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The Church Fathers and a Christian's Response

From Justin Martyr, Athanasius the Great, and John Chrysostom, we learn lessons on inexhaustibly defending our faith in public.

Christians have something to say about political leadership and decision-making, economic policy and the market, social responsibility and human dignity. And we have something to learn, too, from what our predecessors said.

Christ does not call the Christian to be safe and comfortable. In engaging public life, we must aim to see ourselves in government and not to view government as some secular behemoth, an anti-Christian Leviathan that is foreign to us. To affect change from the political centres of society, we need to project the truth of the Gospel with confidence and clarity—and to that end, allow me to sketch three giants from our history, on the shoulders of whom we stand today in our public witness.

These three Church Fathers embodied in their public lives the perseverance needed to stand for the truth under fierce persecution. Each offers us an example of boldly confessing the faith, placing it at the centre of public life. Each was born into the educated and political elite of society, destined for leadership roles. And each actively engaged the public sphere, always proclaiming Christian truth and changing lives.


Justin Martyr: "One of the Finest Defenses of Christian Truth"

Justin Martyr was born into a wealthy, Greek-speaking, Roman, pagan family in the province of Syria Palestina in the early 2nd century, sometime between 103 and 110 A.D. His family lived in the new Roman settlement of Flavia Neapolis, which lay in the shadow of Mount Gerazim of the Samaritans. After a circuitous journey through various philosophical schools, including the Pythagoreans and the Platonists, in 135 A.D. he was converted to Christianity through his reading of the Gospels. Moving to Rome, he emerged as a prominent teacher of philosophy and continued to teach there until his martyrdom in 165 A.D.

In that era of Christian persecution, Justin Martyr stands out as the pre-eminent Christian apologist; he explained Christian truth through his highly effective apologetic writings. His First Apologia was a clear example of civic participation, of engaging the public sphere: a petition by a Roman citizen to Emperor Antoninus Pius to end the persecution of Christians. What begins as a petition develops into one of the finest defenses of Christian truth, presented before a political society that misunderstood this new faith, viewed it as a threat to public order, and responded with varying degrees of persecution. In his apology, Justin consistently expounds on the pre-eminence of truth and its public proclamation:

Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions, if these be worthless. For not only does sound reason direct us to refuse the guidance of those who did or taught anything wrong, but it is incumbent on the lover of truth, by all means, and if death be threatened, even before his own life, to choose to do and say what is right.

Justin confidently speaks to the lawful authority in such a way as to profess the truth and to emphasize that this truth has its place in the public sphere and should not be subject to persecution: "And if these things seem to you to be reasonable and true, honour them; but if they seem nonsensical, despise them as nonsense, and do not decree death against those who have done no wrong, as you would against enemies."

Justin is an example not only of a Christian who was able to boldly and courageously articulate the truth, but of one who recognized the need for the public sphere to be enriched by the Christian message. In seeking recognition of Christians as "excellent," he issues a plea for Christians to have their place in public discourse. Extending his argument, we can say that Christians must claim this place within the public sphere and to use it to confidently profess truth—and do so in love.

This place in the public sphere is not to be claimed to the exclusion of others, either members of other faiths or particular philosophical persuasions; it is a place where we are compelled to confess our faith and relate that faith to the challenges that exist within our society.


Athanasius the Great: Challenging Indifferent Relativism

Athanasius the Great was Bishop of Alexandria in the first half of the 4th century. Born in Alexandria in 296 A.D., he began his public life early when, as a roughly thirty-year-old deacon, he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. as assistant to his predecessor as bishop, Alexander. In this era of the Arian heresy, Athanasius emerged as the great defender of Christian, Nicene orthodoxy through his preaching and through his writing of such seminal works as On the Incarnation, Against the Heathen, and the Life of Antony. At that point, when much of the Church had embraced Arianism, Athanasius stood tall as a confessor of the true faith: Athanasius contra mundum (Athanasius against the world) as the now-proverbial phrase has it. His great work, On the Incarnation, is not high-theology, philosophical, or speculative in its content; it is the fullness of the catholic, orthodox faith that the Church had received from the apostles.

Between the time when he wrote this text in 318 A.D. and his death as Patriarch of Alexandria and leader of the Church in Egypt, Athanasius was repeatedly defamed, persecuted, and exiled five times from his see at the behest of Arians, such as Eusebius of Nicomedia, and pagan sympathizers who influenced others, such as the emperors Constantius, Julian the Apostate, and Valens, to act against him. As bishop, Athanasius was a very public figure and was feared by those opposed to him, yet despite exile and intermittent persecution, he remained engaged in public life, whether in Rome or in the monastic communities outside of Alexandria, continuing to confess the truth. He never chose to soften his position or to put aside his faith when politically expedient, or to seek to appease those in the majority who held another view that ran counter to the truth.

Athanasius is a model defender of the faith. While he lived during a period of persecution—first Roman, then Arian, then pagan—the place he occupied within the public sphere pertains to our present day. We are mercifully free from persecution in much of the Western hemisphere, but we are still called upon to challenge the prevailing indifferent relativism that defines our public discourse.


John Chrysostom: Golden-Mouthed

The great 4th century ecumenical teacher and Bishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom (literally "the Golden-mouthed") stands out among the Fathers of the Church by his example of pastoral leadership, his oratorical and homiletic achievements, and in his work as one of the finest scriptural exegetes in the history of the Church. (The well-merited epithet "Chrysostom" was given to John posthumously; it is not a term that many of his critics would likely have chosen.)

Born in the region of Antioch, the city where he began his ordained ministry, John was secreted away to Constantinople against his will and installed as bishop there in February, 398 A.D. Upon arrival in the imperial capital, John immediately initiated clerical reforms to fight the laxity that had crept into the lives of the local clergy. Guided by his own strict asceticism, John preached with unmatched rhetoric against the decadence of the capital and quickly made enemies among the imperial elite for his sermons against ostentatious wealth and private property, which he asserted only existed as a result of the fall of Adam. This theme is picked up in numerous homilies, including in his tenth homily on 1 Thessalonians, in which John admonishes his congregation over their obsession with gold and silver:

How long shall we love riches? For I shall not cease exclaiming against them: for they are the cause of everything. How long do we not get our fill of this insatiable desire? What is the good of gold? I am astonished at the thing! There is some enchantment in the business, that gold and silver should be so highly valued among us. For our own souls indeed we have no regard, but those lifeless images engross much attention. Whence is it that this disease has invaded the world? Who shall be able to effect its destruction? What reason can cut off this evil beast, and destroy it with utter destruction?

John did not stop at that point, but rose in full rhetorical flight to even greater criticism of perceived self-interest. In doing so, he went right to the heart of the challenge of what is truth.

Twice exiled as a result of his preaching, John's sermons were bold and courageous, and perhaps at times indiscreet, but he sought to proclaim Christian truth in the face of a populace overcome by materialism and indifference to Christian virtue. His preaching against unfaithful husbands and excessive feminine luxuries frequently got him into trouble. His famous sermon preached in 399 A.D. on the occasion of the disgraced eunuch-consul Eutropius seeking sanctuary in Hagia Sophia was a strident critique of those who would limit the Church's role in the public sphere—this case, its provision of sanctuary.

John Chrysostom is thus a role model of a Christian living in the centre of the political world, who proclaimed truth boldly and courageously with a clear call for a transformation of society into one that exemplified charity and mercy. These universal virtues are frequently lacking today or they are cast in a secular light shorn of their deeper meaning that is drawn from the truth of the incarnation: that all of us bear the imago Dei, the image and likeness of God, and it behooves us to act truthfully toward one another and to change the world into one which is more human.


Further Reading:

Church Fathers: From Clement of Rome to Augustine by Pope Benedict XVI. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2008. This book is a very good introduction to the lives and works of the early Church Fathers. In it are a series of short reflections by Pope Benedict on fathers such as Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Ignatius of Antioch, Jerome, and John Chrysostom.

St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, with an introduction by C.S. Lewis. In the series Popular Patristics. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2012. This seminal work on the importance of the Incarnation in human history is one of the great works of the Patristic era. St. Athanasius beautifully and with great insight exegetes scripture and expands on early Christian tradition to reveal to us the full meaning of the Incarnation, its necessity in the history of Creation and how, through it, we are restored to our true nature in Christ.

John Chrysostom by Pauline Allen and Wendy Mayer, eds. In the series Early Christian Fathers. London: Routledge, 1999. This edited collection of a selection of homilies, letters and sermons by John Chrysostom offers the reader insights into the pastoral and rhetorical abilities of this great 4th century church father and Bishop of Constantinople. Included are such sermons and homiles as: On Eutropius, Against the Games and Theatres, and On His Return.

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