Faith of the Early Church: An Ancient Apologetic for the New Evangelization
By Nicholas L. Gregoris
Publisher: New Hope Publications
Review Author: Stephen J. Kovacs
One challenge for Catholic apologists, especially when engaging non-Catholic Christians, is demonstrating that the faith of the earliest Christians was the same faith still professed by Catholics today. In Faith of the Early Church, the Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris presents a detailed overview of the teachings of the Fathers of the Church that successfully shows that the ancient Christian Church was indeed the Catholic Church. The book is a compilation of articles originally published in The Catholic Response, of which Fr. Gregoris is managing editor, and it consists of 31 chapters arranged in seven parts. It can be treated as either a reference volume or a comprehensive text to be read cover to cover.
Who are the Fathers of the Church? According to Fr. Gregoris, the Church has traditionally looked to four criteria spelled out by St. Vincent of Lérins in his Commonitorium (A.D. 434) to determine what makes a man a Church Father: orthodox teaching, holiness of life, universal Church approval, and antiquity. In Fr. Gregoris’s words, “The Fathers have been officially recognized by the Church as men who passed on through their orthodox teaching, preaching, sacramental celebrations, holiness of life, and, in some instances, through their unbroken hierarchical communion as successors of the Apostles, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Faith.” Though proclaiming the one true faith in unison, these men differed greatly in personal background, location, time period, occupation, and education. They emerged in the generation immediately following the Apostles and, by general consensus, last appeared in the eighth century. As the first heirs to the Apostles, the Fathers developed Christian teaching into a rich, biblically rooted system of thought, upon which all subsequent generations of orthodox theologians would build.
In examining the teachings of the Church Fathers, Gregoris aptly focuses on the historical contexts in which they developed. Many of the Fathers rose to their stature by defending the faith against heresies and schisms, as did, for example, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who valiantly battled the Arian heresy. The most consequential heresies and schisms led to ecumenical councils, at which Church teaching received definitive formulation, and key dogmas were settled once and for all. Gregoris explores the first seven ecumenical councils that correspond to the Patristic period, from the First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) to the Second Council of Nicaea (A.D. 787), and he capably shows how they forever shaped the Church’s understanding of her faith.
A large section of Faith of the Early Church features chapters on 10 of the more noteworthy Church Fathers in chronological order, from St. Clement of Rome (d. A.D. 101), the fourth pope, to St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), the beloved Doctor of Grace. Fr. Gregoris situates the major theological contributions of each Father amid their historical and cultural backgrounds. For example, in the chapter on Origen of Alexandria, we learn that, living through times of persecution, he applied his innate brilliance and high learning to become the father of systematic theology. Perhaps more significantly, his approach to biblical exegesis became so standard that it is largely responsible for how Catholics to this day read sacred Scripture. As he does with other Fathers throughout the book, Gregoris supplies passages from Origen’s own writings to let him speak for himself, along with pertinent selections from other primary and secondary sources, with full documentation.
Additional chapters address various topics that further show the Apostolic roots of the Catholic faith. The chapter on the canon of the Bible is particularly valuable for apologetics, as Gregoris explains how the Church, with the help of the Fathers and centuries of deliberation, gave us the Bible as we know it today. Chapters on atonement, Petrine primacy, episcopal authority, and ecclesial communion and charity also lend Patristic support to Catholic claims about the Church’s structure and the antiquity of her teachings. Moreover, Gregoris devotes a whole section to key early Christian writings, such as the Didache and The Shepherd of Hermas, with an emphasis on their treatment of the four marks of the Church.
Gregoris ends with a chapter on the Mariology of the Fathers, which plainly shows that the earliest Christians viewed the Blessed Mother from the same perspective as the Catholic Church in the present day. St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. A.D. 107), a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, was the first Father to discuss Mary, providing a solid theological basis for her Divine Maternity. Subsequent generations of Fathers further developed the Church’s theology of Mary, articulating teachings about Marian doctrine that can only be considered Catholic. Not limited to the domain of high-level theological discourse, these teachings formed the beliefs of ordinary Christians in the early Church. The best testimony is the Sub Tuum Praesidium, the oldest extant Marian prayer, which dates to the third century and enshrines Catholic doctrine and piety.
While focused on the Church Fathers, Faith of the Early Church also offers a broad view of the life and practice of the early Church. For instance, Fr. Gregoris explains the nature and function of house-churches, where the faithful gathered and worshiped before churches as we now know them could be established. Excursuses and copious footnotes present additional information on important concepts, personalities, locations, and historical occurrences. Beautiful illustrations also abound, giving the reader a look at ancient iconography, photography of ruins and holy sites, and artistic renderings of people, places, events, objects, and symbols pertaining to the text. For those interested in further study, Gregoris includes a list of worthwhile books on the Fathers and early Christianity. Plus, he provides a biblical apologetical index with definitions and scriptural citations for a wide array of topics that frequently emerge in Catholic apologetics, including abortion, the Eucharist, Holy Orders, indulgences, Purgatory, and sacramentals.
Catholic apologists would find Faith of the Early Church a useful resource. Although not arranged as a manual for apologetics, it supplies the necessary material for apologetic work on the ancient origins of the Catholic faith. The book can also serve as an accessible introduction to the Church Fathers for the average Catholic or as a reference for those already acquainted with these holy witnesses to the faith.
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