When The Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers (released on 8/22/2014) by Marcellino D’Ambrosio was a book I got for Christmas in 2020. Instead of not reading and reviewing a book I got for Christmas in 2019 (Christian Apologetics: An Anthology of Primary Sources [edited by Swiss, Meister et al[), I wanted to read and review D’Ambrosio’s book within a reasonable amount of time after Christmas 2020.
I had no idea that D’Ambrosio was (seemingly if not certainly) Catholic (I’m not). I got that idea after reading some of the book’s endorsements. Nevertheless, I still wanted to read it, for I was confident I could learn something from it. I (spoiler alert) did learn something from it.
In the preface, D’Ambrosio gives his reason for writing the book (pp. viii-ix):
There were many teachers in the early Church whose teaching perished with them and whose names have been forgotten. The early Christian teachers who came to be called “the Fathers” are those who put their teaching into writing and so are able too teach us still. And we urgently need their teaching. The cynical, tired world today is remarkably like the worn-out Roman society of their day. The questions they responded to are our questions, and their problems are our problems. Their voices, resonating with the youthful energy of the early Church, need to be heard again today.
That is the reason for this book. The Church in their day was endangered from within through division and compromise. And it was endangered from without thorough persecution and moral seduction. Sound familiar? The Fathers’ witness was key to the unity and vitality of the Church back then. But their witness is also key to the restoration of unity and vitality right now.
This book is not meant to be a textbook introduction or an encyclopedic handbook. Excellent versions of these exist, and I highly recommend them. This book, on the other hand, is intended to acquaint the reader with the colorful personalities and the seething passion of those who are our common ancestors and to share a few gems from the treasure of their precious teaching, which is our common patrimony.
I did find a few gems from this book. I have reviewed church history books in the past. Usually, I just comment on the gems and other noteworthy things. I shall do the same for this review.
This book has 26 chapters that proceed seemingly chronologically. Only one of the twenty-six chapters is at twenty pages in length (all others are below twenty pages). The short chapter lengths seemingly helped me better compartmentalize the information. D’Ambrosio defines the church fathers as “those great Christian writers who passed on and clarified the teaching of the apostles from approximately the second through the eighth centuries” (p. 2). The specific time period would be from A.D. 100 to A.D. 800 (p. 2). D’Ambrosio divides this time period into four sections (pp. 3-4):
- Apostolic Fathers (A.D. 50 through about A.D. 150)
- Apologists (A.D. 150 through the “pivotal Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325”)
- Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers (4th and 5th centuries)
- “Remaining Fathers like Gregory the Great and John of Damascus summed up, amplified and passed on the teaching of previous Fathers and Councils” (sixth through eighth centuries)
One highlight (among a few) I found in this book was the concept of martyrdom. I show two examples. The first is Polycarp’s martyrdom (pp. 29-37). Polycarp, a young bishop, found himself apprehended after a Christian broke under torture, telling the authorities Polycarp’s whereabouts (p. 31). A member of Polycarp’s flock, Pionus, wrote down the entire story of Polycarp’s capture (p. 31). Polycarp was told he would be released so long as he renounced Christ. Here was his response (p. 32):
“Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?…If you vainly suppose that I shall swear by the fortune of Caesar, as you say, and pretend that you do not know who I am, listen plainly: I am a Christian. But if you desire to learn the teaching of Christianity, appoint a day and give me a hearing.”
The proconsul replied, “I have wild beasts. I shall throw you to them, if you do not change your mind.”
Polycarp boldly retorted, “Call them.”
Notice how Polycarp, staring right at death if he does not renounce Christ, tells the proconsul to appoint a day so Polycarp can apparently teach the proconsul Christianity. That is amazing. What’s even more amazing is Polycarp’s seemingly immediate retort regarding the wild beasts. Now, because the time of this dialogue was late in the day, the crowd observing this scenario called for an impromptu burning at the stake (p. 32). Here was the prayer Polycarp uttered before his execution (pp. 33-34):
Lord God Almighty, Father of thy beloved and blessed Servant Jesus Christ, through whom we have received full knowledge of thee, “the God of angels and powers and all creation” and of the whole race of the righteous who live in thy presence: I bless thee, because thou hast deemed me worthy of this day and hour, to take my part in the number of the martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, for “resurrection to eternal life” of soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit; among whom I may be received in thy presence this day as a rich and acceptable sacrifice, just as thou hast prepared and revealed beforehand and fulfilled, thou that art the true God without any falsehood. For this and for everything I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee, through the eternal and heavenly High Priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved Servant, through whom be glory to thee with him and Holy Spirit both now and unto the ages to come. Amen.
Would you be thinking of praying this as your first prayer thought if you were about to be burned at the stake for not renouncing Christ? I know it wouldn’t be for me. Polycarp’s prayer is beautiful. Oh would born-again Christians be encouraged to not renounce their faith despite staring at death right between the eyes.
The second example of martyrdom I show is for the apologist Justin (pp. 56-57). In Justin’s Second Apology, he criticized “the Cynic philosopher Crescens for ignorant prejudice against the Christians” (p. 56). Not appreciating the criticism, Crescens turned in Justin to Rusticus, prefect of the city of Rome (p. 56). It appears court records represent the base for this interrogation and martyrdom. Here is the dialogue between Rusticus and Justin (pp. 56-57):
RUSTICUS: Listen, you who are said to be eloquent and who believes that he has the truth — if I have you beaten and beheaded, do you believe that you will then go up to heaven?
JUSTIN: If I suffer as you say, I hope to receive the reward of those who keep Christ’s commandments. I know that all who do that will remain in God’s grace even to the consummation of all things.
RUSTICUS: So you think that you will go up to Heaven, there to receive a reward?
JUSTIN: I don’t think it, I know it. I have no doubt about it whatever.
RUSTICUS: Very well. Come here and sacrifice to the gods.
JUSTIN: Nobody in his senses gives up truth for falsehood.
RUSTICUS: If you don’t do as I tell you, you will be tortured without mercy.
JUSTIN: We ask nothing better than to suffer for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and so to be saved. If we do this we can stand confidently and quietly before the fearful judgment-seat of that same God and Saviour, when in accordance with divine ordering all this world will pass away.
RUSTICUS: (rising to his feet) “Let those who have refused to sacrifice to the gods and to yield to the command of the emperor be scourged, then let them be led away and beheaded, according to the laws.”
Justin showed great courage in the face of a threatened beating and beheading. He was eventually beheaded. Justin’s quote, “Nobody in his senses gives up truth for falsehood”, really jumped out at me.
A little over two years ago, I left social media after it became apparent that my constant blogging and calling out of heretics was upsetting some people. Of course, it doesn’t help that I wasn’t doing my best work then. Nevertheless, staying silent in the name of appeasement was basically tantamount to giving up truth (promoting sound Christian doctrine and refuting that which contradicts it, per Titus 1:9) in the name of falsehood (staying silent). Moreover, this attempt at appeasement made no difference. As I have heard Dr. Rod Rosenbladt state, a difference that makes no difference is no difference at all. Worse, I wasn’t even threatened with either a beating or death. I was shamed into silence, and I did not stand my ground. I chickened out like a coward. Oh would born-again Christians have courage like Justin did in the above paragraph. May discerning Christians stand for biblical truth. May they refute error biblically even in the face of opposition.
A second highlight I saw in this book is the frequent mentioning of the concept lex orandi, lex credendi (pp. 137, 270). It appears Hippolytus, a priest who wrote the first biblical commentary in Christian history, expressed that idea (pp. 125, 137). The concept means, “the law of prayer is the law of faith” (p. 137). Another way to say it is “the liturgy of the Church is evidence of what the Church believes” (p. 270). Here is more information (p. 137; the italicized text is from p. 42 of Apostolic Tradition):
In other words, if you pray right, you will believe right, since doctrine is implicit in prayer and liturgy. This man who was so worried about heresy saw the tradition of prayer passed down from the apostles as the best safeguard of the faith they passed down:
I counsel all prudent men to observe these traditions. For if everyone follows and observes the tradition of the apostles, no heretic, and indeed no human being at all, will be able to lead you astray. The reason why heresies have increased is that leaders have been unwilling to make their own the teachings of the apostles and have acted as they pleased and not as they should have.
Hippolytus’ words are as true today as they were at the time he penned them. Think about it. Heresies run wild these days because leaders have indeed acted as they have pleased “and not as they should have.” These include heresies from such heretics as Henry Seeley, Todd Smith, Max Lucado, Joseph Prince, Craig Groeschel, Rick Warren, Erwin McManus, Galen Woodward, Brian Zahnd and Tony Evans (among many others). These heretics need to repent and be forgiven. Furthermore, they and all people with the title of pastor need to make the teachings of the apostles their own. It would help if they preached the Gospel every Sunday. This could involve telling people that by default, we are all born dead in trespasses and sins.
Ephesians 2:1-10 explains:
2 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
The Bible is clear that people are born dead in trespasses and sins (2:1-3). God’s being rich in mercy makes one alive in Christ (2:4). Furthermore, it is by grace through faith that one is saved (2:5-9). It is not based on works (2:9).
If you do not believe what Ephesians 2:1-10 states, I would ask you please look at the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17. Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever stolen something, even if it was small? Have you ever used God’s name in vain? Jesus said that whoever looks upon a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery in the heart (Matthew 5:27-28). Jesus also said that if you ever get angry at someone, you’ve committed murder in the heart (Matthew 5:21-26). Just the mere thoughts of adultery and murder make you guilty of the very acts themselves.
Please understand that it only takes one murder to be a murderer, one lie to be a liar and so forth. David said in Psalm 51:5 that he was conceived in sin. Genesis 6:5 states that every intent of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil continually. Clearly, man has a sin problem. Romans 3:23 states that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Man is in big trouble with God because of his sin. This is more amplified by the fact that perfection is the standard (Matthew 5:48).
Now, some people try to justify their sin by trying to balance it out with the good deeds that they have done. However, if you were to try that in a court of law, the judge would throw the book at you. A good judge would not accept a bribe. He would cast you off into jail. God likewise will not accept a bribe, for there is no partiality with Him (Deuteronomy 10:17; Ephesians 6:9). Revelation 21:1-8 states the following (NASB):
21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among the people, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, 4 and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be anymourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
5 And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He *said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” 6 Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give water to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life, without cost. 7 The one who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. 8 But for the cowardly, and unbelieving, and abominable, and murderers, and sexually immoral persons, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
The Bible is clear that all liars will have their part in the lake of fire. No adulterer, no murderer, no idolater, no unbeliever (among others) will inherit the kingdom of God (see also 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Sin has a very serious consequence.
Thankfully, Jesus Christ came to solve the sin problem 2000 years ago (Isaiah 53:1-12). You and I broke the law. Jesus paid the fine (Matthew 26:14-28:20). This means that the judge can do what’s legally right in dismissing your case. He can say, “This person has broken the law, but someone has paid his fine. He’s out of here.” This is good news.
There are two things a person must do. He must repent. This means to turn from his sin (Mark 1:16; Luke 24:36-49; 2 Timothy 2:19-26; Acts 17:30-31). He must also put his trust in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31, 17:30-31; Romans 4:1-25, 10:1-17; Galatians 3:1-14; John 6:26-29). These gifts of repentance and faith are granted by God (Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 2:22-26). If you repent and put your trust in the Savior Jesus Christ, He will forgive you of your sins and grant you everlasting life (John 6:47). Oh may you know His mercy and grace today if you have never repented and put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
I comment on one more thing with this book. I’ve reviewed three church history books in the last few months. I reviewed two by Nick Needham. I reviewed one by Michael Huskey. I’ve also read other history books in the past that I have not reviewed. What they all had in common was an index. I did not see an index in D’Ambrosio’s book. I know I sound picky by pointing this out. Nevertheless, having an index would have made the terms I elaborated on (martyrdom and lex orandi, lex credendi) easier to find. Then again, D’Ambrosio did state in the beginning that this work is not meant to be an encyclopedic handbook. That may be the reason for the lack of an index.
This was a very good Christmas gift. D’Ambrosio has written an interesting, informational, simple and well-organized read with When The Church Was Young: Voices Of The Early Fathers. If one is interested in church history between the second and eighth centuries, D’Ambrosio’s book is a simple read that will provide good information for that time period.