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.

Advertisements

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.

Time to dig into church history — this field should be booming!

If you’re going to dislike Zosimus, find a reason beyond, ‘He was Pope, dude!’

Back in 2010, my now PhD supervisor remarked that as confessional entrenchment/denominational attachment has decreased, so has interest in ecclesiastical history (is this one reason we rebranded ourselves here as History of Christianity?). I’m not sure if this is true or if it was simply a feeling she had, but if it is true, I’m not so sure it makes a lot of sense.

I think that church history as a field of study can truly blossom with lessened denominational hostilities. This thought came to me today while reading about this guy Apiarius of Sicca Veneria in North Africa. Briefly, he was a presbyter who was removed from holy orders by his local bishop and decided to appeal to Rome. Pope Zosimus got involved and — well, ecclesiastical history. An important moment in western canon law, despite how little attention it tends to receive.

The book I was reading, Merdinger’s Rome and the African Church in the Time of Augustine (complaint: Why always Augustine?), observed that this issue has been misread and obscured by a lot of scholarship because of the confessional commitments of the scholars discussing it. A crude caricature of the scholarship in this case is pretty much the same as it always is whenever the popes get involved:

Catholics: Well done Popes exercising your apostolic authority against those rebellious Africans.

Protestants: Well done Africans in resisting the arrogant self-aggrandisement of the Popes.

This is also not far from every time the Bishop of Rome butts heads with orthodox Eastern Bishops, Gallic bishops, Sicilian bishops, Spanish bishops, Welsh and Irish bishops, and so forth. The pope and/or his representatives or those who at least side with him are pictured by Catholics as representing good order and good government, putting right the wrongs of the world, and by Protestants as representing the arrogation of worldly power and the stamping out of true Gospel spirit in the provinces.

Sometimes one side has more of the truth than the other, but it’s not really what’s usually going on.

With weakened, once-ingrained confessional prejudices clouding our vision less, we are in a time when scholarship about ecclesiastical history can really flourish. No longer need Catholics be embarrassed by badly behaved popes to sweep under the rug. No longer need Protestants hunt for some sort of proto-Protestant resistance. No longer need Protestants ignore the entire history of the church from the death of Augustine to 31 October, 1517 — nor need they ignore the awkward Catholicky (emphasis on ‘icky’) bits from before the 430 cut-off date, where church fathers whose Christology and triadology, and even beliefs about salvation, they praise also do awkward things like, well, exercise monarchical episcopal authority in their hometown. Or send people relics. Or talk about Eucharist in terms of sacrifice. Or have anything to do with canon law. Or burn incense.*

Also, we can lay off the anti-papal polemic. Gregory the Great sent missionaries to England because he thought London would become a rival patriarchate? Really?

And we can turn our eyes to the world beyond Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Since we no longer feel compelled to obsess over our own Roman Catholic, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Lutheran history, we can look at the history of the church in Mesopotamia or Ethiopia. We can ponder Franciscans in the Caliphate. We can take into consideration the Church of the East (‘Nestorian’) in China during the Middle Ages.

We have 2000 years of ecclesiastical history to play with. Just because something didn’t happen within one’s own confessional sphere of influence doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting and doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold wisdom for the church today.

*Fun fact: St John Chrysostom whose exegesis is much beloved by low-church evangelicals of late did all these things.

Lay piety – Augustine and Dallas Willard

Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum
Antony the Great, ascetic par excellence; detail from a 14th-15th-century painting of the BVM with saints in the Capitoline Museum

Last night I was reading the Introduction to Kate Cooper and Julia Hillner’s volume, Religion, Dynasty, and Patronage in Early Christian Rome, 300-900, and learned one of the developments in Augustine scholarship of the 20th century was R A Markus’ work that presented a development in Augustine’s thinking in the 390s through the bishop of Hippo’s reading of St Paul. In this view, significantly also followed by Peter Brown (and if Brown and Markus say so, who am I to argue?), Augustine rejects the image of a two-tiered church — a decidedly anti-Manichaean move — and re-evaluates the place of the married faithful, ‘arguing that the ascetic elitism of a Jerome or an Ambrose could only be counter-productive.’ (Cooper & Hillner, 10)

They quote Markus, who says that Augustines asserts:

Both sorts of faithful belong within the one Church and both are called to serve God in faith and love. All who seek to follow the Lord are within his flock: ‘and the married are certainly able to follow His footsteps [vestigia], even if their feet do not fit perfectly into the footprints, yet following the same path’. -R A Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity, 46

This runs counter to the popular view of Augustine as a not-fully-recovered Manichaean who promotoes spiritual elitism partly out of guilt over his own sexual deviance. Augustine certainly sees celibacy and the committed ascetic life as better than lay married life, but, as in On the Good of Marriage (De Bono Coniugali), the difference is between two goods:

Therefore, just as what Martha did was good when she was busy attending to the saints, but what her sister Mary did, sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to his words (Lk 10:39), was better, so too we praise the excellence of Susanna in her married chastity, but value more highly the excellence of the widow Anna, and even more that of the virgin Mary. Those who attended to the needs of Christ and his disciples, and did so out of their own resources, did something good, but those who gave up all their possessions, in order to follow that Lord without that encumbrance, did something better. With each of the two good ways of acting, both in the latter case and in the case of Martha and Mary, the one that is better is not possible without forgoing or abandoning the other. -8, 8, trans. Ray Kearney (as The Excellence of Marriage)

I am not saying I agree with Augustine, but it is important to attempt at least a balanced view of his teachings. He is not solely responsible and even, I imagine, helped mitigate ascetic elitism through the wide success of his writings (contra Robert E Webber, Ancient-Future Evangelism). Unfortunately for the subsequent history of Christian discipleship, even if marriage was esteemed and encouraged by the church as a good thing where virtue can certainly be cultivated, not even Augustine’s teaching went far enough to stop the creation of a two-tiered spiritual world — a world promoted to a greater or lesser degree by the teachings of Jerome and Gregory of Nazianzus and Ambrose, for example.

One result of this two-tiered world, a result lamented by Dallas Willard in The Spirit of the Disciplines, is that the really good handbooks for the disciplined life of piety were all written for monks. Preaching to the laity has tended to lean simply towards basic doctrine and inculcating Christian morality and virtue. The disciplined life was sequestered off in the cloister — or practised by odd-ball mendicants (although the Franciscans tried to help out with the Tertiaries).

Therefore, Willard recommends the great monastic texts for those who wish to lead a more disciplined life. It’s true that for non-celibate married folks with jobs, some of the recommendations are simply not practical, feasible, or desirable. But many of them are. Askesis is training for virtue and holiness, and it’s not just monks anymore.

The False East-West Dichotomy and Poetic Theology

Poussin, The Inspiration of the Poet (1630)

I recently remarked to a couple of Master’s students groaning about reading Homer that if they’re interested in Late Antiquity, Homer’s not totally irrelevant, given that Gregory of Nazianzus wrote poetry in Homeric verse. A (very pleasant and overall thoughtful) young convert to Eastern Orthodoxy remarked that he really liked Gregory’s theological poetry. I said that I liked his poems, too. Then this fellow said that you don’t find theological poetry in western theology, and that a reading group of which he is a member had been reading the Second Theological Oration and he loved some of the poetry in it.

I asked if the ‘poetry’ was written in verse.

No, it was just very beautiful.

I said that that’s actually rhetoric, and that that’s the Fathers for you. They have rhetorical training, and such beauty comes through in their theology, that people like Gregory, Augustine and Ambrose didn’t study rhetoric for it to have no effect on their style of writing.

Our conversation moved on, because I’m bad at confronting people face to face when they say stuff like that.

In the above exchange, there was one category error and (at least) one misrepresentation of western theology. Now, I’m not going to say that Gregory of Nazianzus at his high-flying, rhetorical, ‘poetic’ best isn’t magnificent and stunning. He is. And his theology is good, too. And other eastern Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa or Basil of Caesarea or Athanasius or, in Syriac, Ephraim the Syrian (literal poetry, in his case), have all displayed to me the stylistic beauty of their writings over the years.

But to say that anything beautiful is poetry is not to know what poetry is. And to say that western theology has no poetry is not to know the western heritage.

Sometimes I think a lot of people leave the western churches for Eastern Orthodoxy because we’ve been holding back our own riches of a variety that Eastern Orthodoxy spreads out lavishly. I do not imagine that my acquaintance has read beautiful, ‘poetic’, rhetorical western theology and failed to recognise what it is. I imagine that he has not read it.

So, first: Western theology has poetry. Literally. This should go without saying on this blog, given the series of holy week poems I posted this year, including ones by Theodulph of Orléans (9th c), Ambrose of Milan (4th c), Venantius Fortunatus (6th-7th c), Thomas Aquinas (13th c), and a couple of anonymous ones. I have also discussed Ambrose of Milan’s hymnography. It is worth observing that two of the greatest theological minds of the western tradition, Sts Ambrose of Milan and Thomas Aquinas, were both, literally speaking, poets. So were Peter Abelard and Bonaventure, one a controversial theologian, the other a mystical theologian. Others who are famous as poets also wrote theologically, such as Prudentius and Sedulius. Also, Dante has more than a little theology in his poetry, and of the moderns, we need look no further than the Holy Sonnets of Donne, or the theological work of Spenser, or the world of Francis Thompson or Gerard Manley Hopkins to find westerners (Anglican & Roman Catholic) writing theological poetry.

And, second: Western theology can be poetic. In prose. So, figuratively? Today, when a lot of people say ‘western theology’, they actually mean either something that looks like mediaeval scholasticism (which is both a way of thinking as well as a style/genre of approach) or something that looks like the Enlightenment. That all western theology is about precision and order and sets itself out in Aristotelian syllogisms and spends its time being obsessed with the rational and forgets the mystical and so on and so forth.

This is largely a caricature, and it is entirely inappropriate for western, Latin theology before some time in the Middle Ages, and not always inappropriate thereafter. Not only do western theologians produce a good supply of poetic, beautiful, rhetorical work, eastern theologians use their fair share of logic and reason (so John of Damascus, most of Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit, much of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations, Cyril of Alexandria, and so forth). The style of theology we are caricatured as doing exclusively is not our exclusive domain. And the style we are imagined as not engaging in is part of our territory, too.

A bit of a sawdusty, Victorian translation of the final book of St Augustine’s On the Trinity has some beauty to it. St. Augustine’s own mystical vision ends in the beatific vision — yet the light is too dazzling for mortal eye:

Lift up your eyes to the light itself, and fix them upon it if you can. For so you will see how the birth of the Word of God differs from the procession of the Gift of God, on account of which the only-begotten Son did not say that the Holy Spirit is begotten of the Father, otherwise He would be His brother, but that He proceeds from Him. Whence, since the Spirit of both is a kind of consubstantial communion of Father and Son, He is not called, far be it from us to say so, the Son of both. But you can not fix your sight there, so as to discern this lucidly and clearly; I know you can not. I say the truth, I say to myself, I know what I cannot do; yet that light itself shows to you these three things in yourself, wherein you may recognize an image of the highest Trinity itself, which you can not yet contemplate with steady eye. Itself shows to you that there is in you a true word, when it is born of your knowledge, i.e. when we say what we know: although we neither utter nor think of any articulate word that is significant in any tongue of any nation, but our thought is formed by that which we know; and there is in the mind’s eye of the thinker an image resembling that thought which the memory contained, will or love as a third combining these two as parent and offspring. (De Trin. 15.50)

Not necessarily theology at its most poetic/rhetorical/beautiful. But not lacking in what a Romantic eschewing verse might call ‘poetry’. If you’ve spent your time with Latin Christianity through the medium of text books or of dry dogmatics, refresh your understanding of it. Grab One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas by P G Walsh and Christopher Husch, or St Bernard of Clairvaux, or Lady Julian of Norwich, or any of a multitude of western theologians and poets, and reacquaint yourself with the tradition we all seem to have forgotten and then scorned.

In this case, it is not familiarity that has bred contempt.