A Gallery of Church Fathers
The Didache, or “The Teaching of the Twelve,” dates back to the second century. It is thus, apart from the New Testament, one of the earliest church documents extant. It was probably composed by a scribe in Alexandria, incorporating some material from other church documents of the time.
Do not be one who holds his hand out to take, but shuts it when it comes to giving. If your labor has brought you earnings, pay a ransom for your sins. Do not hesitate to give and do not give with a bad grace, for you will discover who He is that pays you back a reward with a good grace. Do not turn your back on the needy, but share everything with your brother and call nothing your own. For if you have what is eternal in common, how much more should you have what is transient!...
Now about the apostles and prophets: Act in line with the gospel precept. Welcome every apostle on arriving, as if he were the Lord. But he must not stay beyond one day. In case of necessity, however, the next day too. If he stays three days, he is a false prophet. On departing, an apostle must not accept anything save sufficient food to carry him till his next lodging. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet....
Everyone who comes to you “in the name of the Lord” must be welcomed. Afterward, when you have tested him, you will find out about him, for you have insight into right and wrong. If it is a traveler who arrives, help him all you can. But he must not stay with you more than two days, or, if necessary three. If he wants to settle with you and is an artisan, he must work for his living. If, however, he has no trade, use your judgment in taking steps for him to live with you as a Christian without being idle. If he refuses to do this, he is trading on Christ. You must be on your guard against such people.
Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus served the church when it was battling both persecution and heresies. He is one of the first church fathers to freely quote the New Testament, in his masterwork, Against Heresies. That book, from which the following is quoted, was written about 185 and aimed primarily at the Gnostics.
Therefore the offering of the Church, which the Lord directed to be offered in the whole world, is accounted a pure sacrifice with God, and is acceptable to Him, not that He needs a sacrifice from us, but because he who offers is himself honoured in his offering if his gift be accepted. By his offering, both honour and affection is shown to the King. And our Lord taught us to offer this in all simplicity and innocence (Matt. 5:23, 24). Therefore we must offer to God the firstfruits of His creation, as Moses said. Offerings are no longer offered by bondsmen, but by free men.... They [O.T. saints] offered their tithes; but those who have received liberty set apart everything they have for the Lord’s use, cheerfully and freely giving them (2 Cor. 9:7), not as small things in the hope of greater, but like that poor widow, who put her whole livelihood into the treasury of God (Luke 21:4).
Tertullian (c. 160-c.220)
Born in Carthage, Tertullian lived a permissive life until he became a Christian in his thirties. Then he devoted his life to the defense of the Christian faith against heresy and immorality. His solid education in Greek and Latin and the practice of law prepared him to be one of the church’s leading apologists. The work excerpted here, Octavius, sets up a dialogue between a pagan and a Christian. It is one of the oldest church documents we have that was originally written in Latin.
Octavius (the pagan) charges:
Look: some of you, the greater half (the better half, you say), go in need, suffer from cold, from hunger and toil. And yet your god allows it, he connives at it; he will not or he cannot assist his own followers. This proves how weak he is—or wicked.
Minucius Felix (the Christian) answers:
I now come to the accusation that most of us are said to be poor; that is not to our shame, it is to our great credit. Men’s characters are strengthened by stringent circumstances, just as they are dissipated by luxurious living. Besides, can a man be poor if he is free from want, if he does not covet the belongings of others, if he is rich in the possession of God? Rather, he is poor who possesses much but still craves for more.
And so it is that when a man walks along a road, the lighter he travels, the happier he is; equally, on this journey of life, a man is more blessed if he does not pant beneath a burden of riches but lightens his load by poverty. Nevertheless, we would ask God for material goods if we considered them to be of use; without a doubt, He to whom the whole belongs would be able to concede us a portion. But we prefer to hold possessions in contempt than to hoard them: it is rather innocence that is our aspiration, it is rather patience that is our entreaty; our preference is goodness, not extravagance.
Bishop of Carthage, Cyprian was a leader with great intellectual and administrative ability. He became a Christian in middle age, largely through Tertullian’s writings and immediately sold his estate and gave the proceeds to the poor. Becoming bishop over North Africa in 247, he was soon to encounter strong Roman persecution. After it passed, the church faced the question of what to do with those who had denied the faith during the hard times. Cyprian’s De Lapsis criticizes the behavior of those who had lapsed, but ultimately offers them pardon. The selection quoted here explores the roots of the defection of believers.
Each one was intent on adding to his inheritance. Forgetting what the faithful used to do under the Apostles and what they should always be doing, each one with insatiable greed was absorbed in adding to his wealth. Gone was the devotion of bishops to the service of God, gone was the clergy’s faithful integrity, gone the generous compassion for the needy, gone all discipline in our behavior. Men had their beards plucked, women their faces painted: their eyes must needs be daubed otherwise than God made them, their hair stained a colour not their own. What subtle tricks to deceive the hearts of the simple, what sly maneuvers to entrap the brethren!... Too many bishops, instead of giving encouragement and example to others, made no account of the ministration which God had entrusted to them, and took up the administration of secular business: they left their sees, abandoned their people, and toured the markets in other territories on the look-out for profitable deals. If that is what we have become, what do we not deserve for such sins...?
Basil the Great was bishop of the church at Caesarea and archbishop of all Cappadocia. He personally ministered to lepers even after he became a bishop. Basil was probably the first in Christian history to found a hospital. From a commentary on Luke 12:18:
“Whom do I injure,” [the rich person] says, “when I retain and conserve my own?” Which things, tell me, are yours? Whence have you brought them into being? You are like one occupying a place in a theatre, who should prohibit others from entering, treating that as one’s own which was designed for the common use of all.
Such are the rich. Because they were first to occupy common goods, they take these goods as their own. If each one would take that which is sufficient for one’s needs, leaving what is in excess to those in distress, no one would be rich, no one poor.
Did you not come naked from the womb? Will you not return naked into the earth? (Job 1:21). Whence then did you have your present possessions? If you say, “By chance,” you are godless, because you do not acknowledge the Creator, nor give thanks to the Giver. If you admit they are from God, tell us why you have received them.
Is God unjust to distribute the necessaries of life to us unequally? Why are you rich, why is that one poor? Is it not that you may receive the reward of beneficence and faithful distribution...?
Ambrose, the son of a high ranking official in the Roman Empire, also entered public life, becoming a civil governor in Milan. When he tried to settle a dispute between Arians and Catholics at the church in Milan, he himself was nominated as bishop, though he was not yet baptized. He took on these duties humbly and seriously, studying the Bible and theology, and teaching it almost as soon as he learned it. He served for 23 years as Bishop of Milan, during which time Augustine was converted through his preaching. Orthodox in doctrine, a foe of Arianism, Ambrose was also known as a composer of hymns.
From De Nabuthe Jezraelite, his exposition of 1 Kings 21: The earth was made in common for all.... Why do you arrogate to yourselves, ye rich, exclusive right to the soil? Nature, which begets all poor, does not know the rich. For we are neither born with raiment nor are we begotten with gold and silver. Naked it brings people into the light, wanting food, clothing, and drink; naked the earth receives whom it has brought forth; it knows not how to include the boundaries of an estate in tomb.... Nature, therefore, knows not how to discriminate when we are born, it knows not how when we die....
The poor man seeks money and has it not; a man asks for bread, and your horse champs gold under his teeth. And precious ornaments delight you, although others do not have grain.... The people are starving, and you close your barns; the people weep bitterly, and you toy with jewelled ring.... The jewel in your ring could preserve the lives of the whole people....
A possession ought to belong to the possessor, not the possessor to the possession. Whosoever, therefore, does not use his patrimony as a possession, who does not know how to give and distribute to the poor, he is the servant of his wealth, not its master; because like a servant he watches over the wealth of another and not like a master does he use it of his own. Hence, in a disposition of this kind we say that the man belongs to his riches, not the riches to the man.
Augustine is probably the best-known of the later church fathers. His most renowned works are his Confessions and The City of God.
From his commentary on Psalm 131:
Those who wish to make room for the Lord must find pleasure not in private, but in common property.... Redouble your charity. For, on account of the things which each one of us possesses singly, wars exist, hatreds, discords, strifes among human beings, tumults, dissensions, scandals, sins, injustices, and murders. On what account? On account of those things which each of us possesses singly. Do we fight over the things we possess in common? We inhale this air in common with others, we all see the sun in common. Blessed therefore are those who make room for the Lord, so as not to take pleasure in private property. Let us therefore abstain from the possessions of private property—or from the love of it, if we cannot abstain from possession—and let us make room for the Lord.
From a sermon to the rich:
That bread which you keep, belongs to the hungry; that coat which you preserve in your wardrobe, to the naked; those shoes which are rotting in your possession, to the shoeless; that gold which you have hidden in the ground, to the needy. Wherefore, as often as you were able to help others, and refused, so often did you do them wrong.
John Chrysostom gave up a legal career for the ascetic life. He served the church at Antioch of Syria as deacon, then elder and chief preacher. His homiletical skills earned him the moniker Chrysostom, “golden-mouthed.” He also wrote commentaries on Scripture. He was chosen Archbishop of strategic Constantinople in 397, but his strong preaching against sin offended the queen, who maneuvered to have John banished in 403.
From a homily on Romans:
If you wish to leave much wealth to your children, leave them in God’s care. For he who without your having done anything, gave you a soul, and formed you a body, and granted you the gift of life, when he sees you displaying such munificence, and distributing your goods, must surely open to them all kinds of riches.... Do not leave them riches, but virtue and skill. For if they have the confidence of riches, they will not mind anything besides, for they shall have the means of screening the wickedness of their ways in their abundant riches.
From a sermon on the poor:
“Anyone who would not work should not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) .... But the laws of Saint Paul are not merely for the poor. They are for the rich as well.... We accuse the poor of laziness. This laziness is often excusable. We ourselves are often guilty of worse idleness.
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #14 in 1987]
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