History of Christian literature that deals with the theological authors of Christian antiquity. The title of a father can be applied to the leading church writers down to the thirteenth century (after which the title of Schoolman is used), but it is usually limited to the fathers and doctors of the church from the end of the first century through the eighth century. The collection or study of theological writings began as early as EUSEBIUS, whose Ecclesiastical History is an attempt to record the writers and writings of his predecessors in the faith. JEROME wrote a history of Christian theological literature entitled De viris illustribus in 392, and numerous others have followed in this tradition down to the present time.
In order to bring a sense of order and manageability to such a large corpus of material, many different categories are often imposed upon it. None is entirely satisfactory, and there is often considerable overlap, but the reader is advised to become familiar with some of the designations to facilitate studying Christian church history. Although the subject comprises both orthodox and heretical authors, overwhelming preference is given in the collections to those whose writings represent the traditional theology of the church.
Below are some of the major categories of patristic writings.
The earliest fathers wrote in Greek and so are called the Greek fathers, among them POLYCARP, CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, and Eusebius. Later authors who wrote in Latin are thus called the Latin fathers, such as Tertullian, JEROME, BASIL, and Ambrose. Those writing in Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, and other Eastern languages are called the Oriental fathers.
The fathers who immediately succeeded the apostles (to the middle of the second century) and the New Testament era are called the apostolic fathers, including CLEMENT OF ROME, IGNATIUS, HERMAS, and Polycarp. They also fit into a larger category of those who preceded the Nicene Council and are called the ante- Nicene fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria, ORIGEN, and Dionysius of Rome; they are distinguished from those who flourished during and after Nicaea, the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers, exemplified by Eusebius, Jerome, ATHANASIUS, and Augustine.
Within the framework of the composition of theological treatises are specialized types of writings, such as that done by the apologists (e.g., Aristides, Justin Martyr, Tatian, Tertullian), most of whom lived in the second century and sought to present a defense of their faith to the world. Another group, called hagiographers, desired to keep alive the memory of Christian martyrs and saints by writing collections of lives of the saints. Eusebius likely wrote one such collection of the acts of martyrs, as did Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and others. Others took upon themselves the task of attacking those who were seen as apostates and threats to Christianity; they are called heresiologists (e.g., Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, EPIPHANIUS, and Augustine).
There are a few instances of the fathers being grouped by geographic areas, such as the Cappadocian fathers (Basil, GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS, and GREGORY OF NYSSA) or Alexandrine fathers (Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and CYRIL).
- Quasten, J., and J. C. Plumpe, eds. Ancient Christian Writers. New York, 1946-.
- Roberts, A. and J. Donaldson, eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. Buffalo, N.Y. 1885-1896.
- Schaff, P., and H. Wace, eds. A Select Library of Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 28 vols. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1886-1899.
- Schopp, L., ed. The Fathers of the Church. New York, 1947-.
C. WILFRED GRIGGS