Patrology – A Study of the Church Fathers



What is Patrology?


Patrology is the science with deals with the life, writings and doctrine of the Fathers of the Church.  It refers to the study of the Church Fathers not so much regarding their lives as their to doctrine regarding faith and morals and Church discipline - which is laid out in various collections of their writings that are still available to us.


Not all that the Church Fathers wrote is still available to us, numerous works of the Fathers have never available to us in modern times, yet we often find references to them in various works of antiquity.


All the saints of great learning took great care to learn well the teachings of the Church Fathers since the Church recognizes two source of revelation -  “Scripture AND Tradition”, - The fathers of the Church, are the best witnesses and representatives of both, since they lived in greater proximity to the time of the Apostles who were the foundation stones, the pillars of Our Faith.


Even from a historical perspective if any one wants to have some understanding of the Church’s origin and her long unbroken chain of those who bore witness to the nature, constitution, teaching and worship of the early Church, were better can he turn than to the Church Fathers. 


In fact, Cardinal Newman often professed that it was in reading of the works of the Fathers that enabled him to see the truth of the claims of the Catholic Church, -“ whatever history teaches, whatever it omits, whatever it exaggerates or extenuates, whatever it says and unsays, at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism.” He further goes on to concluded with those well known words  “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant” (Newman, John Henry, Historical Sketches, vol.1: The Church of the Fathers, London: 1872, p.418).


It was this same reality that leads St. Edmund Champion to repudiate the Anglican Church which he was set up to enter. Evelyn Waugh in his famous work on the life of St. Edmund Campion writes concerning him that: “By the statutes of the college he (campion) was obliged, if he wished to make his career in the university, to proceed to the study of theology and the acceptance of Holy Orders. He put it off as long as he could, concentrating at first on Aristotle and natural theology, where there was little, to entangle him in the controversy of the day, but in 1567 he had, in the normal course to proceed to the study of the Fathers. Here every sentence seemed to bear a topical allusion, and the deeper he penetrated in the minds of the Doctors, the further he seemed from the Anglican Church which he was designed to enter” (Pg. 27-28).  For this reason the Church’s greatest theologians have always applied themselves to the study of the Fathers, seeing in them a confirmation and clarification of that immutable faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).


What is a Father of the Church?


Not all the saints of antiquity are given the title of Father of Church - The term/ title “Father of the Church”, has its origin in the name of “Father” – Pater – which was a title given to bishops as early as the second century but by the 5th century it was used to refer primarily to the old ecclesiastical writers, (who were ordinarily bishops) that had died in communion with the Church. However term “Father of the Church” today is taken to refer strictly to those Holy ecclesiastical writers of antiquity, before the 8th, who on account of their Ecclesiastical learning and orthodox doctrine, combined with a  holiness of life have been recognized by the approbation of the Church.  - St. John of Damascene (death -754) is generally considered as the Last of the Fathers of the East,  while St. Isidore of Sevile ( death 636) is generally considered as the last of the Fathers of the West. 

We can say that the title of “Father of the Church”, which designated at first the heads of the Churches (the bishops), now is given to men who guarded in a special manner the deposit of Faith. But it is true that this title also is given to other writers who fulfilled only partially these conditions ( ex :  Origen, Tertullian, Eusebius of Caesarea...). It is only in a wider extension that Patrology studies all orthodox writers of Christian antiquity and also Christian literature as a whole. So the difference is given by the tittle “Father of the Church” or only “ecclesiastical writer”.

So the Church makes the following distinctions.

--Christian writers : (scriptores christiani).

Those Christians who have left behind writings on matters of faith, but did not live in the communion of the Church, as, for instance, Novatian.

-          Ecclesiastical writers : (scriptores ecclesiastici).

Those men who, though living in the communion of the Church, have yet not always in their lives and writings expressed her pure and genuine traditional doctrine

-          Fathers of the Church : (Patres Ecclesiae)

Those ecclesiastical writers of old, who, on account of their learning and holiness of life, have been recognised as such by the Church. (Recte credentium Ecclesiae filiorum genitores. )


Those ecclesiastical writers who, on account of their learning and holiness, have been expressly honoured with this title by the Church.

More precisely, however, to merit this title 'Father of the Church' four specific qualifications are required :


 (1): Antiquity – Generally before the 8th century – Although not all theologians agree on this, as some place it earlier, such as the 4th or 6th Century but all theologians generally agree that its no later than the 8th Century.


(2): Ecclesiastical Learning, and orthodoxy,

The distinction that the Church makes in these cases is that they are regarded as ecclesiastical writers of antiquity in so far as their works are useful as historical or theological records of antiquity and not that they necessarily represent the Church’s teachings in an orthodox manner in their writings, and so strictly speaking they wouldn’t be regards as Church Fathers but as ecclesiastical writers of antiquity. Although when they are quoted in defense of the faith, some theologians often make reference to them as “Fathers of the Church”, when strictly speaking they are not, since they fell away from the faith.



(3): Holiness of Life, - he has to be venerated as a saint - The Church is undoubtedly clear on the point that Holiness of life is absolutely required in a Father of the Church Father because Learning and Holiness must go together. Learning without Holiness “Puffs Up”.


(4): Approbation of the Church

The Church’s approbation can be either explicitly given by a Council or a Pope affirming the fact or implicit as was the case with a great number of the Fathers . i.e. by the mere consent of the Church dispersed throughout the world.


Division of the Fathers of the Church

The Fathers may be divided

·         according to language, into Greek and Latin

·         according to authority, into Greater or Lesser

·         according to age, into

-          Apostolic Fathers

Such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius…

-          Ancient or Early Fathers

Such as Justin, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Gregory Thaumaturgus … till the end of the third century

-          Later Fathers

Such as Gregory Nazianzen, Epiphanius, Hilary of Poitiers, Paulinus of Nola … and all others

from the fourth to the eighth century.


There are eight Great Doctors of the Church : Four for the East and Four for the West :

-          Western Great Doctors :      St Ambrose, St Jerome, St Augustine and St Gregory the Great.

-          Eastern Great Doctors  :      St Basil, St Gregory Nazianzenus, St John Chrysostom, St Athanasius,

While every Church Father is a doctor of the Church, not every doctor of the Church is a Father of the Church since although  the Church has subsequently added to the list a great number of Church doctors (teachers - from the latin "doco, docere - to teach), eminent for there holiness and learning, yet neither they nor St. Thomas Aquinas can ever be given the title “Father of the Church”, at least not in any true sense of that term. The difference between Fathers and Doctors is that there are only 2 rules by which the Church determines someone to be a Doctor of the Church:

i.      great science

ii.      explicit proclamation of Church



The Works of the Fathers have been compiled by various men through the last few centuries, today the most notable collection has been made by Migne – Hence MPL (Migne Patristicum Latin Fathers) or MPG (Migne Patristicum Greek Fathers) are often given as Patristic references. Most other subsequent collections base their work on Migne, yet the various different compilers and translators of the works of the fathers are far numerous to mention.


Authority of the Fathers of the Church:


It’s important for Catholics to have a clear understanding as to what authority doctrinal authority the Church Fathers have. By Authority, I mean, what power or right do they have to command our intellectual assent. To what extent to we have to hold what the Church Fathers taught as belonging to the deposit of Faith. To what extent can we discard or disregard what they said? – There are two error in this regards to be avoided, and I will explain why. One Error is say that everything that the Church Fathers wrote is infallible and requires assent as belonging to the deposit of Faith. The other error, as held by most protestant’s or at least a number of them – most particularly the more fundamentalist sorts, is to think that there writings are mere literary testimonials of no importance in the matters of the faith. “That’s there antiquated opinion” –


Both views are erroneous and go directly against Catholic Teaching. The First is wrong, because not all the Church Fathers were in agreement on what they wrote, also because at times there works seem to have statement which go against the faith, and so they can’t be taken at face value, but require prudent and honest interpretation, according to the context in which the words were written, while making sure that interpretation conforms to the Catholic Father, which the Church Fathers undoubtedly sort to defend and uphold. In fact this is what St. Thomas does throughout the entire summa, whenever objections are raised to confirm an error using the word’s of a Church Father. St. Thomas set’s out to explain what that Father meant and in what manner it can be understood and conforming to the Faith and in what manner it would be false to understand those words.


The Second reason does require explanation, since  not only is it impious but  it’s a sure sign of one’s ignorance of what the Church is since Christ founded an apostolic Church, by which His doctrine was to be transmitted by successively by the legitimate pastors of the Church.


Just the Church has certain rules or criteria that she uses to determine just who is to be given the title of Church Father, so also the Church has certain rules to help us determine just what authority the various works of the Fathers have.


Authority a Church Fathers Possess – is not based on beauty of his writings or his literary style but it is ultimately determined by the source of the doctrine proposed. – Yet the Church has laid down 3 rules that are generally taken for granted by Catholic theologians - I will explain them as I enumerate them: (Manual of Patrology, by Rev. Bernard Schmid, O.S. B, Herder Book Co., 1917, Pg. Pg. 31.)


1.In matters of natural science, the words of one, or many or of all the Fathers together, have only as much weight as the reasons on which they are based. – In other words their authority extends no farther than their proofs given.


2. Even in maters pertaining to faith and morals, the testimony of one or two Fathers of the Church does not suffice to produce certainty, but only probability. This also holds true of the authority of many Fathers, in cases where other Fathers contradict, or hold a different opinion. The only exception to this is rule is when by the intervention of the Church the doctrine of an individual Father is explicitly and definitively recognized or declared as a rule of faith by the Universal Church in her Solemn Infallible Magesterium or Ordinary Universal Magesterium, i.e. In the declaration of a Dogma – In this case, the Church declares explicitly what Catholics had always implicitly believed.  Yet in no way can the silence of The Church Fathers on a given point of Contention or Catholic doctrine be used as proof for supposing that they denied it, since not only it is bad theology, but also because some of Church Fathers didn’t deal with every issue of the Faith most of them often only dealt with those issues which were of much contention at the time and in place in which they lived.


3. The agreement of all the Fathers of the Church – The Consensus Patrum, in matters of faith and morals, begets complete certainty and commands assent, because they, as a body, bear witness to the teaching and belief of the infallible Church, representing the Church herself. So the authority of the Fathers is binding only when they all agree upon a question of faith and morals. The consensus, however, need not be absolute; a moral agreement suffices, as, for instance, when some of the greatest Fathers testify to a doctrine of the Church, and the rest, though quite aware of it, do not positively oppose it- i.e. Baptism of Blood /Martyrdom. Therefore, whatever, the Holy Fathers unanimously teach as the divinely revealed tradition of the Church, must be accepted and believed as such. It a common say amongst theologians that “He who departs form the unanimous consent of the Fathers, departs for the Church.” Or to quote St. Augustine “He who rejects the holy Fathers, confesses that he rejects the whole Church” (S. Augustine. c. Julian. II, 37). 


The reason that the Church makes this affirmation is because the Fathers, in their unanimous consent, are the venerable organs and the fully competent witnesses of the revealed doctrine of Christ, deposited in the Church and handed on from generation to generation. In fact, we say that in so far as the Fathers of a certain period are all, or mostly, bishops, their testimony in matters of faith or morals, is not only indirectly, but directly and in itself infallible, because they are the divinely appointed witnesses, and the divinely instituted organ and channel of tradition.


Nevertheless in all other cases the authority of the Church Fathers is greater or lesser according to the arguments alleged in support of their opinion, and should never be lightly rejected, without serious theological or scientific (if it’s a scientific issue) proof to the contrary. In this way we maintain our filial piety and firm love for the truth when we have in any way to depart from the opinion or teaching of a particular Father. In this way we imitate St. Thomas who shows this forth in the Summa Theologica.


Authority of a single Father?


Yet how exactly should we regard the authority of a single Father of the Church. For example, what authority do the works of St. Augustine have? Or St. Justin Martyr as individual writers  of Antiquity?


Well, firstly, in so far as the Fathers claim to be represent the Church’s teaching on a point, their authority is determined by what I just mentioned. But when the Fathers propound their opinions or interpretations of Scripture, the Individual Fathers are not all of equal authority. The various degrees of authority are determined by three rules which have been laid down by the Church:


1. The greater the holiness and learning of a Father and the honor in which he is held by the Church, the greater is his authority. – i.e. St. Augustine, or any of the 8 great Fathers of the Church.


2. Those Fathers who were in close connection with a great number of bishops, or who lived near to the times of the Apostles, have greater authority than others do. In addition, those are also added those Father, who in their works have defended successfully any assailed doctrine of the Church and brilliantly explained its meaning. i.e. St. Athanasius Against the Arians.


3. Of Pre-eminent authority are those Fathers who were at the head of Churches founded by the Apostles themselves, such as St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp or those who were successors of St. Peter, such as St. Leo the Great and St. Gregory the Great, Or those who were preferred by the Holy Fathers themselves. This is because as St. Augustine says “They (the Church Fathers) held to what they found in the Church; they taught what they had learnt ; what they had received from the Fathers, they transmitted to the children”. (S. Augustine. C. Julian., II. 9).


The Fathers and Scripture


With these things in mind, we can see that the logical application is that the faith that which hold to and live by is understood and received in the manner that it was handed down and expounded by the Fathers of the Church. Therefore, contrary to what manner so called “Biblical Scholars” today claim, we have to understand even the interpretation of the scriptures in the light of patristic teaching. In fact the Council of Trent affirms on this point “ Let no one, trusting to his own wisdom, in matters appertaining to faith or morals, and the building up of Christian doctrine, dare, by twisting the Sacred Scriptures to is own sense, to interpret them against the unanimous consent of the Fathers” (Session IV, Decret. De usu ss. Libror).   Again the First Vatican Council affirms the same saying that “no one is allowed to interpret Sacred Scripture against the unanimous consent of the Fathers” (Sess. III., Cap. 2, De Revelatione). Yet when the fathers are not unanimous on a given point, we can simply apply the previous principles mention.


I will say in passing that this does not exclude nor is it intended to exclude the legitimate and homogeneous development of the received understanding of the Truths of Faith – (what is otherwise termed – The homogeneous development of Dogma) but rather that any development or clarification of the Church’s Teachings must have it’s theological basis in the deposit of Father as handed down to us by the Apostles and their legitimate successors of antiquity, the Church Fathers.




Does the Church claim that the Church Fathers were so inspired that they have the same authority as sacred Scripture itself? – No. This is not the Church’s teaching at all the Sacred Scriptures in regards to inspiration and binding authority, are infinitely more superior to the works of the Fathers, but, I emphasis this, for this is where we break greatly with Protestantism, namely the fathers as organs of Tradition (Tradition, with a Capital “T”), no only give us the sense in which scripture is to be understood, (because the bible as an inspired book is mute like any other book),  but as organs of Tradition, they treat of many things pertaining to the faith which are not explicitly found in the scriptures. – i.e. The immaculate Conception - The Assumption, The Trinity etc.


Without contradicting what I just said, Both the Fathers and the Scripture in there relation to the Church stand on the same level, because just as the Church bears infallible witness to the fact of inspiration and to the number of divinely inspired books, and unerringly explains their sense, so also does she witness to and interpret with the same absolute infallibility the divine and Apostolic Tradition contained in the patristic writings. From this twofold source , the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, ever draws forth the truth, and proposes it to the faithful as Gods own word , to be accepted and  held with absolute certainty.