The Sermons of the Early Church Fathers

After the death of the apostles in the formative years of Christianity, between the first and fifth centuries emerged a group of people that would be later known as the church fathers. These were theologians, bishops, scholars and philosophers and some were direct disciples of the apostles. These groups of individuals are notable for their writings and teachings, a bridge between the doctrines of the apostles and the development of the early church post-apostolic era. The early church fathers fall into three basic categories: apostolic fathers, ante-Nicene church fathers, and post-Nicene church fathers. People like Clement of Rome, Polycarp and Linus were contemporaries of the apostles and most likely taught by them.

Iranius, Ignatius and Justin Martyr are some examples of the ante-Nicene fathers. These came after the apostolic fathers and before the council of Nicea in A.D 325. The post-Nicene fathers include saints like Augustine of Hippo, Chrysostom, Eusebius, Jerome and Ambrose. These early church fathers from across the generations fulfilled specific roles that were important in preserving what we have of the Christian faith today. Their explorations of profound theological concepts played an instrumental role in the propagation of Christian theology. It is important for us to examine what the major themes of their sermons were so we can have a better insight into what we should be focusing on as believers.

The apostolic fathers had one major concern which was the proclamation of the Gospel the way the apostles themselves proclaimed it. Their goal was to preserve what was handed down from the apostles without the formulation of any new doctrine. On the other hand, the ante-Nicene fathers dealt with arising heresies and misunderstandings about the Christian faith. They sought to preserve the genuine teachings while combating erroneous spectrums of beliefs. Their emphasis was largely on defining the theological underpinnings of Christian beliefs in a rapidly evangelizing world.

Lastly, the post-Nicene fathers focussed on envisioning systematic theology for the first time while dealing with the increasing perversion of theology. They built canonical authorities into Christian liturgical practices while cementing certain dogmas to uphold church unity. Each of these categories of the early church fathers, via their sermons and arguments, left a lasting legacy shaping Christian belief and practice.

So What Was the Focus of the Sermons of the Early Church Fathers?

In examining the common themes of the sermons of the early church fathers it is important for us to see how high a view they had of scripture. The church fathers believed that Scripture is true in all it states. Furthermore, they believed that when the Bible is preached, God himself speaks.

In many places, the Fathers, such as Tertullian, stated that whatever Scripture teaches is true. Augustine also declared, “I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error.” Augustine went further to state “Let us treat Scripture like Scripture: like God speaking.” This was the mindset that characterized the preachings of the church fathers. They believed in the sufficiency of scriptures and they fought vehemently against false teachers with almost the same vigor as the apostles who tried to introduce heresies that were extra-biblical.

The sermons and teachings of the early church fathers were incredibly diverse, reflecting the broad spectrum of issues faced by the early Christian Church. However, the common themes were:

  1. The Nature of God and Christ: Many sermons attempted to articulate the nature of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ, leading to discussions that shaped the development of the Trinity doctrine.
  2. Salvation and Atonement: The concept of salvation through faith in Christ was a recurring theme. They explored the idea of Christ’s atonement for humanity’s sins and the path to salvation.
  3. Scriptural Interpretation: They played an essential role in the interpretation of biblical texts, often utilizing them in their sermons to educate, admonish, motivate, and inspire their audiences.
  4. Combatting Heresy: In the face of multiple emerging sects and interpretations, early church fathers often used their sermons to refute heretical beliefs and reinforce orthodox Christian beliefs.
  5. Christian Ethics: They weighed in on moral issues of the time, helping to establish guidelines for Christian conduct. This included discussions about virtues, sin, and moral decision-making.
  6. The Sacraments: They elaborated on the importance and significance of the sacraments, such as Baptism and Eucharist, within Christian life.
  7. Eschatological Expectations: The church fathers often addressed themes related to death, resurrection, and the end times, providing insight into early Christian eschatological beliefs.

Here are some specific examples of how the early church fathers preached on these themes:

  • The divinity of Jesus Christ: Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35-107 AD) wrote, “Be careful to have one Eucharist; for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup unto his blood, and one altar, even as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants.” This passage shows that Ignatius believed that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human.
  • Trinity: Tertullian (c. 155-220 AD) wrote, “The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet they are not three Gods, but one God.” This passage shows that Tertullian believed in the Trinity, the doctrine that God is one being in three persons.
  • Incarnation and resurrection of Jesus: Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130-200 AD) wrote, “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became man, in order that man might become God.” This passage shows that Irenaeus believed that Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection made it possible for humans to be saved from sin and death.
  • Atonement: Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373 AD) wrote, “Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins and to reconcile us to God.” This passage shows that Athanasius believed in the substitutionary atonement, the doctrine that Jesus died on the cross in our place.

In the face of a rapidly changing world, modern Christianity has an opportunity, and perhaps a necessity, to turn towards the teachings of its roots. The sermons of the early Church Fathers, with their profound depth and unwavering commitment to scriptural truth, serve as a beacon for the modern church looking to navigate the complexities of faith in our contemporary society.

Each of the themes that the Early Church Fathers emphasized— the nature of God and Christ, salvation and atonement, scriptural interpretation, combatting heresy, Christian ethics, the sacraments and eschatological expectations— remain as relevant as ever to the Christian faith. These are foundational truths upon which all Christian beliefs are built, and they must be the bedrock of our preaching even today.







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