Conversations on Scripture: Blunt, 1

I’m entering into a conversation of sorts with a companion with whom I share a number of interests and convictions, John Henry Blunt (1823-1884). A priest of the Church of England and a scholar of Scripture, theology, and the medieval Church, Blunt was a voluminous author passionate about communicating his knowledge to a popular audience. As such, Blunt represents a serious scholar from the latter half of the nineteenth century interested in conveying to “the churchman” of his day what should be thought, known, and believed about a wide variety of topics. Theologically, he was of the High Church party and saw its great work as “preserving the substantial catholicity of the the Church of England…and also that of renewing its life and vigour.” (Dictionary of Heresies, p. 200).

The text I’m interested in at the moment is A Key to the Knowledge and Use of the Holy Bible published by Rivingtons in 1868. It’s laid out in a set of nine chapters along with an appendix and an index:

Blunt’s Table of Contents

To move through it logically, I’ll begin with the first chapter…

Blunt’s initial chapter, “Literary History of the Holy Bible” is an investigation of the authorship of the biblical books and how they passed through a succession of translations to the reading public of his day. He breaks this discussion into 5 major topics:

  1. Universal Interest in the Bible (I.e., why is it that modern people care about an old book)
  2. General Structure of the Bible
  3. Gradual Growth of the Holy Bible
  4. Ancient Copies [and translations] of the Holy Bible
  5. The English Bible

On the whole, I find his writing clear and informed. It is the strongest in his discussions of the historical material in sections 4 and 5. He does, to my mind, exaggerate a bit the breadth of the circulation of the sections of the Scriptures in Old English, but does appropriately convey the presence of the vernacular Scriptures during the medieval period. He and I part ways in two major places: first, in his initial discussions of the intent and worth of the Scriptures; second, in the authorship and dating of the various biblical books.

In Section 1, Blunt identifies three principal reasons why the Bible deserves to be the subject of universal interest:

[1.] The Bible has always been received as the original source of all our knowledge respecting God’s dealings with mankind in respect to spiritual things. [2.] It contains the only reliable account of man’s future beyond this life. [3.] It offers itself as a guide to the attainment of happiness for ever in the world to come.

(Blunt, 2-3)

I have few quibbles with the first point and quite like the emphasis on reception–I think that’s key in a way that he doesn’t explore. I have more issues with his points 2 and 3. I am probably more of a Christian humanist than Blunt, and think his focus on the future life after death overly narrow. Surely the Christian message, the biblical message, is about the relationships between God and humanity that start on this side of death–the virtues of Christ and the life of salvation are birthed in the sacraments and not at our graves. If I were to rewrite point 3 it would simply state: “…it offers itself as a guide to the attainment of happiness in the presence of God…” a formulation that encompasses both the present and what is to come.

In terms of authorship and dating, Blunt follows a strictly traditional scheme based in patristic and medieval writings that flatly attribute the various books of the Bible with the authors in their titles as displayed in a chronological table:

Beginning of the Chronological Table (Blunt, 5)

On the formation of the Old Testament itself, he explains that:

…before the captivity, Hezekiah caused other sacred writings [apart from the Pentateuch] to be collected together, though not to be added to the “Law;” and after the [Babylonian] Captivity, Ezra and Nehemiah, under Divine direction, collected all those which are now reckoned by the Church of England among the number of the Canonical books of the Old Testament, re-copied them uniformly in the Chaldaic character (that now known as Hebrew), and arranged them in three divisions…

Blunt, 8

Thus, while he admits the framework of an editorial process, he sees it operative only at the level of collecting whole books

At this point in biblical scholarship, the Synoptic Problem—the project of untangling the literary relationships between Matthew, Mark, and Luke—had been underway since the turn of the century in German circles, and questions regarding the unity of the Pentateuch were active but not as developed. It’s worth noting that five years before the publication of Blunt’s book, The first missionary bishop of Natal, John Colenso, had been censured by his brother bishops because—in his research around translating the Bible into Zulu—he had questioned the historical accuracy and literary unity of the Pentateuch and Joshua. Insisting that his fellow bishops had no jurisdiction over him, Colenso continued in his work and was, in large measure, the occasion of the calling of the first Lambeth Conference in 1867.

It’s equally notable that the High Church party was vocally opposed to Colenso and his biblical thought.

[At some point I really should dig deeper into Colenso’s own writings; I know of them chiefly through later summaries.]

Blunt’s final paragraph of this chapter conveys his final word on all matters canonical, textual, and linguistic:

The conclusion, then, for those who are not very conversant indeed with the learned languages, is this:– that the Authorized [i.e. King James] Version of the Holy Bible is a just and faithful representative of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Greek Apocrypha, and the Greek New Testament; and that in using it for his instruction or his devotion, the plain man may use it with a firm confidence that he is using that which will give him substantially true impressions of what has come down to us under the name of Holy Scripture.

Blunt, 29.

The goal here is to give confidence to the ordinary person that the text they are hearing in church and reading at home is a faithful witness of the original. The motive is sound; the content, generally so, given the amount of hedging in “substantially true impressions.”

I can’t agree with the paragraph before this one where Blunt avers that “[the KJV] has been severely criticized in past (and especially in recent) years; but really learned theologians are agreed that whatever faults may exist in our English Bible, it is so nearly perfect, that it is almost hopeless to try and improve it; while all attempts at improving it have confirmed this verdict.” (Blunt, 29). Yes, the sound and meter of it have never been matched in subsequent English translations. The quality of its base texts and the limited knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern philology possessed by its translators, however, remain a whole other story.

Update: Following up on a hunch, I found some very interesting material from Blunt on Colenso and contemporary German scholarship. I’ll post on that next before continuing on…

Medieval Church Perception

Medieval Church Perception

I really shouldn’t watch popular media set in the early medieval period or the medieval period generally. By this time of life, I should realize that doing so will only annoy me–but somehow I never learn…

The latest example confirming this occurred when I saw a review video of the Arthurian-ish Netflix show “Cursed.” Cancelled after a single season, this show apparently–and I say apparently because I’ve only seen the above video, the first episode, and read a brief synopsis–features as antagonists the Red Paladins, a group under the auspices of the Holy Roman Empire and directed by the Pope, who conduct a murderous campaign against the magic-wielding pagan protagonists and their fey allies.

The idea of a militant group from the Holy Roman Empire ordered around by the pope slaughtering folks in Arthurian England is so strangely anachronistic to boggle the mind. A reasonable equivalent would be a tv show about the American Revolution where the Battle of Bunker Hill is won by Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders with their laser rifles at the behest of the United Nations.

Here’s the thing…

Anyone watching the latter would question what was going on there. It’s not probable, not believable. The inaccuracies are too great compared to what the viewers know. However, the writers of “Cursed” assumed their viewers would accept the first as quite believable. Why is that?

There’s a lot that could be said here. I could talk about the historical basics–why are the aspects of this presentation so mind-bendingly wrong. I could talk about historical education–how to fix the knowledge gaps. But I’d rather identify the evangelism angle. The reality is that in this matter the historical actualities are irrelevant.

I’d wager the target audience of the show–teens and young adults–would find this portrayal of the church as a vast, powerful institution that uses force to achieve its political and social ends compelling. That’s because this show isn’t interested in getting the history right; rather the writers are taking their contemporary experience of their perspective of Christianity and retrojecting it into their fantasy-medieval past. It’s not hard at all to see the conflict as the show sets it up (at least in the initial bits I saw) as a modern parable about the social conservative campaign against all things lgbt+.

Furthermore, these sorts of portrayals inform a vicious cycle.

Americans learn their history from media. I have no doubt that many viewers could and would easily assume this is an accurate portrayal of what “the Church” is actually like. Or at least it’s a scenario they would see as plausible. And who would want to be a part of a thing like that?

Sometimes I see the challenges of modern evangelism constructed as faith vs. science or faith vs. capitalism with the chief struggle being about belief. But I sometimes wonder if a major issue might not be faith, or God, or Christ, but the perception of the Church itself.

Job's friends (1521 printed Bible)

Psalm 34 and Christian Psalm Exegesis

I was reminded of one of my biggest challenges in writing about the psalms again today upon the appearance of Psalm 34 in Morning Prayer for the Feast of St. James: it makes everything sound so easy…

Psalm 34–just like Ps 91 with which I have a long-standing dispute–flat-out says that for those who believe in the Lord and place their trust in God, everything will be ok:

  I called in my affliction and the LORD heard me *

and saved me from all my troubles.

  The angel of the LORD encompasses those who fear him, *

and he will deliver them.

(Ps 43:6-7, BCP)

The issue is that this is not the case. Life experience, history, Christian history specifically, the experience of Christ himself, all confirm that these statements are not true on the literal level.

Here’s the thing. If you just found yourself saying, “well, maybe, but you have to understand that what it’s really saying is…” then what you’re doing is a classic interpretive move in order to avoid the actual literal sense of the text. And that’s a perfectly normal and ok thing to do–the challenge in writing about it as a biblical scholar for lay people is helping people recognize that that interpretive move is even happening at all!

There’s a reason why the Early Church generally and specifically Origen–one of our first and best interpretive minds–determined very early on that reading spiritually/morally/allegorically were important tools in the Christian exegetical toolbox alongside and sometimes instead of reading literally. Reading and praying the psalms involves quite a lot of reframing and reinterpretation to shift them into a Christian mode… If you’re just praying them as an individual, a lot of that interpretive heavy-lifting can be by-passed, or hand-waved, or maybe even outright ignored. And indeed some very shallow and very damaging theology can be and has been built on such inattentive and dismissive readings.

Facile literalists often poke fun at the interpretive children of Origen who tie themselves into interpretive knots to explicate the biblical text. But as Origen laid out as far back as the second century, sometimes the only way to attend closely to the words on the page at both a macro and micro level, to believe sincerely that they contain self-revelatory truths from God, and to wrestle with them with integrity, means putting in a lot of hard work which ends up being a re-interpretation of the literal meaning of the text rather than a simple affirmation.

(My hot-take on Ps 34 is that it presents traditional Wisdom orthodoxy in poetic form: trust God, keep your nose clean, don’t do bad stuff, and things will go well for you. From a poetic perspective, I can even see it conveying the poet’s feeling of comfort and pleasure in the supernatural support of God. I can recognize and honor that feeling of being swaddled in divine grace, mercy, and assistance–it’s a lovely emotional state; but it tends to fall apart quickly when human events around you do too… It’s a classic example of the Just World fallacy which leads to very reductive thinking a la If good things happen, it’s because you’re good; if bad things happen, you must have done something wrong. For what it’s worth, this is the fallacy which gets so much air-time in the book of Job. Job’s friends assume he had to have done something bad for everything to go so wrong; Job protests that he didn’t do anything wrong so it’s not fair! God’s final speech is to note that chaos is inherent in the system; if you assume life, the universe, and everything are neat and tidy, you haven’t been paying attention from the beginning.)

Admin Note

Admin Note

I’m doing some work around the site to clean things up, get it all back to code, and generally preparing to do more thinking and writing here

A key task that I’ve completed is restoring the established links to David White’s Anglican Gradual & Sacramentary. While the content is great, the shift from the old WordPerfect files to the present Rich Text Format remains a little clunky, but I don’t have time to address this now.

Rather, I’m going to be putting more time into some breviary clean-ups, actual writing of text, and progress on the long-stalled Anglican Breviary project. So–watch this space and–with God’s help!–more stuff will be showing up here shortly.

All Souls Thoughts

I do have a draft of On Memorizing Scripture, III written but it’s not finished yet; ought to be up in the next day or two as nothing else is going on…

Today, however, it’s worth saying a few things about All Souls…

If we talk about a Baptismal Ecclesiology and take it seriously, than All Souls—alongside All Saints—ought to be a huge day in our church. Because this is a celebration of baptismal ecclesiology on display. The vast majority of the baptized sleep in the earth. But, as our Proper Preface says, “For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended…” As fellow witness with us, closer to the resurrection than we, this is our day to celebrate that while we miss their physical absence, we remember their spiritual presence alongside us. This is a core part of our faith: that the whole company of the baptized is joined together in the Body of Christ, hid with Christ in God.

One of the things that makes celebrating this day hard is, ironically, the appropriation of All Saints’ Day. Since Vatican II, I suppose, Protestant churches like the Lutheran one I grew up in marked All Saints Sunday by reading the necrology—the list of those who had died in the previous year. In a Lutheran context, I suppose that makes sense with Luther’s emphasis on simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinner) and the Augsburg Confessions rejection of Saint as a category outside of the general meaning of “baptized believer.”

The proto-catechism in the BCP doesn’t make it any easier either, noting that “The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.” (BCP 862)

Classically, liturgically, there has been a distinction between “saints” and “souls.” All Saints got white vestments; All Souls got black. The saints are rejoicing in the nearer presence of God now; the souls are sleeping in the earth or else on a path to purification since Matthew—relaying Christ’s words—records “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God…” The saints are the already; the souls are the not yet.

And yet who wants to see their family’s dead as the not yet? Commemorated on the day for sinners rather than saints? The emotional weight makes this a challenging topic to handle with both pastoral and theological integrity. (And, no, “pastoral” is not cover for “bad theology” despite its usual deployment…)

I know I’m not a saint; bring on the black vestments! Put me on the All Souls’ list! (Speaking rhetorically—hopefully it’ll be a while before that’ll be necessary, deo volente.) But—remember me as one of the baptized.

There’s a scramble each year by most clergy and parish administrators to pull together the list of names to be read in the parish necrology. And this makes we wish for a recovery of the concept of a Guild of All Souls, a group of intercessors at the parish level who pray for the baptized of the parish before the sacrament. Who pray for the whole parish—those above ground as well as those below.

We honor the baptismal ecclesiology of our church and prayer book when we enact it in our practices, rather than giving it lip-service for causes.

Especially these things weigh on me this year amongst the Covid pandemic and the protests against souls lost because of racism. So, I invite you to remember the baptized, the living and the dead.

Here are the forms for the Office for the Dead that I put up before.

Here is a book I discovered the other day on Project Canterbury that also contains Anglican resources for burial and remembering the whole company of the baptized which also contains Anglican-style Offices for the Dead.

On Memorizing Scripture, II

[This post continues the thoughts I started here…]

4. Conscious and Unconscious Shaping

One of the reasons the Church Fathers put so much emphasis on memorizing Scripture is that the more Scripture you had in you, the less space you had in your head for other things and the greater influence Scripture could have upon you. These folks were firm believers in the power of Scripture: that contact with Scripture was itself transformative, and it had an ability to exercise a shaping power upon the will and soul through its presence.

John Cassian describes it like this:

Hence the successive books of Holy Scripture must be diligently committed to memory and ceaselessly reviewed. This continual meditation will bestow on us double fruit. First, inasmuch as the mind’s attention is occupied with reading and with preparing to read, it cannot be taken captive in the entrapment of harmful thoughts. Then, the things that we have not been able to understand because our mind was busy at the time, things that we have gone through repeatedly and are laboring to memorize, we shall see more clearly afterward when we are free from every seductive deed and sight, and especially when we are silently meditating at night. Thus, while we are at rest and as it were immersed in the stupor of sleep, there will be revealed an understanding of hidden meanings that we did not grasp even slightly when we were awake. (John Cassian, Conferences 14.8.4)

He’s talking here at the end about the assimilation of the memorized material into the subconscious mind… The Desert Fathers due to their simplicity of practice and brutal honesty about conscious and subconscious motivations communicated a grasp on the inner workings of the human mind that would not be rivalled again until the 19th century and the rise of psychology as a scientific discipline.

Cassian continues to drive home his point:

But as our mind is increasingly renewed by this study, the face of Scripture will also begin to be renewed, and the beauty of a more sacred understanding will somehow row with the person who is making progress. (John Cassian, Conferences 14.9.1)

As the mind itself is conformed to Scripture, the more Scripture it will be able to understand.

An example of the belief in the power of Scripture to transform the soul is exhibited in King Athalaric’s letter to the Roman Senate confirming Cassiodorus as Praetorian Prefect. In speaking of Cassiodorus’s character, the letter says:

[Cassiodorus] showed good will to all, was moderate in prosperity, and knew no anger, unless gravely wronged. Although he is a man of strict justice, he does not refuse, in his severity, to forego wrath. He is remarkably generous with his goods, and, while incapable of pursuing others’ property, he knows well how to be a lavish giver of his own. Now this disposition his studies in divinity have confirmed, since affairs are always well conducted if the fear of heaven is opposed to human impulses. For thence is derived the clear understanding of every virtue; thence wisdom is flavoured with the season of truth. Thus, the man imbued with the discipline of heaven is rendered lowly in all things. (Cassiodorus, Variae 9.25.11).

The bolded phrase requires a second look. Barnish’s translation is a loose one here. The Latin is “Hos igitur mores lectio diuina solidauit” (Therefore these habits have been established through sacred reading). Thus, it is the practice of lectio divina itself that is identified as the source of these virtues (with the possible exception of humility—Cassiodorus penned the letter himself…).

Augustine, in fact, believes in this formation of character so strongly as to make the bold assertion that if a person achieves the pinnacle of perfect love, they will have transcended the Scriptures themselves. He builds to this crescendo over the course of several sections at the end of Book 1 which I’ll abridge here to concentrate his main point:

The sum of all we have said since we began to speak of things thus comes to this: it is to be understood that the plenitude and the end of the law and of all the sacred Scriptures is the love of a Being which is to be enjoyed and of a being that can share that enjoyment with us, since there is no need for a precept that anyone should love himself. . . Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and neighbor does not understand it at all. . . Thus there are these three things for which all knowledge and prophecy struggle: faith, hope, and love. . . Thus a man supported by faith, hope, and love with an unshaken hold upon them, does not need the Scriptures except for the instruction of others. And many live by these three things in solitude without books. . . In them, as if by instruments of faith, hope, and love, such an erudition has been erected that, holding fast to that which is perfect, they do not seek that which is only partially so—perfect, that is, in so far as perfection is possible in this life. (Christian Teaching 1.35.39-1.39.43, selections)

5. Rumination through out the Day

As the John Cassian quote above notes, the process of memorization is not restricted to the period of time when the book is passing before the reader’s eyes . Rather, it requires a rehearsal of the memorized material to ensure its retention (“diligently committed to memory and ceaselessly reviewed”)

Cassiodorus state emphatically the need for repetition and meditation apart from the text: “Therefore pray to God, the source of all that is useful; read, I pray, constantly; go over the material diligently; for frequent and intense meditation is the mother of understanding.” (Institutions 1.Pref.7).

In one of my favorite and often-cited vignettes of the Desert Fathers, Abba Lucius clarifies how monastic manual labor participates within the lectio process and furthers the command to “pray without ceasing”: 

I will show you how, while doing my manual work, I pray without interruption. I sit down with God, soaking my reeds and plaiting my ropes, and I say “God, have mercy on me; according to your great goodness and according to the multitude of your mercies, save me from my sins.” [Psalm 51:1]

The time set aside for manual labor in the monastery, therefore, is not a time to stop praying, but a shift into a different mode of prayer. Distinct from the formal prayer of the Daily Office or the memorization of lectio, this is a time to recall those things which had been memorized to fix them in the mind and to occupy the thoughts with God’s words rather than idle brain-flittings.

That’s why silence is key within the monastic enclosure. If you’re talking to another person, the less likely it is that you’re talking to God as well. Certainly that’s how the Rule of the Master understands it, specifically directing “silent labor” several times and clarifying the command this way:

Now, the reason we say that the brethren must always observe silence is that sins of the tongue are not committed when the mouth is at all times kept from speaking. However, the brothers while working are to keep silence as follows: They must refrain from uncontrolled chattering and from worldly matters and from idle words which are out of place. But the brothers may have permission at any time, provided the abbot is not present, to rehearse the psalms and to repeat the Scriptures and to speak about God if it is done humbly and quietly (RM 50.24-26).

The rule goes on to direct that if a large group of brothers are working together a reader who is physically unable to work should read to them to keep their minds on track!

Carolingian sources confirm this intention—that the time of work is a time for recalling Scripture. Smaragdus’s commentary on the Rule of Benedict quotes the rules of Waldabert and Isidore on this point which evidently do not enjoin complete silence during work times:

…[W]hile their hands are occupied outwardly in what is of temporal benefit, their minds should be sweetened with the tongue’s meditation of the Psalms and the remembrance of the Scriptures. If someone breaks this rule and takes pleasure in storytelling, he should be chastised with the penalty of silence. . . Now the monks as they work should meditate and sing psalms so that they may lighten the work itself with song and with delight in God’s word. But especially in the time of Lent they must work with the body, the mind’s attention being fastened on God. And the hand must be engaged in the daily work in such a way that the mind is not turned away from God. (Smaragdus, Commentary 48)

So—going back over the memorized material fixes it in the mind and gives the mind something with which to occupy itself so that the recollection of God can be a continual activity. Without Scripture resident in the memory, it cannot be pondered and ruminated upon. Again, there’s no way that a collection of prooftexts can provide fodder for the kind of long-term mind-occupying material the monastic teachers are describing here. Psalms and larger blocks of text are definitely in mind.

6. Memorization begins with the Psalms

Following everything that has been said and cited up to this point, it’s a complete no-brainer that the process of memorization enjoined by the Church Fathers  and inherited by the monastics starts with the Psalter. As I alluded in the previous piece, if all 150 psalms are being sung every week and many of those are sung multiple times a week or even a day, they’ll get memorized pretty quickly.

Many reasons recommend the psalms for this role. I’ve written on this a fair amount in the past so I won’t go through all of that again except to summarize in brief the reasons Athanasius lays out in his Letter to Marcellinus:

  1. The Psalms are a microcosm of Scripture itself, containing all of the scriptural genres within its pages: prophecy, law, wisdom, Gospel. To memorize the Psalter, then, is to possess a summary of Scripture.
  2. The Psalms are an example of proper prayer to God spoken by the Holy Spirit through David expressing the thoughts and feelings of his descendent Jesus.
  3. The Psalms are a mirror that teach us the Christian affections and provide language for how to communicate and understand them.

But where do we go from there?

Jerome helpfully lays out his preferred order in a letter that instructs a woman hw to prepare her daughter who she is raising to be a virgin (the category of “nun” did not yet exist, but that’s what we’re talking about…)

Let her begin by learning the psalter, and then let her gather rules of life out of the Proverbs of Solomon. From the Preacher [Ecclesiastes] let her gain the habit of despising the world and its vanities. Let her follow the example set in Job of virtue and of patience. Then let her pass on to the gospels never to be laid aside one they have been taken in hand. Let her also drink in with a willing heart the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles. As soon as she has enriched the storehouse of her mind with these treasures, let her commit to memory the prophets, the heptateuch, the books of Kings and of Chronicles, the rolls also of Ezra and Esther. When she has done all these she may safely read the Song of Songs but not before.  (Jerome, Letter 107.12)

After that he recommends the writings of Cyprian, the letters of Athanasius, and the treatises of Hilary.

 So, the order given here is 

  1. Psalms
  2. Wisdom literature (minus the Song of Songs!)
  3. Gospels
  4. Acts
  5. NT Epistles
  6. Major & Minor Prophets
  7. Genesis – Judges
  8. Ruth – 2 Kings
  9. 1 & 2 Chronicles
  10. Ezra, Esther, & the Song of Songs

And, yes, that’s a lot of stuff!!

What it does, though, is emphasize the principle of moving from milk to meat, beginning with the easier material that conveys clearly directives for virtuous living, then highlighting the gospels and epistles before moving into the prophets and histories. If the memorizing of Scripture is to form the character into the virtues of Christ, then start with a strong foundation of Wisdom first.

Cassiodorus, for his part, identifies his own canon-within-the-canon; his pattern of citation generally confirms what he says here except that the gospels do show up in large amounts as well, Matthew and John in particular:

Although all Divine Scripture shines with heavenly brilliance and the excellence of the Holy Spirit appears clearly in it, I have dedicated my efforts to the Psalter, the Prophets, and the Apostolic Letters, since they seem to me to stir deeper profundities, and to contain, as it were, the glorious citadel and summit of the whole Divine Scripture.

While he does identify the Psalms as the first text to be memorized, he doesn’t provide an order beyond that, but rather implies that these are the parts to be worked over next, his order of citations suggesting the Epistles [and Gospels] before the Prophets. He quotes from the Wisdom books surprisingly little.

To be continued…

On Memorizing Scripture

I woke up today with Imagine Dragon’s “Natural” in my head.

Not even the whole thing, but the hook and part of the chorus. It was on repeat for something like two hours or so.

That’s not a terribly unusual state of affairs for me. I live in a very musical household. We listen to it, we talk about it, we make it, we listen to it some more. I have a lot of songs memorized in my head and—like this morning—they tend to just leak out at points. A particular feeling or temperature or smell will call to mind a song, a lyric, or a riff. (I remember one conference I was doing with the bass line of Gojira’s “Backbone” playing constantly in the background…)

But it’s not just music. Sometimes it’s a sentence or part of one, sometimes just a small clump of words—some well-turned phrase that has gotten stuck in my mind like a piece of popcorn jammed up between two teeth.

More frequently than not it’s a psalm fragment—and that’s not really on accident either on my part or the church’s: it’s what the liturgy, the Daily Office in particular, is intended to do. Intended, but insufficient. The Office certainly exposes us to the Psalms, but what monastic spirituality asks is that we take the next step to be intentional about the process.

Because that’s the point we’re heading too here: things have a hard time bubbling up at odd times in your head if they don’t already have a home there. And that’s a key reason why monastic teachers and the Church Fathers advocated for memorization so strenuously. Because your mind can’t be molded and shaped by something that’s not inside of you.

In today’s American context, memorization gets a bad rap. It’s frequently denigrated as “rote learning,” and eschewed in favor of critical thinking skills. In Christian circles, it’s usually associated with the collection of proof texts or clobber verses that are pulled out of context to win an argument rather than to edify.

Despite these concerns, memorization was identified as a powerful and important tool in Christian formation by the Church Fathers & Mothers and their monastic heirs, and a critical part of spiritual development. However, this activity must be seen within the broader scope of their method for achieving biblical literacy.

Thus, I’ll set out a number of key points that hopefully sketch a clearer picture of how these things worked together:

  1. The first goal of patristic Bible reading was comprehensive familiarity, not necessarily understanding.
  2. Memorization was not a substitute for comprehensiveness, but worked alongside it.
  3. Memorization was at the pericope level at the least and, more typically, at the book level.
  4. The purpose of memorization is the shaping of the mind and habit both consciously and subconsciously.
  5. Memorization enabled rumination and contemplation throughout the day.
  6. Memorization follows a progression that starts with the Psalms.
  7. The order of memorization underscores and enables the twofold division between the “practical” and the “theoretical” arts of interpretation.
  8.  The “higher arts of interpretation” are reserved until after a substantial amount of Bible was read and memorized.
  9. The patristic method implies but does not require a quasi-monastic lifestyle; it’s possible to do this as an active layperson—but challenging, requiring solid planning! 

Now I’ll elaborate on each of these points…

1. Familiarity, not necessarily Understanding

The starting place for the patristic method was to read a lot of Scripture. Augustine makes clear that a functional familiarity with the biblical text is essential: “He will be the most expert investigator of the Holy Scriptures who has first read all of them and has some knowledge of them, at least through reading them if not through understanding them” (Christian Teaching 2.8.12). However, he is also concerned lest the beginning readers get lost in the weeds. He emphasizes that the purpose of this initial step is not understanding, but establishing familiarity. That is, don’t get hung up on what seems strange, unusual, or things that just plain don’t make sense—they’ll be plenty of time to deal with those things later.

One of the reasons why he downplays understanding at this stage is because of the conviction of the fullness of the Scriptures. There are some teachings, doctrines, and truths that are immediately graspable and applicable. We read, we say, “oh, yeah!” and we do. He and his fellow teachers also believed that there were deeper and more complicated truths in the Scriptures that we could neither recognize nor apply until we had mastered the basic skills and until our minds and wills had been conformed to the pattern of Scripture. The more deeply you take in Scripture, the more layers and levels you would be able to perceive. That is, part of spiritual growth is the increasing capacity to discern deeper truths within Scripture.

This is clarified as Augustine lays out his method more fully:

In all of these books [of the Bible] those fearing God and made meek in piety seek the will of God. And the first rule of this understanding and labor is, as we have said, to know these books even if they are not understood, at least to read or to memorize them, or to make them not altogether unfamiliar to us. Then those things that are taught openly in them either as precepts for living or as rules for believing are to be studied more diligently and more intelligently, for the more one learns about these things, the more capable of understanding he becomes. (Christian Teaching 2.9.14)

Cassiodorus too insists upon this familiarity—and even memorization—before he begins teaching the higher arts of reading:

…the recruits of Christ, after they have learned the Psalms, should study the divine text in corrected books until, by continuous practice, with God’s help, it is well known to them. The books should be corrected to prevent scribal errors from being fixed in untrained minds, because what is fixed and rooted in the depths of memory is hard to remove. Happy indeed is the mind that has stored such a mysterious treasure in the depths of memory with God’s help… [A]fter the soldiers of Christ have filled themselves with divine study and, grown strong by regular reading, have begun to recognize passages cited as circumstances indicate, then they may profit by going through this guide. (Institutions of Dive & Secular Learning, 1.2, 3)

So—the fundamental level is familiarity which is achieved by reading. To get better at reading Scripture, read more Scripture! Liturgically, this was enacted by the goal of reading all of Scripture every year in the monastic Night Office with the spill-over absorbed by out-loud reading during the otherwise silent mealtimes.

Practically, this is what the scripture is for us in the Daily Office. It’s not a Bible study; it’s not lectio. It’s reading at the speed of proclamation which only enables us to hear it and get a sense of it, not to ponder it, dig into it, or memorize it. And that’s ok because its our regular rehearsal for the sake of familiarization. The time for Bible study and lectio is outside of prayer time! And this leads directly to the next point:

2. Memorization alongside Comprehensiveness

Memorization is a different activity than reading for familiarity or information. This is why Benedict talks about a balancing of three fundamental activities: the Divine Office, Sacred Reading, and Manual Labor. Here’s the secret: all three of these are about Scripture and its internalization! But all three are operating in different modes—and that’s what we tend to lose sight of.

In the Divine Office, only the psalter can get memorized, and it is memorized through the vehicle of song. Just as I pick up a song heard frequently on the radio, singing all of the psalms every week—including several that are repeated many times each week (Psalm 51, I’m looking at you…)—monastics praying in community acquire the psalms through this same mode. The other Scripture can certainly be heard, but—as mentioned above—it’s at the level of familiarization.

A separate block of time for Sacred Reading (Lectio divina) was appointed for active, intentional memorization. Benedict’s rule directs that each monk be given a book at the beginning of Lent. The rule is a little ambiguous here: it doesn’t say what kind of book, and it doesn’t say when the monk has to give it back. One common way to read this passage suggests that monks get some special devotional reading specifically for the days of Lent. Reading this in context of patristic reading and monastic practice more generally suggests a different interpretation: the book is a book of Scripture assigned to be memorized, and at least one should be memorized each year—more if possible. And this leads us smoothly into:

3. Memorization of Large Sections

The memorization we’re talking about here is not about out-of-context verses to be tossed around as proof-texts. Instead, we’re normatively talking about reading at the book level.

It would be inaccurate, though, to claim that all memorization was at the book level. While that seems to be preferred and assumed by several authors—Augustine, Jerome, Cassiodorus—it’s also valuable to look at certain pieces of early monastic legislation that throw some light on this subject. And the place I’ll begin is with a literalization of the metaphor I just used…

We moderns take light for granted. We just assume that whenever we’re in the dark we can reach for a switch to alleviate it and illuminate our surroundings. We expect clear strong lighting—especially in places where we have to read. Now place yourself imaginatively into a Romanesque church building at 3 AM in the 6th century in a mountainous region of Italian wilderness. The few windows in the thick walls are small and wouldn’t be much help even if there were light coming in from the outside. At best, they’re openings to draw off the smoke from the few guttering rushlights—not even candles—that you and your fellow monastics have to light the one large book you’re all sharing, propped up on a stand several yards away. (And glasses have yet to be invented…) Light and visibility is precisely what you don’t have! Furthermore, the book you’re working off of is a manuscript: hand copied, not printed to an exacting standard.

Memorizing the Psalms doesn’t just have a spiritual purpose but a practical one as well—you don’t have to strain to read them if you already have them committed to memory! And the same is true of other biblical passages appointed to be read in church as well…

The Rule of the Master, the monastic instructions of which Benedict’s Rule is the abridged version, gives us some helpful insight into what is supposed to happen during lectio: it shows new monks learning their letters within their deanery (group of ten lead by a more experienced dean). Then they are assigned a psalm which they copy out onto their wax tablet and memorize, then, once their dean is satisfied, they recite it for the abbot and his staff who then assigns another until all of the psalms and canticles are memorized (RM 50). The rule doesn’t immediately state what comes next, but a clue a few chapters on and evidence from later  in the early medieval period gives a strong recommendation of next steps. Here’s what it says about monks going on a long journey:

If a brother is sent out on monastery business in the morning and, because of the demands of the trip, does no reading between Prime and Terce in winter, or between None and Vespers in summer, and returns to the monastery the same day, let him take his meal at whatever time he gets back, and let him do at least a little reading or memorizing, to show that he is observing the rule that day too. But if he is sent on a longer journey, let him take with him from the monastery a small book containing some readings, so that he can do at least a little reading whenever he takes a res along the way. But only if he knows his psalter. (RM 57.1-6)

Keep in mind that monastic libraries—especially in the Italian early 6th century—are nothing like what you might see in Name of the Rose, housed in towering buildings dedicated to books. No, studies of monastic holdings in the Anglo-Saxon era reveal that most monastic libraries numbered around 25 volumes. They were contained not in a special building  but within a single large wooden chest! The books they had multiple copies of were liturgical books: psalters and lectionaries…

Later on in the early medieval period we see directives that after the psalms are memorized the next texts given the monastics newbies are the Epistle and Gospel pericopes read in church. Indeed, the perfect candidate for “a small book containing some readings” is an old lectionary. In these later sources it’s a practical matter: ordination up the ninefold grades became standard and teen-age boys were often ordained as subdeacons—the grade responsible for reading the Epistles at Mass. Memorizing the liturgically appointed Epistle pericopes is a matter of good policy given, again, issues around lighting, visibility, and potential book quality. Liturgical proclamation, then becomes more of an exercise of memory aided by the book rather than a dependence upon it.

And, recognizing how few single-volume Bibles existed in the early medieval period, it’s likely that most biblical knowledge started with the Psalms, the liturgical Epistles and Gospels, and spread out from there. (Indeed, I haven’t done this yet, but I bet that if you were to go through the many biblical allusions that litter St. Patrick’s Confessio, I’d wager that the majority of them come from these appointed liturgical sources…)

So—all of that is to say, evidence shows us that the fathers and the monastics following in their footsteps preferred to read and memorize at the level of the biblical book. Barring that, memorizing at the level of liturgical pericopes was also quite practical. The key point is that the memorization here is not about collecting disconnected verses or prooftexts, but acquisition of big chunks of material.

Ok—that’s all for now; I’ll take up the rest a bit later.

Balloon Day!: Teaching Basic Christology

It’s Balloon Day in my Patristics class! That is, I’m teaching the class on the Doctrine of God and use a balloon as a key visual aid. I explain why in this video that I recorded after doing an Adult Formation program at our parish a few years back. And, in fact, I’ll be using a version of this slide deck to teach my seminarians tonight.

I am reminded that I did say that I’d post the syllabus for the class up here. I’ll do that in the next day or two. I won’t belabor you with the various official statements on academic integrity and such, rather I’ll share with you the readings list and topics we’re covering. I have thoughts about the books and will say something about them as well…

The thing I keep coming back to is that—contra the Dan Brown School of Christian Origins—the doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t schemed up by a bunch of old white guys in a room somewhere with Constantine at the head of the table (it’d make a hell of a lot more sense if it had been); it proceeded from the human attempt to wrap words around the Christian experience of God through Scripture and sacrament.

The other thing that I’m seeing as I go through this material again is that there are different levels of meaning and application. At one level, the theological differences between various christological configurations do have some actual implications for Christian practice. At another level, there is a point where some of these distinctions have diminishing practical differences—but they were still very important because of the way that they separated Christian communities. This realizing becomes much more important when viewed in relation to the broad scope of patristic history and I’m hoping to film a video for next week’s class that will clarify exactly what I mean by this. And, of course, I’ll link it here when I get it uploaded.

Patristic Biblical Interpretation

…is largely taught wrong to those few to whom it is taught.

Ok—so that’s kind of a bomb-throwing intro. Let me back up a little, clarify, and offer an alternative.

First, patristic biblical interpretation is largely ignored in most seminary curricula. Thanks to a variety of factors, chiefly Academia’s propensity to segment information into fields, “Biblical Studies” and “Patristics” are in two different areas—Biblical Studies and either History or Theology. There are folks who do both, but usually not. Patristics is generally presented as a subdiscipline of Systematic Theology because of the emphasis on patristic writings around the councils and issues of the Doctrine of God & Christology. If the point is what these folks said about God, few folks are interested in how they are working directly with the biblical text.

Second, when biblical people look at patristic readings, we tend to do so from a skills perspective within the frame of the history-of-ideas: what did they think and pass on to other people who thought? What is tends to get taught, then, are the same sections of Origen’s De Principiis, John Cassian’s Conference 14, and Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana. These are important texts and ought to be taught. In fact, I’d argue that they present clearly the heart of patristic biblical interpretation—but even there, most people completely miss the forest for the trees.

What gets focused upon in Origen’s anthropological model of the text: Scripture has a body soul, and spirit that correspond to the literal, moral, and allegorical meanings; all Scripture has a spiritual meaning, but not all of it has a literal meaning. John Cassian extends this to create the “quadriga” that would become standard throughout the medieval period with a helpful example of how these apply to the term Jerusalem: the literal sense, the allegorical (spiritual), the anagogical (purpose or telos), and the tropological (moral). Then Augustine talks about the difference between the literal and the figural with an emphasis on the figural.

This is skills stuff—interpretive techniques.

From there biblical classwork usually jumps directly to the Scholastics…

All of these things are true, but the shape, focus, and scoping distorts what I’m increasing seeing as the far more important and applicable piece.

I’ve just completed filming two videos for a colleague teaching the intro Biblical Studies class at St. Mary’s and they’re up on my YouTube channel: History of Interp 1 and History of Interp 2. Filming these pushed me to clarify insights and thoughts that have been percolating over the last couple of years in some helpful ways.

First, the standard approach rarely drives into why patristic readers did what they did. The assumption in the modern biblical studies field is that the literal view is to be preferred above anything else bolstered and supported primarily by the tools of historical criticism and secondarily by the tools of literary criticism. A “preferential option for the literal” comes baked in especially given the Protestant conviction on the perspecuity of the Scriptures (that they are clear and easy to read by all assuming the assistance of the Spirit).  In the usual instructional method, “allegory” is brought up to be dismissed. But why did these smart people decide that was a useful and helpful strategy?

Second, the narrow focus on a couple of interpretive techniques misses the more important aspect: the pattern, shape, and general method of how the Church Fathers taught that Scripture needs to be approached.  And this is the piece that modern students and especially present/future Episcopal clergy need to hear.

The patristic model as championed by Origen, Cassian, and Augustine—yes, even in the texts that we look at—places applying interpretive skills in the third place. The first step is reading and memorizing large portions of Scripture. This is what lectio divina is; Guigo’s fourfold method in the Ladder of Monks has been misread on this point because he doesn’t bother to state the obvious: the purpose of lectio is reading at the speed of memorization. The second step is enacting the plain directives of Scripture. It’s living life better! This is an essential pre-condition to biblical understanding as the Fathers teach it. Only then do we move to the third step: applying interpretive tools and techniques. The first two steps are all about forming and training the mind, will, and heart into Scriptural patterns. Only then do they get unleashed on the tools.

If we want to learn to read from the Fathers, steps 1 and 2 are at the center. We absorb as much Scripture as possible, and conform our wills and minds to it. That’s the true starting place.

 

Theses on the Church Fathers

I’m doing a lot of reading and thinking about the Church Fathers right now… I’m gearing up to teach Patristics to 3rd year Roman Catholic seminarians at St. Mary’s and trying to make forward progress on Psalming Christ. And, since writing is one of the best ways for me to collect my thoughts, I might as well stick some of these thoughts out here for public critique and reflection!

So. Let me begin at the very beginning… I think that there are a lot of incorrect understandings about God, the Church, Christianity, and the Church Fathers floating around out there. I don’t think that most of these are because of deliberately deceptive teachers. Instead, I think a lot of these grow out of the gradual accreation–and passing on–of unquestioned assumptions about these things. Thus, I’m going to back up and be as explicit as I can about these things…

What the heck is “Patristics”?

Patristics is the study of the primary teachers and guides of the Christian Church defined as the organic community originating with Jesus and the Apostles that handed on the apostolic faith and codified it in the form that we identify as Nicene Orthodoxy.

The temporal boundaries on the field tend to be from the completion of the New Testament writings on the bottom end and extending up either to the end of the fifth century (i.e., ending around the year 500; is Gregory the Great in or out??) or else through the start of the eighth, conventionally ending in the West with Bede and in the East with John of Damascus.

Traditionally, classically, the field has been linguistically bounded and divided into the Latin Fathers and the Greek Fathers based on the languages in which they wrote (or in which their writings survive). Recent years have broadened this to include those Fathers who wrote and/or are preserved in Syriac, Coptic, Georgian, and Armenian (and other languages as well). The two chief reasons for the historical ignorance of or deliberate ignoring of these teachers are first, the general ignorance of those languages among the learned professors of Western Europe and America, and second, the historical reality that the churches using those languages developed in directions outside the bounds of Nicene Orthodoxy, namely in Miaphysite/Monophysite or Nestorian directions.

The root term “Patristics” literally means “the Fathers,” and the study of Patristics does focus around the writings of men who were usually in top ecclesiastical and often political positions in their respective times and places. However, Patristics is more than the study of elite men. We do possess a few writings from some Church Mothers. Also, many of the writings of the Fathers were commissioned and paid for by Church Mothers. Indeed, the majority of Jerome’s labors were written at the behest of a small group of important Church Mothers, namely Marcella, Paula, and Eustochium. Thus, “Patristics” and even “Fathers” should and in my usage does encompass men, women, and those who behaved outside of both of the conventional constructions of those terms in the world of Late Antiquity. (Church Parentals sounds kinda stupid, though, so I’ll keep using the more familiar term…) Finally, Patristics—I argue—is not only the study of the writings and thoughts of elite men, but rather the understanding of the faith and practices to which these writings refer and the manner of life they champion.

And that last sentences leads us to one more point of clarification that needs to be said before I can get to my theses proper… Christianity, especially in its first several centuries (and I will strenuously argue now as well), is not solely an act of intellect, of emotion, of will, of belief, of action, or of habit. Rather, it is a combination of all of these things and likely more beside. That is, we construct this field of study incorrectly when we label it as “Christian Thought”. (As, in fact, my Church History classes in seminary were titled!)

That brings us to my first thesis…

1. The Church Fathers should be seen not primarily as thinkers of important thoughts, but as teachers and guides to living a life suffused with the Scriptures and Sacraments that extends and enacts God’s priorities into our incarnate reality.

My point: all too often, the Fathers are seen or treated as idea factories or mines of doctrine to be cherry-picked. And, the Church has frequently used them in just this way (paging Aquinas…). While many of their statements do, on their own, contain important and true nuggets of Christian wisdom, we must recognize that their original purpose and intent was to guide Christians into proper Christian living, and fit most naturally into this context.

2. Study of the Church Fathers is often relegated to Dogmatic Theology, especially the development of doctrine with the focus on the Trinitarian and Christological controversies that hammered out the contours of Nicene Orthodoxy. This is overly narrow. They can should, and ought to inform our understandings of Scripture, Sacraments, Ethics, Spirituality, you name it instead of artificially and narrowly restricting them to Trinitarian Doctrine.

My point: Studying Patristics should be an exploration of the faith that they modeled and championed that centers around these fundamental questions:

  • Who and What is God?
  • Who and What is humanity?
  • How is the Church the nexus point between God and humanity?
  • How do the chief implements of the Church function, i.e.,
    • How do the Sacraments bond humans into the life and activity of God?
    • How do the Scriptures bond humans into the life and activity of God?

If the Church Fathers are guides, they are guides wrestling with the challenge Paul identified in Ephesians: How to bring the Body of Christ into the Mind of Christ. How to make the sanctified people of God actually sanctified people of God!

3. The thought of the Church Fathers (and I’d suggest Christianity itself) is best thought of as an interwoven net of concepts. If you start messing with one concept or teaching or practice, it has an effect upon the shape of the whole system. Furthermore, practices and doctrines are interwoven in such away that they’re not easily disengaged from one another.

My Thought: The descriptor I’d use for this kind of theology/theological system is “perichoretic.” This Greek word means “interpenetrating” and is usually used in theological circles to talk about the relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity. They are separate and distinct as Persons, but their Unity is due to a mutual interpenetration. Even as distinct Persons they are fundamentally in relationship so what we say of one of them also says something about the others. The way I’m using this in reference to Patristic and Christian belief and practice is that the compartmentalizations of modern theology—Hermeneutics, doctrine of God, Christology, Ecclesiology, the Sacraments—are not the discrete and hermetically sealed categories that theology lectures often pigeonhole them into. The idea of sanctity or Christian perfection, as I’ve said here many times, exists and must exist at the intersection of Christology, anthropology, ecclesiology, and sacramental theology. And this is how the Church Fathers wrote and taught. Doctrine, exegesis, habits of holiness, all flow together in a unified stream. If you start play with—or rejecting—some of the big theological concepts and themes, you’re likely messing with far more of them than you think. An understanding of the connective tissue that binds the body of thought into a coherent whole is necessary before you begin tinkering…      

4. When the Church entered the thought-world of the Roman Imperium it did so occupying a conceptual space shared by certain kinds of philosophical systems like Neoplatonism (that would read to modern people as religions) and mystery religions. Christianity started its life in the Roman world as an esoteric religion. The early Church Fathers assumed it and baked it into the structure of Christian intellectual work and doctrine.

My Point: This is a huge obstacle for most modern Christians to get a handle on because, certainly in the American context, Christianity is anything but esoteric. We’ll tell anybody everything about it! The notion of secrecy or reserving teachings seems not only alien but contrary to an evangelistic faith. To get what’s going on requires a recognition of how mystery religions worked and why.

I’ve not kept up on the latest currents of study on the mystery religions, but I understand them as Roman cultural appropriations of other people’s pantheons (i.e., the Isis of the Apuleius is not the Isis of ancient Egypt; the Mithras of the mithraeum is not the Mitra of the magi) where the center of the worshippers’ connection with the deity was in ritual actions the meanings of which were concealed from those not initiated into those particular mysteries. In short, they were esoteric religions because the central truths of their teachings were taught only to initiates. The Christianity known and communicated by teachers like Origen was likewise an esoteric form of Christianity. It functioned socially and intellectually like a mystery cult (which is an entirely different thing from saying that it was one or that it adopted a variety of things from other mystery cults/religions). Indeed—one of the clearest proofs we have of this fact is Origen’s  Contra Celsus wherein he writes a long treatise to specifically reject the claim of Celsus and others that Christianity was just that—a new mystery cult that just borrowed a whole bunch of stuff that other groups were already teaching! 

As the writings of Hippolytus and the catechetical instructions of Ambrose and Cyril of Jerusalem make clear, an adult convert’s initiation into Christianity was just that—a process of initiation where certain aspects of the faith were hinted at but held back, the unbaptized were kicked out of church at a given point, and only those who had been baptized observed, participated within and received the Eucharist. What made the Early Church’s Easter Vigil so dramatic and what inspired the Liturgical Renewal Movement to bring it back was precisely because of the impact of the event. A convert’s first experience of the Eucharist occurred right after their Baptism, and was supposed to be a dramatic experience! The mystagogical lectures following the event were designed to theologically tease out what happened and to enrich the new Christians’ remembrance of what happened. 

5. Even when Christianity became more public/popular/official, and—especially in the Latin West—catechumens were no longer dismissed because universal Baptism/Confirmation became assumed—there was still a tension between an exoteric faith and an esoteric Scripture. Or, to put it another way, while the faith was proclaimed in full, the Scriptures still remained cryptic or at least had a great deal of cryptic material in them.

My Point: Early Christians assumed that 1) All Scripture was inspired by God for the sake of our—present-day Christians—instruction for training in faith and good works. 2) Not all of it seemed pertinent to those goals. 3) But Scripture itself and the teaching of the Church said it was true nonetheless!

Origen assumed that the deep meanings of Scripture were veiled and ought to be veiled so that the uninitiated and unworthy could not learn the deep things of God and malign them. Also, the hiddeness of divine meanings meant that as a Christian grew in character, faith, piety, and wisdom, truths would be progressively revealed as the capacity to receive them was unlocked.

Augustine wrestles with this because he too will affirm these two points—Scripture is deliberately obscure to hide truths from the unworthy and so that the worthy can discover them with effort. Where he differs from Origen, though, is in the contention that Scripture teaches nothing obscurely which it does not also teach plainly.  Yet, Augustine still saw Scripture as a deliberately obscure document—and that the obscurity was a feature, not a bug.

Modern Christians get hung up on #2 above. We’re not nearly as convinced that all of Scripture holds coded messages for us to interpret that have immediate relevance to our contemporary situation. I’ll go out on a limb so far as to suggest that very few Episcopal churches have had sermon series or Adult Forums that have wrestled with the spiritual meanings of the names of the 42 watering holes visited by the Children of Israel in their trek through the wilderness.  Nor would I, as a fellow modern Christian, suggest that they should! 

What we lose in not doing this is a form of quite-serious play within the Scriptures and an intimate familiarity with the Scriptures that our patristic ancestors had. As I remind people again and again, allegorical and non-literal interpretations of Scripture are not only playful explorations of the text, but also ways of grappling with problems in the text that they were often more aware of than we are. Very few modern self-proclaimed biblical literalists knew the text as well as Origen and were able to catalogue without effort a host of literal errors or inconceivabilities like the ones he tosses out in On First Principles as the reason why non-literal senses are not only useful but often preferable at points.

6. Patristic readers did engage in some interpretive gymnastics to argue away problems in the text—but they did so around different topics and for different reasons than we do.

My Point: Often, modern interpretive gymnastics focus around moral mandates in the text. I.e., I feel personally judged or called out by this directive—maybe it really means something else. Or, this text is just reinforcing an archaic social structure that really has nothing to do with how I relate to God, therefore we can ignore it.  Our interpretive gymnastics thus protect our sense of our own dignity and goodness.  

Patristic interpretive gymnastics—even and perhaps especially the ones deemed heretical by Nicene Orthodoxy—were very often done in service of protecting the dignity of God. That is, it seemed that Scripture was saying something unworthy of God or a “proper” divine being which needed to be defended or argued away. Indeed, my sense is that much of the Trinitarian and Christological controversies settled by the Councils were attempts to protect the dignity of God and Christ from an overly close connections to humanity and materiality. 

Ok—I’ll stop there for now…

There are more things to be said, but I’ll just put these out here for now as I think about how these will influence how I want to shape this class…