Reflections on the Patristic Fathers



by Nancy A. Almodovar, PhD (Apologetics), MTh (Theology & Apologetics), MACS, Cert. d'assuidite, Prof OT & NT, Prof of World Religions, Prof of Worldviews, currently MA Church History


Major issues on which patristic theology articulates the same truths evangelicals seek to articulate today, but does so in ways superior to ours. Explain why the patristic articulation is better and how we can incorporate that articulation of the faith into our proclamation.


There are many issues where Patristic Theology articulates the same truths as modern evangelicals and yet its ways are much greater. Therefore, my own reflections were mostly on the topic of the Trinity, and then baptism as a means of grace. The teachings and readings on the Trinity, however, have already made the greatest impact on my own work in apologetics. Learning the style in which they proclaimed the truths of the Christian faith and what may be deemed Patristic Apologetics, has broadened my own understanding of how to not only defend the faith but live it out.

The Trinity

The patristic teaching of the Trinity is what I have come to admire and desire to articulate. As an apologist who often has to answer question such as “Who is God?” and “What has He done?” I find myself in awe of the simple and yet profound ways that men such as John of Damascus (though I know we didn’t read him), Athanasius and Cyril articulated this difficult and yet key element of the Christian faith. When reading these great men of faith it is necessary to understand that they wrote within the context of both teaching Christians what is to be believed as well as defending this point of faith with those either who claimed to be Christians and yet denied the doctrine of the Triune God and even those outside the faith to answer their questions.



St. Athanasius begins his discourse against the Arians by saying that he had “deceived men into wrong thoughts of Christ.[1]” He held that it was necessary to confront this “harbinger of antichrist[2]” and “reckoned for a heresy more than ordinary, being known as Christ’s foe…[3]” His clarification of who God is comes from the Scriptures and Athanasius delineates what it is specifically that is confessed: “Very Son of the Father, natural and genuine, proper to His essence, Wisdom Only-begotten, and Very and Only Word of God is He…[4]



In a way that I had never heard before, Athanasius argues for the eternality of the Son through the confession of the eternality of God the Father. It would be impossible to call God the Eternal Father if there had come a point in time when God the Son did not exist. If the Son is not there eternally, then the Father cannot rightfully be called Eternal Father. This argument is so clear, brief and logical that even a young child can understand it. In fact, a few weeks ago teaching Sunday School I was working with my five year old student and taught him this, in much simpler language, and he stated it the next Sunday in the opening. In teaching the lay person in my Apologetics class, to explain to them the eternality of the Son through the lenses of God as Eternal Father simplified this often difficult to comprehend concept.


Irenaeus, in Book 1 of Exposing Heresy writes: The rule of truth which we hold is this: there is one God Almighty, who made all things by His Word, and fashioned and formed everything that exists out of nothing.[5]” This is believed by even modern day Modalists (ex. Oneness Pentecostals) and Arians (or the neo-Arianism of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, as examples). Yet, they too deny that God the Son is eternal as well. He continues to stress the truth that God the Son is eternal using the written Word of God when he writes: “This is what Scripture teaches: ‘By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth…’ (Ps 33:6)[6]


This form of argument, or apologetic, that the eternality of God as Father necessitates the Son as eternal is one that today’s churches need to use. Instead of utilizing broken pictures such as the leaves of the clover, the twist of the pretzel or the states of water as ice, liquid and gas (which truly pictures Modalism since all three cannot exist at the same time), the ancient Fathers used a great bit of logic but the type that was simple, concise and understood. We as humans understand that our earthly fathers were not fathers prior to having a child. While this aid to the Trinitarian doctrine breaks down because it is based on human experience, it does help in a greater way than the other models of Trinitarian comparison. It is necessary to not only confess the Triune God but to comprehend, however feebly, the magnitude of this doctrine.


However, for most modern evangelicals, meaning non-Calvinists, Lutherans or Anglican who utilize the Ecumenical Creeds and write much about this doctrine in their confessions, the questions tend to be as follows:


What difference does it make to believe in the Trinity or not?

If the Trinity was so important, wouldn’t that word be included in the Bible?


These are crucial questions to answer because if you do not believe in the God of the Bible then you stand with heretics and those outside of Christ. Is the doctrine hard to comprehend? Yes. I often equate it with the ant trying to understand a human…if they could. We are not God and do not comprehend Him because, as many of the fathers stated, God is incomprehensible. The Fathers worked on and eventually formulated the doctrine of the Trinity into a creedal statement because they “believed a faithful and careful reading of the Bible drove them to do so.” Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers, for example, held that the Written Word, the Scriptures and the salvation it tells us of, necessitated an articular of Who God is. God is Father. God is Son. God is Spirit.



In my own reflections on the men we read, I eventually landed at John of Damascus who spoke of God, who is eternal, a God who is not wordless.[7] Concerning the Son, St. John wrote that the Word subsisted with the Father and the Spirit is “an essential power, existing in its own proper and peculiar subsistence, proceeding from the Father and resting in the Word…[8]” His argument for the Son and the Spirit as co-existent and co-eternal is simple, to me, and yet profound. The Father is not speechless, or “wordless” but has eternally spoken and the Word is filled with Wisdom and so the Spirit is always there just as the Son is always there with the Father.


These types of apologetic, for the layperson and the unbeliever alike, are better fit, more biblical, as much of their writings on the Trinity quote from the Scriptures, and actually simpler to use. For over two decades I have worked to defend the faith and feel as if I had been inadequately equipped due to the way I was taught to defend the Trinity. Using pictures from nature or even the family structure (i.e. the man being husband, father and a son to someone else) just does not bring with it the Biblical support that the defenses by Cyril of Alexandria, Irenaeus or Athanasius do with their style. When teaching others to answer for the faith, I find myself quoting from these men, encouraging them to read them in light of the Scripture and the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, to enable them to articulate a sound and yet simple defense of the faith. I do not wish for them to lament, as I have done, on the lack of historical knowledge and how the Ancient Church taught about the Trinity.



Major issues on which patristic theology articulates the same truths evangelicals seek to articulate today, but does so in ways inferior to ours. Explain why the patristic articulation is worse or less adequate.


I found no inferiority in the way that the Patristic Fathers wrote of the Christian Faith. What I did find is that today’s non-creedal, non-confessional churches need a tole lege moment and pick up and read the Fathers. I know, having come out of Pentecostalism, that there was a fear that these men were too “catholic”. In my own journey through the faith to Lutheranism I have learned the ancient church got a lot more right than wrong. Within Confessional Lutheran I have been taught to sit at the feet of the Fathers, read their works and think on these things, I want to encourage my brothers and sisters in modern evangelicalism to do the same. It is true, they did not get it all right but neither do we. Yet, the value of their work, to me, far exceeds much of that written by modern authors.


Major issues on which our proclamation actually differs from that of the early church. On these issues, either defend our proclamation or suggest ways we can modify our proclamation in light of patristic theology, as appropriate.


The term I would have to use that evidences my own understanding of how the ancient church and modern church differ on the proclamation of the Gospel is this: Intra Nos vs Extra Nos. Today’s evangelicals, sans Lutheran, are so pre-occupied with an experience within that they nearly become gnostic. While it is true we do have the neo-gnostic movement in modern evangelicalism, I don’t think many even see that because they don’t know what to look for.

The Ancient Fathers dealt with these gnostics, arians and montanists head on exposing their poison for what it was, deadly to the Church and the Body of Christ. The modern church expects a conversion experience and then baptism where the Ancient Church understood that God works through the means of grace, though righly not the term they used. The Ancient Church understood the following about Baptism and how it is God’s delivery system for the grace of faith, forgiveness and life:

Ireneaus

“And when we come to refute them [the gnostic], we shall show in its fittingplace, that this class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole [Christian] faith...For the baptism instituted by the visible Jesus was for the remission of sins” —Against Heresies 21:1-2 Date: 189 A.D

“Now faith occasions this for us even as the Elders, the disciples of the Apostles, have handed it down to us. First of all, it bids us to keep in mind that we have received baptism for the remission of sins in the name of God the Father and in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was incarnate, died and rose again, and in the Holy Spirit of God. This baptism is the seal of eternal life and the new birth unto God that we should no longer be the sons of mortal men but of the eternal and perpetual God.” — The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, Date: 192 A.D.

Gregory of Nazianzus

“Do you have an infant child? Allow sin no opportunity; rather, let the infant be sanctified from childhood. From his most tender age let him be consecrated by the Spirit. Do you fear the seal [of baptism] because of the weakness of nature? Oh, what a pusillanimous mother and of how little faith!"... “Well enough,’ some will say, ‘for those who ask for baptism, but what do you have to say about those who are still children, and aware neither of loss nor of grace? Shall we baptize them too?’ Certainly [I respond], if there is any pressing danger. Better that they be sanctified unaware, than that they depart unsealed and uninitiated” —Oration on Holy Baptism 40:7 & 40:28 Date: 388 A.D.


Council of Carthage to Investigate Pelagianism May 1, 418

“If any man says that new-born children need not be baptized, or that they should indeed be baptized for the remission of sins, but that they have in them no original sin inherited from Adam which must be washed away in the bath of regeneration, so that in their ease the formula of baptism ‘for the remission of sins’ must not be taken literally, but figuratively, let him be anathema; because, according to Romans 5:12, the sin of Adam has passed upon all.” —Canon 2 Date: 416 A.D.


The Ancient Church understood that God worked through the waters of baptism to wash away sins. The modern church looks upon this, not as a gift but as an ordinance and law that they must follow. If the modern church looked outside themselves at how God delivers his gifts of life and salvation they would not struggle so much with assurance of salvation but instead recognize that it’s not their work but His alone.



As a Lutheran I have begun to understand more and more how most other traditions are set in looking inward for salvation and assurance. They look at their decision, their prayer, their obedience when Scripture tells us God did it all for us. This idea of Intra Nos (evangelical) experience that can and is subjective needs to be corrected so that they understand and confess that God works from the outside in through ordinary things such as water, wine and bread. I believe this is the area that the modern evangelical needs to break from. However, they can only break from this when reading the Ancient Fathers, many of whom were the disciples of the Apostles or the next generation. Though many stumble because “it’s too catholic”, I have found many, amongst my own friends, who are coming to these men and finding a richer, though not perfect, faith.


Some implications of patristic theology for our individual and corporate Christian life today. (Here the focus is not just on what we should say or proclaim differently in light of patristic theology, but on what we should do differently or do with a different attitude if we grasp what the early church was trying to articulate.)


In doing theology, the one takeaway I had is that we begin with these two questions:

Who is God?

What has He done?



I appreciate that the Ancient Fathers did not begin with a Prolegomena and the divide up the doctrines into nice little boxes. Rather, they began with God and His work of salvation for sinners. It goes beyond, even, the Lutheran focus on the Love of God while certainly not denying the Sovereignty of God where Calvinism places their focus. It goes back to Who is the God we worship? Who is He as Father, Son and Spirit? Who is He within the economy of the Trinity? Only then can we go to the next step and ask “What has He done?” What are His works and why are the crucial? Why creation? Why salvation? Why did He come and incarnate Himself? What has He done for us in our miserable sinful condition. If we begin with Who He is and What He has done we do Christianity creedal-ly. If we begin with those two questions, instead of trying to fit God into nice little boxes or a system of theology, and just state dogmatically, This is who God is and what He has done, we might find the many churches are the One Church, the One Holy, Apostolic, Catholic Church again. In fact, when we confess together that we believe in the “communion of saints” (Nicene Creed) we might, once again, actually turn this world upside down for the Gospel.



Resources

Schaff, Philip, ed. “History of the Arians: Discourse 1.” In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., <1989 printing–1994 printing >.


Payton, James R., Jr. Irenaeus on the Christian Faith: A Condensation of Against Heresies. Eugene, Or: Pickwick Publications, 2011.


John of Damascus. “Concerning the Word and the Son of God: A Reasoned Proof.” In Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, translated by Rev SDF Salmond, DD, FEIS. Amazon Edition ed. Aberdeen: Aeterna Press, 2016.


Rosebrough, Chris, What the Bible Teaches About Baptism & How the Earliest Christians Understood These Biblical Texts

https://0352182.netsolhost.com/Baptism%20Texts%20%26%20the%20Earliest%20Christians.pdf

[1] Philip Schaff, ed., “History of the Arians: Discourse 1,” in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub., <1989 printing–1994 printing >), 306. [2] Ibid., 308. [3] Ibid., 310. [4] Ibid., 311. [5] James R. Payton Jr., Irenaeus on the Christian Faith: A Condensation of Against Heresies (Eugene, Or: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 35. [6] Ibid. [7] John of Damascus, “Concerning the Word and the Son of God: A Reasoned Proof,” in Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, trans. Rev SDF Salmond, DD, FEIS, amazon edition ed. (Aberdeen: Aeterna Press, 2016), 12. [8] Ibid., 12–13.

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