Fathers of the Church

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A technical title applied to certain ecclesiastical writers of Christian antiquity.

Concept. The historical evolution of the term father is not altogether clear. In ancient times the title was given to teachers; the underlying idea is that a teacher is the procreator of a student's spiritual personality (cf. 1 Kgs 20.35; 1 Pt 5.13). The New Testament father is a teacher of spiritual realities, by whose means the soul of man is reborn into the likeness of Christ (1 Cor 4. 1415). In the first Christian centuries a bishop was emphatically a father in Christ, not primarily because of the parallel between the leader of a community and the head of a family, but because he baptized his flock and was chief teacher of his church. From the late 4th century the term was applied with special pertinence to those bishops of the past who were cited as authoritative witnesses to the Church's tradition. In the 5th-century Christological controversies the "proof from the fathers" was for the first time fully exploited, particularly in florilegia; all contending parties, e.g., cyril of alexandria (J. D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, 31 v. [Florence-Venice 175798]) and theodoret of cyr (Monumenta Germaniae 76:400), appealed to the authority of "the fathers."

In a move at once revolutionary and felicitous, augustine (C. Julian. 1.7.34) included among "the fathers" a writer who was not a bishop, jerome, citing him, by reason of his erudition, as a witness to orthodoxy in the matter of original sin. Recognizing that not all ecclesiastical writers were unexceptionable witnesses, vincent of lÉrins, the first to develop a theory of patristic proof, applied Augustine's insight more rigidly to "those approved teachers who, in their respective times and places, abided in the communion and faith of the one catholic Church" (Commonit. 1.3).

A partial list of "holy fathers," including the layman prosper of aquitaine, is found in the so-called Gelasian Decree (not a product of Pope Gelasius, but perhaps a faithful reflection of the 6th-century Roman Church), where the accent is on communion: "those who have not swerved at any point from society with the holy Roman Church, and have not been severed from the faith and preaching that are hers, but by God's grace have shared her fellowship to the last day of their lives" (4.3).

It is in harmony with this early evolution that the distinctively Catholic conception of the Fathers of the Church has emerged: those ecclesiastical writers of Christian antiquity who are distinguished for orthodoxy of doctrine and holiness of life and have therefore been approved by the Church as witnesses to its faith. In this conception four qualifications are regarded as essential.

Antiquity. The patristic era, as a literary period, opens with the first extant piece of extracanonical literature: in the present state of the evidence, Clement of Rome's Letter to the Corinthians (c. 96; see clement i, pope, st.), unless one persists in assigning an earlier date to the didache. More difficult is the problem of when the age of the Fathers closes. Since the end of the 18th century, Christian antiquity has generally been distinguished from the Middle Ages. Most commonly, Catholic scholars have tended to regard john damascene (d. c. 750) as the last of the Eastern Fathers and isidore of seville (d. c. 636) as the last of the Western, though some terminate the era as early as the advent of Emperor justinian i (527) or the death of Pope gregory i (604), or extend it to 850.

The problem is insoluble, for a solution presupposes answers to questions intimately linked with the periodization of history: which factorthe doctrinal or the literary or the cultural or the historicalought to predominate in delimiting the age of the Fathers? When do the Middle Ages begin? Is the patristic era conterminous with Greco-Roman culture? How are individual countries and different areas affected in this matter by, for example, Byzantinism, the iconoclast controversy, the Arab conquest, the entrance of Boniface and Columban on the cultural scene?

Orthodoxy. This qualification actually has three facets: excellence of orthodox doctrine. Doctrine in this instance is theological thought externalized in writing: the Fathers are authors. Orthodox doctrine does not imply utter freedom from error, for the Fathers are not simply witnesses to the faith, but in large part are theologians attempting a more or less profound penetration of revelation; rather it demands loyal doctrinal communion with the orthodox Church. The excellence desirable is an elusive quality: it may be originality or profundity or fullness, vigor or clarity or brilliance. It does not necessarily stand comparison with a later age; it does suppose a title to deathlessness on the strength of the author's relative place within the theology of his time.

Holiness. Incontestably, this does not involve formal canonization. Perhaps it does not demand even the spontaneous veneration shown to saints in the early Church. The minimum requisite is ordinary Christian virtue, consistent union with God, revealed concretely in harmony between doctrine and life, between faith and morals. The underlying presupposition is that holiness makes possible, without inescapably guaranteeing, a more exact or a more profound comprehension of divine revelation and Christian tradition.

Ecclesiastical Approval. The Church's approbation may be formal, as when a council or pope or even the martyrology declares an early writer's doctrinal and moral merits; or implicit, as when a council or pope or even the liturgy quotes or cites him approvingly; or virtual, in the presence of a general Christian consensus.

Although this conception of the Fathers is confessedly theological, dogmatic, and to some extent polemic, the scholarly disciplines of patrology and patristic theology have come to cover the same material, from different viewpoints, as the history of ancient Christian literature. Their sphere of interest includes Christian writers whose orthodoxy has been questioned (e.g., Origen) or who abandoned the Church (e.g., Tertullian), pagan authors who attacked the faith (e.g., Celsus and Porphyry), literary genres such as the New Testament apocrypha and the martyr acts. This broader conception of patristic study stems from a recognition that research into the Fathers will not yield its full theological harvest if it is limited to a compilation of proof texts or seeks only the consensus in doctrine and exegesis that is a privileged sign of authoritative Church teaching; it should reveal significant stages in the development of doctrine, in the Church's understanding and presentation of God's self-communication.

The primitive language of patristic literature was Greek (not classical, but Koine). However, it should be noted that the Greek Fathers and ecclesiastical writers of the 4th and 5th centuries were outstanding representatives of Atticism, so that men such as basil and john chrysostom were admired by the great Sophist Libanius for their style. In Rome, North Africa, and Gaul the use of Greek was prevalent as late as the 3d century. It was gradually supplanted in the East, outside the Greek area proper, by the national languages, especially Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian, and was displaced in the West by Latin, which apparently had its Christian origins in 2d- century Rome in translations of the Biblethough North Africa's claim to be the cradle of ecclesiastical Latin cannot be rejected out of hand.

Survey of the Literature. Patristic literature may be conveniently divided into three broad periods: its beginnings, to the Rescript of Toleration in 313 or the Council of Nicaea I in 325; its full flowering, to the Council of Chalcedon in 451; and its decline, to the 7th or 8th century.

Antenicene Fathers. Before Nicaea, three sets of writers have been isolated. There is, first, the group styled apostolic fathers because actually or supposedly they had personal contact with the Apostles or were instructed by their disciples. The quantitatively modest legacy of these menAntioch's impassioned ignatius, Smyrna's more prosaic polycarp, Rome's diplomatic Clement, and several others less distinguishedwith its pastoral tone, its eschatological emphasis, and its vivid remembrance of Christ, is a genuine reflection and resounding echo of the primitive Christian witness.

Overlapping this intra-Church literature is the apologetical and antiheretical legacy of the 2d century. The Greek apologists were born of the Church's reaction to paganism and Judaism. It was Christianity's first literary contact with the outside world, when a remarkable group of cultivated clerics and laymennotably justin martyr, athenagoras of athens, and theophilus of antiochprotested with the pen against imperial sword and mob rumor, presented the New Testament as the fulfillment of the Old, contrasted Christian truth with pagan myth, and pioneered in constructing a bridge between the new revelation and the old philosophy. The antiheretical literature, now in large part lost, was the Church's response to montanism and gnosticism; here the outstanding figure is irenaeus, widely regarded as the founder of Christian theology.

Toward a.d. 200 ecclesiastical literature took a new turn: after Irenaeus, the "man of tradition," the dominant characteristic is an impressive effort at comprehensive theological construction, stimulated in part by controversy, but more imperatively by the demands made on Christian intelligence by faith itself. The main centers of theological activity were alexandria in the East and carthage in the West, with Rome playing a secondary but important role. The most striking representatives of this new ferment were clement of alexandria, pioneer of Christian scholarship; origen, encyclopedic and insightful; the incisive, passionate, paradoxical tertullian; cyprian, with his refined ecclesial sense; and to a lesser extent methodius of olympus, hippolytus of rome, and novatian.

The Golden Age. Licinius's Rescript of Toleration from Nicomedia (more commonly but less accurately termed the Edict of Milan), which officially recognized Christianity's right to exist and conceded to Christians complete freedom of worship, paved the way for the golden age of patristic literature. It is the period of the first four general councils (nicaea i, constantinople i, ephesus, and chalcedon), a constructive, creative period for Christian theology through penetration and elaboration of basic truths with the Trinity and Christology stressed in the East; soteriology and ecclesiology in the West; and a distressing period by reason of the dissensions that rent the Church in arianism, donatism, manichaeism, pelagianism, apollinarianism, nestorianism, and monophysitism.

It was also a period of Christian humanism, in that the better authors combined theological competence with broad secular learning and a mastery of literary style. Christian literature flowered on many levels: apologies and dogmatic-polemic treatises, biography and Church history, letters and poetry and sermons, and the Biblical science of the Schools of alexandria, antioch, edessa, and nisibis.

A select catalogue of first-rate writers is itself an index of this bright hour in the story of literature and theology. In Egypt were the anti-Arian athanasius and the anti-Nestorian Cyril of Alexandria; the erudite theologian of the Trinity, didymus the blind; the founder of monastic mysticism, evagrius ponticus; and the "Platonist in a miter," synesius of cyrene. Asia Minor touched new theological heights in the three Cappadocians: the practical basil of caesarea, the eloquent gregory of nazianzus, and the speculative gregory of nyssa. In Antioch and Syria the writers of distinction were eusebius of caesarea, father of Church history; cyril of jerusalem, master of catechetical instruction; epiphanius of salamis, insatiable recorder of heresies; and the School of Antioch's most remarkable representatives, diodore of tarsus, john chrysostom, theodore of mopsuestia, and theodoret of cyr. In the West the dominant figures were hilary of poitiers, highly effective adversary of Arianism; ambrose of Milan, in pulpit and politics one of the most powerful personalities of the 4th century; the learned Biblical scholar and humanist jerome; leo i, superb rhetorician and defender of Western civilization; and above all, augustine, who "combined the creative power of Tertullian and the intellectual breadth of Origen with the ecclesiastical sense of Cyprian, the dialectical acumen of Aristotle with the idealistic verve and profound speculation of Plato, the practical sense of the Latin with the intellectual mobility of the Greek" (Altaner).

Period of Patristic Decline. After Chalcedon a certain decline in constructive theology set in. In part, the cause lay within Christianity itself; for, in the wake of the councils and great Fathers, the central problems of the faith seemed settled, theology appeared to have reached its peak, and so exegesis and speculation grew weak while spirituality and worship came to the fore. In this context, originality and creativity inevitably ebbed; traditionalism, intellectual subservience to the past, was in possession; catenae and florilegia or collections of texts and citations, multiplied. In part, the explanation is to be sought in the circumstances of the time: the onslaught of barbarians in the West; Caesaropapism in the East; the regrettable rifting of East and West; the culture of Islam laid on Christian ruins. And still the literature is not negligible.

Aristotelian philosophy was put at the service of theological thought, and so the ground was prepared for the flowering of medieval scholasticism. Even the names are not without distinction: boethius, with his translations of Aristotle; gregory the great, influential interpreter of Scripture and master of sacerdotal spirituality; isidore of seville, historian, ascetical writer, and encyclopedist; pseudo-dionysius the Areopagite, profound theologian of the mystical life; maximus the confessor, scholarly adversary of monotheletism; and john damascene, synthesizer of Greek patristic wisdom.

This outline, valid enough for the mainstream of patrology, has the disadvantage of disregarding the Oriental area, the literature in languages other than Latin and Greek. Syriac literature, in the Eastern Aramaic dialect of Edessa that became the literary language of Christian writers in northern Syria and western Mesopotamia, found its high point in ephrem the syrian, controversialist, dogmatic and ascetical theologian, exegete, and poet; besides the orthodox authors, a number of Nestorian (e.g., narses, founder of the School of Nisibis) and Monophysite (e.g., philoxenus of mabbugh) theologians are important for the history of theology.

Coptic literature has bequeathed precious Gnostic and Manichaean texts, the genuine and apocryphal Scriptures, the lives of martyrs and monks (e.g., pachomius and shenoute, the most significant representatives of Egyptian cenobitism), anecdotal accounts such as the apophthegmata patrum, Church orders, and homiletic and liturgical documents. Georgian literature in its oldest period (4th century to c. 700) is strong in translations from the Greek and Armenian, not only the Bible and apocrypha but lives of saints and versions of Fathers (e.g., hippolytus); native literature is richest in hagiography.

In Armenian, historians have perhaps the greatest importance (e.g., Agathangelus), though theology is far from negligible (e.g., Eznik of Kolb's Confutation of the Sects ). The first period of Ethiopic literature (Axumite Empire, 4th to 7th centuries) discloses translations of the Bible, of scriptural apocrypha (e.g., Enoch) and Greek patristic works (e.g., Shepherd of hermas), and of monastic rules; whether there was also an indigenous literature is not clear. The oldest extant writings of Arabic Christianity stem from the 8th century, when the language of the Muslim conquerors became the literary and everyday language of the Christians in Palestine, Egypt, and Syria.

Bibliography: Editions and translations. j. p. migne, Patrologiae cursus completus, 382 v. (Paris 184466). Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum (Vienna 1866). Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten Jahrhunderte (Leipzig 1897). Corpus christianorum. Series latina (Turnhout, Belgium 1953). Patrologia orientalis (Paris 1903). Corpus scriptorum christianorum orientalium (Paris-Louvain 1903). Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur (Leipzig 1882). Sources chrétiennes (Paris 1942). Ancient Christian Writers (Westminster, Md. 1946). The Fathers of the Church (Washington 1947). A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, 45 v. (Oxford 183888). The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 v. (American repr. of Edinburgh ed., Buffalo 188497). A Selected Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2 ser., 28 v. (Buffalo-New York 18861900; repr. Grand Rapids, Mich. 195256). Bibliothek der Kirchenväter, 2 ser., 83 v. (Kempten 191139). Literature. b. altaner, Patrology, tr. h. graef from the 5th German ed. (New York 1960). j. quasten, Patrology, 3 v. (Westminster, MD 1950) v.l3, with French (Paris 1955) and Spanish (Madrid 1961) versions that update bibliographies. É. amann, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 12:11921215. a. stuiber, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 6:272274. o. bardenhewer, Geschichte der altkirchlichen Literatur, 5 v. (Freiburg 19131932) v.15. a. von harnack, Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur bis Eusebius, 2 v. in 4 (Leipzig 18931904). h. g. beck, Kirche und theologische Literatur im byzantinischen Reich (Munich 1959). Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 1:142144, Ethiopic; 280288, Greek and Latin; 529531, Arabic; 611612, Armenian; 2:13991400, Georgian; 4:811, Coptic; 6:581583, Syriac. J. De Ghellinck, Patristique et moyenâge: Etudes d'histoire littéraire et doctrinale v.1 (2d ed. Paris 1949) 3:103244, 339484. j. n. d. kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (2d ed. New York 1960). f. ueberweg, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, ed. k. praechter et al., 5 v. (Berlin 192328) v.2.

[w. j. burghardt]