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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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a term of honour applied to the first and most eminent writers of the Christian church. Those of the first century are called Apostolical fathers; those of the first three centuries, and till the council of Nice, Ante- Nicene; and those later than that council, Post-Nicene. Learned men are not unanimous concerning the degree of esteem which is due to these ancient fathers. Some represent them as the most excellent guides, while others place them in the very lowest rank of moral writers, and treat their precepts and decisions as perfectly insipid, and, in many respects, pernicious. It appears, however, incontestable, that, in the writings of the primitive fathers are many sublime sentiments, judicious thoughts, and several things well adapted to form a religious temper, and to excite pious and virtuous affections. At the same time, it must be confessed, that, after the earliest age, they abound still more with precepts of an excessive and unreasonable austerity, with stoical and academical dictates, with vague and indeterminate notions, and, what is still worse, with decisions absolutely false, and in evident opposition to the commands of Christ. Though the judgment of antiquity in some disputable points may certainly be useful, yet we ought never to consider the writings of the fathers as of equal authority with the Scriptures. In many cases they may be deemed competent witnesses, but we must not confide in their verdict as judges. As Biblical critics they are often fanciful and injudicious, and their principal value consists in this, that the succession of their writings enables us to prove the existence and authenticity of the sacred books, up to the age of the Apostles.

The following is a list of the entire fathers: Contemporaries of the Apostles, Barnabas, Clement of Rome, Hermas, Ignatius, and Polycarp, Papias, A.D. 116; Justin Martyr, 140; Dionysius of Corinth, 170; Tatian, 172; Hegesippus, 173; Melito, 177; Irenaeus, 178; Athenagoras, 178; Miltiades, 180; Theophilus, 181; Clement of Alexandria, 194; Tertullian, 200; Minutius Felix, 210; Ammonius, 220; Origen, 230; Firmilian, 233; Dionysius of Alexandria, 247; Cyprian, 248; Novatus or Novatian, 251; Arnobius, 306; Lactantius, 306; Alexander of Alexandria, 313; Eusebius, 315; Athanasius, 326; Cyril of Jerusalem, 348; Hilary, 354; Epiphanius, 368; Basil, 370; Gregory of Nazianzum, 370; Gregory of Nyssa, 370; Optatus, 370; Ambrose, 374; Philaster, 380; Jerome, 392; Theodore of Mopsuestia, 394; Ruffin, 397; Augustine, 398; Chrysostom, 398; Sulpitius Severus, 401; Cyril of Alexandria, 412; Theodoret, 423; and Gennadius, 494.

Archbishop Wake, in his Exposition of the Doctrine of the Church of England, has very satisfactorily shown, that the deference paid by Protestants to the Christian fathers of the first three ages, is neither of such an idolatrous description as is generally represented, nor is their authority ever extolled to an equality with that of the Holy Scriptures. "Though we have appealed," he says, "to the churches of the first ages for new proofs of the truth of our doctrine, it is not that we think that the doctors of those times had more right to judge of our faith than those had that followed them; but it is because after a serious examination we have found, that, as for what concerns the common belief that is among us, they have believed and practised the same things without adding other opinions or superstitions that destroy them,—wherein they have acted conformably to their and our rule, THE WORD OF GOD: notwithstanding, it cannot be denied, but that they effectually fell into some wrong opinions, as that of the Millenaries and infant communion," &c. The usefulness and necessity of studying the ancient fathers have been defended by many persons eminent for their learning and piety. Archbishop Usher was one who beyond all men then living knew the vast importance of these studies, and had derived the greatest benefits from them. The following brief advice, in the language of Dr. Parr, his erudite biographer, will convey his sentiments on this very interesting subject: "Indeed he had so great an esteem of the ANCIENT AUTHORS, for the acquiring any solid learning, whether sacred or profane, that his advice to young students, either in divinity or antiquity, was, not to spend too much time in epitomes, but to set themselves to read the ancient authors themselves; as, to begin with the FATHERS, and to read them according to the ages in which they lived, (which was the method he had taken himself,) and, together with them, carefully to peruse the CHURCH HISTORIANS that treated of that age in which those fathers lived: by which means the student would be better able to perceive the reason and meaning of divers passages in their writings, (which otherwise would be obscure,) when he knew the original and growth of those heresies and heterodox opinions against which they wrote, and may also better judge what doctrines, ceremonies, and opinions prevailed in the church in every age, and by what means introduced.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Fathers'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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