Church Fathers on Doctrine versus Discipline

This page is supposed to gather some selections from the Church Fathers on doctrines and disciplines. I made this post to show that the Church’s current stance has its roots in Church history. Disciplines can change and vary with time and place, but the Church’s doctrines must be the same everywhere and always. So what about you, friends? Do you know of any other places where the Fathers talked about the difference between doctrines and disciplines?

Church Fathers on Doctrine versus Discipline

~190 A.D. - St. Irenaeus of Lyons - “[S]ome think that they should fast one day [before Easter], others two, yet others more… Yet all of these lived none the less in peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith.” (Irenaeus, On Easter, as quoted in Eusebius, Church History Book 5 Chapter 24 Paragraphs 12-13)

206 A.D. - Tertullian - “Throughout Greece, and certain of its barbaric provinces, the majority of Churches keep their virgins [veiled]. [Other churches do not.] … What shall we observe? What shall we choose? We cannot contemptuously reject a custom which we cannot condemn…[for] it is not among strangers that we find it, but among [Christians]. They and we have one faith, one God, the same Christ, the same hope, the same baptismal sacraments; let me say it once for all, we are one Church. Thus, whatever belongs to our brethren is ours: [only the custom] divides us.” (On the Veiling of Virgins Chapter 2)

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I’ve read a similar passage in Augustin’s Confessions, regarding when he was living in Milan and was acquainted with St. Ambrose, then the Bishop there. At that time the Church had mandatory fasts every week on Wednesdays and Fridays, and in some locations (including Rome) also on Saturdays. Augustin reported that he asked Ambrose about that, and the Bishop replied that when he was at home in Milan, he fasted two days a week, but when he was in Rome, he followed the discipline there and fasted three days.

How about any that refer to liturgical orientation? Whatever the legitimate custom or Rite celebrated in any given geographical location, there were certain givens that were non-negotiable - facing East being one. The Church’s current practice of the priest celebrating versus populum dates back to the reformation and Martin Luther, and no further, and is born out of a novel and false theology. Our Liturgy defines our faith, and our faith defines our Liturgy, as the Fathers taught.

In the full-length version I include that story, though I did not take it from the Confessions. St. Augustine discusses that event in both Letter 54 and in Letter 36. Here is how he describes it in Letter 54:

"When my mother followed me to Milan, she found the Church there not fasting on Saturday. She began to be troubled, and to hesitate as to what she should do; upon which I, though not taking a personal interest then in such things, applied on her behalf to Ambrose, of most blessed memory, for his advice. He answered that he could not teach me anything but what he himself practised, because if he knew any better rule, he would observe it himself. When I supposed that he intended, on the ground of his authority alone, and without supporting it by any argument, to recommend us to give up fasting on Saturday, he followed me, and said: ‘When I visit Rome, I fast on Saturday; when I am here, I do not fast. On the same principle, do you observe the custom prevailing in whatever Church you come to, if you desire neither to give offense by your conduct, nor to find cause of offense in another’s.’ " source

In my full-length document I included the shorter version of Ambrose’s comments from Letter 36:

“When I am here I do not fast on Saturday; but when I am at Rome I do: whatever church you may come to, conform to its custom, if you would avoid either receiving or giving offense.” source


I don’t think it’s quite true that facing the east was non-negotiable. For one thing, many of the medieval cathedrals have side altars that do not face the east. And in the 400s, some churches had main altars facing the west, as noted by Socrates Scholasticus in 439 A.D.: “At Antioch in Syria the site of the church is inverted; so that the altar does not face toward the east, but toward the west.” source

The Church’s current practice of the priest celebrating versus populum dates back to the reformation and Martin Luther, and no further

I don’t think that’s true either. The Lateran Basilica and St. Peter’s Basilica both date to before the Reformation, and in both of them the priest traditionally faced the people according to the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia. (Article: Orientation of Churches)

The same article says, “[T]he fact [is] that in the fourth century the celebrant at Mass faced the people.” For footnotes, the encyclopedia cites several German and French resources, and one English one: Monuments of the Early Church by Walter Lowrie. That book, written in 1901 and available here, presents evidence that the priests faced the people during the second, third, and fourth centuries. Pages 43-46 cite archaeological evidence for this, including a chapel from the 300s in which the celebrant’s chair faced the people from behind the altar, and a painting from the 100s depicting the celebrant sitting behind the altar facing the viewer.

The Church’s current practice…is born out of a novel and false theology. Our Liturgy defines our faith, and our faith defines our Liturgy, as the Fathers taught.

First, there is good evidence in the Monuments book that the Fathers often celebrated Mass facing the people. Second, Lowrie presents evidence that the theology behind this was not a false one. It was based on the Communion of Saints. He writes: “[T]he idea which has most fundamentally inspired [early Church architecture] is the communion of saints — the Christian temple is the house of the congregation. This communion was concretely represented by the altar, which by ancient tradition was fixed between the clergy and the people.” (Page 104)

I’m not saying it is bad to have the altar and the priest face the east, I’m just pointing out that the Church has always permitted the altar to face other directions and the priest to face the people in some circumstances. Even the Missal of 1570 A.D. provides that the priest can face the people: “Si altare sit ad orientem versus populum, celebrans versa facie ad populum [In English: If the altar faces East toward the people, the celebrant facing the people]], non vertit humeros ad altare, cum dicturus est, Dominus vobiscum, Orate fratres, Ite Missa est, vel daturus benedictionem: sed osculato altari in medio, ibi expansis & iunctis manibus, ut supra, salutat populum.” (Missale Romanum 1570 A.D., Ritus Servandus, Chapter 5 Paragraph 3. Page scan here.)

St. Charles Borromeo, one of the critical figures in the counter-reformation who cannot be accused of pandering to Protestant influence, said that the altar is ordinarily supposed to face the east, but can face any direction, and the priest can face the people: “[T]he Bishop can decide and permit that [the altar] be built facing another direction, but in this case care must be taken at least that if possible it does not face north, but south. In any case the chapel in which the priest celebrates Mass from the high altar facing the people, in accordance with the rites of the Church, must face west.” (Instructiones Fabricae et Supellectilis Ecclesiasticae Book 1 Chapter 10, De Capella Maiori)

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