The ‘Fathers’ of the Church.
We are accustomed to call the authors of early Christian writings ‘Fathers of the Church’. In ancient times the word ‘Father’ was applied to a teacher; for in biblical and early Christian usage, teachers are the fathers of their students. Thus, for instance, St. Paul, in his first Letter to the Corinthians (4, 15), says: ‘For although you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet you have not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, through the Gospel, I have begotten you.’ Irenaeus declares (Adv. Haer. 4, 41, 2): ‘For when any person has been taught from the mouth of another he is termed the son of him who instructs him, and the latter is called his father.’ Clement of Alexandria remarks (Strom. I, 1,2-2,I): ‘Words are the progeny of the soul. Hence we call those that instructed us fathers… and every one who is instructed is in respect of subjection the son of his instructor.’
In Christian antiquity, the teaching office was the bishop’s. Thus the title ‘Father’ was first applied to him. Doctrinal controversies of the fourth century brought about further development. The use of the term ‘Father’ became more comprehensive; it was now extended to ecclesiastical writers in so far as they were accepted as representatives of the tradition of the Church. Thus St. Augustine numbers St. Jerome among the witnesses to the traditional doctrine of original sin, although he was not a bishop (Cont. Jul. I, 7, 34).
Vincent of Lerins, in his Commonitory of 434 applies the term ‘Father’ to all ecclesiastical writers without distinction of hierarchical grade:
If some new question should arise on which no such decision has been given, they should then have recourse to the opinions of the holy Fathers, of those, at least, who, each in his own time and place, remaining in the unity of communion and the faith, were accepted as approved masters; and whatsoever these may be found to have held, with one mind and one consent, this ought to be accounted the true and catholic doctrine of the Church, without any doubt or scruple (Chapter 41). – Nothing ought to be believed by posterity save what the sacred antiquity of the holy Fathers consentient in Christ has held (Chapter 43).
This principle of Vincent of Lerins shows the importance already attached to the ‘proof from the Fathers’.
The first list of ecclesiastical writers who had been approved or rejected as Fathers is contained in the Decretum Gelasianum de recipiendis et non recipiendis libris, which belongs to the sixth century. After mentioning a number of the most important Fathers, the text continues:
Item opuscula atque tractatus omnium patrum orthodoxorum, qui in nullo a sanctae Romanae ecclesiae consortio deviarunt nec ab eius fide vel praedicatione seiuncti sunt, sed ipsius communicationis per gratiam Dei usque in ultimum diem vitae suae fuere participes, legendos decernit (Romana ecclesia).
Today only those are to be regarded as ‘Fathers of the Church’ who combine these four necessary qualifications: orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, ecclesiastical approval, and antiquity. All other theological writers are known as ecclesiae scriptores or scriptores ecclesiastici, a term which St. Jerome coined (De viris ill., Prol.; Ep. 112, 3). The title ‘Doctor of the Church’ is not identical with ‘Father of the Church’, because some of those known as Doctors of the Church lack the distinction of ‘antiquity’, but they have in addition to the three distinctions of doctrina orthodoxa, sanctitas vitae, and approbatio ecclesiae, the two qualifications of eminens eruditio and expressa ecclesiae declaratio. In the West, Boniface VIII declared (I298) that he wished Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great known as egregii doctores ecclesiae. These four Fathers are also called ‘the great Fathers of the Church’. The Greek Church venerates only three ‘great ecumenical teachers’, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Chrysostom, while the Roman Church adds St. Athanasius to these three, and thus counts four great Fathers of the East, and four of the West.
Although the Fathers of the Church hold an important position in the history of Hellenistic and Roman literature, their authority in the Catholic Church is based on entirely different grounds. It is the ecclesiastical doctrine of Tradition as a source of faith which makes the writings and opinions of the Fathers so important. The Church regards the unanimis consensus patrum as infallible, if it concerns the interpretation of Scripture (Vatic. sess. 3, c. 2). J. H. Cardinal Newman describes well the importance of this consensus, and its difference from private opinions of the Fathers, when he says:
I follow the ancient Fathers, not as thinking that on such a subject they have the weight they possess in the instance of doctrines or ordinances. When they speak of doctrines, they speak of them as being universally held. They are witnesses to the fact of these doctrines having been received, not here or there, but everywhere. We receive those doctrines which they thus teach, not merely because they teach them, but because they bear witness that all Christians everywhere then held them. We take them as honest informants, but not as a sufficient authority in themselves, though they are an authority too. If they were to state these very same doctrines, but say, ‘These are our opinions: we deduced them from Scripture, and they are true,’ we might well doubt about receiving them at their hands. We might fairly say, that we had as much right to deduce from Scripture as they had; that deductions of Scripture were mere opinions; that if our deductions agreed with theirs, that would be a happy coincidence in them; but if they did not, it could not be helped – we must follow our own light. Doubtless, no man has any right to impose his own deductions upon another, in matters of faith. There is an obvious obligation, indeed, upon the ignorant to submit to those who are better informed; and there is a fitness in the young submitting implicitly for a time to the teaching of their elders; but, beyond this, one man’s opinion is not better than another’s. But this is not the state of the case as regards the primitive Fathers. They do not speak of their own private opinion; they do not say, ‘This is true, because we see it in Scripture’ – about which there might be differences of judgment – but, ‘this is true, because in matter of fact it is held, and has ever been held, by all the Churches, down to our times, without interruption, ever since the Apostles’: where the question is merely one of testimony, viz., whether they had the means of knowing that it had been and was so held; for if it was the belief of so many and independent Churches at once, and that, on the ground of its being from the Apostles, doubtless it cannot be but true and Apostolic’ (Discussions and Arguments II, I).
MADOZ, EI concepto de la tradición en S. Vincento de Lerins. Madrid, 1923. – A. DENEFFE, Der Traditionsbegriff. Münster, 1931. – J. RANFT, Der Ursprung des katholischen Traditionsprinzips. Würzburg, 1931. – J. MADOZ, El concilio de Efeso ejemplo de argumentación patrística: EE 10 (1931) 305-338. – B. STEIDLE, Heilige Vaterschaft: BM 14 (1932) 215ff., 387ff., 454ff. – B. REYNDERS, Paradosis. Le progrès de l’idée de tradition jusqu’à S. Irénée: RTAM 5 (1933) 155-191. – D. VAN DEN EYNDE, Les normes de l’enseignement chrétien dans la littérature patristique des trois premiers siècles. Paris, 1933. – I. BACKES, Der Väterbeweis in der Dogmatik: ThQ 114 (1933) 208-221. – J. RANFT, Die Traditionsmethode als älteste theologische Methode des Christentums. Würzburg, 1934. – H. DU MANOIR, L’argumentation patristique dans la controverse nestorienne: RSR 25 (1935) 441-461. – L. DÜRR, Heilige Vaterschaft im antiken Orient: Heilige Ueberlieferung, ed. by O. Casel. Münster i. W., 1938, I-20. – R. FORNI, Problemi della tradizione. Ireneo di Lione. Milan, 1939. – J. QUASTEN, Tertullian and “Traditio”: Traditio 2 (1944) 481-484. – A. C. COTTER, Abbé Migne and Catholic Tradition: TS 7 (1946) 46-71.
Johannes Quasten. “The ‘Fathers’ of the Church”. In: PATROLOGY, Volume I. The Beginnings of Patristic Literature From the Apostles Creed to Irenaeus, Introduction, pp. 9-12. Christian Classics, Allen, Tx. No year available.
[Transc.: Francisco Arriaga. México, Frontera Norte. 07 de septiembre 2009. Rev. 05 de abril de 2019].