The first teachers of Christianity are called the Church Fathers. The reason is that these teachers were seen, over time, as the great teachers of spiritual truth for the whole church. The term “Fathers of the church” refers to those theologians and teachers who were the earliest post-apostolic thinkers and writers who left us a rich legacy of faith and doctrine in their written works.
There is no clear cut-off date by which someone may be called a “Father” or not but I lean toward the fifth century for several reasons. The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) was critical to the entire future of the church. Up to and through this time period the major theologians were the greatest Fathers of the faith. But St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) is included on some lists, as well as Venerable the Bede (d. 735) and St. John Damascene (d. 749). No arbitrary time period works perfectly but tradition generally treats the patristic period up to and through the middle of the fifth century as the core of the time period in which the Fathers wrote.
The earliest histories of this period are found in the works of Eusebius of Caesarea and St. Jerome (d. 420). But it wasn’t until the era of the printing press that great editions of these works became more widely available to a growing circle of Christians. One major collection of Latin Fathers numbers 222 volumes while the Greek Fathers reach 161 volumes. This is, obviously, a large body of written work. Scholars who make it their life’s work to study and interact with this work have become a great blessing in my own life. Projects which provide this work to the masses are now producing a rich harvest of spiritual and doctrinal fruit for all the church and evangelicals are at the forefront of this recovery.
Who Is a Church Father?
St. Vincent of Lerins, in his famous work Commonitorium (A.D. 434) gave us an accurate and useful description when he said: “The Fathers of the Church are those alone who, though in diverse times and places yet persevering in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, have been approved teachers.” Modern writers follow the same course and believe that a Father of the Church must have been faithful to sound doctrine who lived a godly life.
Add to this things like the following; e.g. the writer is cited by a general council, referenced in addresses to the whole church or included in the public readings of the early church and you get the general idea.
But do all the Fathers teach the same truth? The answer is clearly no. On those matters that are universally believed by every part of the church they are, in general, of one mind and spirit. But the Fathers clearly held to very different ideas on some matters. To cite but one example, the Fathers were not one on their beliefs about eschatology. Their views of hell, for example, were diverse. They also held very different views of the millennium. Both Tertullian and Origen, as examples, taught things that many Christians did not believe. A consensus of the Fathers, in all doctrinal teaching, is simply not to be found. This alone should say something to schismatic Christians who think that we must all agree on every point of ancient Christian teaching or we are heretical.
Must We Agree with the Fathers?
The answer to this is more complicated than might be understood by ordinary readers. The witness of one Father never made a truth universally valid. Their words carried weight, and thus had great influence. But the Fathers were not apostles! Some teaching of the Fathers became normative for the whole church and thus is still held by orthodox believers to this day; e.g. St. Augustine’s teaching on the Trinity and St. Athanasius on the divinity of the Son of God come to mind here.
Both piety and good judgment suggest that we proceed with caution if we disagree with the general consensus of these Fathers. This is why the early Protestant writers studied and cited the Fathers far more than their heirs do today. They did not see themselves as creating a new church or simply throwing off all the core beliefs of previous Christians and the entire Catholic Church. This is one reason, among a number I might cite, for why the fundamentalist Protestantism’s rejection of the Catholic Church, ipso facto, is ludicrous. We who are not Roman Catholics did not get here without a Christian family in history and that family is not rooted solely in Geneva or Wittenberg.
The Fathers include the Apostolic Fathers, thus those second century writers who were closest to the apostles, and the Greek apologists of that same era. These include men like Irenaeus and Justin Martyr. The Western apologists include Tertullian. By the third century we have the Alexandrian writers and people like Hippolytus in Rome. The great African writers include names like Cyprian. By the fourth century we have Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa. And in Antioch we have the greatest preacher of them all, John Chrysostom. I could go on but this gives you a general sense of some of the greatest thinkers of the early church.
Why Are These Writers Important to Us?
We desperately need a growing sense of who we are and where we came from. We live in a world going global and viral. Should we be rooted in modern readings of the Bible without these great thinkers of the early church? Do the dead matter to the way we read the Bible that they read long before us? Amazingly, there are Protestant fundamentalists who mock this idea of the importance of reading and listening to the Church Fathers. This response not only reveals immense ignorance but incredible arrogance. Should I be led to believe that an English Bible reader living in the 21st century is to be preferred in every way to an ancient writer who lived closer to the time of Jesus, to his culture and to the Holy Scriptures and the acceptance of the Canon? If you listen you will hear current some very conservative (popular) evangelicals making this kind of argument regularly. I am appalled by the short-sightedness and arrogance of this response. I also believe it harms the faithful in profound ways, especially when people actually begin to believe that right interpretation lies within their own minds once they have read a text for themselves. This was never Luther or Calvin’s idea, but that of radicals who wanted to throw out the past entirely. Avoiding extremes is never easy but we must try or we will surely fall. The Fathers provide a great blessing and are also a great aid in this process of how tradition and the Bible serve one another.