We now come to that which forms the main and special object of our whole inquiry—viz., an examination of the Epistles, in order to discover what there may be that bears on our Lady in the Apostles' own writings.
We shall, then, first, give reasons for the silence of the Apostles in their Epistles on the Blessed Virgin, and, secondly, we shall inquire into the nature of that silence, which we shall endeavour to show is far from being absolute. By this we mean, that the Apostles do not ignore Mary in their Epistles; but, on the contrary, therein explicitly inculcate those very principles which lie at the root of, and have served to form, the doctrinal teaching and devotional practice of the Catholic Church with regard to the Mother of God in every age ; and that in these same principles that teaching and practice are implicitly, albeit latently, contained.
The following words from S. Thomas of Villanova may not be out of place here :—
" Whilst longing with all the desire of my soul to praise, to the best of my mean ability, Mary, the Mother of God, so admirable and surpassing in every virtue, I have been unable to find in the Sacred Scriptures almost any encomium of her that shows us, to the letter, her glory and excellence. For though we read in different places of the Prophets many things mystically said and done relating to her, from which may be shown the greatness of her virtue, yet seldom do we find anything said of her, and much more seldom anything said in her praise, either in the Gospels or in the Apostolic writings. But still, if I confess the truth, she is not given over to silence in such sense, as that the brightness of her virtues fails to shine forth, though it be but by a most slender ray, and by, so to speak, certain little chinks of words. But whence else shall we be better able to conceive of her glory, her virtues, and the gifts of her soul, than from that wondrous colloquy which she had with the Angel. For there, besides her being deservedly pro claimed by the Angel's voice, most full of grace and the first of all women, there arose forth from her own acts and words a whole host of matters for praise too numerous to reckon." [S. Thom. Villan. Conc. 2, De Annunt.]
In order to account for the silence on the Blessed Virgin in the Apostolic Epistles we must take some note of their nature and scope. And here we shall make some preliminary remarks on the relation of the written to the unwritten word, which have their application to the Epistles in particular.
As we have already said, the great object of the Apostles in their preaching was to establish the grand primary doctrines of the Unity of God in Three Persons, and His essential attributes; to set forth the holy, spiritual, and supernatural character of the Christian religion as opposed to the polytheism, immorality, scepticism, and materialism of the Heathens ; to make manifest the Messiahship of Jesus Christ and His two-fold nature as God and Man in One Divine Person; and to publish His work and office as the Saviour of the whole human race, both Jews and Gentiles.
The sacred writers of the Books of the New Testament had no intention of giving, in their several writings, a full account of all the doctrines that belong to the Christian revelation, nor even a summary of the whole Faith. This Faith was supposed to be already known, at least in its primary and most essential points, by the Christians whom the Apostles addressed in their Epistles. It had been delivered to them by oral teaching. And provision had been made for its being preserved amongst them in its integrity and purity through the instruction of the pastors whom the Apostles placed over them, and to whom they had committed, for their guidance, special doctrinal formularies and precepts. [2 Thess. ii. 14. 1 Tim. iv. 6, 11, 13, 16; v. 17 ; vi 3, 14. J Tim. i. 13, 14; ii. 14; iii. 10,14. Tit. i. 9; ii. 1. Heb. xiii. 17. Jude 3. 17, 20.] Again and again S. Paul admonishes these pastors to avoid all novelties in their teaching. [1 Tim. i. 4, 6, 7 ; iv. 1-3, 7 ; vi. 20. 2 Tim. ii. 14 ; 16-18 23 ; iv. 3, 4. Tit. i. 10, 13, 14 ; iii. 9.]
This oral teaching, or preaching of the unwritten word, we should ever remember, was the essential and normal means ordained by God, for the evangelisation and instruction of the world in the truths of the Christian religion, and for perpetuating the Faith. "It pleased God," writes the Apostle, " by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe." [1 Cor. i. 21.]
That unwritten word, first revealed to the Apostles, was by them deposited in the Church, with which Christ promised Himself always to remain, and on which He sent down the Holy Ghost who should abide with it for ever to guide and preserve it in all truth.
The commission given by our Lord was : " Go ye into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature." "Teach (make disciples of) all nations, baptising them . . . teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you, and, behold, I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world." [Mark xvi. 15. Matt, xxviii. 19.]
In virtue of this divine charter bestowed by Christ on his Church—and no other has since been given to her—the Apostles " went forth and preached every where, the Lord working withal, and confirming the word with signs that followed." [Matt, xxviii. 20.] In virtue thereof, too, the Catholic Church continues to teach that same revealed word ; which she hands down from age to age in its integrity, as she received it from the Apostles.
Moreover, it pleased God in His gracious and all-wise Providence to inspire certain of the Apostles and Evangelists to commit to writing the books of the New Testament, to wit, the four Gospels which narrate circumstances in detail of the life, death and resurrection of the Incarnate Word, and many of His works and words; the Acts of the Apostles, which records the infancy of the Church, and the first preaching of the Faith : the Epistles of St. Paul, and of four of the twelve Apostles, viz., St. James, St. Peter, St. John, and St. Jude, which form so many commentaries or treatises explanatory of certain doctrines of the Faith, and particular points of Christian practice ; lastly, the Apocalypse of St. John, wherein is figuratively foretold the history of the Church until the consummation of all things.
It would be impossible to exaggerate, and might appear almost unseemly to expatiate upon, the praises of God's written word in the New Testament, and its inestimable value and importance to the Church, as affording her so direct a witness to, and so authentic an interpreter of her doctrine, as also supplying to her, by means of inspired documents coeval with her birth, such priceless knowledge of so many circumstances and details regarding her Divine Founder, and her own origin, which would otherwise have doubtless been lost. Suffice it to say, that these Scriptures are the oracles of God Himself, directly inspired by the Holy Ghost; that alongside of the unwritten word, they are equally of Divine authority with it, and, together with it, the fountain of revealed truth to the Church.
Still, priceless as is the value and importance to the Church of God's written word, it cannot be considered equally essential and necessary with His unwritten word. For we should never forget that the Faith was propagated and preserved, souls were saved, numerous Churches were founded and flourished, without the written word: that there passed a considerable time before all the books of the New Testament were received in the various Churches; and that some centuries elapsed before its Canon was definitely settled, and the inspired books were distinctly marked off from other pious Christian writings.
Moreover, the written word could never be an adequate organ by itself for imparting to the people generally the due knowledge of the truths of faith, in the sense that the unwritten word or oral teaching is.
It would be out of place here to go into the many obvious reasons which prove this. It is enough for our present purpose to remark that, whilst the written and the unwritten word, regarded objectively, that is, simply in themselves, are of equal and paramount authority—for both are Divine—yet, regarded subjectively, that is to say, in their application to the minds of men, the latter has the precedence; since the written word must be always interpreted and believed by the faithful, according to the sense of the unwritten word, that is, as the Divine authority of the Church infallibly rules and teaches. [See Franzelin, De Div. Trad, et Script. De Trad., Sect. 3. De relat. int. Div. Trad, et Scripturam.]
The foregoing observations on Divine Scripture, in general, apply, of course, to the Epistles, of which we shall now treat in particular.
The Apostolic Epistles pre-suppose, as we have already said, in those to whom they were addressed, a general knowledge and the acceptance of the faith through means of previous oral teaching of the unwritten word. They were written, for the most part, with the view of explaining more fully certain points of doctrine and practice with which the faithful in some particular Church had but an implicit and imperfect acquaintance, or which they had not rightly understood. Hence they contain answers to questions, or solutions of objections and difficulties that had arisen on these matters. The Apostles had also for their object in writing their Epistles, to correct certain abuses ; to allay prejudices, differences, jealousies, and strifes that had sprung up amongst the brethren ; to warn the Christian converts against some prevalent erroneous doctrine and false teachers, or to confirm them in faith and charity, and exhort them to the practice of holiness and virtue. [In several of his Epistles, S. Paul deals at some length with matters personal to himself, or to others, at that time, v.g., his claims to the Apostleship, the special difficulties which beset him, the sufferings and persecution he was enduring, etc.]
Four of S. Paul's Epistles were of a character and scope still more particular, being addressed to individual persons, viz., to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. Of like nature were the Second and Third Epistles of S. John.