5 Church Fathers You Should Know

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Perhaps you’ve heard of the ‘ancient-future’ church movement, which seeks to recover some of the great treasures of the church’s past for the sake of the church’s future. Some of those ancient treasures being rediscovered today are the writings of the early church fathers. These were the great saints who wrote in the first five centuries of the early church. They range from the actual disciples of the Apostles, such as Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome (called the Apostolic Fathers), through those writing before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD (called the Ante Nicene Fathers), to those writing after Nicaea (the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers). The writings of these early saints cover thousands of pages, and are readily available in printed and electronic format. The sheer volume of their writings can overwhelm someone just wondering where to start. Let me help you begin by pointing to five church fathers worth getting to know.

1. Ignatius of Antioch

He was a disciple of the Apostle John, became bishop of Antioch, and was eventually taken as a prisoner to Rome, where he was martyred in the Coliseum during the reign of Trajan (AD 108). Ignatius wrote many letters to churches of specific cities, in a manner reminiscent of Paul’s epistles. Ancient copies of these letters exist, in both shorter and longer versions, though scholars contest some as inauthentic. And while the quality of the writing does not compare to the Apostles, you’ll still find plenty of gems, and you get the sense that this is John’s disciple writing – recalling themes and the love of truth evident in his mentor. Here is a quote from his Epistle to Polycarp, who was also a disciple of John: “Stand firm, as does an anvil which is beaten. It is the part of a noble athlete to be wounded, and yet to conquer.”[1]

2. Justin Martyr

The first apologist, a philosopher and defender of the faith to pagan Roman culture and to non-believing Jews, Justin Martyr was martyred by beheading during the reign of Marcus Aurelius in about AD 165. His Apology and Dialogue with [the Jew] Trypho are great early examples of culturally engaged apologetics. Born in Palestine around AD 100, he also had access to historical reminiscences of the time of Christ and the Apostles. Consider this nugget from his Dialogue with Trypho: “And when Jesus came to the Jordan, He was considered to be the son of Joseph the carpenter; and He appeared without comeliness, as the Scriptures declared; and He was deemed a carpenter (for He was in the habit of working as a carpenter when among men, making ploughs and yokes; by which He taught the symbols of righteousness and an active life).”[2]

3. Irenaeus of Lyon

Born in the early 2nd century, Irenaeus was raised in a Christian family, possibly in Smyrna, where Polycarp was bishop. Having heard Polycarp as a youth, Irenaeus later became bishop of Lyon in Gaul during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The date of Irenaeus death is unknown. His most famous work is Against the Heresies, which goes into painful detail describing and refuting numerous false teachings, heresies and pseudo-Christian cults that were circulating at the time. Chief among these were Gnostic, Marcionite and Simoneon heresies. Irenaeus identifies the later as having been founded by Simon the Magician of Acts 8 fame, whose occult and proto-gnostic teachings were, as Irenaeus relates them, crazy-making to say the least! Ireneaus records two of Polycarp’s experiences, one with the Apostle John, the other with the heretic Marcion: “John, the disciple of the Lord, going to bathe at Ephesus, and perceiving Cerinthus within, rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” And Polycarp himself replied to Marcion, who met him on one occasion, and said, “Dost thou know me?” “I do know thee, the first-born of Satan.” Such was the horror which the apostles and their disciples had against holding even verbal communication with any corrupters of the truth.”[3]

4. Athanasius

Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt from 328 to 373, Athanasius served in that capacity for 45 years, during which he was exiled five times by four different Roman emperors, chiefly because of his opposition to Arianism. A staunch defender of orthodox Christology, he was one of the chief theological responders to Arius at the Council of Nicaea. A few of Athanasius’ written works have survived, including his classic On the Incarnation, which upholds the full deity and humanity of Jesus.[4]  He is also the first to recognize all 27 books of our New Testament as canonical in status, in his Bishop’s Easter Letter of 367.

5. Gregory of Nazianzus

Born in 329 in Cappadocia (modern day Turkey), Gregory was bishop of Constantinople and helped in 381 to organize there the 2nd Great Ecumenical Council, which completed the work of creating the Nicene Creed. Gregory is one of the three Cappadocian Fathers, along with the brothers Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa. The Cappadocians wrote extensively on the relations of the persons of the Trinity, were champions of orthodoxy against the Arians, and have in their work on personhood in the Trinity contributed hugely to the modern conception of human nature and what it means to be a person.[5]


[1] Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle of Ignatius to Polycarp (shorter version) in The Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, eds. A Roberts & J Donaldson; A C Coxe, American Edition, 1885 (republished by Hendrickson: Peabody, Mass., 1995), p. 94.

[2] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1, Chapter 88, p. 242.

[3] Irenaeus of Lyon, Against the Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 3, in The Ante-Nicene Father Volume 1, p.416.

[4] C.S. Lewis gives a nice preface to one edition of On the Incarnation.  Well worth the extra price of admission.

[5] John Zizioulas, “The Contribution of Cappadocia to Christian Thought.” In Sinasos in Cappadocia. The National Trust for Greece: Agra Publications (1985), 23-37.

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Dr. Christopher Fisher is an ordained elder in the Eastern PA Conference of the United Methodist Church, Senior Pastor of First UMC in Schuylkill Haven, PA, Adjunct Professor of Theology at Asbury Seminary, and Director of United Methodist Studies at Evangelical Theological Seminary. He is also currently serving as Counsel for the Church of the Eastern PA Conference, UMC.

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