Making the Bible ‘possible’: Pre-modern exegesis

When I was doing my PhD, a bunch of my friends (mostly Biblical Studies PhDs) read a book called The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Smith’s major thrust — from what I recall — was that evangelicals read the Bible as though it is perfectly clear and has one meaning when, in fact, it is possessed of polyvalence, as any glance at the many volumes available at your local Christian bookstore would make clear. I don’t remember if he had a solution internal to evangelicalism or not.

On a related note, Smith himself had converted to Roman Catholicism because, in part, of this issue. In the Roman Church, the Magisterium can help you navigate the polyvalence of Scripture.

I don’t think one needs to convert to the Church of Rome in order to address this problem. Moreover, I suspect that many people who go to Rome seeking authority and absolutes are converting for the wrong reasons, given the fact that the Magisterium leaves many awkward questions unanswered, and a great many Roman Catholics are in open rebellion against the Magisterium on many issues, and priests occasionally utter heresy in the confessional. This is not to characterise all converts to Rome, of course. Some, I suspect, though.

That is to say — you need more than a desire for absolutes if you want to swim the Tiber, because you’ll find fewer than you expect.

Anyway, I am reading Henri de Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis, and here we meet the polyvalence of Scripture head-on. What marks the late antique and medieval approach to polyvalence is the authors’ extreme comfort with it. Time and again, from St Augustine of Hippo onwards, so long as an interpretation does not undermine the Catholic faith, and so long as it builds up charity to God and/or neighbour, any interpretation is a go.

Some of them may be more factually correct, of course. St Jerome, as I recall, is a big fan of at least producing factual and logically valid options, even if multiple ones exist. Some are also to be preferred because they strengthen the Catholic faith more than others.

Moreover, not only are pre-modern exegetes totally comfortable with polyvalence, they expect it and revel in it. Scripture has been given to us as a way for God to reveal Himself to us. God is infinite. Therefore, we should not be surprised that His self-revelation is itself potentially infinite in its interpretation. Furthermore, different people and different times have different needs and different questions. The inexhaustibility of Scripture means that it can and will produce meanings that will help its various readers.

I recall first meeting ideas like this in Augustine’s Confessions, where he talks about Genesis and how any logically valid interpretation that builds up charity is allowable. It was something of a breath of fresh air after the years I spent in the interminable (at times ridiculous) creation-evolution debate. Here was the greatest theologian of Latin Christianity saying that, in Genesis 1, there is no one right answer. And he himself was espousing allegory, of all things! St Augustine, the great propagator of predestination!

So if you’re starting to find the Bible impossible, one pathway to recovery is finding those exegetes who came before western Christendom fractured at the Reformation. Take their inisights alongside those of modern scholars and seek the infinite God in His infinite variety.

Advertisements

The disparate nature of tradition

Council of Chalcedon

I am at present reading Justinian’s Letter to the Monks of Alexandria Against the Monophysites. As I read, many questions arise: Did Justinian himself write this? When did he have time? Did he ever sleep? If he didn’t, who did? How was this text received? How would Leo the Great have felt about this text? What about Cyril of Alexandria?

Leo the Great (d. 461) would probably have been fine with this work. I am not sure Cyril (d. 444) would have been, however. This is an interesting reality of our theological tradition. Many people, even within the church, have an idea that theological orthodoxy is monolithic. It is not. Leo the Great did what he could with what of Cyril he had in Latin — not all of Cyril, and Latin is not Greek. So Leo’s Christology is not the same as Cyril’s.

For example, I do not think Leo’s Tome and Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ are actually perfectly compatible.

Yet Leo’s Tome was acclaimed and accepted at the Council of Chalcedon (that he helped engineer) in 451 on the grounds that it said what Cyril says. Which, if we consider the Cyril of the letter of reconciliation with John of Antioch Laetentur Caeli, I suppose it is. Both of these fifth-century bishops are accepted as authoritative by the imperial church and are regarded as Fathers of the Church by modern Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodoxy, and non-heretical Protestant churches.

But their entire corpora are not entirely compatible, despite what Justinian tries in his reading of Cyril as a supporter of two-nature Christology.

Moving forward a couple of centuries, what about Maximus the Confessor (d. 662)? Again, I am not sure that the Cyril of On the Unity of Christ and some of Maximus’s arguments about the operation of Christ’s two wills in the Garden of Gethsemane are perfectly compatible.

Moving beyond christology, Augustine (d. 430), who is actually considered a saint by the eastern churches, teaches a dual procession of the Holy Spirit, that even Maximus agreed to in a way, although its offspring, the filioque in the creed, is a major point of division between the eastern and western churches. Yet here they stand, part of orthodox (note the lower-case O) tradition.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394) taught the Apocatastasis, the idea that all will be saved (patristic universalism). He is considered a Father in both East and West, although many reject this teaching. The ecumenically popular Isaac the Syrian (seventh century) also taught this.

Western accounts of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity tend to start with the doctrine of God and His unity; in the East, they tend to start with the persons and the threeness. This is a generalisation, but it does tend towards a different feel and different emphases in our presentations of dogma. Yet these presentations, whether by Augustine or Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390), are all orthodox though they differ.

Or consider the fact that our tradition includes alleged ‘Semi-Pelagians’ as saints (Faustus of Riez) alongside Augustinians like Prosper of Aquitaine.

Theological orthodoxy is not monolithic. Many other very specific cases could be found, but these will do. It is worth keeping these realities in mind as we ponder the great richness of the tradition that has brought us to where we stand today.

Going to church with wicked people

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne

Related to Blogging Benedict: Punishment, today I read Ivo of Chartres (1040-1115), Ep. 186. In this letter, Ivo responds to a query from a monk named Laurence on questions of living with wicked (mali) people. The long and short of it, with testimonia from St Augustine and Pope Gregory VII (pope, 1073-1085), is that you must put up with them, by and large.

Receiving communion alongside a person whom you know (or think) is a sinner is not entering into communion with their wickedness but into communion with Christ. It is God who will judge such people. Our job is to love them. If their sin is privately known, you cannot refuse communication with them. If, however, they are impenitent, public sinners, then they should fall under excommunication from the proper orders within the church. Not, that is, you. Your job is to love them. Or, if they are excommunicate, to avoid them.

Remember the Augustinian line taken from the parable of the tares: If we try to pluck out the tares before the harvest, we may accidentally cut down some of wheat along with them.

Also, you shouldn’t receive gifts from the excommunicate on the grounds that, well, they are excommunicate. The earth, says Ivo (Augustine), is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. God doesn’t need their gifts. He wants their repentance.

Placing this letter in the wider context of Ivo’s thought, we need to remember that he argues for the discipline of the church as being a remedy. The goal of excommunication, as with penance, is to heal the sinner and help him’er not sin anymore.

The main point for us today is not to spend our lives sitting around in judgement of fellow churchgoers. It’s pretty easy sometimes. Perhaps you suspect someone of heresy. Or of drinking too much. Or of judgementalism due to being a teetotaller. Or of greediness. Or of any manner of personal/sinful deficiency.

It is not our role to sit in judgement on them. The merciful God is who rich in mercy, abounding in compassion whilst also perfectly just and wholly loving will do that, is doing that. Our job is to love others.

Mind you, I fear that the clergy may sometimes have to excommunicate, and I say that not just because Ivo does (for who is Ivo to me?) but because Ivo cites the apostles on the matter. Nonetheless, it is a grave thing and to be done with much prayer and for the goal of healing the broken Christian and the broken community, not in a spirit of vindictiveness and retribution.

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.

Advent 4: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’

St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome
St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome

According to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer lectionary, today’s Gospel reading is John 1:19-28. Out of mercy, here it is in the ESVUK (rather than BCP):

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’, as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Another great passage involving St John the Baptist comes in John 3:30, when it is reported to the Forerunner that Jesus’ disciples are baptising more than he; his response: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’

The lives and teachings of God’s holy ones (‘saints’) serve as lessons, especially when the holy ones are prophets or apostles. Here, the last prophet of the Messiah (a prophet who, as St Augustine observes, was able not only to predict the Messiah but point at him with his own finger) provides us with an attitude that we, too, should adopt, not just in this Advent Season but all the time.

It is, admittedly, a difficult attitude to keep. ‘He must increase’ — oh, how we wish to increase! We want to get it our way, at work, at study, in social engagements with friends, in dealing with family, even in determining the meals for the week or entertainment at evening. We wish to increase, to choose exactly which courses we teach, to divest ourselves of administrative duties, to read only the books that are interesting, to get a big paycheque, to gain renown in our own field of work.

But he — He — must increase.

And when we consider His ethical teachings, as in the Sermon on the Mount, He (and thus His increase) is found in the good and progress of others. He is found in sharing the burdens of others. He is not found in getting my way. Indeed, getting my way is likely to get in His way.

And, like St John the Forerunner, we should point the way to the One ‘the strap of whose sandal [we are] not worthy to untie’. As I posted here in an Advent not long ago, ‘Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord’. Christ is still in the midst of us risen and ascended and reigning, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost. John the Baptist points the Pharisees to Him.

Whom are we pointing to Him today?

(A worthy question, and I am myself unsure of my own answer. Nonetheless, a question more worthy than culture wars and fighting the war for ‘Christmas’.)

Pope Question: What makes Leo Great?

pope clipartA not uncommon question that arises when people hear that I did my PhD on Pope Leo ‘the Great’ is: What makes Leo great? Sometimes there is the usual anti-Catholic/anti-papal subtext of, ‘Let me guess: Power politics ’cause that’s all popes do,’ but usually, it’s simple curiosity. I like curiosity. It’s less polemical.

The basic reasons for why Leo is Magnus, ‘the Great’, came up in Why Study Leo the Great? Nonetheless, it’s worth reiterating some of this here, if only to dispell the power politics part — but also to continue to encourage people to read Leo!

So, why Leo Magnus? What’s so Great about Leo I?

Answer: The Council of Chalcedon and two-nature Christology.

Some people want to make Leo’s greatness about his foundational role in western canon law, or his ability to exercise authority throughout the western church, or his articulation of papal primacy, or his energy in promoting western interests in the eastern Mediterranean. There is a desire to see why we might think him great. Or there is a desire to see how he was great in his own geo-ecclesiological context.

True as much of the above might be, these are not the reasons we call him ‘Leo the Great.’

C. H. Turner put together a compendium of the early sources for people expressing their esteem for this pope and calling Leo Magnus in his excellent 1911 article about the dogmatic collection of Leo’s letters. (If I could be a C. H. Turner for the 21st century, I’d do it.) And when I look at the testimonies in the manuscripts I work with, the answer is the same as what Turner found:

Leo is called Magnus, ‘the Great’, because of his role in the consolidation, development, and spread of western Christology, as enshrined in his ‘Tome’ (Ep. 28), ‘Second Tome’ (Ep. 165), and the convening of the Council of Chalcedon.

From a modern perspective, Leo the Great may not be what everyone is looking for in a theologian. We prefer pioneers and ‘original’ and ‘innovative’ thinkers, or ‘subversive’ ideals. So western Trinitarianism as expressed by St Hilary of Poitiers or St Augustine of Hippo is more likely to get people really excited today. But Pope Leo the Great plays a very important role in the history of western dogma.

I’m about half-way through St Augustine’s De Trinitate. It’s not an easy ride. It’s interesting, for sure. In many ways, it’s an education in itself — Augustine faces questions of epistemology, the use of categories in thought, love, words, memory, human psychology, and more, alongside the proper interpretation of Holy Scripture, as he seeks to articulate why we should express a belief in the Trinity. Along the way, he expounds what we would recognise today as two-nature Christology, just as St Hilary had done before him.

But De Trinitate is not the sort of document you can sent around to fifth-century bishops, expect them to read and comprehend, and then get a consensus of the church’s thought on any issue. Not really. That’s what Creeds are for — in the Creeds, you can get everyone to assent to their belief in the unity in Trinity and Trinity in unity.

But Nestorius and the Eutyches were expressing ideas about the person of Christ that they believed perfectly acceptable within the boundaries of credal Christianity. As far as Nestorius is concerned, St Cyril of Alexandria, St John Cassian, Pope Celestine I, et al., were pretty sure that his expressions of faith were, in fact, beyond the pale of credal truths, especially in some of the quite damning evidence in the creeds he was trying to get people to sign that his opponents produced at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Regardless of what Nestorius actually meant/thought, he was perceived as dividing Christ into two persons who simply coinhabited the single body of Jesus of Nazareth.

Eutyches was perceived as so fully subsuming the humanity in the godhead that Christ had simply become nothing but a God in a human body.

Now, by Leo’s day, Nestorius had been officially condemned by the Imperial Church in the Council of Ephesus in 431. Nonetheless, in 448 there arose the case of Eutyches. In his dogmatic writings, Leo sought to sail between the two perceived extremes of Nestorius and Eutyches. In Nestorius, the division between divine and human in Christ was so starkly contrasted that the divinity was at risk; in Eutyches, it was the unity that was too strongly expressed, placing the humanity at risk.

Whatever faults Leo may have had in expressing himself at different moments in the ensuing controversy, what his response to Eutyches provided the western church was an articulation of traditional, Latin Christology in a simple, apprehensible document. Leo largely reiterates Sts Augustine and Hilary with recourse to a certain amount of St Cyril of Alexandria as well. Bishops throughout the western church were able to read, understand, and subscribe to Leo’s dogmatic statements.

These statements were also circulated in the East, and at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the ‘Tome’ was approved as the teaching of the imperial church alongside St Cyril’s First and Second Letters to Nestorius and, later in the council proceedings, a further clarification of the faith that included the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 in its full text, but which we usually just quote for its contribution to Christology.

Leo was hoping to achieve unity and consensus throughout the church with the ‘Tome’ and the Council of Chalcedon. He didn’t, as history has borne out. His theology was disputed at the council and immediately following it in the East, especially in Syria-Palestine and Egypt.

In the West, Leo’s dogmatic theology was never controversial. As a result, western bishops were never interested in compromises that would seem to undermine either Leo’s teachings or the Council of Chalcedon. The result of this Leonine intransigence meant schism with Constantinople later in the century (the Acacian Schism) — making Leo that much more important to western Christian self-identity. It would also mean schism between northern Italy and Rome for a few centuries (the Istrian Schism).

It would also mean that the interpretation of Chalcedon put forward in the 600s by St Maximus the Confessor would find a welcome audience in the West, where he went into exile, one-handed and tongueless, as well as a lot of other Greek-speaking eastern clerics, who would leave their mark on the liturgy and organisation of the church of Rome in the seventh century.

Leo Magnus is central to western Christianity’s theological self-identity in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Thus is he depicted on the walls of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (as I learned over dinner tonight!).

Whatever else Leo did, it was his Christology that made people regard him as Magnus.

Belief and understanding: Anselm, Augustine, William of St Thierry — and YOU

St Anselm of Canterbury’s famous dictum, ‘Credo ut intelligam’ — I believe so that I may understand — appears at the end of chapter 1 of the Proslogion. The context looks like this:

I confess, Lord, and give you thanks, because you created you created this your image in me, so that, mindful of you, I might contemplate you, I might love you. But it [the image] is so decayed by the wearing down of vices, so darkened by the smoke of sins, that it cannot be of service for that which it was made for, unless you renew and reshape it. I do not attempt, Lord, to penetrate your height, because in no way do I compare my understanding to it; but I desire in some way to understand your turth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand. For I also believe this, that “Unless I shall believe, I may not understand.” (my trans.)

Throughout Proslogion 1, St Anselm is setting the groundwork for how we are to approach the unapproachable light, to contemplate the invisible, transcendant God. How can we, sinful humans with clouded sight, draw near to God and see Him? Then comes this paragraph. Thus the context for the famous dictum.

St. Augustine's pears, St. Sabas' apples & genreSchmitt’s edition gives us St Augustine as the inspiration:

For we believe in order that we may know (cognoscamus), we do not know in order that we may believe. (Tract. in Joh. XL, n. 9 [PL 35.1690])

Believe so that you may understand [plural you]. For “unless you believe, you will not understand” (Is. 7:9, Vulgate). (Serm. CCXII, n. 1 [PL 38.1059])

But so that we may understand, first let us believe. For “unless you believe, you will not understand” (Is. 7:9, Vulgate). (Serm. LXXXIX, n. 4 [PL 38.556])

Therefore since we wish to understand the eternity of the Trinity, we must believe before we may understand. (De Trin. l. VIII, c. V, n. 8 [PL 42.952])

I have not checked the contexts of all of these, but the last is pretty clear — trying to understand the Most Holy Trinity.

Anselm lived 1033-1109, before some of the unfortunate incidents in mediaeval theology that started the now-accepted separation between intellect and belief. A few decades later, this marriage of faith and reason — of faith seeking reason — would still be visible in William of St Thierry (1085-1148), who turned up in my Lenten reading this year (The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, ed. and trans. P. Matarasso):

It is not reason … that leads faith to understanding; rather, through faith it looks for understanding from above, even from you, the Father of lights from whom comes every good and perfect gift. This is not that understanding which is acquired by the exercise of reason, or results from intellectual processes: it is drawn in response to faith from the throne of your greatness and formed by your wisdom. In all things like its source, on entering the mind of the believer it embraces reason and conforms it to itself, while faith is quickened and enlightened by it. (Meditation II, p. 113 in English)

William’s context is also the apprehension of God. He is discussing contemplation and the feeble attempts of his own mind in seeking the face of God — how dark it seems, how far he feels from God, how much like a beginner at all times, how difficult the ascent, how quickly any illumination seems to fade away. How like the experience of us all.

Reason is all well and good.

But how can we attain to understanding of the Divine Person(s) with our frail, human reason — itself clouded by sins and weaknesses and mistakes?

Credo ut intelligam is not a rejection of reason. It is not an abandonment of all rational attempts to consider the Triune God. It is, rather, an admission that rational intellect alone cannot attain to the understanding of Someone Who is simultaneously beyond all of this and nearer to us than our own breath — the Creator of quarks and quasars and the cosmos, the One Who Is Three but One (William in particular admits to his difficulties with properly thinking about the Trinity), the God Who became a Man.

How could understanding God ever precede believing in Him?

Indeed, what these three men — mystics and theologians, all — demonstrate to us is that, even once we believe, still do we struggle to understand.

Let us be of good cheer, then, as we trust in our God Who loves us and made us and remakes us.