The Fathers of the Old Catholic Church and Their Problems

Key Points During this Time

  • Though diverse and often judged inadequate by later standards, the fathers from the late second and early third centuries sustained the faith and decisively shaped later Christian thought and practice
  • In response to heresy, Irenaeus articulated the premises on which the old catholic church developed
  • Tertullian was the first Latin theologian and had great influence on western Christianity
  • Alexandria was a key Hellenistic Christian center; its teachers Clement and Origen developed the foundations of philosophical Christianity
  • The church struggled to define the nature of the church’s holiness, wrestling with problems evident especially in the career of Hippolytus and in conflict regarding the status of the lapsed
  • Debates about liturgical practice (Quartodecimans), church discipline (laxist vs. rigorist) and theology (Monarchianism) animated much theological reflection during the period
  • Due to its leadership, size, location, and role in the controversies of the age, the church at Rome rose in prominence to become the chief church by about the end of the second century


In contrast to the apologists of the second century, who attempted to explain the faith to outsiders, the fathers of the old catholic church undertook the task of addressing insiders, using philosophy and rational argument, along with the Bible and the Christian tradition they had inherited. These early formulators of Christian theology combatted heresy, yet some of them would eventually be found to be inadequate or problematic themselves, by later standards of orthodoxy. Yet they all had a hand in shaping Christian belief and practice in this formative period.

Irenaeus of Lyons argued against Gnosticism, stressing the unity of God the creator and the unity of Jesus Christ. He presented Jesus as recapitulating human experience and bringing God’s plan of salvation to its climax. Appealing to the notion of apostolic succession as a way of guaranteeing the authority of recognized teachers, he underscored the orthodox legacy of the church of Rome. Tertullian wrote in Latin and had a profound influence on the shape of western Latin theology. He composed apologies and numerous treatises against heretics and defending orthodox belief. Suspicious of secular learning and the influence of culture on the church, Tertullian was a rigorist and eventually converted to Montanism.

The church in Alexandria was shaped by its context; it was in a center of Hellenistic culture and learning. The Christian teacher Clement encouraged an intellectual appropriation of the faith and he saw the value of pagan philosophy as a tool in Christian discussion. He opposed Gnosticism, writing works of apologetics, ethics, and reflection on various aspects of Christian faith. Origen was a brilliantly gifted Alexandrian teacher in the same tradition. He pioneered the scholarly study of scripture, wrote the greatest Greek apology of early Christianity, and composed the church’s first systematic theology. Some of his speculations were controversial and his personality and success sparked jealousy.

Hippolytus was probably a presbyter in Rome who went into schism when his rival Callistus was elected bishop. Though uncertainty exists as to Hippolytus’ true role and the full extent of his authentic literary legacy, a notable heresiological work and an influential book of church order are among the texts traditionally ascribed to him. The apparent career of Hippolytus highlights the way in which several factors were coming together to elevate the status of the church at Rome by the end of the second century.

In addition to responding to persecution and heresies like Gnosticism, the fathers of the old catholic church faced a number of challenges. The Paschal controversy involved the church in Rome and churches in Asia especially; it involved a dispute regarding the correct observance of Easter in the church calendar. Modalist and Dynamic Monarchian teachers in the church found different ways of defending monotheism, yet the resulting Christologies were deemed to be deficient and dangerous by orthodox theologians. The pressures of persecution had caused some Christians to lapse. Their desire to return to the church after the threat of persecution had passed created debates between “rigorists” and “laxists” about the nature of the church, the place of penance, and the proper exercise of episcopal authority.