{7}           Church Fathers

ERA 2 << Early Church (2): Stability (AD 300–600) >> SESSION 3

Reference: Gonzalez, volume 1, chapters 19-25

        7.1.1  Definition

·         Definition: The Church Fathers were the influential theologians and writers in the early church, from the end of 1st-c to 6th-c, after the apostolic era. Their writings are generally accepted as authoritative on the teachings and practices of the church. They do not include the writers of the NT books. The total number is about 30.

·         Eastern church: The Eastern post-Nicene Church Fathers were divided into two schools of Biblical interpretation. The Alexandrian school had the allegorizing tendency following Origen. The Antiochene school emphasized a grammatico-historical study of the Scripture, such as Chrysostom and Theodore.

·         Western church: The Western post-Nicene Church Fathers concentrated on the translation of the Scripture, the critique of the pagan philosophers, and the writing of theological treatises. This practical bent of the Latin Fathers contrasted with the speculative metaphysical tendency of the Greek Fathers.

·         Periods: [1] Apostolic Fathers—edification (1st-c), [2] Apologists—explanation (2nd-c), [3] Polemicists—refutation (3rd-c), [4] Expositors—exposition (4th-c), [5] Monasticism (4th-c to 6th-c).

        7.1.2  Athanasius (296–373) of Alexandria

·         Against Arianism: His deep conviction was that the central fact of Christian faith, and all human history, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. At the Council of Nicea [325], he strongly opposed Arianism. Because of his stand, he was exiled 5 times.

·         Theology: Athanasius used the formula “of the same substance” (homoousios) to describe the 3 persons of trinity. He argued for the deity of the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father (John 15:26). His letters set out for the first time the NT canon exactly as we have it today.

        7.1.3  Cappadocian Fathers

·         Cappadocia: It was a region in southern Asia Minor. The 3 Cappadocian Fathers include two brothers—Basil (329–379) and Gregory of Nyssa (335–395) and—their friend Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389). Their greatest contribution was in defending the orthodox view on Trinity: “three persons in one essence”. Basil was the father of Eastern monasticism and Macrina (324–380), his sister, awakened his interest in it, so she was sometimes named as the founder of Greek monasticism. She also found a community for women.

        7.1.4  John Chrysostom (347–407) of Constantinople

·         Preaching: He was most famous for his eloquent preaching. His reformed the life of the clergy. He insisted on simplicity of life and inclined to mysticism. He was exiled and died for confronting the emperor’s wife.

        7.1.5  Theodore (350–428) of Mopsuestia

·         Exegete: He was called the “prince of ancient exegetes” because he opposed the allegorical interpretation, favouring historico-grammatical method. He also gave careful attention to the context.

        7.1.6  Ephrem (308–373) of Syria

·         Poet: He was a Syrian theologian known for his exegesis and his poetry, and came to be known as “lyre of the Holy Spirit.” Ephrem wrote a wide variety of hymns, poems and homilies for Christians in troubled times.

        7.1.7  Ambrose (338–397) of Milan

·         Theology: His work led to Augustine’s teaching on original sin. His emphasis on the conversion of the bread and the wine in the communion service, leading later to transubstantiation. He was a great writer of hymns.

·         Clashes with emperor: While Emperor Theodosius was a Nicene Christian, he clashed with Ambrose on two occasions. The emperor yielded to Ambrose in both times.

        7.1.8  Jerome (347–420) of Rome

·         Vulgate: His most famous work was the Vulgate [405], a Latin translation from the original Hebrew and Greek Bible. It eventually became the standard Bible of the entire Latin-speaking church.

7.2  Augustine of Hippo (354–430)

        7.2.1  Life

·         Conversion: He was acclaimed as the greatest Church Father. He was born in North Africa and was first a professor of rhetoric. After adopting different philosphies, he was converted after listening to the preaching of Ambrose and reading the Bible. He founded a monastery and was later ordained as the bishop of Hippo [395].

        7.2.2  Thoughts

·         On Trinity: He examined a range of possible analogies to explain trinity, mostly based on the trio of being, knowing, and willing. His final and best analogy is the mind remembering, understanding, and loving God.

·         On the problem of evil: Man’s will is capable of making its own decisions but free-will produces evil. The origin of evil is to be found in the bad decisions made by man and fallen angels. Evil is not a substance; it is a decision, a direction, a negation of good.

·         On human free-will and salvation: Human will is powerless against the hold of sin. The only freedom left to us is freedom to sin. Salvation is all of God’s grace. Further, grace is irresistible, and God gives it to those who have been predestined to it. Augustine’s doctrine of predestination was later developed by John Calvin.

·         Theological errors: Augustine helped to develop the doctrine of purgatory. He also over-emphasized the value of sacraments resulting in the doctrines of baptismal regeneration and sacramental grace.

        7.2.3  Writings

·         Confessions: It is a spiritual autobiography, describing how God led him to faith through a long pilgrimage.

·         City of God: It is a Christian philosophy of history in which Augustine claims that there are two cities. The city of God is built on the love of God. The earthly city is built on love of self. In human history, these two cities always appear mingled with each other. In the end, the city of God will remain.

        7.3.1  Downfall of the Western Roman Empire

·         Guardian of the culture: Endless waves of barbarian hordes invaded the Roman Empire. Rome was conquered [410, 455]. A German general, deposed the last Western Roman Emperor [476]. Western civilization was at the brink of destruction. It was the church that provided continuity with the past. She became the guardian of civilization and of order in the Middle Ages.

        7.3.2  Middle Ages

·         The meaning of Middle Ages:

o        Origin of the term: The name Middle Ages was first found in a book [1669] written by Christopher Kellner. He characterized the Middle Ages for their apparent sterility and the absence of the classical influence.

o        Secular viewpoint: The men of the Renaissance thought that this era was a chasm separating the brilliant classical and modern periods of humanism. To them, this period was an age of darkness—Dark Ages.

o        Roman Church viewpoint: The RCC thought that this era was the golden age of history. It was preceded by classical paganism and followed by the disintegrating forces of Protestantism.

o        Protestant viewpoint: Protestants considered the Middle Ages the valley of shadow in which the pure ancient church was corrupted. The modern era of church history, from Reformation, was a return to the ideals of the NT.

·         Political situation: At the beginning of the Middle Ages, the Roman Empire fragmented into Muslim domination in North Africa, Byzantine Empire in Asia, and papal areas in Europe.


[1] treasure our heritage

The metaphysical aspect (Eastern church) and practical aspect (Western church) in theology are both important.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

Christianity was protected from destruction by barbarians.

[3] avoid past errors

Beware of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture.

[4] apply our knowledge

Augustine’s City of God provides a proper perspective of the world.

[5] follow past saints

The Church Fathers are known not only for their theology but also for their holy lives.