History of the Catholic Church - J. MacCaffrey

Early Christian Literature

The New Testament was accepted by the early Church as inspired by the Holy Ghost. It contains the Gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the Acts of the Apostles written by St. Luke, which gives a brief history of the early Church, fourteen epistles of St. Paul, two epistles of St. Peter, three of St. John, one of St. James, one of St. Jude and the Apocalypse. The epistles were addressed to different churches as occasion demanded, and do not pretend to contain an exposition of the entire Christian revelation. In addition to the New Testament, many writings of the early Christian Fathers have been preserved. St. Clement, bishop of Rome, wrote an epistle to the Christians at Corinth about the year 96 A.D. exhorting them to unity, and so highly did the Corinthians value this letter of the Pope that it was read for years afterwards in the church on Sundays. During the persecution begun by Trajan, St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was arrested and brought to Rome to suffer for the faith. On his way he addressed seven letters to some of the principal churches, from most of which representatives had come to console him. In these letters he emphasized three points in particular, namely, the obligation on the clergy and people to remain obedient to their bishop, the Divinity and Humanity of Christ, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist of the very same Christ who was born of the Virgin Mary and who died for mankind on the cross.

St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was martyred about the year 154. Shortly before his death he visited Pope Anicetus at Rome, in the hope of adjusting the differences which had arisen between the eastern and western churches concerning the celebration of Easter. He wrote an epistle to the Philippians in which he recalled to their minds the advice given by St. Ignatius, and warned them against the false doctrines of that time.

St. Justin Martyr was born of pagan parents and was himself a close student of pagan philosophy, but failing to find truth by an examination of the conflicting philosophical systems of his time, he turned to Christianity to seek for the light and consolation he had sought for in vain elsewhere. He went to Rome and wrote two apologies for Christianity, one addressed to the Emperor Antoninus (138–161) and the other to the Senate. In these he demanded the same toleration for Christians as was accorded to the worshippers of idols, and he called attention especially to the high moral code inculcated by the new religion and the results it had produced as a proof of its divinity.

Irenaeus was the disciple of St. Polycarp, and after visiting different parts of the Church he finally settled at Lyons, where he was elected bishop about the year 178. He was a man evidently well versed in the Scriptures and in the controversial writings of his day. In his great work, Against Heresies, he subjects to a severe analysis the various statements of those who had separated themselves from the unity of the Church, and in this way supplies a great deal of information both on the views of the heretics and the doctrine of the Catholic Church. Like Tertullian, he lays great stress on the importance of the living tradition and the authority of the Church as the only safe guide to the true apostolic doctrine.

The works of all these writers were in Greek. Tertullian, who was born at Carthage, and was converted to Christianity about the year 190 was the first prominent ecclesiastical writer who employed the Latin tongue. He was a man of great zeal and great ability who did incalculable service to religion; but he was also impetuous, proud and stubborn, and as he advanced in years he began to criticise the mild policy of the Church towards sinners, and finally abandoned it to join the sect of the Montanists. He is the author of many brilliant works written both while he was attached to the Church and after he had abandoned it. In his work on Penance he brings out clearly the power of the Church to forgive sins, though after he had become a Montanist he denied most of what he had previously written.

St. Cyprian, like Tertullian, was born at Carthage and was converted (242) only when he was advanced in years. Shortly after his conversion he became bishop of Carthage, and remained its bishop until he was put to death for the faith. Many of his letters have come down to us, as also his great work on the Unity of the Church. Like Tertullian, however, he was impetuous and inclined to go to extremes. This feature of his character is brought out strongly in his dispute with Pope Stephen regarding the rebaptism of converted heretics. He insisted that those who had returned to the Church from heresy should be baptised in all cases, and when the Pope refused to accept his opinion, casting to the winds what he had written about the authority of the Holy See, he insisted on his right to decide this question for himself without any interference from Rome.

In the east there were many great schools for the study and defence of Christianity, the principal of which was the school of Alexandria. Of the many learned teachers who helped to give the school of Alexandria a world-wide reputation, Origen was undoubtedly the greatest. In his youth his father was arrested and put to death for the faith, and he himself was kept from taking his place at his father's side only because his mother hid his clothes. When he grew up he became head of the school of Alexandria where he remained for several years. During his whole life he was an indefatigable worker, and the number of volumes written by him would fill a goodly sized library. The most important of these was the Hexapla, so called from the fact that it contained in six columns the Septuagint Version of the Bible, three other versions of the Scripture made in the second century, the Hebrew text in Hebrew characters and the same in Greek characters. He died about the year 254.

Of the later Latin writers the two most important are undoubtedly St. Jerome (340–420) and St. Augustine (354–430). St. Jerome was born in Dalmatia, and having studied at Rome he wandered through Gaul and various districts of the East. Later on he returned to Rome where he became secretary to Pope Damasus, and on the death of the Pope, he retired to Bethlehem where he remained till his death. Besides his historical works, notably his translation of the Chronicle of Eusebius, his Life of St. Paul the Hermit and his account of the ecclesiastical writers of the early centuries, his best known work is the translation of the Scriptures which passes under the name of the Vulgate, and which was declared by the Council of Trent to be a substantially correct reproduction of the Scriptures. St. Augustine was born in North Africa, and during his years of study at Madura and Carthage he yielded to the many temptations which surrounded him and began to lead a life of sin. Later on he joined the sect of the Manichaeans, From Carthage he went to Rome and from Rome to Milan, whither he was followed by his saintly mother, St. Monica, who was unceasing in her efforts to secure his conversion. Her prayers were heard at last. The preaching of St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, produced a great effect on Augustine. He abandoned his life of sin, was baptised in 387 and later on became bishop of Hippo, where he was the strenuous opponent of the heretics of his time, notably of the Donatists and the Pelagians. He was a very prolific writer. Possibly the most widely read of his works are the City of God  and his Confessions.