John Henry Cardinal Newman

To Know History Is to Cease to Be Protestant

“To know history is to cease to be protestant” (words of John Henry Cardinal Newman, the famous Anglican clergyman who converted to the Roman Catholic Faith in 1845 and then rose to the rank of Cardinal).

 

Study Sacred Scripture and the Church Fathers

Catholics are often unprepared to defend the Faith and leave themselves prone to the errors of Liberalism, Modernism, and Protestantism largely due to insufficient knowledge of Sacred Scripture and the Church’s venerable history. 

The errors of so-called Born-Again Christians (e.g., Sola Scriptura, denial of the majority of the Sacraments, rejection of Purgatory or penance, etc.) are largely due to corrupt teachings that contradict both the Sacred Scriptures and the Church Fathers. As a result, Catholics have a responsibility to be well formed in both Scripture and the Church Fathers so that, along with a holy life, they are greater witnesses for the truth, beauty, and goodness found exclusively in the Catholic religion.

 

Sacred Scripture

“Ignorance of Scripture is Ignorance of Christ” – St. Jerome, Doctor of the Church

Catholics have been encouraged to read the Bible since the time of the early Fathers. For instance, St. Jerome, wrote to Laeta about her daughter’s education:

“Instead of jewels or silk, let her love the manuscripts of the Holy Scriptures, and in them let her prefer correctness and accurate arrangement to gilding and Babylonian parchment with elaborate decorations. Let her learn the Psalter first, with these songs let her distract herself, and then let her learn lessons of life in the Proverbs of Solomon. In reading Ecclesiastes let her become accustomed to tread underfoot the things of this world; let her follow the examples of virtue and patience that she will find in Job. Let her then pass on to the Gospels and never again lay them down.”

Perhaps you have picked up the Bible but been discouraged because you did not comprehend the meaning of a passage. You are certainly not alone. Many people – even the saints – have grappled over the meaning of a story or even a word in Scripture. Consider the following powerful example from the lives of the saints. On one occasion, St. Thomas Aquinas found himself unable to understand a certain passage. He spent days in praying, fasting, watching, and offering other penances, begging God for understanding. Eventually his prayers and sacrifices earned him this merit. In was in the middle of the night, he was on his knees, and shedding tears as he prayed. Saint Peter and St. Paul appeared to him and granted him the insight he needed to understand the passage. When you consider that St. Thomas Aquinas is arguably the most brilliant Catholic mind since the Apostolic Age and was a man of eminent sanctity and complete chastity, and yet still had difficulty with certain scriptural passages, it should come as no surprise that you and I will struggle. It should also induce us to turn to the Church Fathers, Doctors, and Saints to better understand God’s Sacred Word. 

Saint Jerome, St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom – just to name a few – have written commentaries on books of the Bible. Saint Thomas Aquinas collected many of these commentaries about the Gospels in the Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels Collected out of the Works of the Fathers. The Catena Aurea (“Golden Chain,” in English) of St. Thomas Aquinas examines each line of the Gospels based on extracts from various commentaries. The commentators include St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory, St. Cyril, and St. Athanasius, among others.

St. Thomas Aquinas did not just quote from these authors, he condensed the information and arranged it. It would be difficult to quote just a small portion of this vast work to show St. Thomas’ genius in codifying his material. Despite the many different authors from different time periods and geographical areas, St. Thomas’ work is not a battleground between conflicting viewpoints but a slow building of consensus. For instance, below is an excerpt of the commentary on John 10:11-15:

“St. Gregory: Our first duty is to spend our outward possessions upon the sheep; our last, if it be necessary, is to sacrifice our life for the same sheep. Whoso doth not give his substance to the sheep, how can he lay down his life for them? …St. Augustine: All these however were good shepherds, not because they shed their blood, but because they did it for the sheep. For they shed it not in pride, but in love.”

Other authors have written commentaries on the entire Bible. The Douay-Rheims Bible, the official English language Bible, has had two important commentators. Bishop Richard Challoner (1691-1781) revised and wrote a commentary for the entire Bible using footnotes to explain difficult passages. Father George Haydock (1774-1849), the parish priest of a poor mission in Ugthorpe, England, wrote a longer commentary. Father Haydock managed to write almost the entire commentary alone, with only Father Benedict Rayment and a few others who worked on the New Testament.

The Haydock Bible has been uploaded to this website: The Haydock Bible.

The Douay-Rheims Bible may be read on this website: Douay Rheims Bible.

 

The Church Fathers

The Church Fathers were “saintly writers of the early centuries whom the Church recognizes as her special witnesses of the faith. Antiquity, orthodoxy, sanctity, and approval by the Church are their four main prerogatives. They are commonly divided into the Greek and Latin Fathers. It is now generally held that the last of the Western Fathers (Latin) closed with St. Isidore of Seville (560-636), and the last of the Eastern Fathers (Greek) was St. John Damascene (675-749)” (Father John Hardon’s Catholic Dictionary).[1]

How many Catholics are familiar with the works of St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Cyprian, St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, or St. Polycarp – just to name a few? Rather than seeking to advance their own understanding of the Scriptures, the Fathers built on the teaching of the Apostles themselves and, always aware of the Church’s teachings and foundation, built up our understanding of the Faith. This venerable practice of building up continued largely up until the Second Vatican Council, when theologians largely stopped building upon the past and instead sought new radically different ideas on Sacred Scripture. For more on this topic, see the excellent articles of Kennedy Hall.

We, however, should not be ignorant of the Church Fathers. The writings of many of the Fathers are available in English on the New Advent website, and this foundation would be a great starting point for our spiritual reading as we strive to learn the Faith better and be able to defend it when needed in discussions. For instance, the notion that Marian devotion originated only in the Middle Ages or that the Divinity of Christ was an invention of Constantine are indisputably refuted by the Church Fathers. Even Cardinal Jean Daniélou, an ‘expert’ at the Second Vatican Council who advanced the “New Theology,” acknowledged that the Fathers of the Church “are not only the truthful witnesses of a bygone era; they are also the most contemporary nourishment of men and women today.” 

 

Conclusion

Today’s Catholics have an immense treasure in both Sacred Scripture (and the associated traditional commentaries) and in the writings of the Church Fathers. Saint Augustine alone wrote more than 4 million words! The purpose is not to read all the Church Fathers since reading for mere reading’s sake would be vain. But to truly read for the purpose of seeking to understand and spiritually grow by absorbing a few pages or paragraphs each day followed by prayer would do immense good for our own souls and for our ability to defend the Faith.

Cardinal Newman was right that to truly know history is to cease to be Protestant since history itself condemns Protestantism. May we help advance the cause of Christ and the true Christian Faith – that is, the Catholic religion – by promoting and by reading Sacred Scripture and our great forefathers in the Faith. The Faith as expressed in their writings is counter to every argument underpinning Protestantism.


[1] Fr. Hardon’s Dictionary provides the following list:

LATIN FATHERS OF THE CHURCH
St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (340-397)
Arnobius, apologist (d. 327)
St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430)
St. Benedict, father of Western monasticism (480-546)
St. Caesarius, Archbishop of Arles (470-542)
St. John Cassian, abbot, ascetical writer (360-435)
St. Celestine I, Pope (d. 432)
St. Cornelius, Pope (d. 253)
St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (d. 258)
St. Damasus I, Pope (d. 384)
St. Dionysius, Pope (d. 268)
St. Ennodius, Bishop of Pavia (473-521)
St. Eucherius, Bishop of Lyons (d. 449)
St. Fulgentius, Bishop of Ruspe (468-533)
St. Gregory of Elvira (died after 392)
St. Gregory (I) the Great, Pope (540-604)
St. Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers (315-368)
St. Innocent I, Pope (d. 417)
St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (130-200)
St. Isidore, Archbishop of Seville (560-636)
St. Jerome, priest, exegete, translator of the Vulgate (343-420)
Lactantius Firmianus, apologist (240-320)
St. Leo the Great, Pope (390-461)
Marius Mercator, Latin polemicist (early fifth century)
Marius Victorinus, Roman rhetorician (fourth century)
Minucius Felix, apologist (second or third century)
Novatian the Schismatic (200-262)
St. Opatus, Bishop of Mileve (late fourth century)
St. Pacian, Bishop of Barcelona (fourth century)
St. Pamphilus, priest (240-309)
St. Paulinus, Bishop of Nola (353-431)
St. Peter Chrysologus, Archbishop of Ravenna (400-450)
St. Phoebadius, Bishop of Agen (d. 395)
St. Prosper of Aquitaine, theologian (390-463)
Rufinus, Latin translator of Greek theology (345-410)
Salvian, priest (400-480)
St. Siricius, Pope (334-399)
Tertullian, apologist, founder of Latin theology (160-223)
St. Vincent of Lérins, priest and monk (d. 450)

GREEK FATHERS OF THE CHURCH
St. Anastasius Sinaita, apologist, monk (d. 700)
St. Andrew of Crete, Archbishop of Gortyna (660-740)
Aphraates, Syriac monk (early fourth century)
St. Archelaus, Bishop of Cascar (d. 282)
St. Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria (c. 297-373)
Athenagoras, apologist (second century)
St. Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea (329-379)
St. Caesarius of Nazianzus (330-369)
St. Clement of Alexandria, theologian (150-215)
St. Clement I of Rome, Pope (30-101)
St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem (315-386)
St. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria (376-444)
Didymus the Blind, theologian (313-398)
Diodore, Bishop of Tarsus (d. 392)
Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, mystical theologian (late fifth century)
St. Dionysius the Great, Archbishop of Alexandria (190-264)
St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis (315-403)
Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (260-340)
St. Eustathius, Bishop of Antioch (fourth century)
St. Firmillian, Bishop of Caesarea (d. 268)
Gennadius I, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 471)
St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople (634-733)
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop of Sasima (329-390)
St. Gregory of Nyssa (330-395)
St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, Bishop of Neocaesarea (213-270)
Hermas, author of The Shepherd (second century)
St. Hippolytus, martyr (170-236)
St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (35-107)
St. Isidore of Pelusium, abbot (360-c.450)
St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople (347-407)
St. John Climacus, monk (579-649)
St. John Damascene, defender of sacred images (675-749)
St. Julius I, Pope (d. 352)
St. Justin Martyr, apologist (100-165)
St. Leontius of Byzantium, theologian (sixth century)
St. Macarius the Great, monk (300-390)
St. Maximus, abbot and confessor (580-662)
St. Melito, Bishop of Sardis (d. 190)
St. Methodius, Bishop of Olympus (d. 311)
St. Nilus the Elder, priest and monk (d. 430)
Origen, head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria (184-254)
St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (69-155)
St. Proclus, Patriarch of Constantinople (d. 446)
St. Serapion, Bishop of Thmuis (died after 362)
St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem (560-638)
Tatian the Assyrian, apologist and theologian (120-180)
Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia (350-428)
Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus (393-458)
St. Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch (late second century)

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