Blood: Agony & Allegory 2: Christological exegesis

The goal of this series is to consider the Christological reading of Isaiah 63, which sees the blood from the wine-press as the blood of Christ, inspired by Malcolm Guite’s reading of George Herbert’s ‘The Agony’. The verse in question, Isaiah 63:3:

I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.

According to Guite, the Fathers see Christ’s blood as the blood ‘sprinkled upon my garments’. Before turning to the Fathers, it is always worth thinking about their mindset and method. How do they come to such a reading?

In short: All the Scriptures are about Jesus Christ. We don’t even need to look to the Fathers to see this:

And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he [Jesus] expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)

For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us. (2 Cor. 1:20)

The typological approach is used in Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15, and the vast majority of the book of Hebrews. Various Scriptural passages are taken by the writers of the New Testament to refer to Christ as well, from Matthew onwards, even if they seem to a modern(ist) eye to refer to something else. But, of course, is Jesus not God the Word? Might there not be, as a result, some special relationship between God the Word and God’s word written?

Whether you can reconcile yourself to the spiritual reading of Scripture or not, centuries of tradition, East and West, have read the Bible this way, taking their cue from the apostles. I have found myself recently beguiled by Henri de Lubac on this matter, so I present to you his words from the second volume of Medieval Exegesis, translated by E. M. Macierowski.

All the patristic and medieval discussions of allegory

come together in the concrete definition of allegoria such as one reads, for example, in Bede,[note 21] or in many others after him: [note 22] “Allegory exists when the present sacraments of Christ and the Church are signed by means of mystical words or things.” (p. 91)

In Christian exegesis, there is no longer myth on the one hand; there is no longer naturalistic thought or philosophical abstraction, on the other. What it proposes is to ‘introduce by figures’ the events and the laws of the old Covenant ‘to the sight of the Truth,’ which is nothing but ‘the fullness of the Christ.'[n. 26] So thereby one is clearly going, at least in a first step, from history to history — though assuredly not to mere history, or not to what is merely beyond history.[n. 27] One is led by a series of singular facts up to one other singular Fact; one series of divine interventions, whose reality itself is significant, leads to another sort of divine intervention, equally real, but deeper and more decisive. Everything culminates in one great Fact, which, in its unique singularity, has multiple repercussions; which dominates history and which is the bearer of all light as well as of all spiritual fecundity: the Fact of Christ. As Cassiodorus puts it, a bit crudely perhaps but forcefully, there is not any one theory or one invention of a philosopher, ‘which is formed in our hearts with a fantastic imagination’; this is not one idea, itself fitting, happy and fruitful even: this is a reality ‘which grasps an existing person,’ a reality inserted at a certain moment in our history and which blossoms in the Church, a ‘gathering of all the holy faithful, one in heart and soul, the bride of Christ, the Jerusalem of the age to come.'[n. 28], p. 101

No more than life in Christ is the knowledge of Christ drawn from Scripture accessible to the natural man, the one who confines himself to mere appearances even in his deepest reflections. Interior and spiritual, the object of allegory is by that very fact a ‘hidden’ object: mysticus occultus. It conceals itself from carnal eyes. Pagans do not perceive it, nor do unbelieving Jews, nor those ‘carnal’ Christians who see in Christ nothing but a human being. It is like a fire hidden in a rock: so long as one holds it in one’s hand to observe its surface, it stays cold; but when one strikes it with iron, at that point the spark flashes forth. As it is for Christ, so it is for the Scriptures: with a glance piercing like fire, their secret ought, so to speak, to be wrenched free from them — and it is the same secret: for it si with regard to the written word of God as it is with the incarnate word of God. The letter is his flesh; the spirit is his divinity. Letter and flesh are like milk, the nourishment of children and the weak; spirit and divinity are the bread, the solid nourishment. p.107

As I say, Henri de Lubac here beguiles me. I feel like I am truly discovering how to read the Bible as a Christian — as one baptised into Christ, adopted by the Father, indwelt by the Spirit. It is rich, it is beautiful. This is the kind of religion I want and crave, not dry modern(ist) scholarship on the Scripture (interesting as it is, it only goes so far), but access to the living fountain of Jesus Christ.

Lubac’s Endnotes:

21: De tab., Bk. I, c. vi; c. ix.

26: Cf. Or., In Jo., Bk. VI, c. iii, n. 14-5 (109).

27: Thus it is insufficient to define the contrast between Christianity and paganism in the time of Diocletian, or any other epoch, by saying with F. C. Burkitt that it is “the contrast between an historical account and a philosophical account, or rather … between an annalistic and a systematic account” (Church and Gnosis, 1932, 127; cf. 138, 139, 145).

28: In ps. IV (PL 70, 47C)

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Final thoughts on the Benedict Option — take the initiative!

So, whether you accept all of Rod Dreher’s grim view of the future in The Benedict Option or not, I think the book has a lot of good ideas to help us get our churches, families, and lives more rooted in Christ and the tradition, more resilient for whatever may come our way, more disciplined. I guess, in a way, that’s the point.

My final jab at him re St Benedict of Nursia: Much of what is discussed in this book takes little or no inspiration from the Rule of St Benedict or Gregory the Great, Dialogues II. Rather, it takes its inspiration from Alasdair MacIntyre’s call for a new, doubtless very different, Benedict in our day and age. And then Dreher imagines what it would take to keep Christianity vibrant and alive in the years to come.

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.

Anyway, regardless of how much in this is directly inspired by St Benedict, when we look at the wider Benedictine tradition, from Monte Cassino to Wearmouth-Jarrow to Durham to Citeaux to Gethsemani (Kentucky) to the rebuilt monastery at Norcia, there is something in the spirit of this wider Benedictine movement throughout this book.

And one thing that runs throughout, something this blog is a little piece of, is to take the initiative yourself, like Benedict did in a cave and then with a community on a mountain, or like the founders of Citeaux, or the re-founders of Norcia. Don’t sit around waiting for your pastor or your denomination to make the changes in your life, church, community that you believe are crucial for the survival and spiritual health of Christianity.

Approach them, of course. Volunteer to use Benedict Option ideas at your own church. But don’t wait — take the initiative. Get up off your butt and do something. Lay a brick for Jesus.

Some Cassiodorus for ‘Bible Sunday’

St Augustine Gospels, fol. 125r
St Augustine Gospels (6th c), fol. 125r

Advent 2 in the BCP is Bible Sunday, on which I’ve blogged in other Advents, here and here. Here’s some Cassiodorus (6th c) to keep it real:

Note, excellent friends, how marvellously and how harmoniously the arrangement of words moves in Divine Scripture. There is an ever-increasing desire, a fullness without end, a glorious hunger of the blessed where excess is not reproved but constant desire is, instead, praised — and rightly so, since Scripture both teaches beneficial knowledge and offers eternal life to those who believe and act on their belief. They describe the past without fiction, and reveal more of the present than is seen, and tell of the future as if it had already taken place. Truth rules everywhere in them; everywhere divine excellence shines forth; everywhere benefits to the human race are revealed. While the present situation exists on earth, heavenly truth, in so far as we are able to grasp it, is revealed by parables and mysteries, as God himself bears witness in the seventy-seventh Psalm: ‘I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter mysteries from the beginning’ [Psalm 77:2]. For they pass on to us, in order that we may discharge all duties, a prayerful knowledge of the holy Trinity (which, over the great passage of time, humanity, blind, sad, and enslaved to idols, has not known). They tell us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, creator and director of all created things does ‘all that he wills in heaven and on earth’ [Psalm 134:6]. If you seek its faithfulness, listen to the brief statement: ‘A stronghold for the oppressed in times of distress’ [Psalm 9:10]; if you seek power, hear: ‘Who can withstand your power?’ [Psalm 75:8; Wisdom 11:22]; if justice, read: ‘He will judge the world with justice’ [Psalms 9:99 and 95:13]. For Scripture declares most obviously that God is everywhere; in the words of the writer of the Psalms: ‘Where can I go from your spirit? from your presence where can I flee? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there’ [Psalm 138:7-8], and likewise the other aspects of God’s majesty are embedded in the holy writings. -Cassiodorus, Inst. I.XVI.1, trans. J W Halporn, p. 146

A (frivolous?) plan for a 10-week course

10-week introductory courses to Christianity are a thing, these days — especially Alpha and Christianity Explored. But what resources might we develop to catechise and disciple new believers who have gone through those 10-week courses? Are there fundamentals to help people negotiate that could be assessed in this way? After blogging about Cassiodorus’ program of Christian learning, I was inspired to think out the following rudimentary 10-week course for disciples who have already done Alpha or Christianity Explored:

  1. Introduction to the Course, a brief review of some of the Alpha/Christianity Explored topics as well as pressing the importance of cultivating a Christian intellect.
  2. The Bible 1: How to read it for yourself. Some sort of strategy to help people read the Scriptures themselves. Provide also a list of useful commentaries to turn to for help?
  3. The Bible 2: Overview of the story, from creation to the resurrection of the dead.
  4. The Bible 3: Overview of the books of the Bible.
  5. Theology 1: The person and work of Jesus
  6. Theology 2: The person and work of the Holy Spirit
  7. Theology 3: The Holy Trinity
  8. Theology 4: Redemption
  9. Christian history
  10. Spiritual disciplines

Maybe I’ve given too much to something? Not sure. I mean, if it were a direct sequel to Alpha, perhaps we could squish together Theology into 3 sections. I dunno.

I do think that something like this would be more of a commitment than Alpha. I think people would be expected to read something from the Bible as well as from a book before turning up each week. That way you could go deeper. Maybe it wouldn’t work at all, but this is what I thought of walking along the street yesterday.

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