Patristic literature refers to the writings of the Fathers of the Christian church (the Greek word patristikos means "relating to the fathers") between the latter part of the 1st century AD and the middle of the 8th century. It can therefore be distinguished from New Testament theology at one end and from medieval scholasticism and Byzantine systematization at the other. It reflects the philosophical and religious thought of the Hellenistic and Roman world from which it derived the bulk of its concepts and vocabulary. The themes of this vast literature are manifold, but the theological reflection of the Fathers focused for the most part on questions of Christology and the Trinity.
Although writers of the East and West had much in common, perceptible shades of difference can be found in their theologies. A scientific theology developed in the East and was marked by a blend of biblical theology and Platonic idealism (especially in Alexandria) or Aristotelian realism (especially in Antioch). In the West, Christian writers generally depended on the Greek theological tradition, which they often clarified in definitions or interpreted in juridical categories, until the emergence in the late 4th century of a sophisticated Latin theology.
Patristic literature falls into three main periods. The ante-Nicene period (before AD 325) includes the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the apologetic and antiheretical literature, and the beginnings of speculative Greek theology. The major figures of this period include Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Irenæus, Justin Martyr, Origen, and Tertullian. The period between the councils of Nicæa (325) and Chalcedon (451) was the golden age of the Nicene fathers (including Eusebius of Cæsarea, the first major church historian) the Alexandrians (most notably Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria), the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa), and the Antiochenes (John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia).
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Altaner, Berthold, Patrology, 5th ed. (1960); DiBerardino, Angelo, eds., Patrology, trans. by P. Solari, 4 vols. (1986); Goodspeed, E. J., A History of Early Christian Literature, rev. ed. (1966); Hamell, Patrick J., Handbook of Patrology (1968); Kelly, J. N. D., Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (1978); Leigh-Bennett, E., Handbook of the Early Christian Fathers (1980); Quasten, Johannes, and Plumpe, Joseph C., eds., Ancient Christian Writers (1946- ).
Collected together are the English translations of the actual texts of many known early Christian manuscripts. These works form an important part of the foundation for virtually every Christian Church.
In Christianity, as in all other religions, interpretation by authors and speakers and Clergy is invariably involved. Since different people have sometimes interpreted the wording of early manuscripts in different ways, (as also is true of the Bible), there developed many different "human opinions" on many important subjects, which initiated many heresies, many schisms and a large number of Denominations and other Churches, each which have their own human opinions on those important subjects.
Since much of the argument seems to arise over interpretation of the meanings of works of the early Church Fathers, we are presenting the works here, WITHOUT significant commentary or interpretation. The exceptions generally have to do with historical facts which are relevant. For example, there are some short letters which appear to have been written to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, but the author appears to have lived many years after her! Such notes include a brief reference to being "spurious".
There are also assorted "fragments" of manuscripts included. In some cases, these fragments result from the illegibility of much of a manuscript, where only certain sentences are readable. In other cases, they are truly fragments, torn portions of manuscripts.
Being English translations, one must remember the need to consult the original language texts for any critical study. Similarly, we must remember that, at the time these letters and books were written, even the Bible was written in Scriptua continua, continuous text without spaces for paragraphs, sentences or even words, and there was no capitalization, punctuation or other formatting. Therefore, the paragraph numbering and Chapter headings in these texts were obviously additions by later copyists or translators to clarify the texts. However, without those improvements, these texts are nearly impossible to read or understand, and so it seems tolerable to accept them.
This listing is approximately in chronological order, as is currently understood. We hope to eventually include all known existing Manuscripts.
The first part of Augustine's life (to 391) can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile his Christian faith with his classical culture. His mother, Saint Monica, had reared him as a Christian. Although her religion did not hold an important place in his early life, Christianity never totally lost its grip upon him. As a student in Carthage, he encountered the classical ideal of philosophy's search for truth and was fired with enthusiasm for the philosophic life. Unable to give up Christianity altogether, however, he adopted Manichæism, a Christian HERESY claiming to provide a rational Christianity on the basis of a purified text of Scripture. Nine years later, his association with the Manichees ended in disillusionment; and it was in a religiously detached state that Augustine arrived in Milan. There he discovered, through a chance reading of some books of Neoplatonism, a form of philosophy that seemed compatible with Christian belief. At the same time, he found that he was at last able to give up the ambitions for public success that had previously prevented him from embracing the philosophic life. The result was the dramatic conversion that led Augustine to devote his life to the pursuit of truth, which he now identified with Christianity. With a small group of friends, he returned to North Africa and, in Thagaste, established a religious community dedicated to the intellectual quest for God.
His subsequent career as priest and bishop was to be dominated by controversy and debate. Especially important were his struggles with the Donatists and with Pelagianism. The Donatists promoted a Christian separatist movement, maintaining that only they were the true church and that, as a result, only their Sacraments were valid. Augustine's counterattack emphasized unity, not division, as the mark of true Christianity and insisted that the validity of the sacraments depended on Christ himself, not on any human group or institution. Pelagianism, an early 5th-century Christian reform movement, held that no person could be excused from meeting the full demand of God's law. In doing so, it stressed the freedom of the human will and its ability to control motives and regulate behavior. In contrast, Augustine argued that because of Original Sin no one can entirely govern his own motivation and that only the help of God's Grace makes it possible for persons to will and to do good. In both of these controversies, Augustine opposed forces that set some Christians apart from others on grounds either of religious exclusivism or of moral worth.
Augustine must be reckoned as one of the architects of the unified Christianity that survived the barbarian invasions of the 5th century and emerged as the religion of medieval Europe. He succeeded in bringing together the philosophic Christianity of his youth and the popular Christianity of his congregation in Hippo. In doing so, he created a theology that has remained basic to Western Christianity, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, ever since. Feast day: Aug. 28.
William S. Babcock
Bibliography: Battenhouse, Roy, ed., A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine (1955); Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo (1967; repr. 1987); Burnaby, John, Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St. Augustine (1938; repr. 1960); Chadwick, Henry, Augustine (1986); Marrou, H. I., St. Augustine and His Influence Through the Ages, trans. by P. Hepburne-Scott (1957); O'Daly, Gerard, Augustine's Philosophy of the Mind (1987); O'Meara, John, An Augustine Reader (1973); Pagels, Elaine, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (1988); Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Mystery of Continuity: Time and History, Memory and Eternity in the Thought of St. Augustine (1986); Smith, Warren Thomas, Augustine: His Life and Thought (1980).
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