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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 5/13/13

The Early Church Fathers



Who were the early church fathers?

Clement of Alexandria

In Christianity, the term early church fathers refers to writers and theologians of the first eight centuries of the Christian church, especially the period of development up to 451 AD. {1}

The early church fathers are sometimes further divided into Apostolic Fathers, who wrote in the first century, and the Ante-Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, who wrote before and after the Council of Nicea (325 AD), respectively.

The period during which the church fathers wrote is known as the Patristic Period and the academic study of these writers is called Patristics. Both terms derive from the Latin word pater, meaning "father."

The church fathers are of great importance to Christianity because they articulated nearly all of the Christian doctrine that is accepted by Christians today. They interpreted the Bible in light of challenges from Greek thought and various heretical movements, determined Christianity's relationship to Judaism, elaborated on theological concepts such as the Trinity and salvation, and established the structure and organization of the church.


The Patristic Period

The earliest church fathers wrote in the latter part of the first century (80-100 AD), around the time the biblical canon was closed. These writers were especially concerned with practical matters like faith, righteous living and church organization. The writings of this period consist primarily of letters between churches and exhortations to keep the faith in the midst of persecution.

These writers are known as the "Apostolic Fathers" for their close connection with the apostles, and include Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Hermas, Polycarp and Papias, as well as the unknown authors of the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle of Diognetus, 2 Clement, and the Didache.

Around the turn of the first century, Christian writers began to turn their attention outward in defense of Christianity against false claims made by Roman persecutors and demonstrating Christianity's reasonableness to minds trained on Greek philosophy. These writings were usually addressed to Roman emperors or other pagan critics, and their authors are known as the "Apologists." Among the most important apologists are Justin Martyr and Tertullian. Augustine's lengthy City of God is also considered an apologetic work.

The fathers of the second and third centuries also directed their efforts towards combatting what they saw as heresy, or false interpretations of the Christian faith. After the conversion of Emperor Constantine and the end of persecution in 313 AD, Christian writers turned from apologetics to focus almost exclusively on this task. No longer threatened from without, the church still faced threats from within. By the turn of the first century AD, most Christian converts were Gentiles, not Jews. These converts brought with them many ways of understanding Christianity, and often their perspectives on Christianity were quite different from that of most church leaders. Thus the church fathers from the fourth century onward were focused especially on the defense of what they saw as the true Christian faith (orthodoxy) against corruptions or misunderstandings (heresy).

Further complicating the situation, the conversion of the emperor had made theology a political matter. After Constantine's conversion, many new converts flooded into the church, for now Christianity was not only legal, it was the religion of the emperor and therefore politically advantageous.

Furthermore, Constantine and his successors viewed Christianity as a means for unifying the empire, and they had no patience for what they regarded as petty doctrinal differences. Thus Christian teachers who taught unorthodox doctrines were not only excommunicated from the church but exiled from the empire. Not surprisingly, the success of a particular theological position was sometimes directly related to who had the ear of the emperor at the moment. Athanasius, honored by all Christians today as a great defender of orthodoxy, was exiled and reinstated no less than eight times as the political winds shifted.

Theological Schools in the Early Church

Three important geographical areas emerged in the patristic period, each with a distinctive theological approach. These are sometimes called schools, as in schools of thought, not universities.

Alexandria. Alexandria was a busy port town in northern Egypt founded by Alexander the Great. As the birthplace of both Neoplatonism and Philo, Alexandria had already established itself as a center for Greek philosophy by the first century. Not surprisingly, then, the theology of Greek-speaking Alexandria is characterized by its close connection with Platonic philosophy. Its Christology tended to emphasize the divinity of Christ and its interpretation of Scripture was often allegorical. Among the most prominent Alexandrian fathers are Clement, Origen and Didymus the Blind.

Antioch. Another Greek-speaking city, Antioch was an important city in the region of Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). Christianity was established early here - the city even plays a prominent role in the New Testament book of Acts. Antiochene theologians tended to emphasize the moral example and humanity of Christ and to interpret Scripture in light of its historical context. The philosophy of Antioch was more influenced by Aristotle than Plato. Important Antiochene fathers include Diodore of Tarsus and John Chrysostom. Also from this region are the eminent "Cappadocian Fathers": Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.

Western North Africa. Located primarily in modern-day Algeria, this region included the great city of Carthage, which for a time rivaled Rome in power. North African theologians wrote in Latin, and tended to be more practical than their philosophically-minded Greek counterparts. Notable theologians of this region include Cyprian, Tertullian, and Augustine.

With this "big picture" in mind, below are brief guides to the lives and writings of some of the most important church fathers, presented in chronological order. See also the Chart of Early Church Fathers for an illustrated, at-a-glance guide to the fathers.

Clement of Rome
  • Traditionally held to be the third bishop of Rome (i.e., pope)
  • Author of 1 Clement, a letter to the Corinthian church
  • Many other writings ascribed to him that are probably not authentic (including 2 Clement, the Clementine Homilies and Recognitions)
Hermas
  • Lived in Rome
  • Nothing is known of him except that he is the author of The Shepherd, a record of visions regarded by much of the Eastern Orthdox Church as scripture and is included immediately after the New Testament in the early manuscript Codex Sinaiticus
Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107)
  • Bishop of Antioch
  • Traveled under guard from Asia Minor to Rome to be martyred
  • Met with at least five churches along the way (Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Philadelphia, Smyrna)
  • Author of letters to each of these churches plus one to Rome and one to Polycarp, which were collected and venerated shortly after his death
  • Viewed the office of bishop as an important safeguard of the unity of the Church
Papias (c.60-130)
  • Bishop of Hierapolis (Asia Minor)
  • Wrote Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord (known only from quotations in Irenaeus and Eusebius), which contains oral traditions and legends
  • His Expositions is especially important for its information on the writing of the gospels
Polycarp (c.69-c.155)
  • Bishop of Smyrna (in Turkey)
  • Only his Epistle to the Phillipians survives
  • According to The Martyrdom of Polycarp, a contemporary account, he was arrested during a pagan festival and burnt to death when he refused to recant his faith
  • Feast day is February 23
Justin Martyr (c. 100-c.165)
  • Born in Samaria
  • Converted from paganism after a long search for truth
  • Considered the greatest of the Apologists
  • Wrote First Apology, Second Apology, and Dialogue with Trypho the Jew
  • Argued that God had provided hints of Christ in Greek philosophy through the logos spermatikos ("seed-bearing word")
  • Beheaded for refusing to sacrifice to pagan gods
Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-c.200)
  • Born in Smyra (in Turkey), moved to Rome, then settled in Lyons
  • Disciple of Polycarp
  • Bishop of Lyons (France) from c. 178 to c. 200
  • Wrote against Gnosticism, especially that of Valentinus
  • Most significant work is Against Heresies (full title Detection and Overthrow of the Falsely Named "Knowledge")
  • Major themes include the Christian doctrine of salvation and the importance of holding to apostolic tradition in the face of other interpretations
  • Taught the notion of "recapitulation," in which Christ is the consummation of creation and God's purpose for the world
Hippolytus of Rome (c.170-c.236)
  • Roman priest
  • Wrote against Sabellianism
  • Criticized Pope Callistus for lax policy of readmitting penitents to communion and may have been elected by a group of dissidents as a rival pope
  • Principal work is Refutation of all Heresies (discovered in the 19th cent.), which argues that all heresies derive from pagan philosophy
  • Historically important is his treatise The Apostolic Tradition (written c.215), which describes in detail the sacraments of ordination, baptism and the Eucharist
  • Feast day: August 13 (West) or January 30 (East)
Origen of Alexandria (c.185-c.254)
  • Widely regarded as the most important theologian and biblical scholar of the early Greek church.
  • Born of Christian parents in Alexandria, Egypt
  • Father was martyred and Origen was prevented from also seeking martyrdom by his mother's intervention
  • Lived an ascetic life and legend has it that he castrated himself so he could teach women without scandal
  • Worked as a teacher in the Alexandrian catechetical school, an unordained preacher, and a prolific theological writer
  • Major work is the Hexapla, a synopsis of six versions of the Old Testament
  • Other works include the Stromateis (Miscellanies), On the Resurrection, On First Principles, On Prayer, and numerous commentaries and sermons
  • Origen's theology focused on the goodness of God and the freedom of mankind
  • Some of his teachings have been controversial, such as his suggestion of the preexistence of souls, the inferiority of the Son, and eventual salvation of all beings including Satan
  • He is regarded as a saint by some and a heretic by others, and was never canonized by the church. The eminent church historian Henry Chadwick puts it this way: "If orthodoxy were a matter of intention, no theologian could be more orthodox than Origen, none more devoted to the cause of Christian faith."
Tertullian (c.160-c.225)
  • Born in Carthage, North Africa
  • First important Latin church father
  • Converted to Christianity sometime before 197 AD
  • Wrote numerous theological, moral, and polemical works, including Apology, The Soldier's Crown, On Penitence, On the Incarnation of Christ, Against Heretics, Against Marcion, and Against Praxeus
  • Was rigorous in his insistence on separation from pagan society and adherence to the faith under any circumstances
  • Though he made use of philosophy and rational argument, he is known for arguing that pagan philosophy has no place in the church: "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" and "It is certain because it is impossible."
  • Another famous quote is: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."
Athanasius (c. 296-c.373)
  • Bishop of Alexandria
  • Fought against any compromise with Arianism after the Council of Nicea (325 AD)
  • Was repeatedly deposed and exiled as the Arian party gained power, then restored to his position as the other side ascended
  • Finally restored in 366
  • Wrote On the Incarnation of Christ sometime before 318
  • Also wrote Life of Antony, making monasticism known to the West
Jerome (c.342-420)
  • Born in Italy, lived for four years in Palestine as a hermit, was a secretary to Pope Damasus in Rome, then settled in Bethlehem in 386 to study and write
  • Translated the Bible from Greek to Latin (Vulgate)
  • Advocated for the exclusion of the Apocrypha from the canonical Old Testament
  • Tradition has Jerome helping a lion by removing a thorn from its paw, so he is often depicted with a lion in Christian art
  • Feast day: September 30
Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
  • The most important Latin church father
  • Has had a lasting impact on Catholicism, especially in the area of ecclesiology, and his theology of original sin and unmerited grace has been embraced by Protestantism
  • Born in North Africa of a pagan father and devoutly Christian mother
  • Studied rhetoric in Milan, where he indulged in pride and lust and began his search for truth
  • Briefly joined Manicheanism, but found it intellectually unsatisfactory
  • According to his spiritual autobiography (Confessions), after listening to the sermons of Ambrose and observing the self-discipline of Christian monks, he converted to Catholic Christianity in a garden while reading Romans
  • Unwillingly became Bishop of Hippo not long after his baptism
  • Wrote an apologetic work (City of God), a handbook for Christian living (Enchiridion of Faith, Hope and Love), a theological work On the Trinity and a great deal of polemic works against the Manicheans, Pelagians, and Donatists.

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References
  1. John Bowker, ed., Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions.
  2. Cross and Livingstone, eds., Oxford Dictionary of the Early Church.
  3. Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 2nd ed., pp. 5-23.
Books on the Church Fathers