Friday, August 08, 2014

The Patristic Literature

In my last post on this topic I wrote about what Patristics is. In this post I will talk through some of the major subdivisions of the time period and the type of literature that Patristics covers.

The first subdivision concerns literature up until about the mid to late 2nd century. It consists of the Apostolic Fathers and the New Testament Apocrypha.

Apostolic Fathers refers to a collection of writings that followed 'closely on the heels' of the New Testament documents, but clearly belongs to a subsequent period of church development. It includes a number of letters (1 Clement, Ignatius' letters, Polycarp's), some documents for community instruction (the Didache), a homily (2 Clement), and fragmentary writings (e.g. Papias). All of these give us valuable insight into how Christianity developed in the period immediately after the New Testament period.

The New Testament Apocrypha are a range of texts written in the 2nd and into the 3rd century that purport to be in the genres of NT documents and usually by NT figures. They include several Gospels, books of Acts, letters, and Apocalyptic texts. Despite the claims of some, they were never broadly accepted, or treated as authoritative, and generally speaking all it takes is to read them in order to see how vastly they differ from the canonical NT documents. Nonetheless, they are a valuable source of insight into orthodox and heterodox developments in the later period.

Once we move more firmly into the mid to latter 2nd century and beyond, we see two types of literature that emerge out of the 'encounter' between Christianity and the Empire. Firstly, we see writings that deal with the issue of martyrdom. These include several subsets: Martyria are accounts of the death of believers for their faith, Acta are accounts of trials, proceedings, and confessions of faith; at the same time we see the emergence of Apologies written by 'the Apologists'. Apologia in this sense is a semi-technical Greek term that describes a defence of a position, not a feeling of regret. The Apologies are works written to defend Christian teaching in the public sphere and present it favourably to outsiders. In these works we see both Apologetics, and more explicit and systematic theological reflection, as well at times glimpses of Christian practice.

The emergence of various heterodox groups, especially Gnostic teachings at the time, also provoked responses, and one of the most significant theologians at this stage is Irenaeus of Lyon, whose work Adversus Haereses is a systematic attack on Gnostic theology and presentation of authentic Christianity.

Throughout the late 2nd and 3rd century you see the beginnings of deeper theological reflection and teaching, as evidenced in important writers like Origen, Tetullian, Cyprian, and Novatian.

The Fourth century is one that contains a real blossoming of mature theological writing. Partly this is because of the shift from persecution under Diocletian, to tolerance and favour under Constantinople, until establishment by Theodosius. More stability, and the entrance of long-term, well-educated, upper-class persons into episcopal office, leads to 'high quality' theology. At the same time, the 4th century is dominated by a long-running debate over the relation between the Father and the Son and the nature of the Son. This leads to two major councils, Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381, which deal with these issues, as well as the work of major theologians such as Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.

In the later 4th century you also have the blossoming of preachers like Ambrose and John Chrysostom, and the work of Jerome, as well as the imposing figure of Augustine of Hippo who leads us into the 5th century. Augustine is central for the Western/Latin tradition and the most important theologian for European Christianity since Paul.

The first half of the Fifth century, in the Eastern half of the Empire, becomes dominated by a debate about the relation between Christ's human and divine natures. This eventually leads to a resolution at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The first half of this debate and first quarter of the century sees polarisation between the positions of Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius. While Chalcedon 'solved' this problem theologically, it didn't do so well politically, and those who identified with the trajectory, if not the details, of Nestorius' position aligned themselves with the Church of the East, a communion of churches that already had a long heritage, operated largely in the Syriac language, and existed beyond the Empire's Eastern borders. Meanwhile, those who identified more with the thrust of Cyril's theology tended to remain in the fold, but the Eastern Roman Empire dealt with ongoing arguments about Christ's activity and will (monergism, monothelitism, monophysitism/miaphysitism, etc..) that lasted several centuries. Those that did not accept the 'Orthodox' position came to form a communion of Churches that we call the Oriental Orthodox.

Anyway, back to talking about authors and literature. Flowing out of the fourth century into the fifth you also see the rise of monasticism, which would go on to have a long-lasting influence on both Western and Byzantine/Orthodox Christianities. The writings of Benedict, Gregory the Great, John Cassian, Evagrius Ponticus, are all testament to this strand.

Lastly, patristic literature is not limited to Greek and Latin. There were both translations and original works being written in Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, and Arabic. These writings too fall within the purview of Patristics and inform us about the development and theology of Christianity in divergent cultural and historical contexts.

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