From the account given of pre-Christian systems of speculation it
should be evident that philosophy, like every other department of human
thought and human activity, is continuous in its growth. In
philosophical speculation there is no possibility of breaking
completely with the past, and so the philosophy of the first Christian
writers was connected in its origin with the systems that preceded it.
These writers took whatever truth the older systems contained and made
it part of their own theory of reality, rejecting whatever contradicted
the teachings of faith or whatever could not bear the light of reason
reenforced by the light of revelation. From the beginning, however, the
rationalizing spirit of which mention has been made, began to assert
itself in a tendency on the part of some Christian writers to
subordinate revelation to the teachings of pagan philosophy. It was
from this tendency that the heretical systems sprang. At the same time,
the religious spirit, working in the minds of the orthodox exponents of
the teachings of Christianity, led them to place high above all human
speculation the authority of Christ and His Church, although they did
not reject the philosophy of the pagan world, but made use of it in
their expositions of revealed truth. Writers of this class are the true
philosophers of the early Christian era. On account of the influence
which they exerted on succeeding generations, they are styled the Fathers, or
spiritual progenitors of the Church's theology and philosophy. The
orthodox Patristic philosophers are to be subdivided according as they
undertook merely to defend Christianity against the misconceptions and
calumnies of paganism, or sought to establish a positive system of
Christian speculation. The Apologists, as the former are called, belong
chiefly to the period of intellectual struggle which preceded the great
Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325). The constructive thinkers of the Patristic
period belong, for the most part, to the post-Nicene age.
It will, therefore, be convenient to study:
I. Heretical Systems.
II. Ante-Nicene Fathers.
III. Post-Nicene Fathers.
For description of collections of Sources, cf. Bardenhewer,
Patrologie (Freiburg im B., 1894), pp. 14 ff.; Fessler-Jungmann,
Institutiones Patrologiae (2 vols., Innsbruck, 1890), pp. xi ff.
and 100 ff.; Schmid, Manual of Patrology, trans. by Schobel (St.
Louis, 1899), pp. 21 ff.