Making the Bible ‘possible’: Pre-modern exegesis

When I was doing my PhD, a bunch of my friends (mostly Biblical Studies PhDs) read a book called The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Smith’s major thrust — from what I recall — was that evangelicals read the Bible as though it is perfectly clear and has one meaning when, in fact, it is possessed of polyvalence, as any glance at the many volumes available at your local Christian bookstore would make clear. I don’t remember if he had a solution internal to evangelicalism or not.

On a related note, Smith himself had converted to Roman Catholicism because, in part, of this issue. In the Roman Church, the Magisterium can help you navigate the polyvalence of Scripture.

I don’t think one needs to convert to the Church of Rome in order to address this problem. Moreover, I suspect that many people who go to Rome seeking authority and absolutes are converting for the wrong reasons, given the fact that the Magisterium leaves many awkward questions unanswered, and a great many Roman Catholics are in open rebellion against the Magisterium on many issues, and priests occasionally utter heresy in the confessional. This is not to characterise all converts to Rome, of course. Some, I suspect, though.

That is to say — you need more than a desire for absolutes if you want to swim the Tiber, because you’ll find fewer than you expect.

Anyway, I am reading Henri de Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis, and here we meet the polyvalence of Scripture head-on. What marks the late antique and medieval approach to polyvalence is the authors’ extreme comfort with it. Time and again, from St Augustine of Hippo onwards, so long as an interpretation does not undermine the Catholic faith, and so long as it builds up charity to God and/or neighbour, any interpretation is a go.

Some of them may be more factually correct, of course. St Jerome, as I recall, is a big fan of at least producing factual and logically valid options, even if multiple ones exist. Some are also to be preferred because they strengthen the Catholic faith more than others.

Moreover, not only are pre-modern exegetes totally comfortable with polyvalence, they expect it and revel in it. Scripture has been given to us as a way for God to reveal Himself to us. God is infinite. Therefore, we should not be surprised that His self-revelation is itself potentially infinite in its interpretation. Furthermore, different people and different times have different needs and different questions. The inexhaustibility of Scripture means that it can and will produce meanings that will help its various readers.

I recall first meeting ideas like this in Augustine’s Confessions, where he talks about Genesis and how any logically valid interpretation that builds up charity is allowable. It was something of a breath of fresh air after the years I spent in the interminable (at times ridiculous) creation-evolution debate. Here was the greatest theologian of Latin Christianity saying that, in Genesis 1, there is no one right answer. And he himself was espousing allegory, of all things! St Augustine, the great propagator of predestination!

So if you’re starting to find the Bible impossible, one pathway to recovery is finding those exegetes who came before western Christendom fractured at the Reformation. Take their inisights alongside those of modern scholars and seek the infinite God in His infinite variety.

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Jerome on the Seraphim in Isaiah 6

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

I have before my the Isaiah volume of The Church’s Bible, edited by Robert Louis Wilken, a commentary that uses the ancient and medieval sources as a guide to interpretation (like the more famous Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture but, in my opinion, easier to use/read). Here we read from St Jerome’s commentary:

In Hebrew there is some ambiguity whether the pronoun his refers to God or to each seraph. For this reason, it is difficult to determine whether the seraphim were covering their own faces and feet or whether they were covering the face and feet of God. (p. 69)

Jerome, in this instance, takes us back to where we started with Ambrose last time. He goes on to interpret the veiling of God’s face and feet in the same way that, had we continued with Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan also does:

This veiling indicates that we cannot know what happened in the past before the creation of the world and what will happen in the future after the end of the world. Don’t be surprised that some things are veiled to the seraphim, for the apostles revealed the Savior to those who believed, but hid him from unbelievers. Furthermore, there was a veil before the ark of the covenant. (p. 70)

We’ll take a quick look at what the authors in this commentary tell us about the beatific vision shortly…

Blogging Benedict: The Final Chapter

What to read next?

Chapter 73 is the final chapter of the Rule. Here we learn that the journey we’ve been on these several months is just a beginning, a ‘little rule for beginners’. Where you really need to go if you want to progress:

  • Old Testament
  • New Testament
  • Conferences (assume Cassian)
  • Institutes (assume Cassian)
  • Lives of the Fathers — RB 1980 does not think this refers to the Vitae Patrum, since it is compiled a few decades too late, but rather to those by Jerome and the Life of St Antony by St Athanasius
  • St Basil’s Rule

These books are singled out as:

the tools of virtue for monks who wish to lead a virtuous and obedient life (trans. White, p. 113)

St Benedict also says, ‘We are lazy.’ I wonder what he would think of our undisciplined, cheap-grace Christianity?

Somehow, we should overcome spiritual laziness (which can be one outcome of akedia, one of the eight deadly thoughts). What I find interesting is that St Benedict does not think that his rule is the main place for that. It is simply for beginners, to set up a coenobium that is neither too harsh nor too lax. Yet for many today (myself included), this Rule is itself an enormous challenge.

We write so many books and commentaries on the Rule (I’ve read only that by Esther de Waal, Seeking God: The Way of St Benedict), or books inspired by Benedict (I’ve read Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, for example). At Durham Cathedral bookshop, there is essentially a whole shelf of Benedictine books. Adalbert de Vogué wrote a multi-volume commentary on the RuleRB 1980, Latin with English and commentary, takes over 500 pages, while the Little Black Penguin with no intro or anything takes but 114 little pages.

We can’t help ourselves — whatever its intrinsic worth, the Rule has been used in so much of western European religious culture for so long that many of us who want to go deeper in our faith have to come to terms with it along the way.

But St Benedict points us away from himself. First, to the Bible. This is a prime lesson. People like me are very good at paying our lip service to the supreme glories of sacred Scripture, and professing it as God’s primary, normative mode of revelation, as holding authority, etc., and saying that it nourishes us — and then neglecting to read it ourselves, due to probably a variety of sins, weaknesses, and passions (I’ve already read it twice; I know theology; I keep meaning to but run out of time; I find it dry some days; I find biblical truths in other books, anyway).

Benedict says: NO.

Search the Scriptures. Read, mark, and inwardly digest them (okay, that was Thomas Cranmer).

And then he points us to Cassian, to saints’ lives, and to Basil. Probably more than enough wisdom in those to occupy us, I think. Maybe a good book for those seeking God after having read the Rule would be an introduction to Benedict’s reading list with some excerpts? (Just a thought.)

And so the Rule is done. Next: Benedict and the Bible — I’ve already hinted at it here.

Select Letters of St Jerome

Select Letters (Loeb Classical Library)Select Letters by St. Jerome

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

St Jerome was a major figure in Latin Christianity in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Besides revising the Latin Bible, his greatest influence lies in giving power to the rising monastic movement in the Latin world. He came from Dalmatia on the Adriatic, spent time as a hermit, then went to Rome before spending years as a monk in Bethlehem.

Although Jerome was a controversialist, little of his polemic is visible on the surface in this selection of letters. Occasionally, you can see him making oblique reference to people who might possibly criticise him for some things, and there is a devastating caricature of his erstwhile friend Rufinus in one letter as well. Furthermore, we read here Jerome’s version of the First Origenist Controversy.

For the most part, though, this selection is Jerome the ascetic, not Jerome the polemicist. We see his ideas about how to be a good monk, a good nun, a good widow, or a good clergyman set down. We see his instructions on how to educate a young girl in Christian discipline. Much is worth thinking on, chewing on, mulling over, and much is also quotable.

We also encounter Jerome here as a source for the Later Roman Empire. Basically, he reads in these letters as though the world were on the precipice, if not already falling into the abyss. Sometimes I know he is being hyperbolic, at other times it is a trope (‘She’s lucky death spared her seeing the world invaded by barbarians’), but at other times there is genuine feeling behind it. Jerome is keenly aware of the catastrophes of his age, but is this because they were that much more acute or because they serve his rhetoric well? I reckon that it is a bit of both.

This selection is well worth reading as an introduction to Jerome and his thought.

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Thoughts on ‘This Is My Father’s World’

Re-post from 2008. I thought it was germane to some of the current discussion in the post Gender-Inclusive Language. This old post rings strongly of ‘Leave My Hymns Alone!

Albertan Rockies
Albertan Rockies

One of the most important events of my life was moving from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, to Thunder Bay, Ontario. Most notably, by moving to Ontario, I chose to go to the University of Ottawa for my undergrad rather than the University of Calgary. At the U of O, I met my wife, a fellow student of Classics.

In this move, I also learned more and more to trust my Saviour. I was torn from life in the country and began to live the city life. I left behind mountains! More importantly, I left behind friends and a supportive, loving, strong church community. Yet through it all, through the times of loneliness all alone at midnight on my bedroom floor rocking back and forth, God Almighty, Lord of all, was there. He became more real to me through this time.

I truly learned the message of ‘This Is My Father’s World‘ at that time, that the world, the creation, is the Lord’s. The fullness of His glory dwells herein. He speaks to us everywhere. In the rustling grass, I hear Him pass!

Our last Sunday at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Rocky we sang “This Is My Father’s World,” the music of the spheres ringing round us. My mom and I arrived in Thunder Bay before my dad’s official start at St. Thomas’, so we went to St. Paul’s our first Sunday in the city. And we sang “This Is My Father’s World,” the morning light declaring its Maker’s praise. And then, in case we hadn’t quite got the message yet, our first Sunday at St. Thomas’, we sang the hymn again, resting in the thought of rock and trees.

“This Is Our Father’s World” was almost like our theme song! And I wasn’t cognisant of it at the time, but this is the message I truly needed to hear as I crossed two provinces, from foothills to Canadian shield, as I left behind all I knew — that my Father was in control, and that “Jesus, who died, shall be satisfied, / and earth and heaven be one.”

Reading Week 2008. My wife and I avail ourselves of the GO Train and her grandpa’s generosity. We have a lovely visit with him and Ruth and stay with them on Saturday night. Sunday morning we go with them to the local United Church.

The sermon was good. The man preaching knew Jesus and preached that salvation is from Christ our God. It was a good sermon. And we almost sang two of my favourite hymns, “This Is My Father’s World” and “Be Thou My Vision.”

Only Voices United is a sad travesty and butchered both, the former more than the latter.

“This is God’s wondrous world,” the words read. I sang, “This is my Father’s world.” Rather than, “In the rustling grass, I hear him pass,” it read, “In the rustling grass, in the mountain pass.” I was more than a little perturbed and angry.

You see, as Christians, we don’t simply worship some vague divinity up there in the clouds. We worship a specific Person (or, more accurately, Persons) who is certain things and not others. One of the things God is is Father. Clearly no one thinks he has a penis. God does not have a penis. God is Spirit! But as Father, we are reminded that God is our creator, that He is the one who sustains the universe and keeps us alive.

In the Trinitarian God, the Father is the One Who begets the Son, the One from Whom the Spirit proceeds.

He loves us.

And He cannot be both Father and Mother because then He loses specificity and becomes a vague blob of some variety. God is beyond personality, as CS Lewis notes in Mere Christianity, but he is more than our personalities, not less. His role as Father is one of love, care, and benevolent rule.

A glance through Voices United showed me a hymn wherein God was called “Mother.” It’s one thing to call God “Mother” because He performs some motherly tasks for us, another to call Him “Mother” because you are being inclusive and a third to call Him “Mother” but not “Father” which is the biblical name for Him. Are we smarter than the Bible?

A review of Voices United cites that God is only called Father if the word Father is accompanied by the word Mother.

What Voices United is reminding us is that we are smarter than Scripture. It is the modern rejection of the old and traditional for the new and “progressive.”

I could rant longer but won’t. My gorge is rising to high and too quickly.

For the ruin of the falsehood that calling God Father won’t be of use to people who had bad dads, read Knowing God by J I Packer (p. 229, although that whole chapter “Sons of God” is worth a read to understand the fatherhood of God) and Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf (169-181; reader beware, he uses words such as ontologization and the clause, “the Father therefore constitutes the mutual relations between the persons as egalitarian rather than hierarchical”).

Edith M Humphrey’s book Ecstasy and Intimacy, pp. 170-174, dispels this whole “Mother God” business.

For the hubris of modernity, see Thomas Oden, The Rebirth of Orthodoxy.

Last, Jerome, quoted in Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall:

It is inconceivable that sex exists among God’s agencies, since even the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the usages of the Hebrew tongue, is expressed in the feminine gender, ruach, in Greek in the neuter, to pneuma, in Latin in the masculine, spiritus. Hence we must understand that when there is discussion concerning the above and something is set down in the masculine and feminine, it is not so much an indication of sex as an expression of the idiom of the language; because God Himself, the invisible and incorruptible, is represented in almost all languages in the masculine gender, and since sex does not apply to Him. (112)

Breaking News! Will the Real Hippolytus Please Stand Up?

Within hours of me posting this post about Hippolytus, an eminent late antique scholar with whom I am Facebook friends informed me:

Unfortunately just about everything that’s written about this Hippolytus is made up. Sorry. He’s completely apocryphal. The general view today is that he is in fact different writers, neither of whom was an ‘anti-pope’. And he didn’t write a chronicle either.

This, as you can imagine, came as a bit of a blow. Hippolytus a fake? After a little bit of this (go to 0:32 for the glory of it):

I moved on with my life. Clearly, I need to do better research on my popes. At all times. Or at least base what I say on … ancient/mediaeval sources; or the most recent research based on ancient/medieval sources. So here we go.

A little quotation from Saint Jerome could almost be enough to cover this:

Hippolytus was the bishop of a certain church. I have not, in fact, been able to learn the name of the city. (De Viris Illustribus 61)

But that’s a bit unsatisfying. How do we come to have a martyr story combined with an anti-pope combined with a host of writings, including sermons and a eucharistic liturgy?

First step: More than one Hippolytus. J. A. Cerrato, in Hippolytus Between East and West lists a bunch of these, the first being the martyr who died under Maximin, first mentioned in 354. There are are three other Hippolyti who died under Valerian later in the third century; the first, d. 257, is supported by archaeological and hagiographical evidence; the second, d. 258, is a character extrapolated from martyr acta of Lawrence; the third, d. post-257, was a Novatianist who returned to the Catholic faith and whose acta were written (and possibly forged?) by Pope Damasus as anti-Novatianist propaganda. There seems also to have been another Hippolytus, also a martyr.

That gives us five third-century martyrs named Hippolytus. At least one is probably real, maybe four. Cerrato writes, ‘By way of genuine accounts, the presbyter Hippolytus (c. 235) of the depositio martyrum is accepted as historical by consensus …’ (12). This Hippolytus, exiled with Pontian, was made into an anti-Pope by Doellinger, apparently.

I can see, however, how one could slip the reformed Novatianist Hippolytus into the exiled, earlier martyr Hippolytus and turn him into an anti-pope.

What about the many writings (which go beyond the Apostolic Tradition)? Cerrato tells us:

There is scant evidence, therefore, in any early sources to suggest that the martyred Hippolyti were teachers, or literate ecclesiastics. (13)

That leaves this blogger wondering how, once conflated into the Anti-Pope, they are imagined to be a writer. Apparently I have to read all of Cerrato book to find out, though. Since my PhD isn’t on Hippolytus but on Leo, I’ll refrain. Nonetheless, Cerrato does note that there is a Greek Hippolytus who was a spiritual teacher. No doubt writings come to be attached to him that way?

What, then, of the Apostolic Tradition? Who wrote it? How old is it? The commentary by Bradshaw, Johnson, and Phillips of 200 first gives us the traditional reasons for calling Hippolytus its author:

The first is that, while no existing manuscript of the document itself bears a title or author’s name, two of the derived church orders do refer to Hippolytus. (2)

The second argument is that the opening section of the document speaks of having ‘set down’ … ‘the tradition that catechizes the churches’ … This encouraged the identification of the document with an otherwise unknown treatise, the Apostolic Tradition, apparently included in a list of Hippolytus’s works inscribed on the right-hand side of the base of a statue discovered in Rome in 1551 (2-3)

If you ask me, these are reasons for a hypothesis but not a firm attribution. The commentators agree, noting the tendency to associate documents with famous men of old, whether they had anything to do with it — and a large number of other documents are falsely attributed to Hippolytus. The statue is also not clearly a statue of Hippolytus, nor necessarily a list of his works. Some also wonder if this text was even Roman, and note that it was more widely circulated in East than West. Add to these concerns the above discussion of Hippolytus’ identity, and the attribution of the work to him weakens enormously.

Well, what about the date? Is it as old as the supposed Hippolytus? Alistair Stewart-Sykes, in the SVS translation On the Apostolic Tradition, says that it is Roman and third-century, based upon similarities between it and later Roman liturgies as well as the connections between the practices described in other early Roman Christian literature.

So, what can we say? There were multiple Hippolyti who probably did not write the Apostolic Tradition but who may have worshipped with a version it in Rome in the third century.

What this teaches us is that Christian historiography, especially before Constantine, is fraught with danger. The ancients themselves can lead us astray, such as when the Hippolyti are conflated, or when they incorrectly attribute texts to people (or write texts under false names). Modern scholars can also lead us astray, such as the Anti-Pope theory which is still current in popular circles (as I learned to my peril!), or the weak attribution of the Apostolic Tradition to the shadowy figure of Hippolytus.

This has been brief and has not dealt with all of the arguments fully. If you want to get down and dirty with Hippolytus, the works I’ve consulted are:

Bradshaw, Paul F., Maxwell E. Johnson, and L. Edward Philllips. The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Cerrato, J. A. Hippolytus Between East and West. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Alistair Stewart-Sykes (trans.). Hippolytus. On the Apostolic Tradition. Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Saint of the Week: St. Hilarion

St. Hilarion’s name is well-known to those who dwell in Cyprus because the ruins of a Lusignan castle adorn the mountain upon which St. Hilarion dwelt in his final anchoretic retreat from the world. It is quite a spectacular place, as you will see from the photos scattered through this post, taken when I visited St. Hilarion’s Castle in 2005 with Rick, Madara, and Renate. I know someone whose favourite castle it is; the tourist brochures claim that it was the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, but I’m fairly certain that was Neuschwanstein in Bavaria.

Ever since my visit to the castle I wondered, ‘Who is this Saint Hilarion? What did he do? Where can I learn of him?’

Well, this past March I was reading Pope Gregory I’s Life of St. Benedict in preparation for his feast (Benedict was saint of the week here and here). And there, in the same volume — Early Christian Lives, translated by Carolinne M. White — was Jerome’s Life of Hilarion. I recently read this piece of hagiography by Jerome, and can now tell you about this hermit who spent the last days of his life in retreat on the island of Cyprus.

The Life of St. Hilarion

St. Hilarion (d. 371) was originally from the Gaza region of Palestine. As part of the regular round of education in those days, his pagan parents sent him to Alexandria to be educated. Whilst in Alexandria, Hilarion became a Christian and was baptised.

Hearing of the fame of St. Antony (saint of the week here), Hilarion went to meet the great ascetic and coloniser of the desert. Upon encountering St. Antony, Hilarion, only fifteen years of age, devoted himself to the ascetic life as well, and lived with Antony for two months to learn the ways of this holy lifestyle. Hilarion left Antony because his desire for solitude was too great to deal with the large crowds who were always coming to visit the saint. This will be a recurring theme throughout his life.

Hilarion settled in the wilderness of Mayuma, on the Palestinian coast near Gaza, later to be a monastic centre that produced the Mia/Monophysite leaders Peter the Iberian and Severus of Antioch as well as the holy man Abba Isaiah of Scetis, revered on both sides of the Chalcedonian debate. In Mayuma Hilarion lived exposed to the elements and the attacks of the devil, akin to those experienced by St. Antony. Yet he endured all of this and maintained his ascetic lifestyle despite the challenges.

He ate sparsely, shaved once a year, never washed his sackcloth shirt which was his sole garment, memorised the Scriptures, prayed and sang Psalms continually, and slept on a mat made of rushes.

People knew of him, due in part, no doubt, to his family who thought he was crazy, and in part to the robbers who tried robbing him when he was 18 (‘Those who have nothing do not fear robbers.’ ‘We could kill you.’ ‘I am prepared for death.’). But they left him alone for 22 years, until he was 38, either for fear of holiness or respect or fear of a madman (who can say?). Eventually, a woman who had as yet borne no children came to Hilarion because her husband was put out with the lack of babies. He ignored her, but she kept persisting until he prayed for her. She conceived and brought forth a child.

Thus began the series of miracles and the lack of rest for St. Hilarion, a man who loved his solitude more than anything else. People came from near and far, not just Gaza but also the nearer parts of Egypt, to encounter Hilarion. He healed men and women, cast out demons, healed animals, saved stones that had fallen into the sea, healed people from afar, had visions, and all the usual things one would expect from a desert father.

As happened with Antony, with the fame came not only the sick, poor, and needy. There also came the monks and fellow-ascetics who came to live with Hilarion and learn from his way of life. Although he found the crowds of people in need annoying, Hilarion was pleased with this development, for he saw in these monks people committed to the path of salvation and eternal life.

Although he preferred his solitude above all, Hilarion would go on a tour of the monks’ cells every year to see them and their progress. Thus, he sacrificed his own preferences to be a pastor and spiritual guide for those who had put trust in him.

When he was 63, Hilarion became aware of the fact that he was now abbot of a large monastery with many cells of ascetics attached to it, and had, in many ways, returned to the world. He wanted to become a hermit again, but the monks would not allow him. Eventually, he escaped under the pretense of going to visit his monastic father, Antony.

When Hilarion and his party arrived in Egypt, they learned that St. Antony had but recently died. They spent some time there as Hilarion revisited the places of the Inner Mountain where he had spent time with St. Antony.

Then Hilarion re-entered the anchoretic life of a hermit near Aphroditon. Soon, the locals called upon him to end a three-year drought. Having brought rain, he saw that he was on the verge of fame again, so he went to Bruchium. From there, he fled, as says Jerome, to the oasis to escape the Emperor Julian’s men. He dwelt there for a year, and then set out for Sicily. He lived in secret on Sicily for a while, but soon someone got wind that he was there. Having performed one miracle, soon he performed many. And then the crowds came.

Hilarion left.

Then he went to Epidaurus in Dalmatia. Having saved the locals from a serpent large enough to swallow a cow, he became famous and people came to spend time with him.

Hilarion left.

This time he moved to Cyprus, settling about two miles from Paphos. As usual, people came to see him. As usual, he got fed up. This time, however, he went north to the Kyrenia Mountains. At first, only the locals who would feed him knew of his presence. Eventually, a few determined people found him. He spent the rest of his time there, with a few disciples who gathered and the occasional visitor come for spiritual instruction or healing. He died there in 371.

What We Can Learn from St. Hilarion

Jerome claims that Hilarion’s solitude was always being disrupted by the machinations of the devil and his minions who feared the prayers of this holy man. I am not sure I agree with Jerome. While I am not one of those people who just cannot comprehend the monastic or eremitic life, anchorites who never see anyone inspire me little. I agree with St. Basil of Caesarea, that if we live alone as hermits, we cannot fulfill our Lord’s commands to serve others and submit to one another. How can a person all alone practice the great virtues of charity and peacemaking?

I think that people kept finding Hilarion because the Lord will not let holiness stay hidden. He wants his people to benefit from the lives of those whom he has set apart. Hilarion spent 22 years alone training and praying and worshipping in the desert. Our Lord Christ spent 33 years as a carpenter’s son in Nazareth.

Eventually, the time for public ministry comes to those who have been prepared. Jesus was ready, for he was perfect Man and perfect God. Hilarion was ready, he just didn’t know it or wish it. But God knew that through Hilarion’s wisdom and example and prayers great good would come to his people. Therefore, he circumvented Hilarion’s desire for solitude at every turn so that the virtues of charity and service could be brought to others by this man whom the Lord had prepared for good deeds.

We will never be free from opportunities to do good works. Even when we do not wish to do them, we ought to, just as Hilarion did. The Lord loves a cheerful giver; but a giver of any sort is better than none at all. Be on the lookout for opportunities for charity and service, for they will come whether you want them or not. Then bless the Lord that you can be the servant of all, even if you’d rather stay in alone with a book.