What Is Patristics? Ancient Wisdom for Today’s Church


This article will introduce the field of patristics and the figures commonly known as the Church Fathers by exploring a few key questions:

In so doing, I make a case for the continued importance of studying and learning from those Fathers of the faith who left their mark on the living Tradition of the Church. The final section of the article concludes with a list of recommended resources for anyone looking to begin reading (about) the Fathers today.

What is patristics?

Patristics come from the Latin patres, meaning “fathers,” and involve the study of the earliest centuries of Christianity.1

Patristics is the study of the writings and teachings of some of the most consequential thinkers in the early Church—even if not all of them were “Fathers.” But a few qualifications are in order. Let’s clarify the meaning of patristics.

1. “Fathers” is a spiritual title

The Fathers of the Church are spiritual fathers. A spiritual father is someone who leads others to salvation in Christ. The apostle Paul is a premier biblical example of a spiritual father. He tells the Church in Corinth: “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1 Cor 4:15).2

In Galatians 4:19, he tells his “little children” that he labors with them until “until Christ is formed in you.” A spiritual father is “in labor” for the soul, and every soul is a little Mary who forms Christ within it. Paul also mentions that though a Christian can have many counselors and guides, “you do not have many fathers” (1 Cor 4:15). In the early Church, not just anyone was called a father. It was a title reserved for those of certain holiness. “Pater [Father], like Abbas, is a title for the perfect,” writes scholar R. Reitzenstein, summarizing the ancient view.3

“Perfection” here does not mean moral perfection, but “completeness” or “wholeness.” A “perfect” person is one who receives the spiritual teaching and keeps it aflame until death. The one through whom we have been led to God is our father. “The one who has brought forth according to God,” that is, to the perfect life, is a spiritual father (Eph 4:13). A spiritual father is one leading a perfect life that begets other perfect lives.

Not every writer in the early Church—not even every important Catholic writer—was a spiritual father. Tertullian of Carthage, for example, is not a Father of the Church. He is not a canonized saint, nor does the Church celebrate a feast day dedicated to him. This is because, though he defended the Catholic church for many years of his life and made some important theological contributions that influenced later Fathers, he eventually apostatized to Montanism, a heretical sect. His was not a perfect life.

Additionally, not every “father” was a priest or bishop (though many were, and it eventually became conventional to attribute spiritual fatherhood to bishops, as it were by default). In fact, in the earliest centuries most holders of the title were lay teachers. St. Irenaeus of Lyons writes, “For when any person has been taught from the mouth of another, he is termed the son of him who instruct him, and the latter is called his father” (Adv. Haer. 4.41.2). Similarly, Clement of Alexandria remarks, “Words are the progeny of the soul. Hence we call those that instructed us fathers … and every one who is instructed is in respect of subjection the son of his instructor” (Strom. 1.1.2–2.1). So we see that to be a father was a combination of at least two things:

  1. Perfection of life (i.e., being a life-long follower of Christ)
  2. Labor in orthodox teaching

This might make it seem silly to refer to an “era of the Fathers”—since spiritual fathers still exist. However, we use the term “patristics” to refer to the earliest great teachers of the Church: teachers from whom we continue to learn.

2. “Patristics” is an inclusive term

The role of “leading to God” is not exclusive to men. There are a great many spiritual mothers in the early period as well as spiritual fathers. These include Macrina the Younger, Theodora, and Syncletica, among many others. But for expediency, early Christian mothers and fathers are both included under the heading “patristics.”4

When are the time brackets for the patristic era?

It is fairly typical to date the beginning of the patristic era to the time immediately following the ministry of the apostles (or, similarly, following the composition of the last of the books of the New Testament canon). There is, however, no universally agreed upon end date to the patristic era. Some will point to a particular Church council—such as Chalcedon (AD 451) or Second Nicaea (AD 787)—as closing out the age of the Fathers. Others will identify a figure—such as Gregory the Great or John Damascene—as concluding this particular phase of the Church’s history.

Recognizing that the boundary between the late-patristic and early medieval ages is porous, it seems safe to identify Fathers of the Church writing in the late-first century through the eighth century. Moreover, there is a certain critical mass of key patristic writers (not a few of whom were bishops) writing in the fourth and fifth centuries, and both shaping and unpacking the theological doctrines of the Councils of Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), and Chalcedon (451).

In sum, in Western scholarship the patristic era begins with the first generation of Christians after the apostles (also called the Apostolic Fathers, which includes the likes of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Papias of Hierapolis, among others), and ends with Gregory the Great (d. 604). This is reflected in Johannes Quasten’s Patrology, the four-volume introduction to the lives and writings of the early Christian era, which helped make these historical brackets conventional.

Who were the Church Fathers?

Depending on one’s timeframe (especially with respect to a cut-off point) of the patristic era, the list of who qualifies as a Father of the Church may be longer or shorter. But the boundaries for who is, or is not, counted as a Father of the Church can also vary greatly based on other criteria.

Many classifications and distinctions can, and often are, made among the Church Fathers. For instance, along linguistic lines (Greek Fathers, Latin Fathers, Syriac Fathers) or with respect to key events in Church history (Post-Apostolic Fathers, Pre-Nicene Fathers, Nicene Fathers, Post-Nicene Fathers). One also will encounter other categories, such as the “Desert Fathers” for those early Christian monks who left a distinctive mark on the Church through their ascetic lifestyle and theology.

Regardless of where one lands on these categories and the boundary-cases of who’s in or who’s out as a Church Father (cue: a heated debate about Origen of Alexandria), there is general consensus about the importance of many of the figures of the patristic era. The following (representative, not exhaustive) list of names contains many of those figures that one will find on most lists of notable Patristic writers:

  • Ambrose of Milan
  • Athanasius of Alexandria
  • Augustine of Hippo
  • Basil the Great
  • Benedict of Nursia
  • Caesarius of Arles
  • Clement of Alexandria
  • Clement of Rome
  • Cyprian of Carthage
  • Cyril of Alexandria
  • Cyril of Jerusalem
  • Ephrem the Syrian
  • Epiphanius
  • Fulgentius of Ruspe
  • Gregory the Great
  • Gregory of Nazianzus
  • Gregory of Nyssa
  • Hilary of Poitiers
  • Hippolytus of Rome
  • Ignatius of Antioch
  • Irenaeus of Lyons
  • Jerome
  • John Cassian
  • John Chrysostom
  • John Damascene
  • Justin Martyr
  • Leo the Great
  • Maximus the Confessor
  • Peter Chrysologus
  • Polycarp of Smyrna

Are the Church Fathers still important today?

Yes. Now, should such a straightforward assertion prove unsatisfying, I offer a brief survey of the following three areas to help substantiate this claim and make a case for the ongoing importance of patristic thinkers and writings for the Church today.

  1. The Church Fathers and the Catechism of the Catholic Church
  2. The Church Fathers and the Liturgy of the Hours
  3. The Church Fathers and recent popes

1. The Church Fathers and the Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies the Fathers of the Church—alongside the Scriptures, sacred liturgy, and Magisterium—as the principle sources for its presentation of Catholic doctrine.5

The Catechism elsewhere speaks of the Church Fathers as “timely witnesses” to Sacred Tradition.6

Furthermore, the writings of the Fathers are said to testify “to the life-giving presence of this Tradition, showing how its riches are poured out in the practice and life of the Church, in her belief and her prayer.”7

In short, the writings of many patristic authors comprise an integral part of the living Tradition of the Church, which the Catechism aimed to synthesize and articulate for the present day. For an excellent overview of the breadth of the Fathers from whom the Catechism draws, you can make a quick perusal of the “Ecclesiastical Writers” section of the Catechism’s appendix. This appendix can also serve as a great starting point for questions, such as: “Which writings of St. Basil does the Catechism cite?” or, “Which of St. Leo the Great’s sermons does the Catechism draw on in its treatment of the Creed in Part I?”

The Catechism’s appeal to many patristic authors is completely in keeping with the principle of ressourcement (“return to the sources”) that was so crucial at the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). The renewed attention of many theologians to the sources of the faith (liturgical, biblical, and patristic) left a distinctive mark on the shape of the council’s final documents. It may surprise some to realize that it is Augustine, and not Thomas Aquinas, who is the most quoted source outside of the Scriptures in the conciliar documents. Even a cursory glance at the footnotes of Vatican II’s four main constitutions—Sacrosanctum Concilium, Gaudium et Spes, Lumen Gentium, and Dei Verbum—yields a list of the usual patristic suspects: Augustine, Irenaeus, Jerome, Cyprian, Ambrose, Justin Martyr, John Damascene, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ignatius of Antioch, and so on. The fingerprints of the Church Fathers are all over the document of Vatican II, and fittingly, on the universal catechism that the council gave rise to a few decades later. The Catechism, like the conciliar documents it frequently quotes and builds upon, directs our attention back to the writings of the Fathers to gain a deeper understanding of the sources of the Catholic faith.8

2. The Church Fathers and the Liturgy of the Hours

The writings of many of the Church Fathers also have a prominent role in the Church’s daily prayer: the Liturgy of the Hours (also known as the Divine Office). The Liturgy of the Hours, which is the “public prayer of the Church” by which all the Office of Readings features a wealth of selections from the Fathers, not only on their given feast days, but spread throughout all the liturgical seasons. It is worth noting that these texts from the Church Fathers (as well as other spiritual writers from throughout the Church’s history) are included precisely to “reveal more deeply the meaning of the mystery being celebrated, assist in understanding the psalms, and prepare for silent prayer.”9

As Fr. Devin Roza has observed, “Through their inclusion in the Liturgy of the Hours, the Church has made her own such texts as authentic expressions of the living Tradition handed down from the apostles.”10

These chosen passages from the voluminous writings of the Fathers can reasonably be seen as having acquired a privileged status because of their inclusion in the Church’s official prayer. Thus, these selections make a great starting point for those looking to get a wide exposure to many of the different Fathers. One could approach the array of writings from the Fathers contained in the Office of Readings as a curated anthology of patristic sources.

3. The Church Fathers and recent popes

One need not look far in the words and writings of the most recent three occupants of the See of Peter—Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis—to find them pointing Christians today to the ongoing importance and relevance of the Church Fathers. Just a few highlights will suffice to reveal that for each of these men, the Church Fathers are not simply antiquated thinkers from the distant past. Rather, they remain our contemporaries as the Church strives to understand better and proclaim more boldly the Word of God.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis (Jorge Bergoglio)—elected to the See of Peter in March 2013—has repeatedly drawn the Church’s attention to the figure of St. Jerome during his pontificate. Most notably, in 2019 he marked Jerome’s memorial (September 30 in the liturgical calendar) with the promulgation of the apostolic letter “Aperuit Illis,” which formally established the third Sunday of Ordinary Time as the Sunday of the Word of God—a day “devoted to the celebration, study and dissemination of the word of God.”11

Then again, just a year later, on the same day in 2020, he issued the apostolic letter “Scripturae Sacrae Affectus” on the occasion of the sixteen hundredth anniversary of Jerome’s death. In this document, Pope Francis emphasizes Jerome’s “profound knowledge of the Scriptures [and] his zeal for making their teaching known.” He puts Jerome forward as “a figure of enduring relevance for … Christians of the twenty-first century,” and concludes with an exhortation to sit at Jerome’s feet and learn the love of Christ from this great Father of the Church:

The present anniversary can be seen as a summons to love what Jerome loved, to rediscover his writings and to let ourselves be touched by his robust spirituality, which can be described in essence as a restless and impassioned desire for a greater knowledge of the God who chose to reveal himself. How can we not heed, in our day, the advice that Jerome unceasingly gave to his contemporaries: “Read the divine Scriptures constantly; never let the sacred volume fall from your hand”?12

Pope Benedict XVI

Anyone familiar with the writings of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, elected pope in April 2005, is well aware of his deep affinity for the writings of the Church Fathers. Early on in his pontificate, Pope Benedict dedicated his Wednesday audiences to providing vignettes of some of the most important Church Fathers and other figures of the patristic era. These audiences (beginning with St. Clement of Rome on March 7, 2007, and running through his discussion of Maximus the Confessor on June 25, 2008) reveal a great affinity for many of the great thinkers of the early Church, not least of which is St. Augustine, to whom Benedict XVI devoted five separate audiences. In all of these weekday forays into the lives of some of the Church Fathers, Benedict presented them not as figures of the distant past, but contemporaries in Christ whose wisdom is timeless. Over the years, Joseph Ratzinger regularly advocated for the creative retrieval of patristic exegesis in dialogue with the gains of historical–critical research.

Of the many other areas we could turn in Benedict’s writings to highlight his insistence on the living voice of the Fathers for today, perhaps none is as clear as the remarks in Verbum Domini, the lengthy Apostolic Exhortation about the Word of God in the life of the Church. In that document, Benedict held up the Church Fathers as interpreters of Sacred Scripture from whom we still have much to learn.

The Church Fathers present a theology that still has great value today because at its heart is the study of sacred Scripture as a whole. Indeed, the Fathers are primarily and essentially “commentators on sacred Scripture.” Their example can “teach modern exegetes a truly religious approach to sacred Scripture, and likewise an interpretation that is constantly attuned to the criterion of communion with the experience of the Church, which journeys through history under the guidance of the Holy Spirit”. … We learn from the Fathers that exegesis “is truly faithful to the proper intention of biblical texts when it goes not only to the heart of their formulation to find the reality of faith there expressed, but also seeks to link this reality to the experience of faith in our present world”. Only against this horizon can we recognize that the word of God is living and addressed to each of us in the here and now of our lives.13

John Paul II

Where does one begin in highlighting the importance that St. John Paul II placed on the great witness of many of the patristic authors whose writings are with us to this day? While he is remembered by many for his Theology of the Body and moral encyclicals, John Paul II thought the Fathers no less important for today’s Church than those who have followed him. For our purposes, it will suffice to highlight the opening remarks of a little-known apostolic letter from John Paul II—”Patres Ecclesiae” (“Fathers of the Church”)—which he issued at the start of the year in 1980 to mark the feast of Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzus (Jan 2).14 Emphasizing the vital place of the Fathers in the Church to this day, John Paul II writes:

“The Church still lives today by the life received from her fathers, and on the foundation erected by her first constructors she is still being built today in the joy and sorrow of her journeying and daily toil. … [The fathers] in fact, are a stable structure of the Church, and they fulfill a perennial function for the Church of all centuries. Thus every subsequent proclamation and teaching, if it is to be authentic, must be compared with their proclamation and their teaching. Every charism and every ministry must draw from the vital source of their fatherhood; and every new stone, added to the sacred edifice … must be set in the structures already placed by them, and be welded and joined to them.”15

John Paul II certainly practiced what he preached. A quick skim of a document such as the encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993) reveals an extensive reliance on the Church Fathers. In presenting anew the Church’s great Tradition of moral teaching, the Holy Father relied not only upon the writings of later thinkers like Thomas Aquinas or decrees from the Council or Trent, but also a host of the Fathers of the Church, including Ambrose of Milan, Gregory of Nyssa, Ignatius of Antioch, John Chrysostom, Justin Martyr, and especially Augustine of Hippo. Thus, he demonstrated in his own teaching the need to compare his proclamation of the Gospel with the Fathers’ own proclamation and teaching.16

Where should I begin studying patristics?

Having clarified what the broad field of patristics is and why the Church Fathers matter to this day, it is perhaps the pragmatic question that many are left with: “So, where do I begin?” There is such an abundance of material out there, not only about patristics but extant writings from the Church Fathers themselves, that it can be difficult to know where to begin.

Here, we might borrow some sage advice from C. S. Lewis, who provides a strong corrective to those who would be afraid to encounter the Church Fathers on their own terms. While Lewis gives the example of Plato, certainly we are justified in extending his argument in favor of reading “old books” to the writings of the Church Fathers. After all, this brief apology for reading old books was included as a preface to a new translation into English of St. Athanasius of Alexandria’s On the Incarnation:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. … It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.17

Where ought one to begin studying patristics? By reading the Fathers themselves. Whether a single work from Basil or Jerome or Ephrem, or a catena of writings from a host of the Fathers about a particular topic, one should not be afraid to put out into the deep of patristic writings and start fishing.

Here one is also reminded of Henri de Lubac’s oft-quoted injunction about studying the third-century theologian Origen: “it is above all important to see Origen at work.”18

It is an essential task to see the Fathers at work, laboring in the vineyard of the biblical text, proclaiming and interpreting God’s word to their flocks or fellow religious, trading correspondence with friends and foes alike as they instruct in the life of prayer and wrestle with theological puzzles. Ultimately, where to begin will be a matter of personal taste. Nevertheless, it is always helpful to ask for recommendations when first visiting a new restaurant and finding oneself presented with an overwhelming set of options, all of which “sound good.” To that end, newcomers to the world of patristics can find below a few suggestions of both primary and secondary texts to whet the appetite.

Recommended resources

The following list is anything but exhaustive. Rather, it attempts to give the newcomer to Patristic writings a sampling of just some of the extant genres (homily/sermon, epistle, poetry, biblical commentary, etc) that we have from the Patristic era. Furthermore, an attempt (feeble as it may be) has been made to represent both chronological and geographical diversity in so short a list.

Catechism of the Catholic Church (International Edition)

Catechism of the Catholic Church (International Edition)

Price: $10.99

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Ancient Christian Writers: Ante-Nicene Era Collection (23 vols.)

Ancient Christian Writers: Ante-Nicene Era Collection (23 vols.)

Price: $339.99

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Homilies on the First Epistle of John (Tractatus in Epistolam Joannis ad Parthos)

Homilies on the First Epistle of John (Tractatus in Epistolam Joannis ad Parthos)

Price: $21.99

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Christian Women in the Patristic World

Christian Women in the Patristic World

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Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers

Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers

Price: $13.99

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The Way to Nicaea

The Way to Nicaea

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On the Incarnation: Translation (Popular Patristics Series)

On the Incarnation: Translation (Popular Patristics Series)

Price: $13.99

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Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works

Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works

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  1. Some might ask, do patristics and patrology means the same thing? A little. Patrology is “the science of the Fathers of the Church” (Johannes Quasten, Patrology [Allen, TX: Christian Classics, 1950], 1:1.) It is a new word, first used for a book title by a Lutheran theologian in 1853. Patrology differs from patristics in at least two respects: (1) Patrology tends to make a harder distinction between orthodox and heretical early Christian teachers, favoring the former. The study of patristics tends to include any and every early Christian teacher. (2) Patrology tends to include the study of the Fathers’ lives, or hagiography, as well as their teachings. The study of patristics tends to just focus on theological writings.
  2. All translations taken from the ESV Catholic Edition.
  3. Quoted in Irenee Hausherr, Spiritual Direction in the Early Christian East (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1900), 26.
  4. Here I would simply point out the increased attention in recent years in scholarly literature to those women in the early Church who had a significant impact on the Church. To name just two recent examples: Carla D. Sunberg, The Cappadocian Mothers: Deification Exemplified in the Writings of Basil, Gregory, and Gregory (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2017); Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes, Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).
  5. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 11.
  6. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 688.
  7. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 78, citing Dei Verbum, no. 8.
  8. This is precisely why studying the Catechism of the Catholic Church with Verbum can be so fruitful. Namely, with a library of the Fathers at hand, every citation of one of the Fathers becomes a gateway into the original source to gain a better understanding of the context in which a particular teaching arose.
  9. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1177.
  10. Devin Roza, Fulfilled in Christ: The Sacraments—A Guide to Symbols and Types in the Bible and Tradition (Bellingham, WA: Verbum, 2014), 28.
  11. Francis, “Aperuit Illis,” Vatican.va, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/motu_proprio/documents/papa-francesco-motu-proprio-20190930_aperuit-illis.html.
  12. All quotations taken from Francis, “Scripturae Sacrae Affectus,” Vatican.va, https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/papa-francesco-lettera-ap_20200930_scripturae-sacrae-affectus.html.
  13. Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini, no. 37, Vatican.va, https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20100930_verbum-domini.html.
  14. John Paul II, “Patres Ecclesiae,” available (in Latin) at https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/la/apost_letters/1980/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_02011980_patres-ecclesiae.html.
  15. As quoted in the Congregation for Catholic Education’s 1989 document, “Instruction for the Study of the Fathers of the Church in the Formation of Priests,” available at https://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/vocations/priesthood/priestly-formation/upload/fathers.pdf.
  16. Here it seems appropriate also to mention the apostolic letter that John Paul II issued some years prior on the 16th Centenary of Augustine’s conversion, in which he spends an entire section unpacking what Augustine has to say to modern man, both by “his example and by his teaching.” John Paul II, “Augustinum Hipponensem,” available at https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1986/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_26081986_augustinum-hipponensem.html.
  17. C. S. Lewis, “Preface: From the First Edition,” in Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation, ed. John Behr, Popular Patristics Series 44a (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 11.
  18. Henri de Lubac, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture according to Origen (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2007), 37.
Written by
Kevin Clemens
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Written by Kevin Clemens