The Church Fathers

AD 40-200
AD 210-400
The Imperial Church
Fathers by Traditions

I use the term Church Fathers rather loosely to refer to many of the early Christian writers of the first four centuries of Christianity.   Some use the term to refer to a specific group or groups of men who were instrumental in founding of the institutional church.  As this site is a work-in-progress this section is far from complete and the organization of the material leaves something to be desired.  The goal remains to trace Orthodoxy through the series of writers from New Testament times to present.  Clearly this is nothing that can be done in 25 words or less but it is also a more formidable task than I had initially thought.  An example of how big the task can be is the volume of extant primary source material that  exists.  English translations of The Fathers are available and one set fills 38 volumes. 

During the Apostolic period (the time of from Jesus through the
Apostles), there was confusion about the message of Christianity.  This confusion was addressed by the various epistle writers.  In fact some of the epistles predate the gospels.  By the year 90 or so most of the material that is collected in our New Testament was in circulation among the various Churches.  Because of increasing pressure from quasi-Christian groups by 130 or so a group known as the Apologists began to write in defense of  Christianity.  Many of the early writers appealed to Church Tradition rather than written scripture because the New Testament would not be not in the form we have today until 400, although a consensus was developing early on (see my canons page).  In their appeal to tradition however they were not referring to something that they thought of a separate from scripture but something that was the natural out flowing of accepted scripture.  Primarily their scriptures were the Hebrew scriptures (likely in Greek translation), what we now call the Old Testament.  They were also appealing to the public tradition and history of the Christian movement that was probably familiar to most people at the time. These were public teachings of the church as compared to the "secret" teachings and traditions of the Gnostics.  They also appealed to Greek philosophy but it should be noted that the Church was largely gentile by this time and the writings of the Greeks would have been a more common knowledge base than the Hebrew scriptures.  It should be noted that there was a tradition among some Jews that Moses was the source of inspiration for much of what is Greek philosophy as well.  Key, however, to tracing orthodoxy is the writer's conception of God. That there is only one God; maker, sustainer and redeemer of all, is key to the notion of what we now call orthodoxy.  Understanding that this God is the God of the Old Testament and it is this same God that is revealed in Jesus Christ.  That the experience of the incarnation was not an unexpected event and indeed foretold by the Hebrew prophets.

Along with the Apologists there was the beginning of the institutional Church.  There are those who claim that the increasing social power of the Church was the cause of the Diocletian persecution of the 300s, which was the last of the great persecutions of the Church.  It is interesting to note that the strength of the Church grew in spite of the persecutions.  The political power of the Church emerged especially after Christianity was legalized in 313.  Around this time the Imperial Church came into being when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380.  Institutional history is not the story I am trying to tell, rather the consistency of the Christian message from the first century onward.  But from the time of what is called the Imperial Church here onward it is difficult to separate the two.

The written history that we have can serve to show us the consistent teaching of the Church.  There is a sense in which New Testament scripture records what the traditions of the early church were.  This is, in essence, where the Protestant notion of sola scriptura comes from.   Going back to the founding documents to discover what Christians taught in the first century.  The written record of the first century Church as recorded in the New Testament provides the most genuine record of the teaching and life of early Christianity.  Beyond that however, we have a continuous series of writings from authors from New Testament times until the present.