Where do we find the truths of our faith? As could be expected, we look first to the Holy Scriptures, the revealed word of God. The Scriptures, however, were not written as dogmatic treatises but as records of God’s intervention in our history. As such they do not necessarily address concerns that arose later among Christians. They must be interpreted in a way that accords with the practices of “the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
Clarifying the Church’s teachings from the earliest times been the task of its leaders: first the apostles and later their successors, the bishops. While each of them individually has the mission to teach in the name of the Church, the Body of Christ, the determination of correct doctrine has always been a task for its leaders as a group. Thus the Acts of the Apostles records how, all together, the apostles settled the question of Jewish ritual and dietary requirements (cf., Acts 15:8-29).
Similar gatherings of bishops, called synods or councils, were held in the early Church as it began to develop structures (dioceses, eparchies). The first ones mentioned in Church annals took place in the mid-second century in Rome and Ephesus. By the end of that century these local decisions were communicated to Churches in other areas. In the third century it became customary for these councils to be held at regular intervals to discuss matters affecting the Churches. When Christianity was officially recognized in the fourth century Roman Empire the Ecumenical Council (convoking bishops from all over the empire) was introduced. Beginning with Nicaea I, ecumenical councils became “the court of last resort” for settling doctrinal disputes in the early Church.
Who Taught the Teachers?
The Nicene Creed and the teachings of later councils would definitively express the Church’s teaching on certain subjects, like the incarnation of Christ. But who taught the Council Fathers and helped them express these doctrines in the way that they did? At the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, 381) the bishops sought clarity by consulting the writings of certain noted hierarchs. Extracts from works by Peter I and Athanasius of Alexandria, Cyprian, Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, and Gregory of Nyssa were read as authoritative teachers. The idea that certain writers were Fathers of the Church was born.
By the time of the Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, 481) it was common for the Churches to see some Fathers as ecumenical teachers and hierarchs, whose writings should be revered after the Scriptures and any authoritative council doctrines. Thus at the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II, 553) the assembled bishops affirmed, “Hold fast to the decrees of the four councils, and in every way follow the holy Fathers, Athanasius, Hilary, Basil, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Theophilus, John Chrysostom of Constantinople, Cyril, Augustine, Proclus, Leo and their writings on the true faith” (Session 1).
The writings of these Fathers are not considered infallible, but the Church sees the consensus that emerges from their teaching as reliable interpretations of the Scriptures for the life of the Church.
The Fathers of January
A number of these Fathers are remembered in our Church during the month of January, namely:
St Anthony the Great (January 17) – Not one of the dogmatic teachers, St. Anthony first organized ascetics in the Egyptian desert into a monastic or communal life. He lived from c.251-356. His biography, by St Athanasius of Alexandria, is readily available.
St Athanasius the Great and St. Cyril of Alexandria (January 18) – These two archbishops of Alexandria were instrumental at two crucial ecumenical councils. Athanasius (c. 296-373) was repeatedly exiled for upholding the teachings of Nicaea I on the Trinity against the Arians. Cyril (c. 376-444) wrote extensively on the incarnation and was instrumental in the fight against Nestorianism, which upheld the realty of Christ’s humanity to such an extent that His divinity paled in comparison.
St Maximos the Confessor (January 21) – A monk and writer, Maximos (c. 580-662) opposed the monothelite compromise on the nature of Christ which taught that Christ had only one will. Maximos insisted that this teaching compromised the doctrine of Chalcedon that Christ was completely God and man. He was tortured and exiled for his position (hence the title “Confessor”) but eventually vindicated at the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople III, 681-682).
St Gregory the Theologian (January 25) – A member of Cappadocia’s Christian elite, Gregory (329-389) served as bishop in Salima, Nazianzus and finally in Constantinople where he turned the pro-Arian sentiment of the city’s Christians back to Orthodoxy. His writings and sermons on the Trinity were quickly recognized as extraordinary, hence the title “Theologian.”
St. John Chrysostom (January 27) – This well known preacher from Antioch (c.347-407) was chosen as Archbishop of Constantinople in 397. He was popular with the poor but castigated the wealthy – including Empress Eudoxia – for their extravagant lifestyles. .He was exiled and died in what is today Abkhazia in the Caucusus. The next year his remains were brought back to Constantinople and buried with honor, the event we remember today.
St Ephrem the Syrian (January 28) –Born in the Syriac city of Nisibis on the Persian border, Ephrem (c. 306-373) is known as “the harp of the Spirit” because he expressed his theological thought in poetry. His over 400 hymns are especially revered in the Syriac Churches where they figure in the Liturgy. His Hymns Against Heresies supported the doctrine that Christ was fully human and divine.
St Isaac the Syrian (January 28) – A native of Bahrain, Isaac entered the monastic life at and early age, in the seventh century. After only a few months as bishop of Nineveh, Isaac left the active life and spent the rest of his days as a solitary, devoting himself to study and writing. His ascetical homilies greatly influenced the spiritual life of the Syriac, Greek and Slavic Churches as well as his own Church of the East.
General Feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs, Ss. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom (January 30) – Devotees of these saints in Constantinople argued over which one was the greatest. This common feast was established after the three appeared together in a vision to St. John of Euchaita, in the year 1084, and said that they were equal before God: “There are no divisions among us, and no opposition to one another.”
Through their prayers, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Amen