Like America’s Founding Fathers, the Patristics are often invoked but seldom actually read. They are often referenced but seldom actually quoted. Though they are at the heart of the traditionalist sloganeering, they have in fact, only rarely actually contributed to the traditions they supposedly have inspired. Today they are the great unknowns, these Church Fathers. Even in those communions that place much emphasis on Apostolic Succession — the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Copt — there is scant knowledge of those who succeeded the apostles. Their words and works are seldom more than anecdotally revered.
The irony of this goes beyond the obvious — the fact is the writings of the Patristics are imminently readable and widely available. The earliest Christians were both literate and literary. They were people of the Book and of books. As a result, their refined letters, sermons, tracts, commentaries, manifestos, credos, dialogs, proverbs, epigrams, and sagas were carefully preserved and anthologized through the centuries. The harried and persecuted believers during the imperial epoch took solace in their pastoral wisdom. The pioneering Medievalists grounded their worldview on Patristic foundations throughout the era of Christendom. The reforming Protestants carefully considered their precepts during the tumultuous days of the Reformation. Indeed, nearly every generation of Christians through the end of the nineteenth century made a study of their ideas an elementary aspect of classical education.
Alas, reading their works demands a certain amount of diligence, thoughtfulness, and discernment — as is necessarily the case with all substantive writing — which is probably why reading and studying the Patristics passed out of favor during the late, great twentieth century.
Theoretically, the Patristics continue to be appealing to us. We repeat the pious reforming litany — let’s get back to the pattern of the early church; let’s restore the integrity of primordial worship; and let’s strip away the accumulated layers of traditional practices, rituals, and ceremonies. Somehow we imagine that the Patristics support us in this. We suppose them to be simplistic, primitive, and primal. So, we are often surprised to discover them to actually be complicated, refined, and mature. And if there is one thing that the modern church is in rebellion against, it is depth, sophistication, and acumen. The result is that we carry on with a blithe, “don’t confuse me with the facts” naiveté.
Generally speaking, the epoch of the Fathers was, in the Western Church, the first five centuries after Christ. In the Eastern Church, the Patristic Age may be extended to embrace John of Damascus in the middle of the eighth century. Scholars have traditionally arranged the writers, not unnaturally, into four groups. In the first group are the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists, or those writers who were roughly contemporary with the formation of the New Testament canon. These all wrote in Greek. In the second group are those writers from the third century — approximately from the time of Irenaeus to the Nicene Council. They wrote partly in Greek and partly in Latin. In the third group are the Post-Nicene Latin Fathers — those writers from the age of the great Ecumenical Councils. In the fourth group are the Post-Nicene Greek Fathers — those writers from the Golden Age of Byzantium.
Most modern collections of the Patristics include only writings from the first group — which is a great pity. The apex of the Patristic period was actually the fourth century — an amazing hundred year span that began with Athanasius (296–373) standing contra mundum, against the world, and ended with Augustine (354–430) laying the very foundations upon which Western Civilization would be built. In between, men like Alexander of Alexandria (267–328), Julius of Rome (337–352), Hilary of Poitiers (315–368), Basil of Caesarea (330–379), Gregory of Nazianzus (330–390), Martin of Tours (335–397), and Gregory of Nyssa (335–-394) fought and won the great struggle for biblical orthodoxy against the Arians — and launched early broadsides against the heresies of the Appolinarians and the Monophysites. It was in the fourth century that John Chrysostom (344–407) reinvigorated both the preaching and the liturgy of the church. It was in the fourth century that Jerome of Bethlehem (347–420) did the essential textual work that the church would rely on for more than a millennium afterward. It was in the fourth century that the errors of Pelagianism, Donatism, and Celestianism were exposed.
At a time when the Gospel is under assault like no other time since the fourth century, it would stand us in good stead to see the patterns of faithfulness from that epoch’s heroes; it would behoove us to learn from their lives and ministries; it would surely be of benefit to follow the footsteps of their greatest battles — that we might be fit to fight our own.
As a result, reading these Fathers, learning from these Fathers, and imitating these Fathers would not merely be an exercise in antiquarian curiosity — or of nostalgic idealism. Instead, it could very well be, apart from the study of the Scriptures themselves, the most relevant of all our discipling pursuits.