When people ask me what I'm studying, or what area of theology I'd like to concentrate in, and I tell them "patristics," I sometimes get a cocked eyebrow or a blank stare in response. So, as an aid to those folks, here's a little Q&A on said subject.
So what's this you're doing?
Well, since theology is an awfully big field, and you have to specialize somehow, I'd like to focus on patristics.
Huh? What does that word mean?
"Patristics" is the study of the Church Fathers.
The Church Fathers? Like my pastor, Father X?
Who are the Church Fathers, then? And why am I capitalizing that term?
The Church Fathers are those men who were most influential in developing Christian doctrine, and whose writings are considered to have a certain amount of authority. They're kind of a big deal, which is why you capitalize the term--think "Founding Fathers."
So is St. Thomas Aquinas a Church Father? He's a pretty big deal.
No, the term only applies to those who lived in the first several centuries of Christianity (though the Orthodox Church will use the term more broadly, e.g. calling Gregory Palamas, who lived after Aquinas, a Church Father, because he was so important).
Why only the first several centuries?
The idea is that at a certain point in the history of the Church, people sort of changed the way they did theology, moving away from certain methods of Scriptural exegesis to a more systematic approach which incorporated more frequently the authority of the Fathers themselves. Though the Fathers would refer to each other in the Patristic age (e.g. Cyril appeals to Athanasius, Maximos to Cyril, etc.), this became more commonplace later on.
When did the "Patristic age" begin and end?
Generally, we'd say it begins in the generation or two after the apostles, so that the earliest Fathers would be men like Pope St. Clement (ca. 90 AD) or St. Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 107 AD). These are the first men to be carrying on the apostolic tradition. The end of the Patristic period varies: the title "last of the Fathers" is usually given to St. John Damascene (8th century), though I've seen some people push it out as far as St. Bernard of Clairvaux (11th century).
What sort of "authority" do the Church Fathers have?
When some Johnny-come-lately heretic would crop up with a new theory on something, there would be those who stood up to say, "This is not in line with the faith we have always known and preached"--we later recognize these men as Church Fathers. The Fathers carried on the teachings of the apostles, assuring that Scripture would be read correctly and the Gospel preached in its integrity. Typically we'd say that if the Fathers agree on something, that's a pretty solid indication that it's right. It's not as though each of them were individually infallible or anything like that. But their combined witness to the Tradition of the Church carries a great deal of weight.
Who are some of the "big name" Church Fathers I might know?
Well, to start, there are eight that are usually regarded as pretty important: the "Four Great Western Fathers" St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory the Great; and the "Four Great Eastern Fathers" St. Athanasius, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus, and St. John Chrysostom. St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictine way of monasticism, is also fairly important, I'd say. But there are sure a lot of them!
So who are some of the others I should know?
Oh man... St. Anthony of the Desert, a huge influence for monasticism; St. Irenaeus of Lyons, a great defender of the faith against the Gnostics; St. Justin Martyr; Tertullian and Origen, who both sorta became heretics later (Tertullian, definitely), but who wrote some very important and influential works in their orthodox phases; St. Cyprian of Carthage; St. Hilary of Poitiers; St. Gregory of Nyssa; St. Cyril of Jerusalem; St. Cyril of Alexandria; St. Maximos the Confessor; too many to name!
Are there any Church Mothers?
Well, being that not a ton of women were educated in that time in that part of the world, and being that the Church Fathers tend to be clergy, and the Church has only male clergy, there weren't a lot of women who gained enough influence to garner such recognition. But there are a few who have been noted for their influence and holiness, such as St. Mary of the Desert, St. Macrina, and St. Scholastica.
Why are you so big on these guys?
I like studying the Church Fathers because of their proximity to the apostles, and their consciousness that they are carrying on the faith of the apostles in Jesus Christ. I like them because they developed the most important doctrines in the Christian faith: the Triune God and the nature of Christ. I like them because they treated the faith as a unified whole: in just one patristic homily you could find theological reflection on the Trinity, the sacraments, the nature of the Church, the need to serve the poor, and the meaning of the liturgy! I like them because of the beautiful way in which they find connections between the Old and New Testament--read Origen's homily on Genesis 22, and how the sacrifice of Isaac prefigures the sacrifice of Christ.
Anything else I should know?
That seems to suffice for now. Just go read them!