Category Archives: Our Christian Heritage

Father Fancies (2): The “Mystique” of Fathers

Having set the stage by talking about the very real *need* for Fathers in the Faith, let me now start to outline why Rome’s view of fathers in general, and the Fathers in particular, is at best only a half-truth, and so is unable to actually fill that void you may be feeling as someone not currently “connected” in any significant way to the deep and wide patrimony of our Faith.

In the sense that we’re dealing with here, fatherhood has a certain “mystique” hovering around it. There’s no doubt that we live in a time when fatherhood has fallen on hard times. Broken families are the norm for far too many children growing up, and they carry the burdens of the emotional and intellectual and relational damage from their earthly fathers’ failures for the rest of their lives. Yet still, something within craves a proper father figure, one who (mostly) always says the right things, (mostly) always does the right things, and (entirely) always keeps the “child” safe from all the monsters he never learned how to fight by way of a proper earthly father’s example.

How much more, for those who come from whole families, with good, strong fathers, must the example of such a figure weigh on the consciousness! If those from broken families find themselves as adults desperately wanting something they were, in essence, owed by their failures-of-fathers, how much more must those who had excellent dads admire and desire more of the same even once they are no longer children?

This mystique surrounding fathers is powerful, and I think it is a design-feature of the world, made as it was by the Heavenly Father who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16) and so naturally draws our minds and hearts upward to Him.

And so, what is true in the earthly realm turns out also to be true in the spiritual realm. Because we human beings are composites of bodies and souls, the mystique of biological fathers easily maps onto spiritual fathers, creating a built-in attraction to, and in no small way, deference to, those who preceded us in the Faith and introduced us to it.

For many of us, this may only be people in the here-and-now: the good friend from work through whose testimony oneself came to Jesus; the kind, always-approachable family pastor who has been a fixture in our lives from earliest childhood; the foreign missionary who inspired us to take up our cross, too, and follow Him. Well and good.

On the other hand, when one begins to become aware of the very long, fantastic history of the Christian Faith for the last 2,000 years, it often becomes clear that the word father really does need to be given a vastly more rich connotation. One may have before simply glossed over 1 Cor. 4:15-16, in which Paul says, “Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me”, content with a bare “literal” reading of it. But such glossing may no longer seem sufficient in the light of such elementary facts as that the very existence of the Bible itself is due entirely to a lengthy historical train of Christians whose work in innumerable ways small and great led right up to one’s own conversion.

What of these “fathers”? Don’t they deserve the same admiration – and perhaps even submission – as fathers on a more mundane sort of level? Hebrews 11, the famed Scriptural “Hall of Faith,” quite interestingly weaves together stories of such “fathers” that are explicitly told within its own pages and stories of such “fathers” not explicitly told within its own pages (compare most of the chapter with verses 36-38: some mentioned there are not “biblical” heroes, yet they are commended to us for our example anyway). The more history one becomes aware of, the more one comes to realize that one has many, many more “fathers” than at first seemed obvious.

Thus does the natural, God-made, essentially healthy mystique of fathers provide, for many, a compelling rationale for expanding their spiritual horizons by digging into the history of the Church, particularly the several centuries of theological and practical writings produced by the broad class of post-Apostolic writers called “the Church Fathers.”

The question may quite easily and naturally arise that, if 1 Corinthians 10 deliberately recounts negative theological history for us with the admonition, “these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did,” might it just not be proper and God-pleasing for us to get to know the numerous positive examples in Christian history “as examples urging us to set our hearts on good, true, and noble things as they did”?

For both those who had awful earthly fathers and for those who had good ones, the deep and wide patrimony of our Faith can – and, I think, should – become an important way of drawing the heart further up and further in toward God, since, after all, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). The mystique of fathers leads easily and naturally to the Mystique of the Fathers, and it will be to that topic that I turn in the next segment.

Father Fancies (1): The Very Real *Need* for Fathers in the Faith

Let’s face it. One of your main reasons for thinking seriously about converting to Catholicism is the historical fact of the Church Fathers, especially how the things they say about religion are often so very different from what so many Protestants say.

There’s just something about fathers, isn’t there? Fathers can be good or they can be bad. Smart or not-so-smart. Strong or weak. Ambitious or indifferent. Worldly-wise or impractical. Godly or godless. And so on. Regardless, there really is just something about fathers that most people find difficult to downplay, let alone ignore. After all, it was fathers who brought us into the world, so don’t we owe them more than we could ever repay?

And if we owe our earthly fathers, how much more might we owe our spiritual Fathers in the Faith? If it came down to disagreement between us and them, shouldn’t we give them the benefit of the doubt and change ourselves to match? They were here first, after all, and so would have to have a lot more experience of truth than we do. How arrogant, right, for a child to presume to know more than his father!

After the last Apostle, John, died near the end of the 1st century, the still diaper-wearing Christian Church needed competent leaders to carry it forward. And indeed, we see in the New Testament. particularly from Paul’s writings, that the Apostles did work hard to raise up a new generation of godly, sober-minded pastors to take up their mantle when they were gone. Those of the immediately post-Apostolic generation of leaders whose work has come down to us in writing are often called “the Apostolic Fathers,” and includes such worthy names as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and the authors of the Didache and Shepherd of Hermas. Men such as these guided the Church well through the last part of the 1st century and just past the middle of the 2nd. They truly do deserve the appellation “Fathers,” since they generated some of the key ideas that have profoundly animated Christian thinkers ever since.

As you consider converting, leaving your current faith behind and embracing something radically different, it is quite likely that you’re bothered by the fact that most Protestants seem to know nothing about the early, post-Apostolic days of the Church, and probably mostly blow off the very idea of “Fathers in the Faith” as just one more “tradition of men that makes the Word of God of none effect.”

Such an attitude rightly seems flippant to you. Doesn’t Scripture tell us to Honor our fathers and mothers, that our days may be long upon the earth? Doesn’t Proverbs tell us to Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive that you may gain insight (4:1)? And also, Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old. (23:22)? Doesn’t Jesus say that only those who are like little children can enter the Kingdom of God (Mt. 19:14)?

Surely just as it is not only unwise, but also unbiblical, for Christians to treat their earthly fathers with disdain, to willfully refuse to heed their advice, it must be dangerous to fail to follow our spiritual Fathers! And since most Protestant groups have little to no knowledge of, let alone little to no care about, what the Fathers of the Church had to say about Christianity, that is reason enough to begin moving away from such places and towards a place where the Fathers are revered and heeded!

The argument seems airtight. That’s why you’ve likely sought for material from the Church Fathers and run across a wide array of sources excerpting their writings – perhaps even ones that conveniently arrange numerous sayings of theirs under headings that already tell you the meaning of the quotes before you even read them. From such sources you have likely been astonished to find out that so many of the early Christians (say, within the first 300 years or so after Christ) advocated episcopal government, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the primacy of the Bishop of Rome over other churches, baptismal regeneration, praying to departed Saints, the need for special teachers to explain the Bible so it won’t be misused to generate heresy, and so on.

How, you keep wondering, could so many who “had the teachings of the Apostles ringing in their ears,” have gotten so many important things so wrong that Martin Luther had to come along many centuries later and sweep the errors away so the plain and simple truth of the Bible could once again be seen by every ignorant plowboy? It seems so much more likely, doesn’t it, that Fathers got it right and the later children got it wrong. And how can you honor your Fathers by willfully remaining so very far away from the most basic, early form of Christianity practiced by them? The real wonder is that you haven’t already converted and are now here reading this little essay!

In the next part, I’ll start making the argument that your basic instinct to honor the Church Fathers is entirely correct, but that the way I’ve outlined the issues above is far too simplistic to be useful in making such a radical, life-altering move as converting to Roman Catholicism. For the major problem with how Rome views fathers in general, and the Fathers in particular, is that it’s at best only a half-truth, and so unable to actually fill that void you feel as someone not currently “connected” in any significant way to the deep and wide patrimony of our Faith.