Aquinas vs modern historical-critical Biblical study

I recently polished off Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae: A Reader’s Guide by Stephen J Loughlin. In discussing Aquinas’ unfinished Tertia Pars and its discussion of Our Lord’s earthly life, Loughlin says:

The second section deals with the course of His life while in the world (Questions 40-45), treating of the manner of His life, His temptation in the desert, the manner of and questions related to His teaching, the mircales He worked considered both generally and specifically, and lastly His transfiguration. Kerr notes the elementary nature of these descriptions, particularly in light of ‘modern historical-critical reconstructions of the life of the man who figures in the Gospels,’ and that this section of the Summa is of very limited interest to theologians today. (291)

This is all Questions 40-45 of the Tertia Pars get in Loughlin’s very fine introduction to Aquinas. His treatment of Aquinas’ account of creation and the order of the world is similar — science has proven Thomas wrong on this point, so he’s not much use to us anymore.

I disagree wholeheartedly with this approach. Having read over Questions 40-45, I think they are important for our understanding of Aquinas and of a theological reading of Scripture. With the exception of N T Wright up at St Andrews and, at times, Larry Hurtado in Edinburgh, very rarely do ‘modern historical-critical reconstructions of the life of the man who figures in the Gospels’ and other products of modern historical-critical Biblical Studies give us a theologically-informed or theology-informing reading of the life of Christ.

Thomas Aquinas does that. Therefore, sparse perhaps as his reading of Christ’s life is, lacking as it certainly is in many details of life in the first-century Eastern Mediterranean, the theological way of reading Scripture demonstrated here is of interest to the modern student of theology, who can take Aquinas and supplement his understand of Jesus and first-century Judaism and thereby produce a fuller account.

Furthermore, historical theology is not always about what is most useful for ‘today’. It is about what was believed and discussed then. A good introduction should make the odd bits or superseded bits of an ancient philosophical or theological text interesting to a modern reader, whose understanding of astronomy or of particular historical details may differ from that of the author at hand. This is what C S Lewis’ superlative work The Discarded Image does with the mediaeval worldview at large.

While Loughlin, by and large, makes Aquinas’ major and most influential arguments accessible to a contemporary audience, this is one moment where he fails at the task of producing a helpful introduction. Nonetheless, this book is recommended to anyone interested in grappling with the monstrously large task of reading the Summa Theologiae.

For a full review of this book and its many merits, I refer you to The Medieval Review.

Three C S Lewis Books You Should Read But Probably Haven’t

At some point in his or her reading life, the fan of C S Lewis learns that he was, in fact, a literary critic, a scholar of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Oxford and at Cambridge. This fact will probably not influence the selection of most of Lewis’s fans — it will probably deepen an appreciation of certain facets of his writing or help explain some of its oddities. Most of Prof. Lewis’s readership, however, will probably not stray far from the canon of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, the various collections of essays produced in his lifetime and beyond, as well as the less famous but well-worth-the-effort terrain of the Space Trilogy — Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra/Voyage to Venus, and That Hideous Strength — and Till We Have Faces with a glance through Miracles for the bold.

How many Lewis fans have read An Experiment in Criticism? Studies in Words? The Discarded Image? Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature? The Allegory of Love? A Preface to Paradise Lost?

I imagine the fans of Lewis and Milton will certainly have read that last; I have yet to, nor have I read Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature and The Allegory of Love. I intend to.

First, An Experiment in Criticism. This book is Lewis’s response to a sort of unpleasant ‘evaluative’ criticism, criticism that distinguishes between bad books and good books. This sort of reading still rears its ugly head, as Anne Fadiman discusses in her fabulous essay ‘Procrustes and the Culture Wars’ in At Large and at Small, discussing a critic who says that Huckleberry Finn isn’t even worth reading, not worthy of being called literature because of perceived moral failings on Huck’s part. True story.

It also exists all over the place, as all readers of ‘genre’ (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery/crime) fiction know.

Lewis steers the reader away from such a perception of the universe, to a question rather of types of readers as against books. This distinction speaks of an attitude towards literature (or, indeed, any art). Does someone read and reread certain books multiple times? Does this person read for the sheer delight of words, images, stories, poems? Or does someone read a book but once, always seeking new territory? Does this person read for moral improvement, because these books are fashionable, because they are ‘important’?

The great thing is, in Lewis’s distinction between the many and the few regarding any art, we can all join the ranks of the many. We can all learn to reread and rewatch and relisten over and over again, to delight in words and rhythms, in brushstrokes and pirouettes, in appoggiaturas and crescendoes. It is partly a matter of attitude, partly a matter of practice, partly, in some ways, a matter of training.

I, for example, am by and large of the many when it comes to painting. I tire quickly of Attic black figure vases. Unless a painting is startingly breathtaking, I will not spend too much time on it. I believe that, with more exposure and patience, with more books about artistic technique, I could become a better ‘reader’ of paintings. If I wanted to.

So for readers.

This is not all Lewis has to say — there is a wonderful chapter on myth. But the book is worth a look. It is worth reading for making you think about how you read books, not simply which books you read. And that is a worthy endeavour.

Second, Studies in Words. To the non-philologist, this may be the most dreary of the three I have chosen to highlight. Nonetheless, this book gets my stamp of approval because his chapter on ‘Nature’ opened my eyes to some problems inherent in the study of Pope Leo.

Besides dealing with 10 particular words and how they are used and have evolved over time (nature, sad, wit, free, sense, simple, conscience/conscious, world, life, I dare say), this is one of those books that helps teach you how to read and think. You learn attentiveness to syllables, sounds, and meanings with a book of this sort. You start to watch the words you use and read more carefully.

What is wit? (See the film/play of the name!) Is there a difference between the old, 1662 Prayer of Humble Access saying, ‘…thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy’ and the Common Worship version, ‘…you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy’? What use of nature is that? I dare say that it will help you be a more careful reader, something we could all use.

Third, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. I love this book. It opens the reader’s eyes to the mediaeval conception of the universe as well as to techniques and styles of literary rhetoric and of medieval tastes. The starkly pagan aspects of medieval philosophy are not shied away from, but the beauty of classical styles of rhetoric is upheld.

Lewis is fond of the Ptolemaic conception of the universe. In his discussion of this framework, he acknowledges the fact that it has been proven wrong. Yet who knows how accurate our current vision is? When a new spirit of thought begins to take hold, and new evidence is then discovered, then we shall no doubt dispense with it as well. In these thoughts, he is similar to Chesterton in an essay which escapes my mind, wherein G K says that it is not the visible and tangible that moves the unseen and philosophical but the other way ’round. A tree does not move the wind; the wind moves the tree.

And so, someday, as our worldview shifts, we will be able to reassess the evidence and may reach a vastly different conclusion about the makeup of the cosmos than current. It will not, Lewis admits, be Ptolemaic. Nonetheless, he is still fond of Dante’s universe, with the Primum Mobile moving everything out of Love of God. He recommends a couple of moonlit walks to help one come to an appreciation of the medieval conception of the universe.

This book also has a wonderful chapter on the longaevi, those numinous beings who inhabit so much of the folklore, myth, and literature of the pre-modern world, be they fairies, nymphs, minor gods, spirits of rivers, what-have-you. Worth a read.

But what does this have to do with Classic Christianity?

First of all, most Anglophone Christians who begin seeking older forms of our faith, especially if they are Protestants, do so either along with or through the influence of C S Lewis. A greater understanding of this highly influential thinker of the 20th century is, then, in order for such as these.

The other reasons are thus: Our access to our forebears of the faith is largely through their written words. To become better readers is to be able to better apprehend these words and thus more faithfully find a way forward in life with their aid. Fully one half of Christian history is medieval. To better understand the medieval world is to better understand our heritage as Christians. Third, much of the riches of ages past is locked away not in ‘straightforward’ theological treatises, but in poetry, in fiction, in not-so-clearly-theological philosophy, and so forth. To understand that aspect of the heritage more fully is to understand the heritage at large more fully.

Thus why you should read these three books.

Brief Thoughts on the Green Man

Green Man, Rosslyn Chapel

If you look for the Green Man on the internet (as with popular books), most people you will find who discuss this allegedly mythological figure will tie connections between High and Late Mediaeval grotesques and some Imperial Roman art, which is fair enough, and then often run off telling you about vaguely similar things in other cultures and then trying to convince you that Bacchus is Okeanos is the Green Man. It’s all a bit breathless and doesn’t really work.

One can reasonably demonstrate that the visual motif in Roman art is about the same thing we’re getting on mediaeval cathedrals. No dispute there. The links with Bacchus and Okeanos, however, are tenuous at best.

However, to say that a motif from pagan art is because the sculptors themselves were still pagans is a bit silly. All sorts of magnificent, wonderful, bizarre things are going on in mediaeval churches. These are the things that lurk about in the edges of the consciousness of the human mind. Things go bump in the night. Man is a creature of Earth, even if he can look to the heavens. We are physically of the same stuff as everything else. And so things make their way onto church walls and pillars and roofs, not only Green Men but other, stranger figures.

We like to parse the world of wonder and mystery in our Enlightenment world. And so there is nature and, perhaps, super-nature. But living with the inheritance of the thought-purges of the Renaissance and Reformation, super-nature is God and his angels, and — depending your mood — the devil and his minions. Full stop.

That mediaeval people may have believed in other facets of the numinous world makes them no less Christian than we. It means that their universe was larger in many ways. Indeed, it is not the Green Men who make you pause and question the level of Christian commitment held by the mediaeval world so much as the Platonic worldview so many held!

However, for me, the idea of a visual motif from the pagan world surviving into the Middle Ages cannot mean that these people were half-Christianised pagans (although some/many of them likely were). This is partly because Peter Brown has aptly and amply demonstrated that the Cult of the Saints is not a paganised version of Christianity, even when it so strikingly resembles paganism (see The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity).

Green Man, York Minster (not my photo, it was blurry!)

A second reason is the fact that the mythology neo-pagan websites attach to the Green Man is extrapolated entirely from the architecture itself. We know nothing of what a stonemason in 13th-century York was thinking when he carved a Green Man. All we have is a visual motif that bears a resemblance to a Roman pagan visual motif. To tie it in to Druids and pre-Christian Germanic religion and specific ideas about humanity’s relationship to nature — we cannot go this far. The evidence is unable to bring us to these conclusions, because the Classical framework wherein our first properly attested Green Men arise gives us no such help and is so philosophically plural that there is no single Graeco-Roman pagan vision of humanity’s relationship to nature.

Goddess Victory, Ephesus

A third reason why the Green Man does not proclaim to me that these people were still pagans who worshipped whatever it is that pagans worshipped is the fact that we know full well that an angel is an angel, and not the goddess Victoria (Nike) or Cupid. Yet more than enough art shows angels who resemble one or the other. Motifs from pagan art carry over into Christian art to a very large degree; this is the classical inheritance of the mediaeval world. It comes along with allegorical readings of texts, Ptolemaic astronomy, dactylic hexameter, and Ciceronian rhetoric. For a good, readable treatment of the mediaeval and Renaissance use of classical pagan literary and philosophical ideas, read C S Lewis’ The Discarded Image.

Third, Green Men appear in churches. Mediaeval piety as represented by illuminated manuscripts, the rest of church architecture, Books of Hours, Breviaries, the Cult of the Saints, the Cult of the Cross, the Cult of the Virgin, Corpus Christi festivals, mystery and miracle plays, devotional poetry, and eucharistic devotion shows me people who have a strong Classical inheritance, sometimes (even among the ‘elites’) un-Christian and pagan, but always overlaid and refashioned and reinterpreted in light of the Christian message and Christian gospel.

Green Men tell me nothing of survivals of pagan piety into the Middle Ages. And they tell me nothing of ancient pagan beliefs about nature. For that, I will turn to Lucretius or Marcus Aurelius or Plato or Aristotle. They do, however, tell me of the survival of pagan artistic motifs of one form or another through the Middle Ages. And this I already knew.

One final thought: perhaps these modern re-imaginings lie in the false dichotomy forged between popular religion and the elites by David Hume. Peter Brown deals with this is in his opening chapters ofThe Cult of the Saints. Perhaps that is precisely the problem. We see the monks as cut off from these barbarians who, through forced, mass conversions never actually abandoned their old religions. In some ways, that is a story Northern Europe tells. However, this is not the story of the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity, the place where our Green Men have their best earliest attestation.

So much for now. I think we should re-think the Green Man as a pagan visual motif surviving in a Christian setting. This may give us a thoroughly different narrative.