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The Fathers

There are in the Church a num­ber of saints who were the­olo­gians and spir­i­tu­al teach­ers who defend­ed and explained the doc­trines of the Chris­t­ian Faith. These saints are called the holy fathers of the Church and their teach­ings are called the patris­tic teach­ings (patris­tic is from the Greek word for father).

Some of the holy fathers are called apol­o­gists because they defend­ed the Chris­t­ian teach­ings against those out­side the Church who ridiculed the faith. Their writ­ings are called apolo­gies which means “answers” or “defens­es.”

Oth­ers of the holy fathers defend­ed the Chris­t­ian faith against cer­tain mem­bers of the Church who deformed the truth and life of Chris­tian­i­ty by choos­ing cer­tain parts of the Chris­t­ian rev­e­la­tion and doc­trine while deny­ing oth­er aspects. Those who deformed the Chris­t­ian faith in this way and there­by destroyed the integri­ty of the Chris­t­ian Church are called the heretics, and their doc­trines are called here­sies. By def­i­n­i­tion heresy means “choice,” and a heretic is one who choos­es what he wants accord­ing to his own ideas and opin­ions, select­ing cer­tain parts of the Chris­t­ian Tra­di­tion while reject­ing oth­ers. By his actions, a heretic not only destroys the full­ness of the Chris­t­ian truth but also divides the life of the Church and caus­es divi­sion in the community.

Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, the Ortho­dox tra­di­tion regards the teach­ers of here­sies as not mere­ly being mis­tak­en or igno­rant or mis­guid­ed; it accus­es them of being active­ly aware of their actions and there­fore sin­ful. A per­son mere­ly mis­guid­ed or mis­tak­en or teach­ing what he believes to be the truth with­out being chal­lenged or opposed as to his pos­si­ble errors is not con­sid­ered to be a heretic in the true sense of the word. Many of the saints and even the holy fathers have ele­ments in their teach­ings which Chris­tians of lat­er times have con­sid­ered as being false or inac­cu­rate. This, of course, does not make them heretics.

Not all of the holy fathers were defend­ers against false­hood or heresy. Some of them were sim­ply the very pos­i­tive teach­ers of the Chris­t­ian faith, devel­op­ing and explain­ing its mean­ing in a deep­er and fuller way. Oth­ers were teach­ers of the spir­i­tu­al life, giv­ing instruc­tion to the faith­ful about the mean­ing and method of com­mu­nion with God through prayer and Chris­t­ian liv­ing. Those teach­ers who con­cen­trat­ed on the strug­gle of spir­i­tu­al life are called the asceti­cal fathers, asceti­cism being the exer­cise and train­ing of the “spir­i­tu­al ath­letes”; and those who con­cen­trat­ed on the way of spir­i­tu­al com­mu­nion with God are called the mys­ti­cal fathers, mys­ti­cism being defined as the gen­uine, expe­ri­en­tial union with the Divine.

All of the holy fathers, whether they are clas­si­fied as the­o­log­i­cal, pas­toral, asceti­cal or mys­ti­cal gave their teach­ings from the sources of their own liv­ing Chris­t­ian expe­ri­ence. They defend­ed and described and explained the the­o­log­i­cal doc­trines and ways of spir­i­tu­al life from their own liv­ing knowl­edge of these real­i­ties. They blend­ed togeth­er the bril­liance of the intel­lect with the puri­ty of the soul and the right­eous­ness of life. This is what makes them the holy fathers of the Church.

The writ­ings of the Church Fathers are not infal­li­ble, and it has even been said that in any giv­en one of them some things could be found which could be ques­tioned in the light of the full­ness of the Tra­di­tion of the Church. Nev­er­the­less, tak­en as a whole, the writ­ings of the Fathers which are built upon the bib­li­cal and litur­gi­cal foun­da­tions of Chris­t­ian faith and life have great author­i­ty with­in the Ortho­dox Church and are pri­ma­ry sources for the dis­cov­ery of the Church’s doctrine.

The writ­ings of some of those fathers who have received the uni­ver­sal approval and praise of the Church through the ages are of par­tic­u­lar impor­tance, such as those of Ignatius of Anti­och, Ire­naeus of Lyons, Athana­sius of Alexan­dria, Basil the Great, Gre­go­ry of Nys­sa, Gre­go­ry the The­olo­gian, John Chrysos­tom, Cyril of Alexan­dria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Max­imus the Con­fes­sor, John of Dam­as­cus, Photius of Con­stan­tino­ple, and Gre­go­ry Pala­mas; and those of the asceti­cal and spir­i­tu­al fathers such as Antho­ny of Egypt, Macar­ius of Egypt, John of the Lad­der, Isaac of Syr­ia, Ephraim of Syr­ia, Sime­on the New The­olo­gian, and others.

Some­times it is dif­fi­cult for us to read the writ­ings of the fathers of the Church since their prob­lems were often com­pli­cat­ed and their man­ner of writ­ing very dif­fer­ent in style from our own. Also most of the spir­i­tu­al and asceti­cal writ­ings are put in the monas­tic set­ting and have to be trans­posed in order to be under­stand­able and usable to those of us who are not monks or nuns. Nev­er­the­less, it is impor­tant to read the writ­ings of the fathers direct­ly. One should do so slow­ly, a lit­tle at a time, with care­ful thought and con­sid­er­a­tion and with­out mak­ing quick and capri­cious con­clu­sions… the same way that one would read the Bible. Among the church fathers, Saint John Chrysostom’s writ­ings are very clear and direct and can be read by many with great prof­it if the prop­er care is giv­en. Also the Philokalia—an anthol­o­gy of spir­i­tu­al writings—exists in Eng­lish, at least in part, and with prop­er care, it can be help­ful to a mature Chris­t­ian in search of deep­er insights into the spir­i­tu­al life.