Impressions of “When the Church was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers,” by Marcellino D’Ambrosio

Church Fathers are the ancient writers, sometimes bishops, sometimes saints, who defended the orthodox catholic church during the first several centuries. I became interested in the early Fathers as I began to realize the great role they have in teaching the faith, especially in the Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the implicit role they have in destroying it, according to Mormon thinking.

The age of the early Fathers begins as the first students of the Apostles wrote, and ended with the dawn of two new civilizations: Medieval Europe and Islam. During this era core, teachings of the Church — such as how many persons of Christ are there (one), how many substances Christ has (two, true man and true God), and how many persons are Christ (one, there’s only one Jesus Christ, Son of God) — were written down. This era includes fathers who lived before, during, and after the First Council of Nicaea, whose words became binding on all Catholics after the council.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten;
that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth;
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.
But those who say:
‘There was a time when he was not;’ and
‘He was not before he was made;’ and
‘He was made out of nothing,’ or
‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’
or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’
— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

When the Church was Young traces the development of Nicene Christianity from the immediate post-apostolic era to just before the rise of Islam. The oldest of the Church Fathers are those who knew and learned from the apostles For instance, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp may have actually known the Apostle John. Gregory the Great, one of the very last Fathers in this book, overlaps with the Middle Ages. Indeed, his papacy is the close of the Patristic period and at the opening of *Medieval Christianity: A New History.

When the Church was Young reads like a quicker prequel to Medieval Christianity, like Ball Lightning is a breezy prequel to The Three Body Problem. The major points of development are presented, and the time around the Arian Heresy in particular is very well reported. I learned a lot from this book.

I was pleased at the presentation of two Church Fathers, Augustine of Hippo of John Chrysostom. I have read Augustine’s Confessions and Chrysostom’s mis-named Against the Jews, and the description of these Fathers matches my understanding of what I read. Likewise, the short descriptions of The Protoevangelium of James and The Shepherd of Hermas do not contradict what I read.

That said, while this is an introductory history of the early Church through the Fathers, it is not a neutral history. In Christian theology, people who propound beliefs that are later called heretical are not themselves heretics, as they did not have the advantage of the Church’s teaching when writing their ideas. D’Ambrosio, whose interest is in teaching correct Christian beliefs, does not spend much time on heretical or abandoned beliefs of the early Church Fathers. This leads to an accurate if biased depiction of the early Church. This is particularly obvious in the section on Origin, who is repeatedly defended against accusations of heresy without ever which of his beliefs were identified as heretical.

In How God Became King, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright criticized the out-sized importance the Nicene Creed, and its derivatives, have in Christianity. The Nicene Creed was written to refute Arius, and insist that Christ was God, not a creature. The fathers were successful in this. Christological precision is important, but not more important than the person of Christ, His kingdom, or His teachings. Indeed, while I find the Mormon rejection of the Nicene Creed (on the complaint the concept “substance” is not found in the Bible) hypocritical, as Mormonism itself imports Greek philosophy into its cosmological system, Mormons are certainly right that the focus on the Greco-Roman interpretation of the Scriptures, instead of the Hebrew con-text of the written Word, has clouded much of our understanding. Marcellino D’Ambrosio does not seem to realize this. Worse, the hygienic purity of terms in Greco-Roman philosophy can lead to a lack of awareness of the “unseen realm,” and the world of flesh, demons, and supernatural entities which inhabit the cosmos.

I was disturbed to learn of the early church practice that the Sacrament of Reconciliation could be obtained only once or twice a lifetime. Something like this is referenced in Shepherd of Hermas, but I did not realize Shepherd was either reporting a literal procedure, or itself had been taken literally, later on. In my current state I participate in this sacrament bi-weekly, and if anything this does not seem enough. I do not think I would have done well with the early Christians, who seem to live lifestyles of the religious orders in particular, except as someone like the church father Ambrosia of Milan who was not baptized until just before he was named a bishop.

I enjoyed reading When the Church was Young. I have a better grasp of the life of the early Church, controversies which shaped the terms and phrases used and the learning about the ecclesiastical transition into the Middle Ages. I wish the narrative had contained more depth on what the Fathers actually believed, and I would have enjoyed learning about John of Damascus, who commented on the Qur’an, and viewed it as a form of Arianism.

I read When the Church was Young in the Audible edition. The author has a brief summary of the Church Fathers available online.

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