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.

Saint of the Week: St. Ambrose of Milan

I had been tempted to continue the Scotland-related theme, but St. Ambrose’s feast was yesterday, so I couldn’t pass over this one.

If you had been in Milan in the year 390 while the August Emperor Theodosius I was there, you would have noticed something peculiar about the Emperor’s behaviour at the divine liturgy: he did not receive the sacrament.  Of course, the truly remarkable fact is that Theodosius was receiving it by Christmastide, for he had been excommunicated by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, for massacring up to 7000 people in Thessalonica (according to Theodoret of Cyrus, but who can be sure with the figures of ancient historians?) in the middle of the year.  The rehabilitation of someone so soon after penance for so great a crime was not common in the ancient world.

St. Ambrose and Theodosius by van Dyck

This event is one of the most famous events of an illustrious career, and it shows us how powerful St. Ambrose (340-397) was, for he secured the penitence of the emperor for an act akin to what many an emperor before and after had perpetrated.

Yet when we consider the Italy of the late fourth century, then the Bishop of Milan is an easy choice for the role of ‘powerful man,’ for by this stage, the emperors were not regularly living at Rome.  Constantine had spent much of his early reign in Trier, and had later moved to Constantinople.  This trend continued with the most popular western choices falling to Milan and Ravenna.

Furthermore, the papacy in Rome, where many of us would expect to find at least a very influential bishop, was in a bit of hot water in these days.  366 had seen the great low point of the ancient bishopric of Rome, when a contested episcopal election led the deaths of around 160 people within a basilica.  It would take St. Leo the Great (read about him here and here) to raise the papacy to the heights that its dignity as a patriarchal see required.

With the papacy in disarray, and Milan one of the most powerful cities in the Empire, the rising star of St. Ambrose strikes me as almost to be expected.  This is especially the case when we consider his outstanding talents.

St. Ambrose, according to his biographer Paulinus, had no great intention of becoming an ecclesiastic.  His was a standard career for many aristocratic Romans ever since someone inscribed the Twelve Tables of Roman law (c. 450 BC): that of advocate/lawyer.  And what is a lawyer in the ancient world but a great orator?

But this orator was everyone’s choice when the see of Milan became vacant, so he reluctantly left behind the lawcourts and was duly ordained then consecrated bishop of Milan.  We know that he was well-skilled in oratory not only from the wealth of homilies he left us but also from the testimony of St. Augustine of Hippo who held the chair of rhetoric in Milan for a while, who would go to church just to hear St. Ambrose preach.

St. Augustine also demonstrates St. Ambrose’s ability to communicate the truths of the Gospel, not simply beautiful orations, for it was through this saint’s sermons that St. Augustine was converted, and it was by the Bishop of Milan that he was baptised.  For some, this is all they know of St. Ambrose of Milan.

I heard somewhere (this is officially hearsay) that upon his election to the episcopate, St. Ambrose melted down a large quantity of the Church’s flatware and gave to the poor.  If this is true, then we see his concern for the evangelical injunctions to help the poor.  Worship is not only what goes on in the liturgy.

Of course, worship certainly includes what goes on in the liturgy!  It is here that we see more of St. Ambrose’s genius, for he wrote many hymns and has a style of chant and an entire liturgical use named after him.  But more on that tomorrow.

Another aspect of Ambrose’s force and sheer awesomeness is his relentless attack on Arianism.  He preached against it; he wrote the Emperor Gratian his On the Faith concerning what orthodoxy believes; he did his best to keep Arians away from the emperors and out of bishoprics, especially after Theodosius declared orthodoxy the only orthodoxy allowed in 381.

This attitude towards Arianism and the establishment of orthodoxy is parallelled in his attitude towards pagans & Jewish people and the establishment of Christianity.  He was involved in a letter-writing campaign against Symmachus, Rome Prefect and one of the last great pagans, who wanted to reinstall the Altar of Victory in the Senate House.  Symmachus’ case may have been as much about tradition and culture as about paganism.  Ambrose’s was as much about Christianity as it was about what he believed a Christian emperor should endorse.

This question of Christian-imperial endorsement also explains his chastising of Theodosius regarding the emperor’s shelling out coin for the rebuilding of a synagogue.  This was not a matter of ‘Jews are bad; don’t do stuff for Jews,’ as so much else in the ancient Christian world was, but, rather, a matter of, ‘Jews aren’t Christians.  You are a Christian emperor.  The role of the Christian emperor is to build churches, not synagogues.’  One could argue with that logic, but it was a logic informed by religion and an increasingly Christianised sense of civic duty rather than by racism.*

Ambrose was a man of many talents: an orator, a poet, a politician, a lawyer, a liturgist, a letter-writer, a theologian.  He was able to bring the emperor to repentance.  He was able to convert pagan philosophers.  He truly belongs with the other three ancient doctors of the western church, with St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great.

*There are explicit cases of racism in late-ancient Christianity.  Or at least, the closest thing the ancient world gets to racism, given that their concept of ‘race’ is not the same as ours.

Saint of the Week: St. Gregory of Nyssa

Today in the West is the feast of St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 331-395), the younger brother of St. Basil the Great (Saint of the Week here) and the youngest of the Cappadocian Fathers (brief blurb here), the others being his brother Basil and Basil’s university buddy Gregory of Nazianzus.  One could also include the holy women of Sts. Gregory and Basil’s family, the Sts. Macrina, their grandmother and sister, the former who helped raise them, the latter who helped raise them up to holiness.

St. Gregory was not originally destined for an ecclesiastical career.  He originally pursued law, but the bidding of his mother Emily, was drawn to the holy life.  According to abbamoses.com (see January 10), she had him come to a service in honour of the 40 Martyrs.  Tired from his journey and not especially zealous, he fell asleep.  Whilst asleep, the 40 Martyrs came to him in a dream, rebuking him for his sloth.  Overcome by penitence, he decided that he would thenceforth lead a holy, righteous, and sober life.

In 372 he became bishop of Nyssa in Asia Minor, but was exiled by the Semi-Arian Emperor Valens in 374.  In 378, the Nicene Emperor Gratian recalled St. Gregory to his bishopric.  He was present in 381 at the Council of Constantinople, which produced the form of the “Nicene” Creed in use to this day.  In 395 he fell asleep, having left behind a large body of writings.

One of the blessings that comes from reading the Cappadocian Fathers, especially this youngest of the three, is their bridging of the gap into an age where Nicene Orthodoxy was the accepted norm for theological discourse.  This gives their writings a different tone from those of St. Athanasius, who spends great energy and passion in polemic against Arianism, or in later ages when new controversies arise, producing the polemic of St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Augustine of Hippo.  This must be qualified, of course, because there are always various smaller controversies, or certain local ones, that give flavour to theological writings.

Be that as it may, St. Gregory of Nyssa is able to produce works of theology that are not always on the defense but are often simply the proclamation of Orthodoxy.  It is a position of security rare in the world of theology and one not to be missed.

The only work of his which I have read in full is his Life of Moses.  I recommend it highly.  It is a guide to the virtuous life, using a “spiritual” rather than literal approach to Scripture, basing the steps of the virtuous life upon that of Moses. Although it takes a bit of getting used to, many good ideas and truths are found in this book.  It is a great introduction to how the Fathers read Scripture as well as providing much food for thought and consideration of how we live our lives.

How to honour St. Gregory of Nyssa?  Do not simply read his works, but praise, worship, honour, and glorify the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whom he adored.  Live a virtuous life.  The Fathers seek no higher honour than this.  Although, if you really like a guy, an icon wouldn’t hurt ;).