As I shared last week, the desert fathers and mothers focused more on the how than the what. Their spirituality was very practical: virtue and prayer-based. Now we turn to its parallel, the Patristic Period, which emphasized the what—the rational, philosophical, and theological foundations for the young Christian religion. This period stretches from around 100 CE (the end of the Apostolic Age) to either 451 CE (with the Council of Chalcedon) or as late as the eighth century (Second Council of Nicaea in 787 CE).
The word patristic comes from the Latin and Greek pater, father. The fathers of the early Church were primarily “Eastern” in that they lived in the Middle East and Asia, which are East relative to Europe. We must admit that because women were often not allowed education or formal authority in this patriarchal period of history and religion, the majority of documented leadership is by men. (I am sorry to say, much of today’s Church and culture is still not congruent with Jesus’ and Paul’s attitudes toward women, who were both far ahead of their cultural stage and training.)
Alexandria in Egyptian Africa was a primary center for learning and culture across many fields—philosophy, art, medicine, literature, and science—during the Hellenistic and Roman periods (310 BCE–330 CE). The library in Alexandria was probably the largest in the ancient world. Greek, Eastern, Jewish, and Christian thought intersected in this environment, bringing together diverse perspectives and many saints and scholars.
One of the key teachers of the Alexandrian school, Origen (184–254), is considered by some to be the first Christian theologian. Many of his ideas, particularly apocatastasis (“universal restoration”), were largely misunderstood and thus declared heretical in the sixth century. The Alexandrian interactive/dynamic/mystical understanding of Jesus’ human and divine natures (developed by Athanasius, Cyril, and Bishop Dioscorus) became dominant for a while but was later rejected at the Council of Chalcedon, which insisted that Jesus had two very distinct natures. These then became hard to reconnect on any practical level—in Jesus and in us!
Building on the work of the Alexandrian school, the Cappadocian Fathers (in what is now Turkey) further advanced early Christian theology with their doctrine on the Trinity. The three theologian saints Basil the Great (330–379), his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (c. 332–395), and Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389) sought to give Christianity a solid scholarly status, on par with Greek philosophy of the time. They developed an intellectual rationale for Christianity’s central goal: humanity’s healing and loving union with God.
We’ll explore these early Eastern theologians’ views on Christ, Trinity, theosis, universal salvation, and hesychasm (prayer of rest) throughout this week’s meditations.
I recommend Amos Smith’s study of the Alexandrian mystics, Healing the Divide: Recovering Christianity’s Mystic Roots (Resource Publications: 2013), for which I wrote the Afterword.
For a simple chronology outlining the key figures and events of the Early Christian Church and Patristic Period, click here.