Who are the church fathers?

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The general idea is that a church father was significant to the formation of Christian doctrine in the early centuries.

Often in the course of spiritual reading, we'll stumble on a quote from someone described as a father of the church. Such a person appears to be an authority whose teaching is unassailable. You begin to wonder: how many of these guys are there, and is there a cut-off moment when names were no longer added to the list?

(You may also wonder if there are church mothers. The short answer is: not officially. But of course there are holy women who were teachers and desert mothers, martyrs, and mystics of renown. Their names and stories are collected in many books, including Martha Ann Kirk's Women of Bible Lands and Mary Forman's Praying with the Desert Mothers.)

The church father designation isn't casual, yet it's assigned more by popular acclaim than definitive assignment. The general idea is that a church father was significant to the formation of Christian doctrine in the early centuries. Intriguingly, qualifications for joining this elite group are otherwise vague. Not all were bishops. Some were questionable in their orthodoxy overall. In the eastern tradition, it's generally assumed that the era of church fathers ends in the 8th century with John Damascene. The western church concludes its list with Gregory the Great (7th c.) or sometimes as late as the Venerable Bede (8th c.). 

In biblical times, someone who provides spiritual instruction for another is esteemed as a father. The prophet Elisha calls his mentor Elijah his father. Paul refers to himself as the father of those Corinthians who came to the faith through his teaching. So it was natural for second-century martyr Polycarp to be regarded as a father to his community, and for early leaders like Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen to utilize the relationship in their writings.

By the 4th century, church writers routinely refer to earlier teachers they cite by this title. Bishops who gathered at early councils like Nicaea, which gave us the Nicene Creed, and Ephesus, where certain heresies were condemned, pretty automatically qualified as fathers. Jesuit Joseph Bianco offers a comprehensive list that includes 5 apostolic fathers of the first century, 13 post-apostolic fathers of the second and third centuries, 56 Golden Age fathers of the fourth to eight centuries (31 writing in Greek, 20 in Latin, 5 in Syriac), and 12 desert fathers stretching from the fourth to the fourteen centuries. Bianco's count provides 86 church fathers to the tradition.

Scriptures: 2 Kings 2:12, 1 Corinthians 4:15

Books: The Fathers on the Sunday Gospels, by Stephen Mark Holmes (Liturgical Press, 2012)

Reading the Early Church Fathers: From the Didache to Nicaea, by James Papandrea (Paulist Press, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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