The Patristic Age, 100-800







Guide to Early Church Documents




THEME: In the Age of the Church Fathers (patristic from the Latin, pater, for father) leaders in the early Church established doctrines that defined Christian orthodoxy and developed institutions that shaped Christianity for its second millennium.  In this time Christianity went from being a sometimes persecuted minority religion to being  the established church of the Roman Empire by the end of the 4th century.  
bulletSelection of Patristic Texts

OVERVIEW: By the second century, with the End Time apparently delayed indefinitely, Christianity began to move towards more structure in reaction to growing controversies over how to understand the Christ of faith.  The result:

bulletClerical order of bishops, priests, deacons
bulletCanon of acceptable scripture
bulletCreeds defining the essential  points of doctrine


bulletA hierarchical church structure with clergy headed by bishops
bulletA bible divided into the Jewish books (Old Testament) and a collection of Christian literature (New Testament) containing four gospels and other writings.
bulletA theology founded on two distinctive doctrines:
bulletIncarnation: Jesus was the eternal Son of God (Logos) who took human flesh by being born  of Mary, his mother.  Jesus Christ is, therefore, both fully God and fully man
bulletTrinity:  God is defined as being of one "Substance",  a community of knowing and loving among three "Persons" (Father [unbegotten], Son [begotten], and Holy Spirit [proceeding from the Father through the Son]) . 
bulletPiety  based on the theology of Incarnation and its Christology
bullet Didache
bullet The Lord's Supper
bulletThe Calendar of Christian Festivals
bulletDistinction between Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) Christianity leading early in the second millennium to a schism producing two separate Church branches, one centered in Constantinople and the other in  Rome.
bulletMajor Eastern "Fathers"
bulletBasil the  Great
bulletGregory of Nazianzus
bulletJohn Chrysostom
bulletMajor Western "Fathers"
bulletCyprian of Carthage
bulletAugustine (most important)
bulletGregory the Great
bulletAdaptation to other cultures: Expansion through conversion of different peoples (German tribes in the West; Slavic tribes in the East) whose distinctive cultures mixed with the classical Greco-Roman heritage to produce the  synthesis of a new  European Christian culture. 





Persecution and Martyrdom

Pliny the Younger


Certificate of Sacrifice


St. Perpetua


From the End of Persecution to the Establishment of the Christian Empire

Union of Church and State (“Constantinian Constitution”)


Formulating faith for the masses: The Age of Great Councils

Creeds and Canons


Escape to Sanctity – from desert fathers to Monasticism


Differences between East and West

5th Century: Barbarians shatter western defenses


Rise of the Bishop of Rome as imperial authority wanes in  the West    


Converting the Barbarians


Theological Conflicts & Emergence of Orthodoxy

Major Heresies 

Gnosticism: A complex movement with pre-Christian roots in Pagan thought; its central idea is that special Gnosis (knowledge) about God and the origin and destiny of human kind would redeem the spiritual in human nature. 

Valentinus (Egyptian who lived in Rome c. 136- c. 165). For more information click on the Valentinian tradition. 


Marcion (Native of Pontus, arrived in Rome c. 140; excommunicated in 144; died c. 160. He rejected the Old Testament, teaching that the God of Genesis was not Christ's Father, the God of Love. His scriptural canon was only the ten epistles of Paul and an edited form of Luke's Gospel.  Click here for Marcion's Gospel. His Christology was Docetic.


Arianism (Arius, c. 250-c. 336) Denied the divinity of Christ, teaching that the Son of God was not eternal but created by the Father from nothing as an instrument for the creation of the world. Condemned at the Council of Nicea, 325.


Monophysitism: Doctrine that in Christ there was only one divine nature 

Apollinarius (c. 310-c. 390)


Eutyches (c. 378-454)


Nestorianism (Nestorius, Constantinople from 428-431) Doctrine that in Christ there were  two separate human and divine persons

bulletMonarchianism: Trinity is Three Names for the Single Aspect of God
bulletPatripassianism: God the Father Incarnated Himself & Was Jesus Christ



Other Heresies:

Donatism: the first church schism rather than a heresy; in North Africa, they refused to recognize the sacramental actions of bishops who had lapsed during the Diocletian persecution.  By extension, their position held that the sacramental actions of clergy who were sinners had no efficacy. 


Docetism: less a heresy than a tendency to see the humanity and suffering of Jesus as apparent rather than real. Some believed that Jesus was saved from death miraculously. 

bulletManicheanism: Dual, Co-Eternal Spirits (Good/Bad, Spiritual/Worldly)
bulletPelagianism:  "Original" Sin is Not Inherent in Humanity

bulletCatholic/Orthodox Doctrine: The Fathers honed their understanding in reaction to these movements to explain Christ and his relationship to God. 
bulletThe  Cosmic Christ [JP: chap. 5]
bulletLogos and the Rationality of the Cosmos
bullet The Son of Man:  Incarnation & Christian View of Human Nature
MN: 3
, JP: 6; B: Romans, chaps. 6-7:14-23; X: Augustine on Trinity; Chrysostrom’s Homilies on Ephesians; Augustine’s Sermon on Romans
bulletDevelopment of Orthodoxy: Councils
bulletNicea, 325 CE
bulletConstantinople, 381 CE
bulletEphesus, 431 CE
bulletChalcedon, 451 CE (reverses Ephesus)
bulletDevelopment of Orthodoxy: Issues
bulletTriune Nature of God
bulletJesus’ Divinity
bulletJesus’ Humanity
bulletWork of the Holy Spirit
bulletVirgin Birth
bulletJesus’ Suffering
bulletJesus’ Death
bulletJesus’ Resurrection
bulletResurrection of the Dead
bulletSecond Coming
bulletKingdom of God
bulletApostolic Authority
bulletDevelopment of Orthodoxy: Authority
bulletScriptural Authority: Established Canon
bulletDoctrinal Authority: Official Creed
bulletAdministrative Authority: Church Structure

bulletExpansion of Christianity & Cultural Encounters
bullet Appropriation of Classical Culture [JP: chap. 3]
bulletIncorporation of Germanic and Slavic Cultures [OC: chap. 2(92-105)]
bulletConversion of Northern Tribes in the West
bullet missions.jpg (75529 bytes)   Click this thumbnail for a map of major missions to: 
bulletAngles and Danes
bulletCelts (Welsh,  Irish, Scots)
bulletEnglish ("The way in which Christianity brought the Northern nations into an international Europe was illustrated here [England]" OC, p. 99)
bulletIncorporation of Folk Cultures into Christianity
bulletAdvice of Pope Gregory the Great to Augustine of Canterbury (c. 596)
bulletThe Gospel and Cultural Diversity



Early Christian Iconography [Slide Presentation]
Development of Christian Expression from Greco-Roman to Byzantine Art

Click on the thumbnails in this tour for large images.

Early Christianity and the Absorption of  Classical Cultural Traditions 
dureup1.jpg (85746 bytes)  Synagogue in Dura-Europas (Turkey). Note the decorative Roman-style wall painting depicting biblical scenes despite the Jewish tradition against the use of images. 
catcom.jpg (53557 bytes) Catacomb in Rome shows Roman style wall painting over a mid-4th Century sarcophagus
orant.jpg (71276 bytes) Orant (a figure in the typical posture of prayer) between shepherds and sheep in a late 3rd century Roman catacomb. Another example of Roman wall painting technique. 
jc_laz.jpg (54103 bytes) Wall painting off Jesus raising Lazarus (in a late 3rd century catacomb). Note the use of Roman painting style as well as clothing. Jesus is presented as a young Roman. 
death.jpg (60972 bytes) Depiction of Christ's tomb as a traditional Roman mausoleum; the three Marys look like Roman matrons; Christ rising from the dead to grasp his Father's hand in heaven is depicted as a Roman heroic youth. 
c. 400 C. E.
mem1.jpg (23171 bytes) Sarcophagus in classical Roman style with Christian motifs: Jonah cast from the whale prefigures Christ's resurrection, orant figure next to a seated philosopher, a symbol of wisdom in Roman funerary art. 
mem2.jpg (24575 bytes) Peacock, a Roman symbol of eternity because their flesh was supposed to be incorruptible, with vines (frequently on Roman tombs) along with the Chi Rho, the first Greek letters in Christ's name. 
grapes.jpg (92254 bytes) This detail of mosaic from a vault in the Church of Santa Constanza in Rome incorporates pagan symbols (grapes from the Bacchic cult) into  Christian symbols.
jonah1.jpg (150832 bytes)  
jonah2.jpg (167436 bytes)  
jcorph.jpg (83587 bytes)  
jcappol.jpg (105492 bytes)  



shep.jpg (102995 bytes) Good Shepherd: This is the most common early Christian image. It draws on the traditional depiction of Hermes often shown with a sheep on his shoulders. This mosaic is from mid 5th century Ravenna in Italy. 
jcteach.jpg (103512 bytes) Teacher: This detail from mosaic in St. Pudenziana in early 5th-century Rome  shows Christ teaching the apostles
jcpp.jpg (94630 bytes) Law Giver: This mosaic from the apse of Santa Constanza in Rome shows Christ standing on a rock giving the Law to Peter and Paul. 
mem3.jpg (7929 bytes) Lamb of God (Agnus Dei):, symbol of sacrifice with the Chi Rho and cross on which sits a dove of peace. 
judge.jpg (118036 bytes) Judge: Christ separates the sheep from the goats in an early 6th-century mosaic from Ravenna, the Church of Appolinare Nuovo. 
Pantokrator (The Sovereign of All): This image of the Cosmic Christ became most widely used. Note in the following examples the style of icon painting that came to characterize Eastern (Byzantine) Christian art. 
maxzoe.gif (130477 bytes) Pantokrator: Greek mosaic in Hagia  Sophia, Constantinople , showing Christ the All Sovereign, pictured enthroned with the book of life in one hand, the other hand raised in blessing. He is flanked by the Emperor and Empress Constantine IX Monomachus and Zoe (1028-1042). 
pantoka.jpg (121147 bytes) Pantokrator: Mosaic, 1100, Monastery Church at Daphni, Greece.


pankt2.jpg (36601 bytes) Pantokrator: Russian icon, 16th century
pankt.jpg (62216 bytes) Pantokrator: Russian icon, 17th century
jesu.jpg (19037 bytes) Pantokrator
pantok.jpg (81608 bytes) Pantokrator
Cultural Diversity and the Gospel
copt.jpg (46271 bytes) Coptic Saint Menas with Christ holding the book of life (as in the Pantokrator image) in one hand and Menas' shoulder with the other. This 6th century painting from Egypt pictures the connection between Christ and the Coptic people. Note how Christ is depicted as with Coptic features.
pantkfrk.jpg (97978 bytes) Pantokrator in Frankish style. Note Christ with Frankish characteristics (reddish blond hair etc.) This image is from a cover of the Gospels. (Godescale Evangelistum, 781-83)
kells1.jpg (56380 bytes) Celtic: Cover for the Gospel of Matthew in the Book of Kells, late 8th or early 9th century. 
kells2.jpg (59752 bytes) Book of Kells, Gospel of Matthew, Title Page, detail of typical elaborate  illumination in the Celtic style



bullet The Christian Empire [OC: chap. 2 (58-70) or , MN: chap. 5)]
bulletKing of Kings Image (JP: chap. 4 )
bulletFoundations of Christian Political and Social Theory
: Part I, Section III (Church and State)
bullet(n & o) Constantine’s Support
bullet(u) Theodosius I, on Catholic and Heretic
bullet Eusebius
bullet Augustine, Letter, City of God excerpt.
bulletCaesaropapism: (The monarch has supreme control over the Church within his domains, exercising authority even over doctrine. It most generally refers to the authority of the Byzantine emperors over the Church and the Patriarch of Constantinople.)


Foundational Myth of Traditional Christianity 

Major Elements of the Christian Myth

bulletFall of Man and  Sin
bulletIncarnation of the Logos
bulletParousia/Second Coming
bulletBasileia/Kingdom of God

Consecration of Nature

bulletSacramental System
bulletChurch as the Body of Christ

Consecration of Time

bulletSacred History
bulletScriptural Cycle
bulletLiturgical Year
bulletPopular Cults

Patristic Age Key Events 
(This color denotes secular events)
As this page is develop, some of these events will have links to on-line resources.)

c107 Ignatius of Antioch martyred

150 Justin Martyr’s First Apology

172 Montanist Movement begins 

180 Irenaeus writes Against Heresies

196 Tertullian begins writing

230 Earliest known public churches built

248 Cyprian elected bishop of Carthage

250 Decius orders empire-wide persecution

270 Anthony takes up life of solitude

303 Diocletian begins “Great Persecution” and abdicates in 305

312 Constantine wins battle of Milvian Bridge

313 Constantine's Edict of Milan
Donatist Schism begins

325 Council of Nicea

328 Constantinople founded

358 Basil the Great founds monastic community

367 Athanasius’ Letter defines the New Testament Canon

379- 395 Reign of Emperor Theodosius I (the Great). Defeated and pacified the Goths; founded the orthodox Christian State; Arianism and other heresies outlawed, Pagan sacrifice forbidden, paganism restrained. After his death the Empire was divided East and West for his sons.

381 Christianity made state religion

386 Augustine's conversion; [born 354, died 430]

395 Empire divided between East and West for Theodorius' sons.

405 Jerome Complete Vulgate

410 ALARIC'S VISIGOTHS SACK ROME; Roman troops leave Britain, leaving it open to invasion from Germany and Scandinavia
410 Augustine writes City of God

431 Council of Ephesus. Called by Theodosius II to settle the Nestorian controversy. 

432 Patrick begins mission to Ireland

440-461 Leo I,  Bishop of Rome

451 Council of Chalcedon reverses Ephesus

527-565 Emperor Justinian (The Justinian Age) reconquers Italy and North Africa; issues the Justinian Code of Roman law, a revision of Theodosius' Code.

540 Benedict Writes Monastic Rule

563 Columba starts mission community in Iona

590-604  Gregory I (the  Great) Bishop of Rome

597 Augustine, sent by Gregory I, converts Saxon king of Kent (England)

622 Muhammad’s Hegira (flight to Medina), birth or Islam

638-56 Arabs (Islam) conquer Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Egypt

664 Celtic and Roman churches joined at Council of Whitby in England

711-16 Arabs (Islam) conquer Spain

719-754 Boniface's mission to Germans

726-843 Iconoclast Controversy in Eastern Church

732 BATTLE OF TOURS, Arabs driven back from France by Charles Martel

737 2nd Council of Nicea settles Icon controversy; resistance continues to 843

800 Charlemagne crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome




Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the  Roman Empire, A.D. 100-400 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984) Excellent brief (120 pp) study of the early expansion of Christianity and the processes of conversion.

Robert Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990) A  study of the changes that transformed the intellectual and spiritual horizons of the Christian world from its establishment in the 4th century to the end of the sixth century.  This provides a first-rate context for understanding  the changing perspectives of the Fathers. Markus examines such topics as: the cult of the martyrs, the creation of ideas of sacred space and sacred time,  and the appeal of asceticism.  This book traces the shift from Ancient Christianity (with its diverse secular culture) to a more Medieval biblically based Christianity that became the foundation of Christendom.

Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Vintage Books, 1989) 150-page discussion of the controversies among the Fathers over issues of sin, sexuality, and freedom. Written in a lively style, it subjects Augustine and the tradition he founded on the connection between original sin, human sexuality, and behavior to heavy criticism.