Besides their great doctrinal, moral, and inspirational content, the Catholic Epistles are also helpful because of their historical content. Evangelical Anglican priest and scholar Gerald Bray, in his excellent introduction to the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture volume that covers the Catholic Epistles, puts it this way: [The Catholic Epistles] “offer a non-Pauline witness to the beliefs and practices of the first Christian communities. It is true that they are not the only non-Pauline voice in the New Testament, but they are the only group of letters that has never been associated with the great apostle to the Gentiles. Letters, by their very nature, have an immediacy that is lacking in more formal documents…[the writers] were responding to real needs in the early Christian communities, and by examining these problems we can reconstruct the intellectual and spiritual atmosphere that shaped the first generation of the Church” (xxi).
As Bray points out, the early Church Fathers found the Catholic Epistles particularly useful in fighting heresies. St. John and St. Peter in particular devote much of their epistles to arguing against early heresies that threatened to divide the Church. One heresy the authors of the Catholic Epistles battled was a type of dualistic Christianity-pagan hybrid, perhaps the progenitor of the later “Christian” Gnosticism that would be taught by writers like Valentinus and documents such as the Gospel of Thomas. Although the specific heresies that the Fathers battled were different from those faced by the Apostles in the latter half of the first century, the Fathers were successful in borrowing the lines of reasoning and argument used by the Apostles in fighting the heresies of their day.
Another excellent reason to study the Catholic Epistles is the way in which they drive home a very important point: Christian faith is a matter of practice as well as formal belief. I hope you will indulge me if I quote a long passage from Bray’s introduction. Despite its length, the passage is worthy of being read in its entirety. As Bray eloquently states,
Peter, James, and John are all agreed on the assumption that faith without works is dead. They do not mean and none of the Fathers took them to mean that it is possible to earn one’s way to heaven by doing good works; indeed, such a notion was firmly resisted by almost all the ancient commentators. The words spoken of in these letters are not those of the Mosaic law but those that spring naturally from faith in Jesus Christ. The Catholic Epistles insist that actions speak louder than words and that the latter must be backed up by deeds that correspond to them and give them meaning. What the epistles and the Fathers who interpreted them understood by “works” can be summarized in three words: self-sacrifice, generosity and humility. The former meant that Christians must be prepared to give up their lives, if necessary, for their faith. The patient endurance of suffering here and now is a preparation for this supreme sacrifice, as the example of Jesus’ earthly life bears witness. Generosity is seen primarily in almsgiving and in hospitality, both of which were regarded as essential marks of the true believer. In an age in which there was no form of Social Security of even a reliable network of inns for passing strangers, generosity of this kind was immediately noticed by everyone, and where it was practiced it became one of the most impressive things about the Christian community. Humility was the spiritual foundation of both self-sacrifice and generosity. Toward God, humility meant recognizing that we have done nothing to save ourselves and even as Christians remain entirely dependent on his grace. Toward other people, humility was to be seen in a kind of behavior that avoided arrogant criticism of the failings of others. Christians were expected to hold their tongues and instead to do all in their power to help each other overcome their weaknesses, on the understanding that everyone has them. Even the elders of the church were to exercise their authority in a humble way, by respecting and encouraging those under their authority. The governing principle of life in the Christian community is love, for God and for one another. The two can be distinguished but never separ ated, and Christians must learn that their professed love for God in heaven will be judged by their behavior toward their fellow believers here on earth (xxii-xxiii).
And THAT, my dear readers, is about as good a summary of the overall message of the Catholic Epistles as I have ever seen!
Next time, we’ll look at one other major theme of the Catholic Epistles: spiritual warfare.