Voices from the Past for Today’s Christians
Introducing the Church Fathers
Adult Religious Education
The Orthodox Church constantly makes reference to the Church Fathers, but so many of us take the Fathers for granted or feel too intimidated to learn about them. The writings of the Church Fathers are part of our spiritual heritage as much as the saints, the icons, and the Divine Liturgy. This twelve-week series is for those who are curious about Orthodoxy, recently chrismated Orthodox, and long-time Orthodox Christians. This class is open anyone, Orthodox and other faith backgrounds. No prior background in church history or theology is required. An open mind and a willingness to ask questions is what we want. Since this is part of the Adult Religious Education ministry, the goal of this course is to help people grow in their faith in Jesus Christ.
The classes will cover three aspects: (1) the historical context of the specific Church Father, (2) the theological significance of his writings, and (3) how we can enjoy fellowship with this Church Father. The readings are not mandatory, but reading them in advance will help you better appreciate what Is being discussed. If you have not done the assigned reading, please come to class anyway! Due to the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic the will be held online via Zoom. We will meet on Sunday afternoon from 5:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. (Hawaii Standard Time). The online format allows for those who live quite a distance on Oahu or even off island to attend the class. Please contact the church office firstname.lastname@example.org and provide your email address so that we can send you the Zoom link for each upcoming session.
Week 1 – 12 September 2021
Introduction and Overview
This session will give an overview of the role of capital “T” Tradition in Orthodoxy and where the Church Fathers stand in relation to Holy Tradition. Also, important to understanding the Church Fathers is: What is a Church Father? And, What is the patristic consensus? Then there is the practical question: How should an Orthodox Christian relate to the Church Fathers?
Text: Jeannie Constantinou’s “Understanding the Bible Through the Fathers, Part 3: About the Fathers”
Week 2 – 19 September 2021
Apostolic Father – Ignatius of Antioch
Ignatius was the third bishop of the Apostle Paul’s home church in Antioch (see Acts 11 and 13). While on his way to Rome to be executed he wrote a series of letters which shed valuable light on how the early Christians understood the office of the bishop and the Real Presence in the Eucharist.
Text: Letter to the Smyrnaeans, chapters 7-9
Week 3 – 26 September 2021
Apostolic Father – The Didache
This anonymous church manual has been dated by scholars as early as the year 100. It contains instructions on how Christians were to fast and how the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist were to be carried out. This ancient document serves as a plumb line by which we can ascertain whether our respective church tradition has kept the Faith without change.
Text: The Didache, chapters 7 to 9
Week 4 – 3 October 2021
Apologist – Justin Martyr
Justin was born to Gentile parents in Samaria. As a young man he studied the Greek philosophers and was especially enamored by Platonism. However, he was deeply impressed by the Christian martyrs who willingly died than deny Christ. He converted to Christianity and founded a school in Rome. In his First Apology we have one of the earliest descriptions of the Sunday worship of the early Church.
Text: First Apology, chapters 61, 65 to 67
Week 5 – 10 October 2021
Irenaeus of Lyons
Irenaeus, who was a disciple of Polycarp, died a martyr around 200. He is among the first of the Church Fathers. He wrote Against Heresies to refute the heresy of Gnosticism. His apologia for the Christian Gospel sheds important light on how the early Church did theology.
Text: Against Heresies: Book 1 chapter 10, Book 3 chapters 1 to 3
Week 6 – 17 October 2021
Athanasius the Great
Athanasius of Alexandria (died 373) was a fierce defender of Orthodoxy against the heresy of Arianism which denied the divinity of Christ. His classic work On the Incarnation sheds valuable light on how the early Christians understood the Fall, the Incarnation, and deification in Christ.
Text: On the Incarnation, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 8 §54
Week 7 – 24 October 2021
Basil the Great
Basil the Great (died 379) wrote On the Holy Spirit to refute the Semi-Arians who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. His theological methodology might surprise Protestants familiar only with the sola scriptura (Bible Alone) method.
Text: On the Holy Spirit, chapter 1, chapter 6, chapter 27 §66
Week 8 – 31 October 2021
Cyril of Alexandria
In the early 400s, there emerged a controversy when Nestorius, then the Patriarch of Constantinople, objected to the Virgin Mary being referred to as the “Theotokos” (God-Bearer). The controversy over whether Jesus Christ was two distinct persons: the divine Logos and the merely human Jesus, would necessitate the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus 451). Cyril of Alexandria emerged as the leading defender of Christ having two natures: divine and human in one Person.
Text: Cyril’s Letter to Nestorius, Cyril’s 12 Anathemas
Week 9 – 7 November 2021
Pope Leo the Great
Leo the Great (died 440) lived in a time when theological controversy shifted from Christ’s divinity to the mystery of the Incarnation—affirming that Jesus had two natures and not be two persons.
Text: The Tome of St. Leo, Council of Chalcedon – “Definition of the Faith”
Week 10 – 14 November 2021
John Chrysostom’s famous Paschal Homily is probably the only sermon to be read out loud year after year for over a thousand and five hundred years. What makes this sermon so powerful? How does this Church Father understand our salvation in Christ? John Chrysostom’s influence over Orthodoxy can be seen in the Liturgy which is used most Sundays in Orthodoxy.
Text: Paschal Homily
Week 11 – 21November 2021
Maximus the Confessor
The view that Christ had only one will is an extension of the heresy that Christ had one nature after the Incarnation. This may seem to be an obscure topic if it were not for the fact that the issue of union between Orthodoxy and the Oriental Orthodox may become a topic of discussion in the near future. Union with the Oriental Orthodox may be possible provided that we do hold fast to the teachings of Church Fathers like Maximus the Confessor.
Text: Opuscule 7
Week 12–28 November 2021
John of Damascus
John of Damascus (died 749) lived under the Umayyad caliphate. He wrote On the Divine Image fin response to the iconoclasm controversy then raging in the Christian capital of Constantinople. While the controversy over icons was settled at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea II, 787), it was revived in the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, especially by John Calvin and his followers.
Text: On the Divine Image (First Apology §1 to §8)
Interview Q&A with Fr. Alex and Robert Arakaki
September 1, 2021
This Fall 2021, the parish embarks on a new Adult Education offering about a group called the Church Fathers in a 12-week session called: “Voices From the Past for Today’s Christians”. We caught-up with Fr. Alex and Robert Arakaki to ask a few questions that might be useful for those within and outside of our parish who have interest in attending. Robert Arakaki will conduct these sessions.
Fr. Alex, you often close your Sunday homilies with a quote from a Saint or an Elder of Blessed Memory. Why is their “voice” relevant?
- The wisdom of the Saints and Elders withstand the test of time. Since they "walked the walk" and "talked the talk" of the Christian Life, they remain with us through their examples of life and guidance through their words.
Fr Alex, in our personal prayers and even in Liturgy we often open and close with “Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us.” Why is it so important to include them?
- The Holy Fathers pray before our Lord Jesus Christ, ceaselessly, on behalf of There exists a "synergy" between God, each one of us and others. We are not Christians in isolation. We work together, in this synergy, for our salvation. God does not do all the work for us. Neither do we rely on our own strength, but constantly work with God and others. The Holy Fathers are our fervent intercessors. They pray before Christ on our behalf.
Robert, you studied the Church Fathers in seminary, how many are there? Are they the same for Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics? If not, what’s the difference? Who are they?
- Great question! I don’t know. I don’t think Orthodoxy has an official listing of Church Fathers. The Apostle Paul wrote about Christ giving certain men spiritual gifts for the building up of the Church (Ephesians 4). One of the gifts was that of teaching. Basically, the Church Fathers are saints of the Church who are honored for their exposition of the Christian Faith or their defense of the right Faith against heresy. The Church refers to certain saints as “Fathers” and will honor them on their feast day. There are Church Fathers who are very well known and there are Church Fathers who are less well known, but who made a valuable contribution to the life of the Church. Roman Catholics tend to give any theologian or Christian thinker who lived long ago the title “church father.” This can include brilliant thinkers who started off well but later in life embraced a heretical teaching. Orthodoxy has a higher bar for the title “Church Father.” Theological brilliance or breakthrough ideas do not qualify one to be a Church Father. It was not theological creativity but rather the deepening of our understanding of the Faith received from the Apostles that is characteristic of the Church Fathers. And there were breakthrough ideas but these were for the purpose preserving the Ancient Faith, not give rise to a new theology. The important thing to keep in mind is that they are Teachers of the whole Church. The influence of the Church Fathers can be seen in the Divine Liturgy. We just don’t know that!
I fear that these sessions will be “waaaay” over my head intellectually, what’s another way to think about the Church Fathers so I am not so intimidated?
- I know that feeling! Many times I felt the Church Fathers were waay over my head when I was reading them. I often felt lost and disoriented. I often felt like I needed a tour guide and a translator. That is how I see myself in this class—a tour guide and translator. In many ways, the Church Fathers are difficult to understand because their Christianity is quite different from that of American Christianity of the twentieth century. I don’t want people to wrack their brains like I did. This why there will be a time for Q&A in the last half hour of the class. This is where we tie up loose ends and talk about what all this means for us.
If I register for these sessions must I attend all of them or can I just attend the ones of interest?
- We won’t be taking attendance! If you want, you can just attend those that are of interest to you. But keep in mind that you’ll be missing out on the broader historical context within which we understand the Church Fathers. The plan is to start around the year 100 and to end up around 800.
There seems to be pre-reading beforehand before each session, where I can I find these materials? Is there a cost for books and materials?
- We are working on having PDF files of the readings being made available on the parish’s website, on a web page specifically for this class. We are planning to provide hyperlinks to online sites that have the full texts of the Church Fathers. Thanks to the Internet so much of the ancient Christian writings are literally at our finger tips! There is no charge for the class or the materials.
I am a Christian but not an Orthodox Christian, how is this going to be relevant to me?
- Everyone of us has a need to know our family history. The Christian religion is two thousand years old. The Orthodox Church has very ancient roots. For those who are not Orthodox, please keep in mind that you too have a family history. And, your particular faith community have their founding fathers. I once told someone, “If you don’t know where you’re from, you won’t know where you’re going.” Knowing your history will give you a stronger sense of who you are and why you behave a certain way. The historical overview in the class will give a theological map that will help all of us—Orthodox and non-Orthodox—better understand where we stand in Christianity’s two thousand-year old history.
What are the objectives of these sessions?
- The Church Fathers are our wise older brothers in Christ. We learn from their examples how to be better followers of Jesus Christ. We should not think of the Church Fathers as ancient writings from the early Church. Rather, we should think of them as part of the great cloud of witnesses cheering us to run the race of faith and cross the finish line (cf. Hebrews 12:1). Ultimately, our respect for the Church Fathers should be intertwined with love and fellowship, and a deeper commitment to Jesus Christ.
Will these sessions be recorded and posted for later use or a refresher?
- The sessions will be held via Zoom and only the lectures will be recorded for those who miss a class or for those who are interested but can’t make it. All other interactions and questions by others in the sessions will not be recorded. We will announce later where the recorded sessions will be posted.
Who should be attending these sessions?
- We are looking for people—non-Orthodox and Orthodox—with an open heart and and an open mind. Even those who do not identify as Christians are welcome! The goal of the course is not theological debate or evangelism, but taking an honest look at some early Christian writings. There is room for skeptical questions in the class. Keep in mind that there is a bias in this class: it is to help people deepen their spiritual life.
Do the Church Fathers give us guidance on the Bible only or other Traditions?
- The Church Fathers have a lot to say about the Bible. Whether or not they held the Bible-only position is an important question. We can discuss this issue, but keep in mind that much of the readings for this course were not selected with that question in mind.
The Holy Spirit guides us and helps us reveal what is stated in the Scriptures what do the Church Fathers add?
- According to the Apostle Paul, one of the major spiritual gifts was that of teaching (see Romans 12:6-7, Ephesians 4:12). If we believe that the miracle of Pentecost did not stop with the Book of Acts or with the passing of the original Twelve Apostles, this opens the possibility that the Holy Spirit continued to be at work among the believers in the centuries following. In honoring the Church Fathers, the Orthodox Church is honoring the work of the Holy Spirit.