The Catholic Theologians and Theology


Great as was the in-rushing flood of heresies, the Church found against it a good defense. That defense consisted in the self-evidencing power of divine truth, propagating itself in the twofold channel of the written word and of tradition. At that time tradition was comparatively pure and vital: it embraced substantially the same contents as the New Testament, and indeed frequently served as a safeguard against arbitrary and capricious interpretations.

The Catholic writers of the period form several pretty clearly defined groups. First come the apostolic Fathers, including Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyma, Hermas, Papias, a certain Barnabas, the author of the epistle to Diognetus, and perhaps also the author of the recently discovered treatise, entitled “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” These writers were rather practical than speculative, more directly concerned with conduct than with dogma. Still, their productions are of no small doctrinal worth. Clement of Rome claims our special interest, as having written very near the apostolic age, if not indeed within its bounds. According to Eusebius, he presided over the Church of Rome from A.D. 92 to 101. [Hist. Eccl., iii. 34.] His proximity to the apostles, as well as his distinguished position as head of the Roman Church, explains the fact that his name was so largely employed for the recommending of heretical and spurious writings. But we have from him one writing, a somewhat lengthy epistle to the Corinthians, which is undoubtedly genuine. The identity of Clement with the Flavius Clemens who was put to death by Domitian is not at all probable, since early writers could hardly have failed to note the fact had it existed. More may be said in favor of the theory that he was the fellow-laborer mentioned by Paul (Phil. iv. 3); but there is no adequate ground for a positive verdict. The epistle of Clement breathes a fine spirit, and gives excellent advice to the Corinthian brethren for the healing of their party strifes. Ignatius, who has already been introduced to us in the history of martyrdom, was the author of seven epistles, which are noteworthy, among other things, for the emphatic view of the episcopal dignity which they inculcate. The fact that the epistles appear in different versions, a longer and a shorter Greek, and also a Syriac version of three of them, has given occasion to a prolonged canvassing of the Ignatian literature. The weight of authority seems finally to be decidedly in favor of the shorter Greek version. The spuriousness of the other epistles, eight in number, attributed to Ignatius, is matter of common consent. Polycarp, who has also been brought to our notice in the records of martyrdom, wrote an epistle to the Philippians. Barnabas, whose name is attached to an epistle, was an early writer; but his fanciful allegorizing of the Old Testament, and headlong dealing with the law, forbid the supposition that he was Paul's distinguished companion of the same name. Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, a friend and contemporary of Polycarp, is introduced to us chiefly by a few fragments quoted by early writers from his work entitled “Explanation of the Lord's Discourses.” Hermas, the supposed author of “The Pastor of Hermas,” a work that enjoyed great esteem in the early Church, is mentioned by the Canon of Muratori as the brother of the Roman bishop Pious, who entered upon his office toward the middle of the second century. Beyond this, history offers no definite testimony. Some, indeed, have concluded, from the reference of Hermas to a certain Clement, [Vision, ii. 4.] that he wrote as early as the time of the Roman Clement; but it is neither certain that the reference is to the Roman bishop, nor, if it were, that it implies that he was still living. In a writing of this class, it is surely quite conceivable that the author may have chosen to lay the scene a little apart from his actual surroundings. There is no warrant for great positiveness respecting the date. As to the merits of the production, it must be granted that it is not specially rich in content; still, it is interesting as being so early a specimen of that order of composition in which the genius of Bunyan has been immortalized. Under the form of vision or allegorical representations it inculcates a somewhat ascetic type of piety.

The topic of a preceding section has already given us occasion to mention the next group of writers, the apologists of the second century. A number of these, as was dictated by their philosophical training, as well as by the task of defending Christianity, made a noteworthy advance in the direction of dogmatic construction. Here belong in particular Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Theophilus. The name of Tatian might also be added, since he occupied a Catholic standpoint at the time that he wrote his “Address to the Greeks.” The works of Justin Martyr are of considerable compass, and afford important evidence as to current beliefs. The most important are the two Apologies and the Dialogue with Trypho. The genuineness of these three is beyond dispute. Among other writings attributed to Justin, “The Address to the Greeks,” “The Sole Government [or unity] of God,” and a treatise on the Resurrection may have been from his hand. Athenagoras, a converted philosopher of Athens, is known to us by two writings, his “Plea for Christians” and his “Defence of the Resurrection.” Both are superior works in style and content. Athenagoras was one of the most finished writers of the second century. From Theophilus, a scholarly bishop of Antioch, we have a single apologetic composition, addressed to a heathen acquaintance by the name of Autolycus.

From the latter part of the second century to the latter part of the third, a conspicuous place among Eastern theologians was filled by the Alexandrian school, --a school distinguished by its broad, eclectic, and idealistic bent. Its principal representatives were Pantænus, Clement, Origen, and Dionysius. From the hand of the first, who was a converted Stoic philosopher, only a few fragments are extant. The principal works which have come down to us from Clement are “The Exhortation to the Greeks,” “The Educator,” and “ The Stromata,” or Miscellanies. Though mixed and desultory in their method, even beyond the average of patristic literature, the writings of Clement are of high interest and worth. They show broad learning, and contain many a gleam of philosophic insight as well as of noble sentiment. Origen was the most fertile writer of the ante-Nicene Church. Aside from his extensive labors on the text of the Old Testament, he wrote commentaries on the major part of the Bible, a system of theology entitled “De Principiis,” and an extended apology in answer to the attack of Celsus against Christianity. Early writers refer also to numerous other writings from his pen which are no longer extant. In many points, Origen made noteworthy contributions to Christian thought. At the same time, he was a daring pioneer, and occasionally pushed out into speculations which had no sufficient basis in revelation. Dionysius, a disciple of Origen, was a writer of more than average strength and fruitfulness; but only fragments of his works remain. Among those who affiliated with the Alexandrian school as disciples, friends, or admirers of Origen, a prominent place belongs to Gregory Thaumaturgus, Bishop of Neo-Cæsarea in Pontus; Pamphilus, a presbyter and theological teacher at Cæsarea in Palestine; and Julius Africanus, the first Christian chronographer. Methodius, on the other hand, figures as the first conspicuous censor of Origen's teachings.

Among those who labored and wrote on Western soil, two of the most eminent--namely, Irenæus and Hippolytus—were of Eastern birth; at least, such was the case with the former, and in all probability it was the same with the latter. Irenæus, Bishop of Lyons (178-202), and author of an extensive work, “Against Heresies,” is commended to us in general by his moderation and clear judgment, both as an administrator and as a theologian. Hippolytus, reputed to have been Bishop of Portus Romanus, [A tradition to this effect is found in the seventh century.] and in any case a resident of Rome or its neighborhood, is celebrated as the author of a learned work entitled “Philosophumena,” or Refutation of all Heresies.” Many other treatises also were written by him, the majority of which have failed to be transmitted. He was probably the most learned writer of the era in the West. It is evident from the “Philosophumena'' that he belonged to the party of rigorists on the subject of Church discipline, and was deeply dissatisfied with the policy of the bishops of Rome; but there is hardly ground for the conclusion that he anticipated the schism of Novatian, and became actually a separatist. [Döllinger, in his Hippolytus and Kallistus, has defended the view that Hippolytus was not Bishop of Portus, but rather a schismatic bishop of Rome. A presentation of the counter-view is given by Bishop Wordsworth, St. Hippolytus and the Church of Rome (2d edition, 1880).]

Tertullian, who leads the train of Latin Fathers proper, left the impress of his remarkable energy and genius upon a long list of writings. Among those having the greatest dogmatic import are the works entitled “Against Marcion,” “Against Praxeas,” “On the Præscription against Heretics,” “On the Soul.” Minucius Felix, a contemporary of Tertullian, is brought to our attention by his skilful and attractive apology entitled “Octavius.” Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (248-258), like other great administrators, made his most valuable contribution to Christian literature in the form of epistles. Novatian, the schismatic bishop of Rome in the time of Cyprian, was the author of a treatise on the Trinity. He is to be reckoned among Catholic writers, notwithstanding his schismatic position, since he was as orthodox in his general teaching as the majority of his contemporaries. From Commodian, who wrote near the middle of the third century, we have two religious poems, which contain some rather peculiar notions respecting the Antichrist. Amobius is known by his apology, which, as already intimated, was more pungent in its attack against heathen errors, than discreet in its presentation of Christian truth. [A full and valuable account ot the patristic literature of the period may be seen in Schaff's Church History, vol, ii.]

In many details these representatives of the Catholic theology no doubt differed widely from each other; yet it is manifest that there must have been an extensive consensus on the fundamental tenets of Christianity, for otherwise the flood of heresies would have met no such effectual breakwater as it actually did encounter.

In the reply to heresy, three sources of evidence were adduced, --Scripture, apostolic tradition, and reason. The refutation of Monarchianism was conducted mainly on the basis of Scripture. This was natural, since the Monarchians in general were at one with the Catholic writers in their view of the sacred canon. In dealing with Gnostics, on the other hand, inasmuch as they made free to reject large parts of the Scriptures, or to spirit away their sense by the most far-fetched allegorizing, it was found necessary to lay much stress upon apostolic tradition. The churches, it was claimed, which could show an unbroken succession of bishops reaching back to the apostles, were to be presumed to have the true understanding of the apostolic teaching. At the same time, those portions of the canon which the Gnostics accepted were utilized to prove their obligation to acknowledge the rejected portions. The fantastic conceits of the Gnostics were also severely criticised, as being contrary to all sober reason, a confused medley of notions stolen from the various heathen philosophies. Jewish heresy proper received little attention. By most writers it was rather stated than combated. After the middle of the second century, it was evidently considered an insignificant factor.

Reference has been made to the favorable attitude of some of the fathers toward the classic philosophy. Platonism in particular was awarded an appreciative attention. Stoicism, though less regarded, made some impression, and Neo-Platonism was increasingly influential in the latter part of the period. But in no case were the Catholic fathers conscious of making philosophy co-ordinate with the gospel. Their comments upon the fragmentary character of the Greek wisdom indicate the vast superiority which they attached to the prophetical and apostolic teaching. Philosophy, nevertheless, was a considerable factor in the minds of these early theologians. While it gave them no main tenet, it supplied very largely an incentive to speculative thought, and colored the exposition of various doctrines.

As respects the content of the Catholic theology, it will suffice here to indicate its trend, the full treatment of the subject being left to the history of Christian doctrine. In such a formative era, we should not expect to find very thorough dogmatic construction, or great definiteness in belief. Still, in every department of theology there were ideals, more or less clearly defined, which commanded the allegiance of the great body of Christians. As respects the subject of the Trinity, the Catholic Church -- by which is meant the great body of Christians of that age who were in communion with each other [We observe here, once for all, that in this work we never use the word “Catholic” as the equivalent of “Roman Catholic.”] —acknowledged Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, understanding under these terms pre-temporal, personal, and permanent distinctions in the Godhead. Much less attention was given to the doctrine of the Spirit than to that of the Son. In the attempt to formulate the latter, some theologians were guilty of defects, judging them by later standards of the Church. The image, nevertheless, of Christ which was before the minds of Catholic Christians was that of a being of divine essence and dignity. As respects Christology, the Church acknowledged in general terms the co-existence of the divine and the human in Christ. On the subject of anthropology, it held substantially the teachings which have remained current in the Greek Church, — teachings less radical, as concerns the results of the fall and the natural depravity of men, than those which were afterwards adopted in the Latin Church through the influence of Augustine. No Catholic writer ignored free agency or advocated unconditional election. The subject of soteriology, or redemption, was not very thoroughly developed; still, the germs of subsequent theories were supplied by various writers. Tribute was paid to the all-sufficient mediation of Christ, to the vicarious sacrifice consummated in His death, to the ethical worth of His obedience, to the salutary power of the truth which He exemplified, and to the restraint which He imposed upon evil spirits; not to mention the strange notion of Origen, that His soul was given as a redemptive price for the release of the captives of Satan. As respects eschatology, millenarian views were more widely prevalent than has been the case at any subsequent era in the history of the Church.

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