The term "Early Church Fathers" is often heard when discussing the history of Christianity. The bishops and theologians who have left writings to us and are honored with this title extend for centuries from the time of Christ, even into the 8th century to St. John Damascene, who is often considered to be the last of the Early Church Fathers.
Protestants might quote St. Augustine but they tend to dismiss the Early Church Fathers as being so far removed from Biblical times as to be unreliable, compromised by human tradition and centuries of gradual corruption in doctrine. However, being a Christian while rejecting the authority of Sacred Tradition is skating on thin ice because this is the very authority that fixed in place the doctrine of the Trinity and the canon of the New Testament, as I have shown previously:
Just for the sake of discussion though, let's agree that without Sacred Tradition it is reasonable to think that unreliable traditions of men could seep into Church teaching over time. Protestants need this to be true to justify their separation from the historical Church with apostolic succession. It basically goes without saying that if a Christian lived in Rome in 60 AD, he should be in full communion with St. Peter and St. Paul; most Protestants could agree with that idea.
The key is what happened to the Church after the apostles, and this leads us into the Early Church Fathers.
So, let's ask the question: How Early Are The Early Church Fathers?
Interestingly, the answer to this question is somewhat different today than it was during the 1500s, when the Protestant revolt exploded. The earliest writings we have now are even EARLIER. They are so early that one very important letter was authored and distributed while the apostle John was still ALIVE!
This lengthy epistle was written from the Church of Rome around 96 AD to the very same Corinthian community that St. Paul had been writing to a generation earlier. This letter had been known from antiquity but was assumed to be lost by scholars in the West during the 1500s. The complete copy was rediscovered in 1873 by an Orthodox scholar digging around manuscripts in a library in Constantinople (Istanbul). In the context of Church history, this discovery from 1873 is like breaking news!
The full letter can be found here:
The author is Clement of Rome, also known as Pope St. Clement I, the third successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome! With this letter, we may consider him to be the EARLIEST Church Father. The letter was so well received that St. Dionysius, the Bishop of Corinth around 170 AD, reports that it was read in the liturgy!
Needless to say, the Early Church Fathers begin very early, indeed. There was no time for doctrine to be gradually corrupted, because St. Clement was personally ordained by St. Peter and may even be mentioned as a co-worker of St. Paul in the New Testament (see Philippians 4:3). In addition, we have the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch and St. Polycarp, both taught by the apostle John. These men have been universally revered throughout Church history and their feast days can be found on the Church calendar.
Up until about 150 AD, Church Fathers are known as the Apostolic Fathers. Many Christians during their time had actually known an apostle. The principle of the private interpretation of Scripture, the foundation of Protestantism, was obviously not in practice at this time! This is one reason why Protestantism is NOT like the Early Church!
The writings of the Apostolic Fathers can give us great insight into the early Church. Let's look at just one passage from the famous epistle of Pope St. Clement I to Corinth. Keep in mind the Protestant idea that anyone who privately believes in Jesus is as fully a part of the "flock of Christ" as anyone else. Does this sound like what St. Clement says to those who had rebelled against Church authorities in Corinth?
You therefore, who laid the foundation of this sedition, submit yourselves to the presbyters, and receive correction so as to repent, bending the knees of your hearts. Learn to be subject, laying aside the proud and arrogant self-confidence of your tongue. For it is better for you that you should occupy a humble but honourable place in the flock of Christ, than that, being highly exalted, you should be cast out from the hope of His people.