Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 14

Here is this month's installment of St. Martin's life.


He showed not less virtue in the same work at almost the same time. For when he set fire to a very old and famous altar to a certain man, fireballs were carried by the wind to a nearby, nay, attached house. (2) When Martin turned around, he climbedrapidly, placing himself opposite the advancing flames. Then, in an astonishing way, you would have truly perceived the fire twist back against the force of the wind so that, indeed, the elements was seen contending among themselves. Thus, by the virtue of Martin, the fire burned where it was ordered. (3) However, in that village, whose name was Leprosum, when he wanted to overturn a temple very rich in the superstition of its religious practices, a multitude of pagans resisted him so that he was driven back not without injury. (4) Thus, he withdrew to a nearby place. For three days, clad in a goat's hair garment and ashes, fasting and praying there, he prayed to God that, because human hands were not able to overturn that temple, divine virtue would demolish it. (5) Then, two angels, armed with spears and shields in the garb of heavenly military service, suddenly presented themselves, saying they were sent by the Lord so that they might put to flight the rustic crowd and bring protection to Martin so that no one would hinder him while the temple was destroyed. Therefore, Martin returned and he faithfully completed the work which he began. (6)Returning to the temple, with the crowd of pagans watching and growing quiet, he destroyed the profane building to its foundations and reduced all the altars and statues into dust. (7) When they saw this, the rustics, after they understood they had been struck senseless and terrified by divine approval so they would not fight the bishop again, nearly all believed Jesus was Lord, shouting openly and confessing that the God of Martin must be worshiped and the idols, which were not not able to appear for themselves or for others, must be neglected.


Here we have another incident of Martin's de-paganization campaign in the rural areas around Tours, complete with miraculous, nature-defying interventions. I have to admit that the Latin was getting a little weird, especially in the description of the first fire. I suspect that Sulpicius was trying to compress this incident and the Latin syntax suffered. At any rate, the description is obscure and I'm really not sure what to do about it except show it in all its obscurity. Presumably, what happens is that the fire didn't spread to the adjacent building, despite the fact that the wind should have caused it to. Presumably, this is a similar kind of natural miracle effected by St. Martin's prayer and, here, Martin's desire to prevent innocents from getting hurt.

The second story is more striking. There are two interesting elements to this story. First, the fact of Martin's repulse in his first attempt against the temple at Leprosum. This is interesting evidence for the resistence to the Christianization of the countryside under Martin. What is even more remarkable is that Martin doesn't seem to be trying to achieve his aim of eliminating rural paganism with imperial military support. When he is repulsed, he doesn't run back to the capital of his province and call in the troops to avenge his defeat. Rather, he turns to prayer and gains heavenly support. This raises questions about how supportive of Martin's efforts were local political and military authorities. This is possibly an unanswerable question, since we don't know to what degree Martin even wanted the help, but it is one that should be asked.

Second, the account of the two heavenly soldiers seems not only appropriate to a soldier-saint, but also, I think, recalls the 12 legions of angels which Jesus says in Matthew he could have called in, if he was that kind of Messiah (Matthew, 26,53). The details are, of course, Roman (hastati and scuta are the quintessential weapons of the legions), It is striking that the angel-soldiers don't strike, they merely intimidate the crowds into allowing the destruction of their temple. This strikes me as interesting from a Christian pacifist rule, partly because see soldiers here and partly because they don't use their weapons. What, I wonder, is the nature of that heavenly army alluded to here?

And I wonder what John Howard Yoder would think.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

Classics and Patristics

I am, by training, a classicist. I was reminded of that on Friday because I went to a lecture on Homer, back into the particular section of the local ivory tower which currently houses the Classics department. I felt I was back on familiar ground because I had spent some years at this particular department, but felt unfamiliar because of all the things that have changed over the seven years that I've been away. I enjoyed the talk and found some useful tidbits for my own teaching, as well as some grist for this particular blogging mill.

What I've been thinking about in connection to this re-entry into the Classical world was the relationship between my training in this field and my current interest in patristics. I am something of an autodidact when it comes to patristics (and, for that matter, the more general field of theology of which patristics is a part). That is, in my many years in university (15 years all told; 8 of which were post-graduate), I only took one course on a patristic author. That course was something of a Beginners Intensive Augustine taught as a historical topics course, so not exactly taken from a theological standpoint or even a linguistic one. So, I'm not sure that counts.

Of course, my classics training has proven to be incredibly useful in my autodidactic approach to patrology. My understanding of Latin and Greek, my familiarity with the various types of anciliary modes of criticism (textual, form, source etc) and specialized skills (epigraphy, papyrology, etc) and the basic historical/literary background of the classical period has proved invaluable as I've entered the thickets of patristic learning. All of these skills have given me invaluable shortcuts in pursuing my patristic enthusiasm.

Still, being back in a classics environment continues to remind me how different a world classics is. You'd think it wouldn't be. After all, patristics and classics both inhabit the same time and places, so have so much overlap that you'd think patrologists and classicists would be talking all the time. The truth is, however, that the relationship is strained. Classics, by its very nature, focuses on the literature, history, philosophy of the non-Christians and is, thus, uncomfortable with what is going on among the Christians. Many classics scholars would be more than happy to forget the Christians were there or, if they should be so rude as to obtrude into their historical vision, to condemn Christians as narrow-minded, ignorant fanatics who couldn't appreciate the art, beauty and nobility of the classical ethos. It shouldn't strike anyone as odd that many classicists dismiss Christianity and find their comfort in the classical world. Nor should it surprise anyone that Christians sometimes find Classics departments rather uncomfortable and frustrating places in which to be Christians.

Still, this division between patristics and classic is, at once, appropriate and artificial. It is appropriate because, for a long time before Christianity's future triumph, declaring oneself a Christian was to separate with the mass culture of classicism. Refusal to sacrifice effectively removed one from the political sphere. Distrust of paganism removed one from the literary sphere. Thus, in a real sense, Christian literature before Constantine operated with different rules and appealed to very different audiences than more mainstream authors. Mind you, we'd still have to work in the inevitable economic/social status as determines of who read what, but I doubt we'd find many non-Christians reading, say, Tertullian. If we did, it might only to look for ammunition to convince Christians to stop being so obstreperous.

Yet, it is still an artificial division, even before Constantine, because Christian writers were concerned with how Christians related to the culture around them. They were often seeking to explain Christianity to non-Christians in culturally understandable ways or in interpreting the culture to Christians in a theologically understandable way. One couldn't quite separate oneself from the mainline culture then any more than we can do it now. In that sense, patrologists can't do with a good understanding of the classics.

That, of course, is the irony of the patrologist's relationship with classics. At the end of the day, the patrologist needs the classicist rather more than the classicist needs them. The classicist can still ignore the patrologist and the Christians of his era and suffer comparatively little distortion. Yet, the patrologist (and the Christian today) has to engage with the dominant culture, even as it critiques it.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Origen For Babies; Or, Why Biblical Hermeneutics isn't Child's Play

Last weekend, my son Ian and I were reading the Philocalia of Origen (I even have the picture to prove it, as you can see!). We were studying it quite hard when my son turned to me and said "ba, ba, nggnngggg, ba, ba, ba, bababa" which I took to mean "Daddy, I'm not quite sure I quite understand Origen's biblical hermeneutic". And I said, "You know, my son, I'm not sure I am either". To which my son answered, "Ba, bababa, ba buh buh, buh, babababa gaaaaa", which I took to mean "Then, why don't you blog on it, Daddy?" So, as per my son's instructions, here we are.

Origen's importance in the whole field of biblical interpretation, of course, is difficult to underestimate. We know that he wrote extensively on the books of the Bible, both in the form of homilies and in commentaries. We also know that this interpretative method and theological approach profoundly influenced those after him, Church Fathers and heretics alike. In many ways, love him or hate him, he was the theologian whose opinion was sine qua non in most exegetical and theological discussions, especially in the Greek East. While his unique blend of Christian teachings and Platonic philosophy led to his near-condemnation in the fifth and sixth century, many of Origen's exegetical approaches and ideas survive in the writings of such Fathers as St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory Nyssa and many others.

Origen's approach to biblical interpretation is based, first and foremost, on his firm belief that every single line, letter, jot and tittle of Scripture has meaning and is directly inspired by God. In isolation, this comment would not be amiss among the most extreme Biblical literalists today, but we must be very careful to note that Origen does not mean the same thing as these modern literalists do. He doesn't view the Bible as a mine for a series of quasi-scientific proofs, nor does he, indeed, privilege the literal/historical level of interpretation. He doesn't dismiss it, but he clearly thinks that sole reliance on this level would tend to distort the 'true' meaning of Scripture and blind the reader to the 'real' meaning of Scripture. This, he argues, is precisely what happened to the Jews, who read the Bible far too literally. This led to their misinterpretation of the injunctions of the Law such as kosher eating, Sabbath and a myriad of distinctive Jewish customs as literal instructions of how to live and their failure to understand the clear prophetic foreshadowing of the coming of Jesus Christ.

Instead of this approach, Origen recommends a 'spiritual' approach in which he suggests we use allegory, typology and other methods to try to understand what was really going on and how to bring it into application for the Christian believer. This means that, in addition and not necessarily in opposition to the literal meaning, other levels of meaning may be employed to explain and make it possible to apply that meaning to one's Christian life today when it counts. Nor is this 'spiritual' approach haphazard in that the symbolic system which undergirds it isn't usually unique to Origen, but rather traces its descent back to the Bible and through the earlier Fathers. This approach (as Ronald Heine, the author of the other book I'm reading, points out), is congruent with the kind of meditative reading used by priests and pastors to make Scripture applicable to the lives of individual believers. It is only our post-Enlightenment obsession with historical (narrowly defined) source-mining which causes us to look askance at the techniques and approaches of a more spiritual approach.

Yet I have to admit that Origen's approach to the Bible isn't without problems. It does bother me when he comments that sometimes the literal level of a passage is simply impossible and then turns to an allegorical explanation to get out of the problem. It bothers me when he imports Platonic philosophy in such a way that it trumps Scripture. I'm not alone, of course, given the Origenist controversies that I've already alluded to.

Nevertheless, no one can deny the influence of Origen nor even that his attempts to explain Scripture showed industry, learning and insight so that we in the Church cannot quite dismiss his exegesis out of hand. Like many brilliant people, where Origen is right, he is brilliantly right. Where he is wrong, he's brilliantly wrong. His brilliance hasn't been questioned. His soundness has sometimes been.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Patristics Carnival V

We have a new host for the Patristics Carnival V, featuring posts from this month. God Fearin' Fiddler at the God Fearin' Forum blog will be hosting.

The guidelines remains the same as Modest Proposal entry back in November and my additions in August.

The last day of submission will be October 31th and the postings will be up later in the week of November 5th. . (NB: Amended October 14th)

Remember you can offer submissions on the carnival site or the dedicated e-mail (

Thanks for God Fearin' for volunteering for this month!


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Patristics Carnival IV is up!

Our intrepid host for this month, Weekend Fisher on the Heart, Mind, Soul and Strength blog, has the new Patristics Carnival IV up. There are a lot of interesting entries. Enjoy!

If there is anyone interested in hosting next month, please let me know in the next few days. Meanwhile, think about your entries for Patristics Carnival V.