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§ 160. A General Estimate of the Fathers.
As Christianity is primarily a religion of divine facts, and a new moral creation, the literary and scientific element in its history held, at first, a secondary and subordinate place. Of the apostles, Paul alone received a learned education, and even he made his rabbinical culture and great natural talents subservient to the higher spiritual knowledge imparted to him by revelation. But for the very reason that it is a new life, Christianity must produce also a new science and literature; partly from the inherent impulse of faith towards deeper and clearer knowledge of its object for its own satisfaction; partly from the demands of self-preservation against assaults from without; partly from the practical want of instruction and direction for the people. The church also gradually appropriated the classical culture, and made it tributary to her theology. Throughout the middle ages she was almost the sole vehicle and guardian of literature and art, and she is the mother of the best elements of the modern European and American civilization. We have already treated of the mighty intellectual labor of our period on the field of apologetic, polemic, and dogmatic theology. In this section we have to do with patrology, or the biographical and bibliographical matter of the ancient theology and literature.
The ecclesiastical learning of the first six centuries was cast almost entirely in the mould of the Graeco-Roman culture. The earliest church fathers, even Clement of Rome, Hermas, and Hippolytus, who lived and labored in and about Rome, used the Greek language, after the example of the apostles, with such modifications as the Christian ideas required. Not till the end of the second century, and then not in Italy, but in North Africa, did the Latin language also become, through Tertullian, a medium of Christian science and literature. The Latin church, however, continued for a long time dependent on the learning of the Greek. The Greek church was more excitable, speculative, and dialectic; the Latin more steady, practical, and devoted to outward organization; though we have on both sides striking exceptions to this rule, in the Greek Chrysostom, who was the greatest pulpit orator, and the Latin Augustin, who was the profoundest speculative theologian among the fathers.
The patristic literature in general falls considerably below the classical in elegance of form, but far surpasses it in the sterling quality of its matter. It wears the servant form of its master, during the days of his flesh, not the splendid, princely garb of this world. Confidence in the power of the Christian truth made men less careful of the form in which they presented it. Besides, many of the oldest Christian writers lacked early education, and had a certain aversion to art, from its manifold perversion in those days to the service of idolatry and immorality. But some of them, even in the second and third centuries, particularly Clement and Origen, stood at the head of their age in learning and philosophical culture; and in the fourth and fifth centuries, the literary productions of an Athanasius, a Gregory, a Chrysostom, an Augustin, and a Jerome, excelled the contemporaneous heathen literature in every respect. Many fathers, like the two Clements, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Theophilus, Tertullian, Cyprian, and among the later ones, even Jerome and Augustin, embraced Christianity after attaining adult years; and it is interesting to notice with what enthusiasm, energy, and thankfulness they laid hold upon it.
The term "church-father" originated in the primitive custom of transferring the idea of father to spiritual relationships, especially to those of teacher, priest, and bishop. In the case before us the idea necessarily includes that of antiquity, involving a certain degree of general authority for all subsequent periods and single branches of the church. Hence this title of honor is justly limited to the more distinguished teachers of the first five or six centuries, excepting, of course, the apostles, who stand far above them all as the inspired organs of Christ. It applies, therefore, to the period of the oecumenical formation of doctrines, before the separation of Eastern and Western Christendom. The line of the Latin fathers is generally closed with Pope Gregory I. (d. 604), the line of the Greek with John of Damascus (d. about 754).
Besides antiquity, or direct connection with the formative age of the whole church, learning, holiness, orthodoxy, and the approbation of the church, or general recognition, are the qualifications for a church father. These qualifications, however, are only relative. At least we cannot apply the scale of fully developed orthodoxy, whether Greek, Roman, or Evangelical, to the ante-Nicene fathers. Their dogmatic conceptions were often very indefinite and uncertain. In fact the Roman church excludes a Tertullian for his Montanism, an Origen for his Platonic and idealistic views, an Eusebius for his semi-Arianism, also Clement of Alexandria, Lactantius, Theodoret, and other distinguished divines, from the list of "fathers" (Patres), and designates them merely "ecclesiastical writers" (Scriptores Ecclastici).
In strictness, not a single one of the ante-Nicene fathers fairly agrees with the Roman standard of doctrine in all points. Even Irenaeus and Cyprian differed from the Roman bishop, the former in reference to Chiliasm and Montanism, the latter on the validity of heretical baptism. Jerome is a strong witness against the canonical value of the Apocrypha. Augustin, the greatest authority of Catholic theology among the fathers, is yet decidedly evangelical in his views on sin and grace, which were enthusiastically revived by Luther and Calvin, and virtually condemned by the Council of Trent. Pope Gregory the Great repudiated the title "ecumenical bishop" as an antichristian assumption, and yet it is comparatively harmless as compared with the official titles of his successors, who claim to be the Vicars of Christ, the viceregents of God Almighty on earth, and the infallible organs of the Holy Ghost in all matters of faith and discipline. None of the ancient fathers and doctors knew anything of the modern Roman dogmas of the immaculate conception (1854) and papal infallibility (1870). The "unanimous consent of the fathers" is a mere illusion, except on the most fundamental articles of general Christianity. We must resort here to a liberal conception of orthodoxy, and duly consider the necessary stages of progress in the development of Christian doctrine in the, church.
On the other hand the theology of the fathers still less accords with the Protestant standard of orthodoxy. We seek in vain among them for the evangelical doctrines of the exclusive authority of the Scriptures, justification by faith alone, the universal priesthood of the laity; and we find instead as early as the second century a high estimate of ecclesiastical traditions, meritorious and even over-meritorious works, and strong sacerdotal, sacramentarian, ritualistic, and ascetic tendencies, which gradually matured in the Greek and Roman types of catholicity. The Church of England always had more sympathy with the fathers than the Lutheran and Calvinistic Churches, and professes to be in full harmony with the creed, the episcopal polity, and liturgical worship of antiquity before the separation of the east and the west; but the difference is only one of degree; the Thirty-Nine Articles are as thoroughly evangelical as the Augsburg Confession or the Westminster standards; and even the modern Anglo-Catholic school, the most churchly and churchy of all, ignores many tenets and usages which were considered of vital importance in the first centuries, and holds others which were unknown before the sixteenth century. The reformers were as great and good men as the fathers, but both must bow before the apostles. There is a steady progress of Christianity, an ever-deepening understanding and an ever-widening application of its principles and powers, and there are yet many hidden treasures in the Bible which will be brought to light in future ages.
In general the excellences of the church fathers are very various. Polycarp is distinguished, not for genius or learning, but for patriarchal simplicity and dignity; Clement of Rome, for the gift of administration; Ignatius, for impetuous devotion to episcopacy, church unity, and Christian martyrdom; Justin, for apologetic zeal and extensive reading; Irenaeus, for sound doctrine and moderation; Clement of Alexandria, for stimulating fertility of thought; Origen, for brilliant learning and bold speculation; Tertullian, for freshness and vigor of intellect, and sturdiness of character; Cyprian, for energetic churchliness; Eusebius, for literary industry in compilation; Lactantius, for elegance of style. Each had also his weakness. Not one compares for a moment in depth and spiritual fulness with a St. Paul or St. John; and the whole patristic literature, with all its incalculable value, must ever remain very far below the New Testament. The single epistle to the Romans or the Gospel of John is worth more than all commentaries, doctrinal, polemic, and ascetic treatises of the Greek and Latin fathers, schoolmen, and reformers.
The ante-Nicene fathers may be divided into five or six classes:
(1.) The apostolic fathers, or personal disciples of the apostles. Of these, Polycarp, Clement, and Ignatius are the most eminent.
(2.) The apologists for Christianity against Judaism and heathenism: Justin Martyr and his successors to the end of the second century.
(3.) The controversialists against heresies within the church: Irenaeus, and Hippolytus, at the close of the second century and beginning of the third.
(4.) The Alexandrian school of philosophical theology: Clement and Origen, in the first half of the third century.
(5.) The contemporary but more practical North African school of Tertullian and Cyprian.
(6.) Then there were also the germs of the Antiochian school, and some less prominent writers, who can be assigned to no particular class.
Together with the genuine writings of the church fathers there appeared in the first centuries, in behalf both of heresy and of orthodoxy, a multitude of apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and Apocalypses, under the names of apostles and of later celebrities; also Jewish and heathen prophecies of Christianity, such as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Books of Hydaspes, Of Hermas Trismegistos, and of the Sibyls. The frequent use made of such fabrications of an idle imagination even by eminent church teachers, particularly by the apologists, evinces not only great credulity and total want of literary criticism, but also a very imperfect development of the sense of truth, which had not yet learned utterly to discard the pia fraus as immoral falsehood.
The Roman church extends the line of the Patres, among whom she further distinguishes a small number of Doctores ecclesiae emphatically so-called, down late into the middle ages, and reckons in it Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, and the divines of the Council of Trent, resting on her claim to exclusive catholicity, which is recognized neither by the Greek nor the Evangelical church. The marks of a Doctor Ecclesiae are: 1) eminens eruditio; 2) doctrina orthodoxa; 3) sanctitas vitae; 4) expressa ecclesiae declaratio. The Roman Church recognizes as Doctores Ecclesiae the following Greek fathers: Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzen, Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, and John of Damascus, and the following Latin fathers: Ambrose, Jerome, Augustin, Hilarius of Poitiers, Leo I. and Gregory I., together with the mediaeval divines Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura and Bernard of Clairvaux. The distinction between doctores ecclesiae and patres eccelesiae was formally recognized by Pope Boniface VIII. in a decree of 1298, in which Ambrose, Augustin, Jerome, and Gregory the Great are designated as magni doctores ecclesiae, who deserve a higher degree of veneration. Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, and St. Bernard were added to the list by papal decree in 1830, Hilary in 1852, Alfonso Maria da Liguori in 1871. Anselm of Canterbury and a few others are called doctores in the liturgical service, without special decree. The long line of popes has only furnished two fathers, Leo I. and Gregory I. The Council of Trent first speaks of the "unanimis consensus patrum," which is used in the same sense as "doctrina ecclesia."
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