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Notion and Purpose of Patrology.

1. THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH. The word Patrology (πατρολογία) dates from the
seventeenth century, and denoted originally the science of the lives and writings of the Fathers of the
Church. «Fathers of the Church» or simply «Fathers» was the title of honour given to the
ecclesiastical writers in the first era of the Church. Its use can be recognized as far back as the fifth
century. In modern times the explanation of the term has been sought in the similarity of the
relationship existing between a teacher and his disciple to that which is found between father and
son; an interpretation apparently confirmed by such biblical parallels as the «sons of the prophets» in
the Old Testament, and by passages in the New like I Cor. iv. 14. It fails, however, to do justice to the
historical development of the name «Fathers». In reality, this was transferred from the bishops of the
primitive Church to contemporaneous ecclesiastical writers. In the earlier centuries, by a
metaphor easily understood, the bishop, in his quality of head or superior, was addressed as
«Father» or «Holy Father» (e. g. Mart. S. Polyc. 12, 2: ό πατήρ τῶν χριστιανῶν; and the inscription
«Cypriano papae or papati», Cypr. Ep. 30 31 36). The authority of the bishop was both disciplinary and
doctrinal. He was the depositary of the teaching office of the Church, and in matters of doubt or of
controversy it was his duty to decide, as witness and judge, concerning the true faith. Since the fifth
century, however, this function began to devolve (in learned discussions and conciliar
proceedings) on the ecclesiastical writers of the primitive Church. Most of them, and those the
more eminent had, indeed, been bishops; but non‐episcopal writers might also bear reliable
witness to the contemporaneous faith of the Church, and when such testimonies dated from the
earliest Christian period, they naturally enjoyed special respect and authority. The more frequently the
consciousness of the primitive Church in matters of faith was appealed to in the course of
doctrinal disputes, the more rapidly must so prevalent a term as «Fathers» have undergone a
certain alteration. It was used to denote the witnesses to the faith of the primitive Church, and
since such witnesses were rather its writers than its bishops, the term passed from the latter to the

The change of meaning just alluded to will be made evident by the following instances. According to St.
Athanasius (Ep. Ad Afros, c. 6), the bishops of the Council of Nicæa (325) appealed to the testimony of the
«Fathers» (ἐκ [τῶν] πατέρων ἔχοντες τὴν μαρτυρίαν) in defence of the consubstantiality of the Son with the
Father; especially prominent among these «Fathers» were two early bishops (ἐπίσκοποι αρχαῖοι), Dionysius of
Rome († 268) and Dionysius of Alexandria († 265), both of them defenders of the consubstantiality of the Son.
«How can they now reject the Council of Nicæa», says Athanasius, «since even their own fathers (και οί πατέρες
αύτῶν) subscribed its decrees?» He had just mentioned the name of the Arianizing bishop Eusebius of Cæesarea.
«Whose heirs and successors are they? How can they call those men Fathers (λέγειν πατέρας) whose profession
(of faith) they do not accept?» Apparently Athanasius understands by «Fathers» only bishops, especially
those of the primitive Church. The bishops, and they alone, had inherited the teaching office of the Apostles.
St. Augustine, in his dispute with the Pelagian Julianus of Eclanum (Contra Julian. I. 34; II. 33 36), appeals to St.
Jerome as a witness for the ecclesiastical teaching concerning original sin; at the same time he is conscious of
having overstepped a certain line of demarcation. To forestall his adversary’s refusal to accept the evidence of
Jerome, he insists that, though the latter was not a bishop, his extraordinary learning and the holiness of his
life entitled him to be held a reliable interpreter of the faith of the Church. At the first session of the council of
Ephesus (431), testimonies were read from the «writings of the most holy and godfearing fathers and bishops
and other witnesses» (βιβλία τών άγιωτάτων καί όσιωτάτων πατέρων και επισκόπων και διαφόρων μαρτύρων, Mansi,
SS. Conc. Coll., iv. 1184). The «writings» quoted are exclusively those of early bishops. In his famous
Commonitorium (434) St. Vincent of Lérins recommends with insistence (c. 3 33 sq.) that the faithful hold fast
to the teaching of the holy Fathers; at the same time he makes it clear that he refers, not so much to the
bishops, as to the ecclesiastical writers of Christian antiquity.
the ancient ecclesiastical writers were not trustworthy witnesses of the faith; hence it is that posterity
has not conferred on all without distinction the title of «Fathers of the Church». St. Vincent of Lérins
says that, in order to try the faith of Christians, God permitted some great ecclesiastical teachers, like
Origen and Tertullian, to fall into error. The true norm and rule of faith, he adds, is the concordant
evidence of those Fathers who have remained true to the faith of the Church in their time, and
were to the end of their lives examples of Christian virtue: «Eorum dumtaxat patrum sententiae
conferendae sunt, qui in fide et communione catholica sancte, sapienter, constanter viventes,
docentes et permanentes vel mori in Christo fideliter vel occidi pro Christo feliciter meruerunt». 1
Pope Hormisdas 2 refuses to accept appeals to the Semi‐Pelagian Faustus of Riez and other
theologians, on the plea that they were not «Fathers». Later Councils often distinguish between
theological writers more or less untrustworthy and the «approved Fathers of the Church». 3 The
earliest descriptive catalogue of «Fathers» whose writings merit commendation, as well as of
other theological authors against whose writings people are to be warned, is found in the Decretal De
recipiendis et non recipiendis libris, current under the name of Pope Gelasius I. (492‐496). Modern
patrologists indicate four criteria of a «Father of the Church»: orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of
life, ecclesiastical approval, and antiquity. All other theological writers are known as «ecclesiastici
scriptores», «ecclesiae scriptores». 4 The Fathers were not all held in equal esteem by their successors;
both as writers and theologians they differ much as to place and importance in ecclesiastical
antiquity. In the West four «Fathers of the Church» have been held as pre‐eminent since the eighth
century: Ambrose († 397), Jerome († 420), Augustine († 430), and Gregory the Great († 604);
Boniface VIII declared (1298) that he wished these four known as Doctors of the Church par
excellence, and their feasts placed on a level with those of the apostles and evangelists. 5 Later popes
have added other Fathers to the list of Doctors of the Church, either in liturgical documents or by
special decrees. Such are, among the Latins, Hilary of Poitiers († 366), Peter Chrysologus († ca. 450),
Leo the Great († 461), Isidore of Seville († 636). Among the Greeks, Athanasius († 373), Basil the Great
(† 379), Cyril of Jerusalem († 386), Gregory of Nazianzus († ca. 390), John Chrysostom († 407), Cyril
of Alexandria († 444), John of Damascus († ca. 754), are honoured as Doctors of the Church.
Some later theological writers thus distinguished are: Peter Damian († 1072), Anselm of Canterbury (†
1109), Bernard of Clairvaux († 1153), Thomas Aquinas († 1274), Bonaventure († 1274), Francis of Sales (†
1622), and Alphonsus Liguori († 1787). In 1899 Leo XIII declared the Venerable Bede († 735) a Doctor of
the Church. The liturgical books of the Greek Church make mention of only three «great
ecumenical teachers» (οίκουμενικοί μεγάλοι διδάσκαλοι): Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzum, and
John Chrysostom. The patrological criteria of a «Doctor of the Church» are: orthodoxy of doctrine,
holiness of life, eminent learning, and formal action of the Church: «doctrina orthodoxa, sanctitas
vitae, eminens eruditio, expressa ecclesiae declaratio».

J. Fessler, Instit. Patrol. ed. B. Jungmann (Innspruck 1890), i. 15‐57. On the earliest Latin Doctors of the
Church cf. C. Weyman in Historisches Jahrbuch (1894), xv. 96 sq., and Revue d’histoire et de littérat. relig.
(1898), iii. 562 sq. On the «great ecumenical teachers» of the Greeks cf. N. Nilles in Zeitschrift für katholische
Theologie (1894), xviii. 742 sq. ; E. Bondy, Les Pères de l’Eglise in Revue Augustinienne (1904), pp. 461‐486.

Common. c. 39; cf. c. 41.
Quos in auctoritatem patrum non recipit examen: Ep. 124, c. 4.
Probabiles ecclesiae patres: Conc. Lat. Rom. (649) can. 18 (Mansi x. 1157); οί έγκριτοι πατέρες: Conc. Nic. II (787) act.
6 (Mansi xiii. 313).
St. Jerome, De viris illustr., prol.
Egregios ipsius doctores ecclesiae: c. un., in vi., de reliquiis 3, 22.
3. THE PATRISTIC EPOCH. As late as the fifth century even very recent writers could be
counted among the «holy Fathers». Among the «most holy and godfearing Fathers» whose writings
were read in the first session of the Council of Ephesus (June 22., 431) 6 were Theophilus of Alexandria
(† 412) and Atticus of Constantinople († 425). In the list of patristic citations, «paternae
auctoritates», appended by Leo the Great to his Letter to Flavian of Constantinople (June 13., 449) 7
there are passages from Augustine († 430) and from Cyril of Alexandria († 444). The later
Christian centuries tended more and more to confine this honourable title to the ecclesiastical
writers of antiquity. It was applied to them not so much on account of their antiquity as on
account of their authority, which, in turn, had its root in their antiquity. The «Fathers» of the first
centuries are and remain in a special way the authentic interpreters of the thoughts and sentiments
of the primitive Christians. In their writings were set down for all time documentary testimonies to
the primitive conception of the faith. Though modern Christian sects have always denounced the
Catholic principle of «tradition», they have been compelled, by the logic of things, to seek in
ecclesiastical antiquity for some basis or countenance of their own mutually antagonistic views. The
limits of Christian antiquity could not, of course, be easily fixed; they remain even yet somewhat
indistinct. The living current of historical, and particularly of intellectual life, always defies any
immovable time‐boundaries. Most modern manuals of Patrology draw the line for the Greek Church
at the death of John of Damascus († ca. 754), for the Latin Church at the death of Gregory the Great
(† 604). For Latin ecclesiastical literature the limit should be stretched to the death of Isidore of
Seville († 636). Like his Greek counterpart, John Damascene, Isidore was a very productive writer,
and thoroughly penetrated with the sense of his office as a frontiersman between the old and
the new.

The teachings of the Fathers of the Church are among the original sources of Catholic doctrine. On the
reasons for the same and the extent to which the patristic writings may be drawn upon for the proof of
Catholic teaching cf. Fessler‐Jungmann, op. cit., i. 41‐57.

4. PURPOSE OF PATROLOGY. Though the science of Patrology takes its name from the
Fathers of the Church, it includes also the ecclesiastical writers of antiquity. Thereby, the field of its
labours is enlarged, and it becomes possible to deal with ecclesiastical literature as a whole. The
purpose of this science is to produce a history of the early ecclesiastical literature, that is, of such
ancient theological literature as arose on the basis of the teachings of the Church. In the peculiar
and unique significance of this literature, Patrology finds the justification of such a narrow limitation of
its subject‐matter. Though this science does not ignore the distinction between the human and the
divine in the books of the New Testament, it confides the study of these writings to Biblical
Introduction, convinced that it would otherwise be obliged to confine itself to such a treatment of the
same as would be unjust to inspired documents that contain revelation. Patrology might, strictly
speaking, ignore the anti‐Christian and anti‐ecclesiastical, or heretical, writings of antiquity;
nevertheless, it finds it advantageous to pay constant attention to them. At the proper time, it
becomes the duty of the patrologist, in his quality of historian of Christian doctrine, to exhibit the
genetic growth of his subject. The development of early ecclesiastical literature was conditioned and
influenced in a notable degree by the literary conflict against paganism, Judaism and heresy. The
earliest ecclesiastical writers enter the lists precisely as defenders of Christianity against formal
literary assaults. We do not accept as accurate a modern definition of Patrology as «the literary

Mansi, iv. 1184‐1196.
Ib., vi. 961‐972.
history of early Christianity». From that point of view, it would have to include even the profane
works of Christian writers, and become the Christian equivalent of heathen and Jewish literature.
Moreover, it is not so much the profession of Christianity on the part of the writer as the
theologico‐ecclesiastical character of his work that brings it within the range of Patrology, and stamps
upon it for all time something peculiar and distinctive. If we must no longer use the word Patrology,
the science may well be defined as the history of early ecclesiastical literature. The considerations
that affect the selection of the material, and the limitations of Patrology affect also the treatment of
the subject‐matter. Stress is laid more on the theological point of view, on the contents of the
patristic writings, than on mere literary form. It is true that literary history has a distinctly artistic
interest. In general, however, the writings of the Fathers are not literary art‐work; they expressly avoid
such a character. Until very lately a distinction was drawn between Patrology and «Patristic». To the
latter, it was said, belonged the study of the doctrinal content of the early Christian writers. The word
«Patristic» comes from the «theologia patristica» of former Protestant manuals of dogmatic theology
that were wont to contain a special section devoted to the opinions of the Fathers. This was called
«theologia patristica», and distinguished from «theologia biblica» and «theologia symbolica». In the
latter half of the eighteenth century this «theologia patristica» gave way among Protestants to a
specific history of dogma, destined to illustrate the constant development and evolution of the
original apostolic teaching. Thereby, the special office of «Patristic» was exhausted. There remains,
therefore, no longer any good reason for withdrawing from Patrology the description of the doctrines
of the Fathers, and confining it to an account of their lives and deeds. With the loss of its
subject‐matter, the raison d’être of «Patristic» disappears. – In the last few decades, all former
expositions of Patrology have suffered severe reproaches both from friend and foe. Broadly
considered, such reproaches were both reasonable and just. It is proper that in the future Patrology
should develop along the line of scientific history, should grasp more firmly and penetrate more
deeply its own subject‐matter, should first digest, and then exhibit in a scientific and philosophic
way, the mass of literary‐historical facts that come within its purview. In other words, its office is no
longer limited to the study, in themselves alone, of the writings of individual Fathers, or of individual
writings of the Fathers; it must also set forth the active forces that are common to all, and the
relations of all to their own world and their own time.

Fr. Nitzsch, Geschichtliches und Methodologisches zur Patristik: Jahrbücher für deutsche Theologie (1865), x.
37‐63. Nitzsch uses the term Patristic as identical with Patrology. Fr. Overbeck, Über die Anfänge der
patristischen Literatur: Historische Zeitschrift (new series) (1882), xii. 417‐472. A. Ehrhard, Zur Behandlung der
Patrologie: Literarischer Handweiser, 1895, 601–608. J. Haussleiter, Der Aufbau der altchristlichen Literatur:
Götting. Gelehrte Anzeigen (Berlin, 1898).


Rationalist scholars have created in the place of Patrology a history of early Christian literature, the
purpose of which is to investigate and criticize, independently of its theological or ecclesiastical
aspects, the entire intellectual product of Christian antiquity from a purely literary standpoint. They
have been led to this transformation, or rather rejection of Patrology, not so much by general
scientific principles, as by the hypotheses of modern rationalistic Protestantism, foremost among
which is the denial of the supernatural origin of Christianity and the Church. According to
them, the so-called Catholic Church was not founded by Jesus Christ. It was only after a long
evolutionary period, during which the Gospel of Christ underwent steadily a number of profoundly
modifying influences in the sense of paganism, and particularly of hellenism, that the Catholic Church
appeared among men toward the end of the second century. Since that time, both this Church and its
doctrines have been at all times the subject of the most far‐reaching changes and the most
inconsistent innovations. The so‐called Fathers of the Church represent only their own personal
and very mutable opinions. There is no more objective difference between ecclesiastical and
non‐ecclesiastical, orthodox and heretical teaching, than between the inspired and non‐inspired
books of the Scriptures, etc.

It is this view of early ecclesiastical literature (in the first three centuries) that predominates in the works of A.
Harnack and G. Krüger (cf. § 2, 4).

Otto Bardenhewer. “Notion and Purpose of Patrology”, in: ‘Patrology’. The lives and works of
the Fathers of the Church. Translated from the second edition by Thomas J. Shanan.
‘Introduction’, §I, pp. 1‐7. B. Herder. Freiburg im Breisgau and St. Louis, Mo. 1908. pp. 1‐7.

[Transc. by: Francisco Arriaga. México, Frontera Norte. 14 de septiembre de 2009. Rev. 04 de abril de 2019].

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