Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers
Written by: Dr Medhat Ibrahim Seminarian Deacon, Theological College, El-Mina, Egypt
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Who are the Fathers?
- 3 Development of the Apostolic Fathers’ Writing
- 4 The Authority of Fathers in the Coptic Church
As we believe that the Coptic Orthodox Church is the Holy and Sacred Body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, we also believe that there is a direct and strong connection between our Coptic Church’s Fathers, our holy Apostles, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
Therefore, the Faith, which was submitted by our Lord Jesus Christ to His holy Apostles, was the same faith submitted to their holy successors who preserved it and submitted it unchanged to their children throughout all the generations of Coptic Christianity. Without the Apostolic Fathers and those holy Fathers who followed in their footsteps we would not have the blessings of “the authentic and unchanged faith” in which we have today.
When our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, glorified Himself with His Holy Resurrection, He appeared to the holy Apostles, “Then He opened their minds to understand the Holy Scriptures. (Luke 24:45)” The chosen Apostles after receiving the power of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost went out and preached the Kingdom of Heaven in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to as many of those who would hear in other regions. “They spent their time in learning from the Apostles taking part in the fellowship and sharing in the fellowship, meals and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)” “And every day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47)” In this way, the preaching of the Holy Gospel of Salvation reached everywhere in the world before the passage of the Era of the Apostles.
The ministry of our holy Apostles was the same as that of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ Himself. It defended the preaching of salvation to everyone. The Apostles message was an invitation for repentance of wrong doing and living a holy life through the Lord Jesus Christ. It called for all to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord, Savior, and Messiah. “Each one of you must turn away from your sins and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven and you will receive God’s Gift, the Holy Spirit. For God’s promise was made to you and your children, and to all whom the Lord our God calls to Himself. (Acts 2: 38-39)”
Further, we saw God’s Gift by the power of the Holy Spirit who worked in our Fathers when three thousand people believed the Gospel of Salvation when they heard the message of St Peter, the Apostle, on the Day of Pentecost, “Many of them believed his message and were baptized and about three thousand people were added to the group that day. (Acts 2:41)”
Our holy Fathers the Apostles had two characteristic fundamental components of preaching the Word of God. The first entailed the service of the Sacraments, such as Baptism and the Holy Communion. The second was the preaching of the Gospel of Salvation. Prophets, teachers, preachers, and wise men preached that the Church and her ministry were for all people.
In this way, the Holy Spirit worked and still works, in those holy Apostles and their holy successors for the growth and evangelism of the Church. The Apostolic Tradition became an extension of the Holy Bible surrendered to the effect of the Holy Spirit. “But as for you, continue in the truths that you were taught and firmly believe. You know who your teachers were. (I Timothy 3:14)” So that the spirit of our holy Apostles, which is the same as our Lord Jesus Christ, spread to their successors, the Apostolic Fathers, and their beloved children.
Who are the Fathers?
The word “Fathers” was attributed to Patriarchs, Fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the word “Father” referred to preachers and teachers who gave birth spiritually to children in the Church, “For even if you have ten thousand guardians in your Christian life, you have only one Father in your life in union with Christ Jesus, I have become your Father by bringing the Good News to you. (I Corinthians 4:15)”
Saint Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (130-200 AD), gave the word “Father” to the teachers in the Church. Saint Irenaeus said, “Who taught me a letter (of the alphabet), I became his son and he becomes my father.” Also the word “Father” was a term denoting Bishops. This is still common practice in our Coptic Orthodox Church as we refer to our Patriarch and Bishops as “Fathers.” Later, the word “Father” was applied to our Orthodox teachers who were considered “Pillars” of our Coptic Church although not with the title of Patriarch or Bishop, such as St Jerome.
Patrology is the science that studies the life and teachings of the Church Father’s dating back to the Apostolic Era and continuing unto the sixth century from the Lord Jesus Christ’s Holy Birth. The first writer of Patrology was St Jerome. He wrote “The Life of Famous Men” in which he relied heavily upon St Eusebus’s “History of the Church.”
Patrology includes doctrine, behavior, and spiritual life. Patrology incorporates Church Fathers, Monasticism, and Desert Fathers.
The Church Fathers had certain characteristics in common which included:
- The Orthodox Doctrine regarding the Holy Trinity, Christology, and the Lord Jesus Christ’s penance through the Cross and all Holy Divine Mysteries.
- A holy and saintly life. “Whoever obeys the law and teaches others to do the same will be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matthew 5:19)
- Their acceptance as “Fathers” by the Church
The Orthodox Non-Chalcedon Churches (Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, and Armenian) determine the date of the end of the Fathers Era by the date of the Chalcedon Council of 451 AD. However, according to the Chalcedon Churches in the West, the Fathers Era ends in the 7th Century. St Gregory the Great (604 AD), and Saint Seveille “Theodore” (636 AD) both support this calculation. According to the Chalcedon Churches in the East, the Fathers Era ends by St John of Damascus (749 AD). It is generally agreed that the 4th and 5th centuries are the Golden Eras for Fathers.
Categories of Fathers:
- Apostolic Fathers: were in direct connection with the chosen Apostles. Included St Clement the Romanian, St Ignatius, St Polycarp, and St Pipirius.
- Defenders: defended Christianity against idolatry and Jews. Included St Athenodore and St Irenaeus.
- World’s Teachers: St Athanasius the Apostolic, St Basil the Great, St Cyril, St Gregory, St John from Damascus, St Kabryanous, St Ambrose, St Jerome, and St Augustine.
- Confessors: defended Christianity against heresies. Confessors were St Dioscorus and St Severus of Antioch.
- Monastic Fathers: St Antony, St Pachoum, St Macarius the Great, and Isidorus, St Shenouda the Archimandrite.
Most of our Church Fathers wrote either by Greek or Latin language, however some wrote Coptic, Syrian, or Armenian. The Church Fathers who are considered Fathers according to the faith of our Coptic Orthodox Church include:
From the East (writing in the Greek Language) are:
- St Athanasius, the Apostolic, 20th Pope of Alexandria
- St Basil the Great
- St Gregory the Theologian
- St John Chrysostom
- St Cyril the Great 24th Pope of Alexandria
- St Dioscorus 25th Pope of Alexandria
- St Severus of Antioch
From the West (writing in Latin Language) are:
- St Cyabrianous
- St Ambrose
- St Jerome
Development of the Apostolic Fathers’ Writing
First Three Centuries
The first stage is entitled, “The first three centuries.” This stage is the most important one in our Apostolic Fathers’ writings. The writers in this era are those who lived in contact with the holy apostles themselves. As the founders of the Coptic Church, they witnessed the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Such teachings encompassed topics as The Holy Trinity, Incarnation, and Church Codes, Laws, and Rituals.
The Apostolic Fathers were considered the “first century” writers and were those writers who saw the holy Apostles and were their disciples. Late writers termed the “second century” writers were in direct contact with the Apostolic Fathers’ disciples. Writers of the third century were not of the Apostolic Era so therefore they arranged Apostolic and Apostolic Fathers’ Teachings for the great church teachers of the fourth century.
300 AD - 480 AD
The second stage (300 AD-480 AD) extended from the time of St Athanasius, the Apostolic to the time of St Cyril the Great in the east and St Augustine in the west. Many great leaders in the Church arose in this era and theological debates entered into regarding The Holy Trinity in the east and the Work of Grace in the west. The first division of the second stage extended from 300 AD to 360 AD. During which time the theological argument regarding the doctrine of The Holy Trinity appeared and Orthodox doctrine had been determined.
The second division extended from 360-430 AD. During this division Orthodox doctrine and its teachings had become well established. The most famous of these writings were written by St Cyril the Great. St Cyril’s writings were considered the best writen of all the fathers before him. Therefore, St Cyril is considered the last of our Apostolic Fathers.
430 AD - Seventh Century
The third stage (430- seventh century) was the stage in which the theological argument over “Christology” erupted. This stage extended from the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) to the Council of Chalcedon and the Second Council of Constantinople (553 AD). Also during this third stage, our holy fathers defended the Church against heresies of that day preserving the Orthodoxy doctrine, as we know it today. It should be noted that their defense of Orthodoxy often led them to torture and martyrdom, as with St Discorus, the 25th Pope of Alexandria and St Severus of Antioch.
The Authority of Fathers in the Coptic Church
Every Christian should comply with our Fathers’ teachings as determined by councils, the Creed, and the Council Laws. It is also of importance that every Christian participates in the Divine Liturgy. Every Christian should share the “praying with those saints who formulated the Divine Liturgy” according to the Orthodox doctrine. In this manner every Orthodox Christian is in commitment with those saints in the same manner as the monk who must be in commitment with monasticism laws and founders.
The Fathers have teaching authority upon all Christians, whether in the Church, on the entire earth and over all generations. No generation should for whatever circumstances or causes, ignore the Fathers and the Councils’ Laws, as this will be considered as deviant to our holy tradition, which is the most valuable heritage, our church posses.
It should be noted that our Fathers discussed and examined every problem presented dealing with church faith and discipline. Their opinions in the west and east were in agreement regardless of location or time. They were the Lord’s voice. So if there is an argument in the church regarding a particular issue one must turn back to the holy Fathers through their laws and teachings and through all the sources of our church’s holy traditions and heritage for the solution.
Fathers’ Writings in the First Three Centuries:
- St Clement of Rome (102 AD)
- Letter to Corinthians (90 AD)
- Second Letter to Corinthians
- Two Letters to Virgins
- St Ignatius of Antioch (107 AD) - Seven Letters
- St Polycarp, the Martyr (70-156 AD) - Letter to Philippians
- Papias Bishop of Hiera Polis (130 AD) - Explanation of our Lord’s Sayings
- Letter of Barnabas - Anti-Jewish Epistle, “The End of First Century”
- Didache - “The End of the First Century”
- The Shepherd of Hermas - “The Second Century”
- The Apologies of Quadratus to Hadriam (124 AD)
- The Apologies of Aristides of Athens (140 AD) to Antonius Pius
- The Apologies of Aristo of Pella to the Jews (140 AD)
- Tatian of Syria (172 AD)
- St Justin, the Martyr (165 AD)
- The Apologies of Apollinaris of Hierapolis (172 AD)
- Melito of Sardis (190 AD)
- Athenagoras of Athens (177 AD)
- Theophilus of Antioch (181 AD)
- Letter to Diogenetis (second century)
- Minos Phipex (second century)
- Martyrdom of St Polycarp
- Martyrdom of St Justin and His Friends
- Letters to Churches of France
- Martyrs of Sipitian
Writings Against Heresies
- Against Heresies “Most of Them Are Lost”
- St Irenaeus, Bishop of Lion (140-202 AD) Against Monitions-Letter about authority of councils
Foundations of Theological Writings
In the East
- St Clement of Alexandria (125 AD)
- Origen (185-254/255 AD)
- St Dionysius of Alexandria (264 AD)
- Fathers of Theological School of Alexandria
- Apostolic Laws (third century)
- Antioch and Palestine - Uolias, the African (240 AD)
- St Gregory the Theologian (213-270 AD)
- St Methodios of Olympia (311 AD)
In the West
- North Africa
- Tertullian (180-220 AD)
- St Cyprian (200-258 AD)
- Arnopis (280-310 AD)
- Laktantios (317 AD)
- Rome - Hippolytus, Degrees of Priesthood
The Role of Fathers in our Contemporary Life:
Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself used the word “father”, not only for God but also for people. As in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, “the rich man died and was buried in Hades where he was in great pain. He looked up and saw Abraham, far away, with Lazarus at his side. The rich man called out “father Abraham” and this means “the father on earth.”
Also St Paul, the Apostle, gave us an example of the meaning of “father” in the Christian Church. The saint’s first letter to the Corinthians 4:15 states, “for even if you have ten thousand guardians in your Christian life, you will have only one Father. For in your life in union with Christ Jesus I have become your father by bringing the Good News to you.” Here, St Paul used the word “father” as it is literally, meaning the birth through the Holy Spirit. Therefore this means that St Paul gave them the holy Christian life through preaching and suffering and by this St Paul allowed them to call him “father.” This is the name for those he gave holy birth to through baptism.
The same is also for our Coptic Church Fathers’ who gave their congregation the new holy birth through baptism and by renewing this birth by the Holy Sacrament of Repentance and Confession.
They also bring their congregations to the Lord Jesus Christ through teaching and preaching with the Holy Gospel and the Lord’s Teachings.
Moreover, they offered themselves as living examples for every one of their congregations as the holy image of our Lord Jesus Christ in the life while on earth. So by this meaning, our church’s holy Fathers shared with St Paul, the Apostle, as they were Fathers for their congregations and for the entire church in the following generations and forever.