Read the Fathers

Join a world-wide community in reading the church fathers daily.

Author: scholiast

Irenaeus’ Homeric Poem

In today’s reading (January 14), Irenaeus likened the ‘Gnostic’ use of Scripture to that of someone who takes Homeric verses and rearranges them to create a new poem on a totally different theme. This passage is strong evidence that Irenaeus was classically-educated — Homer was the backbone of ancient Greek education. Furthermore, in all likelihood, Irenaeus composed this little poem about Heracles himself.

This form of poetic composition is called the cento (not the canto) in Latin (and hence English) and κέντρων in Greek (deriving from the Latin for once). The  Latin term literally means any patchwork piece of clothing, especially a cloak (as I found it in Petronius’ bawdy Satyricon referring to a cloak). It was practised throughout antiquity to produce new poetry out of old. The cento is a demonstration of the erudition of the poet, not necessarily of his or her own originality.

Although Homeric resonances, sometimes not only half- but even full lines, are found throughout Greek poetry from the Archaic period (up to the 5th c. BC) onwards, such resonances are a different sort of composition, being either conscious or unconscious allusion/intertextuality with Homer, not a complete poem composed out of rearranged Homeric material.

The cento does not become popular until the imperial period (31 BC-476/1453) and usually uses epic (which, in Greek, invariably means Homer), such as Palatine Anthology 9.381 and Dio Chrysostom Oration 32. In Latin, the cento uses Vergil (70-19 BC) the most; Vergil was the backbone of imperial Roman education, as Homer was of Greek education. Petronius in the first century produced a Vergilian cento at Satyricon 132.11, and our earliest surviving whole cento is the 461-line Medea attributed to Hosidius Geta in the second century AD. We have eleven other pagan centos, all of them under 200 lines.

Although a Christian, Irenaeus’ cento is basically a pagan cento.

Christians do, however, take up the cento for more than apologetic or polemical purposes and use them to recast the Gospel story to convert the snobbish upper classes of Rome. Although Jerome sniffs his nose at centos, we must admit that many in antiquity sniffed their noses at the Bible, whether in Latin or Greek (recall Augustine’s admissions of his own attitude before conversion). The cento casts the Good News of Jesus in a poetic form acceptable to a pagan audience for evangelistic purposes.

The most popular Christian cento was a Latin cento of 694 Vergilian verses by Proba (mid-4th c AD) that takes the reader from the Creation to Redemption, from Adam to Christ. This text was very popular throughout the Middle Ages as a school-text, no doubt because it could teach good style and the Gospel at once. John Currans recently wrote an article about Proba’s cento,* demonstrating how not only was the style of narration affected by this recasting of the Gospel, but also its moral content. Proba gives us a Jesus who is the best of what an aristocratic Roman could hope to be but also mirrors some Irenaean themes of recapitulation.

Another cento worth mentioning is a Byzantine play of 2,610 verses drawn from Euripides, Aeschylus, and Lycophron called Christus Patiens. This tragedy retells the passion of Christ and was long attributed to Gregory of Nazianzus (late fourth century, composed his own verses in Homeric dialect and metre) but is now thought to be from the 11th or 12th century.

I don’t imagine that when Irenaeus wrote his Heraclean cento he thought that Christians would one day employ the same poetic strategy for spreading the Gospel. But they did, and he is probably the first Christian to write a cento.

*’Virgilizing Christianity in Late Antique Rome’, in Gavin Kelly and Lucy Grig, eds, Two Romes. New York: 2012, 325-344.

Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus of Lyon

Irenaeus of Lyons

Our next Father is Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 200). He is a well-known figure for various reasons: until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents, he was one of our major sources for ancient ‘Gnosticism’ (and his descriptions have been largely proven accurate); he is the first clear, conscious defender of the fourfold Gospels (no more, no less); he gives us many variations on the ‘Canon (or Rule) of the Faith’ which are precursors to the later creeds; he is an early exponent of the Apostolic Succession; and, while continuing Justin the Martyr’s logos theology, he gives a vibrant and exciting account of Christus Victor atonement theory and the theology of recapitulation (anakephalaiosis).


Irenaeus hailed from Smyrna in Asia Minor, where he grew up under the authority and teaching of the Apostolic Father Polycarp. At some stage he emigrated to Gaul where he settled in Lugdunum (today’s Lyons, France). Christianity was strong in many Asian communities, but not so in Gaul. Around 177, he lived up to his name on an embassy from Lyons to Rome where he pleaded against the excommunication of Montanists (whom we’ll study in more detail when we read Tertullian). Irenaeus was elected episcopos of the community in Lyons as successor to the martyred Photinus.

During his epsicopate, he produced his theological works and also wrote a letter to a Roman episcopos named Victor, once again urging an irenic approach to disputes, this time in the dispute over the date of Easter called the Quartodeciman Controversy, the details of which we will study in our reading of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History.

Irenaeus died around the year 200. Our first reference to his martyrdom is Jerome (347–420), Commentary on Isaiah 17.64. Even later is a tradition recounted by Gregory of Tours (538–594), living in Merovingian Gaul, that the Pope of Rome sent Irenaeus on an evangelistic mission to Lyons, at which he was widely successful (contrary to many of Irenaeus’ own references to the un-Christian barbarians amongst whom he lives).


Irenaeus’ greatest work is his five books Against Heresies, directed principally against Gnostic teachings. A second work by Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, was discovered in Armenian translation in 1904, after the ANF series was compiled. The latter work is thus not on our reading calendar, but we encourage anyone interested to read the Proof, found either in the public domain, or in the works referenced below.


Irenaeus is best known theologically for his views on atonement, the theory of recapitulation and Christus Victor theology (or the ‘Classic View’ of atonement, vs. the ‘Latin’ or ‘Juristic View’). Taking up Justin’s vision of the logos (inspired in turn – of course – by John 1), Irenaeus sees Christ as existing before the Incarnation as the eternal Word of the Father, who put the universe into place and governs it.

This Word took on flesh as part of God’s ongoing revelation to the human race. Had Adam and Eve not fallen, the Word would have become Incarnate anyway, for humanity was on a trajectory of development and growth into godliness (theosis) from the beginning. However, since Adam and Eve did sin through the deception of the serpent, Christ’s incarnation takes on a redemptive role. Not only does he become a human to show us more of God; he becomes a human to save us from sin, death, and the Devil.

Christ, the Incarnate Word, comes to undo what the first disobedience did. Therefore, just as sin began with a disobedient woman (Eve), the recapitulation-atonement begins with an obedient woman (Mary). Just as sin was perpetuated by a sinful man who was God’s son, so would it be stopped by a sinless Man Who is God’s Son (Jesus).

The Incarnation is a cosmic event and an irruption of the power of God into human history. By living a full, human – yet sinless – life, Jesus transforms all of human life. And when he, the only just man on earth, dies an unjust death on the cross, he destroys the power of death, as demonstrated by his triumphant resurrection and subsequent ascension. Because of the Incarnation and the drama of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, those who put their faith/trust in him with a determination to live holy lives are saved from their sins and the death that accompanies them, being given power over the devil.

This is a short recapitulation of recapitulation that does not do the theory justice. Good thing we’re going to read Irenaeus in the coming weeks!

This theology is played out against the backdrop of his battle, his polemic, against those whom he sees as having deviated from the true faith handed down from the apostles, the various groups termed ‘Gnostic’ as well as the Marcionites. At all times, we should see his statements of the Rule of Faith and Apostolic Succession and the Fourfold Gospel within their second-century, polemical context, and not to seized upon and misinterpreted with twenty-first-century assumptions.

Alternate Editions

There exists only one complete translation of Against the Heresies, and we shall be reading it (although Paul and Sara Parvis with Dennis Minns are working on a new one). However, there is a newer translation of Book 1 in the Ancient Christian Writers translated by Dominic Unger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Scandal of the Incarnation compiles a hundred pages of thematically arranged excerpts.

Proof of the Apostolic Preaching has been translated for the same series; another translation is John Behr’s for St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics series.

For the keen and skilled in ancient languages, the entirety of Against the Heresies only exists in Latin translation. Two editions are worth noting: Contre les hérésies, ed. A. Rousseau, L. Doutreleau, C. Mercier, and B. Hemmerdinger, 10 vols. Paris: Cerf, 1965-1982 (with French translation); and Epideixis: Adversus haereses, ed. N. Brox. Fribourg, Switzerland: Herder, 1993-2001.

Further Reading

Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons in Routledge’s Early Church Fathers series provides a decent introduction to the material, and Dennis Minns, Irenaeus: An Introduction is well worth reading.

For the extra-keen, I recommend two studies that have been my matrix for Irenaeus’ theology. One is the popular-level book by Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, and the other is the classic modern work by Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor.

For those really interested in the rule of faith, do not forget J. N. D. Kelly’s classic, Early Christian Creeds. For evangelicals, see Baptist patristics scholar D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition.

Justin and Christian Worship

I realise this post is a bit late in coming; I point to the great Feast of Christmas getting in the way last week! On Christmas Eve and Christmas, we read one of the earliest accounts of Christian worship, in Justin’s First Apology beginning at chapter 61. From what I have read and seen, the only verifiably earlier description of any sort is the Didache (but prove me wrong if you can; it was posted by Lincoln in the run-up to this project here and here and here).

The Didache is a different sort of description of Christian worship in that it is a church manual, its successors being the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus and, eventually, the books of canon law (which, I argue, should be sexier), the missals (a fine example being the Bobbio Missal of the sixth-century), and the breviaries of the Middle Ages.

Justin, on the other hand, is giving a purely descriptive account, ostensibly for outsiders, with the goal of demonstrating the harmlessness of Christian practices — here you will find no cannibalism or incest!

Instead, Justin describes for us, in ch. 61, the process of Christian initiation, including instruction, prayer, and fasting, culminating in the act of baptism in the threefold name. Having been baptised, converts are expected to lead upright lives.

In ch. 65, Justin takes up again the more descriptive, rather than apologetic, aspect of this portion of the treatise. Immediately following the baptism comes a time for prayer, and then the newly-baptised receive bread and wine (a practice reminiscent of the Apostolic Tradition) after the prayer of thanksgiving by the president of the company — some take left-over bread and wine to those unable to be present.

In ch. 66, Justin lays out for us a very basic eucharistic theology that, in my opinion, affirms the Real Presence of Christ in the elements.

Finally, in ch. 67, we get a description of regular Christian worship. They meet on Sundays; in the assembly ‘the memoirs of the Apostles’ or the writings of the prophets are read, a sermon follows, then a time of prayer. After the time of prayer comes the Eucharist. After the Eucharist, people bring their gifts to the president who distributes them to the needy.

These are significant moments in the history of Christian worship in large part because they look so much the same as what goes on today. In 155 at Rome, Christians baptised in the threefold Name, they met on Sundays for Scripture-reading, preaching, prayer, and the Eucharist. They gave their gifts and helped the poor.

Furthermore, the description of everyone fasting together with the catechumens serves as a reminder of the roots of the Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican/Lutheran practice of Lent, for Easter became the traditional time for baptisms, and the fast extended to forty days out of commemoration of Christ’s own fast of forty days.

As far back as we can actually perceive general Christian worship practices, whether in a manual such as the Didache or a description such as Justin’s, we see the regular celebration of the Eucharist on Sunday, the public proclamation of Old and New Testaments with preaching, and baptism in the threefold Name of the Trinity.

The people who helped forge and determine which documents are our New Testament, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, worshipped in this way. Perhaps our modern worship leaders should also at least become acquainted with these forms of worship, even if they choose not to become ‘liturgical’.

Genres of the Fathers: Epistolography

Here we stand, most of the way through the authentic letters of Ignatius of Antioch, over halfway through the ‘Apostolic Fathers‘. Most of what we have seen so far has been in epistolary form — that is, letters. We started with 1 Clement, a letter from the church in Rome to the church in Corinth; then we read Ad Diognetum, which may be a letter (however, Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings, thinks it an apology akin to Justin Martyr’s). Next we delved into the letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, and soon it was the letters of Ignatius, which include some pseudepigrapha, like the Epistle of Barnabas in a week — but even these pseudepigrapha are written in the form of a letter.

And these are not the last letters we’ll see, although it will be a while until more emerge after we hit Justin Martyr — although apologies tend to be addressed to someone, they are not, properly speaking, real or fictive correspondence. However, in September we will hit three letters of Origen’s, but it will not be until next Advent that we will again land upon a major corpus of Christian correspondence, that of Cyprian of Carthage. Nevertheless, the letter is an important genre in most Christian history.

After Cyprian, famous Christian epistolographers include Athanasius of Alexandria, Antony the Great (the Abbot), Augustine of Hippo, Ambrose of Milan, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, popes from Damasus onwards, especially Leo the Great and Gregory the Great, Sidonius Apollonaris, Ausonius, Paulinus of Nola, Jerome, Cyril of Alexandria, and others who escape me now, but could include famous Christians of the Middle Ages such as Alcuin and Boniface as well as of the Reformation, such as Luther and Erasmus. This is to say, as we read the Fathers, we will meet with letter-writers on many occasions, especially now and with greater frequency starting Year 2.

Two questions I shall now address: What is a letter? Why do Christians write so many? A related third question: What do we learn about the nature of early Christianity from this?

What is a letter?

This seems like a dumb question, but it’s the sort of basic question I like to ask sometimes. A letter is a piece of correspondence, written from one person to another due to a lack of immediate presence. Thus, letters are a mediated form of communication; traditionally, many have thought of letters as a poor substitute for live conversation. However, as the work of Jacques Derrida has demonstrated, even live conversation is, at some level, mediated. And, as the work of Walter J Ong, especially Orality and Literacy, there are certain thought-processes that are more easily and more fully expressed through writing, such as philosophy or certain types of story-telling.

That is to say, either everything is mediated, or a letter is as unmediated a glimpse of your friend as a conversation. It’s just a different aspect of the person’s mind.

In letters, people express their thoughts and fears, their joys and sorrows, their news. I once wrote a letter that presented a fictive account of me encountering a dragon on the streets of Nicosia, Cyprus. Another time, I wrote a letter wherein I waxed eloquent about an air freshener with an icon of Christ Pantokrator on it. In the vast epistolary corpus of Cicero (d. 43 BC), he writes letters consoling friends on the death of their children, letters lamenting the political situation, letters recommending one friend or acquaintance to another, letters about art, literature, oratory, or philosophy.

The breadth of the letter, in fact, led Derrida to say, ‘the letter, the epistle . . . is not a genre but all genres, literature itself’ (La Carte Postale, p. 48). The letter, whether from real correspondence such as the Ignatian letters we have been reading now or fictive such as Derrida’s in La Carte Postale or the upcoming Pseudo-Ignatian letters, is a short piece of literature that brings distanced minds together, usually on a single topic or theme — epitomised by the correspondence of Pliny the Younger (d. AD 112).

Why do Christians write so many letters?

The earliest Christian literature is the Pauline corpus of letters, possibly with 1 Thessalonians c. AD 51. Recently, the letters of Christian scholar C S Lewis (d. 1963) have been published for us to read. Who knows if someday the e-mails and other missives of this generation will find their way into edited volumes? I hope so, for in these e-mails much of the stuff of daily life, mission, and theology is embedded. Why has the epistolary habit been such a feature of Christian life?

I believe that it is partly because of the example of Paul’s letters. We all strive to follow Jesus in the Apostles’ footsteps. Our Scripture contains apostolic letters. So we, too, write one another letters. Another reason, I believe, is the close-knittedness of the early Christian communities. The church at Rome was distressed by goings-on in the church at Corinth — so 1 Clement was penned and sent forth. A letter, unlike a conversation, is a lasting testament to a relationship. So Ignatius sends letters not only to those he has not met but to those he has — testaments to their relationship, enduring repositories of his wisdom.

Another reason is the epistolary breadth I’ve mentioned above. In antiquity, there were no blogs. Publishing tracts and brief literature was fairly uncommon. But people sent letters to one another. The letter was a brief moment to craft what I think of as the ancient equivalent of the modern (and dying) familiar essay. It was an informal, tightly-knit, short treatment of an interesting subject that you hoped your friend would also like. And if your friend liked it, he could pass it on to others (we know that this happened from the correspondence both of Cicero and Pliny as well as explicit instructions or requests for letters in early Christian letters). Thus ideas could circulate in a brief, readable manner.

And Christians have always had a lot of ideas to share with each other, whether the importance of bishops or the truth of the general resurrection or the mystery of the Son’s union with the Father. Unlike a hefty volume such as Plato’s Republic or Augustine’s City of God, a letter could be copied and distributed widely without too much trouble. Christianity is a faith not just for learned philosophers but for common shepherds and carpenters — who might have time to read, or listen to a reading of, a letter, if not a lengthy, multi-volume philosophical treatise.

In investigating these two questions, I hope that we have seen some of the third, of what letters show us about early Christianity — its mutual love and affection, its attachment to ideas and words, its accessibility to all.

I also hope this will help us all appreciate the many Christian letters we’re going to encounter over the next seven years.

How Not to Read the Fathers

[With this post we welcome Scholiast as a contributor. Scholiast previously wrote a post about why one should read the fathers, published on his own blog and excerpted here. In our last week before our reading begins, we will run several posts about how to read. Scholiast starts this series with some helpful suggestions about how not to read the fathers. —LAM]

The Church Fathers (11th-century Kievan image)

The Church Fathers (11th-century Kievan image)

In a little over a week, this exciting, ambitious project to read most of the Church Fathers will begin. I thought I might offer some insights into dangerous ways of reading that many of us are tempted to use from time to time as we meet with the Fathers. These ways of reading are suspicion, the related habit of heresy-hunting, ‘they’re just like us’, and prooftexting. A fifth way is not necessarily unhelpful but could be dangerous, and that is independent, devotional reading.


As you know, I dislike suspicious readings of texts, as discussed earlier this year in relation to Perpetua. This is a form of reading that is hostile — the least respectable of all interpretations is always taken. For example, one of my Presbyterian students read Leo the Great’s third sermon on his accession and declared that it looks like Leo is worshipping Peter! The same student later said that St. Francis’ Rule of 1221, in calling for ‘obedience and reverence’ to Innocent III, was distracting people from Christ and directing them to worship the Pope. Sigh. This is the sort of hostile reading that certain kinds of Protestants engage in with anything that resembles a pope or papism.

A friend of mine has this trouble with his students at an unnamed evangelicaliberty university who are automatically opposed to anything that looks ascetic or includes celibacy because it looks like Roman Catholicism and doesn’t contribute to evangelism.

Be ready for things in the Fathers that look Roman Catholic. They’re there. But do not assume the worst possible reading of all. Please. It tires me.


Heresy-hunting is like suspicion. I first learned of this at Phil Snyder’s now-defunct blog Hyperekperissou. In this framework, people read the earlier Fathers looking for later heresies. So Justin is accused of being a Monarchianist or Cassian of being a Monophysite or even a Pelagian (!). We cannot back-read later orthodoxy or heresy onto the earlier Fathers. I believe that this stems from conservative Protestants, probably evangelical, who wish to discredit all Christian history between St. John’s vision on Patmos and Martin Luther on the one hand, and liberal Protestants, probably Anglican (quite frankly), who wish to find a way to justify their own eccentricities and dress them up like ‘progresive’ orthodoxy.

You will inevitably find things in the Fathers that sound like heresy to you. Ask what heresy, why this guy looks like a heretic, and why he is still a Church Father if he has allegedly committed ‘heresy’.

They’re Just Like Us

I once read this series of Christian romance novels called ‘The Mark of the Lion.’ True story. Anyway, what I found remarkable there was that late first-century Christians, rather than looking like the Didache look a heckuvalot like 20th-century nonconformist/free church evangelicals. Like Baptists, in other words. This, of course, was probably derived from not reading the Fathers. More commonly, this looks like something another friend of mine encountered at another evangelical university where a student pulled out Clement of Alexandria and said, ‘Look, third-century Christians believed in justification by faith!’ It is most commonly done by Orthodox who claim that Luke was the first iconographer and have all their modern, Byzantine practices confirmed. This practice, even if not used polemically, completely ignores the historical context of the writers involved.

Ancient Christians are very much like us. They believe in Jesus, that faith in him will save us. They pray. They have the same Bible. But they are not us. They are different. Be thankful for the similarities, but be wary of imagining that you and Aphrahat the Persian are the same.


This is another dangerous way of reading the Fathers. It is often used in anti-Orthodox and anti-Catholic polemics. Passages such as St. Epiphanius of Salamis tearing down images in his local church are used in arguments with other Christians to prove to them that they are not as much like the early Christians as they thought. Sometimes the argument from silence is, that no Ante-Nicene Father seems to pray to saints — ha ha! You Orthodox scum are hellbound idolaters! Or it is clear from the Didache that the fasts were not the 40-day long abstinence-fests of Roman Catholicism originally. Ha ha! You Papist pagans have corrupted your own Tradition!

This is very, very dangerous. For example, we have Christian images that pre-date Epiphanius. So not all early Christians were iconoclasts. And, although the earliest pray-er to saints I can positively affirm is St. Paulinus of Nola, the Martyrdom of Polycarp seems to include relics and a saint’s shrine; Polycarp died in 155, so he’s not exactly a latecomer to the Christian tradition. Furthermore, although 40-day long abstinences are a development in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, by Melito of Sardis’ (d. ca. 180) time there seems to already have come into existence proto-Lent.

For every prooftext you can draw from the Fathers to fight the Orthodox and Roman Catholics, they’ll find a way to defang it. All you’ll do is fight with fellow Christians and get nowhere.

Devotional Reading

Devotional readings of the Fathers are not inherently bad. This is when you read a passage or text from the ancient Church and say, ‘Wow, this really speaks to my situation.’ Or you say, ‘Hey, this helps with x, y, or z modern problem.’ Or something like that. This is not a bad way of reading. I do it. I even do it on this blog.

But we have to distinguish between what the Fathers may say today and what the Fathers meant. Sometimes they are the same thing. Sometimes they are not. To help you distinguish, most modern translations of the Fathers come with handy introductions. Some, such as certain volumes in the Ancient Christian Writers series, have commentary. There are also handy introductory books such as Routledge’s Early Church Fathers series. Resources like these can help us distinguish between what Leo the Great means to me as a 21st-century Christian facing all the challenges this world holds, and what Leo the Great meant as a fifth-century Christian facing all the different challenges his world held.

I hope you can avoid these kinds of readings. The Fathers, I believe, are best read on their own terms and for your own edification — not as fuel for the battles for Christian identity that have raged since before 1054.

Originally posted at the pocket scroll.

© 2019 Read the Fathers

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑