Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review Topics for Lecture 1

These are the study questions from my first lecture in Patristics. Feel free to leave comments if it apppears that I've gone off the tracks.

Describe the four criteria necessary to be considered a Father of the Church

Chronology: To be a Father of the Church, one must have lived during the early formative age of the Church beginning with the late first century and ending in the East in around 749 (at the death of John Damascene); and in the West in 604 (the death of St. Gregory the Great), 636 (the death of St. Isidore), or 735 (the death of Bead). Our lecturer indicates that the Apostolic era begins with the writers after the compilation of the Canon of the New Testament. Is it possible that he meant composition, as the final canon wasn’t affirmed (hence, compiled) until long after the first century? (While the books existed and had been composed, there wasn’t general agreement as to which books belonged in the canon.) I’m not trying to be pedantic here—just seeking clarification.

Holiness of Life: Clearly, one reason for naming Fathers of the Church (which is much the same for canonization) is to set them up as exemplars, and no Christian exemplar would be worthy of that esteem unless he or she lived a holy life. It wasn’t necessary for a Father to be a canonized saint (although many were), but holiness is a must.

Orthodoxy: While not every Father had every detail correct and while there were some legitimate differences of emphasis for some schools (for example, the Alexandrian and Antiochene), one could not be considered a Father if one actively supported a heresy. Jurgens notes in the “Introduction” to Volume I of The Faith of the Early Fathers that “occasional material heresies can be found” in the works of the Fathers but that the Fathers’ works are marked by “a devotion to orthodoxy and a faithful adherence to the orthodox Church” (x). All the Fathers held the central doctrines of the faith. While I don’t have a problem with this as a condition for being named a Father, I’m a little confused as to why Tertullian is still named one. Clearly, as a Montanist, he was at least schismatic, so he couldn’t be said to have “faithful adherence to the orthodox Church.” Is it because he did not reject the doctrines central to the creed that he’s still considered a Father, or is it because Montanism in itself taught no actual heresy? Or am I misunderstanding the extent of Tertullian’s ties to Montanism?

Ecclesiastical Approval: This is the implicit approval of these teachers of the Church because the Church has preserved and proclaimed their writings and sermons. In many cases, their words have been incorporated into worship, and certainly the catechetical works through the ages have resorted to the writings of the Fathers when a particular phrase captured the essence of a teaching. So the issue of approval reflects how the writings of the individuals have been received into and transmitted by the Church through doctrine and liturgical practice.

Theological Methods of the Fathers

The Fathers were not academics but pastors, so their theological understanding came from a lived spiritual life in conjunction with deep reflection and reason rather than intellectual study alone. As Dr. D’Ambrosio mentioned in the lectures from Norms of Catholic Doctrine, theology must be engaged in conjunction with a life of prayer. In this point, he must have been taking a cue from the early Church Fathers. As Fr. Mosey states in Lecture 1, “The first point of their theological method is to never have a theological thought or theological discourse outside of a living relationship and love for Christ and His Church.”

The Church Fathers were primarily interpreters and commentators on sacred scripture, so their theology was heavily informed by their understanding of scripture. They brought together thought and spirituality in an integrated way, both to deepen the faith lives of those in their pastoral care, but also to defend the teachings of the Church (which they did with much fervor). As theologians are still called to today, the Fathers at times had to reinterpret the living tradition of the faith to the people of their times. This activity required them to bring together the teachings of the Church with elements of their contemporary cultures, and to assimilate those elements that did not conflict with Catholic doctrine. Throughout their efforts, they were able to maintain and foster a true sense of God’s presence in all its mystery.


Patrology—study of the life, history, writings, and thought of particular Fathers of the Church. Jurgens notes that patrology covers not only Fathers but other Christian “Ecclesiastical writers” of the same era. He notes that even heretical and schismatic writers fall under this heading (vol. 1, x). However, non-Christian writers such as Josephus do not fall in this category.

Patristics—study of the theological thought of the Fathers of the Church, in a sense, a survey and history of their thought as it relates to particular doctrines of the faith, derived from their own writings but also from conciliar documents and liturgical practice.

Dogma—an indispensable truth of the Faith, revealed central or foundational doctrine taught authoritatively by the Church that cannot be denied by the faithful.

Doctrine—teachings of the faith that reveal the saving truth of Christ. These include both infallible teachings (dogmas and teachings on faith and morals that can be derived logically from revelation) and fallible teachings.

Theology—in a broad sense, the study of faith by use of reason or the application of reason to matters of faith. It begins with the dogmas and doctrines of faith but extends them and addresses their deeper implications.

Heresy—rejection or persistent denial of a central (foundational) doctrine of the faith.
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