Archive for the ‘Patristics’ Category

After a Long Silence…

The dissertation is now wrapping up and, perhaps more importantly for this site, I’ve just received notice that I’ll be presenting at October’s PMR conference at Villanova.

I’ll be doing an in-depth look at structural units in Gregory’s homilies in a presentation entitled: “A Compositional Taxonomy for Gregory the Great’s Forty Gospel Homilies.” Now, does that sound exciting or what!

(Yes, I know, “…or what”)

In any case, I hope to be doing some of my research in public here in order both to engage in some dialogue (I hope) and to raise awareness about the place and importance of these homilies for the whole of the Western homiletical tradition.

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Gregory the Great’s Forty Gospel Homilies: A Brief Introduction

Gregory the Great (540-604) is only one of two popes to ever receive the epithet “Great” (I’ll deal with Leo later) and he earned it through a vast amount of labor as well as godliness. Some of that labor is in written form and it has been found sufficient to the point that Gregory is one of the four original Doctors of the Latin Church (along with Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine). Perhaps best known in Anglo-Saxonist circles for his Cura Pastoralis which earned a place in Alfred’s translation project, he also left behind a multitude of letters and exegetical works, especially his works on Job, Ezekiel, and the Song of Songs. His Forty Gospel Homilies were probably preached in the early years of his pontificate at public masses (Hurst suggests 591-2).

As Evans notes in her entry on Gregory in the Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (DBI, vol 1. p. 465) Gregory’s exegesis is not especially original, rather he was a talented synthesist of earlier material, especially Augustine. Gregory, of course, would be horrified at the suggestion that he either was or ought to be original. Instead, the whole point was to pass on the teachings faithful as they had been received. Many’s the time that I’ve read through a passage in the writings of Leo or John Cassian only to stop and think, “Waitaminute…I thought Gregory said that…” only to find upon checking that he had. Indeed, given the state of Augustine’s sermons, we should be quite thankful that Gregory took the time to untangle the line of reasoning amongst all the side-references and hare chases that Augustine so effortlessly tosses out. As a synthesist, Gregory falls fully within the monastic tradition as one concerned to transmit the tradition clearly.

He’s also fully monastic in the purpose of his exegesis. Gregory can talk doctrine and is comfortable doing so, but that’s neither his strength nor his passion. Rather, he is interested in the spiritual life which, in his time and place, went hand in hand with the moral life. His sermons are very hortatory, constantly calling for amendment of life and behavior. In doing so, he also often “descends” from pure exegesis to relate a colorful story about a local figure who presents an example of some sort—either positive or negative. Furthermore, these tend to come right towards the end as he’s moving towards a final paranetic statement.

Gregory is probably best known exegetically for his use of allegory. It’s frequent and can be quite fanciful at times. Especially for those taught in modernist settings that eschew the allegorical as a departure from the “plain sense of the text”, it can get hard to swallow at times. Remember, though, that Gregory is here at play and, following the Augustinian dictum, finds nothing in allegory that is not plainly stated elsewhere in the Scriptural text. Furthermore, he’s taking 2 Tim 3:16 quite literally and is trying to find nuggets of instruction anywhere and everywhere in the text—and he’s not a bit afraid to dig for them, either.

Gregory’s sermons were well received by the tradition and were further aided by the fact that the heart of the Roman Gospel lectionary of the late 6th century was to become normative for the next thirteen or so centuries in the West. Paul the Deacon’s original homiliary contains 33 selections from Gregory. One is an excerpt from the Dialogues (Dial. 4.60), the other 32 are from the Gospel Homilies. Only 8 were excluded (4, 17, 22, 28, 33, 38, 39, 40 [which makes you wonder if PD had a defective copy lacking its end…]). Ælfric used 32 of Gregory’s homilies in his Catholic Homilies according to Godden’s commentary. Of those, Ælfric based his sermons on Gregory’s for 19 of them. (Unlike PD, he uses Gregory’s Hom 38-40)

Despite its success in the medieval period, this work has not been well received in the modern. No critical edition currently exists; we must still rely on Migne for a Latin text. Clemens points us to a critical edition I hadn’t known about: Gregorivs Magnvs, Homiliae in Evangelia cura et studio Raymond Étaix. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers 1999 (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 141). As far as English goes, there’s a translation by Dom Hurst in the Cistercian Studies series (CS 123). Hurst notes that in preparation of the English, he noted that the first 20 homilies appear to be out of liturgical order in the earliest manuscript (and Migne) whereas the last 20 follow it scrupulously. Thus, he rearranged them to a more logical sequence. Be aware of this, as it means that there are two quite different numbering systems for the lower 20; Godden refers to the PL’s numbers. I’ll have to see what the Étaix edition does with these homilies…

[Hopefully as we move through July, I’ll be posting some pieces on a few representative sermons from this collection and aim to give a further wrap-up on the whole thing towards its end. I’ll also be moving out of state them, so we’ll see how much of this happens…]

A Resolution

I haven’t been writing much over here. That’s primarily due to several major work projects which have given me no time to work on the dissertation. As these pressures are easing, I’m hoping to do something constructive with this space.

I was trying to figure out what I could do that would be helpful for me, interesting for readers, and that would add to the volume of useful material freely and easily accessible. After giving it a little thought, I’ve decided to try looking at the sermon collections of patristic and later thinkers who tended to be anthologized in the Western homiliary tradition.

My plan, therefore, is each month to take a collection—like Gregory’s 40 Gospel Homilies or Leo’s sermons—to give an overview and sketch the bounds of the collection and its later use at the head of the month. Then, I’ll try and look at a representative sermon fro it each week and then, at the end of the month, make some reflections on exegetical technique and practice and anything else that’s caught my eye while reading through them.

I’m hoping this will give me a vehicle for disciplined reflection on the corpus of patristic and early medieval preaching and an opportunity to give folks a sense of who the preachers were, a sense of their personality beyond just a name in a source list.

On Early Medieval Catechetical Narratives

Here are a relatively random assembly of thoughts on early medieval catechesis that are floating around in my mind as I consider revising chapter 2 of my dissertation…

Within the patristic period, I see two general kinds of catechism occurring, each linked to different situations.

The first type contain the catechetical lectures/sermons/addresses connected directly with baptism at the Easter Vigil and is centered temporally in the 4th century Mediterranean world. In this model, those who wished to enter the church would begin a rigorous period of preparation that started at the beginning of Lent. The catechumens, who were only allowed in church for the first part of the service—no Gospel reading or Eucharist for the unbaptized—would be instructed in some of the basics of the Christian faith. Certain core teachings like the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, etc. were given to them and their meaning expounded upon. Then–the Vigil happened to them. In the weeks after, the meaning of everything that had experienced at the Vigil–preeminently their Baptism and first Eucharist–was explained. So, the catechesis was centered around ritual acts. The two great examples of this category would be the Catechetical Lectures/Mystagogical Catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem and On the Mysteries by Ambrose.

The second proceeds from Augustine. As many know, Augustine is often seen as the father of western homiletics as his On Christian Teaching is the first “homiletical textbook”. As far as the title goes it is correct—but less for On Christian Teaching than is commonly supposed. There’s not much hard evidence for the use of On Christian Teaching that I’m aware of for quite some time; what did have a clear impact is his On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed. In this work, Augustine offers quite a bit of advice to a Carthaginian deacon on how to teach new and/or would-be Christians. (Among his nuggets of wisdom in this work, he tells the deacon not to be tedious—then goes on to disregard his own advice…) The key thing here is that he gives two sample sermons which were to prove very influential. Augustine’s major goal here is to convey a worldview by sketching the span history from creation to the final judgment by means of a theological perspective.

Ok–that’s enough patristic stuff for now—on to the medievals and especially Ælfric…

Reading through Ælfric’s corpus, an attentive reader notices that he continually returns to certain themes grounded in an overarching narrative that holds together the Scriptures, world history, and the eschatological fulfillment. The numerous bits and pieces scattered throughout his writings point towards several texts that lay out a narrative of this kind. Virginia Day’s 1974 article “The influence of the catechetical narratio on Old English and some other medieval literature” correctly identified the place of Ælfric’s core narrative within its patristic and early medieval trajectory.

Day begins by defining the identifying characteristics of what she refers to as the “catechetical narratio”:

In medieval literature there are a number of examples of a type of writing which provides an outline of Christian cosmology and Christian history. These works deal, usually briefly, with the following: [1] God and his creative powers, [2] the creation, [3] the fall of the angels, [4] the creation and fall of man, [5] biblical history, [6] the redemption, [7] Christ’s life, [8] the crucifixion, [9] the descent into hell, [10] the resurrection, [11] the ascension, [12] the second coming and last judgement. The subjects vary somewhat; the fall of man and his redemption are of central importance, and some outline versions are reduced to these essentials.[1]

Day identifies the originating source of this outline—particularly taking creation as a starting point and emphasizing redemption—as Augustine’s De Catechizandis Rudibus. While correct in highlighting the importance of this patristic work, she misses a yet more basic source, indeed, Augustine’s own: the creeds. Of her twelve common elements only three—elements 3, 4, and 5—are not contained within the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.

Day helpfully identifies a number of works that implement Augustine’s catechetical pattern: Avitus of Vienne’s Libelli de Spiritalis Historiae Gestis, Hrabanus Maurus’s De Fide Catholica—a reorganization of the Hiberno-Latin Altus Prosator, Odo of Cluny’s Occupatio, the Old Irish Voyage of Snegdus and MacRiagla, the poem Saltair na Rann, the prose version of the same in the Lebar Bec,[2] (Ps.-)Boethius’s De Fide Catholica, and a handful of sermons—both freestanding and incorporated into martyrologies.[3] The two most important early medieval adaptations of Augustine’s work are Martin of Braga’s De Correctione Rusticorum and Pirmin’s Scarapsus.[4]

Turning to the narratio’s effect on OE literature, Day mentions Cædmon’s hymn, the Junius Manuscript’s “Genesis” and “Christ and Satan”[5] but focuses upon three OE sermons: the anonymous Vercelli XIX, Ælfric’s De Initio Creaturae (CH I.1), and Wulfstan’s Bethurum VI—a reworking of Ælfric’s piece. All three bear the imprint of Martin of Braga’s work; the first and last show clear signs of Pirmin’s as well. Ælfric’s, though, is more independent from its sources.[6]

Ælfric presents his own particular version of the narratio in a number of his writings:

Ælfric produced other versions of the Christian cycle. There is one at the beginning of his Letter to Sigeweard[7] and another at the beginning of his Letter to Wulfgeat. His Hexameron also contains similar material; although its structure is that of the six days’ work [of creation], it closes with a reference to the redemption and eternal life and a passage of exhortation… There is also evidence that the Letter to Sigeweard, the Letter to Wulfgeat and the Hexameron all lean on the De Initio [CH I.1] in diction and phraseology. The De Initio was Ælfric’s most complete version; it is as if all the latter accounts presuppose the existence of this basic one.[8]

Day also mentions Ælfric’s works De Creatore et Creatura and De Sex Etatibus huius Seculi.[9] Furthermore, verbal and thematic parallels may be found throughout Ælfric’s sermons such as CH I.13, CH II.1, and LS 16. Truly grasping this narrative and its contours is essential to apprehending Ælfric’s program.

Day touches on the crucial importance of this narratio. Since her intention, is to place Ælfric’s appropriation within a larger trajectory she does not explore the idea further but states:

The catechetical background explains why he chose the De Initio to open his Catholic Homilies: the catechetical sermon is the traditional introduction to Christianity. In the Letter to Sigeweard the narratio serves as an introduction to a discussion of the bible and Ælfric’s various translations from it. The Augustinian background makes clear how apt this is. Augustine considered that the catechetical narratio should provide the essential narrative and message of the scriptures interpreted for the ignorant: the narratio is to lay down the guidelines for the understanding of scripture. Accordingly, before allowing his reader to proceed to what he conceived of as the dangerous terrain of the bible itself, Ælfric took the opportunity to clarify the correct message to be derived from it. In the Letter to Wulfgeat also the context of the narratio is clearly ‘catechetical’: Ælfric prefaces his advice on how to live the moral life with a brief outline of the Christian cycle, exactly as Augustine had recommended that the narratio be followed by exhortation. In general Ælfric’s production of several versions of the narratio—as well as his use of some similar material in the Hexameron—has the aim of providing a framework for the unlettered, of placing each particular point of Christian doctrine in relation to the pattern of the whole.[10]

Day rightly identifies the function of this narratio: to fix the framework of the Christian story in the minds of its hearers. Her point may be extended—especially given the verbal reminiscences and allusions in Ælfric’s other writings—that it securely embeds itself within the worldview of the preacher and interpreter as well.


[1] Virginia Day, “The influence of the catechetical narratio on Old English and some other medieval literature”, ASE 3 (1974): 51-61, 51. The numeration of the elements is my own for ease of reference.

[2] Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 54.

[3] Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 53

[4] Ibid.

[5] Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 54-55.

[6] Both Day and Godden—citing Day—emphasize the freedoms that Ælfric takes with his sources. While they both acknowledge his significant debt to Augustine and Martin of Braga, close verbal parallels are few and tentative. Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 57; Godden, Commentary, 8.

[7] Actually, the letter as a whole is largely structured by this narrative—certainly by the logic of the narrative.

[8] Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 57, 58.

[9] Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 57 n.9.

[10] Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 59.

On Elaine Pagels and The Gnostic Gospels

The Swain points us to a good article on Elaine Pagels and her book, The Gnostic Gospels. I read The Gnostic Gospels as part of my coursework as one of our main introductions to Gnosticism. However, we also read a number of primary texts and other secondary literature which quickly led us to the conclusions outlined in the article.

The book is clear and accessible and for that reason is often used as an introduction to Gnosticism. And, if one is not a Scripture scholar, this may be the only perspective that you’ll get on the topic. For that reason I think this article is an important one for people who work around issues of late antiquity and the early medieval period and who do not focus on religion. The most accessible work is a skewed one.

I see three major take-aways here:

  1. There’s no substitute for reading primary sources. I know there are a lot of them, but only engaging them yourself can you get a sense of the landscape and therefore what various secondary sources are either eliding or ignoring.
  2. For the interdisciplinary, we can never read all the primary sources let alone the secondary. So we have to know our core primary sources and the important secondary sources on them and speak up about these to our colleagues. Furthermore, when doing work outside of our core—ask around about the sources you’re using or are planning to use!
  3. Our frameworks and models are are always our own—for good and ill. That is, Pagels’ reconstruction of gnosticism is coming out of her perspective and worldview. That’s not good or bad—that’s inevitable. What I believe we who do models and frameworks to reconstruct past movements and cultures must do is be self-aware about where and how our worldview is influencing our perspective on our sources. Sometimes our experiences will add fresh insights to how things fit together; at others they’ll skew things. The more rooted we in our in our primary sources, and weigh our models against the evidence we have, the better off we’ll be. As Albert Schweitzer so wisely warned at the beginning of the last century in his Quest for the Historical Jesus: if your reconstruction of Jesus (or your author/person/culture/movement…) looks, sounds, and acts like you it’s time to think again…