73. What are Patristics, and why should we study them?

Patristics, is a branch of theological study of the most prominent writings of the pastors and theologians of the Church from the end of the Apostolic period until the beginning of the Medieval period. The time span of the Patristic period is generally considered to be about AD 100 (after the death of John, the last living apostle) until about AD 604 (when Gregory the Great died after serving in the the bishopric of Rome, in a life of ministry that tended to lock into place the basic elements of the Medieval Church, including the consolidation of ecclesiastical power in the church of Rome, and the ascendancy of the Roman bishop, who would come to be called the “pope”).

The Patristics are usually divided into the “Ante-Nicene Fathers,” that is, those who lived and wrote before the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, and the “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,” that is, those who lived and wrote during and after the time of the Nicene Council. Another common classification is the Greek Fathers, who generally lived in the East and wrote in Greek, and the Latin Fathers, who lived in the West and wrote in Latin. Some of the earliest influential Fathers include Clement of Rome (a contemporary of the apostles), Polycarp (a disciple of John), Justin Martyr (early second century), and Irenaeus (late second century). Some of the most influential Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers include Theodoret, Jerome, Athanasius, Basil, and Ambrose. The two most outstanding (or influential) of them all, though, are doubtless the Latin father Augustine of Hippo ( AD 354 – 430) and the Greek father John Chrysostom (AD 347 – 407). The canons of the seven ecumenical councils are also important reading for the Patristic period.

There are several reasons that it is important to study the Patristics: first, their theological and scriptural insights are very valuable in their own right. The Patristics lived much closer to the days of the apostles than we do, and they were forced to crystallize the apostolic teaching in response to the influx of various heresies and errors. Their formulation of trinitarian and christological doctrine was eminently biblical and foundational for true Christianity, and their homilies, apologetical and homiletical writings, and so on, contain innumerable valuable insights. Second, studying the Patristics gives us a much clearer understanding of the history of the Church, and acquaints us with how the ragamuffin band of apostles and the outnumbered and persecuted churches they started grew up into the Christianity that we recognize today. This acquaintance with Church history gives us a sense of continuity with the beginnings of Christ's gospel accomplishment, and firmly tethers us to the community of saints worldwide and throughout the ages. Third, it is important to know what the Patristics say simply because, virtually every branch of professing Christendom respects them and wants to employ their writings in support of their own teachings. Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and most of Protestant Christianity all claim some degree of continuity with the Church Fathers. Defending those claims of continuity by an appeal to the actual writings of the Patristics is, therefore, a very valuable apologetic strategy. One very successful example of this kind of apologetic was Calvin's Bondage and Liberation of the Will, where he expertly quotes the Scripture together with the early church fathers to refute the Roman Catholic view of grace and free will.

Recommended Resources
The Triumph of Grace: Augustine's Writings on Salvation by N.R. Needham (editor)
Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings
Augustine: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises
Patristics for Busy Pastors: An Interview with Dr. Ligon Duncan
Patristic Resources on Monergism


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