Apostolic Traditions and the Church Fathers


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    Hell is paved with the skulls of priests.
    Popularly attributed to St John Chrysostom (c.347-407)*


    Apostolic Traditions

    Since the Bible fails to mention certain doctrines and practices that are now considered characteristically Christian, some branches of Christianity have looked to early traditions to justify them. But the results are disappointing. Few genuine traditions can be justified in this way, and worse still, early authorities often confirm many practices that are now regarded as unacceptable. For example, a return to the earliest practices would mean that no religious icons would be allowed, either pictures or statues. The use of incense would be prohibited as pagan. On the other hand, Christians would hold love feasts, and celebrate the Sabbath on Saturdays. Easter would be celebrated on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan. Infants would not be baptised, and adults would not be baptised except between Easter and Pentecost. Baptisms would then involve the triple immersion of the naked baptismal candidate. There would be no sacrament of confession or penance, or if we accept the earliest (third century) practices there would be only public penance (exomologesis), permitted once after baptism1. There would be no priests or bishops, only elders and supervisors, freely elected by the community.

    The whole area of "tradition" is riddled with difficulties. The early Church leader and writer Tertullian, who invented the idea of appealing to tradition, used it to justify the practice of triple immersion at baptism, the requirement that the Eucharist should be taken in the early morning, and the prohibition of kneeling at Easter or on Sundays. There is no doubt about the position of the early Church on these matters and it is for this reason that various reformed Churches have returned to at least some of these ancient practices.

    The Roman Church is in a less comfortable position. It purports to give great weight to tradition — the importance of traditions dating back to the apostles was emphasised by the Council of Trent (Session 4). Yet it has persecuted and killed people for the heresies of adhering to apostolic practices — rejecting infant baptism, keeping the Sabbath on Saturday, celebrating Easter on the 14th of Nisan, and so on. Protestant Churches have also persecuted and killed other Christians (e.g. Anabaptists) for such "heresies". It is strange enough that apostolic practices are sometimes at variance with mainstream Christian views. Worse is the fact that not a single Church doctrine can be justified by appeal to a reliable apostolic tradition.


    Church Fathers

    In the absence of any first-hand apostolic record, Christian scholars often referred to the Fathers of the Church — early Christians who left a written record of doctrine and practices. The Roman Church purports to ascribe authority to them equal to that accorded to the gospels. But there are problems here as well. In the first place the earliest Fathers knew nothing of doctrines such as the Incarnation or Trinity, and so were liable to make statements that are now heretical. Also, on many matters the Church Fathers contradict each other, and where they unanimously concur they often condemn practices that are now common, for example, the wearing of distinctive clothing by clerics. Often, specific directions by the Fathers are simply ignored. Hippolytus instructed Christians to pray at the third, sixth, and ninth hours of the day, a practice mentioned by many early authorities, such as Tertullian, Origen of Alexandria, and Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage. The practice was inconvenient so it was dropped for those not belonging to religious Orders (though Muslims manage to follow similar rules, taking care to face a certain direction, as Christians once did, and adopting the same posture for prayer as early Christians).

    The Fathers held strong views on a wide range of matters. As Gibbon observed:

    In their censures of luxury the fathers were extremely minute and circumstantial; and among the various articles that excite their pious indignation we may enumerate false hair, garments of any colour except white, instruments of music, vases of gold or silver, downy pillows (as Jacob reposed his head on a stone), white bread, foreign wines, public salutations, the use of warm baths, and the practice of shaving the beard, which, according to Tertullian, is a lie against our own faces and an impious attempt to improve the works of the Creator2.

    The Roman Church's commitment to tradition is widely regarded as questionable. The Church has never attempted to collect together a comprehensive body of tradition, and it is not unknown for Roman Catholic writers to be charged by other Christians with being evasive, and even "fugitive", on the subject3. This is not altogether surprising since numerous Roman doctrines are not evidenced by the Church Fathers, and are universally acknowledged to date from later times (papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, and Mary's Assumption, to name but three ).

    It is difficult to find any Church Fathers who were consistently orthodox by modern standards. Indeed the problem of deciding who counted as a Church Father was much like deciding which books were canonical. People tended to include anyone who agreed with them and to reject anyone who did not. Since there were so few accepted Fathers, broad agreement was eventually reached, though once again there is no definitive list, and Eastern and Western Churches still accord vastly different weights to different Fathers4. Since it was difficult, often impossible, to find orthodox writers who confirmed certain doctrines or practices, Churches were driven to accept as authoritative men who had been condemned as heretics. Some of them had been considered heretical even in their own day. Their original writings were conveniently "lost" or tampered with. Many of these early Christians had extremely unfortunate views on sex and punishment, shared extreme anti-Semitic views, and firmly believed a range of absurdities. The most influential were:


    St Ignatius of Antioch (AD c.35-c.107). Ignatius was an unusually credulous man, given to embellishing stories, and with an unusual personality (he prayed for his own death, preferably by horrific means). He held that only bishops could conduct baptisms and love feasts5 - he is the first writer to hint that "bishops" might be different from "presbyters", and that Christ might be something more than human. He left little else of doctrinal value, and what little he did leave is universally acknowledged to have been radically tampered with by later Christians. By the 5th century, his letters had been enlarged by spurious writings, and the original letters had been supplemented with interpolations, created to posthumously enlist Ignatius as a witness in contemporary theological disputes. The purported eyewitness account of his martyrdom is also thought to be a forgery from around the same time.


    St Clement of Rome (fl. AD c.96). Clement wrote letters that were initially accepted into but later rejected from the canon of Christian scripture. They deal largely with the great dissent then current within the Church, and suggest that there was no established bishopric at Rome during his lifetime6. (Ironically his name was later included in lists of early popes, though different lists have him as first, second, third or fourth in line from Peter). According to acta dating from the 4th century, Clement was banished from Rome to the Chersonesus during the reign of Emperor Trajan, and set to work in a stone quarry. He was allegedly killed by being tied to an anchor and thrown from a boat into the Black Sea.

    Clement used the terms bishop and presbyter interchangeably - a reminder that bishops had not separated off as a higher office at this time. Clement seems to have been as credulous as others of his age (he was convinced in the reality of the phoenix). The stained glass window on the right shows him along with his fabulous phoenix. Much of his surviving work is now known to be forged, and little is known of his life or beliefs.




    St Justin Martyr (AD c.100-c.165). Justin was a man generally acknowledged to have been of no great intelligence, nor philosophical nor literary skill. He had studied Stoic and Pythagorean philosophy, but had failed to comprehend either and turned instead to Christianity. His writings are of little doctrinal value. He was concerned mainly to refute various charges made against Christians by members of other religions. He has been accused of believing in two Gods, having referred to the Word (logos) as "second God". According to him Christ was worshipped in the "second rank", and the Holy Spirit in the "third rank", a view that is now regarded as heretical7



    St Irenaeus of Lyons (AD c.130-c.200). Irenaeus was another exceptionally credulous man, who believed stories that are now accepted to be apocryphal8. Like many of his contemporaries, Irenaeus accepted the millenarian heresy, the belief in a 1,000-year period of divine rule following Christ's imminent return to living on Earth. For this reason he was not well regarded by the Eastern Churches. His writings have not been preserved in the original Greek, and Latin translations show evidence of his views having been edited to erase evidence of his heresy9. His idea of the Incarnation was that the Word (logos) was God the Father incarnate in Jesus Christ — a view now considered heretical. He also held that Jesus died as a ransom paid to Satan10, a view that might well have come to be regarded as heretical if it had not been almost universal until the eleventh century.


    St Clement of Alexandria (AD c.150-c.215). Clement held Gnostic views, denying that Christ had experienced the physical passions of an ordinary man and holding that he had been exempt from human desire11. Such views would later be condemned as heretical. Clement is also known to have suppressed authentic gospel material that he wanted kept for an inner élite. He expressed doubts as to whether he even wanted to be associated with those who called themselves orthodox and found it hard to use the word without a half-ironic apology.12 Clement's work draws on Stoic philosophy and pagan literature. He dated the creation of the world to 5592 B.C. In his Stromata, he condemns Christians who actively seek martyrdom. His writing show him to be married. He was once revered in the Roman Catholic Church, but his name was removed from the Roman Martyrology in 1586 by Pope Sixtus V because of his documented views. The date, cause and location of his death are unknown, so he was in any case only ever a martyr in the original sense of being a "witness"..


    (Quintus Septimus Florens) Tertullian (AD c.160-c.225). Like many later Christians, Tertullian delighted in the prospect of his enemies suffering in Hell. He adopted Montanist views (see page 123), which came to be considered heretical, and held that the orthodox line was the heretical one. He accused bishops of Rome of the Sabellian heresy, the doctrine that Father, Son, and Spirit represent different states (or modes or aspects) of a single god at different times (see also page 123). Around fifteen works in Latin or Greek are "lost", some of them as recently as the 9th century. Two books addressed to his wife confirm that he was married. He despised Greek philosophy, and regarded Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek thinkers as forefathers of heretics (De anima, iii.). Like most of his fellow Fathers, Tertullian is often described as misogynistic, in his case on the basis of the contents of his 'De Cultu Feminarum,' : "Do you not know that you are Eve? The judgment of God upon this sex lives on in this age; therefore, necessarily the guilt should live on also. You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.” (section I.I, part 2, trans. C.W. Marx). And again with reference to Eve,, "For straightway that impatience conceived of the devil's seed, produced, in the fecundity of malice, anger as her son; and when brought forth, trained him in her own arts." (On Patience 5:15). He died fulminating against the faction that is now regarded as orthodox.


    Bodleian, MS. Douce 134 folio 077v
    Jesus and the heavenly host above watching the torments of those in hell below


    St Hippolytus (AD c.170-c.236). Hippolytus was a prolific Greek writer and another supporter of the millenarian heresy, whose works have been "lost" in the original. Later Latin versions of his Apostolic Traditions have clearly been tampered with. He was elected Bishop of Rome in competition to the existing bishop (Callistus), who claimed that Hippolytus believed in two gods. Hippolytus accused two bishops of Rome (Zephyrinus and Callistus) of heresy and attacked two others Urban I (222–230) and Pontian (230–235). Hippolytus belonged to a Christian group (Novatians) now considered heretical, though he is more usually described as a schismatic. Most of his works were "lost", the usual fate of works considered heretical by the majority faction. From the little that remains we know that he represented the Logos as Sophia, God's female agent in creation; as a transgendered maker of wine (like Dionysus); and as the sun-god Helios who rides across the sky in a chariot. A martyrdom was invented for Hippolytus, based on another, pre-Christian, Hippolytus who was dragged to death by wild horses. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of "St Hippolytus Pope of Rome" on January 30. In the West Hippolytus is now regarded as the first anti-pope, and also as a saint. He is the patron saint of horses, a reference to his fictitious martyrdom.


    Origen of Alexandria (AD c.185-254). Origen was a biblical critic, teacher and writer. Most of his works have been "lost". Of those that are extant most are known only in translation. He was accused of holding beliefs that would later be regarded as heretical ("Adoptionist"). He held that Jesus Christ was divine, but only in a lesser sense than the Father13. He said that Christian worship should be directed solely to the Father and not to Christ, a view that was later to become heretical, as were a number of his other teachings. He also held that all beings will eventually be saved, even Satan himself, a view that was heretical for many centuries but is now fashionable again. Like some of his contemporaries he voluntarily castrated himself to remove a sinful source of temptation. He insisted on observing Jesus" instructions, such as the ones about not carrying an extra coat and not wearing shoes (Matthew 10:10). During his lifetime he was deposed from the priesthood and deprived of his teaching post by the Bishop of Alexandria. He was also condemned by the Bishop of Rome and by a synod of Egyptian bishops. St Jerome held that he had deliberately tried to mislead the orthodox into heresy. Views attributed to him were condemned by further bishops, emperors and councils. To clear up any remnant of doubt, Origen's teachings were condemned by the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 553.

    Origen emasculating himself,
    Roman de la Rose, France 15th century, Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 195, fol. 122v.


    Eusebius of Caesarea c.260-c.340). Eusebius is regarded as the Father of Church history. He was a supporter of the Libyan preacher Arius (c.256-336) and his heresy that Jesus Christ was not coequal with the Father, until he was pressured to subscribe to the new official line at the first great Council of the Church. He said that Jesus shared the glory of God, but only in the sense that the saints shared the same glory14. Like St Justin Martyr he thought of the Holy Spirit as being lower than either the Father or the Son, describing it as "in the third rank", "a third power", and "third from the Supreme Cause"15. He was accused of adultery, among other things, on the evidence of a prostitute, and was replaced as leader of the moderate party. His history contains statements that still smack of the Arian heresy16.


    St John Chrysostom (c.347-407). John was an anti-Semite who interpreted the Bible literally and historically rather than allegorically, Chrysostom he provided moral and financial support to Christian monks (who were enforcing the Christian emperors' anti-Pagan laws) by destroying temples and shrines in Phoenicia and nearby regions. In his homilies he thundered against popular amusements such as theatre and horse races, setting the tone for many centuries of repression of non-Christian enjoyments. He shared some of the heretical views of Origen.

    According to Christian tradition when John Chrysostom was a hermit in the desert, he was approached by a princess in distress. The great Saint, imagining she was a demon, refused to help, but she convinced him that she was a Christian and would be devoured by wild beasts if she were not allowed to take refuge in his cave. He let her in and had sex with her. In an attempt to hide his sin, the great saint took the princess outside and threw her over a precipice. He then went off to beg absolution, which was refused. Chrysostom then made a vow that he would never rise from the ground until his sins were expiated. For years he lived like a beast, crawling on all fours, feeding on wild grass and roots. Miraculously, the princess reappeared, alive, and suckling the saint's baby, who pronounced his father's sins forgiven. The scene was popular a subject for Christian engravers and artists, including Albrecht Dürer, Hans Sebald Beham and Lucas Cranach the Elder. Whatever the truth of this story, Chrysostom was deposed from his post of Patriarch of Constantinople by the synod of the Oak in 403, and condemned and banished with the consent of the emperor, then the head of the Church. He was recalled but then banished again and died in exile, a heretic. He was later rehabilitated and is now considered a saint.


    St Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Augustine was brought up as a Christian, but took a mistress and abandoned his religion. He considered the Old Testament to be a collection of old wives" fables, though he himself was unusually gullible, even by standards of the day17. In 374 he converted to a rival religion, Manichæism, and managed to convert some friends as well. But he never managed to graduate as one of the elect. Some nine years after his conversion he became a neoplatonist and then converted back to Christianity, in response to an oracle. He introduced new doctrines into the Church, drawn largely from his Manichæan phase. His views about the evils of sex seem to be due partly to guilt about his mistresses18, and partly to his Manichæan training, a fact recognised by at least one of his contemporaries. His views on contraception are not consistent with those of the Roman Church19. He was frankly predestinarian (believing people are powerless to change their destiny). He also mentioned the death of the Virgin Mary, not remarkable at the time, but now contrary to Roman dogma. He was also open to charges of a heresy called Sabellianism or Modal Monarchianism. His consecration as coadjutor bishop in 395 was illegal, contravening the eighth canon of Nicæa. He is known as the Father of the Inquisition, and his writings were used to justify a range of Christian teachings including the treatment of heretics and the acceptability of Christian slavery.


    St Jerome (c.342-420.) Jerome was a scholar with a reputation for being offensive to his fellow scholars. He was responsible for creating the version of the Bible called the Vulgate. He surrounded himself by wealthy women in Rome and was involved in a series of scandals there. He left Rome in disgrace, after one of his female acolytes died from the severity of her bodily mortification. He settled in Bethlehem, along with selected women followers.

    Other important early theologians, now dismissed as heretics, are nevertheless cited when they agree with the currently acceptable line, especially when they provide the only support for the point in question. Among them are Helvidius (who held that Jesus had brothers) ; Jovinian (d. c.405), a monk who was excommunicated for criticising fasting and celibacy, and for suggesting that Mary lost her virginity in giving birth ; and Vigilantius (fl. c.400), who deprecated popular devotions, such as vigils and the cultus of the saints, as pagan practices.


    It would be fair to say that the most significant thing that the Church Fathers establish is that much Christian doctrine was developed in the fourth century, or afterwards.



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    *. Neither "Hell is paved with the skulls of priests" nor the fuller "The road to Hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lamp posts that light the path" is found in the extant writings of Chrysostom. Variations have been cited since the Middle Ages by inter alia Alphonsus Ligouri, John Eudes, Teresa of Avila, Dante and John Wesley. A similar idea is attributed to St. Athanasius: “The floor of hell is paved with the skulls of bishops”, again, undocumented.

    .1. For the views of various Church Fathers see Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pp 216-7.

    2. Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin, p 286.

    3. See for example Evans, Is Holy Scripture Christian?, p 11.

    4. For example, probably not one in a thousand adherents of the Western Church could even name all Three Great Hierarchs of the Eastern Churches — Gregory of Nazianus, Basil the Great and John Chrysostom.

    5. Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, 8.

    6. Clement's First Epistle may be found in Andrew Louth (ed.), Maxwell Staniforth (trans.) Early Christian Writings, p 110. His second epistle is no longer believed to be his at all.

    7. St Justin Martyr, Apol. 13:3.

    8. For examples of Irenaeus of Lyons's credulity, see Eusebius, The History of the Church, 5:8.

    9. One line of manuscript evidence omits the final chapters of the fifth book of Irenaeus of Lyons's Adversus Omnes Haereses, where he attacks a position now considered more orthodox than his.

    10. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Omnes Haereses,V, i,1.

    11. St. Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, 3.49.3, 6.71.

    12. Chadwick, The Early Church, p 96.

    13. Origen held that the Father transcended the Son by at least as much as the Son transcended mankind. Commentary on the Gospel of John 13, 25, 151, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 15, 10.

    14. Eusebius, De eccl. Theol ( On the Theology of the Church) 3.19, discussing John 10:30. For Eusebius's beliefs see Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p 225-6.

    15. Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica (Preparation for the Gospel), 11.20.

    16. The statement that ".... on both sides of the Father's supreme power he supplies the secondary beams of light of Christ, and the Holy Spirit" places one person of the Trinity above the other two, and is thus heretical. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 10:4.

    17. In his City of God St Augustine refers to a fountain at Epirus that lights quenched torches and mares in Cappadocia that are impregnated by the wind. He claims to have verified the fact that the antiseptic nature of peacock flesh prevents it from rotting like other flesh.

    18. Riddled by guilt over an abandoned mistress and with their son still with him, St Augustine procured another mistress to keep himself occupied while he waited two years for a prospective bride to reach marriageable age. Augustine, Confessions, 6.15.

    19. The rhythm method of contraception was sanctioned by a Synod of Roman Catholic bishops in Rome in 1980 but had been condemned by St Augustine in De Moribus Manichæorum, 18. 65.




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