The Church Fathers—a contingent of ancient preachers and teachers who provide a window into the earliest centuries of the Christian faith—remain a source of great discussion, confusion, and fascination for Christians. Their writings play a conspicuous role in the spiritual journeys (and indeed the conversions) of many; but in some Christian circles, they are conspicuous only by their absence.
The Catholic and Orthodox traditions tend to be enthusiastic about the Fathers, while the Protestant traditions have more mixed reactions. John Piper downplayed their importance, while apologist William Lane Craig saidafter his morning Bible reading. (He also admitted that the most attractive thing to him about Catholicism is its “long great tradition that extends all the way back to the Greek apologists and the Church Fathers.”) Reformed preacher John MacArthur, , called them a “mixed bag”—but named Irenaeus and Polycarp (among others) as influences.
It’s little wonder why a Bible-saturated Christian would want to know what men like these had to say about the Christian life. After all, Irenaeus (140-202 AD) was a disciple of Polycarp (69-155 AD), and Polycarp was a disciple of St. John (6-100 AD)—an Apostle of the incarnate Christ and the author of one of the four Gospels.
So…what did they say?
Well, needless to say, a lot. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture set has twenty-nine volumes…and that’s just the commentary on Scripture. It’s hard to know where to begin, and wading from start to finish through eight centuries of writing from dozens of scholars—from Ignatius of Antioch to Tertullian to John Chrysostom to Augustine—feels like a very daunting prospect.
Enter ChurchFathers.org. Created by Joe Manzari and refurbished by Brandon Vogt and Daniela Madriz, ChurchFathers.org launched quietly and unobtrusively back in August—a refreshingly understated resource cast out for whoever was meant to find it. The sleek, no-frills design offers a direct portal into the teachings of the Church Fathers, one that’s rich with substance but easy to navigate and digest. “Despite the fact that their writings are all available for free online,” the homepage reads, “many people have not taken the time to educate themselves on what the Church Fathers have taught. This website is meant to serve as a tool to help people do just that.”
ChurchFathers.org is organized into six overarching topics: Mary and the Saints; Morality and Ethics; Sacraments; Salvation; Scripture and Tradition; and the Church and the Papacy. Each of these is further broken down into sub-topics that include a sampling of quotations adopted from The Fathers Know Best (published by Catholic Answers), which make note not just of the Church Father but also of the quoted work and the date. (Though deeply Scriptural, many of the passages pre-date even the formal compiling of the New Testament texts toward the end of the fourth century.)
For example, in the Real Presence sub-topic of the Sacraments section, you’ll find the following from Justin Martyr:
“We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]).
ChurchFathers.org does hone in on subjects of great contention among Christians; and some of the Father’s teachings (like Justin Martyr’s above, about which a caller sparred with Reformed apologist James White on his podcast) may prove jarring—and not just for Protestants.
But what they have written, they have written. The intention of the site’s creators is simply to get to the heart of what the Fathers, thought, taught, and practiced—and then get out of their way. The homepage underscores the “broad consensus among the Fathers on all the basic tenets of the faith,” admitting that “there were always a few dissenters” and that the Fathers “were not infallible.” It also explains that, as the most respected pastors and theologians of the day, these men “set the standard for what is considered biblical Christian teaching.” But beyond that, there is little additional commentary; it’s up to the reader to sift through these passages—whether about purgatory, the papacy, homosexuality or matrimony—and draw their own conclusions.
The goal, as Vogt sees it, is simple: “Let the Fathers speak for themselves.”
What they have to say might just surprise you.