace says: “If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift? Already you have become rich,” it says, you who dispense with works; already you, who have begun to teach, “are filled.”[18]

   Hence an initial reason not to put oneself forward as a “teacher” is the humble acknowledgment of the elementary fact that we are all receivers. The “Fathers” whom Evagarius refers to here are, among others, his own masters and teachers, Macarius the Great and his namesake from Alexandria, through whom he was connected with the “first of the anchorites”, Anthony the Great, and thus with the origin of monastism itself. In another passage Evagarius elaborates further on the thought.

It is also necessary to ask about the ways of those monks who went before us in an upright manner, and to be guided by them. For we find much that was beautifully said and done by them.

The “pattern of sound words” of the Fathers and their “splendid deeds” are thus an example —by which one must be guided! This is precisely the reason why the “words and deeds of the Fathers” were not only gathered very early on, but were also quoted again and again.

Thus for a Christian, the study of the holy Fathers can never remain merely an academic patrology, which does not necessarily influence the life of the one who is studying. The example of the holy Fathers, their words, and deeds are rather a model that obliges one to imitate them. Evagarius is not remiss in providing us with a justification for this statement.

It is fitting for those who want to walk along the “way” of him who said: “I am the way and the life,”[19] that they learn from those who previously walked along it, and converse with them about what is useful, and hear from them what is helpful, so as not to introduce anything that is foreign to our course.

Not to be guided by the example of the holy Fathers and to go one’s own way, therefore involves the danger of “introducing something that is foreign to our course”, that is, things “that are absolutely alien to monastic life” because they have not been “tested” and found to be “good” by the “brothers” “who went before us in an upright manner”. Whoever has strayed thus from that “way” of the Fathers runs the risk of becoming himself “a stranger to our Savior’s ways” and thereby of estranging himself from the “Way” par excellence!

The reference to what “the brothers have proved to be best of all” already makes clear that by no means everything the Fathers did needs to be imitated, no matter how “splendid” it might be, and even if the Father in question were Anthony the Great himself. Let no one dare to imitate in every detail his extreme form of anchorite life, for instance, unless he wants to become the laughing-stock of the demons. The Fathers themselves could distinguish very well between a “personal charism” and “tradition”.

The meaning and purpose of preserving tradition?

The meaning and purpose of preserving the “tradition” is, then, for the Fathers, just as it was for the first “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”, not an unthinking adherence to what has been handed down, but the preservation of a living fellowship. Whoever wants to have fellowship with the Father can attain this only by “way” of the Son. One reaches the Son, though, only by way of “those who walked before us along the way” and thereby became themselves a living part of the “Way”. These are, first of all, the apostles as the immediate “eyewitnesses of the Word”. John writes very definitely, “So that you may have fellowship with us”, and Evagarius aptly calls that “way” of praktike (ascetic struggle), which he has received from the Fathers, precisely “the apostolic way”. Hence all those Fathers in faith “who went before us in an upright manner” are “Way”. Only the one who follows in their “footsteps” himself may go to reach the destination of this way, as they did.

It is therefore not enough just to call upon the “spirit of the Fathers”—which is difficult to define—or merely to “speak with pleasure about their deeds” at every opportunity, while leaving everything at the status quo. One must also strive to accomplish these deeds, even “amid great labors”, if one wants to have part in their fellowship.

Only in light of this does the title “first of the anchorites”, which Evagarius bestows on the “righteous Anthony” acquire its full significance. Anthony the Great is of course temporally the first anchorite, but that would mean nothing further were he not also the “first fruit”. For the “first fruit”, being “holy”, “makes the entire lump holy”, just as the “holy root makes the branches holy”[20]—as long as they remain in living fellowship with it. The “beginning”, because it is determined by the Lord himself, possesses in fact a special grace, namely, the “grace of the origin”, of the “principle”, which does not merely stand at the beginning temporally, but rather stamps with the seal of authenticity everything that remains in living fellowship with it.

How does this work practically in the present/today’s times?

By adhering to the living fellowship with “what was from the beginning”, man who is bound to space and time, enters into the mystery of the One who, free from these limitations, “is the same yesterday, today and forever”,[21] that is, of the Son, who himself “in the beginning”[22] in the absolute sense. Beyond space and time, this fellowship creates continuity and identity in the midst of the world that is subject to constant change.

This remaining identically the same is something that neither individual believers nor the Church as a whole could ever accomplish on their own. Guarding “the good thing committed to our trust” is always the fruit of the working of “the Holy Spirit who dwells in us”[23] and there “bear(s) witness”[24] to the Son. He it is, also, who does not only “guide [us] into all truth”[25] but also for ages to come causes the testimony of the Master himself to be recognized in the testimony of the disciples.[26]

Blessed is the monk who keeps the commandments of the Lord, and holy is he who observes the words of his fathers.

P.S: The word monk mentioned by Evagrius gives an impression that Evagrius wrote mostly for anchorites, and thus for monks who, like himself, lived alone and occasionally came together with other brethren and visitors. His descriptions take into consideration the particular life circumstances of his readers.

Well and good, one may object, but what does that have to do with us? Indeed, we are neither anchorites nor cenobites but Christians who live in the midst of world! The objection stems from the fatal misunderstanding mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph, that there is a particular world of monks and anchorites, whose problems basically do not affect “normal” Christians. An essential truth is thereby overlooked: the vices which plague humankind are the same from time immemorial and everywhere; only their concrete forms vary according to people’s particular conditions of life.

A short note on Evagrius Pontus:

Born around 345 to a country bishop in the region of Pontus in the region of Pontus in Asia Minor, Evagrius showed religious and intellectual promise even as a teenager and was ordained a reader by St. Basil the Great, the then Bishop of Caesarea. He then became the protégé of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, serving as St. Gregory’s archdeacon when he became bishop of Constantinople in the late 370s and assisting him in his efforts in behalf of Nicene theology. Evagrius discipleship under St. Gregory came to an end when St. Gregory had to resign his episcopal seat and Evagrius fled to Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem Evagrius suffered an emotional and physical breakdown, and the ascetic leader Melania the Elder persuaded him to take up monastic life in Egypt. In the deserts of Nitria and Kellia, Evagrius apprenticed himself to monks such as Ammonius and the two Macarii— St. Macarius the Great (disciple of St. Antony the Great) and St. Macarius the Alexandrian. Evagrius soon emerged as an authoritative teacher in his own right. Evagrius counseled the monks who visited him and with whom he gathered weekly for worship and fellowship, and he produced a large number of literary works of great variety, not only practical treatises on the monastic life, but also works of biblical exegesis and of advanced theology. Even the latter works , however, support Evagrius vision of monasticism in which bodily discipline, demonic conflict, prayer and psalmody, biblical study, and speculation on higher theological questions all played important roles in forming the monk into a “Gnostic,” a knower of God.

This article is written by taking extracts from the book “Earthen Vessels” written by Elder Gabriel Bunge, a priest and schemamonk of the Russian Orthodox Church. He possesses a thorough knowledge of patristic literature, and is known worldwide for his writings on contemplative prayer.

 

[1][1] Cf. Lk 1:2-Just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the world delivered them to us.

[2][2] Mt 19:8-He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

[3] Gen 2:24-For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh.

[4] Mt 15:1-20

[5] Cf. Jn 4:34- Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.

[6] Cf. 1 Jn 2:7-Brethren, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning.

[7] Lk 1:2- Just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the world delivered them to us.

 

[8] Mk 1:1-The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

[9] Acts 1:2if.-until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen,

[10] Jn 15:27-“And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.

[11] 2 Thess 2:15-Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. ; cf . 1 Cor 11:2-Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.

[12] Gal 1:6ff-I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel,

[13] Lk 20:38-For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him.

[14] Eph 2:20-having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone,

[15] 2 Tim 1:14That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.

[16] Tit 3:5 not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit,

[17] 2 Tim 1:13 Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.

[18] 1 Cor 4:7-8 For who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it? You are already full! You are already rich! Yu have reigned as kings without us—and indeed I could wish you did reign, that we also might reign with you!

[19] Jn 14:6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.

[20] Rom 11:16 For if the firstfruit is holy, the lump is also holy; and if the root is holy, so are the branches.

[21] Heb 13:8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

[22] Jn 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

[23] 2 Tim 1:14 That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.

[24] Jn 15:26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, He will testify Me.

[25] Jn 16:13 However when He, the Spirit of truth, has come He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.

[26] Lk 10:16 And other sheep I have which are not of this fol; them aso I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.