Friday, August 21, 2009

Observations on the City of God

Over the last month or so, I've been working through Augustine's massive, but justly revered, work, the City of God. It has been a good, if slow read. That is a dramatic change from the last few times I've tried to return to this classic. Over the last ten years, I think I've started the City of God at least three or four times. Each time, I've tried, I easily worked through the fun (for me) historical sections, but I bogged down in the Greek religion/Platonist philosophy section in books 6-10 (not fun for me!). This time, I've made it to the second section in which St. Augustine builds his case for the two cities in history- the City of Man and the City of God. I'm just winding up Book 11.

My first encounter with the City of God was way back in the fall of 1991, when I was a new M.A. student enrolled in a course which we jokingly called Beginners Intensive Augustine (really, it was Topics in Mediaeval History). In one term, we read the Confessions and the City of God at what could only be called a breakneck speed. Wow! Thinking back on it, I can't say we did anything but skim over both works as only source-mining historians can. Forget the theology, kids. We focused primarily on issues of audience, historiography and influence. Perhaps that is why I don't recall much about what I did besides a rather lacklustre research paper I wrote on Augustine's historical sources and building 'ramparts' of quotations to defend my interpretations in class on key questions (it was a little bit of combative class). So, what I thought might be helpful is to give some general impressions I've had on the first ten books this time.

First, what has really struck me this time around is just how effective St. Augustine was in appropriating his contemporary cultural inheritance and refracting it through an entirely different Christian lens. His use of the moralizing Roman historiographical tradition, exemplified by Sallust, against the contention that neglect of the gods was what responsible for the sack of Rome in AD 410 is the obvious example, especially his use of the moralizing digressions found in the Bellum Catilinae. Perhaps unnoticed by most people is the exploitation of the moral exemplars used in Latin rhetorical education for a similar end. Using Lucretia, the very model of a noble Roman matron, as a negative example of virtue not trusted is an impressive reversal of a time-worm exemplar. We could multiply the examples all night.

Second, having fought my way through the religion and philosophy section, it is interesting to notice a similar methodology to Augustine's handling of his historical sources. He uses a philosophic critique, first, to undermine both the poetic and civic versions of Graeco-Roman religion by condemning them as superstitious and, then, uses it to undermine the very philosophers he used earlier by condemning them for cowardice and tolerance of superstition. In the first case, he uses the Platonic concept of a natural theology to condemn the morally questionable tales of the gods found in poetry and, particularly, in stage shows and, then, transfers this opprobrium onto the civic cult which, Augustine argues, repeats the same stories as part of their sacred stories. The reluctance of even the Platonist philosophers (the school of philosophy which Augustine believed was closest to the truth represented by Christianity) to condemn the civic religion or even the magical art of theurgy is, in Augustine's eyes, mere cowardice and shows the limits of philosophical religion which might apprehend the truth in its reasoning, but didn't have the courage of its own convictions.

Third, Augustine's theories about daemones and the gods also struck me as interesting, partly in their own right and partly because of conversations I was having with a friend on the subject. Augustine develops a modified Euhemerism when he deals with the nature of the Greek and Roman gods. He argues that the major gods were really historical persons who committed adultery, murdered and such like in their lifetimes, but which were so revered by members of their community that they were considered gods, likely in an analogous form to emperor worship in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. He, then, adds that daemones, which he defines as made of ether and with an eternal life-span, but filled with passions and deceit, exploited this worship and began to perform wonders and portents to transfer the devotion felt to these dead heroes to them. Thus, practices such as sacrificing, telling the sacred, if obscene sacred stories and, eventually, the morally corrupt stage shows come from. What interested me was just how real Augustine felt the daemones were in contrast with our own modern tendency to dismiss such creatures as needless superstition. Personally, I don't know what to do with this. but I'm not comfortable with either tendency.

That, I think, is enough to chew on. I'll probably post again on the City of God, but after I've worked further into the second section.



Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Call for Submissions- Patristics Carnival XVII

Welcome to Patristic Carnival XXVII. This month, we're over at The Church of Jesus Christ blog. Thanks to Joel (Polycarp) for taking this month. I always appreciate when someone else hosts because it takes the load off me and I get to see other takes on how the carnival should work.

The guidelines remain the same as the Modest Proposal entry back in November, 2006 and my additions in August, 2007.

The last day of submission will be August 31 and the postings will be up in the week of September 6th.

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


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Patristics Carnival XXVI

Patristics Carnival XXVI is now up at Compliant Subversity. There are many fine blog entries on offer, so go out and enjoy them!

Thanks to Seumas McDonald for hosting this month and taking pressure off of me while I move.
The next carnival will probably be back at hyperekperissou...unless someone wants to volunteer!


Sunday, August 09, 2009

History and the Four-Fold Senses of Scripture- Joshua Revisited

It has been a while since I've written, I know, but haven't been able to do so what with moving into our first house, the packing and unpacking and the inevitable long list of errands to get done. It, also, didn't help that it took just over a week to get the Internet hooked up. So, that is by way of excuse for my silence over the last few weeks.

Now that I'm back, I thought the most helpful thing I could do would be to revisit the Joshua discussion that we were having last July. In that post, I attempted to apply the four-fold sense of scripture to Joshua 1-7; a passage which I had read recently and which struck me could benefit from this exegetical approach. In the course of the discussion which followed, a regular commenter, Jim, suggested that the anagogical level of the exegesis ran the risk of becoming eisegesis- that is, could be seen as reading in meaning, not extracting it from the passage. I countered with a suggestion that it was on this level that the the different readings of the OT by Jews and Christians becomes much more prominent as well as agreeing on the importance of reading the OT. Maureen (also, a regular) defended the anagogical level of exegesis by suggesting that it was implicit in the way that biblical writers wrote. Here is the link to that post for those of you who may have missed it and want to see the full discussion.

In thinking about this exchange, I did want to add a few things in retrospect.

Firstly, I don't think I made it clear that, strictly speaking, what I was attempting to do was more typology than allegory. Now, that isn't that big a deal, I grant, as typology is a species of allegory- the difference being that typology is rooted historically because the types are drawn from the history of Israel and linked to later events, usually in Jesus' lifetime. Thus, the earlier event is seen as predicting and preparing the way for the much more significant later event. Thus, the blood of the lamb in Passover is a type of Jesus' blood shed on the cross or Moses extending his arms during the battle against the Amalkites (Exodus 17, 8-15) is a type of Jesus on the cross. The type is, in this sense, a dim reflection of the later event which is, usually, associated with the life of Christ. However, there is a contextual similarity. In the context of the blood of lamb type, the contextual similarity which seems meant is that of sacrifice through blood leading to salvation (of Israel and of the world). In the context of the Moses example, it is that of suffering leading to victory (again, Israel against the real threat of the Amalkites in the first case and people (especially of God) against the forces of evil in the world).

The distinguishing mark between typology and allegory is that typology relies on history rather more than allegory. Allegory is, ultimately, ahistorical, while typology keeps a two-fold sense to history- the event itself is what it is, but it has a hidden significance which only comes to light later, after the coming of Jesus. This, I think, connects to my point about reading the OT in Christian eyes because the type can only be detected in retrospect, when the event it connects to, actually happens. In this case, this is the life of Christ.

A second and more important point in this connection is that my discussion of the typology in Joshua was, in fact, incomplete. I think there is a modified typology between Exodus and Joshua, as I argued, but I didn't try to extend that to what I think the real referent is- Jesus. The fact that the Exodus story was widely considered a type for Jesus and his relationship with the Church (as Israel) suggests that such a connection is essential for understanding this passage and may explain why Jim protested the anagogical level as much as he did as it did kind of come from nowhere. However, if we see in the Exodus story and the wanderings of the Jews in the wilderness as a type of the Church's sojourn in the world, the types will make better sense in a Christian interpretation. I think I've made the link to the Passover story more explicit, so the Rahab story may be considered a secondary type because the red string is intended to recall the blood of the lamb which is, as we observed above, is a type of Jesus' blood. So, the two OT stories share the same typological referent- Jesus' blood and its saving power. This would hold true of the crossing of the Jordon and the crossing of the Red Sea as a type of baptism, especially previewed by Jesus. I'll have to think more on the other parallels, but I think you see where I'm going with this.

My last point is a rather more theological point and one that I think Jim may have problems with. Ultimately, Jim's concern about my anagogical exegesis will probably not be solved by the more full explanation of my allegorical method. I say this because the core of the concern is that I'm reading in meanings which are inconsistent to the meanings intended by the author and remembered by the community addressed by these writings. In a sense, he is right because central to my application of typology to this (or any text) is a suggestion that there is a layer of meaning which the original writers did not understand fully and which we, as Christians, do. That is, we are forced, as Christians, in light of Jesus' life and teaching, to read the Bible quite differently than the original Jewish writers and readers did. In that sense, we are committed to an eisegesis because we are, frankly, reading in the story of Christ into the story of Israel in the firm belief that the story of Israel was meant as a way of previewing and preparing for the salvation of story implicit in Jesus' life, death and resurrection.

So, this begs the question of which reading should we privilege and here we come to precisely where Jim and I are in disagreement. Jim rightly points out that the original intent of the text is more consistent with a Jewish/historical reading. While I agree that this is the original intent and we need to pay strict attention to it, I'm arguing that a second, hidden level of meaning which is deeply Christocentric is key to fully understanding the passage. I am, of course, opening a huge exegetical can of worms here because issues like who decides on a valid allegorical/typological meaning, what to do about the spectre of supersessionism implicit in patristic allegory/typology and what to do about history to name just a few issues before us. Yet, the promise of this kind of patristic reading to get us away from the narrow-minded literalism (in both its conservative and liberal incarnations) characteristic of the current series of church wars as well as help us to understand the OT more fully.

As always, comments and criticisms are welcome.