Heresy and the human spirit: Bede’s allegorical reading of Luke 17:11-19

Today, I was leading a tutorial discussion about Clement of Alexandria (150-215; saint of the week here) and Origen (185-254; on whose importance, see here), and my students were discussing the usefulness of allegory, of which Origen is a highly famed practicioner. How useful is it? How legitimate is it? And, in a colleague’s group, can we use it of the New as well as Old Testament? Origen says that we can use it of the New, although never neglecting the literal truth.

The Venerable Bede (672-735; saint of the week here) certainly thought you could allegorise the New Testament, and Mark Armitage over at Enlarging the Heart has helpfully given us a beautiful example of allegory expertly used in Bede’s discussion of Luke 17:11-19; it has been broken into three parts (first, second, third) on his blog. You should read them; each is pretty short.

For me, what resonates most strongly in Bede’s exegesis is the image of leprosy as heresy. Perhaps this is because I still self-identify as Anglican and see the Anglican churches of the West as deeply marred by heresy at this moment of history. Perhaps it’s also because I see the Fathers and their concern about heresy time and again being miscast as struggles for power, whereas my reading of Leo vs. the heretics (here) is not a power struggle, but a pastoral concern.

If heresy is like leprosy, this means it is a disease. It is something that you can acquire against your will. And, as Bede points out, as leprous skin is always mingled with healthy skin, heresy is always mixed with truth. The image is of a sick person, a sick world, a sick idea, that needs healing and restoration, not a bad person who needs condemning. Sometimes when we (I) get fired up about unorthodox persons in our (my) midst, we (I) lose sight of the need for healing by Christ  in their lives.

And, if we admit it, we may be a little unorthodox (heretical) ourselves, in need of that healing as well.

I like that this allegory puts Christ at the centre of the cure for heresy.

I also like Bede’s commentary on the nine who do not thank him. This is a warning to those of us who have it all together — I believe Nicaea and Chalcedon (indeed, all Seven Ecumenical Councils!), I believe in the Bible, I actually believe the 39 Articles of Religion. So my heresy is washed away. Well done.

Do we remember to thank Christ in humility, acknowledging that He is the source of any orthodox thought we have, the source of all spiritual health in us, doctrinal, moral, dogmatical, ethical?

So I approve of Bede’s use of allegory here. It follows Augustine’s exhortation in On Christian Teaching that a reading of Scripture that draws people further into love of God cannot be really wrong.

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2 thoughts on “Heresy and the human spirit: Bede’s allegorical reading of Luke 17:11-19

  1. Thanks, brother, for sharing this great insight and bringing things into focus – we will always find Christ at the center when things are brought into focus, will we not? As an Anglican, you have provided me with both encouragement and a challenge. Pax Christi.

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