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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 48. Schools of the Clergy.


Having in a former section observed the elevation of the church to the position of the state religion of the Roman empire, and the influence of this great change upon the condition of the clergy and upon public morality, we turn now to the internal organization and the development of the hierarchy under its new circumstances. The step of progress which we here find distinguishing the organization of this third period from the episcopal system of the second and the apostolic supervision of the first, is the rise of the patriarchal constitution and of the system of ecumenical councils closely connected with it. But we must first glance at the character and influence of the teaching order in general.

The work of preparation for the clerical office was, on the one hand, materially facilitated by the union of the church with the state, putting her in possession of the treasures, the schools, the learning, and the literature of classic heathendom, and throwing the education of the rising generation into her hands. The numerous doctrinal controversies kept the spirit of investigation awake, and among the fathers and bishops of the fourth and fifth centuries we meet with the greatest theologians of the ancient church. These gave their weighty voices for the great value of a thorough education to the clerical office, and imparted much wholesome instruction respecting the studies proper to this purpose.410410   E.g. Chrysostom: De sacerdotio; Augustine: De doctrina Christiana; Jerome: in several letters; Gregory the Great: Regula pastoralis. The African church, by a decree of the council of Carthage, in 397, required of candidates a trial of their knowledge and orthodoxy. A law of Justinian, of the year 541, established a similar test in the East.

But on the other hand, a regular and general system of clerical education was still entirely wanting. The steady decay of the classic literature, the gradual cessation of philosophical and artistic production, the growth of monastic prejudice against secular learning and culture, the great want of ministers in the suddenly expanded field of the church, the uneasy state of the empire, and the barbarian invasions, were so many hinderances to thorough theological preparation. Many candidates trusted to the magical virtue of ordination. Others, without inward call, were attracted to the holy office by the wealth and power of the church. Others had no time or opportunity for preparation, and passed, at the instance of the popular voice or of circumstances, immediately from the service of the state to that of the church, even to the episcopal office; though several councils prescribed a previous test of their capacity in the lower degrees of reader, deacon, and presbyter. Often, however, this irregularity turned to the advantage of the church, and gave her a highly gifted man, like Ambrose, whom the acclamation of the people called to the episcopal see of Milan even before he was baptized. Gregory Nazianzen laments that many priests and bishops came in fresh from the counting house, sunburnt from the plow, from the oar, from the army, or even from the theatre, so that the most holy order of all was in danger of becoming the most ridiculous. “Only he can be a physician,” says he, “who knows the nature of diseases; he, a painter, who has gone through much practice in mixing colors and in drawing forms; but a clergyman may be found with perfect ease, not thoroughly wrought, of course, but fresh made, sown and full blown in a moment, as the legend says of the giants.411411   Ὡς ὁ μύθος ποιεῖ τοὺς γιγάντας. We form the saints in a day, and enjoin them to be wise, though they possess no wisdom at all, and bring nothing to their spiritual office, except at best a good will.”412412   Greg. Orat. xliii. c. 26 (Opera omnia, ed. Bened., Paris, 1842, tom. i. p. 791 sq.), and similar passages in his other orations, and his Carmen de se ipse et advers. Episc. Comp. Ullmann: Greg. v. Naz. p. 511 sqq. If such complaints were raised so early as the end of the Nicene age, while the theological activity of the Greek church was in its bloom, there was far more reason for them after the middle of the fifth century and in the sixth, especially in the Latin church, where, even among the most eminent clergymen, a knowledge of the original languages of the Holy Scriptures was a rare exception.

The opportunities which this period offered for literary and theological preparation for the ministry, were the following:

1. The East had four or five theological schools, which, however, were far from supplying its wants.

The oldest and most celebrated was the catechetical school of Alexandria. Favored by the great literary treasures, the extensive commercial relations, and the ecclesiastical importance of the Egyptian metropolis, as well as by a succession of distinguished teachers, it flourished from the middle of the second century to the end of the fourth, when, amidst the Origenistic, Nestorian, and Monophysite confusion, it withered and died. Its last ornament was the blind, but learned and pious Didymus (340–395).

From the Alexandrian school proceeded the smaller institution of Caesarea in Palestine, which was founded by Origen, after his banishment from Alexandria, and received a new but temporary impulse in the beginning of the fourth century from his admirer, the presbyter Pamphilus, and from his friend Eusebius. It possessed the theological library which Eusebius used in the preparation of his learned works.

Far more important was the theological school of Antioch, founded about 290 by the presbyters Dorotheus and Lucian. It developed in the course of the fourth century a severe grammatico-historical exegesis, counter to the Origenistic allegorical method of the Alexandrians; now in connection with the church doctrine, as in Chrysostom; now in a rationalizing spirit, as in Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius.

The seminary at Edessa, a daughter of the Antiochian school, was started by the learned deacon, Ephraim Syrus († 378), furnished ministers for Mesopotamia and Persia, and stood for about a hundred years.

The Nestorians, at the close of the fifth century, founded a seminary at Nisibis in Mesopotamia, which was organized into several classes and based upon a definite plan of instruction.

The West had no such institutions for theological instruction, but supplied itself chiefly from cloisters and private schools of the bishops. Cassiodorus endeavored to engage Pope Agapetus in founding a learned institution in Rome, but was discouraged by the warlike disquietude of Italy. Jerome spent some time at the Alexandrian school under the direction of Didymus.

2. Many priests and bishops, as we have already observed, emanated from the monasteries, where they enjoyed the advantages of retirement from the world, undisturbed meditation, the intercourse of kindred earnest minds, and a large spiritual experience; but, on the other hand, easily sank into a monkish narrowness, and rarely attained that social culture and comprehensive knowledge of the world and of men, which is necessary, especially in large cities, for a wide field of labor.

3. In the West there were smaller diocesan seminaries, under the direction of the bishops, who trained their own clergy, both in theory and in practice, as they passed through the subordinate classes of reader, sub-deacon, and deacon.

Augustine set a good example of this sort, having at Hippo a “monasterium clericorum,” which sent forth many good presbyters and bishops for the various dioceses of North Africa. Similar clerical monasteries or episcopal seminaries arose gradually in the southern countries of Europe, and are very common in the Roman Catholic church to this day.

4. Several of the most learned and able fathers of the fourth century received their general scientific education in heathen schools, under the setting sun of the classic culture, and then studied theology either in ascetic retirement or under some distinguished church teacher, or by the private reading of the Scriptures and the earlier church literature.

Thus Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen were in the high school of Athens at the same time with the prince Julian the Apostate; Chrysostom attended the lectures of the celebrated rhetorician Libanius in Antioch; Augustine studied at Carthage, Rome, and Milan; and Jerome was introduced to the study of the classics by the grammarian Donatus of Rome. The great and invaluable service of these fathers in the development and defence of the church doctrine, in pulpit eloquence, and especially in the translation and exposition of the Holy Scriptures, is the best evidence of the high value of a classical education. And the church has always, with good reason, acknowledged it.



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