1. THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH. The word Patrology (πατρολογία) dates from the seventeenth century, and denoted originally the science of the lives and writings of the Fathers of the Church. «Fathers of the Church» or simply «Fathers» was the title of honour given to the ecclesiastical writers in the first era of the Church. Its use can be recognized as far back as the fifth century. In modern times the explanation of the term has been sought in the similarity of the relationship existing between a teacher and his disciple to that which is found between father and son; an interpretation apparently confirmed by such biblical parallels as the «sons of the prophets» in the Old Testament, and by passages in the New like I Cor. iv. 14. It fails, however, to do justice to the historical development of the name «Fathers». In reality, this was transferred from the bishops of the primitive Church to contemporaneous ecclesiastical writers. In the earlier centuries, by a metaphor easily understood, the bishop, in his quality of head or superior, was addressed as «Father» or «Holy Father» (e. g. Mart. S. Polyc. 12, 2: ό πατήρ τῶν χριστιανῶν; and the inscription «Cypriano papae or papati», Cypr. Ep. 30 31 36). The authority of the bishop was both disciplinary and doctrinal. He was the depositary of the teaching office of the Church, and in matters of doubt or of controversy it was his duty to decide, as witness and judge, concerning the true faith. Since the fifth century, however, this function began to devolve (in learned discussions and conciliar proceedings) on the ecclesiastical writers of the primitive Church. Most of them, and those the more eminent had, indeed, been bishops; but non-episcopal writers might also bear reliable witness to the contemporaneous faith of the Church, and when such testimonies dated from the earliest Christian period, they naturally enjoyed special respect and authority. The more frequently the consciousness of the primitive Church in matters of faith was appealed to in the course of doctrinal disputes, the more rapidly must so prevalent a term as «Father» have undergone a certain alteration. It was used to denote the witnesses to the faith of the primitive Church, and since such witnesses were rather its writers than its bishops, the term passed from the latter to the former.
The change of meaning just alluded to will be made evident by the following instances. According to St. Athanasius (Ep. ad Afros, c. 6), the bishops of the Council of Nicæa (325) appealed to the testimony of the «Fathers» (ἐκ [τῶν] πατέρων ἔχοντες τὴν μαρτυρίαν) in defence of the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father; especially prominent among these «Fathers» were two early bishops (ἐπίσκοποι αρχαῖοι), Dionysius of Rome (Ŧ 268) and Dionysius of Alexandria (Ŧ 265), both of them defenders of the consubstantiality of the Son. «How can they now reject the Council of Nicæa», says Athanasius, «since even their own fathers (και οί πατέρες αύτῶν) subscribed its decrees?» He had just mentioned the name of the Arianizing bishop Eusebius of Cæesarea. «Whose heirs and successors are they? How can they call those men Fathers (λέγειν πατέρας) whose profession (of faith) they do not accept?» Apparently Athanasius understands by «Fathers» only bishops, especially those of the primitive Church. The bishops, and they alone, had inherited the teaching office of the Apostles. St. Augustine, in his dispute with the Pelagian Julianus of Eclanum (Contra Julian. I. 34 ; II. 33 36), appeals to St. Jerome as a witness for the ecclesiastical teaching concerning original sin; at the same time he is conscious of having overstepped a certain line of demarcation. To forestall his adversary’s refusal to accept the evidence of Jerome, he insists that, though the latter was not a bishop, his extraordinary learning and the holiness of his life entitled him to be held a reliable interpreter of the faith of the Church. At the first session of the council of Ephesus (431), testimonies were read from the «writings of the most holy and godfearing fathers and bishops and other witnesses» (βιβλία τών άγιωτάτων καί όσιωτάτων πατέρων και επισκόπων και διαφόρων μαρτύρων, Mansi, SS. Conc. Coll., iv. 1184). The writings quoted are exclusively those of early bishops. In his famous Commonitorium (434) St. Vincent of Lérins recommends with insistence (c. 3 33 sq.) that the faithful hold fast to the teaching of the holy Fathers; at the same time he makes it clear that he refers, not so much to the bishops, as to the ecclesiastical writers of Christian antiquity.
2. FATHERS OF THE CHURCH, ECCLESIASTICAL WRITERS, DOCTORS OF THE CHURCH. All the ancient ecclesiastical writers were not trustworthy witnesses of the faith; hence it is that posterity has not conferred on all without distinction the title of «Fathers of the Church». St. Vincent of Lérins says that, in order to try the faith of Christians, God permitted some great ecclesiastical teachers, like Origen and Tertullian, to fall into error. The true norm and rule of faith, he adds, is the concordant evidence of those Fathers who have remained true to the faith of the Church in their time, and were to the end of their lives examples of Christian virtue: «Eorum dumtaxat patrum sententiae conferendae sunt, qui in fide et communione catholica sancte, sapienter, constanter viventes, docentes et permanentes vel mori in Christo fideliter vel occidi pro Christo feliciter meruerunt.» 1 Pope Hormisdas 2 refuses to accept appeals to the Semi-Pelagian Faustus of Riez and other theologians, on the plea that they were not «Fathers». Later Councils often distinguish between theological writers more or less untrustworthy and the «approved Fathers of the Church». 3 The earliest descriptive catalogue of «Fathers» whose writings merit commendation, as well as of other theological authors against whose writings people are to be warned, is found in the Decretal De recipiendis et non recipiendis libris, current under the name of Pope Gelasius I. (492-496). Modern patrologists indicate four criteria of a «Father of the Church»: orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, ecclesiastical approval, and antiquity. All other theological writers are known as «ecclesiastici scriptores», «ecclesiae scriptores» 4. The Fathers were not all held in equal esteem by their successors; both as writers and theologians they differ much as to place and importance in ecclesiastical antiquity. In the West four «Fathers of the Church» have been held as pre-eminent since the eighth century: Ambrose (Ŧ 397), Jerome (Ŧ 420), Augustine (Ŧ 430), and Gregory the Great (Ŧ 604); Boniface VIII. declared (1298) that he wished these four known as Doctors of the Church par excellence, and their feasts placed on a level with those of the apostles and evangelists 5. Later popes have added other Fathers to the list of Doctors of the Church, either in liturgical documents or by special decrees. Such are, among the Latins, Hilary of Poitiers (Ŧ 366), Peter Chrysologus (Ŧ ca. 450), Leo the Great (Ŧ 461 ), Isidore of Seville (Ŧ 636). Among the Greeks, Athanasius (Ŧ 373), Basil the Great (Ŧ 379), Cyril of Jerusalem (Ŧ 386), Gregory of Nazianzus (Ŧ ca. 390), John Chrysostom (Ŧ 407), Cyril of Alexandria (Ŧ 444), John of DaInascus (Ŧ ca. 754), are honoured as Doctors of the Church. Some later theological writers thus distinguished are: Peter Damian (Ŧ 1072), Anselm of Canterbury (Ŧ 1109), Bernard of Clairvaux (Ŧ 1153), Thomas Aquinas (Ŧ 1274), Bonaventure (Ŧ 1274), Francis of Sales (Ŧ 1622), and Alphonsus Liguori (Ŧ 1787). In 1899 Leo XIII. declared the Venerable Bede (Ŧ 735) a Doctor of the Church. The liturgical books of the Greek Church make mention of only three «great ecumenical teachers» (οίκουμενικοί μεγάλοι διδάσκαλοι): Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzum, and John Chrysostom. The patrological criteria of a «Doctor of the Church» are: orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, eminent learning, and formal action of the Church: «doctrina orthodoxa, sanctitas vitae, eminens eruditio, expressa ecclesiae declaratio».
J. Fessler, Instit. Patrol. ed. B. Jungmann (Innspruck 1890), i. 15-57. On the earliest Latin Doctors of the Church cf. C. Weyman in Historisches Jahrbuch (1894), xv. 96 sq., and Revue d’histoire et de littérat. relig. (1898), iii. 562 sq. On the «great ecumenical teachers» of the Greeks cf. Nilles in Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie (1894), xviii. 742 sq. ; E. Bondy, Les Pères de l’Eglise in Revue Augustinienne (1904), pp. 461-486.
1 Common. c. 39; cf. c. 41.
2 Quos in auctoritatem patrum non recipit examen: Ep. 124, c. 4.
3 Probabiles ecclesiae patres: Conc. Lat. Rom. (649) can. 18 (Mansi x. 1157); οί έγκριτοι πατέρες: Conc. Nic. II (787) act. 6 (Mansi xiii. 313).
4 St. Jerome, De viris illustr., prol.
5 Egregios ipsius doctores ecclesiae: c. un., in vi., de reliquiis 3, 22.
3. THE PATRISTIC EPOCH. As late as the fifth century even very recent writers could be counted among the «holy Fathers». Among the «most holy and godfearing Fathers» whose writings were read in the first session of the Council of Ephesus (June 22., 431) 1 were Theophilus of Alexandria (Ŧ 412) and Atticus of Constantinople (Ŧ 425). In the list of patristic citations, «paternae auctoritates», appended by Leo the Great to his Letter to Flavian of Constantinople (June 13., 449) 2 there are passages from Augustine (Ŧ 430) and from Cyril of Alexandria (Ŧ 444)· The later Christian centuries tended more and more to confine this honourable title to the ecclesiastical writers of antiquity. It was applied to them not so much on account of their antiquity as on account of their authority, which, in turn, had its root in their antiquity. The «Fathers» of the first centuries are and remain in a special way the authentic interpreters of the thoughts and sentiments of the primitive Christians. In their writings were set down for all time documentary testimonies to the primitive conception of the faith. Though modern Christian sects have always denounced the Catholic principle of «tradition», they have been compelled, by the logic of things, to seek in ecclesiastical antiquity for some basis or countenance of their own mutually antagonistic views. The limits of Christian antiquity could not, of course, be easily fixed; they remain even yet somewhat indistinct. The living current of historical, and particularly of intellectual life, always defies any immovable time-boundaries. Most modern manuals of Patrology draw the line for the Greek Church at the death of John of Damascus (Ŧ ca. 754), for the Latin Church at the death of Gregory the Great (Ŧ 604). For Latin ecclesiastical literature the limit should be stretched to the death of Isidore of Seville (Ŧ 636). Like his Greek counterpart, John Damascene, Isidore was a very productive writer, and thoroughly penetrated with the sense of his office as a frontiersman between the old and the new.
The teachings of the Fathers of the Church are among the original sources of Catholic doctrine. On the reasons for the same and the extent to which the patristic writings may be drawn upon for the proof of Catholic teaching cf. Fessler-Jungmann, op. cit., i. 41-57.
1 Mansi, iv. 1184-1196.
2 Ib., vi. 961-972.
4. PURPOSE OF PATROLOGY. Though the science of Patrology takes its name from the Fathers of the Church, it includes also the ecclesiastical writers of antiquity. Thereby, the field of its labours is enlarged, and it becomes possible to deal with ecclesiastical literature as a whole. The purpose of this science is to produce a history of the early ecclesiastical literature, that is, of such ancient theological literature as arose on the basis of the teachings of the Church. In the peculiar and unique significance of this literature, Patrology finds the justification of such a narrow limitation of its subject-matter. Though this science does not ignore the distinction between the human and the divine in the books of the new Testament, it confides the study of these writings to Biblical Introduction, convinced that it would otherwise be obliged to confine itself to such a treatment of the same as would be unjust to inspired documents that contain revelation. Patrology might, strictly speaking, ignore the anti-Christian and anti-ecclesiastical, or heretical, writings of antiquity; nevertheless, it finds it advantageous to pay constant attention to them. At the proper time, it becomes the duty of the patrologist, in his quality of historian of Christian doctrine, to exhibit the genetic growth of his subject. The development of early ecclesiastical literature was conditioned and influenced in a notable degree by the literary conflict against paganism, Judaism and heresy. The earliest ecclesiastical writers enter the lists precisely as defenders of Christianity against formal literary assaults. We do not accept as accurate a modern definition of Patrology as «the literary history of early Christianity». From that point of view, it would have to include even the profane works of Christian writers, and become the Christian equivalent of heathen and Jewish literature. Moreover, it is not so much the profession of Christianity on the part of the writer as the theologico-ecclesiastical character of his work that brings it within the range of Patrology, and stamps upon it for all time something peculiar and distinctive. If we must no longer use the word Patrology, the science may well be defined as the history of early ecclesiastical literature. The considerations that affect the selection of the material, and the limitations of Patrology affect also the treatment of the subject-matter. Stress is laid more on the theological point of view, on the contents of the patristic writings, than on mere literary form. It is true that literary history has a distinctly artistic interest. In general, however, the writings of the Fathers are not literary art-work; they expressly avoid such a character. Until very lately a distinction was drawn between Patrology and «Patristic». To the latter, it was said, belonged the study of the doctrinal content of the early Christian writers. The word «Patristic» comes from the «theologia patristica» of former Protestant manuals of dogmatic theology that were wont to contain a special section devoted to the opinions of the Fathers. This was called «theologia patristica», and distinguished from «theologia biblica» and «theologia symbolica». In the latter half of the eighteenth century this «theologia patristica» gave way among Protestants to a specific history of dogma, destined to illustrate the constant development and evolution of the original apostolic teaching. Thereby, the special office of «Patristic» was exhausted. There remains, therefore, no longer any good reason for withdrawing from Patrology the description of the doctrines of the Fathers, and confining it to an account of their lives and deeds. With the loss of its subject-matter, the raison d’être of «Patristic» disappears. – In the last few decades, all former expositions of Patrology have suffered severe reproaches both from friend and foe. Broadly considered, such reproaches were both reasonable and just. It is proper that in the future Patrology should develop along the line of scientific history, should grasp more firmly and penetrate more deeply its own subject-matter, should first digest, and then exhibit in a scientific and philosophic way, the mass of literary-historical facts that come within its purview. In other words, its office is no longer limited to the study, in themselves alone, of the writings of individual Fathers, or of individual writings of the Fathers; it must also set forth the active forces that are common to all, and the relations of all to their own world and their own time.
Fr. Nitzsch, Geschichtliches und Methodologisches zur Patristik: Jahrbücher für deutsche Theologie (1865), x. 37-63. Nitzsch uses the term Patristic as identical with Patrology. Fr. Overbeck, Über die Anfänge der patristischen Literatur: Historische Zeitschrift (new series) (1882), xii. 417-472. A. Ehrhard, Zur Behandlung der Patrologie: Literarischer Handweiser, 1895, 601–608. J. Haussleiter, Der Aufbau der altchristlichen Literatur: Götting. Gelehrte Anzeigen (Berlin, 1898).
5. MODERN HISTORY OF EARLY CHRISTIAN LITERATURE. Modern Protestant and Rationalist scholars have created in the place of Patrology a history of early Christian literature, the purpose of which is to investigate and criticize, independently of its theological or ecclesiastical aspects, the entire intellectual product of Christian antiquity from a purely literary standpoint. They have been led to this transformation, or rather rejection of Patrology, not so much by general scientific principles, as by the hypotheses of modern rationalistic Protestantism, foremost among which is the denial of the supernatural origin of Christianity and the Church. According to them, the socalled Catholic Church was not founded by Jesus Christ. It was only after a long evolutionary period, during which the Gospel of Christ underwent steadily a number of profoundly modifying influences in the sense of paganism, and particularly of hellenism, that the Catholic Church appeared among men toward the end of the second century. Since that time, both this Church and its doctrines have been at all times the subject of the most far-reaching changes and the most inconsistent innovations. The so-called Fathers of the Church represent only their own personal and very mutable opinions. There is no more objective difference between ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical, orthodox and heretical teaching, than between the inspired and non-inspired books of the Scriptures, etc.
It is this view of early ecclesiastical literature (in the first three centuries) that predominates in the works of A. Harnack and G. Krüger (cf. § 2, 4).
Source: Bardenhewer. Patrology. The lives and works of the Fathers of the Church. Introduction. B. Herder. Freiburg im Breisgau and St. Louis, Mo. 1908. pp. 1-7.
Trascripción: Francisco Arriaga. México, Frontera Norte. 14 Septiembre 2009.