Who Were the Early Church Fathers?

Christianity began as a cult in the Mediterranean region in c.30CE. Dr Richard Carrier (author of On the Historicity of Jesus) describes the movement as beginning as a breakaway Jewish sect that incorporated elements from the other cultures, namely, the Greeks. To most Christians, the founder of their religion was Jesus, a man from Nazareth, who preached to crowds and individuals. The evolution of Christian faith then continued via many others who shared Christianity with others. There were many people involved in this process, however, some key personalities who stand out. The following is a snapshot of some of the patriarchs who help mould the characteristics of the Christian Church.

Image by Karyna Mykytiuk, Licence – Creative Commons

Valentinus (c.100 – 160) was an Egyptian born philosopher who studied at Alexandria and is known for his gnostic approach to Christianity. He spent several years in Rome where he spread his ideas about Jesus and Mary being symbolic of spiritual forms, not literal people; his ideas were largely based upon Platonic thought. Valentinus was labeled a heretic, however, his gnostic teachings endured through his disciples who formed Christian groups.

Justin Martyr (c.100 – 165) was born in Rome and raised by pagan parents; prior to converting to Christianity he received training in Stoicism, Pythagorean, and Platonic philosophies. He rejected most Greek philosophy claiming them to be partial truths, whereas Christianity was the complete truth, which most closely aligned with some of Plato’s ideas. Dialogue with Trypho is Justin’s most renown work, in which he relies heavily upon Jewish scripture in an attempt to demonstrate Christianity is the truest philosophy. (More about Martyr’s explanations of Christianity can be found in: Theology of Early Christianity as described by Justin Martyr: Was he deliberately harmonising Jewish and Ancient Greek philosophy?)

Irenaeus (c.120/140 – 200/203) was born in Lyon, France. He went on to become the bishop of Lyon and his theological work focused on refuting gnosticism (i.e., that the story of Jesus was purely symbolic), notably in his work titled Adversus Haereses (Against heresies). His work went on to be highly influential at Nicene council discussions that rejected gnosticism.

Origen (c.184 – 253CE) was born into Christian family in Alexandria and his father was prosecuted for his faith which meant Origen was left to support his mother and younger siblings. He followed a Platonic view in which he perceived scripture to be founded upon a threefold nature of humans as body, soul, and spirit. In early Christianity Origen was a leading figure, however, his following the Platonic view of the pre-existence of souls later become a contributing factor to being labelled a heretic. Origen’s devotion to Christ was great, so much so he is believed to have self-castrated to avoid feelings of lust towards women. 

Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296/7/8 – 373CE) was an Egyptian priest who lived by ascetic values. He objected to Arianism, the belief that God existed before Jesus, which caused great tensions amongst other Christians. He attended the council of Niceane and played a prominent role in establishing what would become an orthodox attitude towards the trinity, the belief that God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus were one and always had been. Isaac Newton was highly of Athanasius and suspected he was responsible for forging scriptures to suit his personal beliefs (see: Exploring Occult Symbolism From a History and Herstory Perspective of Education: Part 11 – A Return to Aristotle (Or Did We Ever Leave?))

Priscillian (c.335-385CE) was a Roman Christian with strong ascetic values. He became bishop of Ávila (Spain) in 380, however was accused of sorcery in 385 and was executed. Priscillian views were influenced by Gnosticism and Manicheans, and his support of Arianism was looked down upon. Jerome was a harsh critic of his followers, the Priscillianists.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430CE) was born in the Roman province of Thagaste, Africa. Prior to fully embracing Christianity, Augustine spent nine years in a cult known as the Manichees which was established by a (charismatic) leader called Mani who preached doctrines that were an amalgamation of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Manichees beliefs included the notion that if a fig-tree was plucked it would cry tears, but if a Manichee ate the fig then the true God’s essence that was bound within it would be free. Augustine mocks himself for believing such foolish things and his writings express a zealous devotion to Christianity once he converted, however, it is worthy to note that Manichaeism theology has strong views about the world being made up of good and evil; themes that were incorporated into mainstream Christianity.

Augustine was particularly influential in refining Christian theology, which is sometimes perceived as being due to adapting Greek thought to Christian teachings. Ironically, in Augustine’s writings titled The Confessions he reports not enjoying learning Greek writing, reading, arithmetic, and the stories of Homer, but he thoroughly embraced learning Latin. Hence, it may be a case that he harmonised Greek thought through the Latin version thereof.

Augustine is classified as Neoplatonic, being more impartial to Platonic thought, as reflected in his theological belief that men and women were created equal in the eyes of god, inclusive of rational soul qualities. Although, Augustine did not completely dismiss Aristotle, and his alliance with Aristotle on some matters was followed by medieval theologians like Aquinas.

Jerome (347 – 419/420) was born in a Roman province, which is now modern day Croatia. He is best known as the translator of the Bible into Latin. Additionally he translated 14 of Origen’s homilies, made pilgrimages through Palestine and Egypt, and he is credited, like Augustine, with transmuting Greek thought to the west.

Pelagius (c.354 – 418CE) was born in the Roman British Isles and died in Palestine. He was educated in Greek and Latin. He was a theologian who advocated free will and asceticism. Pelagius is also reported to have challenged the idea that a man was to be held responsible for Adam’s sin. His beliefs were at odds with his contemporaries, Augustine and Jerome, both of whom criticised Pelagis. Pelagis gained a substantial following, especially in Carthage, however, he was also accused of heresy.

Conclusion

Looking at the above mentioned individuals, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no “pure” or “true” Christian tradition. The cultures, lived experiences, and educational backgrounds of the Church founders were often at odds with each other. Hence, it was through debates and accusations of heresy that characteristics of the Christian faith emerged. Further, Christianity spread via the assimilation of beliefs, rituals, customs, and symbols from various cultures, existing religions, and philosophies.

References

Alberto Ferreiro. Simon Magus and Priscillian in the ‘Commonitorium’ of Vincent of Lérins. Vigiliae Christianae 1995; 49: 180–188.

Arianism. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Arianism (accessed 10 January 2021).

Augustine (354—430 C.E.). Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/augustin/#:~:text=St.,agnostic%20contributions%20to%20Western%20philosophy.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), https://earlychurch.org.uk/augustine.php (accessed 16 December 2020).

AUGNET : 3113 Augustine and Benedict, http://www.augnet.org/en/order-of-st-augustine/community/3113-augustine-and-benedict/ (accessed 16 December 2020).

Baber H. Origen, radical biblical scholar. The Guardian, 10 June 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/jun/10/origen-christianity-philosophy (10 June 2010, accessed 9 January 2021).

Bostock G. Allegory and the Interpretation of the Bible in Origen. Literature and Theology 1987; 1: 39–53.

Catholic Online. St. Athanasius, https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=336 (accessed 10 January 2021).

Dunderberg I. Valentinus/Valentinians. The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15256a.htm (2013).

Ferreiro A. Jerome’s polemic against Priscillian in his Letter to Ctesiphon (133, 4). Revue d’Etudes Augustiniennes et Patristiques 1993; 39: 309–332.

Justin Martyr. Christian History, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/evangelistsandapologists/justin-martyr.html (2008, accessed 16 December 2020).

Major literary works. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Jerome (accessed 16 December 2020).

Media F. Saint Irenaeus, https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-of-the-day/saint-irenaeus (accessed 16 December 2020).

Pelagius. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pelagius-Christian-theologian (accessed 16 December 2020).

Ryan JK, Others. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Image, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3296/3296-h/3296-h.htm (1960).

Saint Irenaeus. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Irenaeus (accessed 16 December 2020).

St. Athanasius. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Athanasius (accessed 10 January 2021).

St. Justin Martyr. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Justin-Martyr (accessed 16 December 2020).

Tornau C. Saint Augustine. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/augustine/ (2020).

Valentinus. Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Valentinus (accessed 16 December 2020).

Valentinus, https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/philosophy-and-religion/other-religious-beliefs-biographies/valentinus (accessed 16 December 2020).

Werline R. The Transformation of Pauline Arguments in Justin Martyr’s ‘Dialogue with Trypho’. Harv Theol Rev 1999; 92: 79–93.

Walusinski O, Poirier J, Déchy H. Augustine. Eur Neurol 2013; 69: 226–228.

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