The Strangeness of the Patristic Legacy: Saved by the Hermeneutic of Love

Let us, for the moment, restrict “Patristic” to the first five centuries, even though the likes of me push the boundaries to Sts. John of Damascus and Bede the Venerable in the mid-700s. As Phil noted in the comments to this post, setting out to read the Fathers for oneself can be a bit of a strange experience. Indeed, I am tempted to say “bewildering.”

This is unsurprising, given the fact that 500 years covers an immense span of history and the Mediterranean world covers a variety of cultures, no matter how Romanised or Hellenised many of the writers in question were. Even if we imagine those bits of the Patristic legacy that are more or less Graeco-Roman in outlook, reading them is not exactly the easiest thing one can do.

More than 1500 years separate us from these authors. They think in different categories much of the time. There is an uncomfortably strong undercurrent of misogyny in many of the Fathers, along with an uncomfortably strong feeling of Judenhass.* Even when we would probably agree with their morals, we find them thinking like Platonists or Stoics — or, at least, what looks to be Platonism and Stoicism in Christian garb.

For those with a Classical background, the Fathers are less jarring.

Without such a background, I would like to recommend a particular way of reading that would be especially good for the Fathers. This way of reading is what NT Wright in The New Testament and the People of God refers to as the “hermeneutic of love” rather than that of suspicion:

In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.

When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. (64, read the whole paragraph to get the idea; I hate long quotations on blogs)

The hermeneutic of love allows the Fathers to be strange; even to remain strange. But it says to them, “Ah, but you are my fellows on the journey with Christ! You are my brothers in the faith! You have experienced Him too, and your experience has in it wisdom to enlighten my own!”

This wisdom is sometimes hiding in places that need a lot of love to be unlocked, as in my occasional forays into demonology show us. However, the meaning of demonology for virtue, ethics, and the battle against evil in all its forms has been unlocked by a loving, attentive reading of Patristic hagiography.

With a good introduction and persistence, the Fathers become less strange — or, at least, more comprehensible. I promise that the more you bear with them, having adopted the hermeneutic of love, the less strange they become. If you are here and thinking that you’d like to check out an introduction to the Fathers, a good single-volume introduction that does not mince words and even has a reading programme at the back is Beginning to Read the Fathers by Boniface Ramsey.

*Lit. “Jew-hatred”, the German word for “anti-Semitism”; I picked it up from Dave Sim’s comic book of the same name and greatly prefer it because anti-Semitism is too antiseptic for the brutal evil that racial violence is.

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In Light of Bible Sunday …

Since yesterday was Bible Sunday (see my post here), I’ve decided to post a catena (Lat. for “chain”) of quotations about the Bible; it is not patristic, especially given the presence of Asimov of all people!  If you want to read more of my thoughts about the Bible, I’ve got a list of posts at the bottom.  Here we go (in vaguely chronological order):

Lord, inspire us to read your Scriptures and meditate on them day and night.  We beg you to give us real understanding of what we need, that we in turn may put is precepts into practice.  Yet we know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love.  So we ask that the words of Scriptures may also be not just signs on a page but channels of grace into our hearts. –Origen

Wherever you go, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, have [before you] the testimony of the Holy Scriptures. –St. Antony the Great

All of Holy Scripture is bound together, and it has been united by one Spirit.  It is like a single chain, one link attached to another, and when you have taken one, another hangs from it. –St. Jerome

For my part I declare resolutely and with all my heart that if I were called upon to write a book which was to be vested with the highest authority, I should prefer to write it in such a way that a reader could find re-echoed in my words whatever truths he was able to apprehend.  I would rather write in this way than impose a single true meaning so explicitly that it would exclude all others, even though they contained no falsehood that could give me offence. –St. Augustine

Constant meditation upon the holy Scriptures will perpetually fill the soul with incomprehensible ecstasy and joy in God. –St. Isaac the Syrian

If you do not love the blessed and truly divine words of Scripture, you are like the beasts that have neither sense nor reason. –St. Nilus of Antioch

Read this book.  It contains everything.  You ask for love?  Read this book of the Crucified.  You wish to be good?  Read the book of the Crucified, which contains everything good. –Savonarola

The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold on me. –Martin Luther

We owe to Scripture the same reverence that we owe to God. –John Calvin

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. –39 Articles of the Anglican Religion

Unity must be according to God’s holy word, or else it were better war than peace.  We ought never to regard unity so much — that we forsake God’s word for her sake. –Hugh Latimer

Time can take nothing from the Bible.  It is the living monitor.  Like the sun, it is the same in its light and influence to man this day which it was years ago.  It can meet every present inquiry and console every present loss. –Richard Cecil

The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge.  It was given to change lives. –Dwight L. Moody

The English Bible, the first of national treasure and the most valuable thing this world affords. –King George V

Sir Arthur St. Clare … was a man who read his Bible.  That was what was the matter with him.  When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible?  A print reads a Bible for misprints.  A Mormon reads a Bible and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his and finds we have no arms and legs … –Fr. Brown by GK Chesterton

The Character of the Christian’s experience of god is determined by the reality of God who has spoken his word and who continues to speak his Word. –John Woodhouse

I have found nothing in science or space exploration to compel me to throw away my Bible or to reject my Saviour, Jesus Christ, in whom I trust. –Walter F. Burke

The infliction of literalism on us by fundamentalists who read the Bible without seeing anything but words is one of the great tragedies of history. –Isaac Asimov

The church may not judge the Scriptures, selecting and discarding from among their teachings.  But Scripture under Christ judges the church for its faithfulness to his revealed truth. –Montreal Declaration of Anglican Essentials

Classic Christianity never asserts either scripture against tradition or tradition against scripture.  Rather, it understands itself as the right remembering of the earliest testimony of scripture to God’s self-disclosure in history. –Thomas C. Oden

Scripture became written in order that the events attested in preaching might be more accurately preserved and remembered.  A written text was obviously more stable than an oral tradition, which might always be controverted by another alleged oral tradition.  A text, if drafted faithfully, did not distort memory but stabilized it in writing.  The written Word of canonized scripture was assumed to consistent with its anteceding oral expressions, and its transmission stood under the protection of the Holy Spirit, who accompanied the apostolic witness. –Thomas C. Oden

The Gospels were not just written to describe events in the past.  They were written to show that those events were relevant, indeed earth-shattering, worldview-challenging, and life-changing in the present. –Tom Wright

God’s Word does not breed quarrels and divisions.  It brings the simple truth and love of Jesus, who heals and unites.  It brings salvation. –John Michael Talbot

the Bible is the unique, infallible, written Word of God, but the word of God is not just the Bible.  If we try to dignify the Bible by saying false things about it — by simply equating the word of God with it — we do not dignify it.  Instead we betray its content by denying what it says about the nature of the word of God. –Dallas Willard

The Bible is a finite, written record of the saving truth spoken by the infinite, loving god, and it reliably fixes the boundaries of everything he will ever say to humankind. –Dallas Willard

In the modern world we seldom looked at the Bible as a composite picture revealing a cosmic vision of the world; we were too busy with the details to see God’s narrative whole.  We were too concerned with analyzing its parts, with literary criticism, historical verification, and theological systems. –Robert E. Webber

To suggest that only Christians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been and are capable of understanding the Bible is to deny the Bible’s universality — that it is addressed to all people of all times, not only to the learned of a particular time — and consequently to reduce Christianity to a kind of modern gnosticism. –Boniface Ramsey

A faithful reading of scripture . . . means that we seek to understand how the passages that we are reading at the moment, and the questions that we are presently asking, fit into this forgiving, healing, and life-giving drama that has been initiated by God himself. –Edith M. Humphrey

If you have the Spirit without the Word, you blow up.  If you have the Word without the Spirit, you dry up.  If you have both the Word and the Spirit, you grow up. –I never wrote down the name

Pocket Scroll posts on the Bible:

How are we to interpret the Bible?

The Allure of Eastern Orthodoxy

John Wesley on Spiritual Reading

Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2

Reading the Bible (pt. 1)

Why Read the Bible? Unspiritual Reason #1: Books

Unspiritual Reason to Read the Bible #2: Everything Other Than Books

The Third Unspiritual Reason to Read the Bible

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

John Donne: Good Friday

Tom Wright declares, in The Prison Letters (fr. his series Paul for Everyone):

As you look at the incarnate son of God dying on the cross the most powerful thought you should think is: this is the true meaning of who God is.  He is the God of self-giving love. (103)

In Holy Week at the Small Group we looked at some of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, and Easter Week we perused George Herbert.  Donne’s poetry is available via Luminarium, and the sonnets we read were numbers X, “Death Be Not Proud,” XI, “Spit in My Face, You Jews, and Pierce My Side,” XIII “What If This Present Were the World’s Last Night,” and XIV, “Batter My Heart, Three-person’d God.”  Herbert’s were “Good Friday,” “Sepulchre,” “Easter,” and “Easter-Wings,” all available at Luminarium save “Good Friday” somehow.

Today let us consider John Donne’s, “Spit in My Face, You Jews.”  All of the above-mentioned poems are worth reading several times.  Indeed, we read them all aloud twice each.  Here is John Donne’s eleventh Holy Sonnet.  Read it to yourself a few times, especially aloud, even in company.

Spit in my face, you Jews, and pierce my side,
Buffet, and scoff, scourge, and crucify me,
For I have sinn’d, and sinne’, and only He,
Who could do no iniquity, hath died.
But by my death can not be satisfied
My sins, which pass the Jews’ impiety.
They kill’d once an inglorious man, but I
Crucify him daily, being now glorified.
O let me then His strange love still admire ;
Kings pardon, but He bore our punishment ;
And Jacob came clothed in vile harsh attire,
But to supplant, and with gainful intent ;
God clothed Himself in vile man’s flesh, that so
He might be weak enough to suffer woe.

Part of the appeal of this poem is its provocative first line.  I think it’s supposed to make you think that Donne is being racist.  Only he’s not.  I don’t know if he was in real life, but this poem is not racist.  Read it again if you thought it was.  That first line is calling the Jewish people of the first-century to spit in Donne’s face.  Why?  Because these people killed the sinless one, “who could do no iniquity.”  And Donne?  Oh, Donne’s a sinner.  Read his un-holy sonnets.  Donne is the one who deserve buffetting, scoffing, scourging, and crucifying, not Jesus.  He is calling on the Jews to turn their attentions to himself instead of to Christ.

This fact is central to the mystery of Good Friday, the glory of the Cross — we sinners who deserve death are spared, while the livegiver who has done no wrong dies on our behalf.  Jesus on the Cross is showing us the upside Kingdom of God’s mercy — not simply pardoning as an earthly king, but bearing our punishment.  And yet we surpass the impiety of the first-century Jews.  We, by our sins, crucify Jesus daily.  What impiety!  What sin!  Should we not feel sorrow and seek to amend our ways?

Finally, we see that God, YHWH, who is impassible, who cannot suffer, has “clothed Himself in vile man’s flesh” — in order to “be weak enough to suffer woe.”  Christ, who is himself perfect God, tasted all there is to taste of humanity, including suffering, including woe, including death.  All of these things are now taken up into God through the Incarnation and Crucifixion.  Our pain is known to the Almighty, and he shall not remain silent forever.

If you’ve been following my posts on the Cult of the Cross (here and here), I would argue that poetry such as this is part of the early seventeenth century’s Protestant “Cult” of the Cross — devotional poetry reflecting upon the Cross and upon Christ and how Christ might be made real to me, and I might change my ways.

Christ Is Risen!

He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!!

Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ trampled down death with death.  He rose from the grave and is the firstborn from the dead.  We who put our faith in Him shall share in His resurrection and shall one day put on immortal bodies.  Through His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus took on the powers and principalities.  He defeated death.  He conquered the Devil and his minions.  He took on the curse laid upon humanity and the world since Adam and broke it.  He released the stranglehold that sin had on humanity.

How can we keep silent?  How can we not sing His great praises?  Christ is risen, let us rejoice!

As we sing the great praises of the most high God, as we hymn our Lord Christ, we sing not just of His victory for us human beings but for all creation as well.  He is Christus Victor, a fact demonstrated by His mighty resurrection.  I find that some of the Easter hymns we sang at Little Trinity on Sunday reflect a Christ the Victor mentality.

The chorus of “Up From the Grave He Arose” by Robert Lowry (1826-1899):

Up from the grave he arose;
with a mighty triumph o’er his foes;
he arose a victor from the dark domain,
and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

The chorus and final verse of “Welcome, Happy Morning,” by Venantius Fortunatus (c. 590), trans. John Ellerton (1868):

“Welcome, happy morning!” age to age shall say:
“Hell today is vanquished, Heav’n is won today!”

Loose the souls long prisoned, bound with Satan’s chain;
All that now is fallen raise to life again;
Show Thy face in brightness, bid the nations see;
Bring again our daylight: day returns with Thee!

The chorus of “Thine Be the Glory,” by Edmond Budry (1884), trans. Richard Hoyle (1923):

Thine be the glory, risen conquering Son,
Endless is the vict’ry, thou o’er death hast won.

When we see the debates about Christus Victor, people talk as though NT Wright were doing something new, or introducing into Western theology something long missing.  Robert E. Webber says that Christus Victor or the theory of recapitulation are often lacking in Western theology (see Ancient-Future Faith and Worship Old And New).  However, the hymnists of the 1800’s seem to see something of this theme of Christ’s triumph over his foes.  And it is not hard to see this great triumph extending not only to sin in humans but the brokenness of the entire world.

Finally, Christus Victor does not supplant the idea of Christ as victim, despite what some of its Western detractors and Eastern supporters may say.  They are two concepts that help bring out the fullness of what Christ did for us through his passion, death, and resurrection.  Indeed, if we are to look at the atonement fully, we will find it lacking if we support only one of these two views, Latin or Classic.

Christ is the victor!  He has triumphed over his foes!  He vanquished Hell!  He set free the imprisoned souls!  He defeated Satan!  He won an endless victory over death!  This is the glorious reality of the Easter miracle when a dead Man regained life.  That life is now life for us all.