The Doctors of the Church: A History

Pier Francesco Sacchi (circa 1485–1528)
Four doctors of the Church represented with attributes of the Four Evangelists: St. Augustine with an eagle, St. Gregory the Great with a bull, St. Hieronymus with an angel, St. Ambrosius with a winged lion.

The Doctors of the Church did not begin to be officially identified as such until relatively late in Church history.  It was the Catholic Church that confers the title upon both western and eastern Christians.  In the post today, I’d like to share with you a little of the history of how the Doctors of the Church came to be.

The Ecumenical Doctors

The eight Doctors of the Church commonly known as the Ecumenical Doctors are the earliest recognized Doctors of the Church.  They are St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.  As one can see, this list of eight neatly divides into four Doctors from the Latin West and four Doctors from the East.

The Latin Doctors

The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that:

In the Western church four eminent Fathers of the Church attained this honour in the early Middle Ages: St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome. The “four Doctors” became a commonplace among the Scholastics, and a decree of Boniface VIII (1298) ordering their feasts to be kept as doubles in the whole Church is contained in his sixth book of Decretals (cap. “Gloriosus”, de relique. et vener. sanctorum, in Sexto, III, 22).

This notion of doctor as an authoritative teacher of the faith originated in the “early Middle Ages.” Saints Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome were contemporaries, each living into the early 400s. Gregory the Great was the last of these four to have lived and died in the early 600s.  Thus, it is reasonable to assume that possibly as early as the 700s the liturgy would be reflecting these doctor saints.

The Eastern Doctors

Here again, the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us:

In the Eastern Church three Doctors were pre-eminent: St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, and St. Gregory Nazianzen. The feasts of these three saints were made obligatory throughout the Eastern Empire by Leo VI, the Wise, the deposer of Photius. A common feast was later instituted in their honour on 30 January, called “the feast of the three Hierarchs”. In the Menaea for that day it is related that the three Doctors appeared in a dream to John, Bishop of Euchaitae, and commanded him to institute a festival in their honour, in order to put a stop to the rivalries of their votaries and panegyrists. This was under Alexius Comnenus (1081-1118; see “Acta SS.”, 14 June, under St. Basil, c. xxxviii). But sermons for the feast are attributed in manuscripts to Cosmas Vestitor, who flourished in the tenth century. The three are as common in Eastern art as the four are in Western. Durandus (i, 3) remarks that Doctors should be represented with books in their hands. In the West analogy led to the veneration of four Eastern Doctors, St. Athanasius being very properly added to the three hierarchs.

In the Catholic Church in the Latin West, it was Pope St. Pius V in 1568 proclaimed official feasts in the Roman Calendar for these eight Ecumenical Doctors with their addition to the newly reformed Roman Breivary.

Additional Doctors

Pope St. Pius V officially established the Ecumenical Doctors, but also one new Doctor: the medieval Scholastic theologian extraordinaire, St. Thomas Aquinas.  He thus established the precedent and pattern of popes proclaiming Doctors of the Church for the benefit of the faithful.  Twenty years later, in 1588, Pope Sixtus V, a Franciscian, named the famous medieval Franciscian theologian St. Bonaventure a Doctor of the Church.

Over the next several centuries, the following popes named the following saints to the rank of Doctor (the list was adapted from the Catholic Encyclopedia)

  • St. Anselm was added by Clement XI in 1720.
  • St. Isidore by Innocent XIII in 1722.
  • St. Peter Chrysologus by Benedict XIII in 1729.
  • St. Leo I by Benedict XIV in 1754.
  • St. Peter Damian by Leo XII in 1828.
  • St. Bernard of Clairvaux by Pius VIII in 1830.
  • St. Hilary was added in 1851 by Pius IX along with two more modern saints, St. Alphonsus Liguori in 1871 and St. Francis de Sales in 1877.
  • St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and St. John Damascene were named in 1883 by Leo XIII, who also named the Venerable Bede  in 1899.

Modern Doctors

The twentieth and early twenty-first century saw the naming of thirteen new doctors:

  • St. Ephrem the Syrian, a Deacon, was named in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV as “Doctor of the Syrians.”
  • St. Peter Canisius was named in 1925, St. John of the Cross was named in 1926, St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Albert the Great were named in 1931, each by Pope Pius XI.
  • St. Anthony of Lisbon and Padua was named in 1946 by Pope Pius XII.
  • St. Lawrence of Brindisi was named in 1959 by Pope John XXIII.
  • St. Teresa of Ávila and St. Catherine of Sienna–the first women named as Doctors of the Church–were named in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.
  • St. Thérèse of Lisieux was named by Pope John Paul II in 1997.
  • St. John of Ávila and St. Hildegard of Bingen were named by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
  • St. Gregory of Narek was named by Pope Francis in 2015.

You still have a few days left to check out our Doctor for the month of March: St. Cyril of Jerusalem.  We have several volumes of his for up to 50% off.  Add this Doctor to your Verbum library before these titles go back to full price!

Looking forward to our April Doctors: St. Anselm of Canterbury, St. Isidore of Seville, and St. Catherine of Siena.

Written by
Craig St. Clair

Craig St. Clair is the Verbum Product Manager at Faithlife. He holds a Master of Arts in Systematic Theology from St. John's University's School of Theology in Collegeville, MN. He is a convert to the Catholic faith and is married with two boys.

View all articles
1 comment
  • I have the LOGOS 37 volume Early Church Fathers (Catholic Edition) which includes “Anti-Nicene”, “Nicene and Post-Nicene” Fathers. It seems that there may be some overlap with the resources above. How can I determine which of the resources I already have as part of the Early Church Fathers so I don’t duplicate what I already have. E.g. it looks like this series already has St. Cyril of Jerusalem in its series. Thanks

Written by Craig St. Clair