In a culture saturated with confusion, lust, spiritualism, and attention-seeking behavior, strong, true and loving voices must pierce the Spirit of the Age. The early church fathers lived in a very similar culture eighteen hundred years ago. Who are the some of the early church fathers? There are many, but this article will only focus on a few: Athanasius, Basil the Great, and Augustine of Hippo. The way these men read the Bible still speaks to this day and age.
The early church fathers would all agree that biblical interpretation is an ecclesiastical activity practiced with prayer and worship. “The fathers treat the Bible as a holy book whose riches can be mined …only by those prepared to honor and obey the message the Scripture contains,” Chris Hall contends in his Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. Current interpretation tends to go to the cleverest interpreter. We can learn from the earliest biblical interpreters that the Holy Scripture is to be obeyed and cannot deviate from truth. In the first few centuries of the church, elitist interpreters, such as the Gnostics, wished to twist the truth of who Christ was and the Scriptures. Character mattered in who preached the Word of God. If one’s spirituality was sick, the result was sick theology or sick interpretation, the early fathers contended.
Many Christians think of the church fathers as stogy theologians, ascetics removed from the world, ones who could not relate to the hurting world around them. But all of the church fathers mentioned above (and others not mentioned here) were pastors to their churches, not just stogy thinkers separated from human needs and hurts. They were real people who understood the sin in themselves and in others, but also knew the grace of forgiveness and encouraged others to the true faith in Jesus Christ. All had zeal for God and the Scriptures. Let’s look at some of these church fathers.
Athanasius is best known for his teaching on the incarnation—Jesus Christ is fully divine and fully human. He was highly intelligent with a heart on fire for God, the God who entered history and saved humanity. Athanasius stood for the Trinitarian doctrine. In Athanasius’s time most of the church did not believe in Christ’s divinity (the Arian error). Athanasius with humble and vigorous study, proved the full divinity and humanity of Christ asserting his coming could and did save all of mankind from sin and death. Athanasius stood amidst a church who believed only in Christ’s humanity. He is a voice who must be remembered in this age of pluralism and relativism.
Basil the Great
Basil was of the region of Cappadocia (modern day Turkey). He grew up in a wealthy household and to devout Christian parents. He was drawn to action fervently following the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Later he was to become bishop of Caesarea during a time of great famine. He witnessed wealthy Christians turning a blind eye to the poor during this famine. Basil excoriated those turning their hearts away. Basil was a long-suffering soul seeking God’s justice. He saw life as a short pilgrimage in obedience to Christ—with heaven in mind, he cared wholeheartedly for those on earth. Basil’s most famous works are his sermons on the Genesis account of creation. “I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that everywhere, wherever you may be, the least plant may bring to you the clear remembrance of the Creator,” Basil said.
Basil was a lover of God and the Word of God. He loved others because he allowed Scripture to change his heart toward his view of creation, including people.
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine is probably the most well known of the fathers in Western civilization. His life struggle and eventual conversion to Christianity models that of the modern Christian. Augustine grew up learning from his father career was more important than spiritual matters. Augustine was attracted to the philosophy of the Manichees. The Manichees were apt in debate and had a rich, imaginative myth based purely on reason. Augustine was attracted to them because of his intellectualism and his trouble with an allegorical interpretation of the Bible. But he could not fully accept Manichean doctrine because of Augustine’s dueling passions and appetites. The Manichees were staunch celibates and vegetarians believing all created matter had light within that was trapped and needed to escape. Material matter was evil, but had light trapped within. Therefore, union with another (i.e. marriage or sexual union) was forbidden.
Augustine wanted to love and be loved, but as he explains in his Confessions, he could not distinguish love from lust. Yet, the Bible was opened to him with the help of Ambrose who taught Augustine to read the Scriptures with literal, moral, and mystical eyes. Ambrose’s interpretation of the Old Testament convinced Augustine that the Manichean philosophy was not true. Thus, Augustine’s conversion began. Though Augustine still worried that he would fail as a Christian. He knew how out of order his loves were. How could he live a holy, changed, converted, radically committed life? Though he had doubts, Augustine became one of the most influential Christian minds bringing many to Christ and continuing to do so through his writings which are relevant to today.
In every church father’s life, there is an echo of our current times. As culture was highly sexually charged in the first few centuries, so they are today. As many different false spiritualities and philosophies circled about then, so they do today. We learn from Athanasius that the church at that time did not believe in the divinity of Christ, yet Athanasius fought with pen and debate the true nature of Christ. We learn from Basil the Great that obedience to the Word of God is paramount--to take care of the poor and those in famine and desolation. The Word of God has power and will transform one’s mind, heart, and soul. We learn from Augustine that though his loves were out of order and he sought false teaching, his heart yearned for truth. The most reluctant convert can become the most thoroughly converted to Jesus Christ. We learn very important ways of living the Christian life. The road is not easy, but the short pilgrimage on earth is worth the time because Christ molds each one of us along the way, perfecting and transforming us.