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Fathers of the Church

The word Father is used in the New Testament to mean a teacher of spiritual things, by whose means the soul of man is born again into the likeness of Christ: "For if you have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet not many fathers. For in Christ Jesus, by the gospel, I have begotten you. Wherefore I beseech you, be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 4:15, 16; cf. Galatians 4:19). The first teachers of Christianity seem to be collectively spoken of as "the Fathers" (2 Peter 3:4).

Thus St. Irenæus defines that a teacher is a father, and a disciple is a son (iv, 41,2), and so says Clement of Alexandria (Stromata I.1.1). A bishop is emphatically a "father in Christ", both because it was he, in early times, who baptized all his flock, and because he is the chief teacher of his church. But he is also regarded by the early Fathers, such as Hegesippus, Irenaeus, and Tertullian as the recipient of the tradition of his predecessors in the see, and consequently as the witness and representative of the faith of his Church before Catholicity and the world. Hence the expression "the Fathers" comes naturally to be applied to the holy bishops of a preceding age, whether of the last generation or further back, since they are the parents at whose knee the Church of today was taught her belief. It is also applicable in an eminent way to bishops sitting in council, "the Fathers of Nicaea", "the Fathers of Trent". Thus Fathers have learnt from Fathers, and in the last resort from the Apostles, who are sometimes called Fathers in this sense: "They are your Fathers", says St. Leo, of the Princes of the Apostles, speaking to the Romans; St. Hilary of Arles calls them sancti patres; Clement of Alexandria says that his teachers, from Greece, Ionia, Coele-Syria, Egypt, the Orient, Assyria, Palestine, respectively, had handed on to him the tradition of blessed teaching from Peter, and James, and John, and Paul, receiving it "as son from father".

It follows that, as our own Fathers are the predecessors who have taught us, so the Fathers of the whole Church are especially the earlier teachers, who instructed her in the teaching of the Apostles, during her infancy and first growth. It is difficult to define the first age of the Church, or the age of the Fathers. It is a common habit to stop the study of the early Church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. "The Fathers" must undoubtedly include, in the West, St. Gregory the Great (d. 604), and in the East, St. John Damascene (d. about 754). It is frequently said that St. Bernard (d. 1153) was the last of the Fathers, and Migne's "Patrologia Latina" extends to Innocent III, halting only on the verge of the thirteenth century, while his "Patrologia Graeca" goes as far as the Council of Florence (1438-9). These limits are evidently too wide, It will be best to consider that the great merit of St. Bernard as a writer lies in his resemblance in style and matter to the greatest among the Fathers, in spite of the difference of period. St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636) and the Venerable Bede (d. 735) are to be classed among the Fathers, but they may be said to have been born out of due time, as St. Theodore the Studite was in the East.

The appeal to the fathers

Thus the use of the term Fathers has been continuous, yet it could not at first he employed in precisely the modern sense of Fathers of the Church. In early days the expression referred to writers who were then quite recent. It is still applied to those writers who are to us the ancients, but no longer in the same way to writers who are now recent. Appeals to the Fathers are a subdivision of appeals to tradition. In the first half of the second century begin the appeals to the sub-Apostolic age: Papias appeals to the presbyters, and through them to the Apostles. Half a century later St. Irenæus supplements this method by an appeal to the tradition handed down in every Church by the succession of its bishops (Against Heresies III.1-3), and Tertullian clinches this argument by the observation that as all the Churches agree, their tradition is secure, for they could not all have strayed by chance into the same error (Praescr., xxviii). The appeal is thus to Churches and their bishops, none but bishops being the authoritative exponents of the doctrine of their Churches. As late as 341 the bishops of the Dedication Council at Antioch declared: "We are not followers of Arius; for how could we, who are bishops, be disciples of a priest?"

Yet slowly, as the appeals to the presbyters died out, there was arising by the side of appeals to the Churches a third method: the custom of appealing to Christian teachers who were not necessarily bishops. While, without the Church, Gnostic schools were substituted for churches, within the Church, Catholic schools were growing up. Philosophers like Justin and most of the numerous second-century apologists were reasoning about religion, and the great catechetical school of Alexandria was gathering renown. Great bishops and saints like Dionysius of Alexandria, Gregory Thaumaturgus of Pontus, Firmilian of Cappadocia, and Alexander of Jerusalem were proud to be disciples of the priest Origen. The bishop Cyprian called daily for the works of the priest Tertullian with the words "Give me the master". The Patriarch Athanasius refers for the ancient use of the word homoousios, not merely to the two Dionysii, but to the priest Theognostus. Yet these priest-teachers are not yet called Fathers, and the greatest among them, Tertullian, Clement, Origen, Hippolytus, Novatian, Lucian, happen to be tinged with heresy; two became antipopes; one is the father of Arianism; another was condemned by a general council. In each case we might apply the words used by St. Hilary of Tertullian: "Sequenti errore detraxit scriptis probabilibus auctoritatem" (Comm. in Matt., v, 1, cited by Vincent of Lérins, 2.4).

A fourth form of appeal was better founded and of enduring value. Eventually it appeared that bishops as well as priests were fallible. In the second century the bishops were orthodox. In the third they were often found wanting. In the fourth they were the leaders of schisms, and heresies, in the Meletian and Donatist troubles and in the long Arian struggle, in which few were found to stand firm against the insidious persecution of Constantius. It came to be seen that the true Fathers of the Church are those Catholic teachers who have persevered in her communion, and whose teaching has been recognized as orthodox. So it came to pass that out of the four "Latin Doctors" one is not a bishop. Two other Fathers who were not bishops have been declared to be Doctors of the Church, Bede and John Damascene, while among the Doctors outside the patristic period we find two more priests, the incomparable St. Bernard and the greatest of all theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas. Nay, few writers had such great authority in the Schools of the Middle Ages as the layman Boethius, many of whose definitions are still commonplaces of theology.

Similarly (we may notice in passing) the name "Father", which originally belonged to bishops, has been as it were delegated to priests, especially as ministers of the Sacrament of Penance. it is now a form of address to all priests in Spain, in Ireland, and, of recent years, in England and the United States.

Papas or Pappas, Pope, was a term of respect for eminent bishops (e.g. in letters to St. Cyprian and to St. Augustine — neither of these writers seems to use it in addressing other bishops, except when St. Augustine writes to Rome). Eventually the term was reserved to the bishops of Rome and Alexandria; yet in the East today every priest is a "pope". The Aramaic abbe was used from early times for the superiors of religious houses. But through the abuse of granting abbeys in commendam to seculars, it has become a polite title for all secular clerics, even seminarists in Italy, and especially in France, whereas all religious who are priests are addressed as "Father".

We receive only, says St. Basil, what we have been taught by the holy Fathers; and he adds that in his Church of Caesarea the faith of the holy Fathers of Nicaea has long been implanted (Ep. cxl, 2). St. Gregory Nazianzen declares that he holds fast the teaching which he heard from the holy Oracles, and was taught by the holy Fathers. These Cappadocian saints seem to be the first to appeal to a real catena of Fathers. The appeal to one or two was already common enough; but not even the learned Eusebius had thought of a long string of authorities. St. Basil, for example (De Spir. S., ii, 29), cites for the formula "with the Holy Ghost" in the doxology, the example of Irenaeus, Clement and Dionysius of Alexandria, Dionysius of Rome, Eusebius of Caesarea, Origen, Africanus, the preces lucerariae said at the lighting of lamps, Athenagoras, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Firmilian, Meletius.

In the fifth century this method became a stereotyped custom. St. Jerome is perhaps the first writer to try to establish his interpretation of a text by a string of exegetes (Ep. cxii, ad Aug.). Paulinus, the deacon and biographer of St. Ambrose, in the libellus he presented against the Pelagians to Pope Zosimus in 417, quotes Cyprian, Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen, and the decrees of the late Pope Innocent. In 420 St. Augustine quotes Cyprian and Ambrose against the same heretics (C. duas Epp. Pel., iv). Julian of Eclanum quoted Chrysostom and Basil; St. Augustine replies to him in 421 (Contra Julianum, i) with Irenaeus, Cyprian, Reticius, Olympius, Hilary, Ambrose, the decrees of African councils, and above all Popes Innocent and Zosimus. In a celebrated passage he argues that these Western writers are more than sufficient, but as Julian had appealed to the East, to the East, he shall go, and the saint adds Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, Synod of Diospolis, Chrysostom. To these he adds Jerome (c. xxxiv): "Nor should you think Jerome, because he was a priest, is to be despised", and adds a eulogy. This is amusing, when we remember that Jerome in a fit of irritation, fifteen before, had written to Augustine (Ep. cxlii) "Do not excite against me the silly crowd of the ignorant, who venerate you as a bishop, and receive you with the honour due to a prelate when you declaim in the Church, whereas they think little of me, an old man, nearly decrepit, in my monastery in the solitude of the country."

In the second book "Contra Julianum", St. Augustine again cites Ambrose frequently, and Cyprian, Gregory Nazianzen, Hilary, Chrysostom; in ii, 37, he recapitulates the nine names (omitting councils and popes), adding (iii, 32) Innocent and Jerome. A few years later the Semipelagians of Southern Gaul, who were led by St. Hilary of Arles, St. Vincent of Lérins, and Bl. Cassian, refuse to accept St. Augustine's severe view of predestination because "contrarium putant patrum opinioni et ecclesiastico sensui". Their opponent St. Prosper, who was trying to convert them to Augustinianism, complains: "Obstinationem suam vetustate defendunt" (Ep. inter Atig. ccxxv, 2), and they said that no ecclesiastical writer had ever before interpreted Romans quite as St. Augustine did — which was probably true enough. The interest of this attitude lies in the fact that it was, if not new at least more definite than any earlier appeal to antiquity. Through most of the fourth century, the controversy with the Arians had turned upon Scripture, and appeals to past authority were few. But the appeal to the Fathers was never the most imposing locus theologicus, for they could not easily be assembled so as to form an absolutely conclusive test. On the other hand up to the end of the fourth century, there were practically no infallible definitions available, except condemnations of heresies, chiefly by popes. By the time that the Arian reaction under Valens caused the Eastern conservatives to draw towards the orthodox, and prepared the restoration of orthodoxy to power by Theodosius, the Nicene decisions were beginning to be looked upon as sacrosanct, and that council to be preferred to a unique position above all others. By 430, the date we have reached, the Creed we now say at Mass was revered in the East, whether rightly or wrongly, as the work of the 150 Fathers of Constantinople in 381, and there were also new papal decisions, especially the tractoria of Pope Zosimus, which in 418 had been sent to all the bishops of the world to be signed.

It is to living authority, the idea of which had thus come to the fore, that St. Prosper was appealing in his controversy with the Lerinese school. When he went to Gaul, in 431, as papal envoy, just after St. Augustine's death, he replied to their difficulties, not by reiterating that saint's hardest arguments, but by taking with him a letter from Pope St. Celestine, in which St. Augustine is extolled as having been held by the pope's predecessors to be "inter magistros optimos". No one is to be allowed to depreciate him, but it is not said that every word of his is to be followed. The disturbers had appealed to the Holy See, and the reply is "Desinat incessere novitas vetustatem" (Let novelty cease to attack antiquity!). An appendix is added, not of the opinions of ancient Fathers, but of recent popes, since the very same monks who thought St. Augustine went too far, professed (says the appendix) "that they followed and approved only what the most holy See of the Blessed Apostle Peter sanctioned and taught by the ministry of its prelates". A list therefore follows of "the judgments of the rulers of the Roman Church", to which are added some sentences of African councils, "which indeed the Apostolic bishops made their own when they approved them". To these inviolabiles sanctiones (we might roughly render "infallible utterances") prayers used in the sacraments are appended "ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi" — a frequently misquoted phrase — and in conclusion, it is declared that these testimonies of the Apostolic See are sufficient, "so that we consider not to be Catholic at all whatever shall appear to be contrary to the decisions we have cited". Thus the decisions of the Apostolic See are put on a very different level from the views of St. Augustine, just as that saint always drew a sharp distinction between the resolutions of African councils or the extracts from the Fathers, on the one hand, and the decrees of Popes Innocent and Zosimus on the other.

Three years later a famous document on tradition and its use emanated from the Lerinese school, the "Commonitorium" of St. Vincent. He whole-heartedly accepted the letter of Pope Celestine, and he quoted it as an authoritative and irresistible witness to his own doctrine that where quod ubique, or universitas, is uncertain, we must turn to quod semper, or antiquitas. Nothing could be more to his purpose than the pope's: "Desinat incessere novitas vetustatem." The Œcumenical Council of Ephesus had been held in the same year that Celestine wrote. Its Acts were before St. Vincent, and it is clear that he looked upon both pope and council as decisive authorities. It was necessary to establish this, before turning to his famous canon, quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus otherwise universitas, antiquitas, consensio. It was not a new criterion, else it would have committed suicide by its very expression. But never had the doctrine been so admirably phrased, so limpidly explained, so adequately exemplified. Even the law of the evolution of dogma is defined by Vincent in language which can hardly be surpassed for exactness and vigour. St. Vincent's triple test is wholly misunderstood if it is taken to be the ordinary rule of faith. Like all Catholics he took the ordinary rule to be the living magisterium of the Church, and he assumes that the formal decision in cases of doubt lies with the Apostolic See, or with a general council. But cases of doubt arise when no such decision is forthcoming. Then it is that the three tests are to be applied, not simultaneously, but, if necessary, in succession.

When an error is found in one corner of the Church, then the first test, universitas, quod ubique, is an unanswerable refutation, nor is there any need to examine further (iii, 7, 8). But if an error attacks the whole Church, then antiquitas, quod semper is to be appealed to, that is, a consensus existing before the novelty arose. Still, in the previous period one or two teachers, even men of great fame, may have erred. Then we betake ourselves to quod ab omnibus, consensio, to the many against the few (if possible to a general council; if not, to an examination of writings). Those few are a trial of faith "ut tentet vos Dominus Deus vester" (Deuteronomy 13:1 sqq.). So Tertullian was a magna tentatio; so was Origen — indeed the greatest temptation of all. We must know that whenever what is new or unheard before is introduced by one man beyond or against all the saints, it pertains not to religion but to temptation (xx, 49).

Who are the "Saints" to whom we appeal? The reply is a definition of "Fathers of the Church" given with all St. Vincent's inimitable accuracy: "Inter se majorem consulat interrogetque sententias, eorum dumtaxat qui, diversis licet temporibus et locis, in unius tamen ecclesiae Catholicae communione et fide permanentes, magistri probabiles exstiterunt; et quicquid non unus aut duo tantum, sed omnes pariter uno eodemque consensu aperte, frequenter, perseveranter tenuisse, scripsisse, docuisse cognoverit, id sibi quoque intelligat absque ulla dubitatione credendum" (iii, 8). This unambiguous sentence defines for us what is the right way of appealing to the Fathers, and the italicized words perfectly explain what is a "Father": "Those alone who, though in diverse times and places, yet persevering in time, communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, have been approved teachers."

The same result is obtained by modern theologians, in their definitions; e.g. Fessler thus defines what constitutes a "Father":

  1. orthodox doctrine and learning;
  2. holiness of life;
  3. (at the present day) a certain antiquity.

The criteria by which we judge whether a writer is a "Father" or not are:

  1. citation by a general council, or
  2. in public Acts of popes addressed to the Church or concerning Faith;
  3. encomium in the Roman Martyrology as "sanctitate et doctrina insignis";
  4. public reading in Churches in early centuries;
  5. citations, with praise, as an authority as to the Faith by some of the more celebrated Fathers.

Early authors, though belonging to the Church, who fail to reach this standard are simply ecclesiastical writers ("Patrologia", ed. Jungmann, ch. i, #11). On the other hand, where the appeal is not to the authority of the writer, but his testimony is merely required to the belief of his time, one writer is as good as another, and if a Father is cited for this purpose, it is not as a Father that he is cited, but merely as a witness to facts well known to him. For the history of dogma, therefore, the works of ecclesiastical writers who are not only not approved, but even heretical, are often just as valuable as those of the Fathers. On the other hand, the witness of one Father is occasionally of great weight for doctrine when taken singly, if he is teaching a subject on which he is recognized by the Church as an especial authority, e.g., St. Athanasius on the Divinity of the Son, St. Augustine on the Holy Trinity, etc.

There are a few cases in which a general council has given approbation to the work of a Father, the most important being the two letters of St. Cyril of Alexandria which were read at the Council of Ephesus. But the authority of single Fathers considered in itself, says Franzelin (De traditione, thesis xv), "is not infallible or peremptory; though piety and sound reason agree that the theological opinions of such individuals should not be treated lightly, and should not without great caution be interpreted in a sense which clashes with the common doctrine of other Fathers." The reason is plain enough; they were holy men, who are not to be presumed to have intended to stray from the doctrine of the Church, and their doubtful utterances are therefore to be taken in the best sense of which they are capable. If they cannot be explained in an orthodox sense, we have to admit that not the greatest is immune from ignorance or accidental error or obscurity. But on the use of the Fathers in theological questions, the article TRADITION and the ordinary dogmatic treatises on that subject must be consulted, as it is proper here only to deal with the historical development of their use.

The subject was never treated as a part of dogmatic theology until the rise of what is now commonly called "Theologia fundamentalis", in the sixteenth century, the founders of which are Melchior Canus and Bellarmine. The former has a discussion of the use of the Fathers in deciding questions of faith (De locis theologicis, vii). The Protestant Reformers attacked the authority of the Fathers. The most famous of these opponents is Dalbeus (Jean Daillé, 1594-1670, "Traité de l'emploi des saints Pères", 1632; in Latin "De usu Patrum", 1656). But their objections are long since forgotten.

Having traced the development of the use of the Fathers up to the period of its frequent employment, and of its formal statement by St. Vincent of Lérins, it will be well to give a glance at the continuation of the practice. We saw that, in 431, it was possible for St. Vincent (in a book which has been most unreasonably taken to be a mere polemic against St. Augustine — a notion which is amply refuted by the use made in it of St. Celestine's letter) to define the meaning and method of patristic appeals. From that time onward they are very common. In the Council of Ephesus, 431, as St. Vincent points out, St. Cyril presented a series of quotations from the Fathers, tôn hagiôtatôn kai hosiôtatôn paterôn kai episkopôn diaphorôn marturôn, which were read on the motion of Flavian, Bishop of Philippi. They were from Peter I of Alexandria, Martyr, Athanasius, Popes Julius and Felix (forgeries), Theophilus, Cyprian, Ambrose, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Atticus, Amphilochius.

On the other hand Eutyches, when tried at Constantinople by St. Flavian, in 449, refused to accept either Fathers or councils as authorities, confining himself to Holy Scripture, a position which horrified his judges (see EUTYCHES). In the following year St. Leo sent his legates, Abundius and Asterius, to Constantinople with a list of testimonies from Hilary, Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Theophilus, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, Cyril of Alexandria. They were signed in that city, but were not produced at the Council of Chalcedon in the following year. Thenceforward the custom is fixed, and it is unnecessary to give examples. However, that of the sixth council in 680 is important: Pope St. Agatho sent a long series of extracts from Rome, and the leader of the Monothelites, Macarius of Antioch, presented another. Both sets were carefully verified from the library of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and sealed.

It should be noted that it was never in such cases thought necessary to trace a doctrine back to the earliest times; St. Vincent demanded the proof of the Church's belief before a doubt arose — this is his notion of antiquitas; and in conformity with this view, the Fathers quoted by councils and popes and Fathers are for the most part recent (Petavius, De Incarn., XIV, 15, 2-5).

In the last years of the fifth century a famous document, attributed to Popes Gelasius and Hormisdas, adds to decrees of St. Damasus of 382 a list of books which are approved, and another of those disapproved. In its present form the list of approved Fathers comprises Cyprian, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Theophilus, Hilary, Cyril of Alexandria (wanting in one manuscript), Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Prosper, Leo ("every iota" of the tome to Flavian is to be accepted under anathema), and "also the treatises of all orthodox Fathers, who deviated in nothing from the fellowship of the holy Roman Church, and were not separated from her faith and preaching, but were participators through the grace of God until the end of their life in her communion; also the decretal letters, which most blessed popes have given at various times when consulted by various Fathers, are to be received with veneration". Orosius, Sedulius, and Juvencus are praised.

Rufinus and Origen are rejected. Eusebius's "History" and "Chronicle" are not to be condemned altogether, though in another part of the list they appear as "apocrypha" with Tertullian, Lactantius, Africanus, Commodian, Clement of Alexandria, Arnobius, Cassian, Victorinus of Pettau, Faustus, and the works of heretics, and forged Scriptural documents.

The later Fathers constantly used the writings of the earlier. For instance, St. Caesarius of Arles drew freely on St. Augustine's sermons, and embodied them in collections of his own; St. Gregory the Great has largely founded himself on St. Augustine; St. Isidore rests upon all his predecessors; St. John Damascene's great work is a synthesis of patristic theology. St. Bede's sermons are a cento from the greater Fathers. Eugippius made a selection from St. Augustine's writings, which had an immense vogue. Cassiodorus made a collection of select commentaries by various writers on all the books of Holy Scripture. St. Benedict especially recommended patristic study, and his sons have observed his advice: "Ad perfectionem conversationis qui festinat, sunt doctrinae sanctorum Patrum, quarum observatio perducat hominem ad celsitudinem perfectionis . . . quis liber sanctorum catholicorum Patrum hoc non resonat, ut recto cursu perveniamus ad creatorem nostrum?" (Sanet Regula, lxxiii). Florilegia and catenae became common from the fifth century onwards. They are mostly anonymous, but those in the East which go under the name Œcumenius are well known. Most famous of all throughout the Middle Ages was the "Glossa ordinaria" attributed to Walafrid Strabo. The "Catena aurea" of St. Thomas Aquinas is still in use. (See CATENAE, and the valuable matter collected by Turner in Hastings, Dict. of the Bible, V, 521.)

St. Augustine was early recognized as the first of the Western Fathers, with St. Ambrose and St. Jerome by his side. St. Gregory the Great was added, and these four became "the Latin Doctors". St. Leo, in some ways the greatest of theologians, was excluded, both on account of the paucity of his writings, and by the fact that his letters had a far higher authority as papal utterances.

In the East St. John Chrysostom has always been the most popular, as he is the most voluminous, of the Fathers. With the great St. Basil, the father of monachism, and St. Gregory Nazianzen, famous for the purity of his faith, he made up the triumvirate called "the three hierarchs", familiar up to the present day in Eastern art. St. Athanasius was added to these by the Westerns, so that four might answer to four. (See DOCTORS OF THE CHURCH.)

It will be observed that many of the writers rejected in the Gelasian list lived and died in Catholic communion, but incorrectness in some part of their writings, e.g. the Semipelagian error attributed to Cassian and Faustus, the chiliasm of the conclusion of Victorinus's commentary on the Apocalypse (St. Jerome issued an expurgated edition, the only one in print as yet), the unsoundness of the lost "Hypotyposes" of Clement, and so forth, prevented such writers from being spoken of, as Hilary was by Jerome, "inoffenso pede percurritur". As all the more important doctrines of the Church (except that of the Canon and the inspiration of Scripture) may be proved, or at least illustrated, from Scripture, the widest office of tradition is the interpretation of Scripture, and the authority of the Fathers is here of very great importance. Nevertheless it is only then necessarily to be followed when all are of one mind: "Nemo . . . contra unanimum consensum Patrum ipsam Scripturam sacram interpretari audeat", says the Council of Trent; and the Creed of Pius IV has similarly: ". . . nec eam unquam nisi juxta unanimum consensum Patrum accipiam et interpretabor". The Vatican Council echoes Trent: "nemini licere . . . contra unanimum sensum Patrum ipsam Scripturam sacram interpretari."

A consensus of the Fathers is not, of course, to be expected in very small matters: "Quae tamen antiqua sanctorum patrum consensio non in omnibus divinae legis quaestiunculis, sed solum certe praecipue in fidei regula magno nobis studio et investiganda est et sequenda" (Vincent, xxviii, 72). This is not the method, adds St. Vincent, against widespread and inveterate heresies, but rather against novelties, to be applied directly they appear. A better instance could hardly be given than the way in which Adoptionism was met by the Council of Frankfort in 794, nor could the principle be better expressed than by the Fathers of the Council:

"Tenete vos intra terminos Patrum, et nolite novas versare quaestiunculas; ad nihilum enim valent nisi ad subversionem audientium. Sufficit enim vobis sanctorum Patrum vestigia sequi, et illorum dicta firma tenere fide. Illi enim in Domino nostri exstiterunt doctores in fide et ductores ad vitam; quorum et sapientia Spiritu Dei plena libris legitur inscripta, et vita meritorum miraculis clara et sanctissima; quorum animae apud Deum Dei Filium, D.N.J.C. pro magno pietatis labore regnant in caelis. Hos ergo tota animi virtute, toto caritatis affectu sequimini, beatissimi fratres, ut horum inconcussa firmitate doctrinis adhaerentes, consortium aeternae beatitudinis . . . cum illis habere mereamini in caelis" ("Synodica ad Episc." in Mansi, XIII, 897-8).

And an excellent act of faith in the tradition of the Church is that of Charlemagne (ibid., 902) made on the same occasion:

"Apostolicae sedi et antiquis ab initio nascentis ecclesiae et catholicis traditionibus tota mentis intentione, tota cordis alacritate, me conjungo. Quicquid in illorum legitur libris, qui divino Spiritu afflati, toti orbi a Deo Christo dati sunt doctores, indubitanter teneo; hoc ad salutem animae meae sufficere credens, quod sacratissimae evangelicae veritatis pandit historia, quod apostolica in suis epistolis confirmat auctoritas, quod eximii Sacrae Scripturae tractatores et praecipui Christianae fidei doctores ad perpetuam posteris scriptum reliquerunt memoriam."

Classification of patristic writings

In order to get a good view of the patristic period, the Fathers may be divided in various ways. One favourite method is by periods; the Ante-Nicene Fathers till 325; the Great Fathers of the fourth century and half the fifth (325-451); and the later Fathers. A more obvious division is into Easterns and Westerns, and the Easterns will comprise writers in Greek, Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic. A convenient division into smaller groups will be by periods, nationalities and character of writings; for in the East and West there were many races, and some of the ecclesiastical writers are apologists, some preachers, some historians, some commentators, and so forth.

A. After (1) the Apostolic Fathers come in the second century (2) the Greek apologists, followed by (3) the Western apologists somewhat later, (4) the Gnostic and Marcionite heretics with their apocryphal Scriptures, and (5) the Catholic replies to them.

B. The third century gives us (1) the Alexandrian writers of the catechetical school, (2) the writers of Asia Minor and (3) Palestine, and the first Western writers, (4) at Rome, Hippolytus (in Greek), and Novatian, (5) the great African writers, and a few others.

C. The fourth century opens with (1) the apologetic and the historical works of Eusebius of Caesarea, with whom we may class St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. Epiphanius, (2) the Alexandrian writers Athanasius, Didymus, and others, (3) the Cappadocians, (4) the Antiochenes, (5) the Syriac writers. In the West we have (6) the opponents of Arianism, (7) the Italians, including Jerome, (8) the Africans, and (9) the Spanish and Gallic writers.

D. The fifth century gives us (1) the Nestorian controversy, (2) the Eutychian controversy, including the Western St. Leo; (3) the historians. In the West (4) the school of Lérins, (5) the letters of the popes.

E. The sixth century and the seventh give us less important names and they must be grouped in a more mechanical way.


(1) If we now take these groups in detail we find the letters of the chief Apostolic Fathers, St. Clement, St. Ignatius, and St. Polycarp, venerable not merely for their antiquity, but for a certain simplicity and nobility of thought and style which is very moving to the reader. Their quotations from the New Testament are quite free. They offer most important information to the historian, though in somewhat homoeopathic quantities. To these we add the Didache, probably the earliest of all; the curious allegorizing anti-Jewish epistle which goes under the name of Barnabas; the Shepherd of Hermas, a rather dull series of visions chiefly connected with penance and pardon, composed by the brother of Pope Pius I, and long appended to the New Testament as of almost canonical importance. The works of Papias, the disciple of St. John and Aristion, are lost, all but a few precious fragments.

(2) The apologists are most of them philosophic in their treatment of Christianity. Some of their works were presented to emperors in order to disarm persecutions. We must not always accept the view given to outsiders by the apologists, as representing the whole of the Christianity they knew and practised. The apologies of Quadratus to Hadrian, of Aristo of Pella to the Jews, of Miltiades, of Apollinaris of Hierapolis, and of Melito of Sardis are lost to us. But we still possess several of greater importance. That of Aristides of Athens was presented to Antoninus Pius, and deals principally with the knowledge of the true God. The fine apology of St. Justin with its appendix is above all interesting for its description of the liturgy at Rome c. 150. His arguments against the Jews are found in the well-composed "Dialogue with Trypho", where he speaks of the Apostolic authorship of the Apocalypse in a manner which is of first-rate importance in the mouth of a man who was converted at Ephesus some time before the year 132. The "Apology" of Justin's Syrian disciple Tatian is a less conciliatory work, and its author fell into heresy. Athenagoras, an Athenian (c. 177), addressed to Marcus Aurelius and Commodus an eloquent refutation of the absurd calumnies against Christians. Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch, about the same date, wrote three books of apology addressed to a certain Autolycus.

(3) All these works are of considerable literary ability. This is not the case with the great Latin apology which closely follows them in date, the "Apologeticus" of Tertullian, which is in the uncouth and untranslatable language affected by its author. Nevertheless it is a work of extraordinary genius, in interest and value far above all the rest, and for energy and boldness it is incomparable. His fierce "Ad Scapulam" is a warning addressed to a persecuting proconsul. "Adversus Judaeos" is a title which explains itself. The other Latin apologists are later. The "Octavios" of Minucius Felix is as polished and gentle as Tertullian is rough. Its date is uncertain. If the "Apologeticus "was well calculated to infuse courage into the persecuted Christian, the "Octavius" was more likely to impress the inquiring pagan, if so be that more flies are caught with honey than with vinegar. With these works we may mention the much later Lactantius, the most perfect of all in literary form ("Divinae Institutiones", c. 305-10, and "De Mortibus persecutorum", c. 314). Greek apologies probably later than the second century are the "Irrisiones" of Hermias, and the very beautiful "Epistle" to Diognetus.

(4) The heretical writings of the second century are mostly lost. The Gnostics had schools and philosophized; their writers were numerous. Some curious works have come down to us in Coptic. The letter of Ptolemeus to Flora in Epiphanius is almost the only Greek fragment of real importance. Marcion founded not a school but a Church, and his New Testament, consisting of St. Luke and St. Paul, is preserved to some extent in the works written against him by Tertullian and Epiphanius. Of the writings of Greek Montanists and of other early heretics, almost nothing remains. The Gnostics composed a quantity of apocryphal Gospels amid Acts of individual Apostles, large portions of which are preserved, mostly in fragments, in Latin revisions, or in Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, or Slavonic versions. To these are to be added such well-known forgeries as the letters of Paul to Seneca, and the Apocalypse of Peter, of which a fragment was recently found in the Fayûm.

(5) Replies to the attacks of heretics form, next to the apologetic against heathen persecutors on the one hand and Jews on the other, the characteristic Catholic literature of the second century. The "Syntagma" of St. Justin against all heresies is lost. Earlier yet, St. Papias (already mentioned) had directed his efforts to the refutation of the rising errors, and the same preoccupation is seen in St. Ignatius and St. Polycarp. Hegesippus, a converted Jew of Palestine, journeyed to Corinth and Rome, where he stayed from the episcopate of Anicetus till that of Eleutherius (c. 160-180), with the intention of refuting the novelties of the Gnostics and Marcionites by an appeal to tradition. His work is lost. But the great work of St. Irenæus (c. 180) against heresies is founded on Papias, Hegesippus, and Justin, and gives from careful investigation an account of many Gnostic systems, together with their refutation. His appeal is less to Scripture than to the tradition which the whole Catholic Church has received and handed down from the Apostles, through the ministry of successive bishops, and particularly to the tradition of the Roman Church founded by Peter and Paul.

By the side of Irenaeus must be put the Latin Tertullian, whose book "Of the Prescriptions Against Heretics" is not only a masterpiece of argument, but is almost as effective against modern heresies as against those of the early Church. It is a witness of extraordinary importance to the principles of unvarying tradition which the Catholic Church has always professed, and to the primitive belief that Holy Scripture must be interpreted by the Church and not by private industry. He uses Irenaeus in this work, and his polemical books against the Valentinians and the Marcionites borrow freely from that saint. He is the less persuasive of the two, because he is too abrupt, too clever, too anxious for the slightest controversial advantage, without thought of the easy replies that might be made. He sometimes prefers wit or hard hitting to solid argument. At this period controversies were beginning within the Church, the most important being the question whether Easter could be celebrated on a weekday. Another burning question at Rome, at the turn of the century, was the doubt whether the prophesying of the Montanists could be approved, and yet another, in the first years of the third century, was the controversy with a group of opponents of Montanism (so it seems), who denied the authenticity of the writings of St. John, an error then quite new.


(1) The Church of Alexandria already in the second century showed the note of learning, together with a habit borrowed from the Alexandrian Jews, especially Philo, of an allegorizing interpretation of Scripture. The latter characteristic is already found in the "Epistle of Barnabas", which may be of Alexandrian origin. Pantamus was the first to make the Catechetical school of the city famous. No writings of his are extant, but his pupil Clement, who taught in the school with Pantamus, c. 180, and as its head, c. 180-202 (died c. 214), has left a considerable amount of rather lengthy disquisitions dealing with mythology, mystical theology, education, social observances, and all other things in heaven and on earth. He was followed by the great Origen, whose fame spread far and wide even among the heathen. The remains of his works, though they fill several volumes, are to a great extent only in free Latin translations, and bear but a small ratio to the vast amount that has perished. The Alexandrians held as firmly as any Catholics to tradition as the rule of faith, at least in theory, but beyond tradition they allowed themselves to speculate, so that the "Hypotyposes" of Clement have been almost entirely lost on account of the errors which found a place in them, and Origen's works fell under the ban of the Church, though their author lived the life of a saint, and died, shortly after the Decian persecution, of the sufferings he had undergone in it.

The disciples of Origen were many and eminent. The library founded by one of them, St. Alexander of Jerusalem, was precious later on to Eusebius. The most celebrated of the school were St. Dionysius "the Great" of Alexandria and St. Gregory of Neocaesarea in Pontus, known as the Wonder-Worker, who, like St. Nonnosus in the West, was said to have moved a mountain for short distance by his prayers. Of the writings of these two saints not very much is extant.

(2) Montanism and the paschal question brought Asia Minor down from the leading position it held in the second century into a very inferior rank in the third. Besides St. Gregory, St. Methodius at the end of that century was a polished writer and an opponent of Origenism — his name is consequently passed over without mention by the Origenist historian Eusebius. We have his "Banquet" in Greek, and some smaller works in Old Slavonic.

(3) Antioch was the head see over the "Orient" including Syria and Mesopotamia as well as Palestine and Phoenicia, but at no time did this form a compact patriarchate like that of Alexandria. We must group here writers who have no connection with one another in matter or style. Julius Africanus lived at Emmaus and composed a chronography, out of which the episcopal lists of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, and a great deal of other matter, have been preserved for us in St. Jerome's version of the Chronicle of Eusebius, and in Byzantine chronographers. Two letters of his are of interest, but the fragments of his "Kestoi" or "Girdles" are of no ecclesiastical value; they contain much curious matter and much that is objectionable. In the second half of the third century, perhaps towards the end of it, a great school was established at Antioch by Lucian, who was martyred at Nicomedia in 312. He is said to have been excommunicated under three bishops, but if this is true he had been long restored at the time of his martyrdom. It is quite uncertain whether he shared the errors of Paul of Samosata (Bishop of Antioch, deposed for heresy in 268-9). At all events he was — however unintentionally — the father of Arianism, and his pupils were the leaders of that heresy: Eusebius of Nicomedia, Arius himself, with Menophantus of Ephesus, Athanasius of Anazarbus, and the only two bishops who refused to sign the new creed at the Council of Nicaea, Theognis of Nicaea and Maris of Chalcedon, besides the scandalous bishop Leontius of Antioch and the Sophist Asterius. At Caesarea, an Origenist centre, flourished under another martyr, St. Pamphilus, who with his friend Eusebius, a certain Ammonius, and others, collected the works of Origen in a long-famous library, corrected Origen's "Hexapla", and did much editing of the text both of the Old and the New Testaments.

(4) We hear of no writings at Rome except in Greek, until the mention of some small works in Latin, by Pope St. Victor, which still existed in Jerome's day. Hippolytus, a Roman priest, wrote from c. 200 to 235, and always in Greek, though at Carthage Tertullian had been writing before this in Latin. If Hippolytus is the author of the "Philosophumena" he was an antipope, and full of unreasoning enmity to his rival St. Callistus; his theology makes the Word proceed from God by His Will, distinct from Him in substance, and becoming Son by becoming man. There is nothing Roman in the theology of this work; it rather connects itself with the Greek apologists. A great part of a large commentary on Daniel and a work against Noetus are the only other important remains of this writer, who was soon forgotten in the West, though fragments of his works turn up in all the Eastern languages. Parts of his chronography, perhaps his last work, have survived. Another Roman antipope, Novatian, wrote in ponderous and studied prose with metrical endings. Some of his works have come down to us under the name of St. Cyprian. Like Hippolytus, he made his rigorist views the pretext for his schism. Unlike Hippolytus, he is quite orthodox in his principal work, "De Trinitate".

(5) The apologetic works of Tertullian have been mentioned. The earlier were written by him when a priest of the Church of Carthage, but about the year 200 he was led to believe in the Montanist prophets of Phrygia, and he headed a Montanist schism at Carthage. Many of his treatises are written to defend his position and his rigorist doctrines, and he does so with considerable violence and with the clever and hasty argumentation which is natural to him. The placid flow of St. Cyprian's eloquence (Bishop of Carthage, 249-58) is a great contrast to that of his "master". The short treatises and large correspondence of this saint are all concerned with local questions and needs, and he eschews all speculative theology. From this we gain the more light on the state of the Church, on its government, and on a number of interesting ecclesiastical and social matters. In all the patristic period there is nothing, with the exception of Eusebius's history, which tells us so much about the early Church as the small volume which contains St. Cyprian's works. At the end of the century Arnobius, like Cyprian a convert in middle age, and like other Africans, Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius, and Augustine, a former rhetorician, composed a dull apology. Lactantius carries us into the fourth century. He was an elegant and eloquent writer, but like Arnobius was not a well-instructed Christian.


(1) The fourth century is the great age of the Fathers. It was twelve years old when Constantine published his edict of toleration, and a new era for the Christian religion began. It is ushered in by Eusebius of Caesarea, with his great apologetic works "Praeparatio Evangelica" and "Demonstratio Evangelica", which show the transcendent merit of Christianity, and his still greater historical works, the "Chronicle" (the Greek original is lost) and the "History", which has gathered up the fragments of the age of persecutions, and has preserved to us more than half of all we know about the heroic ages of the Faith. In theology Eusebius was a follower of Origen, but he rejected the eternity of Creation and of the Logos, so that he was able to regard the Arians with considerable cordiality. The original form of the pseudo-Clementine romance, with its long and tiresome dialogues, seems to be a work of the very beginning of the century against the new developments of heathenism, and it was written either on the Phoenician coast or not far inland in the Syrian neighbourhood. Replies to the greatest of the pagan attacks, that of Porphyry, become more frequent after the pagan revival under Julian (361-3), and they occupied the labours of many celebrated writers. St. Cyril of Jerusalem has left us a complete series of instructions to catechumens and the baptized, thus supplying us with an exact knowledge of the religious teaching imparted to the people in an important Church of the East in the middle of the fourth century. A Palestinian of the second half of the century, St. Epiphanius, became Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, and wrote a learned history of all the heresies. He is unfortunately inaccurate, and has further made great difficulties for us by not naming his authorities. He was a friend of St. Jerome, and an uncompromising opponent of Origenism.

(2) The Alexandrian priest Arius was not a product of the catechetical school of that city, but of the Lucianic school of Antioch. The Alexandrian tendency was quite opposite to the Antiochene, and the Alexandrian bishop, Alexander, condemned Arius in letters still extant, in which we gather the tradition of the Alexandrian Church. There is no trace in them of Origenism, the head-quarters of which had long been at Caesarea in Palestine, in the succession Theoctistus, Pamphilus, Eusebius. The tradition of Alexandria was rather that which Dionysius the Great had received from Pope Dionysius. Three years after the Nicene Council (325), St. Athanasius began his long episcopate of forty-five years. His writings are not very voluminous, being either controversial theology or apologetic memoirs of his own troubles, but their theological and historical value is enormous, on account of the leading part taken by this truly great man in the fifty years of fight with Arianism. The head of the catechetical school during this half-century was Didymus the Blind, an Athanasian in his doctrine of the Son, and rather clearer even than his patriarch in his doctrine of the Trinity, but in many other points carrying on the Origenistic tradition. Here may be also mentioned by the way a rather later writer, Synesius of Cyrene, a man of philosophical and literary habits, who showed energy and sincere piety as a bishop, in spite of the rather pagan character of his culture. His letters are of great interest.

(3) The second half of the century is illustrated by an illustrious triad in Cappadocia, St. Basil, his friend St. Gregory Nazianzen, and his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa. They were the main workers in the return of the East to orthodoxy. Their doctrine of the Trinity is an advance even upon that of Didymus, and is very near indeed to the Roman doctrine which was later embodied in the Athanasian creed. But it had taken a long while for the East to assimilate the entire meaning of the orthodox view. St. Basil showed great patience with those who had advanced less far on the right road than himself, and he even tempered his language so as to conciliate them. For fame of sanctity scarcely any of the Fathers, save St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker, or St. Augustine, has ever equalled him. He practised extraordinary asceticism, and his family were all saints. He composed a rule for monks which has remained practically the only one in the East. St. Gregory had far less character, but equal abilities and learning, with greater eloquence. The love of Origen which persuaded the friends in their youth to publish a book of extracts from his writings had little influence on their later theology; that of St. Gregory in particular is renowned for its accuracy or even inerrancy. St. Gregory of Nyssa is, on the other hand, full of Origenism. The classical culture and literary form of the Cappadocians, united to sanctity and orthodoxy, makes them a unique group in the history of the Church.

(4) The Antiochene school of the fourth century seemed given over to Arianism, until the time when the great Alexandrians, Athanasius and Didymus, were dying, when it was just reviving not merely into orthodoxy, but into an efflorescence by which the recent glory of Alexandria and even of Cappadocia was to be surpassed. Diodorus, a monk at Antioch and then Bishop of Tarsus, was a noble supporter of Nicene doctrine and a great writer, though the larger part of his works has perished. His friend Theodore of Mopsuestia was a learned and judicious commentator in the literal Antiochene style, but unfortunately his opposition to the heresy of Apollinarius of Laodicea carried him into the opposite extreme of Nestorianism — indeed the pupil Nestorius scarcely went so far as the master Theodore. But then Nestorius resisted the judgment of the Church, whereas Theodore died in Catholic communion, and was the friend of saints, including that crowning glory of the Antiochene school, St. John Chrysostom, whose greatest sermons were preached at Antioch, before he became Bishop of Constantinople. Chrysostom is of course the chief of the Greek Fathers, the first of all commentators, and the first of all orators whether in East or West. He was for a time a hermit, and remained ascetic in his life; he was also a fervent social reformer. His grandeur of character makes him worthy of a place beside St. Basil and St. Athanasius.

As Basil and Gregory were formed to oratory by the Christian Prohaeresius, so was Chrysostom by the heathen orator Libanius. In the classical Gregory we may sometimes find the rhetorician; in Chrysostom never; his amazing natural talent prevents his needing the assistance of art, and though training had preceded, it has been lost in the flow of energetic thought and the torrent of words. He is not afraid of repeating himself and of neglecting the rules, for he never wishes to be admired, but only to instruct or to persuade. But even so great a man has his limitations. He has no speculative interest in philosophy or theology, though he is learned enough to be absolutely orthodox. He is a holy man and a practical man, so that his thoughts are full of piety and beauty and wisdom; but he is not a thinker. None of the Fathers has been more imitated or more read; but there is little in his writings which can be said to have moulded his own or future times, and he cannot come for an instant into competition with Origen or Augustine for the first place among ecclesiastical writers.

(5) Syria in the fourth century produced one great writer, St. Ephraem, deacon of Edessa (306-73). Most of his writings are poetry; his commentaries are in prose, but the remains of these are scantier. His homilies and hymns are all in metre, and are of very great beauty. Such tender and loving piety is hardly found elsewhere in the Fathers. The twenty-three homilies of Aphraates (326-7), a Mesopotamian bishop, are of great interest.

(6) St. Hilary of Poitiers is the most famous of the earlier opponents of Arianism in the West. He wrote commentaries and polemical works, including the great treatise "De Trinitate" and a lost historical work. His style is affectedly involved and obscure, but he is nevertheless a theologian of considerable merit. The very name of his treatise on the Trinity shows that he approached the dogma from the Western point of view of a Trinity in Unity, but he has largely employed the works of Origen, Athanasius, and other Easterns. His exegesis is of the allegorical type. Until his day, the only great Latin Father was St. Cyprian, and Hilary had no rival in his own generation. Lucifer, Bishop of Calaris in Sardinia, was a very rude controversialist, who wrote in a popular and almost uneducated manner. The Spaniards Gregory of Illiberis, in Southern Spain, is only now beginning to receive his due, since Dom A. Wilmart restored to him in 1908 the important so-called "Tractatus Origenis de libris SS. Scripturae", which he and Batiffol had published in 1900, as genuine works of Origen translated by Victorinus of Pettau. The commentaries and anti-Arian works of the converted rhetorician, Marius Victorinus, were not successful. St. Eusebius of Vercellae has left us only a few letters. The date of the short discourses of Zeno of Verona is uncertain. The fine letter of Pope Julius I to the Arians and a few letters of Liberius and Damasus are of great interest.

The greatest of the opponents of Arianism in the West is St. Ambrose (d. 397). His sanctity and his great actions make him one of the most imposing figures in the patristic period. Unfortunately the style of his writings is often unpleasant, being affected and intricate, without being correct or artistic. His exegesis is not merely of the most extreme allegorical kind, but so fanciful as to be sometimes positively absurd. And yet, when off his guard, he speaks with genuine and touching eloquence; he produces apophthegms of admirable brevity, and without being a deep theologian, he shows a wonderful profundity of thought on ascetical, moral, and devotional matters. Just as his character demands our enthusiastic admiration, so his writings gain our affectionate respect, in spite of their very irritating defects. It is easy to see that he is very well read in the classics and in Christian writers of East and West, but his best thoughts are all his own.

(7) At Rome an original, odd, and learned writer composed a commentary on St. Paul's Epistles and a series of questions on the Old and New Testaments. He is usually spoken of as Ambrosiaster, and may perhaps be a converted Jew named Isaac, who later apostatized. St. Damasus wrote verses which are poor poetry but interesting where they give us information about the martyrs and the catacombs. His secretary for a time was St. Jerome, a Pannonian by birth, a Roman by baptism. This learned Father, "Doctor maximus in Sacris Scripturis", is very well known to us, for almost all that he wrote is a revelation of himself. He tells the reader of his inclinations and his antipathies, his enthusiasms and his irritations, his friendships and his enmities. If he is often out of temper, he is most human, most affectionate, most ascetic, most devoted to orthodoxy, and in many ways a very lovable character; for if he is quick to take offence, he is easily appeased, he is laborious beyond ordinary endurance, and it is against heresy that his anger is usually kindled. He lived all the latter part of his life in a retreat at Bethlehem, surrounded by loving disciples, whose untiring devotion shows that the saint was by no means such a rough diamond, one might say such an ogre, as he is often represented. He had no taste for philosophy, and seldom gave himself time to think, but he read and wrote ceaselessly. His many commentaries are brief and to the point, full of information, and the product of wide reading. His greatest work was the translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew into Latin. He carried on the textual labours of Origen, Pamphilus, and Eusebius, and his revision of the Latin Gospels shows the use of admirably pure Greek manuscripts, though he seems to have expended less pains on the rest of the New Testament. He attacked heretics with much of the cleverness, all the vivacity, and much more than the eloquence and effectiveness of Tertullian. He used the like weapons against any who attacked him, and especially against his friend Rufinus during their passing period of hostility.

If he is only "perhaps" the most learned of the Fathers, he is beyond doubt the greatest of prose writers among them all. We cannot compare his energy and wit with the originality and polish of Cicero, or with the delicate perfection of Plato, but neither can they or any other writer be compared with Jerome in his own sphere. He does not attempt flights of imagination, musical intonation, word-painting; he has no flow of honeyed language like Cyprian, no torrent of phrases like Chrysostom; he is a writer, not an orator, and a learned and classical writer. But such letters as his, for astonishing force and liveliness, for point, and wit, and terse expression, were never written before or since. There is no sense of effort, and though we feel that the language must have been studied, we are rarely tempted to call it studied language, for Jerome knows the strange secret of polishing his steel weapons while they are still at a white heat, and of hurling them before they cool. He was a dangerous adversary, and had few scruples in taking every possible advantage. He has the unfortunate defect of his extraordinary swiftness, that he is extremely inaccurate, and his historical statements need careful control. His biographies of the hermits, his words about monastic life, virginity, Roman faith, our Blessed Lady, relics of saints, have exercised great influence. It has only been known of late years that Jerome was a preacher; the little extempore discourses published by Dom Mona are full of his irrepressible personality and his careless learning.

(8) Africa was a stranger to the Arian struggle, being occupied with a battle of its own. Donatism (311-411) was for a long time paramount in Numidia, and sometimes in other parts. The writings of the Donatists have mostly perished. About 370 St. Optatus published an effective controversial work against them. The attack was carried on by a yet greater controversialist, St. Augustine, with a marvellous success, so that the inveterate schism was practically at an end twenty years before that saint's death. So happy an event turned the eyes of all Christendom to the brilliant protagonist of the African Catholics, who had already dealt crushing blows at the Latin Manichaean writers. From 417 till his death in 431, he was engaged in an even greater conflict with the philosophical and naturalistic heresy of Pelagius and Caelestius. In this he was at first assisted by the aged Jerome; the popes condemned the innovators and the emperor legislated against them. If St. Augustine has the unique fame of having prostrated three heresies, it is because he was as anxious to persuade as to refute. He was perhaps the greatest controversialist the world has ever seen. Besides this he was not merely the greatest philosopher among the Fathers, but he was the only great philosopher. His purely theological works, especially his "De Trinitate", are unsurpassed for depth, grasp, and clearness, among early ecclesiastical writers, whether Eastern or Western. As a philosophical theologian he has no superior, except his own son and disciple, St. Thomas Aquinas. It is probably correct to say that no one, except Aristotle, has exercised so vast, so profound, and so beneficial an influence on European thought.

Augustine was himself a Platonist through and through. As a commentator he cared little for the letter, and everything for the spirit, but his harmony of the Gospels shows that he could attend to history and detail. The allegorizing tendencies he inherited from his spiritual father, Ambrose, carry him now and then into extravagances, but more often he rather soars than commentates, and his "In Genesim ad litteram", and his treatises on the Psalms and on St. John, are works of extraordinary power and interest, and quite worthy, in a totally different style, to rank with Chrysostom on Matthew. St. Augustine was a professor of rhetoric before his wonderful conversion; but like St. Cyprian, and even more than St. Cyprian, he put aside, as a Christian, all the artifices of oratory which he knew so well. He retained correctness of grammar and perfect good taste, together with the power of speaking and writing with ease in a style of masterly simplicity and of dignified though almost colloquial plainness.

Nothing could be more individual than this style of St. Augustine's, in which he talks to the reader or to God with perfect openness and with an astonishing, often almost exasperating, subtlety of thought. He had the power of seeing all round a subject and through and through it, and he was too conscientious not to use this gift to the uttermost. Large-minded and far-seeing, he was also very learned. He mastered Greek only in later life, in order to make himself familiar with the works of the Eastern Fathers. His "De Civitate Dei" shows vast stores of reading; still more, it puts him in the first place among apologists. Before his death (431) he was the object of extraordinary veneration. He had founded a monastery at Tagaste, which supplied Africa with bishops, and he lived at Hippo with his clergy in a common life, to which the Regular Canons of later days have always looked as their model. The great Dominican Order, the Augustinians, and numberless congregations of nuns still look to him as their father and legislator. His devotional works have had a vogue second only to that of another of his spiritual sons, Thomas à Kempis. He had in his lifetime a reputation for miracles, and his sanctity is felt in all his writings, and breathes in the story of his life. It has been remarked that there is about this many-sided bishop a certain symmetry which makes him an almost faultless model of a holy, wise, and active man. It is well to remember that he was essentially a penitent.

(9) In Spain, the great poet Prudentius surpassed all his predecessors, of whom the best had been Juvencus and the almost pagan rhetorician Ausonius. The curious treatises of the Spanish heretic Priscillian were discovered only in 1889. In Gaul Rufinus of Aquileia must be mentioned as the very free translator of Origen, etc., and of Eusebius's "History", which he continued up to his own date. In South Italy his friend Paulinus of Nola has left us pious poems and elaborate letters.


(1) The fragments of Nestorius's writings have been collected by Loofs. Some of them were preserved by a disciple of St. Augustine, Marius Mercator, who made two collections of documents, concerning Nestorianism and Pelagianism respectively. The great adversary of Nestorius, St. Cyril of Alexandria, was opposed by a yet greater writer, Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrus. Cyril is a very voluminous writer, and his long commentaries in the mystical Alexandrian vein do not much interest modern readers. But his principal letters and treatises on the Nestorian question show him as a theologian who has a deep spiritual insight into the meaning of the Incarnation and its effect upon the human race — the lifting up of man to union with God. We see here the influence of Egyptian asceticism, from Anthony the Great (whose life St. Athanasius wrote), and the Macarii (one of whom left some valuable works in Greek), and Pachomius, to his own time. In their ascetical systems, the union with God by contemplation was naturally the end in view, but one is surprised how little is made by them of meditation on the life and Passion of Christ. It is not omitted, but the tendency as with St. Cyril and with the Monophysites who believed they followed him, is to think rather of the Godhead than of the Manhood. The Antiochene school had exaggerated the contrary tendency, out of opposition to Apollinarianism, which made Christ's Manhood incomplete, and they thought more of man united to God than of God made man.

Theodoret undoubtedly avoided the excesses of Theodore and Nestorius, and his doctrine was accepted at last by St. Leo as orthodox, in spite of his earlier persistent defence of Nestorius. His history of the monks is less valuable than the earlier writings of eyewitnesses — Palladius in the East, and Rufinus and afterwards Cassian in the West. But Theodoret's "History" in continuation of Eusebius contains valuable information. His apologetic and controversial writings are the works of a good theologian. His masterpieces are his exegetical works, which are neither oratory like those of Chrysostom, nor exaggeratedly literal like those of Theodore. With him the great Antiochene school worthily closes, as the Alexandrian does with St. Cyril. Together with these great men may be mentioned St. Cyril's spiritual adviser, St. Isidore of Pelusium, whose 2000 letters deal chiefly with allegorical exegesis, the commentary on St. Mark by Victor of Antioch, and the introduction to the interpretation of Scripture by the monk Hadrian, a manual of the Antiochene method.

(2) The Eutychian controversy produced no great works in the East. Such works of the Monophysites as have survived are in Syriac or Coptic versions.

(3) The two Constantinopolitan historians, Socrates and Sozomen, in spite of errors, contain some data which are precious, since many of the sources which they used are lost to us. With Theodoret, their contemporary, they form a triad just in the middle of the century. St. Nilus of Sinai is the chief among many ascetical writers.

(4) St. Sulpicius Severus, a Gallic noble, disciple and biographer of the great St. Martin of Tours, was a classical scholar, and showed himself an elegant writer in his "Ecclesiastical History". The school of Lérins produced many writers besides St. Vincent. We may mention Eucherius, Faustus, and the great St. Caesarius of Arles (543). Other Gallic writers are Salvian, St. Sidonius Apollinaris, Gennadius, St. Avitus of Vienne, and Julianus Pomerius.

(5) In the West, the series of papal decretals begins with Pope Siricius (384-98). Of the more important popes large numbers of letters have been preserved. Those of the wise St. Innocent I (401-17), the hot-headed St. Zosimus (417-8), and the severe St. Celestine are perhaps the most important in the first half of the century; in the second half those of Hilarus, Simplicius, and above all the learned St. Gelasius (492-6). Midway in the century stands St. Leo, the greatest of the early popes, whose steadfastness and sanctity saved Rome from Attila, and the Romans from Genseric. He could be unbending in the enunciation of principle; he was condescending in the condoning of breaches of discipline for the sake of peace, and he was a skilful diplomatist. His sermons and the dogmatic letters in his large correspondence show him to us as the most lucid of all theologians. He is clear in his expression, not because he is superficial, but because he has thought clearly and deeply. He steers between Nestorianism and Eutychianism, not by using subtle distinctions or elaborate arguments, but by stating plain definitions in accurate words. He condemned Monothelitism by anticipation. His style is careful, with metrical cadences. Its majestic rhythms and its sonorous closes have invested the Latin language with a new splendour and dignity.


(1) In the sixth century the large correspondence of Pope Hormisdas is of the highest interest. That century closes with St. Gregory the Great, whose celebrated "Registrum" exceeds in volume many times over the collections of the letters of other early popes. The Epistles are of great variety and throw light on the varied interests of the great pope's life and the varied events in the East and West of his time. His "Morals on the Book of Job" is not a literal commentary, but pretends only to illustrate the moral sense underlying the text. With all the strangeness it presents to modern notions, it is a work full of wisdom and instruction. The remarks of St. Gregory on the spiritual life and on contemplation are of special interest. As a theologian he is original only in that he combines all the traditional theology of the West without adding to it. He commonly follows Augustine as a theologian, a commentator and a preacher. His sermons are admirably practical; they are models of what a good sermon should be. After St. Gregory there are some great popes whose letters are worthy of study, such as Nicholas I and John VIII; but these and the many other late writers of the West belong properly to the medieval period. St. Gregory of Tours is certainly medieval, but the learned Bede is quite patristic. His great history is the most faithful and perfect history to be found in the early centuries.

(2) In the East, the latter half of the fifth century is very barren. The sixth century is not much better. The importance of Leontius of Byzantium (died c. 543) for the history of dogma has only lately been realized. Poets and hagiographers, chroniclers, canonists, and ascetical writers succeed each other. Catenas by way of commentaries are the order of the day. St. Maximus Confessor, Anastasius of Mount Sinai, and Andrew of Caesarea must be named. The first of these commented on the works of the pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, which had probably first seen the light towards the end of the fifth century. St. John of Damascus (c. 750) closes the patristic period with his polemics against heresies, his exegetical and ascetical writings, his beautiful hymns, and above all his "Fountain of Wisdom", which is a compendium of patristic theology and a kind of anticipation of scholasticism. Indeed, the "Summae Theologicae" of the Middle Ages were founded on the "Sentences" of Peter Lombard, who had taken the skeleton of his work from this last of the Greek Fathers.

Characteristics of patristic writings


It has been seen that the literal school of exegesis had its home at Antioch, while the allegorical school was Alexandrian, and the entire West, on the whole, followed the allegorical method, mingling literalism with it in various degrees. The suspicion of Arianism has lost to us the fourth-century writers of the Antiochene school, such as Theodore of Heraclea and Eusebius of Emesa, and the charge of Nestorianism has caused the commentaries of Diodorus and Theodore of Mopsuestia (for the most part) to disappear. The Alexandrian school has lost yet more heavily, for little of the great Origen remains except in fragments and in unreliable versions. The great Antiochenes, Chrysostom and Theodoret, have a real grasp of the sense of the sacred text. They treat it with reverence and love, and their explanations are of deep value, because the language of the New Testament was their own tongue, so that we moderns cannot afford to neglect their comments. On the contrary, Origen, the moulder of the allegorizing type of commentary, who had inherited the Philonic tradition of the Alexandrian Jews, was essentially irreverent to the inspired authors. The Old Testament was to him full of errors, lies, and blasphemies, so far as the letter was concerned, and his defence of it against the pagans, the Gnostics, and especially the Marcionites, was to point only to the spiritual meaning. Theoretically he distinguished a triple sense, the somatic, the psychic, and the pneumatic, following St. Paul's trichotomy; but in practice he mainly gives the spiritual, as opposed to the corporal or literal.

St. Augustine sometimes defends the Old Testament against the Manichæans in the same style, and occasionally in a most unconvincing manner, but with great moderation and restraint. In his "De Genesi ad litteram" he has evolved a far more effective method, with his usual brilliant originality, and he shows that the objections brought against the truth of the first chapters of the book invariably rest upon the baseless assumption that the objector has found the true meaning of the text. But Origen applied his method, though partially, even to the New Testament, and regarded the Evangelists as sometimes false in the letter, but as saving the truth in the hidden spiritual meaning. In this point the good feeling of Christians prevented his being followed. But the brilliant example he gave, of running riot in the fantastic exegesis which his method encouraged, had an unfortunate influence. He is fond of giving a variety of applications to a single text, and his promise to hold nothing but what can be proved from Scripture becomes illusory when he shows by example that any part of Scripture may mean anything he pleases. The reverent temper of later writers, and especially of the Westerns, preferred to represent as the true meaning of the sacred writer the allegory which appeared to them to be the most obvious. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in their beautiful works on the Psalms rather spiritualize, or moralize, than allegorize, and their imaginative interpretations are chiefly of events, actions, numbers, etc. But almost all allegorical interpretation is so arbitrary and depends so much on the caprice of the exegete that it is difficult to conciliate it with reverence, however one may be dazzled by the beauty of much of it. An alternative way of defending the Old Testament was excogitated by the ingenious author of the pseudo-Clementines; he asserts that it has been depraved and interpolated. St. Jerome's learning has made his exegesis unique; he frequently gives alternative explanations and refers to the authors who have adopted them. From the middle of the fifth century onwards, second-hand commentaries are universal in East and West, and originality almost entirely disappears. Andrew of Caesarea is perhaps an exception, for he commented on a book which was scarcely at all read in the East, the Apocalypse.

Discussions of method are not wanting. Clement of Alexandria gives "traditional methods", the literal, typical, moral, and prophetical. The tradition is obviously from Rabbinism. We must admit that it has in its favour the practice of St. Matthew and St. Paul. Even more than Origen, St. Augustine theorized on this subject. In his "De Doctrina Christiana" he gives elaborate rules of exegesis. Elsewhere he distinguishes four senses of Scripture: historical, aetiological (economic), analogical (where N.T. explains O.T.), and allegorical ("De Util. Cred.", 3; cf. "De Vera Rel.", 50). The book of rules composed by the Donatist Tichonius has an analogy in the smaller "canons" of St. Paul's Epistles by Priscillian. Hadrian of Antioch was mentioned above. St. Gregory the Great compares Scripture to a river so shallow that a lamb can walk in it, so deep that an elephant can float. (Pref. to "Morals on Job"). He distinguishes the historical or literal sense, the moral, and the allegorical or typical. If the Western Fathers are fanciful, yet this is better than the extreme literalism of Theodore of Mopsuestia, who refused to allegorize even the Canticle of Canticles.


We have sermons from the Greek Church much earlier than from the Latin. Indeed, Sozomen tells us that, up to his time (c. 450), there were no public sermons in the churches at Rome. This seems almost incredible. St. Leo's sermons are, however, the first sermons certainly preached at Rome which have reached us, for those of Hippolytus were all in Greek; unless the homily "Adversus Alcatores" be a sermon by a Novatian antipope. The series of Latin preachers begins in the middle of the fourth century. The so-called "Second Epistle of St. Clement" is a homily belonging possibly to the second century. Many of the commentaries of Origen are a series of sermons, as is the case later with all Chrysostom's commentaries and most of Augustine's.

In many cases treatises are composed of a course of sermons, as, for instance, is the case for some of those of Ambrose, who seems to have rewritten his sermons after delivery. The "De Sacramentis" may possibly be the version by a shorthand-writer of the course which the saint himself edited under the title "De Mysteriis". In any case the "De Sacramentis" (whether by Ambrose or not) has a freshness and naiveté which is wanting in the certainly authentic "De Mysteriis". Similarly the great courses of sermons preached by St. Chrysostom at Antioch were evidently written or corrected by his own hand, but those he delivered at Constantinople were either hurriedly corrected, or not at all. His sermons on Acts, which have come down to us in two quite distinct texts in the manuscripts, are probably known to us only in the forms in which they were taken down by two different tachygraphers. St. Gregory Nazianzen complains of the importunity of these shorthand-writers (Orat. xxxii), as St. Jerome does of their incapacity (Ep. lxxi, 5). Their art was evidently highly perfected, and specimens of it have come down to us. They were officially employed at councils (e.g. at the great conference with the Donatists at Carthage, in 411, we hear of them). It appears that many or most of the bishops at the Council of Ephesus, in 449, had their own shorthand-writers with them. The method of taking notes and of amplifying receives illustration from the Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 27 April, 449, at which the minutes were examined which had been taken down by tachygraphers at the council held a few weeks earlier.

Many of St. Augustine's sermons are certainly from shorthand notes. As to others we are uncertain, for the style of the written ones is often so colloquial that it is difficult to get a criterion. The sermons of St. Jerome at Bethlehem, published by Dom Morin, are from shorthand reports, and the discourses themselves were unprepared conferences on those portions of the Psalms or of the Gospels which had been sung in the liturgy. The speaker has clearly often been preceded by another priest, and on the Western Christmas Day, which his community alone is keeping, the bishop is present and will speak last. In fact the pilgrim Ætheria tells us that at Jerusalem, in the fourth century, all the priests present spoke in turn, if they chose, and the bishop last of all. Such improvised comments are far indeed from the oratorical discourses of St. Gregory Nazianzen, from the lofty flights of Chrysostom, from the torrent of iteration that characterizes the short sermons of Peter Chrysologus, from the neat phrases of Maximus of Turin, and the ponderous rhythms of Leo the Great. The eloquence of these Fathers need not be here described. In the West we may add in the fourth century Gaudentius of Brescia; several small collections of interesting sermons appear in the fifth century; the sixth opens with the numerous collections made by St. Caesarius for the use of preachers. There is practically no edition of the works of this eminent and practical bishop. St. Gregory (apart from some fanciful exegesis) is the most practical preacher of the West. Nothing could be more admirable for imitation than St. Chrysostom. The more ornate writers are less safe to copy. St. Augustine's style is too personal to be an example, and few are so learned, so great, and so ready, that they can venture to speak as simply as he often does.


The Fathers do not belong to the strictly classical period of either the Greek or the Latin language; but this does not imply that they wrote bad Latin or Greek. The conversational form of the Koiné or common dialect of Greek, which is found in the New Testament and in many papyri, is not the language of the Fathers, except of the very earliest. For the Greek Fathers write in a more classicizing style than most of the New Testament writers; none of them uses quite a vulgar or ungrammatical Greek, while some Atticize, e.g. the Cappadocians and Synesius. The Latin Fathers are often less classical. Tertullian is a Latin Carlyle; he knew Greek, and wrote books in that language, and tried to introduce ecclesiastical terms into Latin. St. Cyprian's "Ad Donatum", probably his first Christian writing, shows an Apuleian preciosity which he eschewed in all his other works, but which his biographer Pontius has imitated and exaggerated. Men like Jerome and Augustine, who had a thorough knowledge of classical literature, would not employ tricks of style, and cultivated a manner which should be correct, but simple and straightforward; yet their style could not have been what it was but for their previous study. For the spoken Latin of all the patristic centuries was very different from the written. We get examples of the vulgar tongue here and there in the letters of Pope Cornelius as edited by Mercati, for the third century, or in the Rule of St. Benedict in Wölfflin's or Dom Mona's editions, for the sixth. In the latter we get such modernisms as cor murmurantem, post quibus, cum responsoria sua, which show how the confusing genders and cases of the classics were disappearing into the more reasonable simplicity of Italian. Some of the Fathers use the rhythmical endings of the "cursus" in their prose; some have the later accented endings which were corruptions of the correct prosodical ones. Familiar examples of the former are in the older Collects of the Mass; of the latter the Te Deum is an obvious instance.

East and West

Before speaking of the theological characteristics of the Fathers, we have to take into account the great division of the Roman Empire into two languages. Language is the great separator. When two emperors divided the Empire, it was not quite according to language; nor were the ecclesiastical divisions more exact, since the great province of Illyricum, including Macedonia and all Greece, was attached to the West through at least a large part of the patristic period, and was governed by the archbishop of Thessalonica, not as its exarch or patriarch, but as papal legate. But in considering the literary productions of the age, we must class them as Latin or Greek, and this is what will be meant here by Western and Eastern.

The understanding of the relations between Greeks and Latins is often obscured by certain prepossessions. We talk of the "unchanging East", of the philosophical Greeks as opposed to the practical Romans, of the reposeful thought of the Oriental mind over against the rapidity and orderly classification which characterizes Western intelligence. All this is very misleading, and it is important to go back to the facts. In the first place, the East was converted far more rapidly than the West. When Constantine made Christianity the established religion of both empires from 323 onwards, there was a striking contrast between the two. In the West paganism had everywhere a very large majority, except possibly in Africa. But in the Greek world Christianity was quite the equal of the old religions in influence and numbers; in the great cities it might even be predominant, and some towns were practically Christian. The story told of St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker, that he found but seventeen Christians in Neocæsarea when he became bishop, and that he left but seventeen pagans in the same city when he died (c. 270-5), must be substantially true. Such a story in the West would be absurd. The villages of the Latin countries held out for long, and the pagani retained the worship of the old gods even after they were all nominally Christianized. In Phrygia, on the contrary, entire villages were Christian long before Constantine, though it is true that elsewhere some towns were still heathen in Julian's day — Gaza in Palestine is an example; but then Maiouma, the port of Gaza, was Christian.

Two consequences, amongst others, of this swift evangelization of the East must be noticed. In the first place, while the slow progress of the West was favourable to the preservation of the unchanged tradition, the quick conversion of the East was accompanied by a rapid development which, in the sphere of dogma, was hasty, unequal, and fruitful of error. Secondly, the Eastern religion partook, even during the heroic age of persecution, of the evil which the West felt so deeply after Constantine, that is to say, of the crowding into the Church of multitudes who were only half Christianized, because it was the fashionable thing to do, or because a part of the beauties of the new religion and of the absurdities of the old were seen. We have actually Christian writers, in East and West, such as Arnobius, and to some extent Lactantius and Julius Africanus, who show that they are only half instructed in the Faith. This must have been largely the case among the people in the East. Tradition in the East was less regarded, and faith was less deep than in the smaller Western communities. Again, the Latin writers begin in Africa with Tertullian, just before the third century, at Rome with Novatian, just in the middle of the third century, and in Spain and Gaul not till the fourth. But the East had writers in the first century, and numbers in the second; there were Gnostic and Christian schools in the second and third. There had been, indeed, Greek writers at Rome in the first and second centuries and part of the third. But when the Roman Church became Latin they were forgotten; the Latin writers did not cite Clement and Hermas; they totally forgot Hippolytus, except his chronicle, and his name became merely a theme for legend.

Though Rome was powerful and venerated in the second century, and though her tradition remained unbroken, the break in her literature is complete. Latin literature is thus a century and a half younger than the Greek; indeed it is practically two centuries and a half younger. Tertullian stands alone, and he became a heretic. Until the middle of the fourth century there had appeared but one Latin Father for the spiritual reading of the educated Latin Christian, and it is natural that the stichometry, edited (perhaps semi-officially) under Pope Liberius for the control of booksellers' prices, gives the works of St. Cyprian as well as the books of the Latin Bible. This unique position of St. Cyprian was still recognized at the beginning of the fifth century. From Cyprian (d. 258) to Hilary there was scarcely a Latin book that could be recommended for popular reading except Lactantius's "De mortibus persecutorum", and there was no theology at all. Even a little later, the commentaries of Victorinus the Rhetorician were valueless, and those of Isaac the Jew (?) were odd. The one vigorous period of Latin literature is the bare century which ends with Leo (d. 461). During that century Rome had been repeatedly captured or threatened by barbarians; Arian Vandals, besides devastating Italy and Gaul, had almost destroyed the Catholicism of Spain and Africa; the Christian British had been murdered in the English invasion. Yet the West had been able to rival the East in output and in eloquence and even to surpass it in learning, depth, and variety. The elder sister knew little of these productions, but the West was supplied with a considerable body of translations from the Greek, even in the fourth century. In the sixth, Cassiodorus took care that the amount should be increased. This gave the Latins a larger outlook, and even the decay of learning which Cassiodorus and Agapetus could not remedy, and which Pope Agatho deplored so humbly in his letter to the Greek council of 680, was resisted with a certain persistent vigour.

At Constantinople the means of learning were abundant, and there were many authors; yet there is a gradual decline till the fifteenth century. The more notable writers are like flickers amid dying embers. There were chroniclers and chronographers, but with little originality. Even the monastery of Studium is hardly a literary revival. There is in the East no enthusiasm like that of Cassiodorus, of Isidore, of Alcuin, amid a barbarian world. Photius had wonderful libraries at his disposal, yet Bede had wider learning, and probably knew more of the East than Photius did of the West. The industrious Irish schools which propagated learning in every part of Europe had no parallel in the Oriental world. It was after the fifth century that the East began to be "unchanging". And as the bond with the West grew less and less continuous, her theology and literature became more and more mummified; whereas the Latin world blossomed anew with an Anselm, subtle as Augustine, a Bernard, rival to Chrysostom, an Aquinas, prince of theologians.

Hence we observe in the early centuries a twofold movement, which must be spoken of separately: an Eastward movement of theology, by which the West imposed her dogmas on the reluctant East, and a Westward movement in most practical things — organization, liturgy, ascetics, devotion — by which the West assimilated the swifter evolution of the Greeks. We take first the theological movement.


Throughout the second century the Greek portion of Christendom bred heresies. The multitude of Gnostic schools tried to introduce all kinds of foreign elements into Christianity. Those who taught and believed them did not start from a belief in the Trinity and the Incarnation such as we are accustomed to. Marcion formed not a school, but a Church; his Christology was very far removed from tradition. The Montanists made a schism which retained the traditional beliefs and practices, but asserted a new revelation. The leaders of all the new views came to Rome, and tried to gain a footing there; all were condemned and excommunicated. At the end of the century, Rome got all the East to agree with her traditional rule that Easter should be kept on Sunday. The Churches of Asia Minor had a different custom. One of their bishops protested. But they seem to have submitted almost at once. In the first decades of the third century, Rome impartially repelled opposing heresies, those which identified the three Persons of the Holy Trinity with only a modal distinction (Monarchians, Sabellians, "Patripassians"), and those who, on the contrary, made Christ a mere man, or seemed to ascribe to the Word of God a distinct being from that of the Father. This last conception, to our amazement, is assumed, it would appear, by the early Greek apologists, though in varying language; Athenagoras (who as an Athenian may have been in relation with the West) is the only one who asserts the Unity of the Trinity. Hippolytus (somewhat diversely in the "Contra Noetum" and in the "Philosophumena," if they are both his) taught the same division of the Son from the Father as traditional, and he records that Pope Callistus condemned him as a Ditheist.

Origen, like many of the others, makes the procession of the Word depend upon His office of Creator; and if he is orthodox enough to make the procession an eternal and necessary one, this is only because he regards Creation itself as necessary and eternal. His pupil, Dionysius of Alexandria, in combating the Sabellians, who admitted no real distinctions in the Godhead, manifested the characteristic weakness of the Greek theology, but some of his own Egyptians were more correct than their patriarch, and appealed to Rome. The Alexandrian listened to the Roman Dionysius, for all respected the unchanging tradition and unblemished orthodoxy of the See of Peter; his apology accepts the word "consubstantial", and he explains, no doubt sincerely, that he had never meant anything else; but he had learnt to see more clearly, without recognizing how unfortunately worded were his earlier arguments. He was not present when a council, mainly of Origenists, justly condemned Paul of Samosata (268); and these bishops, holding the traditional Eastern view, refused to use the word "consubstantial" as being too like Sabellianism. The Arians, disciples of Lucian, rejected (as did the more moderate Eusebius of Caesarea) the eternity of Creation, and they were logical enough to argue that consequently "there was (before time was) when the Word was not", and that He was a creature. All Christendom was horrified; but the East was soon appeased by vague explanations, and after Nicaea, real, undisguised Arianism hardly showed its head for nearly forty years. The highest point of orthodoxy that the East could reach is shown in the admirable lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem. There is one God, he teaches, that is the Father, and His Son is equal to Him in all things, and the Holy Ghost is adored with Them; we cannot separate Them in our worship. But he does not ask himself how there are not three Gods; he will not use the Nicene word "consubstantial", and he never suggests that there is one Godhead common to the three Persons.

If we turn to the Latins all is different. The essential Monotheism of Christianity is not saved in the West by saying there is "one God the Father", as in all the Eastern creeds, but the theologians teach the unity of the Divine essence, in which subsist three Persons. If Tertullian and Novatian use subordinationist language of the Son (perhaps borrowed from the East), it is of little consequence in comparison with their main doctrine, that there is one substance of the Father and of the Son. Callistus excommunicates equally those who deny the distinction of Persons, and those who refuse to assert the unity of substance. Pope Dionysius is shocked that his namesake did not use the word "consubstantial" — this is more than sixty years before Nicaea. At that great council a Western bishop has the first place, with two Roman priests, and the result of the discussion is that the Roman word "consubstantial" is imposed up on all. In the East the council is succeeded by a conspiracy of silence; the Orientals will not use the word. Even Alexandria, which had kept to the doctrine of Dionysius of Rome, is not convinced that the policy was good and Athanasius spends his life in fighting for Nicaea, yet rarely uses the crucial word. It takes half a century for the Easterns to digest it; and when they do so, they do not make the most of its meaning. It is curious how little interest even Athanasius shows in the Unity of the Trinity, which he scarcely mentions except when quoting the Dionysii; it is Didymus and the Cappadocians who word Trinitarian doctrine in the manner since consecrated by the centuries — three hypostases, one usia; but this is merely the conventional translation of the ancient Latin formula, though it was new to the East.

If we look back at the three centuries, second, third, and fourth of which we have been speaking, we shall see that the Greek-speaking Church taught the Divinity of the Son, and Three inseparable Persons, and one God the Father, without being able philosophically to harmonize these conceptions. The attempts which were made were sometimes condemned as heresy in the one direction or the other, or at best arrived at unsatisfactory and erroneous explanations, such as the distinction of the logos endiathetos and the logos prophorikos or the assertion of the eternity of Creation. The Latin Church preserved always the simple tradition of three distinct Persons and one divine Essence. We must judge the Easterns to have started from a less perfect tradition, for it would be too harsh to accuse them of wilfully perverting it. But they show their love of subtle distinctions at the same time that they lay bare their want of philosophical grasp. The common people talked theology in the streets; but the professional theologians did not see that the root of religion is the unity of God, and that, so far, it is better to be a