St Benedict’s recommended reading

Provided by Durham Priory Library Project – a collaboration between Durham University and Durham Cathedral

In Chapter 9 of his Rule, Benedict writes:

The books to be read at the night office are those which have divine authority, both from the Old and the New Testaments, but also the commentaries on them that were written by recognized and orthodox catholic fathers. (p. 133, trans. White)

The fifth and sixth centuries are the centuries when the ‘Fathers of the Church’ became the fathers of the church, the centuries when the writings of particular authors from the previous generations were accepted and used and synthesized in various ways and copied and transmitted to future generations as the foundations of a solid faith.

What is noteworthy is that St Benedict does not recommend just any old patristic writings. Rather, he recommends commentaries on Scripture. Thus, not just Augustine, but his commentaries on the Psalms; not Chrysostom on the statues, but Chrysostom on Romans; not Ambrose De Officiis, but Ambrose De Noe; not Origen De Principibus, but Origen On the Song of Songs. And so forth.

We see this bent in our knowledge of live Benedictine monasteries. In 1083, William of St-Calais reformed the religious community at Durham Cathedral and made it Benedictine. He donated around 50 books as the foundation of the new monastic library. I’ve discussed this list of books elsewhere; amongst the books Bishop William donated are several commentaries, besides a two-volume Bible: three volumes of St Augustine’s Commentary on the Psalms; St Augustine’s commentary on the Gospel of John; St Jerome on the Twelve Minor Prophets; St Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job in two volumes; the 40 Gospel Homilies of St Gregory; Bede’s commentary on Mark and Luke; Hrabanus Maurus on the Gospel of Matthew; Origen on the Old Testament; St Gregory the Great on Ezekiel; and Bede on the Song of Songs.

Most of the rest of the books are either liturgical in nature or about the ascetic life, besides two histories.

I’ve been praying Vigils lately since my wife and I get up once in the night with our infant son. Alongside the usual round of Psalmody and prayers, there are two readings. Usually they are both Scripture, but sometimes one is patristic, either keyed to the feast or theme of the day or commenting upon the Scripture of the other reading. It is a useful practice, reading the Fathers and the Scriptures side by side. The more I watch Protestantism fragment and spin out of control, the more wonder about the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture.

One of my Benedict posts will be about RB and the Bible. The Scriptures and the biblical faith are at the heart of the Rule, though. We need to keep this in mind. If we are to follow Rod Dreher’s advice in The Benedict Option at some level, Scripture and prayer will be the rich centre of all that we do, turning our eyes to Jesus.

Advertisements

Development of ‘Fathers’ of the Church 1: The Catena

A Gathering of the Holy Fathers

One of the developments in Christian thought we see in the fifth and sixth centuries is the concept of  ‘Church Father’. This development is one reason why D H Williams draws his ‘suspicious Protestants’ to the patristic period as it existed specifically before AD 500 — these are the writers who are considered by later writers (the later Fathers themselves!) as Fathers of the Church.

The Council of Chalcedon provides us with one of our early examples of this growing concept when it drafts its Definitio Fidei, which it introduces with the words, ‘Following the holy fathers,’ ie. of Nicaea, Constantinople I, and Ephesus I. These men themselves shall be calledSancti Patres in due course.

Other evidence for this growing perception of Fathers of the Church in the fifth century is found in the appearance of testimonia in writings in the disputes of the day. Testimonia are passages from previous writers one gathers together in a series (either a catena — lit. a chain — or a florilegium — lit. a gathering of flowers) appended to the end of a work or sometimes as the whole work itself. They are gathered together to add weight to one’s own position. An example of this is Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who appended testimonia to one of his letters.

Another early example is Leo the Great who appended Testimonia to his so-called ‘Second’ Tome, Ep. 165, to Emperor Leo I, seeking to demonstrate the validity of his two-nature christology. Leo includes passages from Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Theophilus of Alexandria (via Jerome), Cyril of Alexandria, and Gregory of Nazianzus in his patristic testimonia. The inclusion of these testimonia is, no doubt, part of Leo’s own growing awareness that his own authority and argumentation were not ending the crisis he’d hoped to resolve at Chalcedon. He turned to his forebears in the faith, to authoritative authors to bolster his position.

Testimonia patrum as either florilegia appended to ‘original’ works or as catenae that comprised the entirety of a work really got rolling in the sixth century. An example of theology that was entirely rooted in patristic catenae is found in Leontius of Byzantium, who wrote his own discourses on Christology principally through the lens of previous writers.

The process really got moving, however, as biblical commentaries. Both East and West in the sixth century began an original endeavour of creative editing that produced an endless variety of comments and combinations on the text of Holy Scripture. Each editor, using either earlier catenae or his own extensive reading, would produce a commentary on the Bible full of short snapshots from the Fathers on the passage at hand (kind of like IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture).

These were not merely editorial technique, however. One can quote only what one chooses. One can purposefully misquote. One can accidentally misquote. One can splice two quotations together. Furthermore, the successors of one such anthologiser can simply add more quotations without doing damage to the text (it happens thus with Leo, Ep. 165 that some manuscripts have more passages than others).

What a patristic catena on a passage of Scripture can provide its creator is a comprehensive view that pretends to take into account all of the data. When done well, as in Bede, it can provide us with a single theological vision. It also creates for its readers the illusion of a consensus Patrum. ‘This,’ thinks the reader of a catena on Gen 6, ‘is what the Fathers thought!’

As the same Fathers are resorted to time and again in these anthologies, the thought of the Byzantine and medieval worlds is not always as divided as some would have you believe. As well, these people keep turning up again and again. They hold pride of place as the medieval and Byzantine Christians seek to interpret their Bibles in a faithful way that is true to their tradition and heritage.

In the East, this reading and rereading of the same Fathers means that by the age of Justinian, it not earlier, the Mono/Miaphysites and the Greek/Syriac Chalcedonians have almost the same way of thinking, just different words. They have read and reread Athanasius, Cyril, the Cappadocians, et al., time and time again as they seek to uncover the truth about the nature(s) of Jesus, and both sides have constructed catenae of testimonia from the Fathers to prove the other side wrong.

I believe that the patristic catena is one of the main reasons that East and West; Latin, Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian; Chalcedonian, Anti-Chalcedonian, and ‘Nestorian’; monks and bishops, all have a fairly similar grouping of Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and pre-Chalcedonian Fathers. For 1000 years they were reading quotations from these same people, all strung together, as they sought to interpret Scripture and theology.  These people are the common patrimony of all Christians, everywhere. They are the Fathers.