Have you ever heard someone refer to “the church fathers” or “patristics” and wondered what those words mean? If so, you are not alone. I began my Christian life in a theological setting where those words were rarely, if ever, used. When I later found myself in Reformed churches and began to hear those words more often, I was initially unsure of their meaning.
Typically, when an author or speaker refers to “the church fathers,” he or she is referring to non-inspired, orthodox Christian authors from the first four or five centuries of the church after the completion of the New Testament. In other words, a distinction is made between the inspired writings of the New Testament, which were completed in the first century, and other Christian writings. The authors of these other Christian writings are referred to as “the church fathers.” The study of their works is referred to as “patristics” or “patrology.” These technical terms come from Latin word pater, which means “father.”
The earliest of these writings have come to be known as “the Apostolic Fathers.” That designation can be confusing because these authors were not Christ’s Apostles. Instead, the Apostolic fathers are those authors writing in the generation immediately following the writing of the last of the New Testament books. In other words, the Apostolic Fathers are Christian writings dating from approximately AD 70–150.
The next major dividing line in the history of the early church is the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. This council was called to deal with the Arian heresy. The church fathers who wrote prior to the Council of Nicaea are referred to as the ante-Nicene fathers. The prefix ante- means “before.” It differs from the prefix anti-, which means “against.” The ante-Nicene fathers, thus, wrote *before *the Council of Nicaea. The post-Nicene fathers wrote *after *the Council of Nicaea.
The writings of the early church fathers are a fascinating source of information about the early church, but they must be read with discernment. As the leaders of the early church began to work through the teaching of Scripture, it often took much time before all the good and necessary consequences of Scripture were worked out. Sometimes a heresy would arise that would force these church fathers to be more specific and nuanced than earlier Christian writers had been.
It is also necessary to read these works with discernment because Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists will often use them to trip up evangelical Christians. These apologists will frequently encourage a Protestant to go read the writings of the second, third, and fourth centuries and then argue that only their church is doctrinally consistent with what is found in them.
It is important to remember that although historians make a necessary distinction between the inspired writings of the New Testament authors and the non-inspired writings of the early church fathers, there is a very real sense in which the authors of the New Testament books are the earliest “church fathers.” The church is built on the foundation of the prophets and Apostles (Eph. 2:19–21). Their writings, not the writings of later post-Apostolic authors, are the standard of our faith and practice. If a Roman Catholic apologist encourages you to read the early church fathers and stops at the beginning of the second century, remind him or her that the earliest church fathers are the authors of the New Testament. He or she stopped one century short.
The reason Roman Catholic apologists stop at the beginning of the second century is because there are some important differences between the content of those writings and the content of the first-century New Testament books. It is important to remember that in the earliest decades following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, the church was predominantly comprised of converted Jews. All the Apostles were Jews. The thousands of converts on the day of Pentecost were Jews. Gentiles began to be gradually grafted in through the missionary work of Paul and others, but the early church was shaped by its Jewish Old Testament background. If you leap forward, however, to the middle of the second century, about one hundred years after the events in the book of Acts, you’ll notice that the church was now predominantly comprised of gentiles, converted pagans.
What accounts for this radical shift over such a short period of time? One of the most important factors, if not the most important factor, was the series of wars between the Romans and the Jews between AD 66–135. At the beginning of the first war (AD 66–73), the Jews were strongly established in the land of Israel and in various places around the Mediterranean Sea. By the end of the Bar Kochba revolt (AD 132–136), the Jews had been thoroughly defeated and dispersed.
How might a shift from a predominantly Jewish church to a predominantly gentile church have affected the content of the writings produced before and after the shift? For one thing, first-century Jewish Christians were fundamentally shaped by the Old Testament. Their understanding of the relationship between God and man was shaped to its core by the biblical concept of the covenant. Pagan gentile converts often did not have the Old Testament as a formative influence. Their thought world was shaped by other concepts, such as those found in Greek philosophy. This may explain to some extent why soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) in the early church sometimes looked more like the Greek idea of the soul’s “ascent to the One” than it did to the biblical concept of salvation.
All of this means that while the church fathers are important for understanding the early development of Christian doctrine, their writings are to be measured against Scripture. They cannot be treated as the inspired and infallible standard of faith and life. When and where they incorporate elements of Greek thinking, those elements must be carefully evaluated against the standard of Scripture to make sure they are consistent. Inconsistent elements of thought must be rejected.