Heresy and the human spirit: Bede’s allegorical reading of Luke 17:11-19

Today, I was leading a tutorial discussion about Clement of Alexandria (150-215; saint of the week here) and Origen (185-254; on whose importance, see here), and my students were discussing the usefulness of allegory, of which Origen is a highly famed practicioner. How useful is it? How legitimate is it? And, in a colleague’s group, can we use it of the New as well as Old Testament? Origen says that we can use it of the New, although never neglecting the literal truth.

The Venerable Bede (672-735; saint of the week here) certainly thought you could allegorise the New Testament, and Mark Armitage over at Enlarging the Heart has helpfully given us a beautiful example of allegory expertly used in Bede’s discussion of Luke 17:11-19; it has been broken into three parts (first, second, third) on his blog. You should read them; each is pretty short.

For me, what resonates most strongly in Bede’s exegesis is the image of leprosy as heresy. Perhaps this is because I still self-identify as Anglican and see the Anglican churches of the West as deeply marred by heresy at this moment of history. Perhaps it’s also because I see the Fathers and their concern about heresy time and again being miscast as struggles for power, whereas my reading of Leo vs. the heretics (here) is not a power struggle, but a pastoral concern.

If heresy is like leprosy, this means it is a disease. It is something that you can acquire against your will. And, as Bede points out, as leprous skin is always mingled with healthy skin, heresy is always mixed with truth. The image is of a sick person, a sick world, a sick idea, that needs healing and restoration, not a bad person who needs condemning. Sometimes when we (I) get fired up about unorthodox persons in our (my) midst, we (I) lose sight of the need for healing by Christ  in their lives.

And, if we admit it, we may be a little unorthodox (heretical) ourselves, in need of that healing as well.

I like that this allegory puts Christ at the centre of the cure for heresy.

I also like Bede’s commentary on the nine who do not thank him. This is a warning to those of us who have it all together — I believe Nicaea and Chalcedon (indeed, all Seven Ecumenical Councils!), I believe in the Bible, I actually believe the 39 Articles of Religion. So my heresy is washed away. Well done.

Do we remember to thank Christ in humility, acknowledging that He is the source of any orthodox thought we have, the source of all spiritual health in us, doctrinal, moral, dogmatical, ethical?

So I approve of Bede’s use of allegory here. It follows Augustine’s exhortation in On Christian Teaching that a reading of Scripture that draws people further into love of God cannot be really wrong.


Happy Feast of St Benedict!

Monte Cassino, site of St Benedict’s original monastery

Today is the feast of St Benedict of Nursia (480-547) of the Rule of St Benedict fame, which is the backbone not only of the Order of St Benedict but of the Cistercians and their descendant order the Trappists (the two most enduring mediaeval reform orders), as well as being the rule of life for certain Anglican, Lutheran, and Eastern Orthodox monasteries.

Lots of people and blogs are going to be posting about him today, so, rather than add to the noise, I thought I would direct your internet journeys to Benedict instead.

Because all blogs are essentially narcissistic, you can start here at the pocket scroll:

Posted in time for the feast, Malcolm Guite has written a sonnet for St Benedict.

If you’re looking for fresh and brief tastes from this saint, there is the selection of posts of passages from St Benedict at Enlarging the Heart.

Also at Enlarging the Heart are the (more numerous) selections from St Bernard of Clairvaux, the paragon of mediaeval Cistercian spirituality (and saint of the week here).

At the heart of Benedictine spirituality (imho) are Lectio Divina and the Liturgy of the Hours. Here’s a video on the former, from Father Matthew:

A good resource for the Liturgy of the Hours can be found at Bosco Peters’ site, Liturgy as well as at the website Universalis.

Finally, if you’re new to Benedict, here’s a five-minute video telling the story of his life:

I encourage you to spend time with one or two of the links or videos above today, remembering Benedict, and then to draw near to the Christ Benedict points us all towards. He would wish to remembered thus best.

The Rocky authority of St Peter

Yesterday was the Feast of Sts Peter (Rocky) and Paul (Shorty). I wasn’t actually planning on blogging on either of these saints, but then I wrote all about late antique popes a few days ago, and THEN Mark Armitage posted this fantastic piece from St Augustine about the Petrine authority, wherein the good bishop of Hippo makes the point that Petros means ‘rocky’, not ‘rock.’*

So then I got silly and wrote that title.

In the Augustinian piece linked above, St Augustine makes two important points:

  1. Peter is the first among the Apostles. He holds pre-eminence.
  2. That which was entrusted to Peter was, in fact, entrusted to all the Apostles. Entrusting it to Peter was symbolic of the unity and universality of the gifts** given.

People sometimes make much of North African ‘independent-mindedness’ and would see Augustine here as following in his predecessors’ footsteps. Yes, Peter is first among the Apostles. But the keys to heaven, the binding and loosing, are given to the whole Church, not just to him.

They would then chortle in glee at allegedly having undermined the Bishop of Rome.

And we must admit, Blessed Augustine’s vision does not fully match that of Leo I, Bishop of Rome, who acceded to the See of Peter ten years after the sainted Bishop of Hippo passed from this life.

Leo’s argument, found in several letters and sermons, runs that, yes the Apostles were all given these gifts, but through the Petrine ministry. He is anointed first by Christ, his fellow Apostles second. The legitimacy of the apostolic ministry hangs upon their unity, which is bound up in Peter and his confession of Christ as the Son of the Living God in Matthew 16. (This passage is also crucial to Leo’s Christology.)

Leo’s vision plays out in the real world by saying that from Peter’s successor flow all post-apostolic ministry. If people are not in communion with Rome (although the argument would hold for Antioch as easily, something he would not have been unaware of) both structurally and doctrinally, they are not united with the apostolic ministry and with the head of the stream of authority which flows from Rome.

Most of us Protestants tend to just ignore these arguments, or take it as far as St Augustine goes. But I can assure you that Augustine would have accepted the authority of Rome in most areas, even if his exegesis differed from Leo’s. And he would have seen Donatist and Arian Christianity, both present in North Africa upon his death, as being out of step with the rest of the Church and therefore exercising illegitimate ministry.

Is Rome the essential part of the puzzle for Augustine? I think the question would have been absurd in the fifth century. If you are out of communion with one part of the Church, you are out of communion with the rest. Fifth-century debates about authority were not about whether one must be in communion with Rome to be legitimate but about how the pre-eminence of the Petrine see played out its authority in practice, and what on earth to do with Constantinople.

The pain of schism was not simply that Donatists were out of step with Rome but that their fellowship with the Church Catholic was severed. The pain of schism was not just that Timothy Aelurus (‘the Cat’) in Alexandria did not keep the Bishop of Rome in the diptychs, but that his fellowship with the Church Catholic was severed.

Today, we live day in and day out with the pain of schism. It’s not simply that Rome and Constantinople had different visions of the Petrine ministry; it’s not simply that the Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches had a squabble with the rest of us over a point of doctrine; it’s not simply that Anglicans and Lutherans have a different vision from the Church of Rome of what national church structures should look like —

— it’s that we are all out of fellowship with one another. We live with the pain and brokenness of not being able to walk up to one another, to a Catholic or Lutheran or Eastern Orthodox or Syrian Orthodox brother or sister and break bread and enter into the depths of the mystical communion that lies at the heart of the Church’s daily sacramental life.

Leo and Augustine, however they envisioned that Petrine ministry acting out on the fifth-century stage, must be standing before the Throne of Grace daily interceding for us to find a way back together.

*Paulus is a Latin cognomen literally meaning ‘small’. Who knows what Paul’s real stature was? He was certainly a giant in theology.

**Accidentally typed ‘gits’ the first time. Ha.

Pentecost!! (with Barsanuphius & John)

What I actually wanted to share with you today does not fall under the heading ‘Why I am not Orthodox.’ It is, rather, a little letter from Barsanuphius. Barsanuphius was a monk who lived near Gaza in the early 500s. He was both a solitary recluse and an abbot. He communicated with his community via letters, and is called ‘the Great Old Man.’ He had an assistant, John, ‘the Other Old Man,’ who basically ran the monastery for him.

Once, a brother got fed up with John and said that Barsanuphius did not exist, that he was imaginary, and that John was using this authority figure to manipulate them all. Barsanuphius heard this, broke through the mud brick wall behind which his cell was located, and, without a word, washed the brothers’ feet. Then he went back to his cell and bricked himself in again.

This is the sort of oddity you get used to when you study early monasticism. Unlike many of the world’s solitaries, however, Barsanuphius had an active ministry beyond his monastery’s walls. He wrote letters, as did John. There are over 800 of them that survive. These letters are to bishops, priests, and deacons, as well as to farmers and monks and aristocrats. Anyone could write, and many did.

So here’s my translation of Ep. 120. If you want more passages suitable for Pentecost, chiefly Patristic (but not exclusively), I recommend you review the past several days at Enlarging the Heart. Happy Pentecost!:

Question from the same to the Great Old Man: Master, as you know, since I am sickly in soul and body, I beg you to call upon God to supply power and strength to me for endurance so that I may gratefully bear the attacks.

Answer of Barsanuphius:

Brother Andrew, I wish that your charity would learn that all gifts are given through the coming of the Holy Spirit, and ‘of diverse kinds and in diverse ways’ (Heb. 1:1). For God gave the Spirit to the Apostles at one time to cast out demons, at another to accomplish healings, at another to foresee, at another to raise the dead, and in the end to release sins and liberate souls from darkness and lead them into the light. Thus, behold, I beg God that after the freedom of your soul He may give you the Holy Spirit for endurance and thanksgiving, and so that ‘the enemy might be dishonoured since he has no defence against us’ (Tit. 2:8) Assist, you as well, fighting to obtain it, and ‘God who is rich in mercy’ (Eph. 2:4) will give it to you. Pray for me, brother.

Teresa of Avila’s Lizards

I mentioned in my post on St. Teresa as weekly saint that she talks about the lizards that are in the area surrounding the Interior Castle. Shortly after I wrote that post, Mark Armitage at Enlarging the Heart posted a quotation from that section of the Interior Castle! You can read it here:

Teresa of Avila: Spiritual Battles and Interior Peace « Enlarging the Heart.

St. Teresa’s lizards are our spiritual battles that lead to inner peace. They are the sufferings we all must go through if we wish to attain the heights of (to be Methodist) Christian perfection. We want the easy path, but it is not the path to wholeness, fullness, union with God, or perfection. Instead, we must encounter the lizards. Read the above post, it is good!

Its sequel is here.