By Mike Aquilina
Showing most recent 72 items by this author.
In the run-up to the Second Council of Nicaea we encounter an emperor known as "Poopyhead," who summons a synod known as the "Headless Council" — all for the sake of forbidding the use of devotional images. Eventually the emperor got around to condemning any honor paid to saints. He desecrated their relics. He tried to ban celibacy, and he closed monasteries and turned them into hotels. Second Nicaea, in 787, was called to repair all that damage.
Leave it to intellectuals (in any age) to "solve" the world's problems in ways that create bigger problems. Monothelitism was a religious idea concocted by policy wonks in boardrooms. It was supposed to remedy the doctrinal differences that divided Constantinople from Egypt. It failed to do that, and it also provoked a schism between Constantinople and all of western Christendom. The Third Council of Constantinople was called in 680 to clean up the mess.
Every council represents a crisis — often provoked by strong and eccentric personalities. But Constantinople II, in 553 AD, may have been the strangest of all. At the center of the drama were an imperial power couple, Justinian and Theodora, and a weak pope who vacillated between cowardice and duty.
What happened when God took flesh? A simple question roused hundreds of speculative answers, most concerning the "person" and “nature” (or natures) of Jesus Christ. But the philosophical terms themselves were slippery, and mistranslations made matters worse. The wild speculation came to a stop at the Council of Chalcedon, thanks to the Tome of Pope Leo the Great.
Nestorius was a fussy man with a knack for alienating people. Within days of his installation as bishop of Constantinople, he had offended the imperial family, the monks, and the nobles, but also the common people. But when he tried to suppress devotion to Mary as "Mother of God," he invited all his enemies to join forces — because such a campaign affected not only the status of Mary, but also the doctrine of Jesus Christ. He forced a crisis that played out at the Council of Ephesus in 431.
Nicaea didn't resolve the Arian crisis. In fact, it provoked a riot of reactions — endless variations on the Arian theme. Imperial force only made matters worse. For a half-century, conflict raged. The situation seemed hopeless until Theodosius summoned bishops to meet in 381.
Nicaea (325 A.D.) is the first of the ecumenical councils, not only in chronology, but also in importance. It occupies a certain primacy. The phrase "Nicene Faith" is sometimes used as an equivalent term for classic Christian doctrine. That's how we see it after centuries of development. But what did it mean to those who attended?
In Acts, chapter 15, the Twelve met with elders and chosen experts to exercise an authority that was different from the authority that any of them possessed individually. This established a practice for the ages to follow. The general councils in the time of the Fathers — the first seven ecumenical councils — are considered authoritative by the Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches. In this episode, we look at the pre-history of those councils and consider their definitions and authority.
In the first three centuries of Christian history, the practice of the faith was a capital crime, and many gave their lives as the ultimate testimony. The Church called them "witnesses" — in Greek, martures, whence we get the English word martyr. To speak of martyrdom, the early Fathers employed language usually reserved only for the Eucharist. So what does martyrdom have to do with the Mass?
Music formed the early Christians in faith. It catechized them. Inspired them. Unified them. Healed them. The Fathers — from Ignatius of Antioch to John of Damascus — testify to this fact. Many of them wrote music. Augustine wrote a book about music. At a time when most people could not read, music was the most effective delivery system for doctrine. The decisions of the councils would have been dead letters apart from their placement in musical settings.
Why is it big news when someone claims to find a fragment of a lost "gospel"? Why do people say that these ancient apocrypha threaten to overturn everything Christians believe? In the second century, some of these pseudonymous books appeared and quickly landed in the remainder bin, called into question by giants such as Irenaeus and Tertullian. They're news today because of a modern myth, crafted by one of the renowned literary critics of the 20th century.
Most lowly and most loved, deacons played supremely important roles in the early Church. Think Lawrence of Rome. Think Ephrem of Syria. They were consistently voted most likely to be pope. Jerome wryly observed that when a bishop wanted to demote a deacon, he ordained him to the presbyterate.
Ever wonder how Bible study was done in the early Church? It was done with chains. The CATENA did the work that Bible software does for us today. It did the work of concordances and even entire shelves of commentaries. Catena is Latin for chain, and the links in these long-ago chains were extracts from the sermons and letters of earlier interpreters of Scripture.
When asked what's wrong with the Church, commentators from Pope Francis to Russell Shaw will blame an elusive beast named "clericalism." But what is clericalism, and where did it come from? In this episode we track the beast to its birthplace, the Church of the fourth century. Our native guides are Augustine, John Chrysostom, and others — who offer us good counsel for defeating it in our own time.
The hospital arose as a Christian institution, dependent on the Christian principles of charity and hospitality. There were no pre-Christian hospitals. This episode tells the story of how the early Church changed the practice of medicine forever.
The Empire faced a crisis in the year 9 A.D. Romans were not reproducing. They weren't even marrying. Caesar Augustus recognized that this posed a dire threat to the Roman way of life — the empire's cultural and intellectual heritage, and its homeland security. He made new laws to encourage fertility. He even proposed a pagan "theology of the body." His successors made more laws. All failed, and eventually it was Christianity that restored and revived the Roman family and Roman world.
John of Damascus, the last of the Fathers, was born into a world newly conquered. John was able to provide a rare outsider's view of Islam when it was new on the world scene. In Christian history he is known as the great defender of the practice of venerating images. In more than a millennium, his compact, complete treatises on the subject have never been surpassed. But his work includes much more: sermons, hymns, and a handy compendium of philosophy and theology.
Isidore of Seville lived at a time when the memory (or fantasy) of a homogeneous Roman culture was rapidly fading. The conquering “barbarians,” the Visigoths, had now been ruling in Spain for centuries. They were no longer foreigners. Rather, a new culture was forming, a “melting pot” of Roman and northern elements. A man of holy ambition, Isidore laid strong foundations for the medieval European culture that would follow.
By the 7th century, Christian thinkers were settling into scholastic methods, systematizing the thought of their Greek or Latin forebears. Maximus represents the best of this movement. Greek by origin, he spent decades in Latin lands. His writing reflected the brilliance of both sides of the Mediterranean. He marshaled resources of East and West to oppose the Monothelite heresy. The emperor pinned hopes on the heresy to unite the empire against Islam. Maximus suffered brutal torture and exile.
His name retains its greatness — even for modern Christians who don’t know history. They know Gregorian Chant, and maybe Gregorian Masses. Born into nobility, Gregory held estates in Italy and Sicily, but gave them up to be a monk. Then he gave up being a monk so that he could serve the Church. Elected pope, he recast the papacy as a full-time exercise of servitude. He was “servant of the servants of God,” and as such he reformed the clergy and the liturgy and directed foreign missions.
Benedict was not the first monk to compose a rule for living in community — but he's certainly the most influential. He wrote the Rule that the Emperor Charlemagne would propose as guidebook for all monks in the West. Yet Benedict himself was self-effacing in the extreme, and he remains elusive for historians. Lately, he has emerged as a patron and model for people whose civilization could be entering a Dark Age. Know anybody like that?
Forget the shamrocks. Pour the green beer down the sink, and drive the snakes from the Emerald Isle of your imagination. Listen up and encounter the real St. Patrick, author of two passionate, fascinating Christian works — deserving of a place with the Church Fathers. Patrick arrived in pagan Ireland in the fifth century, first as a slave and then as an itinerant bishop. By the end of his life, Ireland was a Christian nation.
Peter Chrysologus is known as the “Doctor of Homilies,” and he always preached with brevity. Every word was golden. He was archbishop of Ravenna during that city's brief term as capital of the Western empire. His sermons rang like poems, rich with biblical insight and glimpses of ordinary life in a fifth-century urban center.
Romanus looms large from his lifetime in the sixth century. Today he is much sung and little known — at least with certainty. Legends have filled in the cracks of his biography. According to one, he was tone-deaf when heaven granted him the gift of composition. He went on to compose many verse homilies, kontakia, which are still sung in the Eastern churches today. Having lived in Homs, and then Beirut and Constantinople, he introduced Syriac forms and methods into Byzantine liturgical music.
Prolific in words and prodigious in deeds, Leo was also self-effacing. He preached with Gospel simplicity. Yet he made history for three world-changing interventions. It was Leo who stopped Attila the Hun's rampage through Europe. It was Leo who put a decisive end to the ancient heresies about the natures of Christ. And it was Leo who kept the barbarian Vandals from murdering the Romans and burning the city. Tradition calls him "the Great." He earned the title.
All Christians respected the authority of Scripture, but already in the fifth century the Church was riven by conflicting interpretations. Vincent of Lerins developed a formula to tell true doctrine from false: "All possible care must be taken that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all." He emphasized the special role of the ancient Fathers as witnesses to authentic tradition. Thus he provided the foundation for the study of patristics — and this podcast!
Cyril's uncle was the notorious Theophilus, a ruthless and fiercely competitive churchman — and the old man handpicked his nephew to be his successor as bishop of Alexandria. Cyril learned from Theophilus how to orchestrate an international incident and carry it through to the victorious end. But he was very much his own man: a towering intellect, the mastermind of the Council of Ephesus, a prodigious commentator on the Scriptures, and a saint of a different sort.
The great ascetic movement was in its first years of explosive growth when John Cassian journeyed from West to East. He visited the communities of monks and hermits in Palestine and Egypt. Though he sought a quiet life, he got caught up in international intrigue and adventure. In his later years he drew together the memories of his years in the desert, and composed two works on the cultivation of virtue and the practices of prayer.
Prudentius is the Latin poet most praised from the ancient Church. He invented new poetic forms and genres — and established artistic standards that would hold through the Middle Ages. Scholars as varied as C.S. Lewis and Robert Wilken call him “the first Christian poet," the first great representative of a real Christian literature. Compared to Prudentius, all earlier Christian poets were dabblers. Upon his model depended such later luminaries as Bunyan, Milton, and Spenser.
Paulinus was tagged as the most promising poet of his generation — by the most famous poet of the preceding generation. He was supposed to carry the torch forward for his art. And he did, but not in the way the old school had wanted or expected. Instead he fashioned a new esthetic for the empire, a deeply Christian appropriation of the old classical forms. Along the way, he formed a religious community and then served as bishop.
No sane person ever proposed John Chrysostom as a model of diplomacy. His name means "Golden Mouth" and reflects his eloquence. His words, however, proved his undoing when he chose to preach a word of criticism against the Empress Eudoxia. He soon found himself battling for his position as bishop and then for his life.
Chrysostom means “golden mouth,” and only one man has credibly borne the title. John Chrysostom may have been the greatest pulpit preacher in Church history. In his lifetime he was also renowned for his asceticism and spiritual counsel In recent years, however, he’s been maligned — and mischaracterized — for his views on marriage and sex. Here we set the record straight with an account of his developing understanding of the one-flesh union and its particular graces.
When Augustine's story is told, it too often ends with his baptism. But the drama of his later years is no less moving. He was as introspective at the end as he had been in his Confessions decades before. He gave his life and work a thoroughgoing review, even as he produced what many consider his masterpiece. His City of God marked the close of an age and the twilight of a brilliant life.
The drama of Augustine's life hardly ended with his baptism. The years that followed included his ordination-by-mob, an attempt on his life, and wars of words with at least four major heresies. His years were breathless adventure and busyness, and yet they yielded 44 volumes of work that continues to exercise a profound influence — no only on Christian theology, but on civilization. This is the second of three episodes on his life.
Augustine of Hippo is a name that appears on any short list of the most influential intellectuals in the history of the world. He seemed to live several productive lifetimes in the course of his own. In this first of three episodes on Augustine, we examine his dramatic early years — from his childhood through his conversion to Christ at age 31. We also consider the profound influence of his mother, Monica.
Jerome is renowned for his biblical studies and translations, The Church invokes him as Doctor, Father, and Saint. Yet he is just as famous for his curmudgeonly character. He clashed with Augustine and Rufinus, disdained Ambrose and Chrysostom. His insults stand with the best of Mark Twain and Groucho Marx. He is often depicted angry in works of art, and the poet Phyllis McGinley said: “He wasn’t a plaster sort of saint.”
Didymus lost his sight at age four, and yet he became one of the most respected theologians on earth. This was in the fourth century, more than a millennium before Braille, audio tech, or other accommodations. Among his renowned disciples were Jerome, Rufinus, and Palladius. His life was long and full, intensely engaged in the controversies surrounding the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation. His story should inspire anyone who hears it. And the story isn't over yet.
Epiphanius had a passion for pure doctrine — and a loathing for error in all its forms. He labored to root heresy out of the Church. He distrusted classical literature because of the taint of idolatry. He compiled a "Medicine Chest," a reference work diagnosing errors as "snakebites" and then prescribing cures from the pharmacy of true doctrine. In pursuing clarity, he forced Christians to take sides. He sometimes brought on divisions that weren't altogether healthy.
Cyril served as bishop during ugly times. The Church was divided, and suspicion was universal. He suffered false accusation, conspiracy, and exile. Yet he was able to see supernatural beauty shining through natural signs in the Church’s liturgy: bread and wine, oil and water, breath and gesture. His lectures, in fact, cover all the basics of Christian life: creed, commandments, prayer, and sacraments. Eyewitnesses tell us that his hearers applauded when he taught.
Ambrose of Milan, more than any other figure, is invoked in the West as the model for church-state relations. He’s the one who said: “The emperor is within the Church, not above the Church.” And he said it with deeds as well as words. He said it in private letters and public demonstrations. He said it through direct confrontation and civil disobedience. A former politician himself, he had a keen understanding of the game — and in the late fourth century the stakes were very high.
There’s no anti-Christian like an ex-Christian, and there was no figure in antiquity like the Emperor Julian. He promoted the return of paganism as the official religion of the Empire. But it was a strange paganism, modeled on the Christian Church. Julian began by making it difficult for Christians to work in professions like education, law, and military. He knew that martyrs made Christianity strong. It was better to marginalize believers, pushing them out of public life and influence.
Gregory of Nyssa was born into a family of high achievers. His brother was Basil the Great; his sister was the eminent Macrina. In Gregory’s young life, however, he was a disappointment. It’s not that he was a sinner, but he seemed to lack the ambition and drive that were characteristic of his family. At Basil’s death Gregory suddenly emerged as a major player on the world scene — a master of theology, a leader at councils, a healer of divisions in the Church.
All Gregory wanted was a quiet place where he could relax with his books. But history kept dragging him into its current. First he was coerced him into priesthood, then into the episcopacy. Both times he put up little resistance, but later resented the actions as violence. Both times he fled the demands of his office. Eventually he became bishop in Constantinople and led the ecumenical council in 380. Along the way he wrote the best Trinitarian theology of his time — and reams of great poetry.
Basil the Great was a brilliant theologian whose works are foundational in Christian social thought. But he didn't just think about these things. He did something about them. As bishop he was a model administrator, marshaling the resources of Christians in order to build a "new city" dedicated to worship and service of those in need; there he constructed one of the first hospitals, a poorhouse, a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, a hospice, and a trade school.
As a theological poet, he is peerless but for Dante. Yet Ephrem's fame rests not only on his words, but also on his heroic deeds. He lived almost his entire life in a war zone. He helped invent the hospital and the women's choir. He served tirelessly in times of famine and natural disaster — and he died caring for the sick during a pandemic. More than 500 of his hymns have survived into our time.
Aphrahat "the Persian Sage" is the first in our series to live outside the Roman Empire. He wrote in a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. He maintained close contact with Judaism and demonstrated a profound knowledge of Hebrew Scriptures and Jewish customs. He wrote in prose that reads like poetry. His is a most unusual voice. The modern rabbi Jacob Neusner called Aphrahat a model of Jewish-Christian dialogue.
He is called the Athanasius of the West — and the two had much in common. Both defended the Council of Nicaea and suffered exile for it. But Hilary's approach to controversy differed from that of Athanasius. He listened to his opponents and found common ground when he could. When he couldn't, he addressed their concerns clearly and directly. He was even willing to work with heretics as they opposed more radical heresies. He wrote on the Trinity and composed hymns that are still sung today.
Every Christian historian or history buff is dependent upon the work of Eusebius of Caesarea. He didn’t invent Church history, but his writings made it a serious discipline. He was the first to attempt a comprehensive, universal history of Christianity. He wanted his account to be the official story. Yet in his own lifetime he showed the perils and ironies of living within history. He did this by aiding and abetting true villains and assisting in the persecution of saints and heroes.
The world awoke to find itself heretic, but one man would not accept the situation. Athanasius stood fast against emperors, bishops, and even synods of bishops. He reigned as bishop for 45 years, but 17 he spent in exile. He was exiled five times at the orders of four different emperors. As the fortunes of Nicaea waxed and waned, he had many close calls and brushes with death. His life was a breathless adventure for orthodoxy’s sake. And he prevailed.
Alexander can't say he wasn't warned. His predecessor as bishop of Alexandria, Peter, had told him not to trust Arius. But Alexander ignored the advice. Then Arius went into open rebellion, and then his heresy spread throughout the world. And then Alexander had to act decisively, arguing strongly against the Arian heresy and prevailing at the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Through one man’s witness, monasticism took the world by storm. Anthony of Egypt became history’s least probable celebrity. He gave up his money and possessions. He couldn’t read or write. He fled to the desert to be alone with God. Yet he drew disciples wherever he went. His desert became a city populated by monks and hermits. Philosophers and emperors sought his sage advice. In the course of his life he exercised a profound influence on the history of religion.
He was the greatest rhetorician in the Latin-speaking world. Born in North Africa, Lactantius was summoned to serve at the imperial court. He converted to Christianity and, with the persecution of Diocletian, lost his job and lived in poverty. He continued writing to strengthen the faithful. With the rise of Constantine and the legalization of Christianity, he was restored to glory. In his writings we have a unique eyewitness account of one of history's most important transitional moments.
It's hard to be an intelligent Christian without handling Origen's ideas. He set the ground rules for scientific study of the Bible. He wrote foundational works in spirituality, apologetics, and fundamental theology. In this episode we look at those big accomplishments, but also examine the ideas that got him into trouble. Do souls exist before they get bodies? Does Satan get saved in the end? Does allegory trump history when we read the Bible? And did Origen really say all these things anyway.
Origen of Alexandria was one of the most important figures in Christian antiquity — and also one of the most complicated. He was widely influential and widely despised. He wrote thousands of books and invented several academic disciplines, including scientific biblical studies, fundamental theology, and spiritual theology. Toward the end of life he endured tortures rather than deny the faith; and he died a hero’s death. This is the first of two episodes on his life and work.
Before his conversion, Cyprian had been wealthy and successful, but miserable and addicted to drink. With his baptism came a complete transformation. Within a year he was ordained a priest. In two years he was bishop over all of North Africa. His years in office were a time of unprecedented crisis. His Church faced persecution, pandemic, catastrophic climate change, and famine. He managed all with grace and won his prominent place in history before dying as a martyr.
He started as a papal critic, became history's first antipope, and today is honored — with the pope he rejected — as a saint whose feast day is universal. Go figure. Hippolytus of Rome is one of the great curiosities of early Christian history. In ancient times he was known for his encyclopedic books of theology, which became standard reference works in the centuries to follow. The Church revived his Mass prayers in the last century, and they're still in use today.
As the second century turned to the third, Alexandria, in Egypt, emerged as an influential center of Christian thought. Its first impression was spectacular — and it came from a teacher named Clement. He had traveled the Mediterranean to study under the greatest Christian teachers and finally settled in Alexandria. Eventually he came to lead the city's catechetical school. Any Christian who has pursued a life of prayer in the Christian tradition has encountered ideas developed by Clement.
Perpetua is almost unique in the literature of her time. She stands alone as a witness to women's experience in the third century — and the changed status of women in the Church. A Christian martyr, she kept a diary while in jail. There she wrote of pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and weaning. In prison she emerged as a charismatic leader of her fellow Christians. Her diary is an extraordinary record, and it is a beautiful meditation on Christian life.
Thank Tertullian of Carthage for his role in forming a distinctively western Christianity. He gave us words in our own language to express the inexpressible: words like Trinity and Sacrament. He also introduced the world to the idea of freedom of conscience. Our civilization rests on his ideas.
Sarcastic, bombastic, and brilliant, Tertullian of Carthage may be the most entertaining of the Church Fathers. He also did more than anyone else to launch theology in the Latin language. His life and his work were provocations to his opponents — who included many pagans and more than a few Christians. Learn about him (and the fascinating world of early North African Christianity) in this episode.
Marcus Minucius Felix is one of the greatest writers you never heard of. His “Octavius,” written in the late second century, is a work of fictionalized memoir set in the resort town of Ostia. Three friends go to the beach, and in a day of walks and conversation one of them leads another to conversion. It is the most deeply human study we have of the early Christians, describing the feel of the ocean breezes and the sand between their toes — and the best arguments for believing.
He was a prophet living altogether in the Spirit. He was a second-century apologist, able to elucidate the doctrine of Christ for the understanding of strangers. He was a bishop, so he spoke with hierarchical authority. For us, though, Melito of Sardis is most valuable for the Paschal liturgy he left us. It is an important witness to Jewish-Christian relations at a crucial time in their development. His Peri Pascha serves well for the Lenten-Easter seasons and for a lifetime.
In the late second century the Church suffered an infestation of heresies — many of them, and they kept changing their claims. Into the fray God sent the great pioneer of anti-heretical literature, Irenaeus of Lyons. The title of his best known work says it all: Against Heresies. Irenaeus’s tools range from logic to parody. He put the smack down on some strains of heresy, and they stayed down for centuries.
"Whatever things are rightly said are ours." Justin looked at creation and saw Christ. He looked into the mind of Plato and found a Christian, born centuries before his time. Speaking with Romans, speaking with Jews, he sought the good in his adversaries’ best ideas and showed that the good belonged properly to Christ and Christians. He showed us how to be fearless in the face of ideas, and fearless even in the face of death.
Forget the Dale Carnegie course. Here's how to win skeptical friends and influence pagans. Read the second-century Letter to Diognetus. The author's name is lost to history, but his warm, winsome overture still stands as a model of apologetics, the art of explaining and defending the faith. It's good reading, praised by saints and popes for centuries.
The Shepherd of Hermas is the strangest text from the Church’s earliest period. It’s at once a conversion story and a first-person account of heavenly visions. It’s a poem in prose and a guidebook for morals. It exercised a powerful influence in the early centuries of Christianity, especially on the practice of the sacrament of penance.
The work of the early Church was largely done by Christians whose names we’ll never know. In fact, many of the most important documents from the first and second centuries have unknown or uncertain authorship. In this episode we examine some of those fascinating documents — the Didache, the Letter of Barnabas, and Second Clement — and we pay homage to our great (though nameless) ancestors in the faith.
St. Polycarp was a man with many connections. He knew the Apostle John, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyon, Pope Anicetus, and the arch-heretic Marcion. He also sought the company of many elders who had heard Jesus and witnessed the Lord’s miracles. Polycarp led a long and fascinating life, and he died a martyr’s death. In this episode we tell his story through his many relationships — his social network in the infant church, which like an infant child was rapidly growing in 150 A.D.
Ignatius of Antioch is the first of the Fathers to leave us abundant writings. His seven letters were written in 107 A.D. as the aged bishop traveled to his appointed death in Rome. They give witness to many of the early Church’s beliefs and practices: Jesus’ true humanity and true divinity; his real presence in the Eucharist; and the Church's hierarchy of bishop, priest, and deacon. The host of this podcast, Mike Aquilina, confesses Ignatius to be his favorite among the Fathers.
Clement of Rome led a church in turmoil. And it was only 67 A.D. His letter is the earliest piece of literature outside the New Testament whose author we can name with confidence. Clement knew both Peter and Paul and carried their mission forward. His letter gives a snapshot of earliest church life and reveals the origins of apostolic succession, Roman primacy, and the unity of the Old Testament and the New. It was considered Scripture in some ancient churches.
What drives people to read the Fathers? They’re delightful to read. They fill us with hard-won wisdom. They’re apologetically useful. They inspire conversions. They tell riveting, dramatic stories. They teach us how to keep a good sense of humor. Best of all, they draw us closer to Jesus Christ. Over the centuries they've changed the lives of Christians as great as John Henry Newman, Erik Peterson, Louis Bouyer, Robert Louis Wilken. Hear about it in this podcast.
With this episode author Mike Aquilina begins his twice-monthly series on the lives, times, and works of the early Church Fathers. The Way of the Fathers begins with answers to basic questions. What is fatherhood? And who are the...
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