The Church Fathers

Part 3


Changes in the church

The fourth century brought many changes for the Christian church. With the reign of Constantine in 312 came the Edict of Toleration which lifted the ban on the Christian religion and granted freedom of worship to both Christian and heathen. This new freedom brought with it a large influx of worldliness into the church, with people seeking offices within the church for its power and prestige. Though Constantine did not, as some think, make Christianity the state religion, he did much during his reign to pave the way for a mixing of church and state which would wreak havoc on the church in later centuries.

The Nicene Fathers

The Church Fathers who fall into this category were involved in one of the most important events in early church history - the Arian controversy and the Council of Nicea. Arianism was the false teaching of Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria, who denied that Jesus was God from eternity, and said that Jesus was not equal to the Father. This controversy disrupted the church for over fifty years, from 321-381.

Eusebius of Caesarea (265-340) - Eusebius was native to Syria, where he became a presbyter and later the bishop of Caesarea. He was a student of Pamphilus and with him was a staunch defender of Origen, together writing the Defense of Origen, and reproducing many of Origen’s works. Eusebius is best known as “the Father of Church History” because of his valuable work in being the first to make a careful record of the events of the church during his time, and even dating back to previous generations. Most of his works were apologetic in nature, explaining and defending the Christian faith.

Eusibius was prominent at the Council of Nicea, working for a compromise between the Arians and the opposing side. At the Council of Nicea he presented a formula of faith, which was later revised by the Council. All vague expressions were replaced with strict orthodox terms to refute the Arian false teaching, and it was subscribed to by all but three attending bishops. This revised formula of faith is (with a few small changes) the Nicene Creed we use today.

After the Council of Nicea Eusebius became one of the leaders for the moderate Semi-Arians who denied that Jesus was of the same substance (homoousious) with God the Father.

Athanasius (296-373) - Athanasius grew up in Alexandria, and because of his gifts, was noticed by the bishop of Alexandria and was made a deacon in that church. It was only two years later that the Arian controversy broke out right there in Alexandria. In 321 bishop Alexander summoned a local council and condemned Arius for his denial of the deity of Christ. But after his excommunication, Arius continued to spread his false teaching to other parts of the church, and found many supporters like Eusebius of Caesarea, and Eusebius of Nicomedia. This divided the eastern church and brought about the need for the first ecumenical council at Nicea just four years later. All this was quite concerning for Constantine who wrote a letter to Alexander encouraging him not to “quarrel over trivialities” since they were all “agreed on fundamentals.”

Athanasius attended the council with bishop Alexander, and it was chiefly due to his words and influence at the Council of Nicea that the Arian teaching was condemned. Three years later, Athanasius succeeded Alexander as the bishop of Alexandria where he continued to fight against the heresy of Arianism. This became the life work of Athanasius, for which he suffered greatly. The struggle between orthodoxy and heterodoxy can be seen in the fact that Athanasius was exiled five different times, for a total of twenty years. Athanasius is still known today as “the father of orthodoxy” because of his adherence to and struggle for the truth against this dangerous false teaching.

Hilary of Poitiers (300-366) - Hilary was born to pagan parents in the region of Gaul. Little is known about Hilary, though he is called “the Athanasius of the West.” Hilary became the bishop of Poitiers about 350 and like Athanasius contended against the Arian heresy in the regions of Gaul and Italy. His best known work is De Trinitate - an exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity against Arianism. He was an avid student of the works of Origen, and the first real exegete of the Latin Fathers. He is also known for the beautiful hymns which he composed.

The Post-Nicene Fathers

After the Council of Nicea in 325 the faith of the church was established, but many years would pass before peace in the church would finally be realized. During these years the church would struggle back and forth between heterodoxy and orthodoxy.

We are now introduced to the “three great Cappadocians,” Basil, his brother Gregory of Nyssa and his friend Gregory of Nazianzen. Though not involved in the Council of Nicea or the beginning of the Arian controversy, they became instrumental along with Athanasius in the final suppression of Arianism and Semi-Arianism.

Basil the Great (330-379) - Basil was born to Christian parents in the region of Cappadocia. His early schooling was done in Caesarea, and was continued in Constantinople and Athens. As a young man, he retired from the worldly life and along with his friend Gregory of Nazianzen, lived as a hermit studying theology and the works of Origen. Over time this idea was enlarged and was opened as a monastery, to which many from that region came to study and live a life of religious devotion. In 365 Basil was called from his seclusion to help in the fight against the heresy of Arius and became a presbyter in Caesarea. Six years later he became its bishop where he continued to defend the truth of the Trinity even against the emperor. He is known for three books which he wrote against Eunomius, a leader of the Arians at this time; a book on the Holy Spirit against the Pneumatomachians entitled The Procession of the Holy Ghost; and his work in the field of ligurgics and hymnology.

Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) - This Gregory was the younger brother of Basil. Because of the early death of his father, his mother and oldest sister Macrina were instrumental in his early spiritual upbringing, though he was not eager at first. Finally, his sister Macrina persuaded him to leave the secular life and join his brother Basil at the monastery he had opened. Here Gregory stayed for several years as he devoted himself to the study of Scripture and to the works of Origen. When Basil became bishop in Caesarea, he compeled his brother Gregory to become the bishop of the small town of Nyssa where he also struggled against the heresy of Arianism. Upon the death of his brother, Gregory become one of the most prominent defenders of orthodoxy and the faith of Nicea.

Gregory of Nazianzen (329-390) - Gregory was born in Nazianzen in Cappadocia. He studied in Caesarea, Alexandria, and finally at Athens where he met Basil, beginning a long and close friendship. At his baptism Gregory vowed never to swear and to devote his energy and power solely to the glory of God and to the defense and spreading of the truth of the Christian faith. After returning home from Athens he spent his time caring for his aged parents and with Basil in seclusion, where they spent their days in prayer, study, and manual labor. While their study was focused on Scripture, they also studied past Church Fathers, the most influential of which was Origen. They compiled a book of extracts from the writings of Origen which they called the Philocalia (Christology). This study of Origen was a great help to the friends later in life during controversies with the Arians who would often quote Origen in support of their errors.

In 361 Gregory was ordained as a priest, and was asked to help his father who was the bishop of Nazianzus. He did this until the death of his father in 374. In 379 the church at Constantinople asked him to come help them as they struggled against the Arian and other heresies. Reluctantly, Gregory finally agreed to do so until they could find a suitable replacement, and set out to defend the doctrine of the Trinity which he marvelously sets forth in many of his sermons.

While at Constantinople, Gregory was involved in the Council of Constantinople (381) which confirmed the Nicene Creed and condemned Arianism, Macedonianism (against the Holy Spirit), and Apollinarianism (against the humanity of Christ). At this Council all heretics against the Nicene faith were anathematized. It was also at this council that the bishop of Constantinople was given the prerogative of honor after the bishop of Rome.

Note: This study was prepared for the Bible Class at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, GA by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.

If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew