In our last article we saw that the Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church are important sources of Christian doctrine. There were Fathers who wrote on theological subjects and others who wrote about asceticism and the spiritual life.
However, not all saints are referred to as Holy Fathers. There are many other categories of saints. For example, the prophets of the Old Testaments are considered saints. The evangelists who wrote our four Gospels are saints. We know, of course, about the twelve apostles who are saints but there are also 70 (or 72) less well-known apostles who are also saints. Confessors are saints who suffer for the faith and martyrs are those who die for it. There are monastic saints and lay saints. Lay people who are saints are referred to as ‘righteous’. Of course, all these categories of saints are also known to Western Christians, although sometimes the names and categories are different. However, there is another category of saint that is more typically Eastern.
They are the “fools for Christ’s sake”. These are saints who live with a total indifference to what is considered normal. They may dress in bizarre or ragged clothing, they may be homeless, they have no concern for their reputation or security. But because of this indifference God sometimes grants such fools great insight into the Orthodox faith and the human heart. They are totally fearless and so can speak the truth.
To learn about saints we go to their ‘lives’. A ‘life’ in the technical sense is not a biography. It omits many things that a biographer would be interested in. They are written to bring out the spiritual significance of the saint’s work and deeds, as inspiration for us. The lives of many of the saints were written centuries ago so the style of writing may seem strange to us. But if we are patient and keep reading the lives of the saints we will see great spiritual benefit.
To round out our series of articles about the sources of Christian doctrine we consider two other sources. The first is canon law. Canon Law comes from the decisions of ecumenical councils, local councils and writing of the Fathers. The word Canon means norm or standard. There are canons that are considered unchangeable.
For example, they include canons about the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ and the Trinity. Canons about the moral law are unchangeable. But there are other canons that are changeable as need arises. For example, the canons say that a man cannot be ordained before he is thirty years of age. The idea here is that a clergyman should be a mature individual and is important, but in response to the need of the church men are sometimes ordained at an early age. The canons are not laws which are somehow above the life of the church, ruling it from above but rather they show us how life in the church is to be lived.
Finally, we have to consider icons as a source of Christian doctrine. We will consider icons in more detail later, but we should mention one point here which relates to what we said earlier about lives of the saints. Just as a saint’s life is not a modern biography concerned with all details of the saints life, but rather seeking to depict the spiritual significance of the life, icons are not realistic portraits of the saints (or Jesus Christ or His mother). Rather, through artistic technique and style the spiritual meaning of the person depicted is emphasized. When we read the lives of the saints we are not always familiar or comfortable with the genre of literature. Sometimes the convention of iconography may seem strange to us too, but if we can persevere in trying to understand icons and the lives of the saints we see why they are sources of Christian doctrine.
Finally, we should know that church music and architecture can be considered as sources of Christian doctrine, though these topics do not enter into our presentation at this point.
In answering the question of how we know with certainty what the Orthodox doctrine is, or how do we find Orthodox doctrine, we began by looking at the Bible and the Liturgy of the church as sure sources of Christian truth. Later, we looked at the decisions of the councils. Now we turn to the writings of the church Fathers (note: there are also church Mothers). The study of the Fathers is called patristics, from the Greek word for father. The church Fathers have expressed and taught the Orthodox faith for 21 centuries. We should never think that the age of the Fathers is over. The church is and will always be patristic. The Fathers have authority for us because they led holy lives and used their brilliant minds to defend and teach Christian doctrine. This doesn’t mean that any given church Father is infallible. Indeed, one can find “mistakes” in certain Fathers. However, these mistakes are not considered heresy. From the
Church’s point of view, a heretic is someone who consciously, knowingly maintains a false teaching against the will of the Church. They always sought to think and with the mind of the Church.
There are many kinds of Holy Fathers belonging to various categories. Some Fathers taught the church faith with theological brilliance. Others taught the Christian life. These are often called ascetic fathers.
One kind of Holy Father is known as an apologist. In modern English, apology or to apologize means to say one is sorry for something. But the original Greek meaning of apology is a reasoned defense of someone or something. The apologist is one of the first kinds of Holy Fathers to appear, beginning their work in the late 1st and 2nd centuries.
What provoked the apologists to write? First, some apologists addressed themselves to the Jews. The Jews believed it was impossible for the Messiah to suffer on the cross and then die. They also did not believe that God had a son. What the apologist did was to carefully study the Old Testament and find that the Messiah was prophesied to be a suffering servant and the Son of God in a unique sense.
Other apologists defended the church’s teaching against the pagans. One kind of apology was directed to the Roman emperor. The Emperor thought that the Christians were bad citizens because they would not offer incense to a statue of the emperor as God. The apologists said that they were loyal subjects of the emperor, but they would not worship him as lord, for only God is Lord. Unfortunately, these apologies often didn’t work and thousands of Christians died for refusing to call the emperor lord.
Also, some pagans accused Christians of being atheists. In Greco-Roman religions, there were many, many gods, with their temples found everywhere. The worship of these gods was an important part of the town and cities. However, the Christians would not participate in any of the local social-religious activities relating to these gods. They said they worshiped the one true God who did not dwell in the pagan temples. For this reason Christians were often called atheists and the apologists had to defend the Christians against this charge.
In addition, highly spiritual pagans could not believe that the Son of God could take on a human body subject to pain, suffering and then death on the cross. For many of these pagans, the world and the human body was something which had to be escaped from. The apologists had to show them that the world and the human body were not evil, so the Son of God did become a genuine human being.
Finally, the apologists had to defend Christians from the charge of cannibalism. In the early days of the church the Liturgy was celebrated behind closed doors. Outsiders were not admitted. When the rumor got out that Christians ate the body and rank the blood of their Lord some pagans had to defend Christians.
It is hard to say how much their apologies helped the Christians, but they certainly laid the foundation for Christian theology and also showed how Christians could respond to attacks from outside the Church.