Augustine on sacred Scripture (as used by Gratian)

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne

I am reading through Gratian’s Decretum (c. 1140), specifically the ‘Treatise on Laws’ (Distinctions 1-20), as translated by Augustine Thompson. Gratian’s Decretum is the book that becomes the standard textbook, reference work, and source for canon law from the High Middle Ages through the Renaissance, and was a main source until the 20th century.

This is a work that should justifiably come under the heading ‘scholastic’. Using the scholastic method, shared with Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and Peter Lombard (1100-1160), Gratian discusses canon law and the discrepancies available in the sources for canonistic thought. Unlike Abelard, Gratian provides attempts to resolve the discrepancies; Abelard, controversially, left the sources of theology/philosophy unresolved in Sic et Non. At the bedrock of such an approach to canon law is determining what law is, what canon law is, and then what the authorities for canon law are.

In Distinction Nine, Gratian begins to move from defining different kinds of law to a start on the hierarchy of authorities. At the pinnacle is Scripture. He has already established, through citations and discussions chiefly of Sts Isidore of Seville, Augustine of Hippo, and Gregory the Great, that we are bound by the ordinances/enactments of kings. But not, as Distinction Nine tells us, if they run counter to natural law, the best source of which is Scripture.

Thus, Distinction 9, c. 3, he confronts us with Augustine:

Do not treat my writings as if they were the canonical Scriptures. When you find something you did not believe in the latter, believe it without hesitation; in the former, do not take as fixed what you did not think to be certain unless you know it is certain. (Aug., De Trin. 3, Prologue)

In Capitulum 5 of this Distinction, we read a letter of Augustine to Jerome:

I learned that such respect and honor are alone to be rendered to the writings now called canonical, that I dare not impute any errors of composition to them. And so, if anything in them offends me because it seems contrary to truth, I have no doubt that either the text is corrupt, the translator has not properly construed the text, or I have totally misunderstood it. But when I read other authors, however much they abound in sanctity and wisdom, I do not for that reason take something as true simply because they thought it so, but only when they been able to persuade me from other authors, canonical Scriptures, or probable arguments that they have not departed from the truth. (Aug., Ep. 82.3)

This is a different sort of approach to the authority of Scripture than I think most of us have. It must also be stressed that this is not necessarily the same thing as modern evangelical and fundamentalist (two different groups) and some Roman Catholic approaches to the authority of Scripture. Augustine is not, overall, a biblical literalist in the same way many moderns are. For example, his On Genesis According to the Letter does not necessarily mean that Augustine believed in a literal creation over 6 24-hour periods. His other writings are more than ready to seek the spiritual and allegorical.

In fact, other patristic writers who would agree with Augustine’s statements here would also, conversely, argue that some things that a modern would argue as literal are, in fact, metaphors and allegories for spiritual edification.

Nonetheless, this humility before the text of Scripture, as well as an implied hierarchy of sources of authority, is something all Christians could do with learning.

To circle back to Gratian and the High Middle Ages, one of the benefits of this approach is that you can see a number of different ancient and patristic sources on a question and topic. It is, in a way, a sourcebook of patristic legal and canonistic thought — in fact, D. H. Williams even recommends this translation of the ‘Treatise on Laws’ to that end. Nonetheless, it is something else as well. When the authorities contradict, we also get Gratian’s dicta, his own attempt to reconcile the authorities, or to explain which is to be followed.

Thus the medieval mind, at first blush ever ready to submit to authorities such as Isidore, Augustine, and Gregory, is also ever ready to deploy reason in the quest for understanding the world, our place in it, and how to live in what often seems a mixed-up place.

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Review: Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable EnemiesAtheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is the intellectual side of ecclesiastical history, and Hart’s goal is not simply to debunk misconceptions that the so-called ‘New Atheists’ have been spreading abroad (without cease, despite this book having been out for 8 years) but also to introduce the ancient Roman world and what distinguished the Christian revolution from its pagan predecessor and how it impacted western culture in Late Antiquity and beyond.

For those interested in some of the deep debates about philosophy and the history of ideas, the notes are few. Hart says this is because the book is really an extended essay. Nonetheless, this choice is too bad, because I suspect that some of his judgements regarding Late Antiquity would be challenged by other scholars (not just Ramsey MacMullen, whose misuse of evidence Hart takes on with full force). But this is not really a book to win converts, anyway — the title is too provocative, the prose, at times, too biting to allow its opponents the peace of mind to engage deeply. This is not a criticism — it strikes me that Hart knows the audience for such a book as this, and it is not Richard Dawkins.

One strength of the book is that, while Hart (an Eastern Orthodox Christian) believes in Christianity and the Christian gospel, and thus Christian morality and ethics, he is not triumphalist about certain aspects of the story he tells. For example, the Emperor Julian is duly noted as, in terms of general character and policy, more ‘Christian’ than the Christian emperors of Late Antiquity. He also sees the transformation of Christianity into the state religion of the Roman Empire as a great disaster — for both Christianity and the Empire.

Yet he sees with clear eyes the glories of the Gospel and what Gospel means for society. God became man; in fact, he took on the form of a slave, according to Philippians. This casts the pitch of biblical anthropology an octave higher than the glorious truth that we are made in God’s image (Gen 1) — God has partaken of our nature. He loves each of us. All human beings, finite and changeable and weak and powerless, are of infinite value, beloved by the infinite God: men, women, slaves, free, Jews, Gentiles. What we gain from the Christian revolution, that paganism never (and, in Hart’s view, never could) gave is the human person.

What we gain, then, over centuries of a culture imbued with this charity — despite all the many failures of the institutional church and of particular Christians — are the abolition of slavery, hospitals, advances in medicine, human rights, innumerable charitable organisations, love of the unlovely, justice for the unjust, and more.

The great cloud that hangs over the final chapters is: Will we lose all this in a post-Christian society? He notes ethicists such as Peter Singer who calls for the abortion and infanticide of the severely disabled. To what end is it morally acceptable to kill, to murder, to destroy people with Down syndrome? People who, as Hart observes, despite any suffering they endure, are often much more filled with joy than we who lack disabilities. Why should they not have the right to life?

The book ends with a reminder of the Desert Fathers who, at Christianity’s alleged ‘triumph’, retreated from the institutional church into the wild to seek to live out pure prayer, perfect charity, and purity of heart, to gaze upon God and the world with the luminous eye. He does not say that we need a new monastic movement, but that the same high impulse that drove many of the Desert Fathers (setting aside the human failings of certain members of the movement, of which Hart is aware) might inspire us to find ways to live with Gospel witness and courage on the fringes of post-Christendom. I wonder what he would say to fellow Eastern Orthodox Christian Rod Dreher, who wrote The Benedict Option? (Not having read Dreher, I have no clue, but from what I’ve heard, Hart has a much more secure grasp of the intellectual history of the period.)

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More from Guigo II on Lectio Divina

Because of my disposition and profession, I have decided to read Guigo II of La Grande Chartreuse’s treatise De Scala Claustralium as my introduction to Lectio Divina on the grounds that the is the first, from what we can tell, to spell out the practice as lectiomeditatiooratio, and contemplatio. I find myself surprised that people are opposed to Lectio Divina; what Christian would be turned aside by the fruits of Guigo’s meditations? Behold:

Therefore, keen meditation, as it begins, does not remain on the outside, does not drink on the surface, fixes it foot higher, penetrates interior things, probes individual matters. It carefully considers [in the verse, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart…’] that it does not say, ‘Blessed are the pure in body,’ but ‘pure in heart’ — so it is is not enough to have hands unstained by wicked deeds, unless we are purified from base thoughts in our mind; this the prophet confirms with authority, saying, ‘Who will ascend the mountain of the Lord, or who will stand in his holy place? The man innocent in his hands and with a pure heart.’ (Ps. 24:3-4) Again, it considers how much the same prophet desires this purity of heart when he says thus, ‘Create a pure heart in me, O God,’ (Ps. 51:10) and again, ‘If I saw iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not hear me.’ (Ps. 66:18) It considers how stirred up blessed Job was in such watchfulness, when he said, ‘I have settled an agreement with my eyes that I am not thinking about a virgin.’ (Job 31:1) Behold how much a holy man limited himself, who closed his eyes lest he see vanity (cf. Ps 119:37), et perhaps incautiously behold that which later on he would desire reluctantly.

After it has drawn out these thoughts about purity of this sort of heart, it begins to think about the prize, how glorious and desirable it would be to see the desired face of the Lord, ‘beautiful in form before all the sons of men’ (Ps. 45:3), not now humble and poor, and not having that form with which His mother clothed Him, but the clad with the robe of immortality and crowned with the diadem with which His Father crowned him on the day of resurrection and glory, the day ‘which the Lord has made’ (Ps. 118:24). It considers that in that vision there will be that satisfaction about which the prophet says, ‘I shall be satisfied when your glory has appeared’ (Ps. 17:15).

You see how much liquid pours forth from the smallest grape, how much fire is set alight from a spark, how great the limited matter, measured out: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God’, has been extended on the anvil of meditation? (ch. 5, my trans.)

There is a sweetness and richness to Guigo and his pursuit of treasures in Scripture: What does this Bible verse really mean? Where do we see ‘purity of heart’ in Scripture? What does it mean to see God? This is what Lectio Divina is about; I see no reason why we should not practise this method of searching the Scriptures.

Guigo II: Lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio

La Grande Chartreuse: Home to Lectio Divina

I am not the greatest practicioner of the medieval discipline of Lectio divina; I really only started a few weeks, and only sporadically. To get myself into the discipline, I’m reading Guigo II, Prior of La Grande Chartreuse, the motherhouse of the Carthusians in the late 1100s, Scala Claustralium — The Ladder of Monks. My Internet research says that he’s the first to clearly articulate the now-standard quartet of lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio.

He writes, at the end of chapter 2:

Lectio is the careful investigation of the Scriptures with the attention of the soul (animus). Meditatio is the zealous activity of the mind (mens), seeking out the knowledge of hidden truth by the leading of its own reason. Oratio is the devoted attention of the heart to God for the removal of evil or the acquisition of good things. Contemplatio is a certain elevation above itself of the mind suspended in God , tasting of the joys of eternal sweetness.

Worship wars, medieval style (literally!)

When next your church gets heated over the issue of Anglican Chant vs said, BCP vs modern liturgy, guitars vs organs, drums vs no drums, choirs vs pop music bands, call to mind this event from Symeon of Durham’s Historia Regum (ca. 1129; the event is for 1083):

An infamous dissension took place between the monks and Turstin their abbot, at Glastonbury, a man unworthy to be spoken of, whom king William [the Conqueror] had unwisely preferred from the monastery of Caen to be abbot of that place. Amongst other deeds of folly he disdained the Gregorian chant, and began to force the monks to discontinue it, and to learn and sing the chant of one William of Fescamp. As they bore this very ill — for they had now grown old both in that and other ecclesiastical service according to the custom of the Roman church — one day he suddenly rushed upon them unawares into the chapter with an armed military force, and pursued the monks as they were flying in extreme terror into the church, as far as the high altar, while the soldiers pierced the crucifixes, and images, and shrines of the saints, with their javelins and arrows, and thrusting through with a pike one of the monks, even while he was embracing the holy altar, they slew him; and they murdered another at the base of the altar, pierced with arrows. The rest, urged by necessity, bravely defending themselves with the benches and candlesticks of the church, although severely wounded, drove back all the soldiers out of the choir. And then it happened that two of the monks were killed and fourteen wounded, as were also some of the soldiers. An action being brought on this account, as it was evident that the abbot was chiefly to blame, the king removed the same abbot, and placed him in a monastery of his own in Normandy. Very many of the monks were dispersed in prisons through the bishoprics and abbeys by order of the king. (Ch. 167 in Arnold’s edition, trans. J. Stevenson)

Note: William of Fécamp is also known as William of Volpiano. He was abbot of Fécamp from 1001 to his death in 1031. He revised the notation and singing of the monastic office in a number of Burgundian monasteries. Here is an image from an antiphonary believed to have been his, the Antiphonary of St. Benigne, now Montpellier, Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de Médecine, Ms. H159. The image is from folio 25v.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Matching up Lactantius and liturgy

Today’s (12 September) passage from the Fathers over at the Ancient-Future Faith Network’s Chapel is the following from Lactantius (c. 240-320):

What is the most righteous way of worshiping God? For no one should think that God desires victims, incense, or valuable gifts. Since He doesn’t experience hunger, thirst, cold, or a desire for earthly things, the things presented in temples to earthly gods aren’t useful to Him. Just as physical offerings are necessary for physical beings, so spiritual sacrifices are necessary for a spiritual being. Since all the world is under God’s power, He doesn’t need the things He gave people to use. Since He dwells in the entire world, He doesn’t need a temple. Since the eyes and mind can’t comprehend Him, He doesn’t need an image. Since He kindled the light of the sun and stars for our sake, He doesn’t need earthly lights. So then, what does God require from us? Pure and holy worship of our minds. For those things that are made by hand or outside of people are senseless, frail, and displeasing. But true sacrifice isn’t from the purse but from the heart. It is offered not by the hands, but by the mind…. What’s the purpose of incense, clothes, silver, gold, or precious stones if the worshiper doesn’t have a pure mind?

First, I would say that I agree with the essence of Lactantius. Thus, automatically one asks how liturgical worship fits into this — especially the lush, lavish and beautiful worship of the Orthodox Church, the Anglo-Catholics, the Tridentine Catholics.

The really simple answer is that liturgical worship, when offered up in humility and love for God, is the outward manifestation of the mind, the heart, the spirit. Another strand of patristic theology will remind us that we are neither disembodied spirits nor entrapped ones. We were created by God to be psycho-somatic unities. The human person is, by nature, both body and soul; flesh, spirit, and mind. A united whole.

Worship of the mind at Notre Dame de Paris

Therefore, we must ‘offer unto [God] ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice’ (The Book of Common Prayer). Everything we do is embodied; a good (evangelical!) Protestant discussion of such embodied Christianity is Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines. The result of our embodiedness is that our spiritual worship, our worship in the mind, will involve action.

Thus: Sitting, standing, kneeling. Genuflecting, making the sign of the cross. Orthodox prostrations. Lighting candles. Smelling the incense. Walking in processions. Singing with our lungs full to bursting with gusto. Closing our eyes in silence. Opening our ears to an organ voluntary. Tasting the bread on our tongues, feeling the warmth of the wine down our throats.

All of these, while offered with ‘the hands’, are means for our minds to offer unto God the sacrifice of pure and contrite heart. And the words we utter help us focus our thoughts, directing our minds to the truths of God and His salvific activity in the world.

Worship of the mind must be worship of the body.

The Contemplative Writer by Ed Cyzewski

The Contemplative Writer: Loving God through Christian Spirituality, Meditation, Daily Prayer, and WritingThe Contemplative Writer: Loving God through Christian Spirituality, Meditation, Daily Prayer, and Writing by Ed Cyzewski
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a concise, little book geared towards writers who wish to ground their lives and work in prayer. Personally, none of the prayer practices outlined by Cyzewski were new to me — but that’s not the point. Indeed, the brevity and clarity with which he quickly outlined these practices were truly refreshing for me. They were also a kick in the pants — I’ve read about this stuff before! Why don’t I practise it!?

The tips are practical and down-to-earth about how to incorporate some practices from the Christian contemplative tradition into your life, and how doing so helps your writing. The prayer practices that get specific attention are centering prayer, the Examen, lectio divina, and the liturgy of the hours/daily office — with a reminder that none of this will succeed without community and good habits as well as a chapter about free writing and how it is both important to the writer’s craft and spiritually rich.

I recommend this book to any Christian interested in starting out in these sorts of “mystical” practices — it’s only 47 pages long! And especially, of course, to writers.

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