Cassiodorus’ program of Christian instruction

Possibly Cassiodorus, fr. Codex Amiatus

Cassiodorus (c. 485-c. 585) spent the latter decades of his life, after a career in the civil service of Theoderic the Amal, Ostrogothic King of Italy and then an exile in Constantinople, running a monastery called Vivarium at his estate near Scolacium (Squillace; nice photos here). For the monks, he composed his Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning.

The Institutions begin by setting out divine learning. Cassiodorus was grieved that the study of the Divine Scriptures lacked a suitable programme of learning akin to what existed for secular learning, so he put this together. I think it is not a bad approach to Christian learning, although it would need updates in the reading list today! A lot of Christian learning is simply Bible classes/study with no overarching connections, or a focus on ethics/morality with little emphasis on really learning, or (in some places) study of the great writers and thinkers without study of the Bible.

Some people want to begin courses of Christian education with Plato, or with the Trinity. While I can get behind the second, the former is foolish. Cassiodorus begins with the Bible.

First, the Bible. Cassiodorus sets out in the Institutes the various divisions of the books of the Bible and what the most important commentaries are, including where to find Latin translations of the Greek Fathers. His commentators are the usual suspects — Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, Basil, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Didymus the Blind, and Origen, who is recommended with cautions* — plus a copy of Pelagius on Romans which he had expurgated of heretical bits.

A benefit Cassiodorus’ monks would derive from these particular commentators is not just Bible knowledge — although certainly that — nor explications of difficult passages, but also Christian theology. The Divine Scriptures exist not for us to worship them but to show us the path to salvation laid out by One worthy of worship. Neither theology nor Bible study is an end in itself. If we were to adapt this program for life today, then modern commentators who seek such wisdom are the ones to choose, not simply those with brilliant academic insight and credentials.

After setting out the great Bible commentaries, Cassiodorus recommends consolidation of our knowledge. I think this task is to be carried concurrently with the above. First, he recommends introductory manuals to the Divine Scriptures, then learning the rules of elucidating the text; third, checking commentaries if something in the Scriptures is obscure; fourth, very careful reading of orthodox/catholic teachers; fifth, paying attention whilst reading the Fathers for when they mention specific Bible passages in wider discussions; sixth:

frequent discussion with learned elders; for in conversation with them we suddenly realize what we had not even imagined while they transmit eagerly to us the knowledge they have gained in their long years. (Inst. 1.X.5, trans. Halporn)

This recommendation is part of the ongoing programme of study. Always keep the words of the Holy Scriptures in mind, and seek wisdom on them in all places. One thing that I feel perhaps we lack in Christian education today is the contact with the living tradition of spiritual elders; instead, we spend our time with books (some, true, written by spiritual elders) or people with professional expertise — but something different is gained through conversation with wise elders. This, of course, can only be ‘built in’ to a program of Christian instruction by creating atmospheres where the elders are accessible to the disciples. But it’s probably (definitely?) of critical importance.

Third, the Ecumenical Councils. Having learned one’s Scriptures, Cassiodorus recommends the four ecumenical councils (Nicaea [325, creed here], Constantinople [381, creed here], Ephesus [431], and Chalcedon [451, definition of the faith here]). I find it intriguing that Cassiodorus wrote this after 553 but does not mention Constantinople II as a fifth such council. Anyway, the number accepted by East and West at least until the Reformation is now 7 Ecumenical Councils. Cassiodorus recommends them both for theology and the canons. Given the ongoing shifting and changing of canon law, I would say that their theology is more foundational for Christian education today than the canons — coming to an understanding of their definitions of the faith and theological issues, as well as the other historic definitions, the Apostles’ Creed and the so-called Creed of St Athanasius. The canons and dogmatic decrees of the Seven Ecumenical councils are online here.

For sola scriptura Christians who are possibly freaking out at this point, remember that the creeds are succinct summaries of Christian faith. As well, in the early Fathers such as Irenaeus (2nd c) and Tertullian (2nd-3rd c), there is a coinherence between the rule of faith, an oral tradition that evolved into the abovementioned creeds, and the Divine Scriptures. By studying the Creeds and the Councils in close succession to, or alongside of, the Scriptures, we are guiding both the students’ understanding of the Divine Scriptures and of the Creeds.

The next few chapters of the Institutions are about different divisions of the Holy Scriptures and then about how to correct one’s text. Perhaps a modern version would include courses on textual criticism and the history of transmission here? We no longer use manuscripts that we correct ourselves (which Cassiodorus says to do very carefully!), so his precise instructions here are not very useful.

After an encomium on the Sacred Scriptures, Cassiodorus then recommends study of theology. Here, he recommends some of the introductory texts on the faith by St Ambrose, as well as the more complex works on the Holy Trinity by St Hilary of Poitiers and St Augustine, then works on ethics and Augustine’s City of God. What would we add today? I would say some later Fathers, such as Maximus and John of Damascus. Aquinas? Palamas? Calvin? Luther?

After theology and ethics, Cassiodorus recommends Christian history. He lists the major writers of ecclesiastical history and their Latin translations. The study of Christian history is a good idea. I always highly recommend it. The difficulty for us is that we have about four times as much Christian history as Cassiodorus did. Thus, the study of it cannot necessarily be as imbued with the Fathers as the earlier sections. Perhaps, then, some of the best modern scholarship? Cassiodorus also recommends reading Josephus.

Great men Cassiodorus recommends. Next, the monk is to become acquainted with: St Hilary of Poitiers, St Cyprian of Carthage, St Ambroe of Milan, St Jerome, and St Augustine — but not to neglect living greats, such as Eugippius and Dionysius Exiguus. I’ve a feeling that most of these would have been covered by a careful following of the rest of the course.

Secular learning that is useful along the way.  [This section edited.] Cassiodorus goes into secular learning most fully in Bk 2; in Bk 1, he recommends (biblical) geography and rhetorical studies. To these I would add a grasp of certain philosophical fundamentals. Of the disciplines Cassiodorus discusses, I would argue that these are the ones most likely to be missing from a standard education today.

Now, this is just Cassiodorus’ recommendations for sacred learning, for the training of the Christian intellect to understand the Bible and theology. What he leaves out in any detail is spiritual discipline. I imagine that someone following Cassiodorus’ program in conjunction with the disciplines of his contemporary Benedict or of Cassian a century and a half earlier would gain great knowledge both in head and heart. Because one can know all about the Bible and theology, but not know God. Update: Cassiodorus recommends Cassian to his readers.

I wonder if we could somehow help implement well-rounded Christian education like this not only for monks and theology students but for congregations as well? I know of some initiatives in some congregations; one of the theology PhD students who attends my church is organising quarterly sessions to teach biblical theology to the 20s-30s crowd, for example. It would also be great to see youth being taught more than a. apologetics, b. don’thavesexbeforemarriage.

*’Later writers say that he should be shunned completely because he subtly deceives the innocent. But if, with the Lord’s help, we take proper precaution, his poison can do no harm.’-Inst. 1.I.9, trans. Halporn

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One thought on “Cassiodorus’ program of Christian instruction

  1. […] Besides that, many of the good ideas in this book are found elsewhere in late ancient Christianity. I almost called my post about the chapter on education ‘The Cassiodorus Option’, because much of what he discusses there makes far more sense at sixth-century Vivarium with Cassiodorus than Monte Cassino with Benedict. I’ve blogged about Cassiodorus and Christian education before, FYI. […]

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