Mary in the Epistles by Thomas Stiverd Livius. part 4a

The rest of the Epistles are of a general scope, being addressed to no special Church or person. In these, however, we can detect something definite in their occasion or aim, which gives to each Epistle its leading idea : whether it were to animate the faithful then suffering under persecution to patience and courage ; or to counteract the evil influences of some heretical teaching then abroad; or to enforce and develop some particular doctrine which it was desirable at the time to bring into special prominence.

As an illustration of this last motive, we may note the insistence that S. James makes in his Epistle on the necessity of good works as an evidence of living faith. Another example is S. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews, which may be regarded as a special treatise on the High-priesthood of Jesus Christ: its aim being to prove the pre-eminent excellence of our Lord's priesthood over that of Aaron, and of the New Dispensation over the Old.

Here the seasonable opportuneness of elucidating this topic, for the benefit of recent converts from Judaism, would seem to be, at once, the immediate occasion, and the main reason, for that Epistle.

The gist of what we have been saying is, that the Apostles wrote their several Epistles on certain definite occasions with the view of meeting the various special circumstances of time and place, nationality, personal character, and condition incidental to the faithful generally at that date, or peculiar to those whom they immediately addressed. These Epistles were mainly intended to convey further instructions or counsels on particular points of faith and practice that had been before orally preached ; to correct abuses that had sprung up, and to give answers to certain questions of doctrine, discipline and practice which were then rife amongst the first Christians. These and such like matters were present to the minds of the Apostles, and their immediate and principal object in writing their Epistles was to deal with them.

It would, consequently, be out of all reason for any one to expect to find every doctrine and practice of the faith treated of in the Apostolic Epistles, since they do not profess, nor were ever meant by their writers to be complete or general exposition of the whole Christian religion. They are, moreover, disconnected, save in a few instances, one from another. The collection of all fails to form together one integral whole. Each Epistle stands alone, apart from the rest, and must be regarded singly by itself. The faithful of a particular church to which an Apostle wrote an Epistle did not necessarily receive all the other Epistles which the Apostles ad dressed to Christians elsewhere. The Apostles did not contemplate that they should do so; nor, indeed, was this possible, since the Epistles were written at different intervals of time and place. The case of the Epistle to the Colossians seems to be exceptional in this respect, perhaps because Laodicea was at no great distance from Colosse. In any case S. Paul gives special instructions on the matter. [Col. iv. 16.]  True it is that in course of time the several Epistles were communicated to the faithful in other places than those to which they were originally addressed, and thus became generally known all or in part throughout the Church. [2 Pet. iii. 15-16.] But still they remain unconnected one with another, and each has to be regarded by itself, independently of the rest. And looking on them in this light, we might as well expect to find every Christian doctrine and practice spoken of in each separate Epistle, as in all of them collectively. Or we might ask with equal right, why some point that has prominent mention in one Epistle is passed over altogether in all the rest. Why, for example, are all the other Epistles silent on the precept given by S. James to anoint the sick, and his teaching as to the effects of such unction ? Why, too, are all the other Epistles silent about our Lord's priesthood from Melchisedech, of which the Epistle to the Hebrews is so full ? For, to judge from that Epistle alone, and the prominence this doctrine there receives, we might suppose that it was one of the most important points of Christian faith, whereas were we to judge from the silence on it in all the other Epistles we might conclude its non-existence.

This, no doubt, is not a complete account of the nature and scope of the Epistles, and of why the Apostles were divinely inspired to write them. For, though written primarily for certain occasions and local circumstances, it is certain that in God's providence they were intended for the instruction and guidance of the whole Christian Church in every age and country. And as the Holy Ghost inspired those who wrote them for this general end, all was overruled for universal edification, and hence the particular topics treated of in them have a greater significance and a wider bearing than the occasions which called them forth. But even so ; and though we should conceive that, taken collectively, they, in some sense providentially form one harmonious whole, still they do not contain an exposition of all revealed truths and of every Christian practice. Amongst the manifold doctrines, practices, and precepts that are generally accepted as belonging to Christianity, some are passed over altogether in silence, whilst others have no explicit and adequate teaching in the Epistles—viz., the Mystery of the Trinity, the distinct personality of the Holy Ghost, prayer to our Lord Jesus Christ and to the Holy Ghost, infant baptism, and baptism otherwise than by immersion, the obligation of Sunday observance and of monogamy, the lawfulness for Christians to bear arms, to hold slaves, to take oaths, and to go to law with one another in the civil court. There are, moreover, matters which are held to be of great moment that have but one single mention in the Epistles—viz., the duty of public worship, [Heb. x. 25.] Holy Communion, and Extreme Unction—or only a distant allusion, as the Eucharistic Sacrifice. (1)

It would be interesting to examine what, and how many, Christian doctrines are set forth explicitly in the Epistles. We think that, after all, they would be found to be but few ; and, again, to inquire, how many can be only indirectly inferred, or receive more or less confirmation in the Epistles from some passing remark, whilst their positive proof must be obtained from else where. We may here observe that several of the topics which are most dwelt upon and developed in the Epistles have come to be of comparatively much less immediate interest and importance in these later times than they were in the days of the Apostles; or, perhaps, appear to us now so trite and obvious as hardly to have needed such great insistence as is given to them in their writings: as, for example, the insufficiency of the Mosaic law and the non-obligation of its rites ; the admission of the Gentiles to the Christian Church and to an equal share with the Jews in all the blessings and privileges of the Gospel; the pre-eminence of Christ's priesthood over the Levitical, and of the New Law over the Old ; the proofs of S. Paul's apostleship; and the belief of the near approach of the Last Day. Then, again, matters of minor importance, or which, being only of passing interest, are now quite out of date, are mentioned in the Epistles with more or less prominence, such as the Agapae, the eating of meats offered to idols, baptism for the dead, the washing of feet, and the religious institution of widows.

On the other hand, we find scarcely any mention in all the Epistles of the birth and life of our Lord Jesus Christ, or of His acts and words, which in the Gospels are recorded with such great care; whilst in several of them hardly any reference is made to the great leading truths and mysteries of the Faith; in some none at all; and in one not only is there no mention of the Name of Jesus Christ, but no allusion whatever is made to Him.

We must not, then, be surprised at the silence on. the Blessed Virgin in the Epistles. Besides what we have here urged, all the reasons which we gave for this silence of the Apostles in their general preaching  as recorded by S. Luke, are applicable with still greater force to their writings: since these were mainly intended to be but supplementary comments, on their oral teaching.

Those reasons were reducible to a two-fold principle. The first is that of due order in the proposition of revealed truths ; whereby those primary truths which are necessary to be explicitly known and believed by all the faithful, are explicitly set forth first, and from the beginning. Whilst secondary truths, not thus necessary, but which serve more fully to explain, and give a more complete and integral knowledge of the Faith—though they may be implicitly contained in the exposition of the primary truths—are not set forth at the beginning so clearly and fully, but with less of set purpose, and only so far as may be needful for the adequate proposition and understanding of the more necessary truths.

The second principle is that of exercising a judicious discrimination, and prudent reserve in imparting the knowledge of the doctrines and practices of Faith to disciples, according to their various capacity, needs, dispositions, and surrounding circumstances of time and place.

As we discovered the recognition of these two principles by the Apostles in their oral teaching, so too may we find it in their writings. Thus S. Paul speaks of some Christian truths as the rudiments or first elements of revelation, forming, so to say, the foundation amongst the objects of faith. These he calls "the beginning of Christ;" and likens to milk which is given to infants, because all the faithful had received a knowledge, more or less, of these truths at their baptism and confirmation. Again, he speaks of himself, as having been careful to lay solidly the foundation, whilst he left it to others to build thereupon, by more fully explaining what he had himself then orally taught, and by imparting a more extensive knowledge of revealed truths, and thus supplying what was wanting to the integral complement of the Christian faith. [1 'Thess. iii. 10.] At the same time, he bids these teachers take heed that they build on the foundation that he had laid, sure and well-approved doctrine. [1 Cor. iii. 10-15.] As the Apostle speaks of some revealed truths as rudimentary and fundamental, [1 Cor ii. 2, 6 : iii. 11.] so he speaks of others as "wisdom," and "things more perfect," distinguishing these from those which were but the first elements. And he calls them "strong meat," which some of his disciples, he says, being still, as though only "little children," and "babes in Christ," still " carnal," unskilful in the word of justice and too weak to hear them, are as yet unable to bear and properly understand. Such teaching, says the Apostle, is reserved for "the perfect," the "spiritual," who have already to some degree themselves become "masters" in spiritual things, "by habitually exercising their senses to the discernment of good and evil." [1 Cor. ii. 6; iii. 1, 2. Heb. v. 11-14.]

(1) It is perhaps superfluous to note for all Catholics are
taught it that there are many passages in the Epistles which
allude to, serve to confirm, and elucidate several of the points
here enumerated, and that some of them may be thence logically
proved and inferred. But all this is very different from express
statement and adequately explicit teaching regarding them. In
making such allusions the Apostles suppose in those to whom
they write a previous knowledge of these truths through their
oral teaching, and without this previous knowledge the first
Christians would not have understood these allusions. In the
same way, Christians in after ages could never have attained to
the definite knowledge, which they have of these mysteries and
truths, from the written word alone, and without the traditional
teaching of the Church.