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The early Church Fathers fall into three basic categories: Apostolic Fathers, Pre-Nicene Fathers, and Post-Nicene Fathers. Like Clement of Rome, the church fathers of the apostolic age were contemporaries of the apostles and were likely taught by them, continuing the apostles’ own traditions and teachings. Linus mentioned in 2 Timothy 4:21 becomes Bishop of Rome, and Clement succeeds Linus. Thus, both Linus and Clement of Rome are considered the fathers of the apostles. However, the writings of Linus do not seem to have survived, while many of the writings of Clement of Rome did. By the beginning of the second century, the Apostolic Fathers had mostly disappeared, except for a few who were probably disciples of John, such as Polycarp. According to tradition, the apostle John died in Ephesus around AD 98.
The Pre-Nicaean Fathers are the Fathers after the Apostolic Fathers and before the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Men like Irenaeus, Ignatius, and Justin the Martyr were pre-Nicaean godfathers.
The Fathers after Nicaea are the Fathers after the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. These were men of such renown as Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, often called the Father of the [Roman Catholic] Church because of his great work on Church doctrine; Chrysostom, nicknamed the “The Mouth of Gold”; Eusebius wrote a history of the Church from the birth of Jesus to AD 324, the year before the Council of Nicaea. He is placed in the post-Nicaea era because he wrote his history after the Council of Nicaea. Other post-Nicene Fathers included Jerome, who translated the Greek New Testament into the Latin Vulgate, and Ambrose, who was largely responsible for Augustine’s conversion to Christianity.
So what did the early church fathers believe? The Apostolic Fathers were very much concerned with the proclamation of the Gospel as it was proclaimed by the apostles themselves. They were not interested in formulating theological teachings because the gospel they had learned from the apostles was enough for them. The Apostolic Fathers were as zealous as the apostles to root out and expose every false teaching that arose in the early church. The Apostolic Fathers wanted to be true to the Gospel the Apostles taught them, thus preserving the orthodoxy of the message.
The pre-Nicaean fathers also tried to be true to the gospel, but they had an additional concern. Several apocrypha now claim to be of equal importance to the accepted writings of Paul, Peter, and Luke. The reason for these falsified documents is obvious. If the body of Christ can be persuaded to accept false documents, error will spread into the church. As a result, the church fathers before Nicaea spent a great deal of time defending the Christian faith against false teachings, which led to the formation of accepted church teachings.
The post-Nicene fathers, whose mission was to defend the Gospel against all kinds of heresy, became more and more interested in methods of defending the Gospel and less and less interested in spreading the Gospel in its truer and purer forms. So they slowly started to break away from orthodoxy, which was the hallmark of the Apostolic Fathers. This is the age of theologians and endless discussions of secondary issues.