Stephen Preaching, BNF Roth, 2529,
Brev. of Martin of Aragon, 293 v. 15th cent.

FATHERS OF THE CHURCH. From an early date the title father (πατήρ), was applied to bishops as witnesses to the Christian tradition, but from the end of the 4th cent. it was used in a more restricted sense of a more or less clearly defined group of ecclesiastical authors of the past whose authority on doctrinal matters carried special weight. St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nazianzus are among the first to prove the orthodoxy of their teaching by appealing to the agreement of series of patristic texts, later known by the technical term “consensus Patrum(agreement of the fathers).

IN the great Christological controversies of the 5th century all parties claimed the authority of the Fathers for their teaching, e.g. St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus (431) as well as Theodoret. By the end of the 5th cent. the term had come to be applied also to teachers who were not bishops, e.g. to St. Jerome. The so-called “Gelasian Decree” gives a list of works “of the Holy Fathers” which include even those of the layman “Prosper of Aquitaine.

ACCORDING to the commonly accepted teaching, the Fathers of the Church were characterized by orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, the approval of the Church, and antiquity. This last condition was variously interpreted until the 18th cent. From that time the patristic period is generally held to be closed with St. Isidore of Seville (c.560-636) in the West. and St. John of Damascus (c.675-c.749) in the East.

THE authority of the Fathers was held by the older Catholic theologians to be infallible only when they taught a doctrine unanimously. The teaching of individual Fathers, on the other hand, though not lightly to be set aside, was admittedly liable to error. In modern usage Tertullian, Origen, and a few other ancient authors, though not of unimpeachable orthodoxy, are usually numbered among the Fathers of the Church. In any case, it is a popular rather than an exact title and, unlike “Doctor of the Church”, not formally conferred.






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