One of the challenges facing the Fathers of the early Church was the need to attend to and communicate matters divine while relating and adapting to matters mundane. Following the Christological and Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century, the Fathers came more and more to find a need to express fundamental truths about mankind in relation to God. The Incarnation itself, while revealing the Godhead as a set of relations among the three divine Persons, also led to the need to define just what it means to be human. As Jaroslav Pelikan notes,
The definition of “human” was a part of the presupposition of christological doctrine, and that in at least three ways: the understanding of the human condition and its need for salvation; the definition of the human nature of Christ; and the picture of a human race redeemed and transformed by his coming.
Ultimately, the Fathers addressed what it meant to be created human in the image of God, how mankind fell from its original state in disobedience, and how God chose to respond graciously to mankind’s disobedience.
By necessity, the Christological question raises an additional question of what it means to be human and how man as a created being relates to the Creator of all. The starting point for Christian anthropology is Genesis 1:26, in which God says, “‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness[.]’” While God is purely incorporeal, man is both material and immaterial, either in a dualistic sense (body and soul) or even a triadic sense (body, soul, and spirit). St. Paul seems to at times support the former (1 Corinthians 2:13) and at other times, the latter (Thessalonians 5:23). In both psychologies, it is the immaterial aspect (either soul or spirit) that accounts for the spiritual and intellectual activities of man.
Some early Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, incorporating Platonic and Stoic influences, chose the dualistic view. However, along with Origen in the minority, Clement accepted the Greek notion of a pre-existent soul. Other Fathers, such as Tatian, chose the triadic formula. Likewise, some Fathers like Origen diverged from the main in their thought concerning bodily resurrection. In addition, the Fathers held divergent positions on the natural immortality of the soul, some such as St. Clement of Alexandria and Origen (influenced by middle Platonism) holding that the soul was naturally immortal, while others such as St. Irenaeus, Tatian, and St. Basil held, in St. Irenaeus’ words, that “the soul itself is not life, but participates in the life conferred upon it by God” and continue to exist solely through God’s grace and will.
The existence of an immortal soul (whether naturally so or not) and mankind’s fashioning in the image of God imply a similitude between man’s and God’s incorporeal existence (man’s by creation and God’s by essence). As St. Ambrose notes, “And what is God, flesh or spirit? Certainly not flesh, He is spirit, to which flesh can have no likeness; for spirit is incorporeal and invisible, while flesh is bounded and seen.” Christological doctrine ratified at Chalcedon had asserted that Christ possessed a rational human nature (in addition to His divine nature). This rational nature (either endowed through spirit or soul depending on the psychology) reflected this image of God. The Fathers, affirming this aspect of man’s rational nature, insisted that to reflect truly the image of God, man must be made free. The Fathers stressed personal freedom in the face of Gnostic, Stoic, and Manichean claims to the contrary. In that freedom, we can choose life or death. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, “That some are saved and some perish depends rather upon the deliberate choice of those who hear the word.”
While the doctrine of original sin was still in its formative stages, the Fathers still held a vague notion of original justice—a sense that Adam and Eve enjoyed certain supernatural and possibly some preternatural gifts prior to the Fall. Among the supernatural gifts, of course, would be grace, which was restored to us by Christ’s redeeming act. However, other gifts, the preternatural ones (for example, freedom from suffering or illness), would only return to us after the resurrection. Yet we see the seed of the doctrine of original sin in the early Fathers. St. Irenaeus in Against Heresies sets up Adam as the figure of fallen mankind: “Indeed, through the first Adam, we offended God by not observing His command.” According to Athanasius, by disobedience men “‘became the cause of their own corruption and death.’” Other beliefs and practices of the early Church also strongly influenced the development of the doctrine of original sin. Cyprian and other Fathers mention the practice of infant baptism in relation to a notion of original sin, and Sts. Ambrose and Augustine after him would flesh out this doctrine. And finally, the doctrine of the virgin birth also pointed to the idea that some corporate fault had been passed down through Adam. Concerning these two elements, Jaroslav Pelikan notes, “[G]iven their increasingly secure place in cultus and confession, they became the premises from which conclusions could be drawn about the fall and original sin.” St. Augustine would later build on these themes to develop our current understanding.
While our fall came about by our own free will and disobedience, our redemption came about by God’s response. St.Irenaeus identified Adam as the origin of sin and the figure of sinful man. In the Incarnation, St. Irenaeus sees the undoing of our disobedience. His doctrine of recapitulation, which he taught in response to the Gnostic teaching of self-redemption, posited the notion that Christ is a second Adam: “The disobedience of the first Adam was undone through the complete obedience of the second, so that many could be justified and attain salvation.” In this recapitulation, Christ restores the damage done through sin. In His saving work, Christ becomes our example, and in fact, the exemplar of the mature Christian and prototype of the image of God. For St. Athanasius, the Incarnation divinizes human nature and raises it up to God, making us adopted sons and daughters of God. The supernatural grace to which we are redeemed in Christ’s saving work brings us salvation from sin and its effects and heals us. It instills in us the life of the Holy Spirit and allows the indwelling of the Trinity. Baptism plays an important part in the imparting of grace. St. Clement of Alexandria outlines the effects of grace imparted through this rebirth in Christ: “Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal.” God’s grace, then, not only redeems us from past faults but helps us to rise up to Him and to become perfected. While Gnostic, Stoic, and Manichean thought all limited or nullified human responsibility and freedom, the Fathers stressed that through grace and redemption we could be free from sin and its effects. While the pagans proposed inevitability, the Church proposed true liberty. While we were enslaved through sin, faith in Christ and the grace it brings restored our original liberty.
In liberty, there is sometimes an overabundance of choice. Fathers held various positions concerning sexuality, marriage, and virginity, some of which were heavily influenced by anti-materialist views of the Platonists and Stoics. An element of the early thinking about the virgin birth was that sexual intercourse lacked holiness. Even St. Paul recommends marriage as recourse for human weakness in 1 Corinthians and indicates the suitability of celibacy for Christians. St. Augustine highlights this view in his own writings about marriage:
“Marriage has also this advantage, that the carnal or youthful incontinence, even if it is defiling, is turned to the honorable talk of propagating offspring, so that marital intercourse makes something good out of an evil appetite.”
In large, marriage was still considered a good (though perhaps not the highest good for the Christian in pursuing holiness). Nonetheless, virginity was highly prized by the Fathers, so long as it was a matter of choice.
In addition to the personal nature of sin, the Fathers also recognized its communal aspect. In the growing awareness of the sacramental nature of the Church, the Fathers saw the Church and its rites as elements of sanctification—divinely instituted means of grace. One rite that arose early in the life of the Church was penance, or what we now call the Sacrament of Reconciliation. While private confession had always been a practice of the Church, some public act of penance could be required for reconciliation. Early Christians recognized that sin harmed the entire community, so reconciliation needed to be made with both God and the Church. Again, there were varying beliefs concerning who was allowed to be reconciled. Some Fathers (for example, Hippolytus and Tertullian) believed in a very restrictive view of reconciliation, demanding the absolute holiness of its members. Cyprian insisted that, at very least, priests must be holy for the efficacy of Christian rites. However, the Church ultimately sided with the view of Pope Callistus, who cited the Genesis account of Noah’s ark (carrying both clean and unclean animals) as well as the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew to symbolize the presence of both sinners and saints in the Church. Certainly, though God demands justice, His mercy shines through in the saving work of His Son.
St. Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, would later flesh out the Church’s understanding of original sin and grace, and in his exhaustive treatment of the teachings of the early Church. At the end of the fourth century, the Church had come more and more to represent the unity of spirit and simultaneous diversity of expression that we see today.
1 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: The Christian Tradition, Vol. 1 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971), 284.
2 Rev. Douglas Mosey, “Patristics: Lecture 4,” International Catholic University, (Catholic Educational Television, Inc., 2006), 2.
3 Pelikan, 46–48.
4 Ibid, 51.
5 Ibid, 48.
6 Mosey, 2.
7 Pelikan, 47–48.
8 Ibid, 51, also Mosey, 2.
9 William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 2, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1979), 35.
10 Pelikan, 51.
11 Jurgens, Vol. 2, 167.
12 Rev. Douglas Mosey, “Patristics: Lecture 2,” International Catholic University, (Catholic Educational Television, Inc., 2006), 6–7.
13 Mosey, 3. Also, Pelikan, 283.
14 Jurgens, Vol. 2, 55.
15 Mosey, 5.
16 William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1970), 101.
17 Pelikan, 285.
18 Mosey, 4.
19 Pelikan, 286–291.
20 Ibid, 286.
21 Mosey, 4.
22 Ibid, 5.
23 Pelikan, 144.
24 Ibid, 145.
25 Mosey, 6.
26 Ibid, 7.
27 Pelikan, 164.
28 Mosey, 3.
29 Ibid, 8.
30 Ibid, 2.
31 Jurgens, Vol. 3, 70.
32 Mosey, 4.
33 Jurgens, Vol. 2, 44.
34 Jurgens, Vol. 3, 71.
35 Pelikan, 156.
36 Mosey, 11.
37 Pelikan, 157.
38 Ibid, 158–159.
39 Mosey, 7.
40 Jurgens, Vol. 3, 1.