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Springs of water in the desert

12 February 2016

Andrew Davison introduces the theologians known as the ‘Early Fathers’


Enthroned: Clement V (Bibliotheque Palatine)

Enthroned: Clement V (Bibliotheque Palatine)

THE writers of the earliest Christian theology outside the New Testament are usually gathered under the title of “the Apostolic Fathers”. They were church leaders from the generations just after the apostles, such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch.

Their works range from practical and liturgical advice in The Didache, to letters that resemble the more discursive letters of Paul (e.g. the letters of Ignatius, a martyr bishop hero), and the strange combination of visions and teaching found in The Shepherd of Hermas.

The next group of theologians often goes by the name of the “apologists”, from the Greek word for “making a defence”. Their task was to explain, defend and distinguish burgeoning Christianity in a pagan environment. That makes them considerably more philosophical than their predecessors. The Apologies of Justin Martyr (c.100-165) are characteristic examples. The epithet “martyr” reminds us that this was a time of persecution of the Church.

Most important of all, however, and widely regarded today as the jewel of early Christian theology, is Against Heresies by Irenaeus of Lyons (c.135-202), another martyr-bishop. A wide-ranging work, it is celebrated in particular for his refutation of the most pervasive of early Christian heresies, Gnosticism, which combined a denigration of the created world with the promise of salvation for the enlightened few.

Reading these early writers, we recognise that theology got very far, very quickly. We see that, for instance, in the quixotic work of Tertullian (c.155–230) — who would not be numbered among recognised saints because of the severity of some of his views — who spins off ideas and words (such as “Trinity”) that would be used for ever more. Where early writers strike us as lacking, according to the standards of later theology, is often when it comes to the Trinity. Tertullian, for instance, saw the Son and the Spirit as subordinate to the Father, which would be ruled as “unhelpful” by the later deliberations of the Church.

There was also much liturgical writing going on at this time, as well as deep thought about the spiritual life, with the hymns of Ephraim the Syrian (306-373) and the writings of the Desert Fathers standing as marvellous examples.

The laboratory in which this early Christian theology took shape was deliberation about Jesus Christ. What were theologians to make of the scriptural witness about him, and of the ongoing Christian experience of salvation in his name? It had to be something that did not deny his humanity, but which also suggested that, when Jesus speaks, God speaks, and when Jesus acts, God acts.


ONE helpful way to gain an insight into these deliberations is to examine the ecumenical councils: councils of (almost) the whole Church that gathered to discuss doctrinal points.

The councils that book-end the period of greatest ferment are Nicaea (the first council) and Chalcedon (the fourth). More Protestant traditions tend to focus on the first four councils, and to neglect the other three; that is a shame, because so much of real significance remained to be thought through in the fifth, sixth, and seventh.

What we might call the “Nicene” question concerned the most basic statements that the Church would be willing to make about Jesus: Is he human? Is he divine? Various options were tried out, by various people and groups, and were later judged by the Church-at-large to be inadequate. (Contemporaries expressed this more robustly, talking of heresies.)

Some of the theologies at play at that time were that Christ was only human (associated with a group called the Ebionites); that he was divine and only seemed to be human (Docetism, from doceo, Greek for “I seem”); or that he was a pre-existing human being, in which God came to dwell only for a time (Adoptionism).

These basic questions reached a head with Arius, a theologian whose neat solution to who Jesus is enjoyed a moment of widespread acceptance. He saw Jesus as a creature: the greatest of all creatures, but a creature all the same. A demi-god, he may be, but not God, nor co-eternal with God: “There was a time when the Son was not,” Arius is reported to have taught. (It is difficult to know precisely what Arius said, because our reports come from later critics.)

The central figure in opposing Arius’s position was Athanasius (296-373). Like Arius, he lived in Alexandria, in what is now Egypt. Athanasius argued for the full divinity of Jesus (and for his full humanity) on the basis of the most basic of Christian beliefs and, we could say, the earliest: that Jesus saves.

Salvation is God’s work, not the work of a creature, even of the most exalted of creatures. The saviour is divine. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation of the Word remains one of the best ways into early Christian thought.

So it was that the position so forcefully proposed by Athanasius, in the face of much opposition (he was exiled five times), was placed by the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325) at the heart of its creed. With quite a few later additions, it is commonly known today as the Nicene Creed. The Son, we read there, is “ofone substance” or “of one being” with the Father.

It all rested on the difference of a single letter: not that the Son is homoiousios with the Father (“of a similar substance”) but homoousios (“of the same substance”). Jesus is human and Jesus is divine.

How do we fit those claims together? That would be the “Chalcedonian question” to which we turn next week.



Athanasius, On the Incarnation (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981)

Henry Bettenson (ed.), The Early Christian Fathers (OUP, 1956) — still an excellent anthology of brief passages

Maxwell Staniforth (translator), Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (Penguin, 1987)

Helen Waddell (translator), The Desert Fathers (Vintage, 1998)

Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (Yale UP, 2003)

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