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At the same time hagiography

March 27, 2017

The line of [the Church Fathers’] discussion traverses a region rich and interesting, and opens on those who follow them in it a succession of instructive views as to the aims, the difficulties, the disappointments, under which they journeyed on heavenward, their care of the brethren, their anxieties about contemporary teachers of error. Dogma and proof are in them at the same time hagiography. They do not write a summa theologiæ, or draw out a catena, or pursue a single thesis through the stages of a scholastic disputation. They wrote for the occasion, and seldom on a carefully-digested plan. –John Henry Newman, Historical Sketches

How much does this apparent overlap of proof and hagiography have to do with the Fathers’ historical situation? A time of martyrs, confessors, and polemics, which is to say, a time before the Church held a stable political situation, such that every theological debate was at the same time a debate about the very survival of the Church. To give three prominent examples: 1) The Gnostics threatened to absorb Christianity into the mystery-religion syncreticism of late pagan Roman. 2) In an opposed but ultimately similar move, the Donatists tried to protect the Church’s purity by cutting off those who succumbed to Roman influence even after the Empire had begun to Christianize. 3) The Arians, and later the monophysites and monothelites—all heresies fostered at the Imperial Court—tried to make Christ a blend of God and man, rather than fully God and fully man, a position which would have buttressed caesaropapism’s implied belief in the quasi-divinity of kings, and their right to rule over the Church.

The theoretical debates over ecclesiastical politics continued in the Middle Ages, but the stakes were less existential; the Church was not threatened by civil society—it was that society—and its struggles with emperor and king more often involved such mundane matters as ecclesiastical appointments than they did dangerous heresies. Anselm was (to my knowledge) the last major bishop-theologian, and it’s difficult to point to a clear connection between his pastoral and his philosophical work. Medieval theologians did not need to write for the occasion—occasions rarely called for it. Medieval theology is a theology of scholastic leisure.

I tend to think that this development is a positive one. Theology ought to be free from politics. But Newman is right that such freedom makes theological less obviously personal. I deny that it makes it altogether so; one can be personable without being a polemicist. Seen in the right light, the Summa theologiae has its own hagiographic qualities—it reveals St. Thomas’s philosophical charity at the same time as his rigor. If medieval theology is impersonal, it is so—as is often said—in much the same manner as the gothic cathedrals.

One last remark. Newman’s writing is, on this scale, more patristic—but is that not because his situation, as a Roman Catholic convert in an Anglican nation slowly becoming secular, was more politically fraught?

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