Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Literalism, pietism and the Fathers: Ascensiontide readings continued

One of the important reasons for reading the Fathers of the Church, aside from the specific context they provide us on how Scripture has been interpreted within the Church, is the model they provide on how to do theology.

Modern exegesis tends to be preoccupied with questions such as authorship and the process of the formation of a text; questions that have at best only marginal relevance to its actual meaning, and thus to our faith.  The Fathers by contrast, are preoccupied with the actual meaning of the text, and its implications for our faith.  It is many modern exegetes, not the Fathers, who are preoccupied with 'how many angels can dance on a pin type' questions I would suggest!


Over at Cath Blog, a commenter, Mr David Timbs (evidently an avid reader of this blog for the same reasons that I'm an avid reader of acatholica!), whose erroneous comments on a wide range of subjects litter numerous liberal internet forums, accuses me of 'pietism' for suggesting that Scripture needs to be read in the light of the Fathers.  Mr Timbs clearly doesn't realise that pietism actually is a Lutheran heresy advocating a number of positions rather more akin to his own (viz the heresy of congregationalism) than mine! 

But if his meaning is that I think Scriptural exegesis should actually help foster our spiritual life rather than undermine it, then I plead guilty!  I'm certainly not suggesting, as Mr Timbs claims, that everything should be interpreted literally, or that we should eschew academia altogether - save where it leads us into error.  We should, of course, start with the literal sense of the text as the Catechism emphasizes, but having regarded to literary devices and the like.  We should also though, be guided as to how to approach a verse or set of verses by the Tradition.
What I am suggesting in fact is that the vocation of the theologian is to serve the faith and help us understand revelation, not to suggest that what has always and everywhere been believed is wrong.  Theologians will best do that when they ground their work in the Tradition, and remain faithful to the Magisterium. Those who don't do that aren't worth giving the time of day!

And in that light, here are the patristic readings previously set down for Wednesday in the Octave of the Ascension.

Sermon of Pope St Gregory the Great

"And now, since by God's help we have endeavoured to comment on our reading from the Gospel, and that so briefly, it remains for us to continue in contemplation upon the truth that this so great festival hath set forth unto us. The first question we have to ask is why we read that Angels appeared at the time of the birth of the Lord, but we read not that they appeared in white apparel ; whereas, when the Lord ascended into heaven, it is written that the Angels which appeared were clad in white. While they beheld, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight ; and while they looked steadfastly toward heaven, as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel. White raiment is an outward sign of solemn inward joy. Hence we may conclude that the entrance of God-made-Man into heaven was a great festival for the Angels, and that therefore the Angels are specially named as robed in white at his Ascension, and not at his birth. At the birth of the Lord the Godhead was manifested, veiled under the form of a servant, but at his ascension the Manhood was seen exalted ; and white vestments are more fitting for exaltation than humiliation.

Therefore the Angels did fitly appear in white apparel at the Ascension. At his birth he who thought it not robbery to be equal with God, was seen in the form in which he had humbled himself. At his Ascension the Manhood which he had taken into God was seen glorified. Again, dearly beloved brethren, we must remember today, how that Christ has blotted out the handwriting that was against us, and reversed the sentence which doomed us to corruption. That same nature to which it was said : Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return : that same nature is his who hath this day ascended up into heaven. It is because of this up-lifting of our flesh that blessed Job speaks of the Lord under the type of a bird. Jewry could not understand they mystery of the Ascension, and therefore blessed Job spake in symbols thereof, saying : There is a path which no fowl of the air knows.

We may well take a bird as a symbol of the Lord, who bodily soared up into heaven. And the path of such an one is known by no man, except he believe in the Ascension of our Lord into heaven. It is of this glorious occasion that the Psalmist said : Thou hast set thy glory above the heavens. And again : God is gone up with a merry noise, and the Lord with the sound of the trump. And yet again he says: Thou art gone up on high ; thou hast led captivity captive, and received gifts for men. When Christ thus ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, because by his own incorruptibility he swallowed up our corruptibility. He then received gifts to give unto men, because by enduing them with the power of the Spirit from on high, he gave to one the word of wisdom; to another, the word of knowledge; to another, the working of miracles; to another, the gifts of healing; to another, divers kinds of tongues; to another, the interpretation of tongues.


R J said...

Presumably a great many patristic exegeses of the Bible were originally, in fact, sermons?

I've never been clear on this point; but of the limited exposure to patristic literature that I've had, all of it has been suited (like the material quoted in your latest post) for reading aloud. Try to read Congar or Rahner aloud and see how many listeners - even university-educated listeners, as opposed to hewers of wood and drawers of water - can stay awake.

The world, and the Catholic world particularly, lost a vast amount when it lost all, or almost all, consciousness of rhetoric.

Kate said...

You're right RJ, most of the readings selected at Matins for any rate, since they were intended to read out loud, were originally composed as Sunday or weekday sermons for the people.

The Fathers wrote in other genres of course, but on the whole even their theological tomes are infinitely more readable than much modern academic prose!

There are some modern theologians who have written some interesting and important material (Catherine Pitstock's work on the liturgy comes to mind) that tends to be neglected not because of its content but its impossible to penetrate style and jargon-ridden prose.

R J said...

I once attempted reading Dr Pickstock on the topic of Olivier Messiaen. (Because I thought, hey, Messiaen was an organist for years, I've been an organist for years, he was Catholic, I'm Catholic, I've known and loved several Messiaen compositions during my adult life, this can't be rocket science.)

Unfortunately, from my encounter with Dr Pickstock's viscous explication, I was forced to retire defeated. I found that her commentary achieved the almost impossible: it actually appeared to deplete my small pre-existing stock of Messiaen-related knowledge. Other thinkers, no doubt with more brain-power than I, have hailed this same analysis by her as - and I quote - 'the most important article on sacred music in 100 years.' (It's fair to say that I never finished reading the whole article, so perhaps the final pages suddenly switch to Fun With Dick And Jane type prose.)

The author who really blows me away in terms of both intellectual complexity and stylistic lucidity is Fulton Sheen. There he was, a humble farm-boy from Illinois. Lauded by Chesterton and Ronald Knox. Given the highest possible awards for his theological thesis at Louvain University (the first non-Belgian candidate ever to do so, if memory serves me, and certainly the first American). He knew how to speak at least six languages well. If ever a guy had earned the right to be unintelligible, Sheen had. Yet still he was able to convey profound theological truths in language which could be comprehended by any moderately bright 12-year-old and/or TV addict.