Introduction to Patristics

The following article serves to define and introduce the study of Patristics. It also provides some fundamental rationale on the importance of the Church Fathers in Orthodox Church Life.

Introduction: What is Patrology?

Patristics, or Patrology, deals with the study of the large body of literature stemming from those known as the “Fathers.” Most of these were bishops or scholars of the church in the early centuries. The majority of these fathers studied and wrote in Greek and Latin, although some important and influential figures wrote in one or other of the ancient languages such as Coptic, Syriac, or Armenian.

There is some disagreement about how long the patristic period may be considered to have lasted but all agree that minimally the period would extend to the date of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD).

Classification of Patristic Literature

The Patristic literature can be classified in various ways. One would be genre (category):

1. Epistles – (epistle = formal letter) Beginning with the writings of the early Apostolic Fathers and culminating in the published correspondence of major ecclesiastical figures like St. Basil of Caesarea or St. Ambrose of Milan. They are, similar to the epistles of St. Paul in the New Testament, written to churches or communities of Christians.

2. Homiletic works – (homiletic = art of preaching) From some writing in the second century to the extended exegetical collections of preachers like St. John Chyrsostom and sermons on topical or theological themes from many of the famous bishops.

3. Apologetic works – (apologetic = defense or proof of) Directed to the outsider or opponent, ranging from fairly short explanatory essays to extensive debates.

4. Controversial literature – Describing, condemning, and arguing against teachers and heretics.

5. Biblical commentaries – Sometimes in the form of collections of exegetical homilies from scholars like Origen or from many of the leading bishops of the later period (4th cent.).

6. Catechetical letters – (chatechetical = pertaining to teaching) Instructing new converts in the faith during lent and preparing them for baptism at Easter.

7. Personal works – such as poems by St. Gregory Nazianzen or St. Augustine’s’ “Confessions.”

8. Hagiographical works – (hagiography = writings and study of lives of saints) Lives of saints and martyrs or homilies delivered on saints’ days.

Another way of classifying the literature is according to period or place:

1. The Apostolic Fathers – Include the earliest, non-scriptural Christian writings, often overlapping in date with later New Testament documents. Some were actually regarded as scripture in certain areas before the final definition of the New Testament canon. An epistle from St. Clement, a late first-century bishop of Rome to the church at Corinth, epistles from St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch written on his final journey across Asia Minor to martyrdom in Rome, an epistle and an account of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, a visionary work known as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache, or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (a Church manual), are the main items included in this class of material.

2. The Early Apologists – Include Justin Martyr, Aristides, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Minucius Felix and Tertullian. These were active around AD 120-220.

3. Early Western Theology – Irenaeus of Lyons (late second century), Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Cyprian of Carthage (third century) are the important figures. St. Irenaeus, bishop Lyons, is one of the most important figures of the early church. He was taught by St. Polycarp who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. Two of his major works are Against All Heresies and The Preaching of the Apostles.

4. The Alexandrians – They developed a particular tradition of philosophical theology. The most important were St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-220) and Origen (c. 185-255). Origen was later branded as a heretic (although his writings prior to his falling away are highly valued and esteemed), whereas Clement is a saint of the Church. Clement was explicitly philosophical in his approach while Origen was more systematic, more scholarly and more biblical. Origen commented or preached on nearly every book of the Bible. The Alexandrians mastered and promoted the allegorical (non-literal, hidden moral and spiritual teachings) method of interpreting scriptures.

5. The Period of Nicea – The early fourth century was dominated by three developments: (i) the conversion of Constantine, the Christianizing of the empire and the politicizing of the church; (ii) the reaction against accommodation with the world evidenced in the flowering of the monastic movement, which was to inspire a hagiographical literature of its own; and (iii) the Arian controversy which occasioned the first Ecumenical Council at Nicea. The greatest figure produced by these events was St. Athanasius, pope of Alexandria. Many of his writings are anti-Arian treatises, but he also produced a small classic called The Incarnation as well as another classic, The Life of Antony, a detailed life of St. Antony the Great (said to be the first monk).

6. The Cappadocians – They were a trio with close ties, St. Basil of Caesarea (the author of the Coptic Liturgy), his friend St. Gregory Nazianzen (called “the Theologian”), and his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa. A vast literature of letters, sermons, treatises, poems, and commentaries survives from them. They were responsible for the triumph of Nicene orthodoxy in the later fourth century (i.e. Trinitarian theology).

7. The Golden Age in the East – Includes in addition to the fourth century writers mentioned above, St. John Chrysostom and St. Cyril of Alexandria. St. John is considered the greatest preacher of the Greek church, although not necessarily important in the formation of doctrine, his homilies have remained one of the principal influences in the thinking and practice of Eastern Orthodoxy. St. Cyril is particularly associated with the fifth century christological controversies, his interests were not solely confined to dogmatic issues. As in the case of most of the Fathers, scriptural exegesis was an important element in his work.

8. The Golden Age of the West – The great figures of St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine brought Latin theology to its peak. Together with Gregory the Great, they are the Doctors of the Latin Church. St. Jerome was responsible for the Vulgate, the authoritative Latin translation of the Bible. St. Ambrose, amongst many other things, introduced Greek exegetical methods to the West. Although Western theology tended to be less philosophical than the East, St., Augustine’s writings were extremely intellectual, deeply influencing the future of Western theology. He wrote extensively on the Trinity, the doctrine of the Church, the doctrine of Grace and Free Will, etc. but is most well known for his essay in the philosophy of history, The City of God, and his autobiographical work, The Confessions.

Why Study Patristics?

Historical Reasons

The Patristic literature is the primary source material for reconstructing the history of the church during the period with which we are concerned. Although there is other relevant material in secular literature, archeological evidence, etc., the Patristic literature is the largest body of extant evidence.

Doctrinal Reasons

The Patristic literature is the primary source material for reconstructing the early history of Dogma. For the Orthodox Church, the Fathers are a major source and authority alongside Holy Scripture and are venerated as such.

Liturgical Reasons

The Patristic literature is the primary source material for reconstructing the early history of the liturgy. In addition to the texts of the liturgies, Patristic literature gives us such things as the descriptions of practices, quotations of early prayers, hymns, rituals, etc.

Biographical Reasons

Many of the writers were outstanding personalities worth studying in their own right. Patristics gives us insight into their character, etc.

Spiritual Reasons

The Fathers of the Church are saints not only because of their vast knowledge, but also because of their deep spirituality. According to the teachings of the Church, there can be no real separation between theology and spirituality. The Fathers are examples to us by their conduct, way of life, and holiness.