Fathers Know Best

One of the recurrent themes in the conversion stories of former Protestant ministers is their discovery of the Apostolic Fathers. Ever since Bl. John Henry Newman found his way Home to Rome by reading the early church writings, waves of converts have also read the theologians and historians in the generations just after the apostles and found there the seeds of the present day Catholic Church.

Newman said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Protestants are taught a particular form of early church history which paints the early church as a little Protestant house church. The believers met together to sing psalms and simple hymns and have Bible studies. Later on, goes the Protestant myth, the Catholics added on lots of extra fancy stuff like liturgy, prayers to dead people, all that Virgin Mary stuff, lighting candles, purgatory, prayers for the dead and so forth.

To segue on Newman, “To read the apostolic fathers is to cease to be Protestant” for in the earliest writings of the church we do not find any trace of Protestant worship, theology, ecclesiology or methodology. Admittedly, full flowered Baroque Catholicism with Counter Reformation triumph is not there–nor is the exalted Byzantine architecture and worship nor the high glories of the Middle Ages. However, all the Catholic essentials are there in seed form. Here we find the apostolic succession, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, purgatory, the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, prayers for the dead, veneration of saints, relics, the supremacy of the Mass, the Mass as sacrifice, reservation of the blessed sacrament, worship as liturgy and much more.

The two documents which are most interesting and boast the earliest dates are the Epistle of Clement and the Didache. Former Presbyterian minister and Bible scholar Kenneth Howell offers us a new translation of these works along with an excellent commentary. The Epistle of Clement was written by the third Bishop of Rome to the church in Corinth toward the end of the first century–just sixty or so years after the death of Christ. Howell skillfully explains in a series of introductory essays the main themes and theology of Clement. The Church in Corinth (as it was in St Paul’s day some twenty or thirty years previously) was still wracked by immorality, division and strife.

Kenneth Howell picks through the text to also expound Clement’s theology and understanding of the church. Clement is best known by apologists as an early example of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome since he writes from Rome with an assumed authority over the Church in Corinth. He is also offers one of the key quotes for the early support of apostolic succession

Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, and there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.

Dr Howell goes on to explain and offer a new translation of the other important early text: the Didache. This short document offers simple gospel teaching combined with instructions for liturgical practice and a section of instructions of church order. Discovered in a library in Constantinople in 1973, the Didache is dated by some as early as the 40s in the first century–thus perhaps even pre dating the New Testament.

Kenneth Howell not only gives us fresh new translations of these works, but also provides commentary on the works elucidated by his study of all the relevant scholarship–both historical and contemporary surrounding these two works. For any student of the Scriptures and any student of the apologetics and early church history this is an invaluable little book. It is also the second book in a series published by the Coming Home Network, the first being Dr Howell’s excellent study and translation of the works of St Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch. They are available here.

Mike Aquilina is also an expert on the Fathers of the Church. His latest book, Faith of Our Fathers is an overview of the thoughts and themes of the early church fathers for a popular audience. The subtitle says it all: Why the Early Christians Still Matter and Always Will. Mike’s book is a collection of essays on the church fathers including an explanation of how the canon of Scripture was decided, a very interesting essay on why the Christian church triumphed over Rome: answer: the example of Christian charity expressed in the family. There is a brief explanation on why we celebrate Christmas on December 25, what the pagans thought of the Christians and how that echoes in today’s world, the catacombs, persecution and overall he provides a neat and readable tour of the early church and why it matters today.

The problem with Mike’s book is that it is a collection of essays. Consequently there is not developed discussion or train of thought. If you read it as an ordinary book you might feel that it is disjointed and difficult to follow. However, if you accept it for what it is–a collection of essays, then you can read each chapter on its own and take it for what its worth.

Both books are good reading for those who want to learn more about the early church. Dr Howell’s is a solid, scholarly book while Mike Aquilina’s is a popular and easy overview. You can get Mike’s book here.


  • Terry Fenwick

    Yes! great review! Mike Aquilina also has so many detailed books on the Early Church Fathers and on the CHURCH – see Roots Of Our Faith. I comment on this as I own ALL of Mike’s books and had known nothing before I met up with his work! I call him my favorite “Living Author” but I do really like Kenneth Howell, also!

    As a Convert, all we had missing as “Bible Thumpers” was 1500 years of History, AUTHORITY, early Church Fathers, Saints , the Blessed Mother, Angels, Rome, Mass and all the Popes since, and including Saint Peter. (There is more but that is a good start! )

  • FW Ken

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the Catholic Church of Jesus Christ is always “wracked by immorality, division and strife.” It appears to be the normal state of things, us sinners being the living stones God, in the mystery of His grace, has chosen for the matter of the great sacrament which its His Body.

  • http://jenniferfitz.wordpress.com Jennifer Fitz

    For evangelizing, I almost always prefer to hand the skeptical evangelical an eastern orthodox, protestant, or secular collection, in order to set aside any accusations of Catholic conspiracies. But for a Catholic or aspiring-Catholic studying the faith, these look like great resources. Thanks for the recommendations.

    • MaryS

      Jennifer: Can you recommend any protestant resources that are effective for evangelizing, esp re: the Early Church Fathers?

  • Ellen

    I’ll be looking in to both of those books. I live where there are a lot of Churches of Christ and sometimes listen to them on the radio. There’s one particular preacher who talks about how the Christians in the cities where Paul went, would gather to “study their Bibles”. I’ve always wanted to ask him how they could do that since the Bible hadn’t been compiled yet.