The Beginning of the Idea of the Fathers

The idea of working in a tradition, of having been handed a body of thought and belief, was present right from the start of written theology: Irenaeus (c.130-c.200) was aware that the Gnostics share the same Scriptures; but they used the inherited rule of faith to assess and condemn their interpretation of them. However, most scholars now agree that this rule of faith was not a written source, not a proto-creed, but a body of belief which Irenaeus, for example, felt free to express in various different ways, brief and more extensive. The term "Father" for Christian forebears (i.e. those who passed on the rule of faith) was already current in Irenaeus's time.

Christian authors, scriptores ecclesiastici, were early aware that they were writing in a "tradition," in the Christian sense of a "handing on," of a body of thought and belief. In the period we are concerned with, the canon of Scripture was largely settled. It was not in dispute that there existed a body of texts which had been inspired by God himself and which were therefore the Word of God. There was still room for disagreement about the status of some of the apocryphal materials. Jerome was still considering that question at the end of the fourth century.

The meaning of "inspired" prompted some discussion. Early Christians believed that the Septuagint was an inspired translation of the Old Testament. The iconography of the four evangelists in the West shows them writing at the dictation of a dove, representing the Holy Spirit, which has its beak in their ears. The implication was strong that the Holy Spirit spoke the Word directly to the various authors of the books of the Bible, who simply wrote it down. The Old Testament prophets too could be thought to be inspired. In his Prologue to his reflections on the Psalms, which were paraphrased in the twelfth century by Peter Lombard and recast again about 1230, Cassiodorus gave definitions to help his readers "know where they were" with prophets. Inspiratio, it was suggested, involved direct input from the Holy Spirit. A mere dream or vision was not strictly "inspiration" (Torrell 1977:5).

Jerome encountered a further ramification of this assumption when he translated the Bible into the improved Latin version which won universal acceptance as the Vulgate. Was the translator himself inspired? Jerome was sure he himself was not, and said so, but the readers and commentators of the Middle Ages consistently took his Latin version to be "the Word." They analyzed every turn of phrase exactly as they would have done if God had spoken into the ears of the evangelists and prophets in Jerome's Latin.

Was there a category of specially authoritative authors who were not in the canon but who could be relied on more than the others? This happened naturally without there being necessarily any "theory" about it at first. There were various theologians whose writings had had enormous influence, even if they were not directly cited as authoritative works, or works of a "Father." A good example is Origen, of whose works selections were made into a kind of textbook by Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus in the latter half of the fourth century.

Maurice Wiles suggests that a change happened in the fifth century (Wiles 1979:47-8). In the Trinitarian controversies all parties claimed they were interpreting Scripture in a manner true to the rule of faith; in the Christological controversies both sides claimed also to be correctly interpreting the non-scriptural but written formula or "creed" of Nicaea and they tried to show that the works of earlier writers conformed to their views. In order to "prove" what the written, post-scriptural tradition was, they constructed dossiers of texts, which were described as being of "the holy Fathers." Each party appealed to roughly the same authors, but selected and interpreted the material to give weight to its own case. Lists of accepted authoritative authors became less consistent in later centuries, but the idea that there were such authors persisted.

It was not usual at first to speak of "Fathers" at all except with reference to the patres of the Old Testament, the patriarchs. Augustine may have been the first to apply the word "Father" to a writer who was not a bishop, when he used it of Jerome. The formula of Chalcedon was described as being "in agreement with the holy Fathers." "Fathers" gradually began to seem an appropriate term for the ancient, senior, most respected Christian authors. It carried with it the assumption that there had been at least two great ages of writing about the Christian faith, that of the composition of the books which found their way into the canon of Scripture and a later but still special age when writings of high authority came into being, possessing a reliability and an authority which could not be matched by the writings of more recent authors. If that was so, when did that age end? Or did it perhaps continue, with a few latter-day "Fathers" still holding a distinct place in the scheme of things at the divine behest? Some twelfth-century collections contain extracts from Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St Victor, who have found a natural place alongside Augustine and Gregory the Great.

Once there was an idea of "the Fathers," later authors could be envisaged as patrum vestigia sequentes, "following in the footsteps of the Fathers" (Robert Grosseteste 1986, III.i.30, p. 132). Were certain individuals down the ages favored with divine assistance in their thinking, even much later than the earliest period of the Church? This question was never really determined in any systematic way. Yet by the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries there was a developing sense that some authors were respectable because they belonged to a former age whereas contemporaries were fair game for challenge or disagreement (antiqui et moderni).

A series of names emerged, who eventually formed the loose group known as "the Fathers," ending roughly with Bede in the West. We can begin to trace this evolution and its accompanying debate about "standing" more systematically by looking at what happened to the tradition Jerome (d. 420) began with his De viris illustribus. Jerome wrote the De viris illustribus, in which he listed the Christian authors who might be read by inquirers who wished to know who to trust for interpretation of Scripture, for moral guidance and for theological opinion. Gennadius of Marseilles (late fifth century) continued Jerome's work with about a hundred extra names, taken mainly from the fifth century, drawn from both Eastern and Western halves of the Empire.

The Decretum Gelasianum, "on books to be received and books not to be received," was usually held, in the Middle Ages, to have been a decretum of Pope Gelasius (492-6), and that gave it "authority" on the subject of "authoritativeness." It begins with a list of books of the Old and New Testaments which it identifies as those "on which the Catholic Church was founded (fundata est) by the grace of God" (Das Decretum Gelasianum de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis 1912, ch. 3). It includes (chapter 4) a list of writings whose use the Church does not prohibit. There are also references to works of Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil, Athanasius, John of Constantinople, Theophilus Alexandrinus, Cyril of Alexandria, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Prosper of Aquitaine, gesta of the martyrs and vitae patrum, Rufinus, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Orosius, Sedulis, Iuvencus. There is a chapter on those works which are not to be received because they contain heretical teachings.

This text became the touchstone or reference-point for the trustworthiness and Christian standing of early authors, at least in the West. The idea of bringing the list up to date proved attractive from time to time (Das Decretum Gelasianum de libris recipiendis et non recipiendis 1912:66ff.). The Libri Carolini, to which we shall come in a moment, already tend to prefer Western authorities such as Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Hilary, or Gregory the Great, and they keep on the whole to the Gelasian list. Sige-bert of Gembloux (b. c.1030 in Belgium) wrote a latter-day De viris Illustribus in the late eleventh century, consciously bringing to his own time what Jerome and Gennadius had done (vaingloriously placing his own works at some length, at the end).

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