Heresies and persecutions stirred the passions of the early Christians, who lived in the great Roman Empire, against those who held political power at the time. The strains suffered by Jesus’ followers also included those of Judaism – the majority of which at this time followed the Pharisees – culminating in the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70.
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In his new book, “Reading the Church Fathers: A History of the Early Church and the Development of Doctrine” (Sophia Institute Press), author James Papandrea marshals all his historical power to produce a 464-page tome steeped in theology, describing the principles and teachings that guided early Christianity from the time of the New Testament writings to the development of doctrines.
This book is a must for history buffs with an interest in religion. It’s not necessarily summer reading, so it might not be the best book to lug around the pool. Instead, it’s a great way to take a trip back in time – preferably from the comfort of your living room – to when Christians suffered persecution at the hands of the Romans.
“Once Christianity was under the umbrella of Judaism,” Papandrea notes, “it became seen as something new, and therefore potentially dangerous.”
As Christian beliefs evolved, this new faith, writes Papandrea, “inherited some of the cultural aspects of Greek philosophy”.
Papandrea lays out the thesis that Christianity was a marriage between Hebrew thought and Greco-Roman philosophy, arguing that the early Church Fathers “assumed that revelation and philosophy were not necessarily at odds” and that ” human reason could be guided by God”.
With that, Papandrea is off to the races, and this brick of a book becomes something of a page-turner somewhere in the middle of Chapter 2, after all the groundwork has been laid for all types of readers to understand the context with which future events can be discerned.
One of the earliest written Papandrea Christians is Clement of Rome, also known as Pope Clement I. He is considered the first Apostolic Church Father – one of the three main ones, along with Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch, who served as pope. between 88 and 99 AD.
Interestingly, Clement’s view of justification has been the subject of scholarly debate given that he sometimes claimed to have believed “sola fide” – justification by faith alone. The debate persists because Clement directly stated that “we are not justified by ourselves but by faith” but also insisted on the judgment of sin. Protestant scholar Tom Schreiner argued that Clement of Rome believed in justification by faith centered on grace, which would cause the believer to do works accordingly.
Papandrea doesn’t go into all of this, but he does mention the Basilica of St. Clement, located a short walk from the Colosseum in Rome. This is a place of worship easily overlooked by tourists but well worth a visit. Papandrea writes that this site is where Clement presided over and that it is “truly holy ground to stand in a place where Christian worship has been carried on continuously for over 1,900 years”.
“Reading the Church Fathers” traces the development of the doctrine to the late 1100s, covering almost 1000 years of Christianity. Throughout this journey, Papandrea features notable church fathers, but a turning point for the book – and indeed Christianity – occurs in chapter 10. It was in the fourth century that Emperor Diocletian embarked in what is called the Great Persecution. Interestingly, a general around this time, a man known as Constantine, became the first Christian emperor.
It was in the year 313 that the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. Constantine ordered that the churches may possess property and reparations due to them for past persecutions. The clergy were exempt from taxes and Christianity replaced pagan symbols.
“Constantine never rules as a baptized Christian,” notes Papandrea. “Like many men of his day, Constantine postponed baptism until the end of his life, in part so that he would not be held to the moral standards of the church.”
It’s this kind of meticulous research – while addressing and trying to debunk myths – that makes this book so interesting. The use of maps and extensive footnotes allow for even broader context into the broad debates that helped define Christianity in these early centuries. There are plenty of books on the early church, but “Reading the Church Fathers” is an exhaustive volume worth your time – when you’re not at the beach or the pool.
Clemente Lisi is editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former assistant news director at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at King’s College in New York. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.