FATHERS OF THE CHURCH (patres ecclesiastics), certain early writers of the Christian church. The term abba, Grxcized cil3licz5 (father), in use among the Talmudists as a synonym of rabbi (my master), and constituting, according to Maimonides, the third or lowest honorary title of a doctor of the divine law, was in the first centuries of Chris tianity applied indiscriminately to all theological writers who were distinguished by their learning, genius, or piety. Gradually, however, the word father, or, more fully, father of the church, was confined to those teachers whose writings were considered pre-emi nently orthodox, and who might be looked upon as the progenitors, as it were, of certain. dogmas, upon the development of which they had exercised a more or less direct influ ence; while those writers who diverged into the fields of heretical opinion were called scriptores ecelesiastici (church-writers). Out of the number of the former, some few master-minds, to whom the church owed a still greater tribute, were again singled out as doctores ecelesite (doctors of the church), which title of pre-eminence, however, is bestowed on many writers who lived subsequently to the time of the fathers, in consid eration of their "purer and more excellent doctrine" (Benedict, xiv., Alia, Eccles.).
The temporal limits within which the fathers are to be confined, as well as their proper share of authority in matters of faith, have long been points of grave discussion. While some include the fathers of the 1st c., generally called the apostolical fathers, on account of their being the contemporaries or disciples of Christ and the apostles, they are excluded by others; again, by some, the 7th c. is made the closing period, while others carry the list down to the 12th, or even the 13th century.
With respect to the authority of the fathers, some, like Fredegis, held their words to be as sacred as those of the prophets and sacred writers; while others, like Alphonso di Castro, Melelius Cano, and cardinal Cajetan, ridiculed the notion that Symmachus should be made equal to St. Paul, or Didymus to St. John the evangelist. Others, again, like pope Gregory and the majority of writers, took the middle course of regard ing them not as infallible, much less as prophets and apostles, but held that, when in matters of faith the most perfect and unswerving unanimity reigns among them, then only, the Holy Ghost is to be considered to speak through them. RULE of FAITH;
Immense as is the range and variety of their writings, ascetic, apologetic, polemical. exegetical, moral, historical, or dogmatical, so also is the diversity of their individual value. Nothing can be further from historical justice than either the wholesale lauda tion or condemnation of these writers as a body; but whatever stand we may take, we cannot but see that they are of the utmost moment. Stretching as they do over the entire extent of that period which forms the turning-point between the antique and modern world, they faithfully and often unconsciously portray that awful change, of which they were in no small degree the instruments—the gradual wane of old faiths, and of an old civilization, and the slow and struggling rise of that which was to replace them; while they preserve the most minute and trifling details with the same accuracy as the most momentous event, as each happened to bear upon their subject. The philosopher, the historian, the antiquary, each and all will find their writings, as a whole, to contain an inexhaustible fund of instruction. Of no less interest, perhaps, are their works in relation to the writers individually. These, issuing from all parts of the then known world, from all ranks, all creeds, could not but impress the stamp of their and callings, besides that of their youth or age, vigor or feebleness, upon their writing—Jew Boman, Nfrican, Spaniard—orItor, poet, lawyer, statesman, priest, they all bring with them that which'was their own before they embraced the new faith: their dialectic power, their fantastic poetry, their graceful speech, their stern austerity. What Greek subtlety did theoretically for the develop ment of dogma in Origen and Athanasius, that Roman thoroughness did practically for the erection of the hierarchy in Leo the great and Gregory III.; while from Egypt came asceticism and monachism, the ascendency of spiritualism over sensualism is owing to those who came from the northern coast of Africa. How far Platonism, and especially Neoplatonism, Aristotle, and Greek philosophy generally, are found devel oped in these works, and infused into the new faith by the former teachers of the academics themselves, who mostly retained their old philosophical garb, upon this, as well as upon many other points, we must forbear to enlarge.