Listening to the Early Church Fathers AND the Liturgy

Catholic apologists rightly rely quite heavily upon the writings of the Early Church Fathers.  There’s good reason for it:

  • The Early Church Fathers are virtually the only way we know what Christianity is.  How do we know which Books belong in the Bible?  How do we know who wrote the Gospels? How do we know that Trinitarian Christianity is right and, say, Gnosticism is wrong?  These guys.  Without them, there would be virtually no way of knowing whether modern Christianity was the same as the faith founded by Christ.  If you ignore the Fathers, you’re left defending the faith on incredibly shaky ground: like “this is the Bible I’ve always used,” or “I just know.”
  • These were the Best of the Early Church.  There’s a reason that these specific Fathers are known to use today.  Their writings were circulated by the very same people who circulated the Letters of St. Paul, and for the same reason — these were accurate summaries of the Christian faith, by men who were known and trusted.
  • The Church Fathers were holy.  Many of them died as martyrs: folks like Ignatius and Justin.  Most of them wrote beautiful theological treatises which put to shame most of the modern output. All of them exhibited a love for Christ.  Certainly, there were bad seeds in the early Church, but my point is that they aren’t simply old, they’re heroes of the faith.
  • They had resources we don’t have.  By this, I mean three things.  First, many of them spoke Biblical Hebrew or Greek as their native tongue, and many more would have been familiar with some of the customs Scripture refers to off-handedly.  Second, there are some documents referred to in the Patristic writings which we don’t have today.  So they likely had certain written resources we don’t.  And finally, a number of them either saw Christ, or learned directly from His Apostles.  A Bible study is great.  Twenty years of sitting at the feet of the Apostle John, asking him questions about Jesus?  That’s better.  We can’t do that today, but we can read the writings of the folks who did.
  • They come with Christ’s protection.  While a Church Father may err on occasion, to say that all of the Church Fathers went wrong is to say that the Church founded by Christ fizzled out right away.  Since that’s inconsistent with His own promises (in places like Mt. 28:20, John 14:16, John 16:13, etc.)

But there is one shortcoming when it comes to the Church Fathers.  Sometimes, you’ll read something and wonder, “Did the whole early Church believe that?  Or is this Father just expressing some quirky opinion?”  And that’s where we have another amazingly helpful resource: early Church Liturgies.

While the Patristic writings are a collection of the early Church’s finest theologians, the early Liturgies give us a unique view into the prayer life of the early Church.  It’s what ordinary Christians prayed every time they went to Church.  As such, they’re even more foolproof.  As the Lutheran Dr. Jack Kilcrease has noted, we know from history that the Liturgy helped save Christianity from heresy:

A good example of this is during the Arian controversy. In spite of the fact that Arius and some other Bishops were teaching the faith incorrectly, a great many of the laity were still saved by the fact that the liturgy contained true expositions of the faith. Liturgy saves us from unskilled or heretical pastors and teachers. It promotes and preserves the faith.

You can imagine a similar situation today, in which a priest refuses to call God by masculine pronouns, yet the people still pray the “Our Father.”  The people are taught directly by the Liturgy, and proclaim their faith directly in the same way.

Let me mention up front the one weakness in using the Liturgy in this way.  Liturgies aren’t meant to be historical documents. They’re intended to be public acts of worship, and so the Church occasionally builds upon them – adding a few words here, changing the order of the prayers there.

Religiously, this makes perfect sense.  After the Council of Nicea, the word “consubstantial” (meaning of one Being) was apparently added to the Liturgy of St. James (which we’ll look at tomorrow) to more clearly express the Church’s belief in the Trinity.

But historically, this can be frustrating. Just because we have a ninth-century copy of an ancient Liturgy, that doesn’t mean we can say with 100% confidence which parts date back to the eighth century, much less the first. Of course, when we do figure out which words or prayers were added and why, it helps to tell a fuller story of the Church’s history.

Having a familiarity with the early Liturgies can seem a little daunting at first, but they’re intensely beautiful.  And the Liturgies speak volumes about the earliest forms of Christianity.

First, the simple fact that there were Liturgies means that the early Church didn’t look like the modern Independent Baptists, for example.  And when you encounter these Liturgies, you’ll discover that they’re rich in Eucharistic theology, talking about the Mysteries (Sacraments), about the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar, and about how this was a form of Sacrifice, of perpetually offering the Son to the Father.

Tomorrow, I’ll start with the earliest Liturgy still in use today, the Liturgy of St. James.  I think you’ll find it enriching, particularly in how clearly and boldly it proclaimed (and still proclaims) a belief that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ upon the altar.

UPDATE: The post on the Eucharist in the Liturgy of St. James is  here.


  1. Picking up a Biblical language or two wouldn’t be a bad idea either. It’s sad we Christians have become so unschooled, while other the two other widespread mideastern faiths both study assiduously and learn their ancient languages. A break with Tradition has consequences.

  2. “I believe and confess, Lord, that You are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first. I also believe that this is truly Your pure Body and that this is truly Your precious Blood. Therefore, I pray to You, have mercy upon me, and forgive my transgressions, voluntary and involuntary, in word and deed, known and unknown. And make me worthy without condemnation to partake of Your pure Mysteries for the forgiveness of sins and for life eternal. Amen.” – Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom

  3. Petrus, sad but true. I’m terrible at learning languages — I went to a school with mandatory French from first to fourth grade, but it never “stuck.”  I really struggle through things like the Latin Mass.  I wish I could understand Latin at least well enough to be able to follow along without constantly having to flip through the Missal, since that’s distracting.

    Joseph K: Amen!

    Daniel, I love the traditional form of the Christmas Proclamation.  I’m actually a bit surprised other churches don’t have something similar.  It’s the perfect way to ring in Christmas, and I agree with Jimmy Akin that the modern “translation” doesn’t do justice to the original. Obviously, all of the dates in both the traditional and modernized Proclamation are estimates, as even the Fathers differed slightly on the precise timing of things like the Birth of Christ.

    But the Proclamation itself supports a non-24 hour interpretation of Genesis 1.  Note the line saying that Jesus was born “in the sixth age of the world,” a reference to theories like this one.  It’s based on the belief that the seven Days of Genesis 1 refer to seven different “ages,” which were a Day only to God.  While those ages were traditionally believed to be 1000 years long (based on 2 Peter 3:8), we now know that’s not the case (since the world didn’t end in 1000 A.D.).  So I actually agree with the traditional Proclamation, that the Days probably refer to the Seven Ages, although I think that both forms of the Proclamation probably miscalculate some of the events.

    Robert,no, the age of the earth is not de fide.  So it’s quite possible that the Fathers could get this wrong, since it’s not something which has been left in the Deposit of the Faith.  In any case, they’re (a) not uniform, and (b) sometimes suggest that Genesis 1 isn’t literal 24-hour Days.

    Restless Pilgrim: Beautiful find. That’s exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.

    God bless,


  4. Joe, what do you think of the Second Vatican Council’s decrees on the liturgy and their implementation? And the 1970 Missal in comparison to that of 1962?

  5. Hey, Joe.

    I’m looking forward to your upcoming liturgical analysis. Do you have an online source for reading some of these early liturgies? I was looking around a few weeks ago on New Advent and the like, but all I could find were summaries. I’d like to see English texts if they’re available. Thanks a lot, and thanks, again, for your work here.

    Peace and hope.


  6. Nishant,

    Here are the relatively short answers to your questions. Obviously, much more can be said on each of these:

    (1) I believe in Vatican II, and I think that the Council’s fruits are just now beginning to blossom.

    (2) From what I’ve read of them, the Liturgical documents of the Second Vatican Council are an incredible resource, and show an authentic insight into both the problems facing worship in the Church, and the proper solutions. I genuinely believe that the Holy Spirit was at work in some way here.

    (3) The initial implementation of the conciliar decrees was ham-handed in some places, and outright dishonest and opportunistic in others. For example, paragraph 22 of Sacrosanctum Concilium specifically forbade priests from modifying the Liturgy. So when liberal priests declared that in the “Spirit of Vatican II” they were going to modify the way the Mass was prayed, they weren’t just ignoring centuries (or more) of Catholic tradition, but the decrees of the Second Vatican Council itself.

    (4) Both the ’62 and ’70 Missals are good, but in different ways. I find the 1962 Missals’ prayers more beautiful, and find that the liturgical calendar was more carefully constructed. On the other hand, I like that the 1970 Missal greatly expands the amount of Scripture that the flock is exposed to.

    A couple final thoughts: one of the distinctive elements of the Roman Rite is that we generally have much simpler Liturgies than in the East. Also, it’s probably too soon to see the full implications of Vatican II. Trent probably looked like a bad idea in the immediate aftermath. In order to make the Mass more accessible to the laity, churches removed their beautiful Rood Screens, and the wake of Trent saw the suppression of some distinctive and beautiful liturgical traditions (like the Aquileian Rite) with the publication of the 1570 Missal by Pope Pius V. But few traditional Catholics today would deny that Trent was a masterwork of the Holy Spirit. It just took a while for that to become clear.

    Likewise, I think that the brilliance of Vatican II is only just becoming clear. How the Church would have fared in the 1960s had Vatican II not happened is an open question. One book I’ve been meaning to read on this subject is Von Balthasar’s Raising the Bastions, which preceded the Council by a decade, but which identified many of the same problems in the liturgical life of the Church, from a fairly solid conservative theologian.

    Finally, I grew up in an area where the Ordinary Form was often done poorly, and the Latin Mass was done by the Society of St. Pius X. I was shocked, in coming to Arlington, to see the astonishing reverence the Ordinary Form was done with. It was more beautiful than I’d ever imagined. During the March for Life, I had the chance to talk to the priest whose Masses had so impressed me, and he started talking about how important the Latin Mass was. At the time, I thought he must be some sort of sedevacantist. But I’m increasingly convinced he’s right. When priests can pray a beautiful and devout Extraordinary Form Mass, they’re in a much richer place to celebrate the Ordinary Form with the reverence it deserves: the reverence that God deserves.

    So in short, I’m incredibly thankful for Vatican II, but I’m also incredibly thankful for the Extraordinary Form, and for Summorum Pontificum. I think when grandeur and simplicity inform and influence one another, the whole Church benefits. God bless,


  7. Drew,

    At the risk of giving away the upcoming post on the Liturgy of St. James, you can find three of the earliest Liturgies here, near the very bottom of the page. Bonus: they’re compiled, translated, and footnoted by Protestant scholars. So you’re getting translations which aren’t exactly slated to make Catholicism look true (yet they still do). God bless,


  8. Joe, thanks again so much for this blog and your answers.

    Yeah, I agree with you. The Council’s documents and even the Liturgy in the Ordinary Form is quite expressive of many of the articles of Faith, including their sacrificial aspect, the real presence, the intercession of saints, the beatific vision, prayers for the departed and all.

    But it is mainly the fact of so much abuse, and moreover the shoddy lack of reverence, I think, that drives many people to take refuge in the Extraordinary Form. The Holy Father’s vision seems to be that each form can be mutually enriching to the celebration of the other, an engaging prospect, I must say!

  9. Joe,

    Can you explain the first part of the article? You say we know what Christianity is because of them and that we know which books belong in the Bible and why Trinitarian Christianity is correct. Don’t we know this because of councils? Sorry, just trying to understand.

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