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.
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.