Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church (The Complete Eight Volumes in One). Amazon Kindle Edition, 2014.
Volume 2, Ante-Nicene Christianity A.D. 100-325, “Chapter 13. Ecclesiastical Literature of the Ante-Nicene Age, and Biographical Sketches of the Church Fathers.” sec. 159-204.
§ 160. A General Estimate of the Fathers.
Schaff states his awareness that the earliest Christian writings were not particularly interested in scientific or literary concerns. However, “for the very reason that it is a new life, Christianity must produce also a new science and literature; partly from the inherent impulse of faith towards deeper and clearer knowledge of its object for its own satisfaction; partly from the demands of self-preservation against assaults from without; partly from the practical want of instruction and direction for the people” (Schaff 2014, 20326). Over time, Schaff notes, Christianity acted to preserve classical literature and art of value, as well as adding to the artistic and literary heritage of the West.
The earliest Christian literature was in Greek, with the exception being a rise of Latin by the late second century, in North Africa. Even in and around Rome, Greek was the language of philosophy and of Christianity. “The patristic literature in general falls considerably below the classical in elegance of form, but far surpasses it in the sterling quality of its matter” (Schaff 2014, 20341). While some authors were not remarkable for their style, by the 4th and 5th centuries several authors arose who were notworthy both for content and for style.
Schaff notes that the idea of a “church-father” is derived from the paternal respect and authority which a teacher or bishop would have. The most respected were considered “fathers of the Church” (Schaff 2014, 20349). Generally we don’t consider people after the 7th or 8th centuries patristic authors. Schaff does observe that the criteria for recognition of church fathers are not entirely clear. Some are received in some areas, but not others. Some have more clearly mature theology than others. Schaff cites a number of instances in which various church fathers may not have been completely in line with later articulations of orthodoxy. Schaff goes so far as to say that “[T]he ‘unanimous consent of the fathers’ is a mere illusion, except on the most fundamental articles of general Christianity” (Schaff 2014, 20371). He further describes the fathers frequently speaking of many of the distinctive ideas embraced by Greek and Roman orthodoxy where it differs from Protestantism. Schaff points his readers to the New Testament, father than the Fathers, for authority.
Schaff briefly classifies patristic authors by their subject matter (Schaff 2014, 20393). He then adds several notes, observing that the Roman church continued to list “patres” and then “doctores” deserving of special note, even as late as the Council of Trent.