The Patristic Middle Ages

It is only natural for the Anglican who becomes interested in pre-Reformation Christianity to turn to the writers, art, customs, liturgy, etc., of medieval England, or of Britain more widely, even encompassing Ireland. Many are thus drawn in the world of Bede and Cuthbert, or of Anselm and the scholastics. The great soaring cathedrals, ars anglicana embroidery, reliquaries, liturgical practices from England are used as aids in devotion.

Even if we restrict ourselves to writers, there are many great specimens from the English Middle Ages. Aldhelm, Alcuin, Aelfric, and Aelred spring to mind. Many are no doubt proud of the English origins of Alexander de Hales (d. 1245 at Paris). Alexander drives the mind to scholasticism and Robert Grosseteste. Aldhelm reminds us of the early days of English Christianity, and thus St Bede the Venerable.

The mystically-minded find themselves devouring The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle. Some even read Margery Kempe.

If not with Bede, many Anglicans seeking older roots find themselves in happy company amongst Celts — Columbanus, Columba, Adamnan, Brigid, Brendan, and more, from Ireland, Scotland, Wales.

But if we want to nourish ourselves on pre-Reformation English fare (porridge, mostly, I imagine), we should be aware of the nourishment the English themselves had — and that nourishment, whether we are thinking about Aldhelm (d. 709) or Grosseteste (d. 1253), was (besides sacred Scripture, of course) the Church Fathers.

This fact is seen, of course, in their writings themselves. I am at the moment looking at the transmission and influence of the Homiliary of Paul the Deacon (compiled in late 700s). This homiliary consists of patristic homilies organised according to the liturgical calendar, and it was definitely used in England — passages were used in the Old English homilies of Aelfric (and others; Aelfric d. c. 1010), and it influenced Cistercian homiliaries, and hence the works of Aelred of Rievaulx (d. 1167). We have multiple copies of homiliaries descended from that of Paul the Deacon from English monasteries.

Robert Grosseteste, an early scholar at Oxford, wrote a commentary on Dionysius the Areopagite’s Celestial Hierarchy. Much of Bede’s commentaries on Scripture is quotation from the Fathers. If we wish to claim Anselm (who did most of his writing either before he was Archbishop of Canterbury or in exile in Italy), he is heavily indebted to St Augustine of Hippo (Giles Gasper has done work on Anselm’s wider patristic sources in Anselm of Canterbury and his Theological Inheritance).

The manuscripts tell the same story. Looking through the handy (if sadly imperfect) list from the Durham Priory Library Recreated project, of books known to have been in the priory library, citing by where the appear in the list, we have works by:

  • Gregory the Great (many)
  • Boethius (I always think he should be included)
  • St Benedict of Nursia (both Latin original and English translation)
  • Jerome (many)
  • Isidore of Seville (several)
  • Augustine (many)
  • John Chrysostom (several)
  • Cassiodorus (I think he goes with Boethius)
  • the anonymous Opus Imperfectum in Mattheum
  • Origen
  • Didymus the Blind
  • Eugippius
  • John Cassian
  • the Vitae Patrum, which is largely lives and sayings of the Desert Fathers
  • Gregory of Nazianzus
  • Ambrose of Milan
  • Prudentius
  • Fulgentius of Ruspe (they also have the mythographer, but he’s someone else)
  • Ennodius
  • Julian of Toledo
  • Peter Chrysologus
  • Lactantius (mind you, this is a printed book from 1509)

In that list are many ‘etc’s, some of which are patristic. As well, there are many canon law books, which are largely topically-arranged excerpts from patristic-era canon law documents, such as the canons of church councils, papal letters, and writings from major church fathers like Augustine. There are also works of Peter Lombard; his Sentences are themselves by and large topically arranged patristic excerpts, and much of his Bible commentaries is chains of quotations from the Fathers (if I remember correctly). The ‘Omeliarium’, of which Durham has two volumes, is the patristic homiliary of Paul the Deacon, mentioned above. I see another two-volume set of homilies — not sure which. The Bibles are also very frequently glossed with commentary from the church fathers in the margins.

In other words, if you want to nourish your faith in a manner consistent with the English Middle Ages, I recommend reading the church fathers as well as Aelred and Aelfric. They certainly did.

Coming up soon: The interconnected Middle Ages.

Incarnation and Creation

Ebstorf Map, Jesus encompassing the world

This Advent, my mind has been drawn to the doctrine of creation and the place of the Incarnation in the great drama of the cosmos. I am not entirely sure why this is so. Certainly last week I noted Oliver O’Donovan’s statement in On the Thirty-Nine Articles: Conversations with Tudor Christianity that much Reformation theology was weak on the doctrine of creation, and this has had an effect upon the sciences and theology, etc. He wonders what different roads we may have taken if the doctrine of creation had been one of the parts of St Thomas Aquinas we had kept.

Anyway, if we think theologically about Christmas, I imagine our thinking is typically something along these lines: Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity; He took on the form of a slave for our salvation; He became a baby so that He could die for us as a Man.

Yet today at church, the sermon closed with some beautiful words of Madeleine L’Engle, pointing towards the pre-Incarnate reality of the Second Person of the Trinity, bringing home the force of what it means that God became man as Jesus. If we do that, we need to realise that something as well as salvation from sin, death, damnation, devil, is going on.

Why?

The eternal life of God is an extra-temporal reality. God is. God is reality. Or maybe not — maybe God is beyond reality. God has no being because being relies entirely on God. A robust doctrine of God should make the dramatic event of the Incarnation that much more potent.

And a robust doctrine of God makes for a robust doctrine of creation — God made everything very good. As the Fathers, including St Augustine, were ever keen to note, all of creation is good by nature. It was created good, even if now it is fallen and tending towards entropy. Creation was made because God willed it. Creation was made to glorify God.

God entered into that creation. The timeless creator joined the creation in time.

Why?

Not simply to save us and make us what Adam was, but to make us what Adam was meant to be.

To make us god.

This is the emphasis of St Athanasius, On the Incarnation, as well as of Robert Grosseteste’s work (which is to say, it is not the sole preserve of the Eastern Church). It is a consideration of salvation history primarily as Creation – Incarnation – Paradise, whereas we tend to think in terms of Fall – Crucifixion – Redemption. Both are true, but the former we usually neglect.

We usually think of the biblical drama as an arc from Genesis 3 with the Fall to Revelation 21 with the lake of fire.

This Christmastide, let’s meditate on the restored creation, on that arc from Genesis 1 with creation to Revelation 22 with the crystal river and lamb upon the throne.

Why “sound Bible teaching” is slippery, starting with Grosseteste

I have just been enjoying some truly great times with friends in London, including a day trip to Canterbury. In the middle of this holiday, I took a jaunt to Oxford to give a paper about canon law in the era of Robert Grosseteste’s early career, in 1190s England. In explaining to my friends why Grosseteste is an interesting and even important figure, I am quick, quick, quick to point out that he is not a proto-reformer, or even a precursor to Wycliffe, although he levels some very serious words and criticisms at the papal court of Innocent IV (pope, 1243-1254).

The main reason is that, as Southern points out in his biography, Robert Grosseteste, Grosseteste is a thirtheenth-century man. He cannot imagine a church without a pope. As far as he is concerned, if the pope or curia is Antichrist, then the end of the world is nigh. Moreover, Grosseteste was the sort of mind that sought a unifying principle for each field of study. For church order, that principle is the pope.

This is the sort of idea I live with all the time, so it doesn’t sound strange to me anymore.

Now, saying this to Protestant friends who are fans of ‘sound’ Bible teaching (as they call it) and expository preaching and biblical principles, I suddenly realised that this sounds bizarre to this modern context. Indeed, the idea of the pope and papacy is considered by most Protestants as ‘unbiblical’.

But is it?

Specifically, is it ‘unbiblical’ to thirteenth-century man?

It is not as though the rationale behind the plenitude of power and authority resident in the Bishop of Rome has no biblical foundation. (Blasphemy! cry the Reformed.)

We need, when considering people like Grosseteste and Francis and Bernard and Anselm and Aquinas, to keep in mind their understanding of Matthew 16:18, part of an exegetical tradition of the exposition of Sacred Scripture that was 900 years old by Grosseteste’s day, a tradition that saw Christ entrusting the keys to St Peter and making St Peter the foundation of the church. Couple that with a tradition that was 1100 or 1200 years old that traced the authority of Rome’s bishop through a succession of bishops beginning with St Peter, it only makes sense that someone like Grosseteste would consider the Bishop of Rome the visible, ruling head of the church.

Also, don’t forget that the New Testament episcopipresbyteri, and diaconi are uncontroversially still bishops, priests, and deacons.

So, when we think about the medieval reader, it seems pretty straightforward to their perspective that the office of pope is perfectly biblical. And if you read St Bernard’s De Consideratione from 1153, it seems pretty straightforward that the Bishop of Rome has a range of important pastoral duties, drawn from Scripture. De Consideratione is soaked in Bible teaching.

So what on earth, then, is ‘sound Bible teaching’? Can we be sure that we have it and they don’t?

I wonder.