Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Church of the Late First Century: Morality and Dogma

Reading N°17 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

The fact that the Church of the late first century was often surrounded by a pagan Gentile culture helps to explain the form in which the Didache sets forth the Christian moral teaching. Some scholars have thought this teaching contained traces of Montanism and Encratism.[1] But an unbiased examination of it reveals nothing more than a stern asceticism, justified by the need of warning Christians against infiltrations from the surrounding paganism. "Thou shalt not commit fornication; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not use magic; thou shalt not use philtres [magic potions]; thou shalt not procure abortion, nor commit infanticide."[2] "Regard not omens, for this leads to idolatry; neither be an enchanter nor an astrologer nor a magician, neither wish to see these things, for from them all is idolatry engendered."[3] Such commands evoke that whole pagan world where voluptuousness, cruelty, and superstition had almost unbridled sway and met the gaze at every turn.[4] "Be not one who stretches out his hands to receive, but shuts them when it comes to giving[5] ...for the Father's will is that we give to all from the gifts we have received."[6] As for the poor, "provide for him according to your understanding, so that no man shall live among you in idleness because he is a Christian."[7] "If he has a craft, let him work for his bread."[8] "If he will not do so, he is making traffic of Christ; beware of such."[9] By such firm and prudent words, a remedy is pointed out for the ills that afflict this Gentile world, which Christianity is entering for the first time. The helpfulness of labor has never found more earnest advocates than the first Christians.

As we might expect, a statement of Christian morality at that period does not neglect the important question of family duties. "Thou shalt not withhold thine hand from thy son or from thy daughter, but thou shalt teach them the fear of God from their youth up."[10] Beyond the family circle, there is a sort of enlarged family, including the servants. A Christian will be mild toward his servants. "Thou shalt not command in thy bitterness thy slave or thine handmaid [...] lest they cease to fear the God who is over you both; for he comes not to call men with respect of persons, but those whom the Spirit has prepared."[11] A Christian's mildness, inseparable from the spirit of firm justice, will extend to all men. "Thou shalt not desire a schism, but shalt reconcile those that strive. Thou shalt give righteous judgment; thou shalt favor no man's person in reproving transgression."[12] A Christian should go still farther toward those who are his brethren in Jesus Christ. He should hold himself ever ready to place his personal belongings at their service, for "if you are sharers in the imperishable, how much more in the things which perish?"[13]

Such are the chief precepts of individual and social morality that we find in The Doctrine of the Twelve Apostles. A general commandment inspires them and dominates them all: love of God and love of neighbor. It is impressive to see how insistently the author of this little book repeats this commandment and inserts it in the midst of his particular precepts. "First, thou shalt love the God who made thee, secondly, thy neighbor as thyself."[14] "Bless those that curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those that persecute you."[15] "Thou shalt hate no man.[16] "Be thou long-suffering and merciful and guileless and quiet and good."[17] The most expressive and complete symbol of love is found in the Eucharist. "Concerning the Eucharist, hold Eucharist thus. [...] As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains, but was brought together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom."[18] Lastly, this love, which is recommended as the principle of all, is not a vague private sentiment. It does not dispense with obedience to the hierarchical authority and faithfulness to the teaching received by tradition. "My child, thou shalt remember, day and night, him who speaks the word of God to thee, and thou shalt honor him as the Lord."[19] "See that no one make thee to err from this way of the teaching, for he teaches thee without God."[20]

The teaching here spoken of seems to be especially the moral doctrine we have just set forth; but this is closely connected with a dogmatic teaching that is expressly recalled by the Didache. This dogmatic teaching is of the simplest and, at first glance, appears to lack originality. But a close examination shows that its originality and interest consist precisely in this, that it takes its phrases almost word for word from the Old and New Testament and gives us a symbol of faith essentially identical with that of the Church today. Men sometimes try to point out a contrast between the "grand gesture" of the Gospel and the "scholastic formulary" of Catholicism; the natural connection between the two is found in the Didache. The following is a summary of its dogmatic teaching.

God is in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.[21] He is the heavenly Father,[22] the Creator,[23] and almighty. Nothing happens in the world without Him,[24] and to Him belongs eternal glory through our Lord Jesus Christ.[25]

Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior,[26] the Son of God.[27] He speaks in the Gospel, He is spiritually present in His Church, and He will come again visibly on judgment day.

The Holy Ghost is God with the Father and the Son.[28] He has spoken by the mouth of the prophets and He prepares man for the divine call.[29]

The Church of God is universal, and every man is called to belong to it.[30] It has been sanctified by God, freed from all evil, and prepared by the eternal kingdom.[31]

The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles naturally echoed the great and mysterious expectancy of the kingdom of God, which solaced men after the Savior's death and in which the thought of each one's preparation for death, "which comes like a thief," the prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the last judgment, and the ancient Messianic hopes of the Jewish people, more or less transposed and spiritualized, are mixed together in a way that is sometimes curious.[32] The Didache stresses the necessity of watching, of not letting the lamps go out, of having the loins girt, in a word, of being always ready. In this it does but repeat the teaching of Christ. It speaks of the signs that will accompany the parousia, or second coming of the Son of God: the increase of false prophets, the darkening of the heavens, the sound of the trumpet, and the resurrection of the dead.[33] These, too, are merely the recalling of Christ's words.[34] Like Christ, it declares, "ye know not the hour in which our Lord cometh."[35] Like Him, it is concerned with the founding of the Church upon a solid hierarchy. Nowhere in this devout writing do we observe that feverish expectancy of a proximate end of the world, destructive of all authority[36] and serving as the principal basis for Christian renunciation, which, we are sometimes told, existed at the beginning of Christianity.[37] These Christians, whose religion is nourished by the thought of the mysterious parousia, are of the number of those whose faith nothing will shake, neither the tragic death of the bishop of Jerusalem nor the destruction of Jerusalem itself.


[1] These heresies of the second century will be discussed infra.
[2] Didache, II, 2.
[3] Ibidem, III, 4.
[4] We know how indulgently the most famous philosophers spoke of the loosest morality, and how the most serious Greek philosopher sanctioned the exposing and destruction of infants. (Cf. Aristotle, Politica, bk. 4, chap. 16.)
[5] Didache, IV, 5.
[6] Ibidem, I, 5.
[7] Ibidem, XII, 4.
[8] Ibidem, XII, 3.
[9] Ibidem, XII, 5.
[10] Ibidem, IV, 9.
[11] Ibidem, IV, 10.
[12] Ibidem, IV, 3.
[13] Ibidem, IV, 8. It is sometimes asked whether this passage did not prescribe a real community of possessions. That it did not seems beyond doubt. A real community of goods was never obligatory, even at Jerusalem, where St. James supposes the existence of rich and poor (3:1-9; 5:1-5). It lasted but a short time, and did not exist elsewhere.
[14] Ibidem, I, 2.
[15] Ibidem, I, 3.
[16] Ibidem, II, 7.
[17] Ibidem, III, 8.
[18] Ibidem, IX, 4.
[19] Ibidem, IV, 1.
[20] Ibidem, VI, 1.
[21] Ibidem, VII, 1.
[22] Ibidem, VIII, 2.
[23] Ibidem, I, 2.
[24] Ibidem, III, 10.
[25] Ibidem, VIII, 2; IX, 4; X, 4.
[26] Ibidem, X, 2.
[27] Ibidem, XVI.
[28] Ibidem, VII, 3.
[29] Ibidem, IV, 10.
[30] Ibidem, X, 5.
[31] Ibidem, IX, 4; X, 5.
[32] On the formation and characteristics of the eschatological hope in Israel and in Christian times, see Labauche, Leçons de théologie dogmatique, II, 347-393, and Lemonnyer, art. "Fin du monde," in the Dict. apol. de la foi catholique.
[33] Didache, XVI, 1-8.
[34] Similar expressions are to be found in the prophets, in their malediction of certain kingdoms whose downfall they predicted. (Cf. Ezech. 32:7 f.; 38:20.)
[35] Didache, XVI, 1.
[36] Sabatier, Religions of Authority and the Religion of the Spirit, p. 23.
[37] This is the error maintained by Loisy in The Gospel and the Church, and in Autour d'un petit livre.


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