The Church Fathers

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None were more instrumental to the development of Christian theology and doctrine than the church fathers; men who, in the early centuries of the movement, rose to prominence via their written expositions of the Christian faith. Modern Christianity exists on the foundation that the church fathers built. And while they gave the Christian movement its doctrinal legs, those doctrines pushed Christianity farther from both Torah and Yeshua’s message.

Show Transcript

Shalom, and welcome to our history podcast. This is a production of Kingdom Preppers.org. I’m your host, Kingdom Prepper, and you’re listening to: Churchianity: Two Thousand Years of Leaven. We continue with our history.

Part 4: The Church Fathers

One of the most valuable assets to the early church was the collective contributions of a succession of men who came to be known as the church fathers. They were respected and lauded for their efforts in penning a vast body of letters and other writings that were dispatched to various congregations. We made mention of one notable figure among them: Ignatius of Antioch. He could be viewed as a pioneer of the ancient catholic church—the name originated with him after all. In our previous podcast, we examined the rise of the bishops, who led the church into a new era, where the clergy began to exhibit greater authority while defining church orthodoxy amidst the threat of heresy.

Ignatius had a hand in the formation of the order of bishops as well, and was therefore integral to their inevitable rise. During the time of the emissaries, there was no such thing as bishops among those who walked with Yeshua. Taken from the Greek episkopos, the word bishop literally means, “overseer,” for that is his role. This word origin also explains the term episcopal, which denotes the involvement of bishops. While the emissaries were unchallenged leaders of the assemblies following the resurrection and ascension of Yeshua, they were seen as elders. Chief among the emissaries, by designation of Yeshua’s words in Matthew 16:19, was Peter the Rock, and concerning himself he said:

[1] “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder. . . .”

—1 Peter 5:1

Even though Peter could have taken a lofty title and commanded greater respect, he viewed himself as an elder, equal to his fellow servants who were seen as shepherds of the flock. Some among the emissaries were given the dual role of prophet, yet they were all teachers, since they were taught directly at the feet of Yeshua. All these experiences and attributes afforded the emissaries unquestioned authority, unlike the leaders of what became the ancient catholic church.

While many were granted leadership positions in the churches that succeeded the Israelite assemblies, those leaders shared authority and were also known as elders, or presbyters (which is the Greek word for elders). Another group of leaders was known as deacons. Though the responsibilities of those in leadership varied from church to church, in a general sense, it was the duty of the elders, or presbyters to teach new converts and lead worship services, while deacons were required to assist with everything—though they could not preside over communion ceremonies.

It was Ignatius who—while head of the church in Antioch—wrote a series of letters early in the second century, calling for a single bishop in each church, with a body of presbyters and a company of deacons to lend support. After a period of time, this became the adopted order for all the churches. When we reach the late second century, bishops stood as unchallenged leaders in all matters of the church, much like the emissaries did concerning the Messianic assemblies.

These were among Ignatius’s contributions as a so-called church father. But, through their various writings, Ignatius and the other early church fathers dealt only with specific issues that arose in the churches. In addressing these problems, their letters offered discipline and sought to enforce church guidelines, or else they provided answers to burning questions like those surrounding the forgiveness of sins. Other letters dealt with the ongoing issue of persecution. But in none of these letters is Christianity addressed in a broad sense, where one can see the scope of its overall doctrine.

The entrance of Marcion and the Gnostics changed all of that. Those who were labeled heretics created new doctrinal systems that forced the church to respond with what was perceived as sound doctrine as part of its effort to express to the world its broad and grounded orthodoxy. The speculations of the Gnostics were vast and far-reaching, thus the response from the church had to be equally vast, as well as cogent. This resulted in the many writings that flowed from the pens of the church fathers who took ancient catholic doctrines to the next level, and essentially helped to develop some of the Christian theology we see today. Those writers in question are: Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen.

Of all their various written material, the ones that survive are also important for another reason. Regarding this, Kevin Madigan writes:

“[I]t remained the case for very long that our main sources for Gnosticism had been the hostile writings of Christian critics in the second and third centuries, writers such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen. Documents actually written by Gnostics were often destroyed by the orthodox or otherwise perished and disappeared from history.”

We begin with Irenaeus, who was born in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) around the year 130. He was a disciple of the bishop and martyr Polycarp, who he greatly admired. Unknown circumstances eventually led Irenaeus to migrate to Lyons in Gaul, which is now southern France. There he became a presbyter, or elder, and, in the year 177, he was dispatched to Rome with a letter for its bishop. The letter addressed a controversy that resulted from Montanism. While Irenaeus was away, persecution broke out in Lyons and Vienne, and the aged bishop of Lyons, Photinus, was killed. When he returned to Lyons, Irenaeus was elected bishop of the church, and he served in that office until his death in 202.

Unlike Christians of his day, Irenaeus did not like to speculate on Scriptural passages, nor attempt to unravel deep mysteries of the text. He was most interested in leading the Christian flock that was given into his care by the church hierarchy, and this was also reflected in his writing. His pen was devoted to refuting the theories of heretics and instructing those who looked to him as a leader. Only two of his writings survive—one, a body of instructions to his aforementioned flock; the other, a refutation against Gnosticism. In both, we are presented with an exposition of his Christian faith as he received it from those who taught him.

Irenaeus argued that apostolic succession validated the church’s teachings, and he reasoned that the church in Rome was the one to exemplify, and so all other churches should agree with its apostolic view. In time, representatives from churches throughout the realm, bowing to Irenaeus’s arguments, would descend on Rome to convene, all having their apostolic tradition in common. Irenaeus also presented ideas on the eucharist, or communion embodying more, and he stressed the importance of establishing a venerated position for Mary, who was considered the new Eve.

Irenaeus’s influence loomed large in the church in the West during the Greek period, and his writings paved the way for others who are regarded as giants of Christian history, such as Augustine. He pushed Irenaeus’s ideas on Mary farther by suggesting the possibility that Mary never sinned. Ideas like these seeded the Christian view of Mary long after, reaching full fruition in 1854, when the dogma of Immaculate Conception was promulgated. This decree of the Roman Church holds that Mary was not subjected to sin through grace.

Close to a hundred years later, in 1950, Pope Pius XII declared the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. This Assumption holds that Mary’s body did not decompose upon her death, but—through some miracle of the Most High—was instead reunited with her spirit after she departed this world. We can find no support for these dogmas anywhere in the Messianic Writings, nor in all of Scripture, for this idolatry has its origin in the leaders of the ancient catholic church.

Now, while Christians endured persecution under various emperors in the third century, the Christian doctrine came to be expressed in accordance with Hellenistic thought. So appealing did some of the church fathers make the melding of faith and pagan philosophy that one of the Roman emperors eventually accepted the religion, irreversibly altering the course of the Christian movement. Clement of Alexandria is one such church father who merged pagan philosophy with Christian doctrine.

Clement experienced a life far different from that of Irenaeus. It is believed that Clement was born in Athens, a city renowned for its Greek philosophers. While his parents were pagans, Clement was converted at a young age and soon went in search of a teacher who could aid him in acquiring a deeper understanding of the Christian faith. In his quest around the Mediterranean, he was led to the city of Alexandria. Founded by Alexander the Great himself in the fourth century BCE, Alexandria was the second city of the Roman Empire, and home to Hellenism. It is where Greece and what is now called the Middle East converged.

Alexandria was also home to the largest community of Israelites in the Greco-Roman world, many of whom were Hellenistic in heart and mind. And it was there that the Septuagint—the preferred Scripture version of the early church fathers—came into being. There too was Philo, the first-century Israelite philosopher who was among the first to attempt to merge spiritual revelation with pagan philosophy. Christianity was eventually introduced to Alexandria, and a church was founded there that was infused with Gnostic elements early on.

When Clement reached Alexandria, he met with a Christian teacher named Pantaenus, who was considered an able thinker. Pantaenus was a Stoic philosopher who offered a philosophical interpretation of the faith that appealed to Clement, and when Pantaenus died, Clement took his place as the main Christian instructor in Alexandria. Persecution broke out in 202 under Emperor Septimius Severus, but despite this, Clement’s school gained considerable importance, and was an effective means of drawing new converts to the Christian faith. Clement, however, had to flee the city. He traveled the Mediterranean yet again, bouncing from Syria to Asia Minor. He spent his later years in Cappadocia, where he died around the year 215.

Clement sought to present pagan philosophy as a practice that could be of use to Christians. Since most of his teaching career was spent in Alexandria, an intellectual hub for philosophers and worldly scholars, the city left its mark on his mental faculty. Unlike Irenaeus, Clement did not seek to shepherd a flock of believers; he was a thinker, beholden to philosophy, and this he dispensed to anyone seeking a deeper truth. He appealed to pagan intellectuals by employing Plato in theological exhortations, and he even argued that Plato’s philosophy could support Christian doctrine. The Greeks, he reasoned, were handed philosophy by Yah, just as he had given the covenant Law to the Israelites. Clement would attempt to merge Christian faith and pagan philosophy for his entire life, and others would follow in his footsteps for many centuries.

We’ll be back with more exciting scriptural history . . . in a moment.

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

We now continue with our podcast.

Tertullian, a church father who was very different from Clement, was born in Carthage around the year 150. Following his conversion to Christianity, at about age 40, he promoted the Christian faith by writing a series of books, thirty-one of which survive in Latin. These books gained him the distinction of being the “father of Latin theology.” The books he wrote in Greek are lost. Of note, he is also credited as being the first to use the word “trinity” in its Latin form, though his concept was influenced by elements of Stoic philosophy, particularly his view of the Creator’s “substance.” He developed the trinitarian concept after becoming a Montanist, a group we discussed in our last podcast.

Tertullian, it is said, was a trained lawyer, as is evident in his writing, which bears the mark of a legal mind. In one treatise, titled, Prescription against the Heretics, he presents a kind of legal case between orthodox Christians and heretics. His attempt is to prove that heretics were not only wrong in their pursuits, but that they had no license to dispute with the church, which he claims, had full possession of the Scriptures. The heretics, according to him, had no right to the Scriptures at all, as they legally belonged to the church, notwithstanding the fact that the church coopted the Scriptures from the Israelites.

To drive his point, Tertullian argued on the basis of apostolic succession, claiming that the churches in Rome, Antioch, and elsewhere, could trace their origins and unbroken lines of succession back to the emissaries. Thus, he parrots the same unsubstantiated claims of his contemporaries and predecessors. Finally, using his supposed legal precedence of Scripture ownership, Tertullian argues that the church alone should be allowed to interpret the Scriptures. This legal argument, as it happens, has often been used against perceived enemies of the church throughout the course of Christian history. It was a main argument used by Catholics against Protestants during the Reformation era.

Tertullian was by no means gentle of speech and beneficent of mind when it came to confronting those believed to be heretics. Ryan M. Reeves, an assistant professor of historical theology, says this of the church father:

“Tertullian is sort of this curmudgeon of the ancient world in the second century. And he has so much to contribute theologically and intellectually to this world, but his tone with just about everybody is simply nasty and bitter. Tertullian takes a more ancient tactic, which was not uncommon in the day, of simply mocking his opponents. This is the same tactic that Celsus uses. And it’s actually telling that historians have pointed out that there are not many other patriciate scholars—any of his contemporaries—who actually cite Tertullian as a person of repute that they actually want to model themselves after. He’s kind of the bad boy. It actually takes Augustine at a later generation, in a later century, to sort of rehab and to really cite Tertullian as a real sort of powerful person that he considers to be an authoritative voice. But Tertullian takes a more acerbic tone when he’s taking on his pagan opponents.”

Still, while pagans and perceived heretics were his main rivals, something in Montanism, a known heretical movement at the time, attracted him enough to join, and he adopted their particular theological slant. But this didn’t stop Tertullian from being recognized as the founder of Western theology.

That leaves us with Origen, the most prolific of the church fathers prior to Augustine. Origen was born to Christian parents in Alexandria around the year 185. He rose to become Clement’s greatest disciple, and his own Christian father, Leonides, was martyred during the same persecution under Septimius Severus that forced Clement to flee Alexandria. The persecution came when Origen was still a young lad, and, prior to his father’s martyrdom—while he was still imprisoned—Origen longed to offer himself as a martyr. He was prevented from leaving the house and fulfilling that strong desire when his mother hid his clothes. He instead wrote a letter to his father in prison.

Origen had been well-educated, not only completing literary studies of the Greek world, but also learning the prevalent pagan philosophy of the day, which was beginning to take the shape of Neoplatonism.

Of this philosophy, Professor Timothy B. Shutt, who holds a PhD in medieval literature, says:

“The person who succeeded, at last, in formulating a vision, which made use—In pretty much equal measure—of Plato and Aristotle, and unified their vision into a coherent wider system, was [. . .] Plotinus, who was from Egypt and moved to Rome, and lived in the second century CE. His legacy was called Neoplatonism, and it represented the final philosophical synthesis of antiquity. [. . .] It was taken over [. . .] by Christian theologians—St. Augustine prominent among them—and went on to become the default philosophy of the middle ages in Christian guise.”

And in his book, A History of the Middle Ages, 300 to 1500, John M. Riddle writes:

“A Christian from Alexandria, Origen attended lectures given by [. . .] a founder of Neoplatonism. Of all the pagan philosophies, Neoplatonism held the most appeal for Christians: its theory of the divine as a threefold emanation from the absolute—Plato’s universal. Origen’s theory of emanation, derived from Plato, provided imagery that could help explain how the Father, Son, and [Set Apart] Spirit could be one [Elohim] in three persons. Unlike Origen, Plotinus believed in no established religion; his work is often quoted as the best source of information on Neoplatonism outside Christianity. [. . . A]nd thus Neoplatonism had a great influence on Christian mysticism, as well as on Christian theology in general.”

With all his acquired pagan knowledge, Origen supported his family through secular teaching. But when he was still in his teens, the bishop of Alexandria, Demetrius, appointed him to train catechumens—or new Christian converts readying for baptism. He in fact took over leadership of the school, a position vacated by Clement, who fled the city. Even though he was considerably young, at a mere eighteen years of age, and the task was viewed as a major responsibility, Origen—who was already a genius in his own right—excelled, and his fame soon spread. In accordance with this experience—and given his new position—Origen sold his secular books to support himself and was thereafter devoted to the study of Scripture.

So devoted was he in fact that one scholarly achievement credited to him is the Hexapla, a sixfold version of the Pre-Messianic Scriptures in parallel columns that contained line by line comparisons of the text in Hebrew, a Greek transliteration, and four Greek translations. He also attempted to write an extensive collection of commentaries on the Book of John. He wrote thirty-two books on the subject, nine of which survive, though it was never completed. To demonstrate the immense scale he intended to achieve, ten of his books covered the first two chapters of John alone.

After a few years, Origen left the teaching of catechumens to his most trusted disciples and ran a school that taught Christian philosophy to both Christians and pagans who were drawn by his fame. There, he lectured to the delight of his hearers, calling on what he had learned from the great classical pagan philosophers. As he increased his studies, so increased his fame, and he was even privileged to an audience with the mother of the sitting emperor.

A trip to Palestine resulted in the regional bishops inviting Origen to publicly interpret Scripture in the church at Caesarea, though he was not yet an ordained presbyter. This eventually stirred up some trouble in his life, as laymen preaching in the church was frowned upon. First, the bishops of Palestine were criticized, then the bishop who had assigned Origen to instruct catechumens—Demetrius—suddenly turned on him.

While Origen held the position of instructing catechumens—since many of them were women—he took it upon himself to undergo the passage recorded in Matthew 19:12:

[12] “. . . And there be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.”

. . . Yes . . . Yes, Origen took that to mean castration, which he inflicted on himself. While this was kept secret for a time, Demetrius now brought the matter before church officials, as it was enough to disqualify members of the church from holding office. Demetrius was such a thorn in Origen’s life that he was forced to move to Caesarea in 232, where he took up teaching once more. Despite some of Origen’s writings eventually being condemned as heretical, one of his well-known students, Gregory—nicknamed the Wonderworker for his missionary efforts in Asia Minor—would rise to be the bishop of Neocaesarea and later be regarded as a saint.

In the year 251, Emperor Decius persecuted Christians yet again, and this led to Origen being imprisoned and tortured, which likely hastened his death a few years later. Pagan philosophy drove his career and infused his theology, and that philosophy was also imparted to his students. Ryan Reeves tells us that:

“Origen is the most enamored, really, with pagan philosophy. Origen has a real deep reservoir of platonic thinking within him, and we’re going to get to that again later when we get into the third and fourth century crises over the trinity and christology. There is an Origen tradition of thinking about, not only these topics of theology, but of the Scriptures and all kinds of different things. But Origen’s tactic, you might say, is really to kind of beat the pagans at their own game. He’s not simply trying to refute error or cast down misconceptions, though he does do that. Rather, Origen is of the opinion that if we’re going to be philosophers let’s do it better than the pagans.

“And so, much of his writing—and he wrote a lot besides apologetics works—really is an attempt to show how deeply thoughtful Christians can be in the philosophical arena. Now it’s that deep thought that at times gets Origen into trouble; some of his ideas are later condemned, though he himself is not officially condemned by name. And so, Origen has always been sort of this in-between person. He sort of dined with the devil a bit too much, according to some, and he went a little bit too far.”

Among some of those condemned ideas are these:

Origen believed that humans were once pure spirit, but, some having fallen, are now either trapped in human bodies, or else have become evil spirits. So, to Origen, humans were once heavenly messengers, and some are now the same demons we battle against. Origen claims to have derived this theory from Scripture, but it is clearly born of the Greek philosophy of his day, which was taught well before his time. So those holding to that doctrine today are dredging up pagan Platonic philosophy.

Origen also believed that Yah, out of pure love, would even save Satan, and return all demons—as well as all of creation for that matter—to their original perfect state. But all spirits will be free, and because of this limitless freedom afforded them, the possibility of perfect beings falling into sin again will always exist, making for a repeated historical saga of fall, intervention, and redemption, which could loop in an eternal cycle.

These are among the broad lengths to which Origen’s imagination stretched during his study and speculation of Scriptural matters, though, to his credit, he does not claim that these speculations are to be accepted as doctrine. Nonetheless, they have been accepted as just that by some students of Scripture over the centuries, and they even led to a portion of his writings being condemned in the sixth century and some of his works destroyed. These and other ideas he put forth are rooted in the classic pagan philosophy he and his teacher, Clement, sought to merge with Christian theology. Long after they lived, Christian theologians would labor to continue their original quest.

Over time, other church fathers would rise to prominence in both the east and the west, but they would all be influenced by those who came before them. Eventually, a shift would occur, resulting in a split based on the distinct teachings that emanated from east and west. The Greek provinces of the east would follow Origen and others like him by assimilating and embracing the secular world with its pagan influences. The Latin provinces of the west would follow the rigorist Christian view of Tertullian and others like him, who sought to distance themselves from secular culture. This division between east and west would develop into two individual official catholic churches that would be in direct competition in the centuries to come.

That wraps it up for this episode of Churchianity: Two Thousand Years of Leaven. A production of Kingdom Preppers.org, this episode was written, produced, and hosted by yours truly, Kingdom Prepper. All praise, honor, and glory are due to my boss, Yah Elohim, and to his right hand, Yahushua HaMashiach. You can access the transcript for this episode on our website. Yah willing, our history will continue in the next podcast. Shalom.


Keywords: episkopoi, episkopos, presbyter, elder, deacon, church fathers, bishop, clergy, episcopal, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Lyons in Gaul, Assumption of Mary, Immaculate Conception, dogma, churchianity, two thousand years of leaven, history of Christianity, church history, Hebrew history, kp, kingdom preppers

 

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