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Patristics or Patrology is the study of early Christian writers, known as the Church Fathers. The names derive from the Latin pater (father). The period is generally considered to run from the end of New Testament times (circa 100 CE) to either 451 CE (the date of the Council of Chalcedon), [1] or to the 8th century.


Key persons

Among the persons whose writings form the basis for Patristics, i.e. prominent early Church "fathers", are Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165), Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-c.200), Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c.215), Origen (c.185-c.254), Tertullian (c.160-c.225), Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258), Athanasius (c.296-c.373), Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), Basil of Caesarea (c.330-379), Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-c.395) Theodore of Mopsuestia (c.350-428), Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Pelagius, Vincent of Lérins (d. bef. 450), Cyril of Alexandria (d.444), Nestorius (died c.451). [2]

Key theological developments

Major focuses for these theologians during the period are in chronological order Christianity's relationship with Judaism, the establishment of the New Testament Canon, Apologetics ('defense' or 'explanation' of Christianity), and doctrinal discussions that sought to achieve consistency of faith, in particular within the Christianised Roman Empire. [3] Following the scholar of Christianity Alistair McGrath (1998), several major areas of theology can be seen to have developed during the Patristic Period: the extent of the New Testament Canon, the role of tradition, the fixing of the ecumenical creeds, the two natures of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of the Church, and the doctrine of Grace. [4]

Eras of the church fathers

The church fathers are generally divided into the Ante-Nicene Fathers, those who lived and wrote before the Council of Nicaea (325) and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, those who lived and wrote after 325. In addition, the division of the fathers into Greek and Latin writers is also common. Some of the most prominent Greek Fathers are Justin Martyr, John Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria. Among the Latin Fathers are Tertullian, Cyprian, Jerome, Ambrose of Milan, Gregory the Great and Augustine of Hippo.


The major locations of the early Church fathers were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and the area of western north Africa around Carthage. Milan and Jerusalem were also sites. [5]

Obstacles to 21st century understanding

Scholar of Christianity Alistair McGrath notes four reasons why, in the early 21st century, understanding Patristics can be difficult: (1) Some of the debates appear to have little relevance to the modern world; (2) The use of classical philosophy; (3) The doctrinal diversity; (4) The divisions between East and West, i.e. Greek and Latin, methods of theology, for example the extent of use of classical philosophy. [6]

Patrologia vs. patristica

Some scholars, chiefly in Germany, distinguish patrologia from patristica. Josef Fessler, for instance, defines patrologia as the science which provides all that is necessary for the using of the works of the Fathers, dealing, therefore, with their authority, the criteria for judging their genuineness, the difficulties to be met within them, and the rules for their use. But Fessler's own Institutiones Patrologiae has a larger range, as have similar works entitled Patrologies, for example that of Otto Bardenhewer (tr. Shahan, Freiburg, 1908). On the other hand, Fessler describes patristica as that theological science by which all that concerns faith, morals, or discipline in the writings of the Fathers is collected and sorted. The lives and works of the Fathers are also described by a non-specialized science: literary history. These distinctions are not much observed, nor do they seem very necessary; they are nothing else than aspects of patristic study as it forms part of fundamental theology, of positive theology, and of literary history.

Availability of patristic texts

Most patristic texts are available in their original languages in Jacques Paul Migne's two great patrologies, Patrologia Latina and Patrologia Graeca. For Syriac and other Eastern languages the Patrologia Orientalis is less complete and can be largely supplemented by the Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium. Noted collections containing re-edited patristic texts (also discoveries and new attributions) are the Corpus Christianorum, Sources Chrétiennes, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, and on a lesser scale Oxford Early Christian Texts and Fontes Christiani (also Etudes Augustiniennes).

English translations of patristic texts are readily available in a variety of collections. For example:

A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark).
The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the Twenty-First Century (New York: New City Press). [1]
The Fathers of the Church (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press) [2]
Ancient Christian Writers (New York: Paulist Press) [3]
The Early Church Fathers (London; New York: Routledge). [4]

A range of journals cover patristic studies:

Journal of Early Christian Studies
Studia Patristica [5]
Vigiliae Christianae
Church History [6]
Journal of Ecclesiastical History[7]
Augustinian Studies [8]

Sources and External links


See also

Early Christianity


  1. ^ McGrath, Alistair. 1998. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. Chapter 1 'The Patristic Period, c. 100-451.'
  2. ^ McGrath. op.cit. Ch. 1.
  3. ^ McGrath. op.cit. Ch. 1.
  4. ^ McGrath. op.cit. pp. 27-37.
  5. ^ McGrath. op.cit. pp. 20-22.
  6. ^ McGrath. op.cit. pp. 23.

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