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§ 117. General Observations. Doctrinal Importance of the Period. Influence of the Ancient Philosophy.


The Nicene and Chalcedonian age is the period of the formation and ecclesiastical settlement of the ecumenical orthodoxy; that is, the doctrines of the holy trinity and of the incarnation and the divine-human person of Christ, in which the Greek, Latin, and evangelical churches to this day in their symbolical books agree, in opposition to the heresies of Arianism and Apollinarianism, Nestorianism and Eutychianism. Besides these trinitarian and christological doctrines, anthropology also, and soteriology, particularly the doctrines of sin and grace, in opposition to Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism were developed and brought to a relative settlement; only, however, in the Latin church, for the Greek took very little part in the Pelagian controversy.

The fundamental nature of these doctrines, the greatness of the church fathers who were occupied with them, and the importance of the result, give this period the first place after the apostolic in the history of theology. In no period, excepting the Reformation of the sixteenth century, have there been so momentous and earnest controversies in doctrine, and so lively an interest in them. The church was now in possession of the ancient philosophy and learning of the Roman empire, and applied them to the unfolding and vindication of the Christian truth. In the lead of these controversies stood church teachers of imposing talents and energetic piety, not mere book men, but venerable theological characters, men all of a piece, as great in acting and suffering as in thinking. To them theology was a sacred business of heart and life,12841284   Or, as Gregory Nazianzen says of the true theologian, contemplation was a prelude to action, and action a prelude to contemplation, πρᾶξις(a religious walk) ἐπίβασις θεωρίας(actio gradus est ad contemplationem), Oratio xx. 12 (ed. Bened. Paris. tom. i. p. 383). and upon them we may pass the judgment of Eusebius respecting Origen: “Their life was as their word, and their word was as their life.”

The theological controversies absorbed the intellectual activity of that time, and shook the foundations of the church and the empire. With the purest zeal for truth were mingled much of the odium and rabies theologorum, and the whole host of theological passions; which are the deepest and most bitter of passions, because religion is concerned with eternal interests.

The leading personages in these controversies were of course bishops and priests. By their side fought the monks, as a standing army, with fanatical zeal for the victory of orthodoxy, or not seldom in behalf even of heresy. Emperors and civil officers also mixed in the business of theology, but for the most part to the prejudice of its free, internal development; for they imparted to all theological questions a political character, and entangled them with the cabals of court and the secular interests of the day. In Constantinople, during the Arian controversy, all classes, even mechanics, bankers, frippers, market women, and runaway slaves took lively part in the questions of Homousion and sub-ordination, of the begotten and the unbegotten.12851285   So Gregory of Nyssa (not Nazianzen, as J. H. Kurtz, wrongly quoting from Neander, has it in his large K. Gesch. i. ii. p. 99) relates from his own observation: Orat. de Deitate Filii et Spiritus S. (Opera ii. p. 898, ed. Paris. of 1615). He compares his contemporaries in this respect with the Athenians, who are always wishing to hear some new thing.

The speculative mind of the Eastern church was combined with a deep religious earnestness and a certain mysticism, and at the same time with the Grecian curiosity and disputatiousness, which afterwards rather injured than promoted her inward life. Gregory Nazianzen, who lived in Constantinople in the midst of the Arian wars, describes the division and hostility which this polemic spirit introduced between parents and children, husbands and wives, old and young, masters and slaves, priests and people. “It has gone so far that the whole market resounds with the discourses of heretics, every banquet is corrupted by this babbling even to nausea, every merrymaking is transformed into a mourning, and every funeral solemnity is almost alleviated by this brawling as a still greater evil; even the chambers of women, the nurseries of simplicity, are disturbed thereby, and the flowers of modesty are crushed by this precocious practice of dispute.”12861286   Orat. xxvii. 2 (Opera, tom. i. p. 488). Comp. Orat. xxxii. (tom. i. p. 581); Carmen de vita sua, vers. 1210 sqq. (tom. ii. p. 737 sq.). Chrysostom, like Melanchthon at a later day, had much to suffer from the theological pugnacity of his times.

The history of the Nicene age shows clearly that the church of God carries the heavenly treasure in earthly vessels. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was likewise in fact an incessant war, in which impure personal and political motives of every kind had play, and even the best men often violated the apostolic injunction to speak the truth in love. But we must not forget that the passionate and intolerant dogmatism of that time was based upon deep moral earnestness and strong faith, and so far forth stands vastly above the tolerance of indifferentism, which lightly plays with the truth or not rarely strikes out in most vehement intolerance against the faith. (Remember the first French revolution.) The overruling of divine Providence in the midst of these wild conflicts is unmistakable, and the victory of the truth appears the greater for the violence of error. God uses all sorts of men for his instruments, and brings evil passions as well as good into his service. The Spirit of truth guided the church through the rush and the din of contending parties, and always triumphed over error in the end.

The ecumenical councils were the open battle-fields, upon which the victory of orthodoxy was decided. The doctrinal decrees of these councils contain the results of the most profound discussions respecting the Trinity and the person of Christ; and the Church to this day has not gone essentially beyond those decisions.

The Greek church wrought out Theology and Christology, while the Latin church devoted itself to Anthropology and Soteriology. The one, true to the genius of the Greek nationality, was predominantly speculative, dialectical, impulsive, and restless; the other, in keeping with the Roman character, was practical, traditional, uniform, consistent, and steady. The former followed the stimulation of Origen and the Alexandrian school; the latter received its impulse from Tertullian and Cyprian, and reached its theological height in Jerome and Augustine. The speculative inclination of the Greek church appeared even in its sermons, which not rarely treated of the number of worlds, the idea of matter, the different classes of higher spirits, the relation of the three hypostases in the Godhead, and similar abstruse questions. The Latin church also, however, had a deep spirit of investigation (as we see in Tertullian and Augustine), took an active part in the trinitarian and christological controversies of the East, and decided the victory of orthodoxy by the weight of its authority. The Greek church almost exhausted its productive force in those great struggles, proved indifferent to the deeper conception of sin and grace, as developed by Augustine, and after the council of Chalcedon degenerated theologically into scholastic formalism and idle refinements.

The fourth and fifth centuries are the flourishing, classical period of the patristic theology and of the Christian Graeco-Roman civilization. In the second half of the fifth century the West Roman empire, with these literary treasures, went down amidst the storms of the great migration, to take a new and higher sweep in the Germano-Roman form under Charlemagne. In the Eastern empire scholarship was better maintained, and a certain connection with antiquity was preserved through the medium of the Greek language. But as the Greek church had no middle age, so it has had no Protestant Reformation.

The prevailing philosophy of the fathers was the Platonic, so far as it was compatible with the Christian spirit. The speculative theologians of the East, especially those of the school of Origen, and in the West, Ambrose and pre-eminently Augustine, were moulded by the Platonic idealism.

A remarkable combination of Platonism with Christianity, to the injury of the latter, appears in the system of mystic symbolism in the pseudo-Dionysian books, which cannot have been composed before the fifth century, though they were falsely ascribed to the Areopagite of the book of Acts (xvii. 34), and proceeded from the later school of New-Platonism, as represented by Proclus of Athens († 485). The fundamental idea of these Dionysian writings (on the celestial hierarchy; on the ecclesiastical hierarchy; on the divine names; on mystic theology; together with ten letters) is a double hierarchy, one in heaven and one on earth, each consisting of three triads, which mediates between man and the ineffable, transcendent hyper-essential divinity. This idea is a remnant of the aristocratic spirit of ancient heathenism, and forms the connecting link with the hierarchical organization of the church, and explains the great importance and popularity which the pseudo-Dionysian system acquired, especially in the mystic theology of the middle ages.12871287   Comp. Engelhardt: Die angeblichen Schriften des Areop. Dionysius übersetzt und erklärt, 1823, 2 Parts; Ritter: Geschichte der christl. Philosophie, Bd. ii. p. 515; Baur: Geschichte der Lehre von der Dreieinigkeit, ii. 207 f., and his Geschichte der Kirche, from the fourth to the sixth century, p. 59 ff.; Joh. Huber: Die Philosophie der Kirchenväter, pp. 327-341; and an article of K. Vogt, in Herzog’s Encycl. iii. p. 412 ff.

In Synesius of Cyrene also the Platonism outweighs the Christianity. He was an enthusiastic pupil of Hypatia, the famous female philosopher at Alexandria, and in 410 was called to the bishopric of Ptolemais, the capital of Pentapolis. Before taking orders he frankly declared that he could not forsake his philosophical opinions, although he would in public accommodate himself to the popular belief. Theophilus of Alexandria, the same who was one of the chief persecutors of the admirers of Origen, the father of Christian Platonism, accepted this doubtful theory of accommodation. Synesius was made bishop, but often regretted that he exchanged his favorite studies for the responsible and onerous duties of the bishopric. In his hymns he fuses the Christian doctrine of the Trinity with the Platonic idea of God, and the Saviour with the divine Helios, whose daily setting and rising was to him a type of Christ’s descent into Hades and ascension to heaven. The desire of the soul to be freed from the chains of matter, takes the place of the sorrow for sin and the longing after salvation.12881288   Comp. Clausen: De Synesio philosopho, Hafn. 1831; Huber: Philos. der Kirchenväter, pp. 315-321; Baur: Church Hist. from the fourth to the sixth century, p. 52 ff., and W. Möllerin Herzog’s Encycl. vol. xv. p. 335 ff.

As soon as theology assumed a scholastic character and began to deal more in dialectic forms than in living ideas, the philosophy of Aristotle rose to favor and influence, and from John Philoponus, a.d. 550, throughout the middle age to the Protestant Reformation, kept the lead in the Catholic church. It was the philosophy of scholasticism, while mysticism sympathized rather with the Platonic system.

The influence of the two great philosophies upon theology was beneficial or injurious, according as the principle of Christianity was the governing or the governed factor. Both systems are theistic (at bottom monotheistic), and favorable to the spirit of earnest and profound speculation. Platonism, with its ideal, poetic views, stimulates, fertilizes, inspires and elevates the reason and imagination, but also easily leads into the errors of gnosticism and the twilight of mysticism. Aristotelianism, with its sober realism and sharp logical distinctions, is a good discipline for the understanding, a school of dialectic practice, and a help to logical, systematic, methodical treatment, but may also induce a barren formalism. The truth is, Christianity itself is the highest philosophy, as faith is the highest reason; and she makes successive philosophies, as well as the arts and the sciences, tributary to herself, on the Pauline principle that “all things are hers.”12891289   Concerning the influence of philosophy on the church fathers, comp. Ritter’sGeschichte der christl. Philosophie; Ackermann, and Baur: Ueber das Christliche im Platonismus; Huber’sPhilosophie der Kirchenväter (Munich, 1859); NEANDER’S Dogmengeschichte, i p. 59 sqq.; Archer Butler’s Lectures on Ancient Philosophy; Shedd’sHistory of Christian Doctrine, vol. i. ch. 1 (Philosophical Influences in the Ancient Church); Alb. Stöckl: Geschichte der Philosophie des Mittelalters, Mainz, 1865, 2 Bde.



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