A Primer on the Church Fathers by Joe Gallegos
"Remove not the ancient landmark which your fathers have set"(Prov. 22:28 RSV)
Protestant Evangelical Christians often gain a keener understanding of Holy Writ either by a private reading of Scripture or by listening to or reading various interpretations of Scripture through various ministrations of the church such as a Bible study or a Sunday sermon. Many of the interpretations are harmonious with the historic tenants of the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church and some contradictory. Nevertheless, this is the primary vehicle through which many Evangelicals learn Christian doctrines and morals. Therefore, why not take advantage of a Bible study or a sermon by listening to the written words of a disciple of an Apostle or their immediate descendants rather than from someone who is 20 centuries removed from the Apostles? This is the case when one delves in the writings and faith of the early Church Fathers.
Who are these guys(and gals) called The Church Fathers?
The Church Fathers is a titled bestowed on men (and some women such as Egeria of Spain fl AD 448) in the ancient Church that are united by four trademarks: (1) a rigid orthodoxy in doctrine, (2) an exemplary holy life, (3) approval in the Church, and (4) antiquity. Today, some ecclesiastical writers are bestowed this title who have partially fulfilled these marks( e.g. Tertullian, Origen and Eusebius of Caesarea). These writers are included due to their invaluable service to the Church. The majority of the Church Fathers were bishops, a few held a lower clerical rank such as St. Jerome, and fewer yet, were laymen such as Clement of Alexandria and perhaps Tertullian of Carthage. In the Catholic Church the period of antiquity ends with St. John Damascene (d AD 749) in the East and with St. Gregory the Great(d AD 604) or St. Isidore of Seville (d AD 636) in the West, hence the patristic age spans 7 centuries.
St. Epiphanius provides us with this classic understanding of Church Father, he writes:
"Now of these which is wiser? This deceived man (Aerius) who has just now obtained notoriety, and who is still living; or they who were witnesses before us, who held before us the tradition in(or for) the church, and who themselves had received it from their fathers, whose fathers again had learnt it from their forefathers, even as the church, having received the true faith from its fathers, retains it, together with the traditions, even unto this day."
Epiphanius,Panarion, 75(A.D. 374-377),in FOC,I:433-434
The Fathers' writings
The writings of the Church Fathers took various forms. Their writings included sermons on various matters of faith (e.g. St. Augustine's sermons), treatises on various theological subjects (e.g. Cyprian's Unity of the Catholic Church), biographies (e.g. St. Possidius' Life of Augustine), autobiographies (e.g. St. Augustine's Confessions), hagiographies (e.g. St. Athanasius' Life of St. Antony), letters (e.g. St. Ambrose's 91 epistles), histories (e.g. Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History), exegetical works (e.g. Origen's & St. John Chrysostom's commentaries), patristic studies (e.g. St. Jerome's Lives of illustrious men), and apologies (e.g. St. Justin Martyr's' Apologies). Some ancient writings have no ascribed author such as the Didache or the Epistle to Diognetus. Some writings have an ascribed pseudo-author such as the Athanasian Creed or the New Testament apocryphal works. Some writings we have only in fragments(Muratorian fragment) and many writings are not extant(the majority of Origen's efforts) but are known through the writings of others.
Classifying the Fathers
There are a couple of ways of classifying the writings of the Church Fathers. The most popular way is to divide the writings into various periods of time. The other approach is to divide the Fathers by geography and culture, that is, East versus West. This first method usually divides the Fathers into three basic time periods: 1) the Ante-Nicene period (post Apostolic times until AD 325), 2) the Post-Nicene Fathers (AD 325 - AD 451), and 3) the later Fathers (AD 451 until the close of the Patristic age AD 749). Another popular way of dividing the Fathers into time periods is: 1) the period of Origins which include the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists (post Apostolic times until AD 300), 2) the Classical or Golden Period (AD 300 to the death of Cyril of Alexandria d. AD 444), and 3)the Last period sometimes called the decadent period (AD 444 - to the close of the Patristic Age AD 749). There are some small variations to these time periods in various patrologies and studies. The second method is to divide the Fathers into two groups, the Western/Latin and the Eastern/Greek. However, not all the Fathers can be classified as either representing the West or the East such as the Coptic, Syriac, Arabic and Iberian Fathers. There are seven(7) centuries of patristic heritage involving diverse languages, cultures, and geography. This alone assured the Catholic Church a diversity of patristic thought on a myriad of theological subjects. The Fathers taken as a whole touched on every conceivable tenant of faith, taken individually, no one Father wrote on every doctrine. Time and circumstance provided the impetus for the various subjects and efforts treated by the Church Fathers. St. Irenaeus and Tertullian wrote extensively on the rule of faith against the criticisms of the numerous Gnostic heresies, St. Athanasius debated and routed the Arians on the deity of Jesus Christ, Cyprian wrote on the episcopacy in many of his treatises, St. Basil delved into the deity of the Holy Spirit in his conflicts with Eunomious, St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin at the request of Pope Damasus, the Cappadocians (St. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, & Gregory of Nazianzen) wrote and expounded on the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and St. Augustine expounded on grace, free-will, sin, and ecclesiology in his controversies with the Manicheans, Donatists, and Pelagians. No Church Father wrote on every Catholic doctrine. The Fathers taken as a whole provide us with an unswerving consensus and testimony of the Catholic faith.
In addition to the language, cultural, and geographic differences, there were numerous theological conflicts which shaped theology throughout the patristic age. Some conflicts came outside the Church such as Judaism, Gnosticism and Manichaeism. However, most of the conflicts came from within the Church. Some internal conflicts dealt with heretical teachings such as Arianism, Monophystism, Nestorianism, and Pelagianism. All these heresies were combated by the Church Fathers in the form of apologies, treatises, debates, and letters. The definitive reply to many of these early heresies came within the acts and canons of the Ecumenical Councils or through the proclamations of various Apostolic Sees, primarily the See of Rome. Some internal conflicts involved only the orthodox, such as the dating of Easter or episode concerning the lapse Christians and heretical baptism.
Consensus and Development of Doctrine
Amongst this diversity of patristic thought the Fathers were united on a number of doctrines without much controversy or discussion. Some of these doctrines include: 1) the existence of One God, 2) sotierology and sacraments, 3) ecclesiastical authority, 4) the existence of heaven and hell, 5)the existence of an invisible world consisting of angels and demons, 6) regenerative water baptism, and 7) the real presence in the Eucharist. However, many of the doctrines of today such as the Holy Trinity were a result of many years of reflection, dialogue and debate. In fact, prior to formal definition many of the Fathers would seem to have downplayed various aspects of the Trinity or even contradicted the defined doctrine. Prior to definition, doctrinal confusion is expected as the Fathers are grappling with the mysteries of the faith in an attempt to puzzle out the doctrines of the Church. The process between doctrinal chaos to doctrinal clarity is called the development of doctrine. By the end of the patristic age a broad and deep witness was arrived at on most of the cardinal doctrines of the Catholic faith. These include the Blessed Trinity, the nature of Christ, the canon of Scriptures, justification and grace, infallibility of the Church, and doctrines concerning Theotokos, just to name a few.
Don't be afraid of the Fathers, dive right in. Find out what the Church Fathers believed about baptism, the Church, justification, the Bible, tradition, the second coming of Christ, the resurrection and host of other doctrines. Below is a list of the most prominent Church Fathers including a brief biography and a list of some their most important writings.
Fathers of the Church
The Apostolic Fathers
Clement of Rome(d 97)
Ignatius of Antioch(50-107)
Writer of The Didache
Writer of the Epistle of Barnabas
The Church Fathers of the West
The Four Great Fathers of the West
Gregory the Great(+604)
Latin Fathers of the Church
Celestine I(regn. 422-432)
Clement of Rome(c. 88-97)
Cornelius (regn. 251-253)
Eucherius of Lyons(d 449)
Gregory of Elvira(320-392)
Gregory the Great(regn. 590-604)
Hilary of Poitiers(315-367)
Innocent I(regn. 402-417)
Julius I(regn. 337-352)
Leo the Great(regn. 440-461)
Marius Mercator(5th C)
Marius Victorinus(5th C)
Minucius Felix(fl. 160-300)
Prosper of Aquitaine(400-463)
Salvian of Marseilles(400-480)
Vincent of Lerins(400-450)
The Church Fathers of the East
The Four Great Fathers of the East
Basil the Great(+379)
Gregory of Nazianzen(+398)
Greek Fathers of the Church
Andrew of Crete(650-740)
Basil the Great(329-379)
Caesarius of Nazianzus(330-369)
Clement of Alexandria(160-215)
Cyril of Jerusalem(315-386)
Cyril of Alexandria(375-444)
Didymus the Blind(313-398)
Diodore of Tarsus(+390)
Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite(fl. 500)
Epiphanius of Salamis(315-403)
Eustathius of Antioch(fl. 325)
Gregory of Nazianzus(325-389)
Gregory of Nyssa(331-394)
Ignatius of Antioch(50-107)
Isidore of Pelusium(360-435)
Leontius of Byzantium(+ 543)
Macarius the Great(300-390)
Nilus the Elder of Ancyra(+ 430)
Proclus of Constantinople(+ 446)
Serapion of Thmuis(+ 362)
Tatian the Assyrian(2nd C)
Theodore of Mopsuestia(350-428)
Theodoret of Cyrus(393-460)
Theophilus of Antioch(2nd C)
A Selection of Writings of the Fathers
St. Clement of Rome:Third Bishop of Rome and the first Apostolic Father.
Letter to the Corinthians(c. 96)
St. Ignatius of Antioch:Bishop of Antioch and one of the Apostolic Fathers. Wrote several works to various Churches. He was condemned to die by wild beasts in Rome.
Letter to the Ephesians(c. 110)
Letter to the Magnesians(c. 110)
Letter to the Trallians(c. 110)
Letter to the Philadelphians(c. 110)
Letter to the Smyrnaens(c. 110)
Letter to the Polycarp(c. 110)
Letter to the Romans(c. 110)
St. Polycarp of Symrna(Asia Minor):Bishop of Symrna and Apostolic Father. He was a hearer and disciple of John the Apostle.
Polycarp to the Phillipians(c. 135)
Martyrdom of Polycarp[biography](c. 157)
Didache[The Teaching of the Apostles](c. 140)
Barnabas:Friends of St. Paul, the Apostle and Mark(Acts 15:39).
Letter of Barnabas(c. 132)
Papias of Hierapolis(Phrygia):Bishop of Hierapolis and an Apostolic Father.
Explanations[fragments in Irenaeus & Eusebius(c. 120)
Hermas(Rome):A contemporary of Clement of Rome and an Apostolic Father.
The Shepherd(c. 155)
St. Justin the Martyr(Rome):Catholic Apologist and martyr. He propogated and defended the faith in Asia Minor and Rome.
First and Second Apologies(A.D. 161)
Dialogue with the Trypho the Jew(A.D. 155)
St. Irenaeus(Asia Minor):Bishop of Lyons(France) and disciple of Polycarp(hearer of John the Apostle). His polemical writings are directed against the early Gnostic heresies.
Against Heresies(A.D. 180)
Tertullian(Rome/Carthage):An ecclesiastical writer from Carthage. He converted to the Catholic faith from paganism, only to revert to Montanism later in life. His Catholic writings include some of the finest apologetics on behalf of the Church.
Prescription Against the Heretics(A.D. 200)
St. Clement of Alexandria:A presbyter and head of the catechetical school in Alexandria.
Who is the rich man that is saved(A.D. 210)
Origen(Alexandria):A celebrated ecclesiastical writer from Alexandria. An ordained presbyter and one of the most accomplished exegetes of Sacred Scripture. He laid much of the foundation for the doctrine of the Church, rule of faith and Christ as the Word Incarnate.
Fundamental Doctrines(A.D. 230)
Against Celsus(A.D. 248)
St. Cyprian(Carthage):ArchBishop of Carthage and marytr. Converted to Catholicism late in his life. One of the most authoritative Church Fathers. Involved in the controversy of lapse Catholics and heretical baptism.
The Unity of the Catholic Church[primacy](A.D. 251)
The Unity of the Catholic Church[received text](A.D. 256)
Eusebius Pamphilus(Palestine):An ecclesiastical writer and Bishop of Caeserea. His monumental work "Church History" provides us with a priceless insight into the life of the Church from its infancy to around A.D. 323.
Ecclesiastical History(A.D. 325)
St. Athanasius(Alexandria):Bishop and Patriarch of Alexandria , one of Four Great Fathers of the East, Doctor of the Church, and called "Father of Orthodoxy," as the chief champion of the deity of Jesus Christ against the Arian heresy. Argueably one of the finest apologists and defenders of the faith the Catholic Church has ever known. He spent seventeen of the forty-six years of his episcopate in exile while defending the creed of Nicea.
Incarnation of the Word(A.D. 318)
Apology against the Arian(A.D. 347)
Concerning the Decrees of the Nicene Council(A.D. 351)
Discourses against the Arians(A.D. 362)
Concerning the Councils of Rimini and Seleucia(A.D. 362)
St. Cyril of Jerusalem:Bishop of Jerusalem and contributor to the Ecumenical Council of Contantinople in A.D. 381.
Catechetical Lectures(A.D. 386)
St. Hilary of Poitiers(Asia Minor):Bishop of Poitiers(France) and defender of the Nicene faith.
The Trinity(A.D. 359)
St. Basil(Ceasarea):Bishop of Ceasarea, Doctor of the Church, one of the Four Great Fathers of the East, and brother of St. Gregory of Nyssa and friend of St. Gregory of Nazianzus. His writings included a monastic rule of life and a defense of the deity of the Holy Spirit.
Against Eunomius(A.D. 365)
The Holy Spirit(A.D. 375)
St. Gregory of Nazianzus(Ceasarea):Bishop of Sasima, Doctor of the Church, one of the Four Great Fathers of the East, friend of Basil the Great, and known as "The Theologian". His writings include famous and insightful discourses on the Blessed Trinity.
Orations(ante A.D. 389)
St. Gregory of Nyssa(Alexandria):Bishop of Nyssa and brother of Basil the Great. His "Catechism" is a defense of the Catholic faith.
The Great Catechism(A.D. 383)
Against Eunomius(A.D. 384)
St. Epiphanius(Cyprus/Salamis):Bishop of Salamis and writer against several heresies. Produced a work similar to Irenaeus' "Against Heresies" where Epiphanius describes and delineates over 80 heresies, called the Panarion(ie. the medicine chest).
The Well Anchored Man(A.D. 374)
Panarion[Against All Heresies](A.D. 377)
St. John Chrysostom(Antioch,Constantinople):ArchBishop of Constantinople, one of the Four Great Fathers of the East, Doctor of the Church and the consumate preacher, nicknamed "Golden Mouthed." He devoted his life to preaching, writing and asceticism. No other Eastern Father has left us with such an exhaustive canon of writings. Chyrsostom takes up 18 of 161 volumes of Patrologia Graeca of Migne.
The Priesthood(A.D. 386)
Homilies[Commentaries, Treatises](ante A.D. 407)
St. Ambrose(Milan):Bishop of Milan, one of the Four Great Fathers of the West, and Doctor of the Church.
The Faith(A.D. 380)
The Holy Spirit(A.D. 381)
St. Jerome(Stridon,Rome):One of the Four Great Fathers of the West, Doctor of the Church and Scripture scholar. Best known for the Vulgate translation of the Bible.
Against Helvidius(A.D. 383)
The Vulgate(A.D. 384)
Various Commentaries on Scripture(ante A.D. 420)
St. Augustine(Hippo,Africa):Bishop of Hippo(N. Africa),one of the Four Great Doctors of the West, Doctor of the Church, and named the "Doctor of Grace." The most influential Church Father in philosophy and theology. Argueably the greatest of all the Church Fathers. Augustine single handedly routed three great heresies during his lifetime; Manichaeism, Donatism and Pelagianism. Augustine is the most erudite, concise, and penetrating writer the Church has ever known. Of all the Fathers, Augustine wrote more than all. St. Isidore of Seville once wrote that anyone who claimed to have read all of Augustine's writings could be considered a 'liar.' His works make up 14 of 217 volumes of Patrologia Latina Migne.
Free Choice(A.D. 395)
Against the Letter of Mani called 'The Foundation'(A.D. 397)
Faith and Works(A.D. 413)
Nature and Grace(A.D. 415)
The Trinity(A.D. 416)
The Enchiridion of Faith,Hope and Love(A.D. 421)
City of God(A.D. 426)
Christian Instruction(A.D. 426)
St. Cyril of Alexandria:Bishop of Alexandria and Doctor of the Church. Cyril's fame comes from his defense of the Catholic faith against the arch-heretic Nestorius.
Against Nestorius(A.D. 430)
The Twelve Anathemas(A.D. 430)
St. Vincent of Lerins:Priest and monk who lived in the monastery on the island of Lerins. Famous for his classic synthesis on the rule of faith.
Pope Leo the Great(Rome):Bishop of Rome(regn A.D. 440-461) and defender of the Faith. 'Tome of Leo' was the classic expression of the Personhood of Christ at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.
173 Letters(A.D. 460)
96 Sermons(A.D. 461)
St. Isidore of Seville:Bishop of Seville(Spain), brother to St. Fulgentius and last of the Latin Fathers.
St. John Damascene(Syria):Doctor of the Church and last of the Greek Fathers.
The Orthodox Faith(A.D. 743)
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