4th and 5th century



I.                   Introduction


The period from St. Athanasius to the death of St. Augustine is the golden age of patristic literature. It produced the most talented and prolific writers due to the rise of Arianism and Pelagianism and the beginning of the Christo≠logical disputes.

Arianism, condemned in 325, is defeated by St. Athanasius and St. Hilary. In the second part (360-430) we meet the Cappadocian Fathers, St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazian≠zenus and St. Gregory of Nyssa ; St. John Chrysostom (of Antioch school); in the West, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine - to name only the most outstanding writers. So far the Church had been struggling for her existence against persecution, and Church writers were concerned with the defence of the Church.

The edict of toleration of January 313 gave peace to the Church and tolerated Christianity as a religio licita, (lawful religion). It was only a short step to the over≠throw of paganism, and in 337 Constantine was baptised and his sons assumed a hostile attitude to heathenism and in 383 Chris≠tianity became the State religion under Theodosius. An attempt by Julian the Apostate (361-363) to infuse life into the old paganism failed. In 392 the worship of the gods was declared treason, and by 423 heathenism was looked on in the East as defunct.


Peace ushered in a new era in Christian literature :

-          The writers could now afford to concern themselves solely with domestic matters.

-          The conversion of the educated classes in the empire gave the Church eminent scholars and orators, and men of culture. Men were able to spend more time at study and undertake lengthy works.

-          The great heresies provided a powerful stimulus to literary activity.

-          Lastly the development of the monastic life with its solitude, silence and prayer gave great depth and solidity to the works of many of the Fathers.


As a result of these influences the great authors of this period present Christian truths in classical style ; they combine the findings of philosophy admirably with the faith ; they write on almost everything with brilliance : exegesis, apologetics, controversy, dogmatic and moral theology, asceticism, poetry, etc.


Advantages of the State preference for Christianity besides those enumerated were :

-          The clergy soon developed into an independent body in pursuit of their ministry.

-          The higher prelates received considerable political privileges

-          Ecclesias≠tical councils were more frequently held and with great solem≠nity.

Drawbacks counterbalanced these somewhat :

-          Caesaropapism was a serious menace especially when the civil power supported Arianism : the clergy often became very subservient to the court and their obsequiousness delayed the defeat of Arianism for many years.


The breaking-up of the empire aggravated these evils. Diocletian divided (in 285) the empire into east and west. Constantine restored the monarchy in 323, after the defeat of Licinius, but this did not arrest the tendency, nor did Theodosiusís establishment of unity have lasting results. The first step led to an inevitable separation. The result was serious for the Church, because many members of the episcopate in the East (chiefly Arian) thought of Church in terms of State. The sense of Christian unity was attenuated by this division.



II.                Development of Doctrine


They centre round Christ's Person. It is the development and determination of ecclesiastical doctrine that lend to this epoch its distinct character. To the East particularly falls the special task of abstract crystallisation and speculative illustration of theological truths in their strict significance. The true divinity and perfect humanity of Christ are established against Arianism, Macedonianism, Sabellianism and Apollinarism (Conc. Constantinople, 381). The relation of the human and the divine in the God-Man is defined to mean that two natures are united in one person, but without con≠fusion and without change.

III.             Heresies


Concerning Trinity or Christology.


a)      Arians.

Arius, a priest of Alexandria, taught that the Logos was a creature created ex nihilo, from nothing, before the creation of the world, by nature distinct from the Father. He is the Son of God as all men are sons of God, by adoption. The second creature was the Holy Ghost. The Father alone is true God.

There were extremists and moderates : pure Arians (hetero-ousios),  Homeans (homoios = similar), and Semi-Arians (homoi-ousios). Empe≠rors sponsored it freely. It lasted on into the ninth century.

Nicaea (325) condemned this and taught the Son of God was of the same substance or nature as the Father (homo-≠ousios to Patri). St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Gregory of Nyssa were the great Church representatives.


b)      Pneumatomachi.

They denied the divinity of the Holy Ghost and so the Trinity. Their heresy comes from Arianism and they are called Semi-Arians, Macedonians, Marathonians, (Tropicists).


c)      Sabellians

They held the divine persons were only modes or modalities of the same Person, God.

They are called Photinians (Photinus, bishop of Sirmium). They believed there was only a modal distinction - God as Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. A logical outcome of it was Patripassianism.

Marcellus, bishop of Ancyra (374) is associated with Sabel≠lianism, his aim being to emphasise the unity of nature of Father and Son and he suppressed the distinction of persons.

Eusebius and Athanasius opposed it.


d)      Apollinarists

Apollinaris, 390, bishop of Laodicea, Syria, to render Christís divinity more certain, taught his humanity was incomplete : a body and a sensitive soul. The word took the place of the spiritual soul.

Apollinaris was one of the most fertile and versatile ecclesiastical writers of his time, primarily an exegete.


e)      Nestorians

They denied the personal unity of Christ and taught two separate persons in Him and so denied the God-Man. The heresy did not come to a head until 430.


Other heresies


f)       Origenism

Origenists defended Origenís eschatological errors and the temporal nature of hell. (There was a prudent Origen≠ism which favoured a spiritual exegesis - not to be confused with above).


g)      Manichaeans

They taught two eternal and irreducible principles, good and evil, and advanced this as an explanation of all natural and supernatural mysteries.


h)      Donatists

Led by Donatus of Carthage, they affirmed the saints and the just form the Church and taught that the validity of the sacraments depends on the holiness of the minister.


i)        Pelagians

They taught that the human will was all powerful in the moral order, and denied the need of grace to move it.


j)        Priscillianists

They taught a doctrine which combined Sabel≠lianism, Manichaeism and some Origenist theories.


These heresies were opposed by individual Fathers and by group movements in schools of theology in the East.


IV.            The two mains Schools



1)      The School of Alexandria with Clement, Origen and others.


The new school flourished in the fourth century. It had for its representatives St. Athanasius and Didymus the Blind in Egypt, and later the Cappadocians.


The school is distinctive in its mystical interpretation and tendency, and employment of Platonic philosophy. In theology their faith in the divinity of the Word led them to a clear affirmation of His substantial sameness with the Father. They readily accepted the homo≠ousios of Nicaea.

The unity of God was first in their thought, and this they stressed though enemies might accuse them of Sabellianism. The Alexandrians became the defenders of the substantial and personal unity of Christ, and so strenuously that Monophysitism sought to claim St. Cyril as a supporter.



2)      The School of Antioch.


It had had three periods:

-          260-360. Lucianus and Dorotheus were prominent.

-          360-430, its great period - Flavian, Diodorus of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrus, and above all St. John Chrysostom.

-          The period of decadence after 430.


Characteristics of the School.

The school opposed to the allegorical interpretation of Alexandria a prudent, literal sense, either proper or metaphorical, insisting on the helps afforded by language-study, etc. Occasionally the spirit was neglected for the letter.

For the mystical they substituted a moral teaching (especially St. Chrysostom). They cultivated Aristo≠telian philosophy.

In theology they affirmed clearly the distinction of the divine Persons and to ensure the reality of the distinction gave them the name of hypostases (hypostasis, substance) thereby risking the possibility of being accused of holding the theory that the Persons are not only a substance but differ from one another by a substance. For this reason many of them opposed homo-ousios, and the misuse of the word by Paul of Samosata in the previous century helped them to this.

The school stressed the humanity of Christ in its Christology.

The later heresies centred principally on the person of Christ : was He true God and true Man ? How many persons in Christ ? Errors often arose from a too zealous defence of orthodoxy in one point. Nestorius was combating the loss of human will in Christ and held there were two persons in Christ. Under stress of these heresies and questionings, theology developed with great precision, and an elaborate and systematic defence of Christianity resulted (especially concern≠ing the Incarnation and Redemption).



3)      The traditional School


In the fourth century there are writers who belong to a movement which is classed as the Traditional School.

It was first a reaction to Origen, and later on rejected all scientific knowledge and criticism. In the third century Methodius had protested against certain theses of Origen, but the fourth century opposition, headed by St. Epiphanius, is more personal than scientific opposition and sometime used of unworthy means.