2.3.2 The patristic period

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Unit 2 Contents


The chronology of biblical history in 2.2.2 ended with the birth of the Church, more or less.  But what happened historically after this?

While you should now have a good sense of the way that the Bible forms part of the background of modern CST, and inspires it, it is very important too to have some knowledge of how Christian teaching about society has developed during the long period since then.  This is in order to be aware of factors – people, events, controversies – that lie behind and have influenced CST.

We could at this point jump straight to the modern period of Western history, in the context of which CST as we now know it emerged. However, having given attention to biblical history, it makes much more sense not to jump in that way – not to leave a huge gap between the biblical and modern periods.

Therefore, in this part of Unit 2, we give attention briefly to some developments in Christian thinking and practice between the time of Christ and the beginning of the modern period (around the eighteenth century).  In doing this we’ll make use of Thompson’s book, Introducing Catholic Social Thought, which accompanies this module.

Thompson divides this very long time in Church history into three parts, which he calls ‘The Patristic Period’, ‘The Medieval Period’ and ‘The Reformation and the Age of Conquest’.  We look at these three in turn, on this and the next two screens.  Perhaps those labels for periods of history mean absolutely nothing to you.  If this is so, have no fear: what they stand for will become clear.

After the birth of the Church at Pentecost (as mentioned in 2.2.9), the main issue the Church found itself dealing with during the rest of the first century was the relationship between its faith in Jesus Christ and the Judaism within which it had been formed.  Difficult debates about this issue are very obvious in the New Testament, especially in St Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Romans.  The way in which this issue was resolved by about 100CE was by the Church basically separating off from Judaism.  After this date, there was remarkably little positive interaction and serious discussion between Jews and Christians until the second half of the twentieth century!  There was also, as is now widely recognized, much anti-Semitism among Christians.  (As you might know, the Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate (1965), and then Pope John Paul II made great strides in addressing this.)1

The first century is known in Christian history as the Apostolic Era, because the leading figures in the young Church were among the twelve apostles Jesus chose during his ministry, especially Peter and John, and the apostle Paul.  Like Jesus, all the apostles were Jewish people, so the issue about how Judaism and the new Christian faith were related was a great challenge for them.

After the year 100, the next 500 years or so are, to use the traditional label (which Thompson uses), the ‘patristic period’.  The Latin word pater means ‘father’, and ‘patristic’ simply means ‘to do with the Church Fathers’.  During this era, the leading people in the Church were those bishops and theologians who were subsequently held in very high esteem and came to be called the Fathers of the Church.  St Augustine of Hippo, who was introduced briefly in 1.2.3, is seen as one of the greatest Church Fathers; we shall look at him further in a moment.  Of course, Church Fathers can only be men, and some scholars now favour the label ‘Early Church period’ as an alternative.  This is more appropriate, they would say, as it fits with an approach to that period which is open to recognition of similarly significant contributions by women.  Nevertheless, as Thompson uses the traditional term, I have done the same.

Here are three things from the patristic period that are especially important in relation to CST.

1.      Christian rejection of Gnosticism

In the second century of the Church’s history, the dominant issue the Church found itself facing was whether Christianity was compatible with a very prominent group of religious movements in Greek and Roman society which modern scholars call Gnosticism.  You might recall that I touched on this in this in Unit 1.  What I said there makes clear why this why this proved so significant for the Church’s social teaching.  Here is a quotation from 1.2.4.

An inadequate understanding of the Christian gospel, which saw it as about offering an escape from this world to a spiritual ‘heaven’, might lead people to think that the Church need not have any such ‘social teaching’. On such a view, all the Church would need to do is make sure people hear about the offer of escape from their present misery.

But as far back as the second century after Christ, the Church rejected that kind of understanding. In that early period of the Church’s history, there were many religious movements which had that sort of escapist view of a purely spiritual salvation. Modern scholars refer to such views as ‘Gnostic’. In the second century, the Church clearly rejected Gnosticism.

This was for two main reasons. First, the material creation was made by the one God, and, according to Genesis chapter 1, it was made very good. Second, God’s love for the world was so great that God had gone as far as to come into this material world, in his Son Jesus Christ, demonstrating that the material world itself is immeasurably important to God.

These two reasons are basic in why there is Catholic Social Teaching. God is deeply concerned with how things go in his good creation. God has not abandoned it and does not offer people mere escape from it. Ever since that early period, the Church has offered teaching on how things should be done in human societies here and now.

Surprisingly, Thompson doesn’t mention Gnosticism in his few pages on the patristic period, which is especially why I’ve included these paragraphs here.

2.      The conversion of Emperor Constantine

One of the most significant developments ever in Christian history occurred in the fourth century.  Until the early 300s, Christianity had been a minority and marginal faith in the Graeco-Roman world, and at some periods Christians were persecuted.  Suddenly this changed, after the Roman Emperor Constantine had a public conversion to Christianity in 312.  By the year 380, his successor, Emperor Theodosius, had even made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.

This meant that Christians had to think in ways they had not needed to before, to do with what it meant to have political power and how to use it.  They didn’t always get it right.

3.      St Augustine of Hippo

Augustine became a Christian in 386 or 387 – just a few years after Christianity had become the official Roman Imperial religion.  He was a truly great thinker and he addressed, among many things, how Christians should understand themselves in relation to the rest of society and its rulers.  To do this, he took up the metaphor of ‘two cities’: the ‘city’ of God’s people, in the midst of the ‘earthly city’.  This was in his great work City of God, which was a defence of Christianity against non-Christian philosophical attacks on it.

In employing the ‘two cities’ theme, Augustine was influenced not least by the passage in Jeremiah we looked at earlier (chap. 29; see 2.2.9). Jeremiah says to the Jewish exiles in Babylon:

Seek the shalom of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the LORD, for in its shalom you will have shalom” (Jer. 29:7).

This theme was central in Augustine’s understanding of how God has acted in the world.  In Augustine’s Latin translation of the Bible, the word used for shalom was pax, meaning ‘peace’ – and peace is one of the leading motifs in Augustine’s writing about these issues.

Augustine is widely seen as the greatest Christian theologian of the Catholic Church’s first thousand years and his influence has been immense.  The ‘two cities’ vision, of God’s people in the midst of an imperial society, remains in the background of everything we find in Catholic Social Teaching on the issues we’ll study in this module.

These three points give some preparation for your reading from Thompson.  He refers to other major developments in the Early Church too, for example the Councils of the fourth century which determined the Nicene Creed, which Christians still say today.


Reading (3pp)

Thompson, Introducing Catholic Social Thought, pp. 15-18




Thompson says the Church Fathers “can be as relevant and challenging as the Hebrew prophets regarding social justice” (p. 16).  He goes on to quote Clement of Alexandria (who was writing around the year 200) on how Christians should give to the poor.

You must not try to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving.  You may easily make a mistake, and, as the matter is in doubt, it is better to benefit the undeserving than, in avoiding this, to miss the good.

What is your reaction to Clement’s statement?



End of 2.3.2

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Module B outline

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  1. For a brief outline of these developments, see David Rosen, ‘The Legacy of Pope John Paul II for Catholic-Jewish Relations’, an article written at the time of John Paul’s death in 2005, accessible (23 May 2013) at: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/2005/04/The-Legacy-Of-Pope-John-Paul-II-For-Catholic-Jewish-Relations.aspx?p=1