Back to the beginning : 9 Inspiring Catholic Early Church Fathers Writings and 5 Spectacular Commentaries
As a Christian, you can’t help but wonder what the Church was like in the early days. We know about the time of Jesus and the Acts of the Apostles, but what about after that? How did the Church arrive to where it is today? Were all of our current traditions already established? Did they baptize infants? When did the practice of communion begin? If you read about what the early Church was like from the years 50-500AD, you will see a lot of resemblances with the modern day Catholic Church. Thanks to a group of zealous, faithful men called the ‘Church Fathers,’ we have thousands of pages of writings to give us a portal into the early Church. These men were bishops, disciples, and martyrs – all striving to preserve the Church of Christ and battle against heresies. As a Catholic early Church Fathers writings are a key to understanding our faith.
If you want to learn more about the Church fathers and their writings, you have come to the right place. We have compiled a list of good, reputable resources to help you on your journey to understand the Church fathers. These writings have been a part of many faithful Christians’ return to the Catholic Church. For Catholics, reading the fathers has helped strengthen their understanding of the Church and it’s traditions. These texts also serve as fantastic apologetics references. Here is our list of early church fathers books for Catholics and non-Catholic Christians alike.
The Book List
Here is the definitive list of resources on the Church Fathers. We have split it into two sections : (1) Commentaries on the Church Fathers and (2) Actual Church Father Writings.
1. Five Excellent Catholic Early Church Fathers Writings (Commentaries)
2. Actual Early Church Father Writings
Organized Collection of all Church Father Writings by Theology Corner (with links to new advent and other Free Repositories)
Our Top 9 Church Father Writings (since the list above can be overwhelming).
These are towards the end of the article.
Read on for short descriptions of each resource.
Catholic Commentaries on The Early Church Fathers
Four Witnesses : The Early Church in Her Own Words
By Rod Bennett
This very readable book by Rod Bennett is our #1 recommendation. It is based on Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons. This is a concise summary of what the four ancient authors had to say about the day to day operations of the early church. The individuals profiled are presented as flesh and blood leaders with a compelling mission that leads to their martyrdom. Rod Bennet will transport you back to the time of the nascent Christian Church. Along with diving into these writings, Bennett gives his testimony on why he converted to Roman Catholicism from being an Evangelical Protestant. This is not a book of speculation, it quotes men who were close contemporaries to the 12 Apostles. I cannot recommend this enough.
You may recognize Jimmy Akin as a host from Catholic Answers Live, a national radio show. He put his research into an easy-to-read, mind-blowing volume. He highlights the elements of our christian faith which are not derived explicitly from the Bible but from the tradition given to these men by the Apostles themselves. The Fathers Know Best covers the Trinity, mortal sins, abortion, homosexuality, the sacraments, Mary, salvation, the AntiChrist and many more topics. Consider this a great book for someone discovering the Catholic Church from a Protestant perspective, and an overall solid introduction to Patristics.
The Faith of The Early Fathers : Three Volume Set
By William Jurgens
This book is a little different from the first two in that it is a compilation of excerpts (direct quotes) taken from Early Church Fathers. There is less commentary and more original writings. Since Jurgens has hand-selected more influential writings, This three volume set is less daunting than reading the entire writings of all the Church fathers. The range spans from 80 A.D. with Pope St. Clement of Rome’s Letter to the Corinthians to the Second Homily on the Dormition of Mary by St. John Damascene in 743 A.D. The volumes are laid out in chronological order. This can serve as a good reference for one hoping to flip back to key writings of Church fathers and reference quotations. There is very little “Catholic” interpretation by Jurgens; the fathers speak for themselves.
The Fathers of the Church
By Mike Aquilina
I highly recommend Aquilina’s book as a place to get one’s feet wet in the vast ocean of patristic studies. The Fathers of the Church is a good source of Catholic Church History. He makes the argument that looking in this particular rearview mirror can help us steer in the right direction for the future. His writing style is crisp and clear. Reading this book is like listening to a good story or like watching an engaging documentary. This is perfect for anyone who wants to get an overview of the Fathers of the Church. It’s also an exceptional gift or resource for an RCIA instructor.
By Pope Benedict XVI
This book is a compilation of a series of public talks Pope Benedict XVI gave on the early Church Fathers. If you don’t want to buy the book, these talks are available online for free here. Having said that, all the talks are nicely packed into this book. Pope Benedict provides a quick read for each Church Father that stimulates the intellect and inspires the reader to live a life in constant pursuit of the truth. These brief biographical sketches also offer critical lessons for today. One interesting take away from his talk on St. Ambrose, a mentor to St. Augustine, is that “Catechesis is inseparable from witness of life.” In other words, those who are charged with teaching the faith must practice what they preach.
Actual Church Father Writings
Organized Collection of all Church Father Writings by Theology Corner (with links to New Advent and other Free Repositories)
Mr. Romeo Maria del Santo Niño, O.P. put together this excellent table which pulls together nearly all available online texts from the Church fathers in one consumable place, with a timeline and short description of each author. Consider this a landing page for navigating through a library of writings.
Our Top 9 Church Father Writings (since the list above can be overwhelming)
For the reader who doesn’t know how deep he or she wants to dive into the Church fathers, we have compiled what we think are the most influential and approachable writings which are available online for free to read today. These are our top nine texts, in chronological order.
1. The Didache, Author Unknown (50-100 AD)
The Didache, also called the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, is one of the oldest surviving Christian documents which is not in the Bible. Bishop Eusebius listed the Didache as a book for consideration for the New Testament Canon, but it was not included. Scholars say that it likely originated from modern-day Syria. It reads like a creed, and is called by some as the Church’s first catechism. The Didache mentions liturgy, baptism for Gentiles, and other Church traditions. This is a great, quick read.
2. Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians (69-155 AD)
Saint Polycarp was a convert to Christianity who later became the Bishop of Smyrna. He was a disciple of St. John the Apostle (who ordained him Bishop). Polycarp would later disciple St. Irenaeus. He is considered one of 3 chief Apostolic Fathers, along with Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch. This particular epistle is Polycarp’s reply to the Philippians, who asked him for some words of exhortation. Polycarp has a miraculous martyrdom story, where his persecutors attempted to burn him alive, but the fire would not engulf him. His executioner then stabbed him to death.
3. Justin Martyr’s First Apology (100 -165 AD)
Justin was born in Flavius, Samaria around AD 100 and martyred in Rome AD 165 by beheading along with 6 other Christians. He was born a Gentile, and studied Greek philosophy as well as non-Christian doctrines looking for truth. Somewhere along his way to Rome, he had a conversion, which involved use of pagan Greek concepts to help illuminate the teachings and person of Christ. As a Christian, Justin was an apologist – someone who argued in defense of Christianity. This first apology is his explanation of the faith to the pagan world. This is a worthwhile read.
4. Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses (130- 202 AD)
This is the best known work of St. Irenaeus, a Greek resident of Smyrna who was discipled by Polycarp, was Bishop of Lyon, and was keen on apostlic succession. Against Heresies (the english name of this writing) is a detailed attack on Gnosticism in which Irenaeus warns Christians about the heresy. Specifically, he combats the gnostic idea that some people had a secret oral Tradition from Jesus separate from the Tradition held by the directly ordained line of bishops. Hence, here you will see an early Church father appealing to Tradition and apostolic succession in his apologetics.
5. Origen’s Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (185 – 253 AD)
Origen grew up in a Christian home. He was very studious and became a teacher of grammar and literature. He was the first Gentile Christian to learn Hebrew in order to convert Jews to Christianity. While journeying in Greece, Bishops would ask him to give sermons, and eventually appointed him a priest – which resulted in a later condemnation and banishment. He was not considered a heretic, but rather scandalized by his unauthorized ordination. This makes him a somewhat controversial figure. Despite this, he has been honored for his extensive commentaries on the Gospel. St. Jerome defends Origen’s doctrine, and his commentary is included in the Catena Aurea – a compilation of gospel commentaries by St. Thomas Aquinas. Check out his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew!
6. Athanasius’ The Life of Anthony (206 – 373 AD)
St. Athanasius is a Doctor of the Church, and considered the “Father of Orthodoxy.” This writing is based on St. Anthony the Great, who was also known as Anthony of Egypt, or Anthony of the Desert. Read this account to learn about the father monasticism. Athanasius details the fasting and prayer of Athony in this incredible biography.
7. Gregory of Nazienzen’s Orations/Sermons (330-389 AD)
Gregory of Nazienzen was the Archbishop of Constantinople and known as the “Trinitarian Theologian.” Along with Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, he is known as one of the Cappadocian Fathers. He combatted the heresy of his time, Arianism. Check out his first theological Oration to get a taste for his writings. Gregory certainly carries his weight in the ranks of Catholic Early Church Fathers writings.
8. Ambrose’s Concerning the Mysteries (337 – 397 AD)
St. Ambrose is an absolute legend. He was the Roman governor of Milan in 370 AD when the people chose him for Bishop of Milan. However, he was not even a priest, or even baptized yet. As a bishop, he Immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle. Like Gregory of Nazienzen, Ambrose also opposed Arianism in his writings. He is considered one of the original four doctors of the church (Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome). St. Ambrose’s preaching would later be instrumental in the conversion of St. Augustine. He boldly excommunicated the Emperor Theodosius, for killing 7,000 people in Thessolonica. Check out Ambrose’s “Concerning the Mysteries” for a real treat.
9. St. Augustine’s Confessions (354-430AD)
Saint Augustine is hailed as the most important theologian after the apostle Paul. More than a millennium after him, Martin Luther (an Augustinian monk) and John Calvin still cited Augustine in many of their works. The Confessions is a classic book, even outside of Catholic circles. St. Augustine was a university student who struggled with chastity and moral relativism, making his testimony an astonishingly modern book. This is relatable for many college students today that are battling the temptations of the world. This autobiography and testimony of his conversion includes his famous prayer to God, “Make me chaste, but not yet.”All throughout his conversion, his mother, St. Monica was praying for him. Of all the Catholic Early Church Fathers writings, this is the most famous, yet humble and inspiring read.
Interactive Timeline & Map of Church Fathers
We hope you enjoyed our list of Catholic Early Church Fathers writings. To give you an idea of where the Church fathers lived, we created an interactive map with their names, birth dates, and death dates. The bent vertical line shows the division between what are called the Western fathers and Eastern fathers. The map also includes some prominent heretics of the time in italics.