One Protestant objection is that we do not see a well-developed Mariology in Sacred Scripture or in the writings of the earliest church fathers. To answer this objection, we need to examine the concept of catechesis — of instruction in the faith. For a number of reasons, catechesis in the early church was primarily oral.
- First, because there was no New Testament canon in the ante-Nicene church. For nearly thirty years there were no epistles; for nearly forty years there were no gospels; for many years different bishops promulgated different canons, and the canon as we know it today wasn’t standardized until the late 4th century.
- Second, there were no books as we know them today, only scrolls; different churches had different collections of scrolls.[i]
- Third, scrolls were hand-copied, and therefore expensive.
- Fourth, literacy was not widespread, especially among the lower classes that formed the bulk of the Christian Church.[ii]
- Fifth, because scrolls were hand-copied and errors were frequent, the written word was not considered to be as trustworthy as the oral word passed on from teacher to student.
- And finally, because the Christian Church was an underground movement. As Christianity was technically an illegal religion in the Roman Empire, and also so as not to cast pearls before swine, the mysteries of the faith were kept hidden from non-believers. It is perhaps for these reasons that we do not see well-defined theology on a great many subjects within the writings of the earliest church fathers.
As evidence, let us examine some of the works preserving the church order of the early church. The Didache (a.k.a. the Teachings of the Apostles), is a very early work, perhaps written as early as 50 AD (but certainly before 70 AD), which was accepted as scripture by many church fathers and within several jurisdictions, and was not officially excluded from the canon until the 4th century. (O’Loughlin 2010, 26) [iii] The Didache contains very little doctrine, but is mostly concerned with matters of church order, church practices, and holy living. (P. Schaff, ANF07. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies 2004) In the third century, Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 236) wrote his Apostolic Traditions, preserving the church order and practices in use in Alexandria, but containing none of what we today would call doctrine. (Hippolytus 1997) The Didascalia Apostolorum, probably from the early third century, preserves the early church order and practices in use in Syria, likely close to Antioch. The so-called Constitutions of the Holy Apostles appears to be a second or third century work (with fourth or fifth century interpolations), which preserves the church order and practices of the churches in Asia Minor, and appears to be “a revised and enlarged edition of the Didascalia.” (Chapman 1913) This work consists of eight books, most of which are solely concerned with church order and holy living. Only the sixth book, “Against Heresies”, contains any doctrine — and apart from a creedal portion in Section III entitled An Exposition of the Preaching of the Apostles, most of the work consists of a description of various errors or of the prescriptions of the apostles. What we would term the doctrinal portion of this work is surprisingly brief. (P. Schaff, ANF07. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies 2004)
Given this, it is likely that Marian doctrine was considered to be a mystery, preserved orally and passed on to catechumens only after their baptism. It is also possible that Marian doctrine, along with Christology, was not especially well developed in the primitive church; but when heretics such as Arius began to attack the nature of Christ, Christology became increasingly important and well-defined. In this view, Marian doctrine developed as an outgrowth of and in support of Christology. In any case, it seems the primitive church had no need of a written dogmatic tradition, being content with the apostolic witness passed on orally to the catechumens. And if some hold that Mariology was a creation of the later Ecumenical Councils, what are they to make of the 2nd century fresco entitled “Virgin and Child with Balaam the Prophet”, preserved in the Catacomb of St Priscilla? (Fletcher n.d., Beckett 2009, 30-31) What are they to make of the early 4th century Fresco of the Adoration of the Magi in the catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter? (Beckett 2009, 31-32) What are they to make of the 4th century marble sarcophagus with its image of the Adoration of the Magi? (Beckett 2009, 31-33) Or of another similar mid-4th century sarcophagus with its image of the Adoration of the Magi, including one of the figures carrying a gold wreath which was a gift “offered only to the emperor”? (Beckett 2009, 33-34)
Beckett, Wendy. Encounters With God: In Quest of the Ancient Icons of Mary. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2009.
Fletcher, Elizabeth. Bible Archaeology:Tombs and Catacombs:tomb where Jesus called Lazarus back from the dead,catacombs of St.Priscilla,St.Callixtus for the early Christians. n.d. http://www.bible-archaeology.info/tombs_catacombs.htm (accessed May 25, 2009).
Hippolytus. “The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome.” Kevin P. Edgecomb. July 8, 1997. http://www.bombaxo.com/hippolytus.html (accessed May 25, 2009).
O’Loughlin, Thomas. The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.
Schaff, Philip. ANF07. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies. Edited by Philip Schaff. Vol. 7. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2004.
[i] It was Christians who first began cutting scrolls into pages, sewing the four gospels together to form a Codex, the predecessor of our modern books. Even so, the Bible was still known as a collection of scrolls and codices—a library, and not a single book.
[ii] A study by William Harris indicates “literacy rates were rarely higher than 10-15 percent of the population.” (Ehrman 2005, 37)
[iii] Clement of Alexandria, writing in the 2nd century, quotes directly from the Didache as though it were scripture. In the Stromata, or Miscellanies, Book 1, chapter 20, he says: “he who appropriates what belongs to the barbarians, and vaunts it is his own, does wrong, increasing his own glory, and falsifying the truth. It is such an one that is by Scripture called a ‘thief.’ It is therefore said, ‘Son, be not a liar; for falsehood leads to theft.’ (P. Schaff, ANF02. Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire) 2004, 529) This is a direct quote from the Didache 3:5, also known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles: “My child, be not a liar, since a lie leadeth the way to theft”. (P. Schaff, ANF07. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies 2004, 561) Irenaeus, also writing in the 2nd century, may mention the Didache in fragment 37, as discussed by Henry Wace: “In one of the fragments, published by Pfaff, as from Irenaeus, we read: ‘Those who have followed the Second Ordinances of the Apostles (οι ταις δευτεραις των αποστολων διαταξεσι παρηκολουθηκοτες) know that our Lord instituted a new offering in the New Covenant according to the saying of Malachi the prophet, ‘From the rising of the sun to the going down, my name has been glorified in the Gentiles; and in every place incense is offered to my name and a pure offering.” This passage is quoted in the Didaché with reference to the Eucharist [Didache XIV:3-4]; not, however, textually, as in the fragment, but very loosely. We can only say then that it is possible the Didaché may be the Second Ordinances of the Apostles referred to here.” (Wace 2001)