Who are the Fathers of the Church? A chronological list

Many Christians have heard of the Fathers of the Church, at least St. Augustine, but who were these people? There are three basic criteria a Christian has to meet to be called a Church Father, and all are sufficiently ambiguous to make it impossible to create a definitive list. These are
1) antiquity
2) orthodoxy
3) holiness
Antiquity: The earliest Christian teachers were the apostles and Jesus' other disciples, but they are not counted among the Fathers of the Church. They were more like the Grandfathers of the Church! So the beginning-point of "antiquity" here is after the New Testament, though some of the earliest Christian writings (e.g., the Didache) are contemporaneous with the books of the New Testament. The end-point is debated, since antiquity flows right into the Middle Ages without interruption. St. Isidore of Seville is recognized as the final Latin Father, and St. John Damascene as the final Greek Father.

Orthodoxy: Another problematic criterion is orthodoxy, because the orthodoxy of some authors has been disputed, especially Origen. Another Church Father, Tertullian, toward the end of his life actually left the Catholic Church and joined a charismatic sect. Moreover, because doctrine develops in the Church, even some Doctors of the Church have held opinions that were later judged heretical (for example, St. Thomas Aquinas did not believe in the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary). In addition, the theological language of earlier times can seem ambiguous or even erroneous by the standards of later times. For example, the writings of the ante-Nicene Fathers (those who lived before the  Council of Nicaea in 325) can give credence to Arianism, the belief that Christ was not "of one substance" (homoousios) with the eternal God, but rather the first and greatest creature God made. So the mere fact that one can discover in an author ideas later judged wrong does not necessarily rule out him being "orthodox." St. Gregory of Nyssa believed in Origen's theory of universal salvation (apokatastasis), a position condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople.

Holiness: This criterion does not mean a person has to be an official "saint." Neither Origen nor Tertullian are recognized as saints. Walter J. Burghardt judges the criterion this way:
The minimum requisite is ordinary Christian virtue, consistent union with God, revealed concretely in harmony between doctrine and life, between faith and morals. (New Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. "Fathers of the Church")
Pope Benedict XVI, in his Wednesday catecheses about the Fathers in 2007-08, included several non-saints.

In any case, here is my partial list of 46 of the most important Fathers of the Church, in chronological order (by date of death). The ones in bold are official Doctors of the Catholic Church, which gives them a certain pre-eminence.

St. Clement I (ca. 99)
St. Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 110)
St. Polycarp (ca. 155)
St. Justin Martyr (ca. 165)
Athenagoras (ca. 200?)
Theophilus of Antioch (ca. 200?)
St. Irenaeus (ca. 202)
Clement of Alexandria (ca. 215)
Tertullian (ca. 220)
St. Hippolytus of Rome (235/6)
Origen (253/4)
St. Cyprian (258)
St. Methodius of Olympus (ca. 300)
Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 339)
Aphraates (ca. 350)
St. Hilary of Poitiers (ca. 367)
St. Eusebius of Vercelli (371)
St. Ephrem the Syrian (373)
St. Athanasius (373)
St. Basil the Great (379)
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (387)
St. Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 390)
St. Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 394)
Diodore of Tarsus (ca. 394)
St. Ambrose (397)
Didymus the Blind (ca. 397)
Evagrius Ponticus (399)
St. Epiphanius of Salamis (402)
St. John Chrysostom (407)
St. Chromatius of Aquileia (407)
Synesius of Cyrene (ca. 414)
St. Maximus of Turin (ca. 416)
St. Jerome (419-20)
Theodore of Mopsuestia (428)
St. Augustine (430)
St. Paulinus of Nola (431)
St. Cyril of Alexandria (444)
St. Peter Chrysologus (450)
St. Prosper of Aquitaine (ca. 455)
St. Leo the Great (461)
Theodoret of Cyr (ca. 466)
Boethius (ca. 480)
St. Gregory the Great (604)
St. Isidore of Seville (636)
St. Maximus the Confessor (662)
St. John Damascene (ca. 750)

One can note how many of these men lived in the fourth century. In fact, one can call that century the "Golden Age of the Fathers." More precisely, one might define the Golden Age as being from 325, when the first Ecumenical Council met in Nicaea under the auspices of the emperor Constantine, to 430, the death of St. Augustine.

St. Augustine is universally regarded as the greatest Latin Father of the Church, so someone looking to learn more about the Fathers would do well to begin with him. His two most famous and popular works are De civitate Dei (The City of God) and Confessiones (Confessions), both of which are available in numerous English translations. Confessiones is my favorite book. I recommend the translation of Sr. Maria Boulding (2001).

Are there any Mothers of the Church? Due to the patriarchal nature of ancient culture, women did not serve as public teachers, pastors, or theologians. Yet there were important Christian women at that time, who are also the object of modern patristic study. Some women have even left us writings! I think immediately of the Peregrinatio Aetheriae (Pilgrimage of Egeria), a travel diary a Christian woman wrote which provides a wealth of information about the liturgies of the early Church, and the Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis (Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity), a reliable, firsthand account of the martyrdom of Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas, of which Perpetua herself wrote the first part while in prison! It is an amazing text.

The field of patristics goes far beyond the Fathers of the Church to include many anonymous and pseudepigraphical writings (esp. Pseudo-Dionysius and Ambrosiaster), heretics and heresies and their extant writings, the acts of synods and councils, the lives of saints, relevant secular literature of the period, inscriptions and architecture, and anything from that time period that made an impact on theology and the life of the Church.


Tim J. said…
Well, that's several dozen more Christian thinkers I'll probably never get to read. Still, I've updated the timeline (http://www.bitfauna.com/personal/timeline.htm).