Who Are the Church Fathers?

Article excerpt

The expression "Church Fathers" refers to a group of writers in the lands around the Mediterranean Sea who shaped the foundations of Christian thought from about 200 to 600 A.D. Some wrote in Greek, others in Latin. They are called "Fathers" because of their decisive influence on the later church's understanding of the gospel.

Their era is divided into times before and after 313, when Emperor Constantine's support changed the church from an underground persecuted minority to a state-supported imperial religion.

The Fathers were theologians; some hammered out the church's full definition of the Holy Trinity and of Christ's full humanity and divinity. But they were also pastors who constantly preached, wrote spiritual works, created the church's liturgy, and invented the catechumenate, what is today called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. They also originated the Christian monastic way of life.

Above all, these first theologians of the church were learned commentators on the Bible. They answered basic faith questions from scripture, where God's voice was accessible to everyone. Gregory the Great voiced the collective wisdom of the Fathers when he encouraged people to know scripture because "the divine words grow with the one who reads them."

Before Constantine, Greek-speaking authors like the bishop Irenaeus faced down those who challenged the church's,, core belief about the basic goodness of God's, creation: The glory of God is a human being fully alive, he wrote. In the Latin West, the orator Tertullian acclaimed the martyrs, while the bishop and martyr Cyprian celebrated the church's unity as the "seamless robe of Christ. …