11.2.1 The Church Fathers and the ecumenical councils

In the year AD 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine (ca. AD 270/288, died 337) proclaimed freedom of religion for the Christians. In the years AD 380/381, the Christian religion became the state religion of the Roman Empire.


Before this time, many Christians had been persecuted and had lost their lives. What had begun with the stoning of Stephen grew into waves of persecution which made martyrs of many believers.


It was the concern of the Church Fathers to defend the Christian faith against both Gentiles and Jews, and to define the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. The early generation of these men were known as the "Apostolic Fathers". They included Clement of Rome (died ca. AD 100), Ignatius of Antioch (died ca. AD 115), Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (ca. AD 69, died ca. 155), and Papias of Hierapolis (ca. AD 70, died ca. 130/140).


Later generations of defenders of the faith (apologists) and witnesses to the apostolic tradition are known as the "Church Fathers". These include Ambrose of Milan (AD 339-397), Sophronius Eusebius Hieronymus (AD 347-420), and Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430). The doctrinal statements of these men had a decisive influence on Christian dogma.


Athanasius (ca. AD 295-373) was also among the teachers of the church. It was under his theological influence in the year AD 325 that the Nicene Creed was formulated. New Apostolic Christians also adhere to the tradition of this creed.


The essential contents of the Christian faith were ultimately defined over centuries of debate in various church councils. Although often convened under the influence of secular rulers, the councils still brought to expression–objectively and according to God's will–the content of the gospel. Viewed as a whole, the basic tenets of Christian doctrine were defined in these councils.