It seems that there are many contenders for the honor of the “last Father of the Church.”

One easy solution might be to draw the line after two of the most famous Fathers, St. Augustine and St. Jerome. One provided the foundation for most of the medieval Latin theology that followed. The other gave Latin Christendom an authoritative translation of the Bible in its then-native tongue. What more could be needed?

Augustine and Jerome died in the first part of the 400s and Rome fell in 476, so it’s tempting to draw the line there.

The problem is there are just too many too many indisputably recognized as Church Fathers who lived after 476. They include key figures like Cassiodorus, Boetius, St. Gregory the Great, and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a brilliantly original and influential thinker on par with Augustine. (At least St. Thomas Aquinas thought so.)

The question ends up being almost as much a matter of where as when. If you’re in the Christian East then a traditional answer is St. John Damascene, who lived to 749, and penned one of the first compendiums of theology. But if we’re talking about the West, then the title goes to St. Isidore of Seville, even though his death came more than a century earlier, in 636. (See, for example, Jimmy Akin’s treatment of this topic.)

But there are yet later contenders to the title. In the West, there is the Venerable Bede, who died in 735, a century after Isidore. Bede is often classified as a Father—St. Thomas Aquinas certainly considered him one, ranking him among the Fathers he surveyed for his anthology of patristic commentaries on the gospels, the Catena Aurea.

Even St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived in the 1100s, is sometimes considered ‘the last of the Fathers.’ An authority no less than Pope Benedict XVI called him that. Incredibly, another authoritative source pushes the cutoff point further ahead in time: the Patrologia Latina, an exhaustive compilation of all patristic texts in Latin produced in the mid-nineteenth century, extends all the way up to Pope Innocent III, who was about as medieval a pope as any. He presided over the Fourth Lateran Council and launched the Fourth Crusade. Innocent III was a contemporary of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic and died in 1216, nine years before St. Thomas Aquinas was born.

Is “Church Father” simply another name for any authoritative figure?

Not quite. To clarify matters, it helps to understand how the Church formally defines a “Father.”

Patristics scholar Hubertus Drobner outlines the following traditional criteria in his encyclopedia of patristics:

  1. Doctrina orthodoxa: Their theology as a whole had to be in agreement with the Church’s common teaching, which does not denote absolute inerrancy in every detail.
  2. Sanctitas vitae: Holiness in the sense of the ancient Church, in which the veneration of the saints was based not on explicit canonization but instead on the recognition and admiration of an exemplary life by the community of believers.
  3. Approbatio ecclesiae: The Church’s recognition, though not necessarily explicit, of the person and his teaching.
  4. Antiquitas: They have to belong to the period of the ancient Church. (The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction, 4).

This is a good start, but it doesn’t quite cover all the bases, as there are many later Church figures who meet at least the first three criteria. The Congregation for Catholic Education in its Instruction on the Study of the Fathers of the Church in the Formation of Priests provides some additional marks of a Father. For the authors of this document, a Father is someone who is a “privileged witness” of Church Tradition.

In particular, these four elements define a Father.

  1. Proximity to the sources of the faith. “They are closer to the sources in their purity,” the Congregation for Catholic Education says. For example, Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John who in turn mentored Irenaeus, the first systematic theologian of the Church and author of Against Heresies. That brings us to A.D. 202 in the timeline of the early Church.
  2. The foundation of the Church. “Historically, the age of the fathers is the period of some important firsts in the ecclesial order, the Congregation says.” That includes the first major ecumenical councils, the first creed, the first canon of the Old and New Testament, the first liturgies, the Congregation notes.
  3. The first to receive revelation. The Fathers were the first in Church history to receive and respond to the contents of revelation, particularly the Scriptures, according to the Congregation. Scripture truly does breathe with a special kind of liveliness in the works of the Father. Read the letters of Ignatius of Antioch and you will get a sense of the otherworldly thrill of what it was like to be a first-generation reader of the New Testament. Likewise for others like Irenaeus and Justin Martyr. Even the works of Augustine seem to glow with the original fire of Scripture.
  4. A distinctive method: The above three explain the fourth element, which is the distinctive literary style of the Fathers. This style emphasizes Scripture, reflects the influence of ancient Greco-Roman intellectual culture which repudiating its paganism, defends the truth of the faith against heresy, exudes a ‘sense of mystery and the experience of the divine,’ and richly blends theological speculation, exegesis, pastoral advice, and even prayer, according to the Congregation.

Contrast this with St. Thomas Aquinas. Certainly he does engage with Scripture directly, but he is also reading it through the lens of the Fathers, in particular Augustine. Aquinas was a man of deep devotion—something that it is particularly evidence in his Eucharistic hymns—but his devotional works generally speaking are separate from his theological ones. In the Middle Ages, classic devotional aids like The Imitation of Christ were a world away from the style of the Summa Theologiae, which reads much more like a textbook. Augustine’s treatise on the Trinity, on the other hand, moves seamlessly from philosophical speculation to biblical exegesis to prayer and spiritual direction.

To be clear, none of this is meant to be a knock against Aquinas. Part of what made him so great was that he was so steeped in the Fathers. But his style, historical setting, and role in the Church were utterly different from theirs.

The above elements help explain why the period of the Fathers lingered so late. Even figures who came much later than Augustine, like Maximus the Confessor and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, are unmistakably Fathers because of how they interacted Scripture and fused theological discourse with spiritual reflection. This is also why St. Bernard of Clairvaux is sometimes honored as the “last of the Fathers.” Even though he clearly falls out of the historical period, he preached and wrote as if he were a Father.