Patristic Theology

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The development of Christian thought about God and the mystery of man's destiny in the writings of the Fathers of the Church during the first seven centuries a.d.

constitutes patristic theology. It differs from Biblical theology in that it consciously reflects the philosophical and religious thought of the Hellenistic world, while its emphasis on a positive approach to Scripture and the Church's tradition and its lack of systematization distinguish it from scholastic and post-Tridentine theology.

Coincident with the Biblical approach, patristic theology is concerned primarily with an event: man's meeting with Christ, the Son of God, who suffered under Pontius Pilate, died, and rose again from the dead. This was the essential consideration of Christian thought, and from time to time threatened to be the Christian's sole interest. However in the annunciation and explanation of this event the Church's teachers were constrained to utilize contemporary philosophy, religious concepts, and cultural patterns in order to defend and clarify their message. Thus patristic theology is an amalgam of Judeo-Christian, Hellenistic, and some Oriental thought adapted to the singular facts enunciated in the Old and New Testaments about God, and enacted by Christ in His own life, and in the life of the Church, His Mystical Body.

It was eusebius of caesarea, the great Church historian, who in the 4th century certified the legitimacy of the word theology for Christian usage. He described the Evangelist St. John as "The Theologian," since his Gospel is concerned primarily with the divinity of Christ (De eccl. theol. 1.20; 2.12), and announced the purpose of his Church history as a demonstration of the "theology and economy of salvation according to Christ" (Ecclesiastical History 1.1.7; prol. 2).


Earlier Christian thinkers had hesitated to use the words theologos, theologia, theologein because, as St. Augustine, quoting the naturalist Varro, remarked, there were three kinds of pagan theology: rational, or an explanation of the gods in their myths; physical, or the explanation of the world in its causes; and civil, devoted to the essentially political religion and cult of the city-state or imperial dynasty (Civ. 6.5; Tertullian, Ad nat. 2.1, 2).

Greek thought associated theology with the theogonies of the poets, particularly Orpheus, Homer, and Hesiod. Aristotle contrasted these theologians with Thales and Anaximander who sought a physical explanation of things, while in his Metaphysics (bk. 12) he supplied a philosophy about God that is a solid natural theology. The Neoplatonists and some Church Fathers considered Plato a theologian, although he used the word theology to designate the educative value of mythology (Rep. 379A). clement of alexandria gave Christian recognition to theology as the knowledge of divine things. While Clement recognized the poetical function of ancient pagan theology, he credited the philosophers with a desire to achieve knowledge of the true God (Strom. 1.13;5.9). Origen spoke of the "ancient theologians among the Greeks" and the "theology of the Persians" as devoted to an explanation of religion and the divinity; but gradually he limited theologia and theologein to the Christian sense of a true knowledge of God (Cont. Cel. 6.18; Comm. in Jn 2.34) and particularly of Christ the Savior (ibid. 1.24).

Despite the warnings of early Christians such as Tatian, Tertullian, and Lactantius against a speculative consideration of faith, an explanation of the fact of Christ's activities, and the mystery embodied in the christian way of life in the Church early proved a necessity. This was apparent to St. Paul, who experienced the shock caused by the preaching of "Christ crucified, a scandal to the Greeks, a stumbling block to the Jews." While he warned against "philosophy" and human deceit controlled by the demons (Col 2.820), he illustrated his teaching with parallels in nature and in Judeo-Hellenistic thought.

Jewish Theology. Jewish theological speculation embodied in the Apocalypses, Haggadah, Pescherim, and liturgical writings greatly influenced both the New Testament and the Judeo-Christian thought concerned with the nature of God, angelology, eschatology, and dualistic considerations of the problem of evil. These influences are apparent in the so-called apostolic fathers from Clement and the Didache to the Pseudo-Barnabas and Ignatius of Antioch. But it was with the Apologists that true theological thinking began.

Converts from philosophy, convinced that in Christ the Logos they had finally achieved truth, they utilized the arguments and topoi in the handbooks and florilegia of the current Stoic, Pythagorean, and Platonic schools to ridicule the gods and counter the anti-Christian charges. While they addressed the public authorities in protest against persecution of the Christians, their primary function was a missionary effort aimed at converting their contemporaries. In this they had as precedent a considerable Judeo-Hellenistic literature in the Letter of Aristeas, the Judeo-Christian Sibylline Books, and philojudaeus. They admitted that the philosophers had achieved some appreciation of truth which, since it was one, had to be homogeneous. Following Philo they claimed that Plato and the earlier thinkers had read Moses and the Prophets for their knowledge of monotheism or had retained a kernel of truth given in an original revelation and preserved among both Greeks and barbarians. But in any case the Christians now possessed the fullness of truth in Christ (Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autol. 2.12; Justin, 1 Apol. 20; Athenagoras, Suppl. 1.6).

The Apologists. The late 2d-century writers confronted their audience with the "unique, eternal, invisible God" (Athenagoras, Resur. 10), "Creator of the universe" (Justin, 2 Apol 12.1), manifest in his works (Theophilus of Antioch, 1.6) and reminded them of the judgment facing all mankind (Justin, ibid. ). Though differing in method, they presented the doctrine of the Resurrection with considerable argument following St. Paul (1 Cor) and St. John (Jn 12.24). They contrasted the purity of the Christian life with the immorality of the pagan (Justin 1 Apol. 14.14), utilizing the technique of the early catechesis in the didache and Letter of Barnabas.

Athenagoras stressed the Christian doctrine of love of neighbor, sanctity of marriage, and virginity (Suppl. 3233); and the Epistle to Diognetus maintained that the Christians lived like their neighbors but kept the laws of God and man, serving as a leaven for society, giving it life as the soul does the body (5.613).

What the Christians took from the Greeks was a manner of explaining both monotheism and the divinity of Christ, leaning on amalgams of Platonic philosophy to establish God's oneness, and on Stoicism for speculation on the Logos. Later they turned to Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism. The danger in this process was illustrated by the Gnostics, who employed the Platonic philosophies to speculate about God and Christ, but without the Judaic insistence on the historical actuality of Christ and His eschatological setting. Their idealist concept of the divinity gave Him no concrete place in history, and only an apparent piercing of time and space in the salvationary work of Christ. Despising the material world, they called for an absolute spiritualizing of man. The Church rejected this teaching with its parallels in Manichaeism and Marcionism, which were combatted by Irenaeus of Lyons, Hippolytus of Rome, and Tertullian.


Theological advancement began with Justin and Irenaeus who spoke of the oikonomia, or economy of salvation, to designate the events in the life of Christ, "the Son of God who existed before the morning star and the moon, who consented to become flesh in order that by this economy, the serpent who from the beginning had acted evilly, and the angels who imitated him, might be destroyed" (Justin, Dialogue 45.4).

Justin embodied the mysteries of Christ, particularly His virgin birth and His Passion, in the economy, comparing these glories to the Parousia, or second coming (Dialogue 30.3). He included the events of the Old Testament, which he maintains are a typology of the things accomplished by Christ (Dialogue 134.2). They are thus part of his theology of the Word, who carries out the will of His Father (Dialogue 67.6) in the theophanies of the Old Testament (Dialogue 126.3, 5; 127.1) and operates through the Church in the Eucharist and the sacraments of His power (1 Apol. 66.2), which will be visible in the second coming (Dialogue 54.1).

These fundamental ideas are developed by Irenaeus, who considered the Incarnation of Christ as the key to the history of salvation wherein God has approached man to bring man to God (Adversus haereses 4.20.1), an idea that will be emphasized by St. athanasius (De Incarn. 53). Again it is Christ who carried out His Father's will in the Old Testament encounters (Demonst. 45), and who is the Beginning and the Law, the Resurrection and the Life. He saw the two Testaments as two steps in the reeducation by grace of man who sinned from ignorance as a child (nepios ), and portrayed Christ as the recapitulation of man, submitting to human experience, but conquering sin and the devil and effecting a recapitulation of all things in His Church by sending man the Holy Spirit in preparation for the final restoration of all things in God (Adversus haereses 35; Demonst. 3133).

Development of Speculative Theology. True theological speculation began with the 3d-century Fathers, particularly Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Methodius of Olympus, Hippolytus of Rome, and Tertullian. The doctrine of ideas in the mind of God had been accepted by Philo Judaeus and combined with Jewish thought expressed in the Books of Wisdom, which saw God's wisdom not merely as an attribute, but as a mysterious entity, possibly personal, who in the beginning assisted God in creation. First-century Jewish speculation had concentrated further on powers, the names of God, and the angel of God, through whom He worked in dealing with the universe. Philo translated the Hebrew word dabar (the power, or word, of God) by the Greek word Logos, thus identifying the notion of knowledge or wisdom with the Hebrew idea of God's power. The Stoics employed logos for the fiery rational principle that formed the universe, while the Neoplatonists defined logos as "a power (dynamis ) that represents a higher principle in action on a lower plane."

When St. John in the prologue of his Gospel named Christ the Logos who was with God and is God, he was reflecting common usage in both the Diasporic Jewish and Hellenistic milieu. But John gave the Logos a definite meaning: He is a person; and Heb 1.3 further identified Christ with God's wisdom, calling him the "shining out of His glory." In contrast to the cyclical concept of history based on the material world as merely a reflection of ideas in the divine mind, the Christian thinkers of the 3d century followed the Judaic unilinear concept of history, and insisted on the historical reality of Christ, a beginning to the universe, man's destiny with creation, the history of the Fall, Redemption through the Incarnation, and the Church as an eschatological setting.

The Alexandrians were able to locate speculation about the essence of divinity within the Biblical perspective. Hence in considering Neoplatonic doctrine of the One-in-Manythe transcendent being, from whom proceeds the first mind, or Demiurge, who in turn brings into existence the intelligent soul of the universethey had at least a similitude for the doctrine of the Trinity. But it was a dangerous similitude, and caused some of the Christian thinkers to subordinate the Logos to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to the Logos.

Arius and Eunomius later made the Father the transcendent One; the Logos-Son, the Divine Mind; and the Holy Spirit, something equivalent to the world soul. In reaction to this tendency, the Monarchians (see monar chianism) denied a real distinction in the persons of the Trinity, seeing them as single phases in the divine life, or modes (see modalism) of the divine being. The latter were likewise influenced by Stoicism, which postulates an expanding and contracting Divinity who produces the universe out of His divine substance and periodically reabsorbs it into Himself.

Conciliar Definitions. Athanasius of Alexandria and the Council of nicaea i (325) clarified the issue of the Trinity by denying that there could be degrees of divinity, and defining the Son as homoousios or consubstantial with the Father, thus likewise eliminating any idea of inferiority of the Son in relation to the Father. The definition of the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit with Father and Son was the result of subsequent discussion led by didymus the blind, hilary of poitiers, Basil of Caesarea, and the Cappadocian fathers and consummated by the Council of constantinople i in 381.


The greater portion of this early Christian theology was represented by scriptural exegesis. Justin and Irenaeus had engaged in a typological explanation of the Old Testament in relation to the New, and Clement of Alexandria stressed the fact that the Old Testament was a preparation for the New. He utilized a collection of texts called Testimonia that were a continuation of the Jewish technique, to supply a series of types such as the tree of life planted in the world which represented the Divine Wisdom for Moses and Solomon (Strom. 5.2.75).

In the East: Clement and Origen. Clement's theology stemmed from his conception of the Logos as the divine reason and teacher of the world, and is developed in his exegesis by an insistence on Christ's activities as the mysteries or sacraments whose salvific effects originated before the creation of the universe, and are extended through time in the Church, in which the hierarchy is established on the pattern of the angelic choirs.

Origen most consciously used the allegorical techniques employed by the pagan teachers in the explanation of Homer and the poets. He worked out a threefold interpretation of the Scriptures: the literal or historical meaning, the moral, and the typological. This methodology was reflected in both Western and Eastern exegesis, rising to a fourfold interpretationliteral, allegorical, typological, and anagogicwith Hilary of Poitiers and rufinus of aquileia (De bened. patriarch. ).

Origen's Peri Archon, or First Principles, is actually an attempt at theological speculation rather than a systematic treatise. Its four books dealt with God, the world, freedom, and revelation, and were explicitly intended as "an examination into the reasons behind" the unalterable truths of the faith revealed by Christ and preached by the Apostles. Aided by the Holy Spirit, he desired "to form a connected series and a body of truths based on the Scriptures and deduced by drawing correct conclusions from those truths" (Preface 10). His errors regarding the preexistence of souls, a possible metempsychosis, and the anakephalaiosis or recapitulation arose from Neoplatonist influence in a realm of thought he felt was open to speculation.

The typological approach to theology is furthered by Hippolytus, who developed the relation between Joseph, David, Susanna, and Christ, and the Church. He is the first Father to compose a consecutive explanation of a book of Scripturehis Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles. His contribution to the catechesis of the Resurrection and the mystagogic significance of the Church and Sacraments influenced ambrose of Milan and cyril of jerusalem, particularly in regard to the triple parousia of Christ in his Christology, ecclesiology and eschatology. methodius of olympus pursued the typology of Christ as the new Adam, and of the Church as the new Eve. He gave a mystical explanation of the relation between Christ and the Virgin in an ecclesial sense, and indulged in number speculation certainly influenced by the Pythagoreans.

In the West: Tertullian and His Successors. In the West Tertullian, despite his disjoinder "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" (De Idol. 19), witnessed at once to the Church's theological tradition concerning the nature of God, the relationship between the two Testaments (Adv. Marc. ), the Christology, and sacramental mysteries of the faith. He helped determine the Church's terminology, and more particularly the development of moral concepts based on free will and God's law, influenced at once by his legal background, the Stoic attitude toward nature, and the Church as an institution in competition with the imperial organization surrounding it.

The law of God and the law of the Gospel were explained as the guide to the Church's tradition and deposit of faith; the bishops were the official dispensers of the divine mysteries, and the Church was the Ark without which no one could be sanctified. In his soteriological thought, sin was a crime against God's sovereignty calling for satisfaction, and words such as debt, guilt, and merit are often employed. The redemption is seen as an intervention of God to vindicate His law through One who took man's sin upon Himself to achieve man's forgiveness.

In order to be the Mediator between God and man, Christ had to be both true God and true man (Adv. Marc. 2, 3; De Resur. 63). Thus soteriological thought gave rise to Christological precisions, and this is true of Novatian's De Trinitate, Ambrose's De fide, and Augustine's De Trinitate, and led directly to Leo's Tome to Flavian accepted at the Council of chalcedon, which "recognized the difference of the natures" united without admixture or confusion in the One Person of the Son of God.

The Problem of Grace. Western preoccupation with man's moral obligations brought about the problems of the nature of grace and its efficacy posed by the Pelagians (see pelagius and pelagianism) and settled by Jerome, Augustine, and the Roman See; and, while the doctrine of man's deification was brought to the West by Irenaeus and echoes through Tertullian (Adv. Marc. 2.27) and Cyprian (Epist. 58.6), its appearance in Hilary of Poiters and Leo I is due to their contact with later Eastern ideas. This is likewise true of concern for freedom of the will, which Origen found necessary to assert against the astrologers of his day, and Tertullian defended against the Stoics and Marcion.

Cyprian of Carthage was involved in the controversy over penance and the rebaptism of heretics, problems that forced him to reconsider his doctrine on the unity of the Church, and which led in the 4th and 5th centuries to a development of the Roman understanding of the papal primacy that grew obviously from Siricius and Innocent I to Leo I and Gelasius, and was full-fledged with Gregory the Great.

There was a constant interchange of Western and Eastern ideas all during this period, aided by the exile of Hilary in the East and Athanasius in the West and a constant going back and forth of bishops, scholars, and monks. Athanasius was responsible for the flowering of a vast cenobitic and monastic movement in Italy and Gaul during the 4th century, stimulated by his Life of St. Anthony the Hermit (see anthony of egypt, st.). Ambrose of Milan, Rufinus of Aquileia, and Jerome contributed to the furtherance of ascetical thought based upon the writings and experiences of St. Basil, St. pachomius, and the de sert fathers; they stressed the value of virginity and continence as well as the practice of austere virtue that is a consequence of participation in the mysteries of salvation.


In the East, theological speculation continued with the mystical tendencies embodied in the Alexandrian doctrine of man made in the image of God and called to the imitation of Christ, as it was developed particularly in gregory of nyssa, evagrius ponticus, and ephrem the syrian. At the same time, Antiochene preoccupation with the literal approach toward the Scriptures and a more Aristotelian anthropology represented by Diodore of Tarsus (d. 394), Flavian of Antioch (d.404), theodore of mopsuestia (d. 428), and theodoret of cyr (d. c. 466) made them wary of the allegorical exegesis favored at Alexandria. In their Christology, they insisted upon the human factors in Christ's constitution, leading their Alexandrian opponents to accuse them of dividing Christ into "two sons" when Nestorius refused to apply the term theotokos to Mary, preferring to call her the Christotokos, or Mother of Christ.

Christology. The Christological problem arose in good part from the attempt to apply the Trinitarian concepts of substance and person directly to the person and natures in Christ. It was also the result of the Alexandrian ontological approach, seeing man's deification as his final goal, whereas the Antiocheans had a fear of breaking down the impassable distinction between the finite and the infinite and saw man's destiny in moral perfection that would be realized in the resurrection.

The quarrel came to a climax at the Council of ephesus in 431, when the Church defined the doctrine of the Theotokos; it reached a second climax at the Council of Chalcedon (451), when Antiochene, Alexandrian, and Western thought were amalgamated on the basis of Leo's Tome to Flavian and the Letter of Union signed by both Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch in 433. No great progress was made at Justinian's Council of constantinople ii in 553, and as a consequence questions regarding Christ's human faculties returned to bother the Church down to modern times, though the question of two wills was settled at the Council of constantinople iii in 681.

Heretical Views. The controversies during the later patristic period occasioned the rise of two separate heretical churches, the Monophysite and the Nestorian (see monophysitism; nestorianism), and involved the ecclesiastical and imperial authorities in a series of struggles that resulted in the domination of the Eastern Church by the State, with the emperors taking an active part in the theological controversies. Some of the emperors, such as theodosius ii and justinian i, demonstrated considerable theological ability.

The Monophysites, with severus of antioch, philoxenus of mabbugh, and their supporters, produced an enormous theological literature and were able to influence clergy, monks, and laity by their insistence on man's vocation to deification with a definite mystical tendency. Their opponents were equally productive, from john the grammarian and facundus of hermiane, whose Defense of the Three Chapters was one of the finer theological productions of the 6th century, to john of scythopolis, the Chalcedonian who wrote the first commentary on the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius, and leontius of byzantium, who wrote against both the Nestorians and the Eutychians, employing Aristotelian logic and Neoplatonist psychology.

The two men who dominate the great productive period of patristic theology are john chrysostom in the East, and Augustine in the West. Chrysostom exhibited a reluctance to enter the intricacies of theological disputation, saying that the two natures in Christ are conjoined "by a union ineffable and past understanding; ask not how" (Hom. in Joh. 11.2). He devoted himself to a practical explanation of the whole of Scripture in his homilies and pastoral instruction that is unsurpassed in breadth of interest, social and psychological understanding, and witness to the traditional teaching of the Church.

Augustinian Theology. St. augustine insisted that the understanding of the faith (intellectus ) is not merely a knowledge of the truths of revelation, but an encounter with God as an end to be loved. It is the pia fides that purifies the soul. He refused to separate knowledge from its moral obligations. The Augustinian theology of contemplation implies the use of all man's resources in soul and spirit, and the vision at Ostia was an immortal example of this experience.

In the De Trinitate he offered a systematic explanation: the movement toward God constituted by an exercise of wisdom forces the soul to use corporeal objects, then the memory for previous acquisitions, to find God in the superior portion of the mind. The use of sensible similitudes and the resources of science and the arts open the mind to a comprehension of divine things enhanced by faith and elevated by grace. Thus the first seven books of the De Trinitate were devoted to the process of credere: he established the existence of the Trinity, studied the divine attributes, and answered objections on evidence in the Scriptures and Church Fathers. In books 8 to 15 he proceeded modo interiore, by analogies taken from nature, man's moral life, and divine wisdom, to give an insight into the mystery. He thus justified the employment of profane studies and the technique of theology based on pagan disciplines.

In his numerous treatises Augustine covered the whole ambit of theological interest from grace and Christology to the intricacies of the ascetico-mystical life, incorporating the liberal arts, free will and concupiscence, marriage and virginity, and the Church and the Sacraments in a vast synthesis of life in Christ.

Patristic Heritage. The heritage of patristic theology was preserved through the effort of John cassian for the monks of the West, and of cassiodorus, isidore of seville, and bede for the Western Church more generally. In the East, the return to the negative theology of the 1st-century Neoplatonist Albinus, combined with the emphasis of a hierarchical ascension toward mystical union with God, was propagated by the 6th-century mitigated Monophysite writer, pseudo-dionysius the Areopagite. Eastern thought was summed up in the anonymous De Sectis and in the writings of the 7th-century Sophronius of Damascus, maximus the confessor, and particularly St. john damascene, whose De fide orthodoxa is a remarkable summary of Greek thought on the principle Christian doctrines and was taken over by the Western scholastics.

Whereas a polemical spirit characterized much of the patristic theological writings, equanimity had been practiced by Clement of Alexandria and Origen; in his five theological orations, Gregory of Nazianzus called for justice and charity in dealing with opponents, while St. Leo the Great insisted on moderation.

The scholastics made considerable use of the patristic writings, particularly in florilegia, or collections of texts that go back to the 3d and 4th centuries and are the continuations of the Biblical Testimonia. Their witness to the Church's tradition has never been unheeded; but a tendency to rationalize their teachings and theology generally prevailed in the late scholastic and post-Tridentine period, despite the call of Melchior cano, and above all petau, for a return to the Fathers, and the great work of rediscovery and edition that was undertaken by the humanist Churchmen of the 15th and early 16th century, and pursued assiduously by the maurists.

Since the middle of the 19th century there has been a reflowering of patristic thought, made possible by the comprehensive reprinting effort of J. P. migne, the critical editions of the Berlin and Vienna corpora, the more recent Corpus Christianorum, and translations such as the Sources chrétiennes, the Ancient Christian Writers, and others. The turn of the 20th century saw a reflowering of patristic theology in both Catholic and non-Catholic circles, which seems to have taken on new proportions in the post-World War II period and is a substantial factor in the ecumenical progress resulting from Vatican Council II.

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[f. x. murphy]