The Latin Fathers

Author: Ronsselot & Huby


by Pierre Ronsselot and Joseph Huby

The Greek ideal was saturated with intellectualism and aesthetics; in the ancient world, the Greeks were, supremely, the intellectual and artistic race. The Roman ideal had been, before all else, an ideal of positive wisdom, of active and persevering discipline, with a leaning towards legal formalism. Rome had produced governors who were convinced realists, eminent jurists, sound practical moralists, but no metaphysician, no original thinker. Western Christianity was distinguished for its spirit of discipline, its sense of the positive and the concrete; its concern was the development of the moral aspect of Christianity. The earliest Roman words, though written in Greek--Clement's Epistle and the of Hermas--already have this practical character. The Christian literature that was to come later proved to be a continuation of this tradition, except in the case of St. Hilary, whose contact with the Greeks had broadened his intellectual horizon, and St. Augustine, who had been influenced by Platonism, and whose genius was too great not to reach beyond the confines of his time and country. It is moral or legal considerations that predominate in their apologetic works: the refutation of paganism by the display of its vices, the defence of Christianity by showing the lives of Christians and discussing the evils of impiety and rebelliousness. The finest pages of Tertullian's are his word-pictures of Catholic life and his arguments against the Roman legislation; one of his most fruitful ideas, one of those that have most contributed towards the definite notion of "conscience," was inspired by the evolution of Roman law, as it was then developing, under the influence of men like Gaius and Papinian, by means of the distinction drawn between the ideas of legality and of equity. Tertullian's formula is well known: "No respect is due to an unjust law,"

In Latin exegesis we find the same moral "utilitarianism"; Biblical commentators are careful above all to extract lessons bearing on the conduct of life, "examples" suitable for men of all periods, history for ever repeating itself. The commentaries of St. Ambrose were, first of all, homilies, and his giving such a favorable welcome to the allegorical method of exegesis was solely because he saw the opportunity it would give him--as, later, it gave St. Gregory the Great--to introduce variety into pious reflections and to multiply practical conclusions. The great disputes that were strictly Latin--the baptism of heretics and the penitential discipline--are practical disputes which, while indirectly they may involve points of dogma, have an immediate bearing only on courses of action. In disputations with heretics-- the majority of whom were orientals--the favorite grounds of argument were such as lay within the scope of minds tending rather towards jurisprudence than towards philosophy: references to the sacred text as to a decisive code, appeals to the continuity of tradition, a radical rejection of any doctrine that could not establish its claim to apostolicity, as necessarily inadmissible. There is no dogma so mystical that its enunciation does not reveal the same tendency; while the Greeks, in the discussion of the Trinity, adapted the vocabulary of philosophy and gave it a new meaning, the Latins went to the terminology of jurisprudence and took the word and applied it to the different terms of the divine relationships.

It would, of course, certainly be a mistake to exaggerate this characteristic of the Roman genius, and to carry it so far as to deny all individuality to the writers of the Latin Church. Tertullian combines a fervid eloquence that is thoroughly African with a taste for legal principles and arguments that reminds one of the strict formalism of the ancient Roman legists. Cyprian, with a greater gift for restrained emotion, preserves that sense of reality and the realizable which makes him condemn the voluntary incurring of martyrdom. Minucius Felix and Lactantius are virtuous Christians who seek to adapt Christianity to the needs of people generally. St. Ambrose was most himself when he composed, in imitation of the of Cicero, a treatise on duty which was destined to be the first manual of Christian ethics. St. Jerome's character is richer and more animated and diversified: his bursts of emotion, his ardent faculty of imagination, seem to shatter the mold of the Latin school of thought. And yet his real merits are of an eminently practical order. By his activities as a translator he contributed powerfully to the West's knowledge of the treasures of the Christian East: his version of the Bible was to become the Vulgate of the Latin Church. By his letters of direction, some of which are real treatises, remarkable for logic and vigor, he won the sympathies of the upper ranks in Roman society formonasticism, and detached them decisively from paganism. The piety in which he instructed his spiritual daughters, Melania, Paula, Eustochium, is an eminentlyRoman piety in its thoroughly ecclesiastical and social characteristics. from (1932)

Taken from the Winter 1994 issue of "The Dawson Newsletter." For subscriptions send $8.00 to "The Dawson Newsletter", P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702. John J. Mulloy, Editor