Catholic Epistles


kath'-o-lik (epistolai katholikai):

In distinction from the apostolic or Pauline epistles which were addressed to individual churches or persons, the term "catholic," in the sense of universal or general, was applied by Origen and the other church Fathers to the seven epistles written by James, Peter, John and Jude. As early as the 3rd century it came to be used in the sense of "encyclical," "since," as Theodoret says, "they are not addressed to single churches, but generally (katholou) to the faithful, whether to the Jews of the Dispersion, as Peter writes, or even to all who are living as Christians under the same faith." Three other explanations of the term have been given, namely,

(1) that it was intended to indicate a common apostolic authorship (only a few support this view);

(2) that it signifies that the seven epistles were universally received as genuine;

(3) that it refers to the catholicity of their doctrine, i.e. orthodox and authoritative versus heretical epistles whose teachings were in harmony with Christian truth. By some misconception of the word "catholic" the Western Church interpreted it as signifying "canonical" and sometimes called these epistles epistolae canonicae. That it was originally used in the sense of "general" epistles is now commonly received.

This is evident from their form of address. James wrote to all Jews, "of the Dispersion," who had embraced the Christian faith. In his first epistle Peter addressed the same Christians, including also Gentileconverts, resident in five provinces of Asia Minor:

"elect who axe sojourners of the Dispersion." His second epistle is to all Christians everywhere. John's first letter was evidently written to a cycle of churches and intended for universal use. Jude also had in mind all Christians when he said "to them that are called beloved in God," etc. The seeming exceptions are 2 and 3 Jn, addressed to individuals, but included with the catholic epistles as properly belonging with John's first epistle and of value to the general reader. The character and contents of these seven epistles are treated under their various heads. The letters of James and Jude belong to the Judaic school of Christianity; those of Peter to a broad and non-partisan type of faith that both includes and mediates between the Judaists and Paulinists. John's letters were written after the internal doctrinal controversies of the church had ceased, and the pressure of opposition and error from without tended to unite his "little children" in a new community of love and spiritual life.

Dwight M. Pratt

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'CATHOLIC EPISTLES'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". 1915.