Everyday Inspiration from the Early Church Fathers

IgnatiusHave you ever noticed that in the large, lucrative frenzy of Christian media, we rarely if ever hear from ancient Christian voices? Yes, we read biblical texts from the Apostle Paul, John, Peter, James, and the gospel writers. But what about the writings of those whom they mentored– the writings of 2nd, 3rd, or 4th Century Christians? For the most part, they’ve been lost into obscurity, tucked away on the bookshelves of seminaries and church history professors.

Meanwhile, everyday Christians never get to benefit from the wisdom and inspiration that comes from the writings of our ancient Church Fathers. Foundational Church leaders like Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Augustine, and many others have such wisdom and inspiration to share with us 21st Century disciples of Jesus, but so few of us ever get to hear from them.

So what awakened me to give them a second read?

I recently alluded to them in a sermon illustration by saying that we Christians often look to the saints of the past for direction and encouragement in the present. I then rattled off names of several prominent Christian saints, realizing right then that most of my congregation may never have heard a word from any of them or have easy access to their writings. To them, people like Augustine, Julian of Norwich, and Francis of Assisi are just names and faces. What’s to learn from that?

Sensing a desire for their wisdom and inspiration, I felt drawn to hear from these saints again. Ministry can get downright draining and frustrating. Ancient brothers like Clement or Ignatius just might have something to say to me in my day to day struggles. I had studied a sampling of their writings while taking seminary church history courses, but since then, I haven’t  read those books again to read them just for myself, for my own benefit.
So today I dug up one of my seminary books: the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings. Not too long ago I finished reading Clement of Rome’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Clement was the presiding elder (traditionally “bishop”) of the church in Rome, writing out of concern for the divisions and factions he had heard about in the Corinthian church.

Apparently, some folks were trying to uproot and replace the leadership of their church. Clement wrote his letter to encourage humility, repentance, love, cooperation, and a respect for the authority which Paul himself probably appointed. His writings were laced with Old Testament scripture and allusions to numerous New Testament scriptures. Clement even referenced Paul’s first letter to them, what we now call First Corinthians, which had already become a widely circulated letter among the early church. (I thought that was way cool!) All in all, Clement was passionate, unquestionably thorough, sometimes less than perfect, but authentically sincere in encouraging this sister church of his to seek out Christ’s healing and reconciliation.

Here’s a sample from Clement’s letter:

If there is true Christian love in a man, let him carry out the precepts of Christ. Who can describe the constraining power of a love for God? It’s majesty and its beauty who can adequately express? No tongue can tell the heights to which love can uplift us. Love binds us fast to God. Love casts a veil over sins innumerable. There are no limits to love’s endurance, no ends to its patience. Love is without servility, as it is without arrogance. Love knows of no divisions, promotes no discord; all the works of love are done in perfect fellowship. It was in love that all God’s chosen saints were made perfect; for without love nothing is pleasing to Him. It was in love that the Lord drew us to Himself; because of the love He bore us, our Lord Jesus Christ, at the will of God, gave blood for us– His flesh for our flesh, His life for our lives. (The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, chapter 49)

Did you hear echoes from 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love chapter”? That was intentional on Clement’s part. He pulled his Corinthian listeners back to those all-too-familiar words of Paul in order to address their present crisis.

There’s also an allusion to 1 Peter 4:8.

Clement’s entire letter reads like this. It was really a joy to wipe the dust off this book and give it a fresh read. I can’t wait to dig into the letters of Ignatious and Polycarp, too!

One more thought: as I was reading, I kept thinking how fantastic it would be for an influential Christian publisher like Zondervan, Tyndale, or Thomas Nelson to re-translate and publish these ancient Christian writings into a book for contemporary Christians. It might create a new surge of interest in the early Church Fathers who would provide far more biblically based wisdom and inspiration than much of the popular tripe that passes for Christian teaching these days. Otherwise, these ancient writers will only stay buried on academic bookshelves while we miss the priceless treasure they offer us.


Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, Spiritual Growth and Practice

8 Responses to Everyday Inspiration from the Early Church Fathers

  1. And in reality, we have less of an excuse now more than ever to be at least familiar with these great men considering the easy availability of these ancient authors through books and the Internet. I’m currently reading Thomas a’ Kempis Imitations of Christ. Though not as old and the Ante-Nicene fathers, it is still a treasure among many wonderful and older writings of the Faith.
    p.s. The A’ Kempis volume I’m reading is part of a “Nelson Classic” series they published a few years back.

    • I also read A’Kempis’ book a couple of years back. It really impacted my discipleship in a way very few modern books can. Thanks for contributing to the conversation, David!

  2. Dave Meixner

    “Sola scriptura” might have something to do with it. 😉
    When it comes right down to it, I don’t believe Protestants have much regard for the writings of the church fathers, especially the early ones, who were Catholic (of course). If you believe that the Bible says it all, then any time spent reading something else is time wasted, or so it seems. This is one areas where I believe our RC brothers and sisters have an advantage–but I’m not sure many of the RC lay do a lot of that sort of reading either.
    Nelson began publishing a series entitled Nelson’s Royal Classics around 2000. I have seen, I believe, 14 of them, but have not seen them for some time, so I think they went out of print. Even these only go back to the 13th century (Teresa of Avila). I believe the church fathers have a great deal to say, and better preachers seem to make use of them.
    BTW, CBD has a 38-volumn set on the early church fathers for sale; at $400 it’s a bargain. And it looks very pastorly!
    Enjoy the day….
    From time to time

    • Yeah, I have seen that very pastorly looking 38-volume set from CBD. And that’s all the function it would serve- to look pastorly. There’s no way I’d be able to read all of that!
      “Sola Scriptura” or perhaps an anti-Catholic Protestant bias might have something to do with it. Although, the ante-Nicene fathers I’m reading right now (those who wrote before the Council of Nicaea of 325 AD) tend to be catholic (with a little “c”) enough to be read and appreciated by any branch of modern Christianity- Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant. Even much of Augustine’s theology, written in the 5th and 6th Centuries, was embraced by the Protestant reformers, Luther in particular.
      But then again, most of the “Sola Scripura” Protestants will run out to buy the latest Joel Osteen or Rick Warren books…
      I think where Protestants might get hung up are with the Scholastic-era writings of Thomas Aquinas and others in that school. He had a lot to do with developing classic Catholic doctrines like the Eucharistic doctrine of transubstantiation.
      But I think the real neglect of the ancient Church Fathers, the Apostolic Fathers in particular, stems from pure ignorance of them. And that’s the fault of pastors and church teachers. I’m still trying to figure out how I would teach this stuff, but while giving it a second read, I find some tremendous value to them.

  3. Gary L Lake Dillensnyder

    Chris….I have volumes of ante-Nicene and post-Nicene “Fathers” on my shelf and refer to them often. Also, works by Augustine, Aquinas and later “Fathers” in the faith. Are you are of the “Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, series, Thomas C. Oden (Editor)
    There are books on various book of Scripture sharing what early and later “Fathers”of the church have had to say about the texts. I wish there was more validity to the works of the “Mothers” of the church. I sense there probably were so that were not heretical, but surpressed due to gender.

  4. Lake, I think I’ve seen Oden’s volume, yes, although I don’t own it. It would be great to pick that up, though. Thanks for the recommendation.
    There are definitely academic and denominational publishers who have picked up and published the early Church Fathers’ writings. I would just love to see a book like this sitting along side the latest Joel Osteen or William Young (The Shack) books.
    I refer to the Church Fathers not to be exclusive of the Church Mothers. It’s merely the traditional ecumenical title that still is most widely used. I do have the writings of Julian of Norwich, which are wonderful, and I’d love to know of more.
    Plus, since human nature hasn’t changed too much at all, even in the patriarchal culture which birthed the early church writings, I have to believe that the Mothers had a heavy hand of influence on the Fathers, even if their names weren’t included!

  5. Church historian Kenneth Lautorette has a very accessible two-volume work on church history. I have to disagee with Chris though, I believe the reason more Christians are not reading ante-Nicene church fathers is pure laziness. Most of these works are now at our fingertips. Centuries ago saints were dying to preserve this stuff. Now with a click of a few buttons we have it all. May God forgive us for our lackness.
    p.s. You won’t find this proponent of Sola Scriptura reading Osteen and his ilk!

  6. Robert

    http://www.ccel.org is a great site to find the anteNicene fathers in an indexed digital format.

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