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.