The Beginnings of Patristic Literature
Johannes Quasten (Ave Maria, 1950)
367 p. First reading.
One of the engagement gifts my wife and I received a few years ago was Johannes Quasten’s four-volume Patrology, which surveys early Christian writings from Apostolic times through the fifth century. I have been slowly working my way through it, supplementing my reading with primary texts, and have at least reached the end of the first (and shortest) volume, which covers the earliest extant Christian literature, both orthodox and heterodox, up through St. Irenaeus of Lyons in the late second century.
After a brief introduction to the study of patristic literature, Quasten turns to the very earliest surviving Christian texts outside of the New Testament: the Apostles Creed and The Didache. The Apostles Creed in its present form is substantially later than the period under consideration here, but portions of it are drawn from Scripture, and we have allusions to an early version in a variety of second-century texts. The Didache I have written about on a previous occasion; it dates from somewhere in the late first or early second century, and is notable for, among other things, containing an early Eucharistic prayer and a summary of Christian ethics.
The following section takes up the writings of the Apostolic Fathers: those who either knew the Apostles, or were instructed by someone who did. Into this category fall Pope St. Clement I (whose Letter to the Corinthians I have discussed before), St. Ignatius of Antioch (discussed here), St. Polycarp of Smyrna, and, somewhat awkwardly, the apocalyptic The Shepherd of Hermas. In these writings we begin to see the development of familiar Christian doctrines in their permanent form: there is a clearer articulation of the nature of the Church, of the priesthood and ecclesiastical hierarchy, and of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome; the sacraments of baptism, penance, and Eucharist are mentioned; the nature of Christ begins to be clarified, though the great Christological controversies are yet to arise; a theological understanding of martyrdom is developed.
In a section on early Christian imaginative literature, Quasten looks at poetry, legend, and apocryphal gospels. The amount of poetry we have from this period is small, but important. There are several early hymns, a large set of poems called the Odes of Solomon, some of which contain Christian content, and a set of Sibylline oracles composed in the second century. Of special interest are several surviving tombstone inscriptions from the second century, especially the “Inscription of Abercius” in which the deceased’s Christian belief is conveyed in eloquent metaphors:
…Abercius by name, I am a disciple of the chaste shepherd,
Who feedeth His flocks of sheep on mountains and plains,
Who hath great eyes that look on all sides…
This inscription also contains the earliest non-manuscript reference to the Eucharist:
…Having Paul as a companion, everywhere faith led the way
And set before me for food the fish from the spring
Mighty and pure, whom a spotless Virgin caught,
And gave this to friends to eat, always
Having sweet wine and giving the mixed cup with bread…
The apocryphal literature of the early Church comes in several varieties: the apocryphal gospels, of which there are many, contain legendary embellishments about the life of Christ; apocryphal Acts of the Apostles elaborate on the later lives of the Apostles; and apocryphal Epistles address a variety of theological issues. The existence of these apocryphal texts is sometimes taken to be scandalous, as though they contain the seeds of an alternative but equally valid version of Christianity that was suppressed by Church officials, quite possibly for their own nefarious purposes. Quasten quotes a scholar named M.R. James, who addresses this view forthrightly:
People may still be heard to say, “After all, these Apocryphal Gospels and Acts, as you call them, are just as interesting as the old ones. It was only by accident or caprice that they were not put into the New Testament”. The best answer to such loose talk has always been, and is now, to produce the writings and let them tell their own story. It will very quickly be seen that there is no question of anyone’s having excluded them from the New Testament: they have done that for themselves.
This is quite true: I have proved it by experiment. In any case, these texts are non-canonical not principally because of what they say, but because of the late date at which they were written. (Note, by the way, that M.R. James was writing in 1924; this is hardly a new issue.) Nevertheless these texts are valuable in their own way. Many of their stories have been incorporated into the traditions of Christian art, such as the story of the child Jesus making living birds from clay, or the description of St. Paul from the Acts of Paul (“a man little of stature, with bald head and bent legs, strong, with eyebrows joining and nose somewhat hooked”).
Another class of writings are the earliest Acts of the Martyrs, which vary from largely historical to mostly imaginative. Into the former category go several surviving records of official court proceedings against Christian believers, such as the Acts of St.Justin and his Companions, which recount the trial and execution of St. Justin Martyr and others, and the Proconsular Acts of St. Cyprian, based on the official reports surrounding the martyrdom of the great bishop of Carthage in September 258 AD. Other texts are based on purported eyewitness accounts of martyrdom, such as the Martyrdom of Polycarp (156 AD) and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity (202 AD). These are of great value for understanding the early Church’s view of martyrdom, and they are of course very moving in their portraits of these faithful believers. A third class of writings are legendary accounts of the lives and deaths of well-known saints such as St. Cecilia, St. Lawrence, St. Sebastian, Sts. Cosmas and Damian, and others. These were written well after the fact, and probably contain much imaginative elaboration of the historical reality. Still, they have their place. Not for nothing have they been so popular.
More substantial fare is found in the writings of the early Greek apologists. These men set themselves the task of defending the young Church against those who opposed her, and they proceeded along three main fronts: first, they challenged and corrected the calumnies and misconceptions concerning Christians that were common among their contemporaries, and pleaded eloquently for freedom of conscience and religion; second, they argued against pagan religion, attempting to show its various inadequecies; and third, they tried to show the superior wisdom of Christianity. They contended not just that Christianity was better, but that is was better in a special way: it was true. The names of these early apologists are not all well-known — Quadratus of Athens, Apollinaris of Hieropolis, and Melito of Sardis are fairly obscure — but others, such as St. Justin Martyr, are prominent figures. Justin is notable for his balanced approach to Christian thought: whereas someone like Tatian the Syrian was so keen to show the absurdities of paganism that he relegated all of pagan thought to the trash, Justin set about building bridges between Christian belief and pagan philosophy (as, for instance, in his use of the concept of Logos, which I have written about elsewhere). Interestingly, Justin is also the first known Christian theologian to elaborate the Scriptural contrast between Adam and Jesus with a parallel contrast between Eve and Mary. Theophilus of Antioch, writing in about 180 AD, was the first theologian to use the word “Trinity” to describe the nature of God, and Athenagoras of Athens, one of the most eloquent early Christian writers, in an apology addressed to Marcus Aurelius gives one of the earliest and most complete articulations of the Christian opposition to abortion and infanticide.
Any survey of early Christian literature has to examine early heretical texts. In the second century two movements arose within the Church that threatened her: Gnosticism, which in seeking a form of belief more palatable to pagan contemporaries introduced various corruptions into Christian theology, and Montanism, which advocated a retreat from the pagan world and thereby threatened the Church’s universal mission. As Quasten says: “Of these two enemies, Gnosticism was by far the most dangerous.”
Gnosticism seems to be a perpetual temptation for Christians, for it has arisen again and again, in one form or another, throughout her history. It existed in the ancient world, combining elements of Christianity with influences from Stoicism and neo-Platonism and Pythagorian philosophy; St. Augustine encountered it in the form of Manicheism; we find it again in medieval France among the Cathars; and some have argued that we see it still in certain strains of modern Protestantism. Indeed, we find aspects of it sown throughout Western culture, whether religious or secular. There does not exist anything like an “official” form of Gnosticism, but certain characteristics are typical: a disparagement of faith in favour of a fully rational religion (cf. Enlightenment philosophy); claims to the possession of secret knowledge available only to initiates (cf. Scientology); a view of the world as a vast battleground between equally matched powers of good and evil (cf. “The Force”); a belief that the body, and even all matter, is evil, and an identification of the “real” person with a mind or immaterial entity inhabiting a body (cf. many modern Christians, advocates of the sexual revolution, and New Age gurus). Gnostics in the early Church argued that Christ could not have been truly human, for it is not fitting that a Divine being be united to matter, and Christ could not have suffered and died, for this too is an offense against the Divine nature. (Basilides, working in Alexandria, advocated a position rather close to the modern Muslim view: at the crucifixion Jesus changed identities with a bystander, who was killed in his place.) Marcion argued that the God of the Jews and the God of the Christians are two different beings, and he sought to divorce the New Testament from the Old. He denied that Christ died to redeem the body, and indeed he denied that he was born of a woman. He was excommunicated in the mid-second century and thereafter founded his own Church, some congregations of which survived into the Middle Ages.
The rise of this Gnostic literature in the second century provoked a response from orthodox writers, and they are the subject of the final chapter of this volume. By a good margin the most important of these men was St. Irenaeus of Lyons, and that despite the fact that only two of his works have survived intact. As a young man Irenaeus knew St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who in turn had known St. John the Evangelist, so he has a fairly direct link of the Apostles, and he proved himself both zealous in defence of “the faith once delivered” and (not guaranteed solely on the basis of zeal) a competent theologian. Quasten says that “Irenaeus deserves great credit for having been the first to formulate in dogmatic terms the entire Christian doctrine.” At the heart of his theological project is the concept of “recapitulation”, found also in St. Paul’s writings: in Christ, the second Adam, humanity and all of creation are gathered up, renewed, and restored to communion with God. The course of redemption echoes, and undoes, the course of the Fall. Mary, too, has her role as the second Eve, the true spiritual mother of all the living. He defended the apostolic nature of the Church, and the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. He is explicit, as others had been before him, in defending the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He gives us our first reference to the practice of infant baptism in the early Church. For these and other reasons (to which I can hardly do justice in a single paragraph), St. Irenaeus looms large in any understanding of early Christianity. I would like to know him in greater detail.
The second volume in this series takes up theological developments between Irenaeus and the Council of Nicea. I expect this to take a while.