The Church Fathers
, Early Church Fathers
, or Fathers of the Church
are the early and influential theologians
and writers in the Christian Church
, particularly those of the first five centuries of Christian history. The term is used of writers and teachers of the Church, not necessarily saints
The very earliest Church Fathers, of the first two generations after the Apostles
of Christ, are usually called the Apostolic Fathers. Famous Apostolic Fathers include St. Clement of Rome
30 - c
100), St. Ignatius of Antioch
of Smyrna. In addition, the Didache
and Shepherd of Hermas
are usually placed among the writings of the Apostolic Fathers although their authors are unknown.
St. Clement of Rome
His epistle, 1 Clement
96), was copied and widely read. Clement calls on the Christians of Corinth to maintain harmony and order. It is the earliest Christian epistle outside the New Testament. Tradition identifies him as the fourth Pope
and Bishop of Rome
and his epistle asserts Rome's apostolic authority over its audience, the church in Corinth, see also Papal primacy
Ignatius of Antioch
Saint Ignatius of Antioch (also known as Theophorus) (c 35
) was the third Bishop or Patriarch of Antioch
and a student of the Apostle John
. En route to his martyrdom in Rome
, Ignatius wrote a series of letters which have been preserved as an example of the theology
of the earliest Christians
. Important topics addressed in these letters include ecclesiology
, the sacraments
, the role of bishops
, and the Sabbath in Christianity
. He is the second after Clement to mention Paul's epistles.
Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (c 69
- ca. 155
) was a Christian bishop
in Turkey). It is recorded that "He had been a disciple of John." The options for this John are John the son of Zebedee
traditionally viewed as the author of the Fourth Gospel, or John the Presbyter
(Lake 1912). Traditional advocates follow Eusebius
in insisting that the apostolic connection of Papius was with John the Evangelist
, and that this John, the author of the Gospel of John
, was the same as the Apostle John. Polycarp, c
156, tried and failed to persuade Anicetus
, Bishop of Rome, to have the West celebrate Easter on 14 Nisan
, as in the East. He rejected the Pope's suggestion that the East use the Western date. In 155, the Smyrnans demanded Polycarp's execution as a Christian, and he died a martyr
. His story has it that the flames built to kill him refused to burn him, and that when he was stabbed to death, so much blood issued from his body that it quenched the flames around him. Polycarp is recognized as a saint
in both the Roman Catholic
and Eastern Orthodox
The Didache (Koine Greek
: "Teaching) is a brief early Christian treatise
, dated by most scholars to the early second century. It contains instructions for Christian communities. The text, parts of which may have constituted the first written catechism
, has three main sections dealing with Christian lessons, rituals such as baptism
, and Church organization. It was considered by some of the Church Fathers
as part of the New Testament
. but rejected as spurious
or non-canonical by others, Scholars knew of the Didache through references in other texts, but the text itself had been lost. It was rediscovered in 1873.
Shepherd of Hermas
The Shepherd of Hermas (2nd century) was popular in the early church and even considered scriptural
by some of the early Church fathers
, such as Irenaeus
. It was written at Rome, in Greek. The Shepherd had great authority in the second and third centuries. The work comprises five visions, twelve mandates, and ten parables.
It relies on allegory and pays special attention to the Church, calling the faithful to repent of the sins that have harmed it.
Those who wrote in Greek
are called the Greek (Church) Fathers. Famous Greek Fathers include St. Irenaeus of Lyons
, Clement of Alexandria
, the heterodox Origen
, St. Athanasius of Alexandria
, St. John Chrysostom
, and the Three Cappadocian Fathers
Irenaeus of Lyons
Saint Irenaeus, (b. 2nd century; d. end of 2nd/beginning of 3rd century) was bishop of Lugdunum
, which is now Lyons
. His writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology
, and he is recognized as a saint
by both the Eastern Orthodox Church
and the Roman Catholic Church
. He was a notable early Christian apologist
. He was also a disciple of Polycarp
, who was said to be a disciple of John the Evangelist
His best-known book, Against Heresies (c 180) enumerated heresies and attacked them. Irenaeus wrote that the only way for Christians to retain unity was to humbly accept one doctrinal authority--episcopal councils. Irenaeus was the first to propose that all four gospels be accepted as canonical, see also Development of the New Testament canon.
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria (Titus Flavius Clemens
) (c.150-211/216), was the first member of the Church
to be more than a name, and one of its most distinguished teachers. He was born about the middle of the 2nd century, and died between 211 and 216. He united Greek philosophical traditions with Christian doctrine and valued gnosis
that with communion for all people
could be held by common Christians. He developed a Christian Platonism
. Like Origen, he arose from Alexandria's Catechical School
and was well versed in pagan literature. Origen succeeded Clement as head of the school.
Origen of Alexandria
Origen, or Origen Adamantius (c 185
) was an early Christian
scholar and theologian
. According to tradition, he was an Egyptian
who taught in Alexandria
, reviving the Catechetical School of Alexandria
had taught. The patriarch of Alexandria at first supported Origen but later expelled him for being ordained without the patriarch's permission. He relocated to Caesarea Maritima
and died there after being tortured during a persecution.
Using his knowledge of Hebrew, he produced a corrected Septuagint. He wrote commentaries on all the books of the Bible. In Peri Archon (First Principles), he articulated the first philosophical exposition of Christian doctrine. He interpreted scripture allegorically and showed himself to be a Stoic, a Neo-Pythagorean, a Platonic, and a Gnostic. Like Plotinus, he wrote that the soul passes through successive stages before incarnation as a human and after death, eventually reaching God. He imagined even demons being reunited with God. For Origen, God was not Yahweh but the First Principle, and Christ, the Logos, was subordinate to him. His views of a hierarchical structure in the Trinity, the temporality of matter, "the fabulous preexistence of souls," and "the monstrous restoration which follows from it" were declared anathema in the 6th century.
Athanasius of Alexandria
Pope Athanasius I of Alexandria (c 293
), also known as St. Athanasius the Great and St. Athanasius the Apostolic, was a theologian
, Pope of Alexandria
, a Church Father
, and a noted Egyptian
leader of the fourth century. He is best remembered for his role in the conflict with Arius
. At the first Council of Nicaea (325), Athanasius argued against the Arian doctrine that Christ is of a distinct substance from the Father.
Saint John Chrysostom (c
, is known for his eloquence in preaching
and public speaking
, his denunciation of abuse of authority by both ecclesiastical and political leaders, the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
, and his ascetic
sensibilities. After his death (or, according to some sources, during his life) he was given the Greek
, meaning "golden mouthed", rendered in English
Chrysostom is known within Christianity chiefly as a preacher, theologian and liturgist, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Outside the Christian tradition Chrysostom is noted for eight of his sermons which played a considerable part in the history of Christian antisemitism, and were extensively misused by the Nazis in their ideological campaign against the Jews.
The Cappadocians promoted early Christian theology, and are highly respected in both Western and Eastern churches as Saints. They were a 4th-century monastic
family, led by St Makrina
to provide a central place for her brothers to study and meditate, and also to provide a peaceful shelter for their mother. Abbess Makrina fostered the education and development of three men who collectively became designated the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great
who was the second oldest of Makrina's brothers (the first being the famous Christian jurist Naucratius
) and eventually became a bishop, Gregory of Nyssa
who also became eventually a bishop of the diocese associated thereafter with his name, and Peter
who was the youngest of Makrina's brothers and later became bishop of Sebaste.
These scholars along with a close friend, Gregory Nazianzus, Patriarch of Constantinople set out to demonstrate that Christians could hold their own in conversations with learned Greek-speaking intellectuals and that Christian faith, while it was against many of the ideas of Plato and Aristotle (and other Greek Philosophers), was an almost scientific and distinctive movement with the healing of the soul of man and his union with God at its center- one best represented by monasticism. They made major contributions to the definition of the Trinity finalized at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and the final version of the Nicene Creed which was formulated there.
Subsequent to the First Council of Nicea, Arianism did not simply disappear. The semi-Arians taught that the Son is of like substance with the Father (homoiousios) as against the outright Arians who taught that the Son was unlike the Father (heterousian). So the Son was held to be like the Father but not of the same essence as the Father.
The Cappadocians worked to bring these semi-Arians back to the Orthodox cause. In their writings they made extensive use of the (now orthodox) formula "three substances (hypostases) in one essence (homoousia)," and thus explicitly acknowledged a distinction between the Father and the Son (a distinction that Nicea had been accused of blurring), but at the same time insisting on their essential unity.
Those fathers who wrote in Latin
are called the Latin (Church) Fathers. Famous Latin Fathers include Tertullian
(who later in life converted to Montanism
), St. Cyprian of Carthage
, St. Gregory the Great
, St. Augustine of Hippo
, St. Ambrose of Milan
, and St. Jerome
Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (c
160 - c
225), who was converted to Christianity before 197, was a prolific writer of apologetic
, theological, controversial and ascetic works. He was the son of a Roman centurion.
Tertullian denounced Christian doctrines he considered heretical, but later in life adopted views that themselves came to be regarded as heretical. He wrote three books in Greek and was the first great writer of Latin Christianity, thus sometimes known as the "Father of the Latin Church. He was evidently a lawyer in Rome. He is said to have introduced the Latin term "trinitas" with regard to the Divine (Trinity) to the Christian vocabulary (but Theophilus of Antioch (c. 115 - c. 183) already wrote of "the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom", which is similar but not identical to the Trinitarian wording), and also probably the formula "three Persons, one Substance" as the Latin "tres Personae, una Substantia" (itself from the Koine Greek "treis Hypostases, Homoousios"), and also the terms "vetus testamentum" (Old Testament) and "novum testamentum" (New Testament).
In his Apologeticus, he was the first Latin author who qualified Christianity as the "vera religio", and systematically relegated the classical Roman Empire religion and other accepted cults to the position of mere "superstitions".
Later in life, Tertullian joined the Montanists, a heretical sect that appealed to his rigorism.
Saint Cyprian (Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus) (died September 14
) was bishop
and an important early Christian
writer. He was probably born at the beginning of the 3rd century
in North Africa
, perhaps at Carthage, where he received an excellent classical (pagan
) education. After converting to Christianity, he became a bishop (249
) and eventually died a martyr
Saint Ambrose (c. 338 – 4 April 397
), was a bishop of Milan
who became one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the fourth century. He is counted as one of the four original doctors of the Church
Saint Jerome (c 347
– September 30
) is best known as the translator of the Bible
. He also was a Christian apologist
. Jerome's edition of the Bible, the Vulgate
, is still an important text of the Roman Catholic Church
. He is recognised by the Roman Catholic Church
as a Doctor of the Church
Saint Augustine (November 13
– August 28
), Bishop of Hippo, was a philosopher and theologian. Augustine, a Latin Father and Doctor of the Church, is one of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity
. Augustine was radically influenced by Platonism. He framed the concepts of original sin
and just war
as they are understood in the West. When Rome fell and the faith of many Christians was shaken, Augustine developed the concept of the Church as a spiritual City of God
, distinct from the material City of Man. Augustine's work defined the start of the medieval worldview
, an outlook that would later be firmly established by Pope Gregory the Great
Augustine was born in present day Algeria to a Christian mother, Saint Monica. He was educated in North Africa and resisted his mother's pleas to become Christian. He lived as a pagan intellectual, took a concubine, and became a Manichean. He later converted to Christianity, became a bishop, and opposed heresies, such as the belief that people can deserve salvation by being good (Pelagianism). His works—including The Confessions, which is often called the first Western autobiography—are still read around the world. In addition he believed in Papal supremacy.
Gregory the Great
Saint Gregory I the Great (c. 540
– March 12
) was pope
from September 3
until his death.
He is also known as Gregorius Dialogus (Gregory the Dialogist) in Eastern Orthodoxy because of the Dialogues he wrote. He was the first of the Popes from a monastic background. Gregory is a Doctor of the Church and one of the four great Latin Fathers of the Church (the others being Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome). Of all popes, Gregory I had the most influence on the early medieval church.
In the face of criticism from Greek philosophers and facing persecution, the Apologetic Fathers
wrote to justify and defend Christian doctrine. Important Fathers of this era are St. Justin Martyr
, Athenagoras of Athens
The Desert Fathers
were early monastics
living in the Egyptian
desert; although they did not write as much, their influence was also great. Among them are St. Anthony the Great
and St. Pachomius
. A great number of their usually short sayings is collected in the Apophthegmata Patrum
("Sayings of the Desert Fathers").
A small number of Church Fathers wrote in other languages: Saint Ephrem, for example, wrote in Syriac, though his works were widely translated into Latin and Greek.
In the Roman Catholic Church
, St. John of Damascus
, who lived in the 8th century, is generally considered to be the last of the Church Fathers and at the same time the first seed of the next period of church writers, scholasticism
. St. Bernard
is also at times called the last of the Church Fathers.
The Eastern Orthodox Church does not consider the age of Church Fathers to be over and includes later influential writers, even up to the present day, in the term. Among the Orthodox, the Church Fathers, or as they call them, Holy Fathers do not have to all agree on every detail, much less be infallible. Rather, Orthodox doctrine is determined by the consensus of the Holy Fathers—those points on which they do agree. This consensus guides the Church in questions of faith, the correct interpretation of Scripture, and to distinguish the authentic Sacred Tradition of the Church from false teachings.
Though much Protestant religious thought is based on Sola Scriptura (the principle that the Bible itself is the ultimate authority in doctrinal matters), the first Protestant reformers, like the Catholic and Orthodox churches, relied heavily on the theological interpretations of scripture set forth by the early Church Fathers. The original Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1531, for example, and the later Formula of Concord of 1576-1584, each begin with the mention of the doctrine professed by the Fathers of the First Council of Nicea. John Calvin's French Confession of Faith of 1559 states, "And we confess that which has been established by the ancient councils, and we detest all sects and heresies which were rejected by the holy doctors, such as St. Hilary, St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose and St. Cyril. The Scots Confession of 1560 deals with general councils in its 20th chapter. The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, both the original of 1562-1571 and the American version of 1801, explicitly accept the Nicene Creed in article 7. Even when a particular Protestant confessional formula does not mention the Nicene Council or its creed, its doctrine is nonetheless always asserted, as, for example, in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of 1647. Many Protestant seminaries provide courses on Patristics as part of their curriculum and many historic Protestant churches emphasize the importance of Tradition and of the Fathers in Scriptural interpretation. Such an emphasis is even more pronounced in certain streams of Protestant thought, such as Paleo-Orthodoxy.
The study of the Church Fathers is known as "Patristics".
Works of fathers in early Christianity, prior to Nicene Christianity, were translated into English in a 19th century collection Ante-Nicene Fathers. Those of the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and continuing through the Second Council of Nicea (787) are collected in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, see also First seven Ecumenical Councils.
Defined as an early writer of Christian doctrine; a Christian writer of the pre-8th century group of scholars who established the doctrines and practices of Christianity in their work (usually used in the plural).