|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||Essays about Orthodoxy|
What do we mean by “Fathers of the Church”?
Prepared by: Theodore Riginiotes, educator
“Fathers” and “Patricity” in Christian theology
“Fathers and Teachers of the Church” (or, in brief, simply “Fathers of the Church”) is the title used to denote Christian priests of all ranks1 (but also some who were not priests), who have been acknowledged as spiritual teachers and have also been acknowledged as authors for their formulation, their definition of the boundaries of, and the defending of, the Christian dogma.2
According to Western scholasticism (i.e., the philosophical theology that developed in western Europe following the Schism of 1054 and up until its apex during the Medieval era), the Patristic era ended in the 6th century A.D. for the Western Church (with the last Western Father being Saint Isidore of Seville) and in the 8th century for the Eastern Church (with the last Eastern Father being Saint John of Damascus). More recent historical and literary research, which has developed in the West and has adopted the criteria of scholasticism, has likewise adopted the idea of separating “Patristic literature” (=the works of the Fathers up until the 8th century) from “Byzantine literature” (=the works of Byzantine authors after the 8th century).
The Orthodox Church however regards Her theology as being always Patristic and only to the extent that it continues to be Patristic, can it also be considered valid and true. Thus, the Church discerns carriers of Her Patristic spirit in every Christian era, from the 2nd century (=the first century after the generation of Apostles, with Saints like Clement of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna, Ignatius of Antioch the “God-bearer”, e.a..), through to the late Byzantine era (for example, Saints Gregory Palamas 14th century, Mark of Ephesus 15th century), but also after the Byzantine era (Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain 18th – 19th century, the Russian Saints of the 19th century: Ignatius Branchianinov and Theophanes the Recluse, Innocent Beniaminov, e.a.), while even in our times there also appear to be several authentic carriers of the Patristic spirit of ecclesiastic theology – some of whom have been recognized officially as Saints (for example Saint Nectarios of Pentapolis, Luke the Physician of Symferoupolis, John of Shanghai (Maximovitch), Nicholas of Ohrid (Velimirovitch), e.a.), while others, albeit not “officially” recognized through an ecclesiastic “decision” of any kind, are nevertheless recognized in practice; for example holy teachers such as Justin Popovic, Sophrony Sacharov, Filotheos Zervakos, e.a..
The Church’s persistence with Patricity in Her theology is attributed to the fact that She regards the Fathers as saints; that is to say, as individuals with an authentic (in the Christian sense) association with uncreated (=divine) reality, and as such, reliable expressers of Her dogmatic teachings, whose validity also includes the element of being “divinely inspired”. The Christian dogma is expressed by means of the “enlightenment of the Holy Spirit” (in other words, through God Himself), and not by means of intellectual cogitations. And this is the determinant difference between philosophy and theology.
Of course, for the Church this difference does not lie in “appealing to a Holy-Spiritual enlightenment” – that is, to a “religious authority” – but to the actual existence of this transcendental element; otherwise, if in both cases we were to have ontological and soteriological systems, fashioned by human intellectual processes that merely invoked a certain contact with the divine Beyond for reasons of prestige, then in essence, there would be no objective difference between philosophy and theology3.
It should be noted that the Patristic opus does not end with the definition of boundaries of the Christian dogma; it also extends into a multitude of issues that involve the examination of human nature - and especially the soul - as well as Man’s relationship with himself, his fellow-man, the world and God – in other words, it deals with the healing of the consequences of Man’s Fall, for each individual, for mankind, and for Creation overall. The Patristic opus also continues its ceaseless dialogue with Philosophy and Science as they appear in every era. In this context, it makes sense to examine Patristic essays from the philosophical aspect also, inasmuch as they comprise one of the most fruitful chapters of worldwide thought. Unfortunately, the science of Philosophy’s History is ignorant of their contribution, although in recent times, with the endeavours of Greek researchers such as K.D.Georgoulis, Vasilios Tatakis, Bishop John Zizioulas of Pergamon, Christos Yannaras, fr. Nicholas Loudovikos e.a., their contribution is now being brought to light.
«An orthodox mind will stand at the point where all roads meet. He will carefully examine each road and, from his uniquely advantageous position, he will observe the conditions, the dangers, the uses and finally, the destination of each road. He will examine each road from the Patristic point of view, given that his personal convictions will come into a real, not hypothetical, contact with the culture around him» (Ivan Kiriyevski, Orthodox Russian author; quoted from the book by fr. Seraphim Rose "Orthodoxy and the religion of the future).
The Fathers of the ancient Church possess in their arsenal the entirety of Hellenic philosophy; after all, they too are philosophers. The only difference is that they are not concerned with “interpreting the world” or describing the laws of nature and their functions (alas, for our contemporary, materialistic sciences), but instead, they focus on theosis (deification), which they consider an imperative prerequisite for a complete knowledge of the world – in other words, our association with the world. (Of course, to modern science this seems meaningless, because it is a conquering, not a loving science. How can you love that which you seek to conquer? Our entire civilization – the western kind, which has now been imposed worldwide – is a conquering kind. Even the major navigators-“explorers” were followed by invading conquistadors, while the exploration of space is commonly referred to as “the conquest of outer space”).
It should be noted that Basil the Great’s “Hexaemeron” for example, as well as Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s “On the making of Man”, which is the continuation of the “Hexaemeron”, also summarize the scientific knowledge of their time. Saint Gregory specifically uses references to physiology, medicine, psychology, and also makes mention of dreams etc. And yet they all interpret in the most rational manner, rejecting astrology and any other irrational forms of religiosity.
Let us keep in mind that prior to its illicit
Medieval distortion Christianity represented logic and progress,
whereas idolatry represented irrationalism. Immediately upon its
founding, the Church had openly opposed the superstition of the
roman world, regarding it to be something irrational: astrology,
star-worship, angel-worship, sorcery, divination, submission to
Are the Fathers infallible?
We need to mention here that the Fathers of the Church, albeit saints, are not considered infallible. However, it is in them that the words of the Lord are realized: “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (John 6:45), therefore their opinion is far more valid than any “scientist” theologian’s (mine, for example) who is not pure in heart. A valid interpreter of this kind (a saint) can quite easily be a humble and illiterate person (man or woman or even child), if their heart is pure enough. The “grand mystery of piety” (1 Tim.3:16) becomes palpable through catharsis of the heart, and not through logic. The heart is not the place of sentiments; it is where the Holy Spirit comes to reside (if the heart is pure), or the evil spirit (God forbid!) if the heart is filled with passions (Gal 4:6, Luke 22:3).
Even though I may not
possess a perfect knowledge of Patristic literature and what is
more, I am by no means a saint (so that I can speak validly
about the saints), I do venture to say the following: There have
been certain Fathers who, within the sum of their important
writings, have also supported certain teachings that according
to Orthodox theology were wrong. The most characteristic example
is saint Augustine, however there are other examples also, such
as the Syrian Fathers Aphrates and Isaac, who had maintained
that Hell is only temporary (this is because they had perceived
it as a punishment by God and they were confident that the God
of Love would not punish eternally), and others. Thus, it is
advisable to read the holy Fathers within the context of the
overall teaching of the Church and to not absolutize the
viewpoints of one or two of them. We accept something as valid,
when it is supported by the sum of the saints of the Church,
even if one or two Fathers happen to have another viewpoint.
[For an analysis of this problem, see the book by fr. Seraphim
Rose (whom I dare to call an American contemporary Father of the
Church), “The soul after death – Posthumous experiences in the
light of Orthodox teaching”, Myriobiblos Publications]
Some of the Fathers
We could briefly list here a number of Fathers of the Church who come to mind:
Apostolic Fathers (1st century) : Clement of Rome, Ignatius the God-bearer, Polycarp of Smyrna.
Apologetes (2nd century) : Saint Justin the philosopher and martyr, Athenagoras the Athenian philosopher, Kodratus Bishop of Athens, Theophilos of Antioch e.a..
Pursuant Fathers: 2nd century: Irenaeus of Lyon, 3rd century: Dionysios or Rome, Dionysios of Alexandria, Cyprian of Carthage e.a., 4th century: Athanasius the Great, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan, Martin of Tours, 4th-5th centuries: John the Chrysostom, the blessed Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria; 6th century: Dionysus the Areopagite, Leontius the Byzantine; 7th century: Maximus the Confessor, Isaac of Syria, 8th century: John of Damascus, Boniface of Germany; 9th century: Theodore the Studite, Photios the Great… 15th century: Gregory Palamas, 16th century: Mark of Ephesus, e.a…..
A particular group of Fathers of the Church is one that pertains to those who did not leave any written works behind them, but had contributed towards the formulation of Orthodox theology, through their participation in local Synods, and especially in Ecumenical ones; such were the major saints of the 1st Ecumenical Synod, Spyridon and Nicholas. The Fathers of Ecumenical Synods are generally honoured “en masse” as saints, given that it was NOT on the basis of political interests and imperial directions that they formulated the terms and the teachings of the Synods, but through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.
Then there are the Neptic Fathers (that is, the teachers of “nepsis” – the Orthodox “science of ascetic living” – although all the Fathers are also neptic): Makarius the Egyptian (4th century, Cassian the Roman, Benedict of Noursia, Diadochus of Fotiki, John of Sinai (author of the ‘Ladder’, 6th century), Simeon the New Theologian (10th – 11th centuries), Gregory of Sinai, Niketas Stethatos (11th century, Nicholas Kavasilas, Nicephoros the Recluse, etc… (refer to the monumental works “Philokalia of the sacred Neptics”, which the holy Fathers Makarius Notaras and Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain had composed during the Turkish occupation and the Russian Father Paisius Velitkovsky had translated into Russian).
Another particular group of Fathers of the Church are the Hymnography Fathers: for example, saints Romanos the Melodist (the Salutations to the Theotokos e.a. and especially numerous other kontakia), Ephraim the Syrian (in Syrian), Andrew of Crete (the “Major Canon”), John of Damascus (the canon for the night of Easter e.a.), Kosmas the Melodist (the Canon for Christmas e.a.), Joseph the Hymnographer (innumerable canons), Theophanes and Theodore the Branded (they are called thus, because their foreheads were branded with a red-hot iron during the Iconomachy period), Theodore the Studite, Cassiane the Hymnographer (the “troparion of Cassiane” – glorification hymn chanted on Tuesday of Easter Week, also a section of the canon of Good Friday, e.a.) and many others. A contemporary hymnographer-Father was the blessed elder Gerasimos of the Holy Mountain, from the Minor Scete of Saint Anne).
There are also the Fathers of the Desert, who are hermits and monks. Some of them we have already mentioned. Let us note a few more. It should be noted that most of them were simple monks, without any ecclesiastic “rank” – not even priests. Furthermore, many of them did not leave any written texts; however, their verbal teachings as well as their way of life (which was quite possibly even more important than their words) have been recorded by other Fathers in collective works such as the “Lausaikon” by saint Palladius of Helenoupolis, the “Leimonarion” by saint John Moschou, the “Patristic Maxims”, etc…
Older Fathers: Anthony the Great ( the «professor of the desert»), Pachum the Great, Sisoe the Great, Poemen the Great, Arsenius the Great, Pafnut the Great, Nilus, Daniel of the Scete, Pitirum, Zosimas, John the Persian, Ammonius, John Kolovos, Theodore of Ferme, Abraham the Iberian, Moses the Ethiopian «of the robbers» (=a former robber), Sarmatas, Pambo, Biare, Onupher the Egyptian, Pior, Apfy, Mark the Athenian, Theodosios, Head of the Coenobium, and many others.
Russian: Serge of Radonez, Seraphim of Sarov («find peace, and thousands of people will find peace alongside you»), Agapetos the Healer, Alexander of Svir, Cyril of the White Lake, Nicodemus of Lake Koza, John “of many feats”, Job of Potsaev, Nilus of Sorsky, the Elders of Optina (Anatolios, Joseph, Ambrose, Moses, Varsanuf, Nectarios, e.a.), Seraphim of Viritsa and many others (for these, see works such as the “Paterikon of the Caves of Kiev”, “The Thebais of the North” e.a.)
Holy Mountain: Siluan and fr.Tichon (Russians), Paisios, Anthimos of Saint Anna, Porphyry the “Hut-burner”, Joseph the Hesychast or Spilaiotes (the cave-dweller), Ephraim of Katounakia e.a.
Drama (Nth.Greece): George Karslides
Crete: Evmenios and Parthenios Koudouma (from Heraclion), Joachimaki Koudouma (from Roupes, Mylopotamos), Gennadios of Rethymnon, Evmenios of Roustika and many others
Romania: Cleopas Elie, Arsenios Bokas, Paisios Olaru, John of Hozeva, Enoch the Simple (Holy Mountain) etc…
Aside from the Fathers, there are also the holy Mothers of the Church, who belong mainly to the last mentioned group, i.e. of the teachers who did not write anything themselves but whose way of life and words were recorded and handed down to us by others. Among the hundreds of major women-teachers of Orthodoxy were the following:
1 The ‘ranks’ of Christian priesthood are three: Deacon, Presbyter and Bishop. Albeit most of the Fathers of the Church bore the rank of Bishop, there have been Fathers with only the rank of Deacon (e.g. Ephraim the Syrian –he wrote in Syrian- and of Presbyter (e.g. John of Damascus) or even ordinary monks.
2 The definition is by professor G.Zografides, “Byzantine Philosophy” and “Hellenic Philosophy”. For more detail see “Patrologia A” by Stylianos Papadopoulos - Introduction – 2nd and 3rd centuries, Athens 1977, Introduction.
3 As above mentioned work by Styl. Papadopoulos, Introduction.
Translation by A.N.
Article published in English on: 5-8-2008.
Last update: 12-9-2008.