1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fathers of the Church

28469451911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 10 — Fathers of the ChurchHenry Barclay Swete

FATHERS OF THE CHURCH. The use of the word “father” as a title of respect is found in the Old Testament, where it is applied to patriarchs (Gen. l. 24 (Septuagint); Exod. iii. 13, 15; Deut. i. 8), priests (Judg. xvii. 10, xviii. 19), prophets (2 Kings ii. 12, vi. 21, xiii. 14), and distinguished ancestors (Ecclus. xliv. 1). In the time of our Lord the scribes claimed the name with an arrogance which He disapproved (Matt. xxiii. 9); in the rabbinic literature “the fathers” are the more eminent of the earlier rabbis whose sayings were handed down for the guidance of posterity.[1] The Christian Church, warned perhaps by the words of Christ, appears at first to have avoided a similar use of the term, while St Paul, St Peter and St John speak of their converts as spiritual children (1 Cor. iv. 14 f., Gal. iv. 19, 1 Pet. v. 13, 1 John ii. 12); they did not assume, so far as we know, the official style of “fathers in God.” Nor is this title found in the age which succeeded to that of the apostles. When Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was martyred (A.D. 155), the crowd shouted, “This is the father of the Christians”<[2]; but the words were probably prompted by the Jews, who took a prominent part in the martyrdom, and who naturally viewed Polycarp in the light of a great Christian rabbi, and gave him the title which their own teachers bore. In the next century members of the episcopal order were sometimes addressed in this manner: thus Cyprian is styled papas or papa by his Roman correspondents.[3] The bishops who sat in the great councils of the 4th century were known as “the 318 fathers” of Nicaea, and “the 150 fathers” of Constantinople. Meanwhile the custom was growing up of appealing to eminent Church writers of a past generation under this name. Thus Athanasius writes (ad Afros vi.): “We have the testimony of fathers (the two Dionysii, bishops of Alexandria and Rome, who wrote in the previous century) for the use of the word ὁμοούσιος.” Such quotations were multiplied, as theologians learnt to depend increasingly upon their predecessors, until the testimony of “our holy father” Athanasius, or Gregory the Divine, or John the Golden-mouthed, came to be regarded as decisive in reference to controverted points of faith and practice.

In the narrower sense thus indicated the “fathers” of the Church are the great bishops and other eminent Christian teachers of the earlier centuries, who were conspicuous for soundness of judgment and sanctity of life, and whose writings remained as a court of appeal for their successors. A list of fathers drawn up on this principle will begin with the Christian writers of the 1st century whose writings are not included in the New Testament: where it ought to end is a more difficult point to determine. Perhaps the balance of opinion is in favour of regarding Gregory the Great (d. 604) as the last of the Latin fathers, and John of Damascus (d. c. 760) as the last of the fathers of the Greek Church. A more liberal estimate might include John Scotus Erigena or even Anselm or Bernard of Clairvaux in the West and Photius in the East. The abbé Migne carried his Latin patrology down to the time of Innocent III. (d. 1216), and his Greek patrology to the fall of Constantinople (1453); but, while this large extension of the field is much to the advantage of his readers, it undoubtedly stretches the meaning of patrologia far beyond its natural limits. For ordinary purposes it is best to make the patristic period conterminous with the life of the ancient Catholic Church. In the West the Church enters the medieval stage of its history with the death of Gregory, while in the East even John of Damascus is rather a compiler of patristic teaching than a true “father.”

A further question arises. Are all the Christian writers of a given period to be included among the “fathers,” or those only who wrote on religious subjects, and of whose orthodoxy there is no doubt? Migne, following the example of the editors of bibliothecae patrum who preceded him, swept into his great collection all the Christian writings which fell within his period; but he is careful to state upon his title-page that his patrologies include the ecclesiastical writers as well as the fathers and doctors of the Church. For a comprehensive use of the term “ecclesiastical writers” he has the authority of Jerome, who enumerates among them[4] such heresiarchs or leaders of schism as Tatian, Bardaisan, Novatus, Donatus, Photinus and Eunomius. This may not be logical, but long usage has made it permissible or even necessary. It is often difficult, if not impracticable, to draw the line between orthodox writers and heterodox; on which side, it might be asked, is Origen to be placed? and in the case of a writer like Tertullian who left the Church in middle life, are we to admit certain of his works into our patrology and refuse a place to others? It is clear that in the circumstances the terms “father,” “patristic,” “patrology” must be used with much elasticity, since it is now too late to substitute for them any more comprehensive terms.

By the “fathers,” then, we understand the whole of extant Christian literature from the time of the apostles to the rise of scholasticism or the beginning of the middle ages. However we may interpret the lower limit of this period, the literature which it embraces is immense. Some method of subdivision is necessary, and the simplest and most obvious is that which breaks the whole into two great parts, the ante-Nicene and the post-Nicene. This is not an arbitrary cleavage; the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) is the watershed which actually separates two great tracts of Christian literature. The ante-Nicene age yields priceless records of the early struggles of Christianity; from it we have received specimens of the early apologetic and the early polemic of the Church, the first essays of Christian philosophy, Christian correspondence, Christian biblical interpretation: we owe to it the works of Justin, Irenaeus, the Alexandrian Clement, Origen, Tertullian, Cyprian. In these products of the 2nd and 3rd centuries there is much which in its own way was not surpassed by any of the later patristic writings. Yet the post-Nicene literature, considered as literature, reaches a far higher level. Both in East and West, the 4th and 5th centuries form the golden age of dogmatic theology, of homiletic preaching, of exposition, of letter-writing, of Church history, of religious poetry. Two causes may be assigned for this fact. The conversion of the empire gave the members of the Church leisure and opportunities for the cultivation of literary taste, and gradually drew the educated classes within the pale of the Christian society. Moreover, the great Christological controversies of the age tended to encourage in Christian writers and preachers an intellectual acuteness and an accuracy of thought and expression of which the earlier centuries had not felt the need.

The ante-Nicene period of patristic literature opens with the “apostolic fathers,”[5] i.e. the Church writers who flourished toward the end of the apostolic age and during the half century that followed it, including Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna and the author known as “Barnabas.” Their writings, like those of the apostles, are epistolary; but editions of the apostolic fathers now usually admit also the early Church order known as the Didachē, the allegory entitled the Shepherd, and a short anonymous apology addressed to one Diognetus. A second group, known as the “Greek Apologists,” embraces Aristides, Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras and Theophilus; and a third consists of the early polemical writers, Irenaeus and Hippolytus. Next come the great Alexandrians, Clement, Origen, Dionysius; the Carthaginians, Tertullian and Cyprian; the Romans, Minucius Felix and Novatian; the last four laid the foundations of a Latin Christian literature. Even the stormy days of the last persecution yielded some considerable writers, such as Methodius in the East and Lactantius in the West. This list is far from complete; the principal collections of the ante-Nicene fathers include not a few minor and anonymous writers, and the fragments of many others whose works as a whole have perished.

In the post-Nicene period the literary output of the Church was greater. Only the more representative names can be mentioned here. From Alexandria we get Athanasius, Didymus and Cyril; from Cyrene, Synesius; from Antioch, Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom and Theodoret; from Palestine, Eusebius of Caesarea and Cyril of Jerusalem; from Cappadocia, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus. The Latin West was scarcely less productive; it is enough to mention Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, Leo of Rome, Jerome, Rufinus, and a father lately restored to his place in patristic literature, Niceta of Remesiana.[6] Gaul alone has a goodly list of Christian authors to show: John Cassian, Vincent of Lerins, Hilary of Arles, Prosper of Aquitaine, Salvian of Marseilles, Sidonius Apollinaris of Auvergne, Caesarius of Arles, Gregory of Tours. The period ends in the West with two great Italian names, Cassiodorus and Pope Gregory I., after Leo the greatest of papal theologians.

The reader to whom the study is new will gain some idea of the bulk of the extant patristic literature, if we add that in Migne’s collection ninety-six large volumes are occupied with the Greek fathers from Clement of Rome to John of Damascus, and seventy-six with the Latin fathers from Tertullian to Gregory the Great.[7]

For a discussion of the more important fathers the student is referred to the articles which deal with them separately. In this place it is enough to consider the general influence of the patristic writings upon Christian doctrine and biblical interpretation. Can any authority be claimed for their teaching or their exegesis, other than that which belongs to the best writers of every age. The decree of the council of Trent[8] (ut nemo ... contra unanimum consensum patrum ipsam scripturam sacram interpretari audeat) is studiously moderate, and yet it seems to rule that under certain circumstances it is not permitted to the Church of later times to carry the science of biblical interpretation beyond the point which it had reached at the end of the patristic period. Roman Catholic writers,[9] however, have explained the prohibition to apply to matters of faith only, and in that case the Tridentine decree is little else than another form of the Vincentian canon which has been widely accepted in the Anglican communion: curandum est ut id teneamus quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est. The fathers of the first six or seven centuries, so far as they agree, may be fairly taken to represent the main stream of Christian tradition and belief during the period when the apostolic teaching took shape in the great creeds and dogmatic decisions of Christendom. The English reformers realized this fact; and notwithstanding their insistence on the unique authority of the canon of Scripture, their appeal to the fathers as representatives of the teaching of the undivided Church was as wholehearted as that of the Tridentine divines. Thus the English canon of 1571 directs preachers “to take heed that they do not teach anything in their sermons as though they would have it completely held and believed by the people, save what is agreeable to the doctrine of the Old and New Testaments, and what the Catholic Fathers and ancient Bishops have gathered from that doctrine.” Depreciation of the fathers was characteristic, not of the Anglican reformation, but of the revolt against some of its fundamental principles which was led by the Puritan reaction.[10]

Now that the smoke of these controversies has passed away, it is possible to form a clearer judgment upon the merits of the patristic writings. They are no longer used as an armoury from which opposite sides may draw effective weapons, offensive or defensive; nor on the other hand are they cast aside as the rubbish of an ignorant and superstitious age. All patristic students now recognize the great inequality of these authors, and admit that they are not free from the faults of their times; it is not denied that much of their exegesis is untenable, or that their logic is often feeble and their rhetoric offensive to modern taste. But against these disadvantages may be set the unique services which the fathers still render to Christian scholars. Their works comprise the whole literature of our faith during the decisive centuries which followed the apostolic age. They are important witnesses to the text of the New Testament, to the history of the canon, and to the history of interpretation. It is to their pages that we owe nearly all that we know of the life of ancient Christianity. We see in them the thought of the ancient Church taking shape in the minds of her bishops and doctors; and in many cases they express the results of the great doctrinal controversies of their age in language which leaves little to be desired.[11]

Authorities.—The earliest writer on patristics was Jerome, whose book De viris illustribus gives a brief account of one hundred and thirty-five Church writers, beginning with St Peter and ending with himself. Jerome’s work was continued successively by Gennadius of Marseilles, Isidore of Seville, and Ildefonsus of Toledo; the last-named writer brings the list down to the middle of the 7th century. Since the revival of learning books on the fathers have been numerous; among the more recent and most accessible of these we may mention Smith and Wace’s Dictionary of Christian Biography, Hauck-Herzog’s Realencyklopädie, Bardenhewer’s Patrologie and Geschichte der altkirchlichen Litteratur, Harnack’s Geschichte der altchristlichen Litteratur bei Eusebius and Ehrard’s Die altchristliche Litteratur und ihre Erforschung. A record of patristic collections and editions down to 1839 may be found in Dowling’s Notitia Scriptorum SS. Patrum. The contents of the volumes of Migne’s patrologies are given in the Catalogue général des livres de l’abbé Migne, and a useful list in alphabetical order of the writers in the Greek Patrologia has been compiled by Dr J. B. Pearson (Cambridge, 1882). Migne’s texts are not always satisfactory, but since the completion of his great undertaking two important collections have been begun on critical lines—the Vienna edition of the Latin Church writers,[12] and the Berlin edition of the Greek writers of the ante-Nicene period.[13]

For English readers there are three series of translations from the fathers, which cover much of the ground; the Oxford Library of the Fathers, the Ante Nicene Christian Library and the Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Satisfactory lexicons of patristic Greek and Latin are still a desideratum: but assistance may be obtained in the study of the Greek fathers from Suicer’s Thesaurus, the Lexicon of Byzantine Greek by E. A. Sophocles, and the Lexicon Graecum suppletorium et dialecticum of Van Herwerden; whilst the new great Latin Lexicon, published by the Berlin Academy, is calculated to meet the needs of students of Latin patristic literature. For a fuller list of books useful to the reader of the Greek and Latin fathers see H. B. Swete’s Patristic Study (2nd ed., 1902).  (H. B. S.) 

  1. See Buxtorf, s.v. Abh, and cf. the title of the tract Pirke Aboth (ed. Taylor, p. 3).
  2. Polyc. Mart. 8.
  3. Studia biblica, iv. p. 273.
  4. In his book De viris illustribus.
  5. The term patres apostolici is due to the patristic scholars of the 17th century: see Lightfoot, St Clement of Rome, i. p. 3. “Sub-apostolic” is perhaps a more accurate designation.
  6. The editio princeps of Niceta’s works was published by Dr A. E. Burn in 1905.
  7. The Greek patrology contains, however, besides the text, a Latin translation, and in both patrologies there is much editorial matter.
  8. Sess. iv.
  9. E. G. Möhler, Symbolism (E. tr.) § 42.
  10. See J. J. Blunt, Right Use of the Fathers, p. 15 ff.
  11. See Stanton, Place of Authority in Religion, p. 165 f.
  12. Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum Latinorum.
  13. Griechischen christlichen Schriftstellern der ersten drei Jahrhunderte.