Reading some church fathers during Lent

Eight weeks ago, I suggested a reading plan for the Lenten period which I partly followed, sometimes substituting my own readings. Since this is the internet where everyone can share their opinion, however misguided or ill-informed, allow me to air my views on what I read during my morning commutes and lunch breaks.

(By the way, if you’re interested in reading all of the church fathers over a seven-year period, click on over to Read The Fathers.)

Day 1: Didache

Date: ca. 100 AD

The Didache (subtitle: Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) is mostly about moral behaviour, with no mention of Christ or His sacrificial death, or the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Days 2-3: Epistle to Diognetus

Date: ca. 130-200 AD

Mathetes, a Christian, writes to Diognetus, a pagan investigating Christianity. If you can’t or won’t read any other part of this document, read chapter 5, which is all about what makes Christians distinctive from those who don’t believe.

Polycarp
Polycarp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day 4: Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians

Date:ca. 110-140 AD

Polycarp was bishop of Smyrna and a disciple of the apostle John. In this letter, Polycarp quotes scripture often; even telling the Philippians to read Paul’s letter to them.

Days 5-11: Ignatius of Antioch

Date: ca. 105-115 AD

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, writes letters to a number of churches while on his way to martyrdom in Rome. The letters I read were written to the churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, Smyrna; as well as a letter to Polycarp (see above).

Ignatius doesn’t write much about Christ’s work, nor does he quote scripture often. On the other hand, he is very free with praise for the recipients of his letters. But the thing that put me off was his constant admonition to loyalty to the bishop (“do nothing connected to the church without your bishop”, and the like).

Justin Martyr
Justin Martyr (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Days 12-17: Justin Martyr’s First Apology

Date: ca. 150-160 AD

I was unable to read this on my commute and had to find a quiet place in which to concentrate.

Justin writes a defence of Christianity to the Roman emperor. He’s big on the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, often quoting OT scripture.Some of the quotations had different wording to what I’m used to, probably because they are from the Septuagint and not from the Hebrew text (which underlies our modern English translations).

It is in this document that we find a description of a Sunday service in the mid-second century (Chapter LXVII)

Days 18-20: 1 Clement

Date: Probably as early as 95 AD.

Clement was bishop of Rome from 92-99 AD, making him the second or third pope.

1 Clement, written to the church at Corinth, is a salutary paraenesis. His writing is warm, pastoral and hortatory – Clement is always saying, “Let us…” He quotes entire chapters of scripture. In chapter 45 (of 68), he gets to the issue of division in the Corinthian church, which was probably the reason for writing. In chapter 47, he urges the Corinthians to re-read what Paul wrote to them.

Days 21-29: Athanasius – The life of Anthony

Date: ca. 360. Anthony lived ca. 251-356

Athanasius of Alexandria (he of the Council of Nicea) wrote a biography (hagiography?) of Anthony of Egypt, a man who took asceticism to a whole ‘nother level. Anthony ate little, showered infrequently and often had encounters with the devil and demons. Anthony—who died at the age of 105 with no teeth missing— was also renowned for healing people and for prayer.

[At this point, I departed from the prescribed readings and chose my own.]

Day 30: The martyrdom of Polycarp

Date: ca. 150-160 AD

Polycarp, the same who wrote the letter to the Philippians (see day 4 above), was burnt to death for his belief in Christ around 155 AD. When the city proconsul urged him to deny Christ, Polycarp replied: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

It is likely that the original account of Polycarp’s martyrdom was later embellished with legendary material.

English: Ignatius of Antioch
English: Ignatius of Antioch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day 31: The martyrdom of Ignatius

Date: ?

Ignatius really, really, really wanted to be a martyr because that meant reaching perfection as a disciple of Christ. It would seem that as soon as he got off the ship that transported him to Rome he was directly led to the amphitheatre where wild beasts awaited him.

Days 32-33: So-called Epistle of Barnabas

Date: ca. 80-120 AD

This is a fine example of allegorical interpretation. For example, when Moses gave the Israelites instructions concerning clean and unclean animals, he didn’t mean it literally. Rather, he meant that they should avoid ungodly people (such as those who plunder other people’s food, like birds of prey), and so on.

Day 34: Fragments of Papias

Date: ca. 110-140 AD

Papias was bishop of Hierapolis (a town not far from Colossae). Just as the name suggests, this is what remains of longer writings, making it hard to summarise.

Day 35: Justin Martyr: Discourse to the Greeks

In Greek mythology, the gods were described as doing a host of immoral acts that humans would do well to avoid. Justin speaks to the pagans of his day, inviting them to come and learn of the true God—just like he had.

Day 36: Justin Martyr – On the sole government of God

Date: ca. 150-160 AD

The author, like the apostle Paul before him, starts by quoting Greek luminaries who testify to a number of biblical truths, for example, that there is only one God.

Day 37: Justin Martyr – Fragments on the resurrection

Date: ?

Justin comes down hard on those who deny a physical bodily resurrection. He argues that God can do it, the physical body is precious to Him, He shall raise both souls and bodies, Christ took on a physical body after resurrection, and so on. As per his usual style, he uses illustrations from Plato, Epicurus and the Stoics to bolster his points.

Day 38: Justin Martyr – Other fragments and martyrdom

Fragments: a collection of quotations of Justin’s writings as found in other writers.

Martyrdom: Justin, along with six other Christians, was decapitated in Rome around 165 AD.

Day 39: Fragments of Irenaeus

Date: ?

Topics covered include typology, Samson, Balaam, etc. In his discussion of typology, Irenaeus  adopted the allegorical method of interpretation.

Day 40: 2 Clement

Date: ca. 140-160 AD.

This document has been wrongly attributed to Clement of Rome (see days 18-20). It is mostly concerned with moral conduct, and approvingly quotes purported sayings of Jesus from extracanonical material.

Conclusion

Have you ever, on completing something you were reading, felt a twinge of sadness that you would no longer enjoy the company of the characters or the author? I felt none of that here—with the exception of 1 Clement and Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians.

In particular, I was taken aback by two things:

a) How quickly Christianity became all about behaviour and conduct. The Didache, Ignatius’ letters, the so-called epistle of Barnabas and 2 Clement were all written within 2 generations of Christ’s ministry. Yet they contain very little about that. It reminded me of something I’ve often heard Don Carson say: “The first generation believes the gospel and holds that there are certain social, economic and political entailments. The second generation assumes the gospel but identifies with the entailments. The third denies the gospel: the entailments become everything.” (paraphrased).

b) How quickly anti-Jewish sentiments arose among Christians. The epistle to Diognetus, the so-called epistle of Barnabas and maybe one other document I read had some rather unkind things to say about the Jews’ mode of worship. It’s not hard to see how in a few centuries Christians would end up persecuting Jews simply on account of their religion, despite the New Testament not giving any warrant to do so.

My main takeaway from these 40 days with some church fathers is this: we as believers need the Spirit of God so that we may continue holding to the central point of the Word of God: God’s marvellous plan to save humankind from sin.

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