The Era of the Fathers

The entire patristic era is usually separated into three time periods. The first period is called “Origins,” spanning the apostolic age through the third century. The second period is labeled “The Great Century,” which covers the years 300 to 430.

As the name implies, this duration is considered the golden age of patristic activity. The third period is denoted as “The Last Centuries,” beginning in year 430 and ending circa 750.

Within the patristic epoch, the most distinguished among the Fathers are granted the official ecclesiastical title “Doctor of the Church.” In this sense, a doctor is one who is recognized for his profound doctrinal knowledge, uncompromising orthodoxy and heroic sanctity. The great “Latin” doctors are St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine and Pope St. Gregory the Great.

Concerning these Latin doctors, St. Ambrose (d. 397) produced noteworthy exegetical and moral tomes, accompanied by solid ecclesiastical governance during his episcopate. St. Jerome (d. 420) is considered the “Father of Biblical Studies” because of his excellent commentaries and great industry in composing the Latin Vulgate. St. Augustine (d. 430) wrote upon a wide array of subjects, both dogmatic and practical, and is known as the “Doctor of Grace.” St. Gregory the Great (d. 604), one of the magnificent popes, oversaw genuine reform in both ecclesiastical and civil life.

The great “Greek” doctors are St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nazianz and St. John Chrysostom. St. Athanasius (d. 373) was the stellar defender of the full deity of Jesus Christ, a revealed truth that was denied by the heretical Arians. St. Basil the Great (d. 379) and St. Gregory of Nazianz (d. 390) were part of the famous “Cappadocian Fathers” (including St. Gregory of Nyssa) who gave us profound insights regarding the Blessed Trinity. St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) wrote many biblical commentaries and gained fame as a brilliant orator.

During the patristic age, many symbols of faith, usually called “creeds,” were composed for the benefit of the faithful. The creeds serve as benchmarks for Catholic orthodoxy. Some of the better-known creeds from the time of the Fathers are “The Apostles’ Creed” (date uncertain), “The Nicene Creed” (325), “The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed” (381), “The Creed of Epiphanius” (circa 374) and “The Quicumque” (fifth or sixth century). Fittingly, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “None of the creeds from the different stages in the Church’s life can be considered superseded or irrelevant. They help us today to attain and deepen the faith of all times by means of the different summaries made of it” (No. 193).

Within the period of the Fathers, six of the Catholic Church’s 21 ecumenical councils took place. These councils were usually called to clarify theological matters and dispel doctrinal controversy. History testifies to the patristic era councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople II (553) and Constantinople III (680-681).

In addition to the ecumenical councils mentioned above, many non-ecumenical councils took place within the patristic period. These smaller gatherings usually dealt with local affairs, either of a doctrinal or practical nature. Some of these assemblies were held at Rome (382), Carthage (397, 418), Orange II (529) and Lateran (649). These kinds of councils are referenced in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The period of the Fathers is one of the most fascinating in ecclesiastical history. The patristic era has many lessons, both dogmatic and pastoral, that speak to the present day. Let us learn to sit at the feet of the Fathers by reading their treatises on a regular basis.

Ciresi teaches at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria and directs the St. Jerome Biblical Guild.

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

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