That They May Be One

Alongside the thorny question of Sacred Tradition v. Holy Scripture, those doctrines concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary have proven to be some of the more contentious barriers for many non-Catholics to reconcile with their understanding of Christianity. On this last day of October, the month of the most Holy Rosary, I thought it appropriate to post some of the Church Father’s thoughts regarding Scripture and Tradition, Mary’s perpetual virginity, the Catholic Church, and even infant baptism. Because without some agreement on these key doctrines Christian unity will never be achieved.

Religious diversity has been a cornerstone of our Western culture for so long now that it has become a given, even among Christians whose competing sects number in the thousands. Nonetheless, the essential question for any serious Christian today, yet rarely asked anymore, remains: is there only One Church founded by Christ or many? Did our Lord intend for there to be countless churches claiming his name or did he mean for there to be a single united body of believers, for as He himself prayed, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one… I do not pray for these only but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me.” (Jn 17: 11; 20-21)

Christian unity is thereby identified by Jesus Christ as one of the visible hallmarks that will attract the world to belief in the Gospel. If today’s world is sinking back into the abyss of neo-paganism then undoubtedly part of the cause must be the scandal of disunity among Christians which translates into a kind of religious adventurism allowing each person to follow his or her own take on the Gospel. Like a marketplace, modern Christians feel free to pick and choose from among those items which may appeal to their fancy (while ignoring more challenging demands): Tradition or Scripture (alone); preaching or sacraments; grace or good works; ordained hierarchy or lay governance, priests or ministers of the Word; sacrificial worship or a memorial communion feast. While all these things are important elements of the Church founded by Christ, they are not stand alone tenets but rather ingredients able to congeal together and form a tightly integrated whole which, bound together, forms and expresses a rational and unified deposit of faith.

Just as Christ intended for his Church to be one in unity he also intended for it to endure to the end of time, namely the Last Judgment. It was to be for all the ages, not just for the duration of the Roman empire or some particular epoch. This means that the Church in its very existence is historical. Just as our American nation has a unique history with its founding documents, laws, and traditions which even today continue to govern our lives and political attitudes, so too the Church has an even longer 2,000 year history which long ago determined the doctrines and practices by which we, as Christians, are expected to abide. These doctrines and practices were initially taught and promulgated by our Lord’s chosen Apostles, therefore we refer to Christ’s one Church as apostolic. For any good Christian this means following the apostolic teachings just as to be a good American means to subscribe to and abide by our Constitution. And countless generations of Christian clerics and laymen who succeeded the original Apostles faithfully followed in their historical footsteps. And the closer in time they lived to the Apostles the greater should be their authority simply because time had not the opportunity to warp or distort the primal apostolic teachings. The closer you are to the original the more exacting will be the copy.

Today we call those early Christian witnesses who lived within a few generations of the actual Apostles the early Church Fathers. Much of what these Fathers wrote and taught about Christ and his Church has survived to the present day. Like us, they lived in difficult, trying times for a Christian. Often persecuted by the Roman state, they also had to contend with various doctrinal disputes within the Church. They had to determine from among hundreds of letters, documents, and “gospels” then in wide circulation which ones could be reliably included in the canon of Scripture and which should be omitted. Even after the persecutions ended and Christianity became the official religion of the empire, the Church was torn asunder by Christological errors such as the Arian, Nestorian, and Monophysite heresies regarding the exact nature of Christ as wholly man and truly God. From their writings and the four great councils from Nicaea to Chalcedon a new clarity about the Son of God and his saving plan of redemption emerged.

As the Church grew, the need to articulate important matters of faith more precisely increased, and it was these same Church Fathers who undertook and accomplished that task, often writing down what had only been imparted orally. The important task of defining what actually constituted the sacred and infallible body of Scripture was also a part of their work, a task completed by the end of the fourth century at the time of Ambrose and Augustine. What I offer below is but a fraction of the many teachings by those same Church Fathers, mostly regarding issues which today are again causing controversy and confusion among so many Christians. The authority of the 12 Apostles and early Church Fathers is the historical bedrock upon which our faith rests (Christ himself left no written testament). These men are to Christ’s Church what Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison represent to our American republic, and so to know their minds is to know and understand the apostolic foundations of the Church.

Regarding Scripture – the Child of Tradition:

St. Irenaeus a bishop and martyr, a disciple of St. Polycarp of Smyrna (himself a disciple of St. Ignatius of Antioch) wrote five works Against Heresies between the years 180 and 199. Concerning sacred Tradition he writes: “As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it as if she occupies but one house… she proclaims them and teaches them as if she possessed but one mouth. For while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the tradition is one and the same.” (192)

Tertullian around 200 AD writes, prior to any definitive canon of Scripture: “Wherever it shall be clear that the truth of the Christian discipline and faith are present, there will also be found the truth of the Scriptures and of their explanation, and of all of the Christian traditions. (291)

The Muratorian Fragment, possibly by Hippolytus, dates from some time before the year 200 AD. It discriminates among various extant written works those which were, “regarded as holy in the Catholic Church, in the ordering of churchly discipline… and there are several others which cannot be received by the Church, for it is not suitable that gall be mixed with honey. The Epistle of Jude, indeed, and the two ascribed to John, are received by the Catholic Church.” (268)

Tertullian around the year 210 reasons regarding controversy over the proliferation of various “gospels”: “If it is evident that that is the truer which is earlier… that is from the beginning which was authored by the Apostles, which has been held sacred in the Churches of the Apostles… The same authority of the apostolic Churches will defend the other Gospels, which we possess through them and because of their using them. I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew, and while that of Mark may be affirmed to be Peter’s, whose interpreter Mark was. And the digest by Luke men are accustomed to ascribe to Paul.” (341)

Eusebius’ famous History of the Church composed between 300 and 325 gives us a fascinating glimpse into the still somewhat fluid state of what was then considered New Testament Scripture. He first lists as fully accepted the four Gospels alongside the Epistles of Paul and first Epistles of Peter and John, but there seems to be some question about other works: “Placed after these, if it seems desirable, is the Apocalypse of John (i.e., Revelation), the arguments which we will examine at the proper time. These then are the recognized books. Among the disputed books, which are nevertheless known to most, there are extant the Epistles said to be of James, and of Jude, and the second of Peter; and the second and third attributed to John… Among the spurious writings must be reckoned the Acts of Paul, the writings called The Shepherd, the Apocalypse of Peter, and in addition to these, the Epistle attributed to Barnabas, and the so-called Teachings of the Apostles; and so too, as I said, the Apocalypse of John, if it so be judged. For, as I said, some reject it, while others include it among the recognized books.” (656)

The Council of Laodicea in Syria, from around the year 363, represents an attempt to officially determine a canon of Scripture, nonetheless it omits the Apocalypse of John. (745t)

St. Athanasius of Alexandria in the year 367 writes a letter in which he compiles his version of Sacred Scripture. He includes the Apocalypse of John but omits the Old Testament deuterocanonical books, though he adds, “Yet they have been designated by the Fathers to be read by those who join us and who wish to be instructed in the word of piety: the Wisdom of Solomon; and the Wisdom of Sirach; and Esther; and Judith; and Tobias; and the teaching attributed to the Apostles (i.e., the Didache) and the Shepherd (of Hermas).” (791)

St. Cyril, bishop of Jerusalem in his Catechetical lectures about the year 350 lists his version of Scripture which includes Esther but omits the deuterocanonical books. He continues, “In the New Testament there are only four Gospels. The others are falsely written and harmful. The Manicheans have written a Gospel according to Thomas, which, being touched on the surface with the fragrance of an evangelic title, corrupts the souls of the simple.” (819)

The official canon of Sacred Scripture was definitively settled for good in the year 382 by Pope Damasus I in accord with the Council of Rome held that same year. The Decree of Damasus codified the Bible as we know it today. “Now indeed, we must treat of the divine Scriptures: what the universal Catholic Church accepts and what she must shun. The list of the Old Testament begins: Genesis, one book; Exodus, one book,” etc… Damasus enumerates 46 O.T. books, including the seven deuteroncanonical books. Then listing the 27 books comprising the New Testament he pronounces, “Thus concludes the canon of the New Testament.” (910t)

So the authority of the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is joined at the hip to the authority of the One Apostolic Catholic Church by which it was presented as infallible truth to the world.  

The Role of Mary – the “New Eve:”

St. Justin Martyr, ca. 155 AD, types Mary as the “New Eve.” “For Eve, a virgin and undefiled, conceived the word of the serpent, and bore disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy when the Angel Gabriel announced to her the glad tidings that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her, for which reason the Holy One being born of her is the Son of God.” (141)

From St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon and martyr, who wrote Against Heresies, circa 190 AD: “Consequently, then, Mary the Virgin is found to be obedient saying: ‘Behold, O Lord, your handmaid; be it done to me according to your word.’ Eve, however, was disobedient; and when yet a virgin she did not obey. Just as she who was then still a virgin although she had Adam for a husband, having become disobedient was made the cause of death for herself and for the whole human race; so also Mary, betrothed to a man but nevertheless still a virgin, being obedient, was made the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race… Thus, the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith.” (224)

St. Ignatius of Antioch as early as 110 AD writes: “For our God, Jesus Christ, was conceived by Mary in accord with God’s plan… He was born and was baptized so that by his submission He might purify the water. The virginity of Mary, her giving birth, and also the death of the Lord were hidden from the prince of this world; three mysteries loudly proclaimed, but wrought in the silence of God.” (42)

Tertullian, about 210 AD: “Likewise, through a virgin, the Word of God was introduced to set up a structure of life. Thus, what had been laid waste by this sex, was by the same sex re-established in salvation. Eve had believed the serpent; Mary believed Gabriel. That which one destroyed by believing, the other, by believing, set straight.” (358)

In a 244 AD homily Origen says that according to Moses, “A woman, if she shall have received seed, and if she shall bear a male child, shall be unclean for seven days.’ But I wonder… lest Mary, who according to the prophets would bear a male child without having received seed, should otherwise be thought to be unclean by reason of the birth of the Savior. Yet even without the interjection of the words if she shall have received seed, Mary were still able to be understood to be not unclean. For she was not simply a woman but a virgin.” (495)

Around 358 St Athanasius of Alexandria attests to Mary’s perpetual virginity: “Let those, therefore, who deny that the Son is by nature from the Father and proper to his essence, deny also that He took true human flesh from the Ever-Virgin Mary.” (767a)

St. Ephraim likewise composed a hymn around the year 364 in honor of Christ and Mary: “You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others; For there is no blemish in you, nor any stains upon your Mother. Who of my children can compare in beauty to these?” (719)

In a treatise on Virginity (ca. 371), St. Gregory of Nyssa writes: “Just as in the time of Mary, the Mother of God, the Death who had reigned from Adam until then found, when he came to her and dashed his forces against the fruit of her virginity as against a rock, that he himself was shattered against her, so too in every soul that passes through this life in flesh that is protected by virginity, the strength of Death is shattered and annulled.” (1020a)

The catechist Didymus the Blind was a protégé of St. Athanasius and counted St. Jerome as a student in Alexandria. Some time before 392 he wrote: “It helps to understand the terms first-born and only-begotten when the Evangelist tells that Mary remained a virgin ‘until she brought forth her first-born Son.’ For neither did Mary, who is to be honored and praised above all others, marry anyone (i.e., conjugally), nor did she become the Mother of anyone else, but even after childbirth she remained always and forever an immaculate virgin.” (1073)  

About 374 AD St. Epiphanius of Salamis recites a Creed then being used. Part of it reads: “the Son of God… who for us men and for our salvation came down and took flesh, that is, was born perfectly of the holy ever-virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit,..” (1089a)

In a separate work called Panarion St. Epiphanius writes: “Was there ever anyone of any breeding who dared to speak the name of Holy Mary, and being questioned did not immediately add, ‘the Virgin?’ For by such added names the positive proofs of merit are apparent… And to Holy Mary, Virgin is invariably added, for that Holy Woman remains undefiled.” (1111)

In a sermon about 386 AD, St Ambrose of Milan exhorts: “Lift me up bodily and in the flesh, which is fallen in Adam. Lift me up not from Sara but from Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free from every stain of sin.” (1314)

In a polemic against Helvidius, who denied the perpetual virginity of Mary, St Jerome, the preeminent Scripture scholar of his day, responded: “We believe that God was born of a virgin because we read it. We do not believe that Mary was married (conjugally) after she brought forth her Son, because we do not read it… You say that Mary did not remain a virgin. As for myself, I claim that Joseph himself was a virgin, through Mary, so that a Virgin Son might be born of a Virginal wedlock.” (1361)

Finally, the great St. Augustine weighs in to defend Mary’s perpetual virginity (401 AD). “In being born of a Virgin who chose to remain a Virgin even before she knew who was to be born of her, Christ wanted to approve virginity rather than impose it. And He wanted virginity to be of free choice even in that woman in whom he took upon himself the form of a slave. (1643)

“That one woman is both Mother and Virgin, not in spirit only but even in body.” (1644)

In his 428 AD tract on Heresies, St. Augustine writes: “Heretics called Antidicomarites are those who contradict the perpetual virginity of Mary, and affirm that after Christ was born she was joined as one with her husband.” (1974d)

The Church – One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic

Among the thousands of Christian churches claiming authenticity today, which stands out as the One and True Church, divinely mandated by Jesus Christ? At the very end of the second century St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, had this to say: “here (is) the succession of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient Church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious Apostles, Peter and Paul, that Church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the Apostles. For with this Church, because of its superior origin, all Churches must agree, that is, all the faithful in the whole world; and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the Apostolic tradition.” (210)

Even earlier than this (110 AD) St. Ignatius of Antioch affirms that it is through the orderly succession of bishops that unity and Apostolic authority is preserved. “Those, indeed, who belong to God and to Jesus Christ ─ they are with the bishop… Do not err, my brethren: if anyone follows a schismatic, he will not inherit the Kingdom of God… Take care then to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of His Blood: one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and my fellow servants the deacons.” (56)

“Do nothing without the bishop, keep your body as a temple of God, love unity, flee from divisions, be imitators of Jesus Christ, as He was imitator of the Father.” (58a)

Ignatius’ letter to the Trallians expounds the theme, defending the Church’s hierarchal structure: “It is necessary, therefore, and such is your practice, that you do nothing without the bishop, and that you be subject also to the presbytery, as to the Apostles of Jesus Christ our hope.” (48)

“In like manner let everyone respect the deacons as they would respect Jesus Christ, and just as they respect the bishop as a type of the Father, and the presbyters as the council of God and college of Apostles. Without these, it cannot be called a Church.” (49)

As early as 155 AD the Church is identified as “Catholic” as shown in a text from the Church in Smyrna detailing the martyrdom of their beloved bishop, St. Polycarp. “When finally (Polycarp) had finished his prayer, in which he remembered everyone with whom he had ever been acquainted, the small and the great, the renowned and the unknown, and the whole Catholic Church throughout the world, the moment of departure had arrived.” (79)

“And of the elect, he was one indeed, the wonderful martyr Polycarp, who in our days was an apostolic and prophetic teacher, bishop of the Catholic Church in Smyrna.” (80a)

“Now with the Apostles… he is blessing our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of our souls, the Helmsman of our bodies, and the Shepherd of the Catholic Church throughout the world.” (81a)

About 202 AD St. Clement of Alexandria  writes: “From what has been said then, it seems clear to me that the true Church, that which is really ancient, is one… We say, therefore, that in substance, in concept, in origin, and in eminence, the ancient and Catholic Church is alone, gathering as it does into the unity of the one faith which results from the familiar covenants…. those already chosen, those predestined by God who knew before the foundation of the world that they would be just.” (435)

St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote an important treatise on The Unity of the Catholic Church in 251. “Again He says to him after His resurrection: ‘Feed my sheep.’ On him (Peter) He builds the Church, and to him He gives the command to feed the sheep; and although He assigns a like power to all the Apostles, yet He founded a single chair, and He established by His own authority a source and an intrinsic reason for that unity. Indeed, the others were also that which Peter was, whereby it is made clear that there is but one Church and one chair. So too, all are shepherds, and the flock is shown to be one, fed by all the Apostles in single minded accord. If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?

“The episcopate is one, of which each bishop holds his part within the undivided structure. The Church also is one, however widely she has spread among the multitude through her fruitful increase… The Church is bathed in the light of the Lord, and pours her rays over the whole world; but it is one light that is spread everywhere, and the unity of her structure is undivided.” (555)

St. Cyprian reiterates the intrinsic unity of the Church in another letter written in 254 AD. “You ought to know then that the bishop is in the Church and the Church in the bishop; and if someone is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church. They vainly flatter themselves who creep up, not having peace with the priests of God, believing that they are secretly in communion with certain individuals. For the Church, which is One and Catholic, is not split or divided, but is indeed united and joined by the cement of priests who adhere one to another.” (587)

Bishop Alexander of Alexandria who was struggling against both heresy and schism in the early fourth century writes: “In addition to this pious belief in regard to the Father and the Son, we confess, as the divine writings teach us, one Holy Spirit, who moved both the holy men of the Old Testament and the divine teachers that styled the New. And in one only Catholic Church, that which is Apostolic.” (680)

In the mid fourth century St. Cyril of Jerusalem described the Church this way: “(The Church) is called Catholic then because it extends over the whole world… and because it teaches universally and infallibly each and every doctrine which must come to the knowledge of men, concerning things visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings every race of men into subjection to godliness… and because it treats and heals every class of sins.” (838)

“And if ever you are visiting in cities, do not inquire simply where the House of the Lord is… nor ask merely where the Church is, but where is the Catholic Church. For this is the name peculiar to this holy Church, the Mother of us all, which is the spouse of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God.” (839)

Finally, we give St. Augustine the last word: “What the soul is to man’s body, the Holy Spirit is to the Body of Christ, which is the Church. So too, a Christian man is Catholic while he lives in the body. Cut off, he is made a heretic.” (1523)

“This Church is holy, the one Church, the true Church, the Catholic Church, fighting as she does against all heresies.” (1535)

Patristic teachings on Original Sin and Baptism:

The early Church Father, Origen, writes in 244 AD: “In Adam all die, and thus the world falls prostrate and requires to be set up again, so that in Christ all may be made to live.” (486)

Regarding the practice of baptizing children Origen states: “Baptism is given for the remission of sins; and according to the usage of the Church, Baptism is given even to infants. And indeed if there were nothing in them pertinent to forgiveness, the grace of Baptism would seem superfluous.” (496)

In his Commentaries on the Romans Origen again reiterates the Church’s tradition: “The Church received from the Apostles the tradition of giving Baptism even to infants. For the Apostles, to whom were committed the secrets of divine mysteries, knew that there is in everyone the innate stains of sin, which must be washed away through water and the Spirit.” (501)

St. Cyprian, illustrious bishop of Carthage, was called the African Pope. He was also the first African bishop to die a martyr, in the year 258:  “If, in the case of the worst sinners… the remission of their sins is granted and no one is held back from Baptism and grace, how much more then should an infant not be held back, who, having recently been born, has done no sin except that, born of the flesh according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of that old death from his first being born. For this very reason does he approach more easily to receive the remission of sins: because the sins forgiven him are not his own but those of another.” (586)

St. Methodius, martyr and bishop of Philippi wrote a treatise around the year 300 in which he notes: “Man too was created without corruption… But when it came about that he transgressed the commandment, he suffered a terrible and destructive fall. The Lord says that it was on this account that He Himself came down from heaven to the world… that He might Himself put down the condemnation which had first come into being when he (man) was ruined. For it was fitting that the evil one should be conquered not by another but by that one whom he had deceived, and whom he boasted he was holding in subjection. In no other way could sin and condemnation be destroyed, except by that same man’s being created anew… Thus, just as in Adam all did formerly die, so again in Christ, who put on Adam, all are made to live.” (612)

The great St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, authored a Baptismal Catecheses about the year 389: “Behold, they thoroughly enjoy the peacefulness of freedom who shortly before were held captive… You see how many are the benefits of Baptism, and some think its heavenly grace consists only in the remission of sins, but we have enumerated ten honors. For this reason we baptize even infants, though they are not defiled by sin, so that there may be given to them holiness, righteousness, adoption, inheritance, brotherhood with Christ, and that they may be his members.” (1145a)

St. Pacian was bishop of Barcelona some time before the year 392 when he wrote his Sermon on Baptism: “After Adam sinned… (he) was condemned to death. This condemnation passed on to the whole race. For all sinned by their sharing in that nature… In these last times Christ took a soul and with it flesh from Mary; this flesh came to prepare salvation, this flesh was not left in the lower regions, this flesh He conjoined to his Spirit and made His own. (1245c,d)

In 387 St. Ambrose of Milan who played such a pivotal role in the conversion of St. Augustine,  said of Baptism: “The Church was redeemed at the price of Christ’s blood… for no one ascends into the Kingdom of Heaven except through the Sacrament of Baptism.  (1323)

“Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. No one is excepted: not the infant, not the one prevented by some necessity. They may, however, have an undisclosed exemption from punishments, but I do not know whether they can have the honor of the kingdom.” (1324)

In a letter to St. Jerome in 415, the great St. Augustine writes: “Anyone who would say that even infants who pass from this life without participation in the sacrament (of Baptism) shall be made alive in Christ truly goes counter to the preaching of the Apostles and condemns the whole Church. The Blessed Cyprian… said that it was not the flesh but the soul that was (in danger of) being lost; and he agreed with certain of his fellow bishops that a child is able to be duly baptized as soon as he is born.” (1439, 1440)

Again, Augustine asserts: “For by this grace baptized infants are ingrafted into his (Christ’s) body, infants who are certainly not yet able to imitate anyone.  Adam, in whom all die… depraved in his person all those who come from his stock… ‘Through one man,’ the Apostle says, ‘sin entered the world, through sin, death.’ And this refers not to imitation but to propagation.” (1715)

In the same tract Augustine continues: “The churches of Christ hold inherently that without Baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either the Kingdom of God or to the salvation of life eternal. This is the witness of Scripture too.” (1717)

In his usual thorough manner Augustine continues: “If anyone wonders why children born of the baptized should themselves be baptized, let him attend to this… The Sacrament of Baptism is most assuredly the Sacrament of regeneration… it must be admitted inasmuch as infants are, by the sacrament of Baptism, conformed to the death of Christ, they are also freed from the serpent’s venomous bite. This bite, however, they did not receive in their own proper life, but in him who first suffered that wound (i.e., Adam). (1725)

“In Adam all sinned when, by that power innate in his nature, by which he was able to beget them, all were as yet the one Adam.” (1728)

Source: The Faith of the Early Fathers, Edited by William A Jurgens, 1970 The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN

Francis J. Pierson + a.m.d.g.

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