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What is meant by the Church Fathers?

Fathers of the Church was a term given by the Christian church to many of the outstanding theologians of at least the first six centuries. It is used in an ecclesiastical sense, to refer to those who have preceded us in the faith, and thus able to instruct us in it. Their patristic writings and commentaries have been invaluable to an understanding of the early, historic church and its doctrines.

The church established four qualifications for bestowing the honorary title of Church Father on an early writer. In addition to belonging to the early period of the church, a Father of the church must have led a holy life. His writings must be generally free from doctrinal error and must contain an outstanding defense or explanation of Christian doctrine. Finally, his writings must have received the approval of the church.

A roster of all the post apostolic Church Fathers would not be feasible here, however some of the most notable of the first century were Polycarp, Ignatius, Papias, and Justin Martyr. Of the second and third centuries were Clement, Origen, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus. It has been said that the fourth century produced many of the more prominent scholars, such as Athanasius, Hilary, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom and Jerome.

The use of the term "father," both in regard to the historic church leaders, or priests of the Catholic church, has been considered controversial, as it appears to contradict Jesus' disapproval of such titles, "Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven" (Matt. 23:9). However, the context of this passage (Matt. 23:1-39) deals with one of Jesus' most scathing censures of the self-righteousness and hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He repudiated their ostentatious use of titles such as "Father, Rabbi, or Teacher," which they used to posture themselves as superior to others. His objection was actually targeted at "arrogance and self-exaltation," not the humble use as adjectives. The scriptures later validate descriptive titles such as Pastors and Teachers (Eph. 4:11), and even Paul described himself as a father to his young understudy, Timothy. "...as a son with his father he served with me in the gospel" (Phil. 2:22).

Baker's Dictionary of Theology

This article is from the book, What People Ask About the Church, authored and copyrighted © by Dr. Dale A. Robbins, 1990-2015, and is a publication of Victorious Publications, Grass Valley, CA - Nashville, TN. Unless otherwise stated, all scripture references were taken from The New King James Bible, © Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982. You may download this article for personal use as long as you retain credit to the author. Obtain permission before reproducing copies for any reason, by filling out our simple permission form. Many of our writings are also available as free pdf tri-fold pamphlets, which can be downloaded for reproduction from our Online Catalog. For media reproduction rights, or to obtain quantities of this title in other formats, email us.