Patristics is a department of ecclesiastical history, and more particularly of doctrinal history. It is an account of the lives, writings, and theological opinions of the Christian authors of the ancient Graeco-Latin Church before the separation into two antagonistic bodies. The terms are sometimes so distinguished that Patrology is defined to be biographical and literary, Patristics doctrinal and ethical. A complete work must cover both. There is a difference of opinion concerning the precise boundaries. Patristics begins with the apostolic fathers, and closes with Gregory I in the West, and with John of Damascus in the East. John of Damascus cannot be omitted, since he is the last authoritative divine of the Greek Church who sums up the labors of the earlier Greek fathers. But it is improper to carry patristics down to the Middle Ages, so as to comprehend Anselm, Peter the Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, and other schoolmen. It must be strictly confined to the fathers, i.e. to those writers who produced the Catholic dogmas, as distinguished from the schoolmen who digested, analyzed, and systematized these dogmas. The title father, Church father (pater ecclesiae corresponding to the Heb. אָב), is relative. Every Church has its fathers and founders. But it is usually applied to those divines of the early Christian centuries who excelled in learning, judgment, piety, and orthodoxy. Some of them were not only luminaries (luminaria), but also princes (primates) and saints of the Church (sancti patres). In a wider sense it is extended to other ecclesiastical writers of merit and distinction. The line of the Greek fathers is usually closed with John of Damascus (d. 754), the line of the Latin fathers with Gregory I (d. 604).
The Roman Church makes a distinction between pater ecclesiae, doctor ecclesiae, and auctor ecclesiasticus.
(1.) Patres ecclesic are all ancient teachers who combine antiquitas, doctrina orthodoxa, sanctitas vite, and approbatio ecclesiae (which may be expressed or silent). These requisites, however, are only imperfectly combined even in the most eminent of the fathers; some excel in learning (Origen, Jerome), some in piety (Polycarp), some in orthodoxy (Irenaeus, Athanasius, Leo I), some in vigor and depth (Tertullian, Augustine), some in eloquence (Chrysostom), but none could stand the test of Roman orthodoxy of the Tridentine or Vatican stamp, and many of them would have to be condemned as heretics. This is especially the case with the fathers of the ante-Nicene age (see Schaff, Church Hist. 1:455).
(2.) Doctores ecclesiae are the most authoritative of the Church fathers, who, in addition to the above requisites, excel in learning (eminens eruditio), and have the express approbation of the Church (expressa ecclesios declaratio). The recognized Greek Church doctors are: Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzum, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, John of Damascus. The Latin Church doctors are: Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, also Hilary of Poitiers, to whom are added the leading medieval divines, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura. (Among more recent divines, Bellarmine, Bossuet, and Perrone would deserve a place among the doctors of the Roman Catholic Church.)
(3.) Auctores ecclesiastici: those ancient Christian writers who are less important for didactic theology, or held questionable or heterodox opinions, as Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Arnobius, Lactantius, Theodoret.
Patristics may be divided into three periods:
(1.) The Apostolic fathers, i.e. the immediate disciples of the apostles, who flourished at the end of the 1st and the beginning of the 2d century, and represent a faint echo of the age of inspiration. These are Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius (and Pseudo-Ignatius), Pseudo-Barnabas, Papias, Hermas, and the anonymous author of the beautiful Epistle to Diognetus. Important literary discoveries, which throw some light on doubtful questions of the sub-apostolic age, have recently been made, viz. the Syriac Ignatius, the Greek Hermas, the Greek of the first five chapters of Barnabas, and a new MS. of the Clementine Epistles, edited by Bryennios (1876). The best edition, now in course of publication, is Patrum Apostolicorum Opera (ed. P. de Gebhardt, Ad. Harnack, Th. Zahn, Leips. 1876 sq.).
(2.) The anteNicene fathers, i.e. the apologists and theologians of the 2d and 3d centuries, who were chiefly engaged in the defense of Christianity against Jews and Gentiles, and the refutation of the Ebionitish and Gnostic heresies (see Otto, Corpus Apologetarum Christianorum [2d ed. Leips. 1876 sq.]; and the Ante-Nicene Library published by Clark [Edinb. 1867- 72, 25 vols.]).
(a) Greek fathers: Justin Martyr (d. 166), Irenaeus (d. 202), Hippolytus (d. 236), Clement of Alexandria (d. 220), Origen (d. 254), and others of less importance. Of these Irenaeus is the soundest divine, Origen the greatest scholar.
(b) Latin fathers: Tertullian (d. about 220), Cyprian (d. 258), Minucius Felix, Arnobius.
(3.) The Nicene fathers of the 4th century, who chiefly developed and defended the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation in the Arian conflict from 325 to 381.
(a) Greek fathers: Eusebius (the historian, d. 340), Athanasius (the father of orthodoxy, d. 373), Gregory of Nazianzum (the theologian, d. 391), Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395), Basil the Great (d. 379), Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386), Chrysostom (the prince of pulpit orators, d. 407), Epiphanius (the orthodox zealot, d. 403), and others.
(b) Latin fathers: Hilary of Poitiers ("the Athanasius of the West," d. 368), Ambrose of Milan (d. 397).
(4.) The post-Nicene fathers, who developed the orthodox christology and the fundamental doctrines of Christian anthropology and soteriology.
(a) Greek Church: Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), Theodoret (d. 458), John of Damascus (d. about 750).
(b) Latin Church: Jerome (d. 419), Augustine (d. 430), Leo the Great (d. 461), Gregory the Great (d. 604).
Literature. — Patristics began with the work of Jerome (d. 419), De viris illustribus s. de scriptoribus ecclesiasticis, which contains biographical sketches of the most eminent Christian authors down to the 5th century. It was continued by Gennadius (490), Isidore of Spain, and other mediaeval writers. Since the Reformation this study was especially cultivated by Roman Catholic scholars, as Bellarmine, Oudin, Du Pin, C. Nourry, Tillemont, Ceillier, Lumper, Sprenger, Mohler, Fessler, Alzog; and by some Anglican divines, as Cave, Pearson, Fell, and the Tractarian school. The Germans have cultivated the biographical and critical department, and furnished a number of valuable patristic monographs, as Tertullian and Chrysostom by Neander, Origen by Thomasius and Redepenning, Gregory of Nazianzum by Ullmann, Jerome by Zochler, Augustine by Bindemann. The best editions of the fathers are the Benedictine, as far as they go, and the most complete and convenient (though by no means the most critical) is Migne's Patrologice Cursus completus s. Bibliotheca Universalis... omnium SS. Patrum, Doctorum, Scriptorumque ecclesiasticorum, embracing the ecclesiastical literature from the apostolic fathers down to the age of Innocent III (Paris, 1844 sq.). A more critical edition of the Latin fathers was begun under the auspices of the Academy of Vienna (1866), and embraces so far Sulpicius Severus, Minucius Felix, and Cyprian. Of modern works on patristics, the principal are: Mohler, Patrologie (ed. Reithmayr, Regensburg, 1850, only 1 vol. to close of 300); Fessler, Institutiones Patrol. (Oenip. 1850, 2 vols., to Grengory the Great); Alzog, Grundriss der Patrologie (2d ed. Freiburg, 1869; 3d ed. 1876); Donaldson, A Critical History of Christian Literature and Doctrine from the Death of the Apostles to the Nicene Council (Lond. 1864-66, 3 vols.). A biographical Dictionary of the first ten centuries, under the editorship of William Smith, has been published in London as a sequel to the Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, of which the first volume was issued in 1875. SEE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH; SEE PATROLOGY. (P. S.)