"Patristics" is the study of a period which begins as the first generation of Jesus's followers passed away and the "apostolic age" ended, and which merges at the other end into the Middle Ages. The authors who wrote in these centuries have come to be known as "the Fathers." They have acquired a special authority, and the history of their era, with its significant texts and its definitive moments (such as the early ecumenical Councils, the framing of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the emergence of a ministerial structure) has become the resource to which theologians have had resort for authoritative answers to a number of questions about faith and order.

But the identification of such a period is itself not uncontroversial. First, it assumes that "earlier is better," that the place to look for the right answers is the primitive Church, as close to the time of Christ as possible, and that there has been no "development" since (to use John Henry Newman's expression) on which equal reliance ought to be placed, or which can usefully modify the presumptions of those early days. Secondly, there is the question of the parameters of the period, when it can be deemed to end, and what aspects of the Christian life of the time can be taken to be normative for Christians of later generations.

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