Conversing with the Fathers: The Post-Nicenes

Meesaeng Lee Choi

“Post-Nicene Fathers” refers to Patristic literature from the Council of Nicea (325 CE) until the close of the Patristic age (749 CE). It is a time when the church received legal status and enjoyed freedom of worship and even favors in the Roman world. It is also a time when the church grew exponentially and moved from the persecuted to the imperial. Martyrdom was no longer an option for Jesus’ followers, but monasticism arose, with its emphasis on holiness or Christian perfection. This is the “golden age,” marked by blossoming of theological studies.

“Church Fathers” is a title bestowed on those who are qualified by combining four trademarks: orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, ecclesiastical approval, and antiquity. In the Catholic Church the period of antiquity ends with John of Damascus (d. 749 CE) in the East and with Gregory the Great (d. 604 CE) in the West. However, not all the Fathers—including Coptic, Syriac, Arabic, and Iberian theologians—can be classified as representing the West or the East since there are seven centuries of patristic heritage involving diverse languages, cultures, and geography. The writings of the Post-Nicene Fathers, easily accessed in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF; 1st and 2nd series [Hendrickson, 1994]) are extensive, so only very selective works will be treated in this essay.

Scripture, Proclamation, and Theology

Today we have seen the renewal of Christian preaching based on classical Christian exegesis and new horizons between Scripture and theology (e.g., C.A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers [InterVarsity, 1998]; J.B. Green and M. Turner, eds., Between Two Horizons [Eerdmans, 2000]; cf. K. Rahner, “Exegesis and Dogmatic Theology,” in Theological Investigations [5; Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1961] 7-73). Helpful in this regard is the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series with modernized translation (InterVarsity, 1998- ), which covers seven centuries of biblical interpretation from Clement of Rome to John of Damascus (c. 95-749 CE). Here we learn that, for the ancient Christian writers, chains of biblical reference (catena) were crucial in relation to the whole of Scripture by (1) the analogy of faith, and (2) comparing text with text, on the premise that scriptura ex scriptura explicandam esse (“Scripture is best explained from Scripture”).

Among the Post-Nicene Fathers, the two most intelligible and accessible exegetical works are from John Chrysostom and Augustine. They demonstrate the inseparable relation between theology and pastoral ministry and the balanced collaboration between biblical exegesis and dogmatic theology.

The works of Chrysostom (347-407, “golden mouth”) show how biblical preaching (sound doctrine) and an apostolic way of life are inseparable. Scripture is the interpretive grid for the Christian’s life and his or her principal method is to prepare “the medicine of the word” that can nourish more than bread and restore more effectively than a drug. Available English translations of Chrysostom’s homilies and sermons are on Matthew, Acts, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Timothy, Hebrews (NPNF II, vols. 10-14) and on John in the series The Fathers of the Church (FC 33). Some of these are retranslated and published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press (e.g., On Wealth and Poverty [1999]; On Marriage and Family Life [2000]). Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana is a basic text for understanding his hermeneutical methodology. He explains his principle that Scripture is the “sole foundation of a truly Christian education” and Scripture has superiority over other texts and over the treasures of pagan culture (Christian Instruction, FC 2; Teaching Christianity [trans. E. Hill; New City Press, 1996]). Two Books on Genesis against the Manichees (FC 84) or On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis in the series Ancient Christian Writers (ACW 41-42) are good for beginners. Augustine’s sermons on Psalms (ACW 29-30), and Homilies on John and 1 John (FC 78-79, 88, 90, 92) are also available.

Christian Theology: Trinity and Christology

The Post-Nicene Fathers placed a high priority on theological, christological, and triune reasoning as the distinguishing premises of classic Christian thought. This period produced the traditional four doctors of the Western Church (Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Gregory the Great) and four doctors of the Eastern Church (Athanasius, Chrysostom, Basil, and Gregory of Nazianzus). With seven ecumenical councils (from the Nicea in 325 to the Second Council of Nicea in 787 CE), the Post-Nicene Fathers defended Nicene Christianity from the resurgence of Arianism, defined further the Trinitarian doctrine with the Niceno-Cosmopolitan Creed (381CE), and developed a rule (formal outline) of christological language—the classical christological “Definition” of Chalcedon (451 CE).

Athanasius, in responding to Arius’ teaching (the Son’s creaturely status in relation to the Father), argued that such names as “Son,” “Wisdom,” and “God” for Jesus Christ signify who he is by nature (Discourses against the Arians [see Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers]) and that the incarnation of the Word of God, which is God’s work, is necessary for human salvation and the restoration of the image of God (On the Incarnation, NPNF II, vol. 4). After the Council of Nicea, which produced the Nicene Creed and in facing the resurgence of Arianism, the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus) wrote and expounded on the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Basil delved into the deity of the Holy Spirit in his conflicts with Eunomius (On the Holy Spirit (St. Vladimer’s Seminary Press, 2001). In his masterpiece on De Trinitate, Augustine formulated and defended the Trinitarian doctrine by emphasizing the equal nature of three distinctive divine Persons and the relations between the mysteries of the Trinity. He also illustrated and contemplated the image of Trinity in humans (e.g., lover, loved, and love). I would recommend a more recent translation, The Trinity (New City Press, 1991), though this work is also in NPNF I, vol. 3.

On the ongoing christological controversies leading up to the Council of Chalcedon, we have accessible sources such as Nestorius’ First Sermon against the Theotokos, Cyril of Alexandria’s Second Letter to Nestorius, Nestorius’s Second Letter to Cyril, Cyril’s Letter to John of Antioch, Pope Leo I’s Letter to Flavian of Constantinople (R. Norris, The Christological Controversy [Augsburg Fortress, 1980]). These concluded with the “Definition of Chalcedon” which compromised between Antiochene Christology (two natures) and Alexandrian Christology (one person) and protected the mystery of incarnation.

Hymns, Worship, and Sacrament

It was within the context of worship and pastoral ministry that the Post-Nicene Fathers developed their theology. In the Syriac Christian tradition, Ephrem the Syrian (ca. 306-373CE), a poet, choir director, exegete, teacher, orator, and later a doctor of the church, defended and defined Nicene orthodoxy; he set the subsequent direction of the Syriac Church. Ephrem used the poetic imagery by employing symbolism and paradox in his writings, especially in his hymns. Among over the four hundred of his hymns that have come down to us, the Hymns on Nativity (NPNF II, vol. 13; Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns, CWS) treated incarnation as “the miraculous and paradoxical self-abasement of God out of love for humankind” (Ephrem the Syrian, 30) and expressed paradoxically the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ. Ephrem influenced enormously the Eastern traditions (Greek, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and later Arabic) and Western medieval drama beyond the Syriac tradition. Accessible English translations are Hymns on Paradise (St. Vladimer’s Seminary Press, 1990) or The Harp of the Spirit: Eighteen Poems of St. Ephrem (Studies Supplemental to Sobornost 4, 2nd ed., 1983) and The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of St. Ephrem (1985).

Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-87)’s 24 Catecheses contributed to the foundational aspects of the catechetical instruction and the sacrament. It is composed of (1) an introductory “Procatechesis (pre-baptismal)” given to the entire congregation, (2) eighteen Catecheses addressed to catechumens (a special class known as competentes) during Lent, and (3) the final five “Mystagogical Catecheses (MC)” delivered to the newly baptized at Easter. Catecheses parse out the present form of the Nicene Creed (the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed in 381). The Mystagogical Catecheses preserve more details about the liturgy than any other Eastern source. It displays an amazing tapestry of pastoral exhortation, scriptural interpretation, theological statements, basic sacramental instruction, and, most importantly, description of the rites of passage newly experienced in the mysteries of baptism, chrism, and Eucharist. An accessible English translation with Greek text is Lectures on the Christian Sacraments (St. Vladimer’s Seminary Press).

The Believers’ Call to Holiness

John Cassian (c. 365-c. 435), one of the most notable writers of Gaul, wrote De institutis coenobiorum (The Institutes), Conlationes (Conferences), and De incarnatione. In his masterpiece, the Conferences (ca. 426-29), Cassian appreciated eastern mysticism and developed them into a practical guide for a life of holiness, which influenced eastern spirituality as well as western, particularly on Benedict and Cassiodorus. Cassian demonstrated his major motif, “purity of heart (sanctification)” as the aim of monks in pursuing the kingdom of God, the objective of lives by means (discipline) of prayer, scriptural reading, meditation, perfection (perfect love), and spiritual knowledge, not in isolation, but in community or friendship. The Conferences are accessible with new translation by C. Luibheid and an introduction by O. Chadwick (CWS, Paulist).

Orthodoxy: The Classical Ecumenical Method

One of the major points of contact between the Post-Nicene Fathers and postmodern Christians comes from Vincent of Lerins (d. before 450CE)’s Commonitorium (Commonitory, NPNF II, vol. 11), which was written three years after the Council of Ephesus (431 CE). Commonitorium (“act of remembering”) is not a mere memorandum but a type of “discourse on methodology” distinguishing the Catholic faith from new heresies (i.e., it provides the proper method of determining orthodox doctrine). This method is emerged in the famous axiom of the Vincentinian Rule: “everywhere, always, and by all” which signifies “universality, antiquity, and universal consensus.” Vincent illustrates with reference to Donatism (opposed to universality), Aranism (opposed to antiquity), and the baptism of the heretics (opposed to universal consensus). In today’s Christian communities (Evangelical and Mainline Protestants, Orthodox, and Catholic), we see a renewing concern and resurgence of new orthodoxy as discussed in T. Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy (HarperSan Francisco, 2003). With this rediscovery of the “Classic Ecumenical Method,” Christians are relearning “how to think ecumenically in classic terms” by accepting the historical consensus of scriptural interpretation, opening to diversity contained in tradition itself, and enlivening the freedom that comes from centered belief and practice. This rule is not an invention of the church, but comes organically from the Pauline writings to “preserve the deposit of faith” (1 Tim 6:20), as Vincent analyzed the innovations of Nestorius, Photinus, and Appollinarius against the Catholic doctrine on the Trinity and the person of Christ.

Posted Apr 01, 2006