Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo
  • The Appeal to the Fathers
  • Classification of Patristic Writings
    • Apostolic Fathers and the Second Century
    • Third Century
    • Fourth Century
    • Fifth Century
    • Sixth Century
  • Characteristics of Patristic Writings
    • Commentaries
    • Preachers
    • Writers
    • East and West
    • theology ">Theology
    • Discipline, Liturgy, Ascetics
    • Historical Materials
  • Patristic Study

The word Father is used in the New Testament to mean a teacher of spiritual things, by whose means the soul of man is born again into the likeness of Christ : "For if you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, by the gospel, I have begotten you. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ " ( 1 Corinthians 4:15, 16 ; cf. Galatians 4:19 ). The first teachers of Christianity seem to be collectively spoken of as "the Fathers" ( 2 Peter 3:4 ).

Thus St. Irenæus defines that a teacher is a father, and a disciple is a son (iv, 41,2), and so says Clement of Alexandria (Strom., I, i, 1). A bishop is emphatically a "father in Christ ", both because it was he, in early times, who baptized all his flock, and because he is the chief teacher of his church. But he is also regarded by the early Fathers, such as Hegesippus, Irenaeus, and Tertullian as the recipient of the tradition of his predecessors in the see, and consequently as the witness and representative of the faith of his Church before Catholicity and the world. Hence the expression "the Fathers" comes naturally to be applied to the holy bishops of a preceding age, whether of the last generation or further back, since they are the parents at whose knee the Church of today was taught her belief. It is also applicable in an eminent way to bishops sitting in council, "the Fathers of Nicaea", "the Fathers of Trent ". Thus Fathers have learnt from Fathers, and in the last resort from the Apostles, who are sometimes called Fathers in this sense: "They are your Fathers", says St. Leo, of the Princes of the Apostles, speaking to the Romans; St. Hilary of Arles calls them sancti patres ; Clement of Alexandria says that his teachers, from Greece, Ionia, Coele-Syria, Egypt, the Orient, Assyria, Palestine, respectively, had handed on to him the tradition of blessed teaching from Peter, and James, and John, and Paul, receiving it "as son from father".

It follows that, as our own Fathers are the predecessors who have taught us, so the Fathers of the whole Church are especially the earlier teachers, who instructed her in the teaching of the Apostles, during her infancy and first growth. It is difficult to define the first age of the Church, or the age of the Fathers. It is a common habit to stop the study of the early Church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. "The Fathers" must undoubtedly include, in the West, St. Gregory the Great (d. 604), and in the East, St. John Damascene (d. about 754). It is frequently said that St. Bernard (d. 1153) was the last of the Fathers, and Migne's "Patrologia Latina" extends to Innocent III, halting only on the verge of the thirteenth century, while his "Patrologia Graeca" goes as far as the Council of Florence (1438-9). These limits are evidently too wide, It will be best to consider that the great merit of St. Bernard as a writer lies in his resemblance in style and matter to the greatest among the Fathers, in spite of the difference of period. St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636) and the Venerable Bede (d. 735) are to be classed among the Fathers, but they may be said to have been born out of due time, as St. Theodore the Studite was in the East.

I. THE APPEAL TO THE FATHERS

Thus the use of the term Fathers has been continuous, yet it could not at first he employed in precisely the modern sense of Fathers of the Church. In early days the expression referred to writers who were then quite recent. It is still applied to those writers who are to us the ancients, but no longer in the same way to writers who are now recent. Appeals to the Fathers are a subdivision of appeals to tradition. In the first half of the second century begin the appeals to the sub-Apostolic age: Papias appeals to the presbyters, and through them to the Apostles. Half a century later St. Irenæus supplements this method by an appeal to the tradition handed down in every Church by the succession of its bishops (Adv. Haer., III, i-iii), and Tertullian clinches this argument by the observation that as all the Churches agree, their tradition is secure, for they could not all have strayed by chance into the same error (Praescr., xxviii). The appeal is thus to Churches and their bishops, none but bishops being the authoritative exponents of the doctrine of their Churches. As late as 341 the bishops of the Dedication Council at Antioch declared: "We are not followers of Arius ; for how could we, who are bishops, be disciples of a priest ?"

Yet slowly, as the appeals to the presbyters died out, there was arising by the side of appeals to the Churches a third method: the custom of appealing to Christian teachers who were not necessarily bishops. While, without the Church, Gnostic schools were substituted for churches, within the Church, Catholic schools were growing up. Philosophers like Justin and most of the numerous second-century apologists were reasoning about religion, and the great catechetical school of Alexandria was gathering renown. Great bishops and saints like Dionysius of Alexandria, Gregory Thaumaturgus of Pontus, Firmilian of Cappadocia, and Alexander of Jerusalem were proud to be disciples of the priest Origen. The bishop Cyprian called daily for the works of the priest Tertullian with the words "Give me the master". The Patriarch Athanasius refers for the ancient use of the word homoousios , not merely to the two Dionysii, but to the priest Theognostus. Yet these priest-teachers are not yet called Fathers, and the greatest among them, Tertullian, Clement, Origen, Hippolytus, Novatian, Lucian, happen to be tinged with heresy ; two became antipopes ; one is the father of Arianism ; another was condemned by a general council. In each case we might apply the words used by St. Hilary of Tertullian : "Sequenti errore detraxit scriptis probabilibus auctoritatem" (Comm. in Matt., v, 1, cited by Vincent of Lérins, 2.4).

A fourth form of appeal was better founded and of enduring value. Eventually it appeared that bishops as well as priests were fallible. In the second century the bishops were orthodox. In the third they were often found wanting. In the fourth they were the leaders of schisms, and heresies, in the Meletian and Donatist troubles and in the long Arian struggle, in which few were found to stand firm against the insidious persecution of Constantius. It came to be seen that the true Fathers of the Church are those Catholic teachers who have persevered in her communion, and whose teaching has been recognized as orthodox. So it came to pass that out of the four " Latin Doctors" one is not a bishop. Two other Fathers who were not bishops have been declared to be Doctors of the Church , Bede and John Damascene, while among the Doctors outside the patristic period we find two more priests, the incomparable St. Bernard and the greatest of all theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas. Nay, few writers had such great authority in the Schools of the Middle Ages as the layman Boethius, many of whose definitions are still commonplaces of theology.

Similarly (we may notice in passing) the name "Father", which originally belonged to bishops, has been as it were delegated to priests, especially as ministers of the Sacrament of Penance. it is now a form of address to all priests in Spain, in Ireland, and, of recent years, in England and the United States.

Papas or Pappas , Pope, was a term of respect for eminent bishops (e.g. in letters to St. Cyprian and to St. Augustine -- neither of these writers seems to use it in addressing other bishops, except when St. Augustine writes to Rome ). Eventually the term was reserved to the bishops of Rome and Alexandria ; yet in the East today every priest is a "pope". The Aramaic abbe was used from early times for the superiors of religious houses. But through the abuse of granting abbeys in commendam to seculars, it has become a polite title for all secular clerics, even seminarists in Italy, and especially in France, whereas all religious who are priests are addressed as "Father".

We receive only, says St. Basil, what we have been taught by the holy Fathers; and he adds that in his Church of Caesarea the faith of the holy Fathers of Nicaea has long been implanted (Ep. cxl, 2). St. Gregory Nazianzen declares that he holds fast the teaching which he heard from the holy Oracles, and was taught by the holy Fathers. These Cappadocian saints seem to be the first to appeal to a real catena of Fathers. The appeal to one or two was already common enough; but not even the learned Eusebius had thought of a long string of authorities. St. Basil, for example (De Spir. S., ii, 29), cites for the formula "with the Holy Ghost " in the doxology, the example of Irenaeus, Clement and Dionysius of Alexandria, Dionysius of Rome, Eusebius of Caesarea, Origen, Africanus, the preces lucerariae said at the lighting of lamps, Athenagoras, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Firmilian, Meletius.

In the fifth century this method became a stereotyped custom. St. Jerome is perhaps the first writer to try to establish his interpretation of a text by a string of exegetes (Ep. cxii, ad Aug.). Paulinus, the deacon and biographer of St. Ambrose, in the libellus he presented against the Pelagians to Pope Zosimus in 417, quotes Cyprian, Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen, and the decrees of the late Pope Innocent. In 420 St. Augustine quotes Cyprian and Ambrose against the same heretics (C. duas Epp. Pel., iv). Julian of Eclanum quoted Chrysostom and Basil; St. Augustine replies to him in 421 (Contra Julianum, i) with Irenaeus, Cyprian, Reticius, Olympius, Hilary, Ambrose, the decrees of African councils, and above all Popes Innocent and Zosimus. In a celebrated passage he argues that these Western writers are more than sufficient, but as Julian had appealed to the East, to the East, he shall go, and the saint adds Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, Synod of Diospolis, Chrysostom. To these he adds Jerome (c. xxxiv): "Nor should you think Jerome, because he was a priest, is to be despised", and adds a eulogy. This is amusing, when we remember that Jerome in a fit of irritation, fifteen before, had written to Augustine (Ep. cxlii) "Do not excite against me the silly crowd of the ignorant, who venerate you as a bishop, and receive you with the honour due to a prelate when you declaim in the Church, whereas they think little of me, an old man, nearly decrepit, in my monastery in the solitude of the country."

In the second book "Contra Julianum", St. Augustine again cites Ambrose frequently, and Cyprian, Gregory Nazianzen, Hilary, Chrysostom; in ii, 37, he recapitulates the nine names (omitting councils and popes ), adding (iii, 32) Innocent and Jerome. A few years later the Semipelagians of Southern Gaul, who were led by St. Hilary of Arles , St. Vincent of Lérins , and Bl. Cassian, refuse to accept St. Augustine's severe view of predestination because "contrarium putant patrum opinioni et ecclesiastico sensui". Their opponent St. Prosper, who was trying to convert them to Augustinianism, complains: "Obstinationem suam vetustate defendunt" (Ep. inter Atig. ccxxv, 2), and they said that no ecclesiastical writer had ever before interpreted Romans quite as St. Augustine did -- which was probably true enough. The interest of this attitude lies in the fact that it was, if not new at least more definite than any earlier appeal to antiquity. Through most of the fourth century, the controversy with the Arians had turned upon Scripture, and appeals to past authority were few. But the appeal to the Fathers was never the most imposing locus theologicus , for they could not easily be assembled so as to form an absolutely conclusive test. On the other hand up to the end of the fourth century, there were practically no infallible definitions available, except condemnations of heresies, chiefly by popes. By the time that the Arian reaction under Valens caused the Eastern conservatives to draw towards the orthodox, and prepared the restoration of orthodoxy to power by Theodosius, the Nicene decisions were beginning to be looked upon as sacrosanct, and that council to be preferred to a unique position above all others. By 430, the date we have reached, the Creed we now say at Mass was revered in the East, whether rightly or wrongly, as the work of the 150 Fathers of Constantinople in 381, and there were also new papal decisions, especially the tractoria of Pope Zosimus, which in 418 had been sent to all the bishops of the world to be signed.

It is to living authority, the idea of which had thus come to the fore, that St. Prosper was appealing in his controversy with the Lerinese school. When he went to Gaul, in 431, as papal envoy, just after St. Augustine's death, he replied to their difficulties, not by reiterating that saint's hardest arguments, but by taking with him a letter from Pope St. Celestine, in which St. Augustine is extolled as having been held by the pope's predecessors to be "inter magistros optimos". No one is to be allowed to depreciate him, but it is not said that every word of his is to be followed. The disturbers had appealed to the Holy See, and the reply is "Desinat incessere novitas vetustatem" (Let novelty cease to attack antiquity!). An appendix is added, not of the opinions of ancient Fathers, but of recent popes, since the very same monks who thought St. Augustine went too far, professed (says the appendix) "that they followed and approved only what the most holy See of the Blessed Apostle Peter sanctioned and taught by the ministry of its prelates ". A list therefore follows of "the judgments of the rulers of the Roman Church ", to which are added some sentences of African councils, "which indeed the Apostolic bishops made their own when they approved them". To these inviolabiles sanctiones (we might roughly render " infallible utterances") prayers used in the sacraments are appended "ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi" -- a frequently misquoted phrase -- and in conclusion, it is declared that these testimonies of the Apostolic See are sufficient, "so that we consider not to be Catholic at all whatever shall appear to be contrary to the decisions we have cited". Thus the decisions of the Apostolic See are put on a very different level from the views of St. Augustine, just as that saint always drew a sharp distinction between the resolutions of African councils or the extracts from the Fathers, on the one hand, and the decrees of Popes Innocent and Zosimus on the other.

Three years later a famous document on tradition and its use emanated from the Lerinese school, the "Commonitorium" of St. Vincent. He whole-heartedly accepted the letter of Pope Celestine, and he quoted it as an authoritative and irresistible witness to his own doctrine that where quod ubique , or universitas , is uncertain, we must turn to quod semper , or antiquitas . Nothing could be more to his purpose than the pope's : "Desinat incessere novitas vetustatem." The Œcumenical Council of Ephesus had been held in the same year that Celestine wrote. Its Acts were before St. Vincent, and it is clear that he looked upon both pope and council as decisive authorities. It was necessary to establish this, before turning to his famous canon, quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus otherwise universitas, antiquitas, consensio . It was not a new criterion, else it would have committed suicide by its very expression. But never had the doctrine been so admirably phrased, so limpidly explained, so adequately exemplified. Even the law of the evolution of dogma is defined by Vincent in language which can hardly be surpassed for exactness and vigour. St. Vincent's triple test is wholly misunderstood if it is taken to be the ordinary rule of faith. Like all Catholics he took the ordinary rule to be the living magisterium of the Church, and he assumes that the formal decision in cases of doubt lies with the Apostolic See, or with a general council. But cases of doubt arise when no such decision is forthcoming. Then it is that the three tests are to be applied, not simultaneously, but, if necessary, in succession.

When an error is found in one corner of the Church, then the first test, universitas, quod ubique , is an unanswerable refutation, nor is there any need to examine further (iii, 7, 8). But if an error attacks the whole Church, then antiquitas, quod semper is to be appealed to, that is, a consensus existing before the novelty arose. Still, in the previous period one or two teachers, even men of great fame, may have erred. Then we betake ourselves to quod ab omnibus, consensio , to the many against the few (if possible to a general council ; if not, to an examination of writings). Those few are a trial of faith "ut tentet vos Dominus Deus vester" ( Deuteronomy 13:1 sqq. ). So Tertullian was a magna tentatio ; so was Origen -- indeed the greatest temptation of all. We must know that whenever what is new or unheard before is introduced by one man beyond or against all the saints, it pertains not to religion but to temptation (xx, 49).

Who are the "Saints" to whom we appeal? The reply is a definition of "Fathers of the Church" given with all St. Vincent's inimitable accuracy: "Inter se majorem consulat interrogetque sententias, eorum dumtaxat qui, diversis licet temporibus et locis, in unius tamen ecclesiae Catholicae communione et fide permanentes, magistri probabiles exstiterunt ; et quicquid non unus aut duo tantum, sed omnes pariter uno eodemque consensu aperte, frequenter, perseveranter tenuisse, scripsisse, docuisse cognoverit, id sibi quoque intelligat absque ulla dubitatione credendum" (iii, 8). This unambiguous sentence defines for us what is the right way of appealing to the Fathers, and the italicized words perfectly explain what is a "Father": "Those alone who, though in diverse times and places, yet persevering in time, communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, have been approved teachers."

The same result is obtained by modern theologians, in their definitions; e.g. Fessler thus defines what constitutes a "Father":

  • orthodox doctrine and learning;
  • holiness of life;
  • (at the present day) a certain antiquity.
  • The criteria by which we judge whether a writer is a "Father" or not are:

  • citation by a general council, or
  • in public Acts of popes addressed to the Church or concerning Faith ;
  • encomium in the Roman Martyrology as "sanctitate et doctrina insignis";
  • public reading in Churches in early centuries;
  • citations, with praise, as an authority as to the Faith by some of the more celebrated Fathers.
  • Early authors, though belonging to the Church, who fail to reach this standard are simply ecclesiastical writers ("Patrologia", ed. Jungmann, ch. i, #11). On the other hand, where the appeal is not to the authority of the writer, but his testimony is merely required to the belief of his time, one writer is as good as another, and if a Father is cited for this purpose, it is not as a Father that he is cited, but merely as a witness to facts well known to him. For the history of dogma, therefore, the works of ecclesiastical writers who are not only not approved, but even heretical, are often just as valuable as those of the Fathers. On the other hand, the witness of one Father is occasionally of great weight for doctrine when taken singly, if he is teaching a subject on which he is recognized by the Church as an especial authority, e.g., St. Athanasius on the Divinity of the Son, St. Augustine on the Holy Trinity, etc.

    There are a few cases in which a general council has given approbation to the work of a Father, the most important being the two letters of St. Cyril of Alexandria which were read at the Council of Ephesus. But the authority of single Fathers considered in itself, says Franzelin (De traditione, thesis xv), "is not infallible or peremptory; though piety and sound reason agree that the theological opinions of such individuals should not be treated lightly, and should not without great caution be interpreted in a sense which clashes with the common doctrine of other Fathers." The reason is plain enough; they were holy men, who are not to be presumed to have intended to stray from the doctrine of the Church, and their doubtful utterances are therefore to be taken in the best sense of which they are capable. If they cannot be explained in an orthodox sense, we have to admit that not the greatest is immune from ignorance or accidental error or obscurity. But on the use of the Fathers in theological questions, the article T RADITION and the ordinary dogmatic treatises on that subject must be consulted, as it is proper here only to deal with the historical development of their use.

    The subject was never treated as a part of dogmatic theology until the rise of what is now commonly called "Theologia fundamentalis", in the sixteenth century, the founders of which are Melchior Canus and Bellarmine. The former has a discussion of the use of the Fathers in deciding questions of faith (De locis theologicis, vii). The Protestant Reformers attacked the authority of the Fathers. The most famous of these opponents is Dalbeus (Jean Daillé, 1594-1670, "Traité de l'emploi des saints Pères", 1632; in Latin "De usu Patrum", 1656). But their objections are long since forgotten.

    Having traced the development of the use of the Fathers up to the period of its frequent employment, and of its formal statement by St. Vincent of Lérins, it will be well to give a glance at the continuation of the practice. We saw that, in 431, it was possible for St. Vincent (in a book which has been most unreasonably taken to be a mere polemic against St. Augustine -- a notion which is amply refuted by the use made in it of St. Celestine's letter) to define the meaning and method of patristic appeals. From that time onward they are very common. In the Council of Ephesus, 431, as St. Vincent points out, St. Cyril presented a series of quotations from the Fathers, tôn hagiôtatôn kai hosiôtatôn paterôn kai episkopôn diaphorôn marturôn , which were read on the motion of Flavian, Bishop of Philippi. They were from Peter I of Alexandria, Martyr, Athanasius, Popes Julius and Felix (forgeries), Theophilus, Cyprian, Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Atticus, Amphilochius.

    On the other hand Eutyches, when tried at Constantinople by St. Flavian , in 449, refused to accept either Fathers or councils as authorities, confining himself to Holy Scripture , a position which horrified his judges (see E UTYCHES ). In the following year St. Leo sent his legates, Abundius and Asterius, to Constantinople with a list of testimonies from Hilary, Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Theophilus, Gregory Nazianzen , Basil, Cyril of Alexandria . They were signed in that city, but were not produced at the Council of Chalcedon in the following year. Thenceforward the custom is fixed, and it is unnecessary to give examples. However, that of the sixth council in 680 is important: Pope St. Agatho sent a long series of extracts from Rome, and the leader of the Monothelites, Macarius of Antioch, presented another. Both sets were carefully verified from the library of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and sealed.

    It should be noted that it was never in such cases thought necessary to trace a doctrine back to the earliest times; St. Vincent demanded the proof of the Church's belief before a doubt arose -- this is his notion of antiquitas ; and in conformity with this view, the Fathers quoted by councils and popes and Fathers are for the most part recent ( Petavius, De Incarn., XIV, 15, 2-5).

    In the last years of the fifth century a famous document, attributed to Popes Gelasius and Hormisdas, adds to decrees of St. Damasus of 382 a list of books which are approved, and another of those disapproved. In its present form the list of approved Fathers comprises Cyprian, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Theophilus, Hilary, Cyril of Alexandria (wanting in one manuscript ), Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Prosper, Leo ("every iota" of the tome to Flavian is to be accepted under anathema ), and "also the treatises of all orthodox Fathers, who deviated in nothing from the fellowship of the holy Roman Church , and were not separated from her faith and preaching, but were participators through the grace of God until the end of their life in her communion; also the decretal letters, which most blessed popes have given at various times when consulted by various Fathers, are to be received with veneration". Orosius, Sedulius, and Juvencus are praised.

    Rufinus and Origen are rejected. Eusebius's "History" and "Chronicle" are not to be condemned altogether, though in another part of the list they appear as "apocrypha" with Tertullian, Lactantius, Africanus, Commodian, Clement of Alexandria, Arnobius, Cassian, Victorinus of Pettau, Faustus, and the works of heretics, and forged Scriptural documents.

    The later Fathers constantly used the writings of the earlier. For instance, St. Caesarius of Arles drew freely on St. Augustine's sermons, and embodied them in collections of his own; St. Gregory the Great has largely founded himself on St. Augustine; St. Isidore rests upon all his predecessors; St. John Damascene's great work is a synthesis of patristic theology. St. Bede'ssermons are a cento from the greater Fathers. Eugippius made a selection from St. Augustine's writings, which had an immense vogue. Cassiodorus made a collection of select commentaries by various writers on all the books of Holy Scripture . St. Benedict especially recommended patristic study, and his sons have observed his advice: "Ad perfectionem conversationis qui festinat, sunt doctrinae sanctorum Patrum, quarum observatio perducat hominem ad celsitudinem perfectionis . . . quis liber sanctorum catholicorum Patrum hoc non resonat, ut recto cursu perveniamus ad creatorem nostrum?" ( Sanet Regula, lxxiii). Florilegia and catenae became common from the fifth century onwards. They are mostly anonymous, but those in the East which go under the name Œcumenius are well known. Most famous of all throughout the Middle Ages was the "Glossa ordinaria" attributed to Walafrid Strabo. The "Catena aurea" of St. Thomas Aquinas is still in use. (See C ATENAE , and the valuable matter collected by Turner in Hastings, Dict. of the Bible, V, 521.)

    St. Augustine was early recognized as the first of the Western Fathers, with St. Ambrose and St. Jerome by his side. St. Gregory the Great was added, and these four became "the Latin Doctors". St. Leo, in some ways the greatest of theologians, was excluded, both on account of the paucity of his writings, and by the fact that his letters had a far higher authority as papal utterances.

    In the East St. John Chrysostom has always been the most popular, as he is the most voluminous, of the Fathers. With the great St. Basil, the father of monachism, and St. Gregory Nazianzen, famous for the purity of his faith, he made up the triumvirate called "the three hierarchs ", familiar up to the present day in Eastern art. St. Athanasius was added to these by the Westerns, so that four might answer to four. (See D OCTORS OF THE C HURCH .)

    It will be observed that many of the writers rejected in the Gelasian list lived and died in Catholic communion, but incorrectness in some part of their writings, e.g. the Semipelagian error attributed to Cassian and Faustus, the chiliasm of the conclusion of Victorinus's commentary on the Apocalypse (St. Jerome issued an expurgated edition, the only one in print as yet), the unsoundness of the lost "Hypotyposes" of Clement, and so forth, prevented such writers from being spoken of, as Hilary was by Jerome, "inoffenso pede percurritur". As all the more important doctrines of the Church (except that of the Canon and the inspiration of Scripture) may be proved, or at least illustrated, from Scripture, the widest office of tradition is the interpretation of Scripture, and the authority of the Fathers is here of very great importance. Nevertheless it is only then necessarily to be followed when all are of one mind : "Nemo . . . contra unanimum consensum Patrum ipsam Scripturam sacram interpretari audeat", says the Council of Trent ; and the Creed of Pius IV has similarly: ". . . nec eam unquam nisi juxta unanimum consensum Patrum accipiam et interpretabor". The Vatican Council echoes Trent : "nemini licere . . . contra unanimum sensum Patrum ipsam Scripturam sacram interpretari."

    A consensus of the Fathers is not, of course, to be expected in very small matters: "Quae tamen antiqua sanctorum patrum consensio non in omnibus divinae legis quaestiunculis, sed solum certe praecipue in fidei regula magno nobis studio et investiganda est et sequenda" (Vincent, xxviii, 72). This is not the method, adds St. Vincent, against widespread and inveterate heresies, but rather against novelties, to be applied directly they appear. A better instance could hardly be given than the way in which Adoptionism was met by the Council of Frankfort in 794, nor could the principle be better expressed than by the Fathers of the Council :

    "Tenete vos intra terminos Patrum, et nolite novas versare quaestiunculas; ad nihilum enim valent nisi ad subversionem audientium. Sufficit enim vobis sanctorum Patrum vestigia sequi, et illorum dicta firma tenere fide. Illi enim in Domino nostri exstiterunt doctores in fide et ductores ad vitam; quorum et sapientia Spiritu Dei plena libris legitur inscripta, et vita meritorum miraculis clara et sanctissima; quorum animae apud Deum Dei Filium, D.N.J.C. pro magno pietatis labore regnant in caelis. Hos ergo tota animi virtute, toto caritatis affectu sequimini, beatissimi fratres, ut horum inconcussa firmitate doctrinis adhaerentes, consortium aeternae beatitudinis . . . cum illis habere mereamini in caelis" ("Synodica ad Episc." in Mansi, XIII, 897-8).

    And an excellent act of faith in the tradition of the Church is that of Charlemagne (ibid., 902) made on the same occasion:

    "Apostolicae sedi et antiquis ab initio nascentis ecclesiae et catholicis traditionibus tota mentis intentione, tota cordis alacritate, me conjungo. Quicquid in illorum legitur libris, qui divino Spiritu afflati, toti orbi a Deo Christo dati sunt doctores, indubitanter teneo; hoc ad salutem animae meae sufficere credens, quod sacratissimae evangelicae veritatis pandit historia, quod apostolica in suis epistolis confirmat auctoritas, quod eximii Sacrae Scripturae tractatores et praecipui Christianae fidei doctores ad perpetuam posteris scriptum reliquerunt memoriam."

    II. CLASSIFICATION OF PATRISTIC WRITINGS

    In order to get a good view of the patristic period, the Fathers may be divided in various ways. One favourite method is by periods; the Ante-Nicene Fathers till 325; the Great Fathers of the fourth century and half the fifth (325-451); and the later Fathers. A more obvious division is into Easterns and Westerns, and the Easterns will comprise writers in Greek, Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic. A convenient division into smaller groups will be by periods, nationalities and character of writings; for in the East and West there were many races, and some of the ecclesiastical writers are apologists, some preachers, some historians, some commentators, and so forth.

    A. After (1) the Apostolic Fathers come in the second century (2) the Greek apologists, followed by (3) the Western apologists somewhat later, (4) the Gnostic and Marcionite heretics with their apocryphal Scriptures, and (5) the Catholic replies to them.

    B. The third century gives us (1) the Alexandrian writers of the catechetical school, (2) the writers of Asia Minor and (3) Palestine, and the first Western writers, (4) at Rome, Hippolytus (in Greek), and Novatian, (5) the great African writers, and a few others.

    C. The fourth century opens with (1) the apologetic and the historical works of Eusebius of Caesarea, with whom we may class St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Epiphanius, (2) the Alexandrian writers Athanasius, Didymus, and others, (3) the Cappadocians, (4) the Antiochenes, (5) the Syriac writers. In the West we have (6) the opponents of Arianism, (7) the Italians, including Jerome, (8) the Africans, and (9) the Spanish and Gallic writers.

    D. The fifth century gives us (1) the Nestorian controversy, (2) the Eutychian controversy, including the Western St. Leo ; (3) the historians. In the West (4) the school of Lérins, (5) the letters of the popes.

    E. The sixth century and the seventh give us less important names and they must be grouped in a more mechanical way.

    A

    (1) If we now take these groups in detail we find the letters of the chief Apostolic Fathers, St. Clement, St. Ignatius, and St. Polycarp , venerable not merely for their antiquity, but for a certain simplicity and nobility of thought and style which is very moving to the reader. Their quotations from the New Testament are quite free. They offer most important information to the historian, though in somewhat homoeopathic quantities. To these we add the Didache, probably the earliest of all; the curious allegorizing anti-Jewish epistle which goes under the name of Barnabas; the Shepherd of Hermas, a rather dull series of visions chiefly connected with penance and pardon, composed by the brother of Pope Pius I , and long appended to the New Testament as of almost canonical importance. The works of Papias, the disciple of St. John and Aristion, are lost, all but a few precious fragments.

    (2) The apologists are most of them philosophic in their treatment of Christianity. Some of their works were presented to emperors in order to disarm persecutions. We must not always accept the view given to outsiders by the apologists, as representing the whole of the Christianity they knew and practised. The apologies of Quadratus to Hadrian, of Aristo of Pella to the Jews, of Miltiades, of Apollinaris of Hierapolis, and of Melito of Sardis are lost to us. But we still possess several of greater importance. That of Aristides of Athens was presented to Antoninus Pius, and deals principally with the knowledge of the true God. The fine apology of St. Justin with its appendix is above all interesting for its description of the liturgy at Rome c. 150. His arguments against the Jews are found in the well-composed "Dialogue with Trypho", where he speaks of the Apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse in a manner which is of first-rate importance in the mouth of a man who was converted at Ephesus some time before the year 132. The "Apology" of Justin's Syrian disciple Tatian is a less conciliatory work, and its author fell into heresy. Athenagoras, an Athenian (c. 177), addressed to Marcus Aurelius and Commodus an eloquent refutation of the absurd calumnies against Christians. Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, about the same date, wrote three books of apology addressed to a certain Autolycus.

    (3) All these works are of considerable literary ability. This is not the case with the great Latin apology which closely follows them in date, the "Apologeticus" of Tertullian, which is in the uncouth and untranslatable language affected by its author. Nevertheless it is a work of extraordinary genius, in interest and value far above all the rest, and for energy and boldness it is incomparable. His fierce "Ad Scapulam" is a warning addressed to a persecuting proconsul. "Adversus Judaeos" is a title which explains itself. The other Latin apologists are later. The "Octavios" of Minucius Felix is as polished and gentle as Tertullian is rough. Its date is uncertain. If the "Apologeticus "was well calculated to infuse courage into the persecuted Christian, the "Octavius" was more likely to impress the inquiring pagan, if so be that more flies are caught with honey than with vinegar. With these works we may mention the much later Lactantius, the most perfect of all in literary form ("Divinae Institutiones", c. 305-10, and "De Mortibus persecutorum", c. 314). Greek apologies probably later than the second century are the "Irrisiones" of Hermias, and the very beautiful "Epistle" to Diognetus.

    (4) The heretical writings of the second century are mostly lost. The Gnostics had schools and philosophized; their writers were numerous. Some curious works have come down to us in Coptic. The letter of Ptolemeus to Flora in Epiphanius is almost the only Greek fragment of real importance. Marcion founded not a school but a Church, and his New Testament, consisting of St. Luke and St. Paul, is preserved to some extent in the works written against him by Tertullian and Epiphanius. Of the writings of Greek Montanists and of other early heretics, almost nothing remains. The Gnostics composed a quantity of apocryphal Gospels amid Acts of individual Apostles, large portions of which are preserved, mostly in fragments, in Latin revisions, or in Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, or Slavonic versions. To these are to be added such well-known forgeries as the letters of Paul to Seneca, and the Apocalypse of Peter, of which a fragment was recently found in the Fayûm.

    (5) Replies to the attacks of heretics form, next to the apologetic against heathen persecutors on the one hand and Jews on the other, the characteristic Catholic literature of the second century. The "Syntagma" of St. Justin against all heresies is lost. Earlier yet, St. Papias (already mentioned) had directed his efforts to the refutation of the rising errors, and the same preoccupation is seen in St. Ignatius and St. Polycarp. Hegesippus, a converted Jew of Palestine, journeyed to Corinth and Rome, where he stayed from the episcopate of Anicetus till that of Eleutherius (c. 160-180), with the intention of refuting the novelties of the Gnostics and Marcionites by an appeal to tradition. His work is lost. But the great work of St. Irenæus (c. 180) against heresies is fou


    More Encyclopedia

    The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

    Catholic Encyclopedia

    Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

    No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

    Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

    Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online

    Newsletters

    Newsletter Sign Up icon

    Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

    Daily Readings

    Reading 1, Ephesians 6:10-20
    10 Finally, grow strong in the Lord, with the ... Read More

    Psalm, Psalms 144:1, 2, 9-10
    1 [Of David] Blessed be Yahweh, my rock, who trains ... Read More

    Gospel, Luke 13:31-35
    31 Just at this time some Pharisees came up. 'Go ... Read More

    Saint of the Day

    Saint of the Day for October 30th, 2014 Image

    St. Alphonsus Rodriguez
    October 30: Confessor and Jay brother, also called Alonso. He was born in ... Read More

    Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

    Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

    Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


    Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

    Follow us on Twitter