Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers
As we recently viewed the first five ecumenical councils from a distance, I want to take a closer look at some influential men from that time. The men that lived during the time of the Council of Nicaea through the late 400’s are referred to as the Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers. These men maintained the consistency of doctrine that was set in place at the council in 325. As I have discussed before, we ought to view them through the lens of God’s sovereignty. Each one contributed to the church a thought or work that added mightily. This list will not be exhaustive, but I hope it touches on some of the most important men.
Athanasius (296-373) was a short man with a dark complexion, and was known by his enemies as “the black dwarf.” He spoke Coptic, which would indicate that he was from a lower class family in Egypt. He eventually ended up with Alexander in Alexandria, Egypt. While Alexander was the bishop, Athanasius was probably a deacon. He was a fiery spirit who possessed a profound unshakable conviction. He would not waiver upon his convictions. He had two influential works. The first, The Life of Anthony, was a biography about Anthony of Thebes, a hermit monk who changed the landscape of monasticism. The other was the Nicene Creed. Athanasius actually promoted Nicene theology before it was Nicene theology. In his work, The Incarnation of the Word, he championed the co-eternal existence of Christ. As one of the influential individuals in the Nicene Creed, he would be remembered for a long time. I believe it is interesting that God was still in the business of taking the less affluent and using them in an influential way.
The Cappadocian Fathers was a group of at least three men, all from the region of southern Asia Minor known as Eastern Antolia (modern day Turkey). The first was Basil “the Great” of Caesarea (329-379). In 370 he wrote a monastic rule. A “rule” was a document that gave orders for a monastery to live by. It gave strict instructions on how everyday life should be carried out. His rule is still used in the Orthodox Church today. Next was Gregory of Nyssa (330-394). He was Basil’s brother, but possessed a different temperament. While Basil was more outspoken, Gregory preferred silence and solitude. He leaned toward a mystical approach. Gregory married at a young age but his wife died early in their marriage, and this had a profound effect upon him. He never remarried and sought the monastic life as a release from the pains and struggles of life. The final Cappadocian Father was Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390). He was friends with the other two men, and enjoyed writing poetry and hymns. A significant number of the hymns he wrote were adopted in the Greek-speaking church of the East. He eventually was elected as bishop of Constantinople and actually presided over the council in 381. These three men are more obscure than some of the other Church Fathers, but their impact is just as important.
Ambrose of Milan (340-397) never sought the life of a bishop. In fact, he was a politician by trade and later became the governor of Milan. In 373 the bishop of Milan died, and Arian and non-Arian factions sought the position. You will remember that Arianism was the heresy concerning the essence of Christ that was rejected in 325. However, like any good heresy, it did not die. The people rose up and demanded that Ambrose be elected as bishop. Ambrose had not trained for ecclesiastical credentials. In order to be placed in that role, the church expedited his learning. As the bishop, he stood in stark opposition to Arianism, and he even popularized the teachings of the Cappadocian Fathers. Once Ambrose stepped into the role as bishop he developed into a gifted speaker. He wrote eloquent sermons and expositions of Scripture. As a bishop/theologian he bridged the gap between the Greek-speaking Eastern theology and the Latin-speaking West. However, his greatest impact may have been less direct. It was Ambrose that had the most influential impact upon a young seeker named Augustine.
John “Golden Mouth” Chrysostom (347-407) was another influential church father from the East. Early in his life he chose monasticism, but before that he was lawyer. Later in his time as bishop he openly admitted that the solitary life of a monk was not suitable preparation for the task of a shepherd. (I think it is interesting how he came to that conclusion so late.) Eventually he became an influential teacher in Antioch. By 397 he was appointed bishop in Constantinople. The Council was not long removed before he was appointed bishop. He was an energetic reformer that condemned the lifestyle of luxury that characterized clergy. He argued that Christians were becoming lax and apathetic to the claims of the Gospel. The clergy were becoming rich, and many held onto “spiritual sisters,” or women that they did not marry, but entertained intimate relationships. He advocated a simplistic lifestyle and was known for his eloquent oratory. That is where his nickname came from.
Jerome (345-420) was a crotchety man. He loved classic pagan literature and spent numerous years in solitude with little patience for those who did not possess the desire to pursue holiness. The result was a literal interpretation of the mortifying of the body for sin. He beat and abused his body due to moral struggles. He eventually lived for 35 years in Bethlehem and taught himself Hebrew. We need to remember that at this time the Septuagint was the known Greek translation of the Old Testament and the Greek copies of the New Testament. To avoid the thoughts of lustfulness he embarked upon translating the Old Testament and New Testament from their respective original languages. This was not a small challenge, and the end result was the Latin Vulgate. Significant controversy surrounded this new translation, but it did eventually become the official translation of the Latin-speaking Western church.
Augustine (354-430) was a native of North Africa. His father was a pagan, but his mother was a devout Christian. She never gave up praying for her son, even in his heretical licentious lifestyle. His youth was spent in hot pursuit of sexuality and debauchery. He was a gifted intellectual young man who would begin to pursue a secular occupation. When he began his “search” he endeavored upon the teachings of Mani, a 3rd century heretic. Mani taught that each man had light and darkness, and through a series of myths salvation came through separation of the two in a preparatory way for the pure light. Augustine followed these teachings for nearly nine years, but was never fully satisfied. During those 9 years he would study rhetoric in Carthage, and then moved to Milan in 383. While in Milan he met Ambrose. Through the OT preaching of Ambrose and reading Life of Anthony Augustine was converted in 386. The following Easter in 387 he was baptized by Ambrose. He would eventually move back to North Africa and settle in Hippo, where he became the bishop. Augustine’s life was marked with two key controversies, Donatism and Pelagianism. From these two controversies much of Augustine’s theology was developed and strengthened. Many men have explored the theological importance of Augustine. It was Augustine theology that influenced Martin Luther and John Calvin. Augustine gave clear evidence of his thoughts concerning doctrines of the nature of evil, human will, original sin, grace, predestination, and the Church to name a few. In his two works, The Confessions and City of God, he clearly defines his thoughts.
Through the ecumenical councils and the influence of these Church Fathers the foundations were set. The groundwork was laid. The Western Church was prepared to expand. These man stood on the cusp of a new era in church history, an era we like to call the Medieval Period, or the Middle Ages. Times changed drastically during these times. The East and West would continue to divide, the bishop of Rome would sky rocket to power, and the empire would cease as it was known until 800 AD. I want to encourage you to take some time and read their material, but more importantly, let’s praise God for His masterful plan that was carried out to perfection!