Were the Early Church Fathers Really the First Catholics?
“It was the Church Fathers ... that convinced me to be a Catholic.”
British writer and theologian C.S. Lewis, in his autobiographical book Surprised by Joy, wrote, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” And he was right!
A Baptist Finds His Way to the Catholic Faith
Just ask former Baptist Steve Ray, whose journey to the Catholic Church was helped by careful study of the Early Church Fathers. “Surprise, surprise!” Steve wrote.
“We were not prepared for what we discovered. But first, why were we never encouraged to read the Fathers of the Church? We always stated, 'The Fathers are not inspired; the Bible is inspired and that's all we need.' But this new discovery was a real eye-opener. These first Christians lived, preached, worshiped and died before the New Testament was even in existence. They were authentic witnesses to the life, tradition and practice of the apostles themselves. They still have the apostolic voices ringing in their ears.
Steve and his wife Janet began a study of the Church Fathers in 1993. Despite their ingrained animosity toward Catholicism, they recognized that the Fathers were, in a word, “Catholic.” Steve, Janet and their whole immediate family were received into the Catholic Church on Pentecost Sunday, May 22, 1994 – and he has never looked back. The full version of Steve's conversion story can be found in his book Crossing the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historic Church (Ignatius Press, 1997). His website is CatholicConvert.com.
A Pentecostal Preacher Discovers Catholicism's Connection to Antiquity
The late Deacon Alex Jones was another Christian who found the words of the Early Church Fathers a compelling reason for conversion. Alex was a well-known Pentecostal preacher who had served for 25 years at two Detroit-area churches, Zion Congregational Church of Christ and Maranatha Christian Church, when he and his wife first began a study of the Church Fathers in March 1998. His goal at the time was to develop a worship service for his community which mirrored that of the earliest Christians. But as he studied, he came to see that early worship greatly resembled what he knew of the Catholic Mass, with its focus on Old and New Testament readings, a homily, consecration of the elements of bread and wine, and communion. The church of the ancient fathers, he discovered, was “charismatic/ liturgical, hierarchical, and Eucharistic-centered” – in short, Catholic. Alex and his wife Donna started a class on the Church Fathers and, he wrote,
“...began a two-year journey into the Catholic Church that culminated in 54 members of my previous congregation, including 14 members of my family, entering the Catholic Church.”
Alex Jones was received into the Church and eventually entered diaconal formation in the Archdiocese of Detroit, and was ordained in October 2005. Deacon Alex died of a heart attack in 2017, but he left behind a legacy of conversions. His story is told in Wisdom from Above, a DVD available through Vision Video.
Evangelical Protestant Crosses the Tiber After Reading the Church Fathers
Albert Little is a Catholic convert whose blog The Cordial Catholic follows the advice found in 1 Peter 3:15: Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope. Little described his transformation from an Evangelical Protestant to a committed Catholic after an evangelical pastor and friend asked him an important question: “Which is more important, the Bible or Tradition?”
Albert was stumped; and in his quest to answer that challenge, he began to read about Catholicism. He'd made a fatal mistake, he says, and would later learn that he had begun to “be fair” to the Catholic Church – a mistake which famous convert G.K. Chesterton calls “the first step toward conversion.” Little explained,
“If 'being fair' to the Church was the first step I took, then reading the Early Church Fathers, for me, must've ranked somewhere amongst the final ones.... It was after reading from these, the earliest Christian sources after the New Testament, that I found myself finally roundly convinced of the enduring truth of Catholic Church. It was the Church Fathers and, namely, one all-encompassing quotation, that convinced me to be a Catholic.”
The quote he cited was from St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who lived and wrote from about 35 to 107 A.D. Ignatius was, by all accounts, a disciple of St. John the apostle. He learned from one who learned directly from Christ. Ignatius warned against schism – against breaking away from the one true Church which Christ founded. Ignatius wrote,
Make no mistake, my brothers, if anyone joins a schismatic he will not inherit God’s Kingdom. If anyone walks in the way of heresy, he is out of sympathy with the Passion. Be careful, then, to observe a single Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and one cup of his blood that makes us one, and one altar, just as there is one bishop along with the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow slaves. In that way whatever you do is in line with God’s will.
St. Ignatius of Antioch was fundamentally convincing for Albert Little. “Here was a disciple of St. John,” Little explained,
“...speaking against setting out on one’s own, outside of the authority of the Church Christ founded. He speaks, likewise, about the importance of submitting to bishops and their appointed authority and how, remarkably, all of this centers back around the beauty of the Eucharist and Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice.”
Albert Little admits that as an Evangelical, even while a History major in university, he was wholly ignorant of the Church Fathers. His understanding of the early church was based on a very narrow reading of the Acts of the Apostles and select tidbits from the Epistles. He was ignorant of the concept of the successive, authoritative structure of the Church found roundly in Ignatius’s writings, as well as the clear language and belief about the Eucharist.
When Albert Little finally read the writings of the Early Church Fathers – when he explored what Church Fathers like Ignatius were actually writing about – he was convinced that Jesus established a Church, authoritative in nature, which will continue until the end of time. He was convinced, also, of the Catholic teaching of the Real Presence because there it is, as early as Ignatius of Antioch, and there it continues to be for the subsequent two thousand years.
He was convinced; and although he did explore alternatives in the Anglican and Orthodox churches, he found the teachings of the Early Church Fathers reflected most resoundingly, beautifully, like a mirror, in the Catholic Church.
A Convert's New Website Is a Topical Guide to the Church Fathers
Brandon Vogt is the youngest convert on this list; he became a Catholic in 2008, while still in college. Brandon is a talented young apologist: a bestselling author, blogger, and speaker, he works as Content Director for Bishop Robert Barron's Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, and he is the founder of ClaritasU, an online community for Catholics who want to get clear about their faith. He established the website Strange Notions, which he describes a “digital Areopagus” that opens a conversation with atheists. Brandon is author of seven books including Why I Am Catholic (And You Should Be Too) (Ave Maria Press, 2017) and RETURN: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church (Numinous Books, 2015).
I mention Brandon today because his latest project is a website called ChurchFathers.org. Brandon describes it as a “one-stop shop for Protestants, Catholics, or anyone wondering what the earliest Christians taught about different issues.” His goal was not to create a Catholic apologetics site, but to share source quotes from Church Fathers directly, without any commentary or spin, so the Fathers could speak for themselves and readers could draw their own conclusions. The site does not attempt to persuade; rather, it allows the reader to decide for himself which contemporary church most clearly reflects the church of biblical times. The site lists thorny issues for Protestants such as Mary and the Saints, Morality and Ethics, Sacraments, Salvation, Scripture and Tradition, and the Church and the Papacy. Under each section, it explains what the Church Fathers and earliest documents taught about that issue.
ChurchFathers.org is an easy-to-navigate resource that will help readers to understand the Church's timeless traditions in light of historical practices.