Church Fathers (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.3)

One of the biggest challenges that Christians faced early in the Middle Ages was the task of figuring out who Jesus was and what people should do about that. Even after Arius, there were differences in beliefs among Christians. Some, for example, believed that Jesus was only God and had not really become completely a human being. Others believed that he was two people, one human and one God. A group of leaders called the Church Fathers took up the challenge of answering questions about what Christians should believe and do.

Among the early Church Fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo is the most famous and one of the most important. Augustine was born in 354.  His mother, Monica, was a Christian, but because his father still worshipped the old Roman gods Augustine was not baptized as a baby nor raised as a Christian. Instead, he was able to choose what religion he wanted to be. As a result, he spent his early years moving between the various philosophies that were popular in his day, such as Neoplatonism, a religion built on Plato’s ideas, and Manicheism, a religion that believed there were two gods, one good and the other evil. Eventually, Augustine decided to become a Christian. After he was baptized, he moved back to his home in North Africa and became a bishop there. He spent the rest of his life writing important books about theology and defending orthodox Christian belief against the heretics, who believed different things from the official teachings of the Church.

Augustine was the first Christian to write in detail about beliefs that later became very popular among Christians. Augustine was among the first to write about Original Sin, for example. Original Sin is the belief that all human beings are guilty of the sin of Adam when he disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. Augustine died in 430.

The last of the major Christian heresies was iconoclasm, which means “image-smashing.” In the 8th century, there were Christians who began to believe that it was wrong to make paintings and statues of Jesus and other religious figures. They believed that because Jesus was God and God cannot be shown in a picture Jesus should not be shown in pictures. In response, another ecumenical council, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, was called by the Byzantine Empress Irene. Just as they had at the First Ecumenical Council under Constantine, the bishops of the Christian Church gathered together at Nicaea in 787. They decided that because Jesus had become a human being and pictures can be made of human beings Jesus too can be shown in pictures.

Later Christians looked to the Church Fathers as authorities on what Christians should believe. The religion the Church Fathers shaped became the religion of the Middle Ages. The beliefs and practices of most Christians today were formed by the Church Fathers.


Review Questions

 1. What is Original Sin?

2. What was the last major Christian heresy of the Middle Ages?

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