The Early Church Fathers, Church Fathers, or Fathers of the Church were early and influential theologians, eminent Christian teachers and great bishops. Their scholarly works were used as a precedent for centuries to come. The term was used of writers and teachers of the Church, not necessarily "saints", though many are honoured as saints in the Catholic Church, as well as some other Christian groups. A rough classification of these patristic writings is as: Apostolic Fathers and the 2nd century; 3rd century; 4th century; 5th century; and 6th century.
Presented here is one of the most important collections of historical, philosophical and theological writings available. These documents provide the most comprehensive witness to the development of Christianity and Christian thought during the period immediately following the Apostolic Era.
Divided into three sections: Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene series 1 and 2, this complete set of the writings of the Early Church Fathers provides a wealth of knowledge to any student of Christianity.
Works of fathers in early Christianity, prior to Nicene Christianity, were translated into English into the Ante-Nicene Fathers collection. Those of the First Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and continuing through the Second Council of Nicea (787) are grouped into the two Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collections.
In the Roman Catholic Church, St. John of Damascus, who lived in the 8th century, is generally considered to be the last of the Church Fathers and at the same time the first seed of the next period of church writers, scholasticism. St. Bernard is also at times called the last of the Church Fathers.
The Eastern Orthodox Church does not consider the age of Church Fathers to be over and includes later influential writers, even up to the present day, in the term. Among the Orthodox, the Church Fathers do not have to all agree on every detail, much less be infallible. Rather, Orthodox doctrine is determined by the consensus of the Holy Fathers - those points on which they do agree. This consensus guides the church in questions of faith, the correct interpretation of scripture, and to distinguish the authentic Sacred Tradition of the Church from false teachings.
Though much Protestant religious thought is based on Sola Scriptura (the principle that the Bible itself is the ultimate authority in doctrinal matters), the first Protestant reformers, like the Catholic and Orthodox churches, used the theological interpretations of scripture set forth by the early Church Fathers. The original Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1531, for example, and the later Formula of Concord of 1576-1584, each begin with the mention of the doctrine professed by the Fathers of the First Council of Nicea. John Calvin's French Confession of Faith of 1559 states, "And we confess that which has been established by the ancient councils, and we detest all sects and heresies which were rejected by the holy doctors, such as St. Hilary, St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose and St. Cyril." The Scots Confession of 1560 deals with general councils in its 20th chapter. The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, both the original of 1562-1571 and the American version of 1801, explicitly accept the Nicene Creed in article 7. Even when a particular Protestant confessional formula does not mention the Nicene Council or its creed, its doctrine is nonetheless always asserted, as, for example, in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of 1647. Many Protestant seminaries provide courses on Patristics as part of their curriculum and many historic Protestant churches emphasize the importance of Tradition and of the Fathers in scriptural interpretation. Such an emphasis is even more pronounced in certain streams of Protestant thought, such as Paleo-Orthodoxy.