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Fathers of the Church

FATHERS OF THE CHURCH. Ecclesiastically the word " father " is used in a variety of secondary significa-tions. In the Old Testament even, we find the name applied to priests (Judg. xvii. 10, xviii. 19), and to pro-phets (2 Kings ii. 12, vi. 21, xiii. 14), as well as to kings (2 Kings v. 13) ; and in the days of later Judaism there was a definite office which was known as that of the Father of the Synagogue. In the Christian church almost every kind of spiritual relationship in which age or authority was in any way implied came to be expressed by some word denoting paternity. Thus we find such names as abba, papa, pater, bestowed occasionally upon godfathers, con-fessors, instructors, and almost invariably upon bishops and heads of monasteries. The decrees of the council of Nice are often referred to as those of the 318 fathers. The expression " church fathers " (patres ecclesiastici), however, has come to be used in a comparatively definite and restricted sense, as denoting in the aggregate those teachers of the ancient church who, from the close of the apostolic age onwards, either orally or in writing expounded and de-fended the orthodox faith, and came to be acknowledged, either by tacit consent or by express declaration of the church, as duly qualified exponents of her doctrines. The title of father is generally held to imply soundness of doc-trine, holiness of life, the approval of the church, and un-doubted antiquity (Perrone). The word itself is fitted to suggest the idea of age, and also some such notion as that which is expressed in 1 Cor. iv. 15.

The patristic period of the church's history is generally held to begin with the close of the apostolic age ; but historians are not agreed as to the date at which it may be said to have closed. Some Roman Catholic writers speak of Bernard, who died in 1153, as having been the " last of the fathers," while Greek patristic is often brought down so far as to the council of Florence. But it is usual to speak of the scholastic period as having begun with Anselm ; and there seems to be no good reason for removing Bernard from the list of the schoolmen. As no very important author either in Latin or in Greek can be assigned to the centuries immediately preceding Anselm, it may therefore be said, roughly speaking, that the patristic period practi-cally closed for the Eastern Church with Joannes Damascenus, and for the Western with Gregory the Great.

The patristic canon has never been quite definitely fixed, and no precise line of demarcation can be drawn between those ancient teachers of Christianity who are and those who are not entitled to be reckoned " fathers." The name is often bestowed on some whose title when viewed from the standpoint of rigid orthodoxy cannot but be regarded as somewhat doubtful. While Arius and Eusebius of Nico-media have obviously no title to be called " fathers," it has not been thought necessary to withhold the honourable appellation frontOrigen or Tertullian. The authors usually named as fathers may be arranged according to chronology into three groups, called respectively the apostolic, the primitive, and the post-Nicene. The apostolic fathers, that is to say, the fathers who were to some extent contemporary with the apostles, are Clement of Borne, Ignatius, Polycarp, the author of the Shepherd of Hermas, and the author of the Epistle of Barnabas (see APOSTOLIC FATHERS). The, chief primitive or ante-Nicene fathers are Ireiiseus, Justin Martyr, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Tertullian, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Among the post-Nicene fathers may be mentioned Ambrose, Athanasius, Augustine, Basil, Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Cyril of Alexandria, Epiphanius, Gregory of Nazianzum, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Great, Hilary, Jerome, and Leo. A distinction is usually recognized between the patres and those who were merely scriptores ecclesiastici, and it is to the latter cate-gory that such writers as Eusebius and Socrates the his-torians most properly belong. The Eastern and the West-ern Church have each four authors of note whom they recognize as fathers par excellence. Those of the Eastern are Athanasius, Basil, Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazi-anzum. Those of the Western are Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory,—the fathers respectively of her monastic system, of her sacerdotal authority, of her scientific theology, and of her popular religion (Milman, Latin Christianity, b. ii. c. 4).

The study of the fathers has sometimes been regarded as constituting a distinct discipline called patrology or patristic, which, however, practically resolves itself into the church history of the first six centuries. For information on the individual fathers and on the influence they exerted upon one another and upon the thought and life of the church the reader is referred to the various articles, biogra-phical, archaeological, and historical, relating to that period.

The much-disputed question as to the authority of the fathers resolves itself into the more general one as to the place of tradition considered as a source of dogma and a rule of life apart from the scriptures (see vol. v. p. 759). There seems to be no sufficient evidence for the statement made by Turrettin and others to the effect that some Catholic writers set the writings of the fathers individually on a level with the canonical scriptures; and it is certainly an exaggeration to say that Cardinal Cajetan regarded them as having no authority at all. The Tridentine doctrine is that no one is entitled to interpret scripture in a sense con-trary to the interpretations of holy mother church or to the unanimous consent of the fathers. Boman Catholic writers accordingly as a rule attach comparatively little weight to the peculiarities of individual fathers, and hold themselves committed to nothing that is not established by what they consider to be unanimous and unvarying tradition. They distinguish, moreover, between the func-tion of the fathers as witnesses and their function as instructors. As witnesses to the tradition and teaching of the church, they give testimony which is binding on the Catholic conscience; as independent teachers, they are en-titled to be listened to with deference and respect, but their interpretations and arguments are to be freely accepted or as freely rejected according to their merits. Protestant writers, while fully admitting the merits, literary and other, of many of the fathers, usually dwell much upon the admitted fact of their fallibility, and strive to show that the attempt to establish an unambiguous tradition by their means is in very many cases much more illusory than Catholic writers are disposed to allow. They do not, how-ever, deny that on many important points there is such a thing as a consensus patrum ; but this they regard as hav-ing at best no other authority than what is merely human and ecclesiastical, the Bible alone being the supreme rule of faith and life. The fundamental Protestant antithesis to the Tridentine doctrine according to which the canonical books and the traditions preserved by the church are to be received and reverenced "pari pietatis effectu ac reverentia" is very clearly expressed in the sixth Article of the Church of England which declares that " Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein nor may be proved thereby is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation."

The first writer in patrology may be said to have been Jerome, himself one of the greatest of the fathers. His work, De Viris Illuslribus, sive Gatalogus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum, was reprinted, along with the similar works of Gennadius of Marseilles, Isidore of Seville, and Ildefonso of Toledo, by Fabrieius in his Bibliotheca Ecclesiastica (1718). Among modern writers on this subject Mohler (Patrologie, 1842), Alzog (Grundriss der Patrologie, 1866), Engelhardt (Litter arische Lcitfaden zu Vorlesungen ilber die Pat- ristilc, 1823), and J. E. L. Danz (Initio doctrines patristicae, 1839) may be referred to. See also Cave's Apostolici (1677) and Ecclesi- astici (1683), Ittigii Tractatus de Bibl. Pair. (Lips. 1707), and Bowling's Notitia Scriptorum SS. Patrum (Oxon. 1839). The most important collective editions of the fathers are the Latin Magna Bibliotheca Velerum Patrum of De la Bigne (Paris, 1575), of which the Maxima Bibliotheca (Lyons, 1677) is an improved reprint, and the exhaustive Patrologiai cursus completus of Migne, in which the collection of Latin authors, brought down to the time of Innocent III., occupies 221 volumes (Paris, 1844-1855), while the Greek division, extending to the council of Florence, is completed in 166 vols. (Paris, 1857-1866). (J. S. BL.)


See the rescript of Constantine (in the Codex Theodosianus) referred to and discussed by Vitringa, De Syn. Vet. lib. ii. c. 5.
See Perrone, Loci Theologiei, p. ii. sect. ii. cap. ii., De Sanctis patribus.
Turrettin, loc. ii. qu. 21. Möhler, Symbolik, see. 42.
Cone. Trid., sess. iv. Compare the Forma juramenti professionis fldei prepared by Pius IV".
Möhler, ut sup. j Perrone, utsup.
Chemnitz, Examen Concilii Tridentini, De traditionibus ; Daille, De usu patrum; Barbeyrae, De la Morale des Peres, and others.

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