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I've seen a number of questions recently edited, by well-meaning people, to ask "What did Church Fathers say about...?" We also have some older questions along the same vein.

Is this meaningful? It strikes me that it's not. It seems to me that "Church Fathers" is another, meaninglessly, vague description, which adds only the illusion of scope.

Other similar "illusions of scope" I've seen:

What do conservative Christians believe about...
Do any notable theologians say...
What does the average Christian think...

Which are all fundamentally the same as:

What do Christians say...

The meaning of every one of these "illusory scope" words depends on the view of who's asking: Who is "conservative"? Who is "notable?" Who is a "theologian"? Who is "average"? Who is "Christian"?

So finally, if this qualifier is to be meaningful: Who is a "Church father?"

Comments on this question point to Wikipedia, but Wikipedia in turn offers a very vague definition of Church fathers, even including some heretics, and offering multiple possible lists of Church Fathers. Is this sufficient for question scope?

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Like any label, church fathers is imprecise, but I'd argue that it's more precise than some of the others you called out ("conservative," "notable," etc.).

To me the Wikipedia definition is pretty straight forward: Christian theologians from the 7th century or earlier whose writings significantly affected orthodox Christianity. Such a definition might seem to include weasel words ("significantly," "orthdox"), but realistically there isn't much debate on particular people except a few:

  • Tertullian (heretical later in life)
  • Origen (some heretical views)
  • John of Damascus (d. 749, so sometimes considered too late)

To me, that's not bad. The debated membership list would be ten times longer if we were talking about Reformed theologians, for example, and hundreds of times longer if we were discussing "conservative" theologians.

Of course, there will always be people who don't understand what church fathers actually means. If someone uses "church fathers" to refer to John Calvin or Thomas Aquinas or Joseph Smith, that's not the label's fault. In such cases the misunderstanding will quickly become evident and can be corrected. Making the tag excerpt more specific might be helpful as well.

Thus, I think the label can often be applied without issue:

  • Do any church fathers express the view that...?
  • Which church father first used the phrase...?
  • What is an overview of church father exegesis of this passage?

That said, some "church father" questions will not work here. In particular, asking "what do the church fathers think about..." is often going to be quite broad. There are a lot of church fathers, and without narrowing the question by asking for an overview or specifying an era (apostolic/early/later), or even a particular individual, such questions can certainly be considered for closure for being "too broad," even if we agree that the label church fathers doesn't require an "unclear what you are asking" vote.

  • Thanks for your answer. I'm having difficult discerning if your answer boils down to "Church Fathers" being specific enough, or not specific enough. You seem to be saying a bit of both--and maybe that's what you mean, depending on the particular question. I wonder if you might clarify that just a bit, though? – Flimzy Apr 16 '16 at 22:10
  • 1
    The prototype is clear and consistently used, even if there are a few edge cases, so I think the term is perfectly fine to use. – curiousdannii Apr 17 '16 at 0:34
  • @Flimzy Updated; hopefully this makes more sense. – Nathaniel is protesting Apr 17 '16 at 1:11
  • Thanks for the clarification. – Flimzy Apr 17 '16 at 16:53
  • So if I understand your stand, these questions should be accepted: 1, 2, 3 ("Did [any] church fathers think...?" questions) – Flimzy Apr 17 '16 at 16:56
  • But these are too broad: 1, 2, 3. Am I understanding correctly? If so, I think I agree with you. – Flimzy Apr 17 '16 at 16:57
  • @Flimzy I'd say in your first group, #1 is borderline too broad, #2 is fine as far as the church fathers part goes, but perhaps too broad when the OT is added in, and #3 is fine. In your second group, #1 should be updated to ask for an overview, after which it would be okay, #2 probably needs to be reverted to its original state and closed as unclear, or have its title updated to match the last line (do any affirm...), and #3 could be updated to include "any" (it's in the question body), but its current title is probably too broad. – Nathaniel is protesting Apr 17 '16 at 19:45
  • @Flimzy As a complement to this answer: there is a whole branch of study called "Patristics" (as well as the "Patristicum" in Rome) As Nathaniel points out, there is very little debate about who the Church Fathers are. The phrase is only ambiguous if understood as a generic turn of phrase. – brianpck Apr 20 '16 at 22:10

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