Doctors of the Church: Know Your Enemy

Jolly Old St. Nicholas…Smacking Arius!

Before I actually write about the Doctors of the Church, I think it’s important to realize what they were up against!

I can imagine that the faith journey of the Early Church might have been similar to many of us as we grew up. The experience I have of children learning their faith is that from Kindergarten through 2nd grade, they are content to just believe – “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!” as the song goes. But as children get older, they start to wonder “why?” and “how?” In the same way, we can probably imagine the excitement of the Early Church hearing this Good News preached by the apostles and witnesses to the Resurrection, but after the initial fervor, they want to know how all this is possible? How is Jesus both God and man? What’s the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.” And that’s exactly what happened! While many remained true to the faith, others wandered from the teaching of the apostles into heresy. Keep in mind, “heresy” isn’t a word used lightly, and it’s more than just making a mistake or having questions about the faith. Heretics are those who, when faced with authentic teaching, refuse to be corrected.

Certainly one of the greatest heresies in the history of the Church was Arianism, which takes its name from Arius, a priest from Alexandria born around 256. We don’t know much about him (none of his writings survived), but what we do know is that he was magnetic. He was tall and dignified, charming, and had an aura of intellectual superiority. He was also by all accounts a very good preacher, speaking intelligently with a melodious voice.

Arius and his followers taught that Christ was the greatest and first of God’s creatures…but he wasn’t God. To the Arians, the Son was created – there was a time when there was no second person of the Holy Trinity. Even in the Scriptures, when Jesus is called the “Son of God,” Arius would say that it is because he somehow participated in or was adopted by the Father, but was still of a lower status than the Father.

Now obviously, this is not what we believe. We understand, and have always taught, that the Son is God, one in being (consubstantial) and co-eternal with the Father, meaning that he’s God, and always has been. But lots of people bought into Arius and his teaching, and saw it as a little easier to grasp. That included Emperors, bishops, priests, and even a majority of the Church at one point. As St. Jerome wrote, “The whole world woke up one morning, lamenting and marveling to find itself Arian.”

But truth isn’t decided by a majority vote, and the Holy Spirit continued to guide the Church, even in those difficult times. In a sense, heresy is medicinal to the Church, in that it forces us to look seriously at what we believe and how we articulate it. And as we’ll see, articulating the Church’s teaching is the forte of our Doctors!

Doctors of the Church: Introduction

Doctors of the ChurchI had a few lists of saints I was considering for this next series, including some great obscure saints (and you know of my love for obscure saints…), but I settled on the Doctors of the Church. When I was younger, I used to think that as “Doctors,” they were the ones people went to for some kind of healing – you know, like St. Luke! He was a physician, right? That’s how we use the word “doctor” today, at least since the 1700’s. But the word actually comes from the Latin word docere, meaning “to teach.”

With the rise of the medieval university system, “doctors” were those considered to be experts in their fields. That’s still very true today: the Doctoral degree is the highest degree of learning, above the Masters and Bachelors degrees. So when we speak of the Doctors of the Church, what we’re really talking about are those who are the greatest teachers of the faith – those who teach us about God and about ourselves in relationship to God through their writings and homilies.

Cardinal Francis George, the former cardinal archbishop of Chicago, wrote that there were four questions the Doctors of the Church strove to answer. The first is “Who is Jesus Christ?”, the question asked in the earliest days of the Church, and notably answered by Sts. Augustine, Basil, Ambrose, and Jerome.

The second is “How do we know Christ?” Great Doctors such as Sts. Augustine and Gregory the Great tried to throw philosophy and reason into the equation to better know Jesus.

The third question is “How do we act as Christ’s disciples?” Once we come to some level of understanding of the first two questions, we begin to wonder about ourselves. Our faith is a relationship, after all, and it takes two to tango, right? Saints like St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the questions “Who are we?” and “How has God created us?”

Lastly, the fourth question is “How are we in Christ?” Here, we are trying to bring together what we know of God and what we know of ourselves to see what our relationship with God should be like and what prayer should look like. Saints who addressed this question were great spiritual masters like Sts. John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Teresa of Ávila, and Thérèse of Lisieux.

Originally, there were only eight Doctors: four in the West (Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Jerome), and four in the East (Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nanzianzen, and John Chrysostom). But as time passed, it became apparent that some saints deserved to find a place among this ancient rank, and now the pope makes a formal declaration to add saints to the list of Doctors. This has happened as recently as 2015 with Pope Francis!

My goal over the next few weeks (and weeks, and weeks) will be to write a little about the Doctors themselves – their stories, their lives, and their contributions – but also a little about the times they lived in, and the challenges they faced. As Cardinal George wrote, “The mission of the Church in every age is to introduce the world to Christ, its savior. The Church cannot accomplish her mission without learned men and women who are saints of God. These are the Doctors of the Church.”

The Most Holy Trinity: A Homily and a Few Resources



Trinity by Andrei Rublev

Above is my homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity!  This was a doctrine that faced a lot of resistance from a varieties of heresies in the Early Church, but was ultimately solidified by several ecumenical councils.  Below, you will find a little diagram I created to point out some common Trinitarian heresies and the erroneous understandings of God that are behind them.

Heresy Description Other Notes
Modalism (Sabellianism) Taught that the three persons of the Trinity as different forms or “modes” of the Godhead. Adherants believed that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not distinct personalities, but different modes of God’s self-revelation. A typical modalist approach is to regard God as the Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Spirit in sanctification. Condemned by Tertullian in Adversus Praxeam as well as in the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople I and Constantinople II.
Arianism Taught that Christ was the first and greatest of God’s creatures but denied his fully divine status. Taught that Christ was created, and thus a status lower than the Father. Macedonianism was essentially the same teaching about the Holy Spirit. Truly one of the greatest struggles of the Early Church. Condemned by the First Council of Nicaea in 325, yielding the Nicaean Creed. Macedonianism was condemned at the First Council of Constantinople.
Partialism Taught that Father, Son and Holy Spirit together are components of the one God. This led them to believe that each of the persons of the Trinity is only part God, only becoming fully God when they come together. I couldn’t find a specific council, but trust me, it’s condemned!
Tritheism Taught that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three independent divine beings; three separate gods who share the ‘same substance’. This is a common mistake because of misunderstanding of the use of the term ‘persons’ in defining the Trinity.  
Docetism Taught that Jesus Christ was a purely divine being who only had the “appearance” of being human. Regarding his suffering, some versions taught that Jesus’ divinity abandoned or left him upon the cross while other claimed that he only appeared to suffer (much like he only appeared to be human) Condemned at many of the first ecumenical councils.
Adoptionism Taught that Jesus was born totally human and only later was “adopted” – either at his baptism or at his resurrection – by God in a special way. The founder (Theodotus of Byzantium) was excommunicated by Pope Victor I and the heresy was condemned at the Synod of Antioch in 268.
Nestorianism Taught that Jesus Christ was a conjuction between the flesh and the Word, a human person joined with a divine person. Condemned at the First Council of Ephesus in 431 and again at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

So where does that leave us?  There’s a lot here about what we don’t believe.  What about what we do believe as Catholic Christians?  Here’s the text of the Athanasian Creed, written by the great St. Athanasius and presented to Pope Julius I as he was returning from exile.

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.

Did you get all that?  Not to worry, because we also have the “Shield of Athanasius” or the “Shield of the Trinity” to explain at least the first paragraph of the creed written above.  It’s simple, but incredibly important, and worth memorizing!


St. Therese as a Model of Christian Humility


On Saturday, October 3, I was privileged to give a conference for the Women’s Day of Recollection here at Ascension Parish in Chesterfield, Missouri.  Having just celebrated the Memorial of St. Therese of Lisieux on October 1st, I chose to speak on “St. Therese as a Model of Christian Humility.”  The conference is nowhere near a full treatment of this Disciple of Humility, nor on the virtue itself, but simply some reflections to consider.  Enjoy!