The Catholic Church: The Church of the Early Fathers

Jim Anderson
January 19, 2018 7 Comments

Both Catholics and most Protestants confess the same Apostles and Nicene creeds.  The Apostles Creed (c. AD 360) states concerning the Church: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints . . .”  The Nicene Creed (AD 325 & 381) declares: “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”  Even though Protestants and Catholics confess the same creeds, their interpretation of these passages is dramatically different.  Many Protestants would say that the Catholic Church is an invisible union of all believers in Jesus Christ throughout entire the world and through all time, in other words, the Kingdom of God.  Many Protestants say, “I am catholic with a small ‘c’.”  The Catholic understanding would be that though the Kingdom of God encompasses all believers, the Catholic Church is the faithful body of believers on earth in communion with the apostolic authority established by Jesus Christ in union with the successor of Peter the chief of the apostles.

How are we in the 21st century to know the original and true meaning of the term “Catholic Church?”  The best way is to discover how the teachers of the early Church used the word during the time in which the ancient creeds were written.  In that way we will be able to better understand whether to interpret the creeds as meaning the “invisible Church of all believers” or “the divinely established and authoritative institutional Church established by Christ through his apostles.”

Let’s look at some of these examples:

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrneans 8:2, AD 107.

Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop.  Let that be considered a valid Eucharist, which is celebrated by the bishop or by one whom he ordains [i.e., a presbyter].  Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there, just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.

St. Polycarp, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 8:1, & 16:2, AD 156.

When at last he had finished his prayer, in which he remembered all who had met with him ant any time, both small and great, both those with and those without renown, and the whole Catholic Church throughout the world. . .

And certainly the most admirable Polycarp was one of these [elect], in whose times among us he showed himself an apostolic and prophetic teacher and bishop of the Catholic Church in Smyrna.

Tertullian, Demurrer Against the Heretics, 20, AD 200.

Where was [the heretic] Marcian, that shipmaster of Pontus, the zealous student of Stoicism? Where was Valentinus, the disciple of Platonism?  For it is evident that those men lived not so long ago – in the reign of Antoninus [AD 138-161] for the most part – and that they at first were believers in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, in the church of Rome under the episcopate of the blessed Eleutherus [AD 175-189], until on account of their ever restless curiosity, with which they even infected the brethren, they were more than once expelled. . . . Afterward . . . Marcian professed repentance and agreed to the conditions granted to him – that he should receive reconciliation if he restored to the Church all the others whom he had been training for perdition; he was prevented, however, by death.

Clement of Alexandria, Stromaties 7:17:107:3, aft. AD 202.

From what has been said, then, it seems clear to me that the true Church, that which is really ancient, is one; and in it are enrolled those who, in accord with a design, are just.  . . . We say, therefore, that in substance, in concept, in origin and in eminence, the ancient and Catholic Church is alone, gathering as it does into the unity of the one faith which results from the familiar covenants, – or rather, from the one covenant in different times, by the will of the one God and through the one Lord, – those already chosen, those predestined by God who knew before the foundation of the world that they would be just.

St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letter of Cyprian to All His People 43 (40), 5, AD 251.

They who have not peace themselves now offer peace to others.  They who have withdrawn from the Church promise to lead back and to recall the lapsed to the Church.  There is one God and one Christ, and one Church, and one Chair founded on Peter by the word of the Lord.  It is not possible to set up another altar or for there to be another priesthood besides that one altar and that one priesthood.  Whoever has gathered elsewhere is scattering.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 18:23, AD 350.

[The Church] is called Catholic, then, because it extends over the whole world, from end to end of the earth, and because it teaches universally and infallibly each and every doctrine which must come to the knowledge of men, concerning things visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly, and because it brings every race of men into subjection to godliness . . .

St. Augustine, The True Religion 7:12, AD 390.

We must hold to the Christian religion and to communication in her Church, which is Catholic and which is called Catholic not only by her own members but even by all her enemies.  When heretics or the adherents of schisms talk about her, not among themselves but with strangers, willy-nilly they call her nothing else but Catholic.  They will not be understood unless they distinguish her by this name, which the whole world employs in her regard.

St. Augustine, Against the Letter of Mani Called ‘The Foundation’ 5:6, AD 397.

If you should find someone who does not yet believe in the gospel what would you [Mani] answer him when he says, “I do not believe”?  Indeed, I would not believe the gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so.

Vincent of Lerins, Notebooks 3:5, AD 434.

What then will a Catholic Christian do if a small portion of the Church has cut itself off from the communion of the universal faith?  What, surely, but prefer the soundness of the whole body to the unsoundness of a pestilent and corrupt member?

A careful reading of these witnesses from early Christian history shows us that the Church affirmed by the Fathers, articulated in the Creeds, and adhered to by those who called themselves Christians from the earliest days of Christianity, was indeed the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.  These early Christian testimonies give us a picture of a visible Church, with apostolic authority, unity in belief and mission, and with Christ as its foundation and head.  They show us that the Church was, from its very beginnings, understood as a visible reality, and Catholic both in the small ‘c’ and large ‘C’ senses of the word.

Jim Anderson

Jim Anderson is Manager of Clergy and Ministerial Members for The Coming Home Network.

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  • Evangelicus Catholicus

    In those early years of the church era, one was a docetist, a gnostic, a montanist, a manichaen, an arianist, or a Catholic. These people in the other cults would not in the least call themselves “catholic” or part of the same invisible church as the Catholics. A catholic was one who held to doctrines of the apostolic church as was carried by the orthodox tradition of the holy fathers. A docetist or arian was not a catholic and never considered himself such. As a protestant, i get a little uneasy reading the works of Athanasius or Ignatius. You get the impression one is either in or out, there was no universal ground to stand on. Am I as a Lutheran the same in Athanasius’ or Ignatius eyes as an arian?

    • Jeffrey Job

      There is only objective Truth which we as believers are morally obligated to seek out. We must then obey the Truth. A Lutheran believes in the divinity of Jesus and also the Trinity so much closer to Truth than an Arian such as a Jehovah’s Witness. However, refer back to my first statement.

      I’m not sure an Arian wouldn’t consider himself Catholic since most of the world’s Bishops fell for the heresy. There were Arians who would not consider themselves Catholics also.

      • Evangelicus Catholicus

        Then being outside the bond becomes relative. An Arian today would be a Jehovah Witness or a Unitarian-Universalist. As a Lutheran I do not in the least consider myself in league with them, but how relative can we be? Paul despised divisions in the church (1 Cor.1), Athanasius and Ignatius abhor any separation from the Catholic Church of their day, Today, Protestant theologians say if Paul was around today his intent by saying “divisions” would not include the divisions between the major orthodox catholic faiths of Christianity. So Paul is not pointing the finger at the major denominations today. What??? I have a hard time with that. I think as Paul looks down from heaven, if he still had any sinful human nature left (which he does not – enwrapped in God’s eternal bliss), there would be regret and anger. And Paul intercedes before the Throne daily (if daily is the right word to use) for the divisions in the church — starting with 1054 to today. [Actually a cursory reading of early church history shows us there were many councilor divisions and disagreements before 1054. ] The question is are we praying in earnest for the unity of the church daily. Maybe if all Christians were praying for unity, Satan would not have such freedom to perturb sinful Christians to divide. Things would be different.

        • Jeffrey Job

          Not relative but subjective. Let me explain myself. Relatively as I understand it is “my truth” and “your truth “ which isn’t truth at all. It’s just my preference and your preference. Subjective vs objective: it is objectively wrong to punch someone in the face. That is, the act itself is inherently wrong. Subjective would be how culpable is a person who does this? An alzheimers patient thinks you’re attacking him so he punches you. Objectively wrong. Subjectively no because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s what I was getting at with parsing differing divisions in the Church. It is objectively wrong to be separated from the Church and her authority. Subjective culpability is different for each person. The catechism says that if someone knows this is the Church founded by Jesus but refuses either to enter it or remain in it CANNOT be saved. But not everyone knows this so not everyone is equally guilty. One big caveat: we are obligated to seek truth and obey it when we find it.Fulton Sheen said we will either live as we believe or we will believe as we live.
          Another way to say that: we either raise our moral behavior up to our beliefs through repentance or we will lower our beliefs down to our behavior. Many if not most choose the latter option. This is something I think a lot of well meaning people don’t realize. They want you to recommend a book for their loved one to read, see the light and fall on their knees praying the act of contrition. I marvel all the time how in discussions I have how many are impervious to truth. The problem usually isn’t in the intellect it’s in the will. If such and such is true then I have to change. Therefore I must deny truth so I can deny my personal guilt and need to change.

    • Rich A.

      My dear brother in Christ, while you are right to say that there were other groups promoting there particular version of what they believed and not all at the same time in many cases, The church fathers do show a consistency in thought and practice that is not seen in these other groups through time. The point of showing what these fathers wrote is to point out a consistency of teachings that goes on to today. I can understand your uneasiness as a protestant in reading these Fathers and the history behind it but I commend you for reading them. I have been a Catholic all my life and I can tell you that I stand beside my brothers and sister in faith with Christ within all dimensions but I also would welcome you in the pew beside me.

  • Jckie Burnie

    No simple answer to this…I know that many Anglicans refer to themselves as Anglo Catholics, Likewise, in the Reformed Church, I was taught he Apostles Creed at a very early age, and always took a certain comfort in the words : “Holy Catholic Church.”
    I consider myself, today, to be a Reformed ( small c ) catholic, part of the larger mystical body, by virtue of original family affiliation… but I do get the difference, and I Know that I will not be in the fullness of the Holy Catholic Church on earth until I ‘come home.’ That is just my experience.