Q — I hear people talk about the “Church Fathers” from history. Who were they and what did they teach? Why do they get this designation as opposed to more recent church thinkers?
A — For the sake of managing the teaching of theology the history of theology gets divided up into different periods. Thus, for example, the earliest period is known as the “apostolic period,” pretty much the first century when the documents that we know as the New Testament were in process of composition. Again, by way of example, today we talk about the “post-conciliar period,” that is to say the last 50 years after the documents that were promulgated by Vatican Council II.
In that way the period of the “Church Fathers” is normally used for those church teachers/authors who wrote between the end of the “apostolic period” until about the close of the 8th century.
The principal fathers of the church were those authors who defended the gospel against heresy and misunderstanding, who wrote commentaries on the Bible, and who composed various works that helped to build up the church in terms of its doctrinal and moral teaching.
They are important because generation after generation of Christians return to them as vital sources of renewal. However, it is not necessarily the case that these early Christian thinkers are valued more and far above more recent church thinkers.
For example, I never fail to read Jesuit Father Karl Rahner,’s little book Encounters with Silence without great spiritual benefit.
I have read it many times and will continue to do so. But I could not say that about all of the early “Church Fathers.” Perhaps Karl Rahner has become a church father for me!