The Great Doctors of the Church

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Known as the Doctors of the Church, they are among the most influential figures of the fourth century, namely: Bishops Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom of Constantinople, Jerome of Italy, and Augustine of Hippo.

St. Ambrose was the governor of the City of Milan during the episcopacy of Auxentius, an appointee by an Arian emperor. After the death of Auxentius, the election of a successor could easily turn into a riot between the Arians and the orthodox. Thus, in order to avoid a possible disorder, Ambrose decided to attend the election. Trained in the best rhetoric and popular for his efficient and fair rule, he was able to address the crowd. Suddenly, from among the crowd, a child cried, “Ambrose, bishop; Ambrose, Ambrose!” The crowd went along and Ambrose was unexpectedly made bishop of Milan. He was not yet even baptized at that time and was only a catechumen. Hence, it was expedient that he be raised through the various levels of ministerial orders and after eight days; he was consecrated bishop of Milan on December 1, 373. He then undertook the study of theology with the help of a priest and soon he was one of the best theologians in the Western church. Ambrose’s fame was such that Fritigil, queen of the Marcomanni, had asked him to write for her a brief introduction to the Christian faith. After reading it, she resolved to visit him in Milan, but on her way she learned that the wise man had died on April 4, 397.

Among the many who went to listen to Ambrose preach, there was a young teacher of rhetoric who had followed a long and tortuous spiritual pilgrimage, and who was so entranced by the bishop’s words that he returned to his mother’s faith, which he abandoned many years before. Eventually, the young man, whose name was Augustine, was baptized by Ambrose who does not seem aware of the exceptional gifts of his convert, who later on would become the most influential theologian for the West since the apostle Paul.

St. Augustine’s spiritual journey can be readily read in his autobiographical memoir entitled “The Confessions”. Born of St. Monica, an arduous and devout Christian in the year 354, in the little town of Tagaste, North Africa, his father was a pagan Roman official. Eventually, though his mother’s intercession, his father was converted to Christianity. While pursuing the best education his parents can offer in Madura and later, Carthage, Augustine’s sexual proclivity resulted in a love-child named Adeodatus, which means “given by God.” After suffering from sickness, Adeodatus died sometime later. His reading of the works of Cicero, a famous orator, lawyer and philosopher led him to Manicheism. According to its founder, Mani, the human predicament is the presence in each of us of two principles: “light,” which is spiritual, and “darkness,” which is matter. Salvation then is consists in separating the two elements and in preparing our spirit for its return to the realm of pure light, in which it will be absorbed. Later on, he became disappointed with the teachings of Manicheism and became a Neoplatonist. However, because of Monica’s insistence coupled with prayers, the young Augustine attended the church of Ambrose to check him out and listen to his sermons. As a professor of rhetoric, Augustine appreciated Ambrose’s exposition of Scripture and as time went by, became an admirer. Soon, Augustine’s major intellectual difficulties with Christianity had been solved with the help of Ambrose. After a few years, Augustine’s fame as a theologian spread and when he visited Hippo, its bishop, Valerius, took interest in him and ordained him to serve the latter at Hippo. Four years later, he was made bishop jointly with Valerius who feared that another church might steal his catch. When Bishop Valerius died later on, Augustine became the sole bishop of Hippo.

Many of Augustine’s first writings were attempts to refute the Manichees and later on, the Donatists, then against Pelagius. A significant contribution to theology was Augustine’s view of our bondage to sin and the monergism of God’s grace in predestination. That is why both Catholics and Protestants consider Augustine as their theologian par excellence. He was the last of the great leaders of the Imperial Church in the West. When he died, the Vandals were at the gates of Hippo, announcing a new age. Before we completely leave the discussion of the Imperial age however, there were St. John Chrysostom and St. Jerome.

John of Constantinople, named Chrysostom (golden-mouthed) on account of his eloquence, came into the world of Christian parents in the year 344 in the City of Antioch. He studied rhetoric under the pagan Libanius, the most famous orator of the age. A lawyer by profession, he thereafter in 374, began to lead the life of an Anchorite in the mountains near Antioch but in 386 the poor state of his health forced him to return to Antioch where he was ordained a presbyter. In 398, he was elevated to the See of Constantinople and became on the greatest lights of the Church. Nevertheless, John had enemies in high places such as Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria and the powerful Empress Eudoxia who sought to bring several false accusations against him in a farce council resulting in his exile. The Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches honor him as a saint and count him among the Three Holy Hierarchs, together with Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus. John is known chiefly as a preacher, theologian and liturgist. One of his significant contributions to the church is the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.

Last but certainly not the least in his contributions to Christianity, was St. Jerome. Jerome is known for his translation of the Scriptures into Latin, the prevailing “international language” of that time. He made the Bible accessible to the Latin speaking West and later on, his translation, known as “the Vulgate”, became the official version of the Roman church. Jerome tried the life of a hermit but conceded that he was not made for it. Ironically, in spite of his lustful weakness to women, he found a great deal of help amidst a group of rich and devout women who lived in the place of a widow, Albina. Besides Albina, the most prominent members of the group in whom Jerome found solace were her widowed daughter Marcella, Ambrose’s sister Marcellina, and the scholarly Paula, who with her daughter Eustochium, would play a leading role in the rest of Jerome’s life.

Christian Monasticism

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“Monks who leave their cells, or seek the company of others, lose their peace, like fish out of water loses its life.”

-St. Anthony

During the years prior to the Edict of Milan, when persecution was still rampant throughout the Roman Empire, followers of the Way were always aware of the possibility that one day they might be taken by the Roman authorities and be made to choose between death and apostasy. However, when the peace of the church seemed assured there are those who, unlike Eusebius of Caesarea, did not take Emperor Constantine’s peace positively with open arms. To them, imperial tolerance and even promotion of Christianity resulted in the widening of the narrow gate to salvation which Jesus had spoken about enabling multitudes to go right through it. Thus, people were lining up and demanding to be baptized without even fully understanding the Christian Faith. Furthermore, this situation likewise elevated the office of the bishop to one of prestige and power so much so that ministers competed against each other for the episcopate.

To this apparent dilemma, many found the answer in the monastic life. This is characterized by fleeing from human society and leaving everything behind in order to dominate the body and its passions which give way to temptation. Albeit monasticism had already been in existence before Constantine’s time, its practice only became widespread during the time of Constantine. It was the Egyptian desert that provided the most fertile soil for the growth of monasticism due to its inaccessibility. The word “monk” is derived from the Greek monachos, which means “solitary.”

Although it is impossible for us today to determine who really was the first monk or nun of the desert, the two that are usually given that honor are Paul and Anthony, about whom Jerome and Athanasius wrote respectively. Studying the lives of Paul and Anthony will enable us to learn about the earliest forms of monasticism, which is that of the “anchorite” or the solitary monk. As more and more people withdraw into the desert searching for and experienced teacher, a new form of monasticism arose and solitary monasticism gave way to a communal form of the monastic life. This form of monasticism is called “cenobitic,” a name derived from two Greek words which mean “communal life.” Despite not being its founder, Pachomius deserves credit as the organizer who most contributed to its final shape. Pachomius demanded that any who wished to join his community must give up all their goods and promise absolute obedience to their superiors. The basic rule was mutual service, so that even those in authority had to serve under them in spite of the vow of absolute obedience. The daily life of a Pachomian monk included both work and devotion, and Pachomius himself set an example by undertaking the most humble tasks. They prayed “without ceasing” as per the Apostle Paul’s instructions even while performing their respective trades. This most probably is the precursor to the Benedictine motto of “Ora et labora” or “Pray and work.”

We can now see from the discussion above how these monastic communities that are still present today came about. Knowing their history enables us to appreciate their various contributions to the Christian life. To know more, read The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez.