If the traditional “Church Fathers' are from about 160-380 AD, why are they called the Church Fathers?

The Church was started by Jesus and ministered by the apostles from the very beginning - teaching, baptising and sorting out problems and misunderstandings which are written about throughout the NT.

Why aren't the Apostles called the Church Fathers?

Who decided which figures would be “Church Fathers”, ignoring the Apostles unquestioned esteem, experience and de facto appointment for that title and role?

  • 3
    The Apostolic Fathers (part of the Church Fathers) are earlier than 150 AD... As to why not include the Apostles, well I think it's because it's considered useful to have a term for the earliest period of the church after the Apostles themselves. That term could have been something else, but the church settled on the Church Fathers, and now we're stuck with it.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 24, 2021 at 11:07
  • 1
    Those who came just after the Apostles faced early error and opposition. It does seem quite proper to honour those who, for example, withstood early heresies at Nicea, and 'Church Fathers' seems a reasonable way to do it, to me.
    – Nigel J
    Jan 24, 2021 at 11:42
  • @curiousdannii that sounds like an answer.
    – eques
    Jan 25, 2021 at 14:51
  • The Apostolic Church Fathers date from between 80 to 180 A.D. and include Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp (a disciple of John). Originally they were called Apostolic Men. The title Church Fathers dates from the latter part of the 17th century, but I can't find the source of that claim. Man-made honourific titles didn't turn up till after the death of the Apostles. To be an Apostle, someone who followed Christ Jesus, is singular distinction enough, don't you think?
    – Lesley
    Feb 11, 2021 at 15:35
  • 1
    I also contest the claim that there is such a thing as an "official" church father, as @user47952 suggests? Certainly we have things like the Eight Doctors of the Church or the Three Holy Hierarchs, but I'm not sure if the italics are implying something more broad and concrete.
    – Alex
    Feb 15, 2021 at 17:38

3 Answers 3


Why aren't the Apostles called the Church Fathers?

The simple answer is that the Apostles are Apostle and the Church Fathers are not Apostles, but rather those historical teachers in the Early Church that followed in the footsteps of the Apostles after their deaths. The Church Fathers are held in honour in the Catholic Church, Orthodoxy and other denominations.

The term Church Fathers was coined by unknown Christian authors to refer to ancient and influential Christian theologians and writers of the Patristic Era who established the intellectual and doctrinal foundations of Christianity.

The Church founded by Jesus Church is now some 2000 years. Churchmen have found it logical to divide this 2000 years in various ways in order to be able to understand various historical times of Church history.

For example, St. Augustine divided the world into six ages.

The Six Ages of the World Latin: (sex aetates mundi), also rarely Seven Ages of the World (Latin: septem aetates mundi), is a Christian historical periodization first written about by Augustine of Hippo circa AD 400.

It is based upon Christian religious events, from the creation of Adam to the events of Revelation. The six ages of history, with each age (Latin: aetas) lasting approximately 1,000 years, were widely believed and in use throughout the Middle Ages, and until the Enlightenment, the writing of history was mostly the filling out of all or some part of this outline.

The outline accounts for Seven Ages, just as there are seven days of the week, with the Seventh Age being eternal rest after the Final Judgement and End Times, just as the seventh day of the week is reserved for rest. It was normally called the Six Ages of the World because in Augustine's schema they were the ages of the world, of history, while the Seventh Age was not of this world but, as Bede later elaborated, ran parallel to the six ages of the world. Augustine's presentation deliberately counters chiliastic and millennial ideas that the Seventh Age, World to Come, would come after the sixth.

Six Ages

The Six Ages, as formulated by Augustine of Hippo, are defined in De catechizandis rudibus (On the catechizing of the uninstructed), Chapter 22:

The First Age "is from the beginning of the human race, that is, from Adam, who was the first man that was made, down to Noah, who constructed the ark at the time of the flood", i.e. the Antediluvian period.

The Second Age "extends from that period on to Abraham, who was called the father indeed of all nations".

The Third Age "extends from Abraham on to David the king".

The Fourth Age is "from David on to that captivity whereby the people of God passed over into Babylonia".

The Fifth Age is "from that transmigration down to the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ"

The Sixth Age: "With His [Jesus Christ's] coming the sixth age has entered on its process."

The Ages reflect the seven days of creation, of which the last day is the rest of Sabbath, illustrating the human journey to find eternal rest with God, a common Christian belief.

In a similar manner ecclesiastical history is divided up into different ages.

Early Christianity is generally reckoned by church historians to begin with the ministry of Jesus (c. 27–30) and end with the First Council of Nicaea (325). It is typically divided into two periods: the Apostolic Age (c. 30–100, when the first apostles were still alive) and the Ante-Nicene Period (c. 100–325).

Apostolic Age

The Apostolic Age is named after the Apostles and their missionary activities. It holds special significance in Christian tradition as the age of the direct apostles of Jesus. A primary source for the Apostolic Age is the Acts of the Apostles, but its historical accuracy is questionable and its coverage is partial, focusing especially from Acts 15:36 onwards on the ministry of Paul, and ending around 62 AD with Paul preaching in Rome under house arrest.

The earliest followers of Jesus were apocalyptic Jewish Christians. The early Christian groups were strictly Jewish, such as the Ebionites and the early Christian community in Jerusalem, led by James, the brother of Jesus. According to Acts 9:1–2, they described themselves as "disciples of the Lord" and [followers] "of the Way", and according to Acts 11:26 a settled community of disciples at Antioch were the first to be called "Christians". Some of the early Christian communities attracted gentile God-fearers, who already visited Jewish synagogues. The inclusion of gentiles posed a problem, as they could not fully observe the Halakha. Saul of Tarsus, commonly known as Paul the Apostle, persecuted the early Jewish Christians, then converted and started his mission among the gentiles. The main concern of Paul's letters is the inclusion of gentiles into God's New Covenant, deeming faith in Christ sufficient for righteousness. Because of this inclusion of gentiles, early Christianity changed its character and gradually grew apart from Judaism and Jewish Christianity during the first two centuries of the Christian Era.

The ante-Nicene period was the period following the Apostolic Age down to the First Council of Nicaea in 325. It saw the period now known as the Apostolic Fathers which in time was followed by the traditional known age of the Church Fathers.

The Apostolic Fathers

Christian writers of the first and second centuries who are known, or are considered, to have had personal relations with some of the Apostles, or to have been so influenced by them that their writings may be held as echoes of genuine Apostolic teaching. Though restricted by some to those who were actually disciples of the Apostles, the term applies by extension to certain writers who were previously believed to have been such, and virtually embraces all the remains of primitive Christian literature antedating the great apologies of the second century, and forming the link of tradition that binds these latter writings to those of the New Testament.

The name was apparently unknown in Christian literature before the end of the seventeenth century. The term Apostolic, however, was commonly used to qualify Churches, persons, writings, etc. from the early second century, when St. Ignatius, in the exordium of his Epistle to the Trallians, saluted their Church "after the Apostolic manner." In 1672 Jean Baptiste Cotelier (Cotelerius) published his "SS. Patrum qui temporibus apostolicis floruerunt opera", which title was abbreviated to "Bibliotheca Patrum Apostolicorum" by L. J. Ittig in his edition (Leipzig, 1699) of the same writings. Since then the term has been universally used.

The Church Fathers were ancient and influential Christian theologians and writers who established the intellectual and doctrinal foundations of Christianity. The historical period of the Patristic Era spans approximately the late 1st to mid 8th centuries.

Fathers of the Church

The word Father is used in the New Testament to mean a teacher of spiritual things, by whose means the soul of man is born again into the likeness of Christ: "For if you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, by the Gospel, I have begotten you. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 4:15, 16; cf. Galatians 4:19). The first teachers of Christianity seem to be collectively spoken of as "the Fathers" (2 Peter 3:4).

Thus St. Irenæus defines that a teacher is a father, and a disciple is a son (iv, 41,2), and so says Clement of Alexandria (Stromata I.1.1). A bishop is emphatically a "father in Christ", both because it was he, in early times, who baptized all his flock, and because he is the chief teacher of his church. But he is also regarded by the early Fathers, such as Hegesippus, Irenaeus, and Tertullian as the recipient of the tradition of his predecessors in the see, and consequently as the witness and representative of the faith of his Church before Catholicity and the world. Hence the expression "the Fathers" comes naturally to be applied to the holy bishops of a preceding age, whether of the last generation or further back, since they are the parents at whose knee the Church of today was taught her belief. It is also applicable in an eminent way to bishops sitting in council, "the Fathers of Nicaea", "the Fathers of Trent". Thus Fathers have learnt from Fathers, and in the last resort from the Apostles, who are sometimes called Fathers in this sense: "They are your Fathers", says St. Leo, of the Princes of the Apostles, speaking to the Romans; St. Hilary of Arles calls them sancti patres; Clement of Alexandria says that his teachers, from Greece, Ionia, Coele-Syria, Egypt, the Orient, Assyria, Palestine, respectively, had handed on to him the tradition of blessed teaching from Peter, and James, and John, and Paul, receiving it "as son from father".

It follows that, as our own Fathers are the predecessors who have taught us, so the Fathers of the whole Church are especially the earlier teachers, who instructed her in the teaching of the Apostles, during her infancy and first growth. It is difficult to define the first age of the Church, or the age of the Fathers. It is a common habit to stop the study of the early Church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. "The Fathers" must undoubtedly include, in the West, St. Gregory the Great (d. 604), and in the East, St. John Damascene (d. about 754). It is frequently said that St. Bernard (d. 1153) was the last of the Fathers, and Migne's "Patrologia Latina" extends to Innocent III, halting only on the verge of the thirteenth century, while his "Patrologia Graeca" goes as far as the Council of Florence (1438-9). These limits are evidently too wide, It will be best to consider that the great merit of St. Bernard as a writer lies in his resemblance in style and matter to the greatest among the Fathers, in spite of the difference of period. St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636) and the Venerable Bede (d. 735) are to be classed among the Fathers, but they may be said to have been born out of due time, as St. Theodore the Studite was in the East.

Classification of patristic writings

In order to get a good view of the patristic period, the Fathers may be divided in various ways. One favourite method is by periods; the Ante-Nicene Fathers till 325; the Great Fathers of the fourth century and half the fifth (325-451); and the later Fathers. A more obvious division is into Easterns and Westerns, and the Easterns will comprise writers in Greek, Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic. A convenient division into smaller groups will be by periods, nationalities and character of writings; for in the East and West there were many races, and some of the ecclesiastical writers are apologists, some preachers, some historians, some commentators, and so forth.

A. After (1) the Apostolic Fathers come in the second century (2) the Greek apologists, followed by (3) the Western apologists somewhat later, (4) the Gnostic and Marcionite heretics with their apocryphal Scriptures, and (5) the Catholic replies to them.

B. The third century gives us (1) the Alexandrian writers of the catechetical school, (2) the writers of Asia Minor and (3) Palestine, and the first Western writers, (4) at Rome, Hippolytus (in Greek), and Novatian, (5) the great African writers, and a few others.

C. The fourth century opens with (1) the apologetic and the historical works of Eusebius of Caesarea, with whom we may class St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Epiphanius, (2) the Alexandrian writers Athanasius, Didymus, and others, (3) the Cappadocians, (4) the Antiochenes, (5) the Syriac writers. In the West we have (6) the opponents of Arianism, (7) the Italians, including Jerome, (8) the Africans, and (9) the Spanish and Gallic writers.

D. The fifth century gives us (1) the Nestorian controversy, (2) the Eutychian controversy, including the Western St. Leo; (3) the historians. In the West (4) the school of Lérins, (5) the letters of the popes.

E. The sixth century and the seventh give us less important names and they must be grouped in a more mechanical way.

Wikipedia explains the Church Fathers as follows:

The Church Fathers, Early Church Fathers, Christian Fathers, or Fathers of the Church were ancient and influential Christian theologians and writers who established the intellectual and doctrinal foundations of Christianity. The historical period of the Patristic Era spans approximately the late 1st to mid 8th centuries, with a flourishing during the 4th and 5th centuries, when Christianity was in the process of establishing itself as the state church of the Roman Empire.

In traditional dogmatic theology, authors considered Church Fathers are treated as authoritative, and a somewhat restrictive definition is used. The academic field of patristics, the study of the Church Fathers, has extended the scope of the term, and there is no definitive list.

Great Fathers

In the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church traditions there are four Fathers each who are called the "Great Church Fathers". In the Catholic Church, they are collectively called the "Eight Doctors of the Church",

Western Church

Ambrose (A.D. 340–397)

Jerome (347–420)

Augustine of Hippo (354–430)

Pope Gregory I (540–604)

Eastern Church

Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296 or 298 – 373)

Gregory of Nazianzus (329 – c. 390)

Basil of Caesarea (c. 330 – 379)

John Chrysostom (347–407)

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, three of them (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom) are honored as the "Three Holy Hierarchs".

Apostolic Fathers

The Apostolic Fathers were Christian theologians who lived in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, who are believed to have personally known some of the Twelve Apostles, or to have been significantly influenced by them. Their writings, though popular in Early Christianity, were ultimately not included in the canon of the New Testament once it reached its final form. Many of the writings derive from the same time period and geographical location as other works of early Christian literature that did come to be part of the New Testament, and some of the writings found among the Apostolic Fathers' seem to have been just as highly regarded as some of the writings that became the New Testament. The first three, Clement, Ignatius and Polycarp, are considered the chief ones.


The study of the Church Fathers is known as patristics.

Works of fathers in early Christianity, prior to Nicene Christianity, were translated into English in a 19th-century collection Ante-Nicene Fathers. Those of the First Council of Nicaea and continuing through the Second Council of Nicea (787) are collected in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.


To answer the OP question, the church fathers are called that because they were the ones who did hammer out the different heresies very early on.

Between the bookends of the first and last apostles to die (James and John sons of Zebedee, aka sons of thunder as in the voice of God), the New Testament was written (some will argue even assembled). It does contain all that is sufficient and necessary for our salvation, but as Peter mentioned, there will be false teachers who arise. The fathers were instrumental in clarifying issues, such as the nature of Christ (Arianism), the scriptures, and more. They codified what the apostles had left in writing.

Even still, not all agree with what they had "clarified", but generally speaking they are the ones who helped form the church after the apostles.

  • Clear and concise - the N.T. contains all that is sufficient and necessary for our salvation but it was the "church fathers" who exposed heresies that arose shortly after the death of the apostles.
    – Lesley
    Mar 15, 2021 at 17:29

Why aren't the Apostles called the Church Fathers?

The apostles are not referred to as the church fathers because they are not representative of the Roman Catholic church teachings. Thus the men accredited as developing the guiding dogma are called the church fathers (as noted in Ken's answer) and responsible for the doctrines held largely indisputable, though also largely unexplainable, today by most of Christianity.

The apostles were taught by Christ and the direct inspiration of God and Jesus ascended and exalted by the spirit they both dispensed.

They understood Jesus to be the son of God, a human who had the form and nature of God, but who certainly was not God. If they thought Jesus was God, they would have expressed this very distinctly in the extensive NT writings - at least once, but certainly a lot more as it would have been earth shaking information previously unheard of or taught by anyone previously.

Not that they wrote from their own ideas, they were inspired of God to write what He wanted to be passed down to successive generations of followers of His son the Christ - hence the name Christians. 2 Timothy 3:16-17

The so-called 'church fathers' who spoke of and formulated a triune God concept which lacks credible correlation with simple and explicit biblical revelation, are the ones denoted the founders for the (widely accepted) theology we have today.

The apostles never spoke of, were taught, or did teach, a trinity, but that clearly is of lesser importance than the denoted church father's offerings which took centuries to finalise.

The church fathers are responsible for making doctrine of - (among other things)

  • Jesus, a God the Son - as opposed to the son of God
  • the Holy Spirit, a 'person' - the third of the trinity
  • Jesus, the Father, and the HS, as eternally existing co-equals

These items have been mandated to be essential to salvation - even though the bible never mentions any of these. The bible in fact refutes such claims abundantly and consistently. The spirit is never presented as a person, and Jesus is clearly a man only and provides numerous reasons via several writers that reject him being God.

It is well documented that there were councils brought together to discuss and find a way forward for church teaching that was to be broadly recognised and accepted, and to deal with various (alleged) heretical ideas floating about.

These were not convivial or equally represented discussions. Rather the majority ruling in favour of new teachings foreign to biblical truth, and cast opponents aside with threats, excommunication and fiery death.

Indeed, the victors are those who write history - until the ruse is discovered. Sadly, by then, hardly anyone cares.

To maintain control over the church, the bible was not allowed to be read by lay members for over 1000 years.

Original texts of scripture in particular, would expose her (Catholic Church) false doctrines and policies, all of which had been twisted around Greco-Roman philosophy, and pagan traditions. She was accustomed to pontificating what people should believe, and dictating how they should practice their Christian faith. To allow common people to read the Bible for themselves would threaten this authority. There were too many people, without proper training, that felt the Bible was the ultimate authority on spiritual matters and doctrine, rather than the hired churchmen who had grown comfortable lording it over the flock. Excerpt from, https://www.ecumenicalexaminer.com/bible_suppression.html

This vigorous grip on believers limited access to the bible extended until,

while an English language version of the Bible was gradually allowed to come into use, the Roman Catholic church would continue to conduct ceremonies, rituals, prayers, and the mass, in Latin. This practice would continue until the Vatican II council (1962 to 1968)

While there may well have been the best intentions for the careful and loyal devotion to the scriptures - as they understood, the resultant creeds are now readily seen by some to be quite in error and do not faithfully represent God's inspired word and intended meaning.

There was no need for a trinity doctrine - the bible neither offered nor provoked one. It was born out of, at best, an incomplete and/or biased grasp of scripture and a desire to head off various divergent theologies. And at worst, a drive to exert control over early church growth for advantage and influence - both religious and political. This is now readily observed by more recent works that show the way the scripture has been corrupted to favour the triune theology. Work by Bart Ehrman - the Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

The so-called 'church fathers' then do not represent the teachings of the original apostles including Paul, and have expressly initiated a different teaching sponsored by the Roman church which has at its heart a triune dogma that they insist is essential for salvation.

Alternatively, the salvation promised by God through His son, via the scriptures, that never mention or hint at a trinity in its entire provision.


The apostles are not referred to as the rightful church fathers because they do not teach the trinity centric dogma the Roman Church decided was the core of truth. They taught of the man Jesus, who was not God, but the son thereof and that there was only one solitary God also known in the OT as Yahweh.

The Holy Spirit was simply the presence and power of God and is not, either with Jesus, part of a triune Godhead comprising 3 unique and individual entities sharing one substance as one God.

  • 1
    I'm not sure what point you are trying to make in your answer and yes, I'm aware you are the one that asked the question. From this answer, it seems like you didn't ask in good faith -- that is, genuine interested in learning or helping others to learn but rather to engage in spurious and off-topic debate. The Church Fathers, AFAIK, is as a term generally used by the Catholic and Orthodox communions; that is where the term originated. Some perhaps might use it by analogy, but that appears more fringe
    – eques
    Mar 22, 2021 at 16:57
  • Neither am I sure of your point. The Q was asked in Jan, and had no answer for some time. The resultant answers helped me form my answer which, obviously, I think, digs a bit deeper than others were willing to go. Any Q is asked to stimulate thought and answers - whether the answer is known or not is of lesser import than the outcome. There will always be divergent views, but those closest to the text rather than tradition are of greater value to me - and I would hope, many others.
    – steveowen
    Mar 22, 2021 at 20:48
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    Your answer amounts to an attack on Catholic doctrine with unsubstantiated claims (some of which are totally bunk) and only tangentially attempts to answer the question AND even then it's pure speculation to justify your own position. No, the apostles are not called Church Fathers because they don't teach the Trinity. That's utterly false.
    – eques
    Mar 23, 2021 at 13:03
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    Additionally, as I said, Church Fathers is a term only used to my knowledge within certain contexts so any answer outside of those contexts (where there is no use of the term) is meaningless, never mind what vague appeals you make towards the the validity of stimulating thought
    – eques
    Mar 23, 2021 at 13:05

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