Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Jerome and Augustine Again

If there is one thing I try to emphasize with my students, it is that information in literary sources needs to be read and understood in context. If some Chinese historian writes about the Huns (Xiongnu), for example, you need to understand that in the light of his whole historical argument. And that will usually involve reading the whole book, not just strip-mining it for useful quotations. And sometimes as you read the whole book, you come across interesting passages that you otherwise would have missed.

I came across an example of this recently as well. While finally getting around to actually reading Bede's florilegium of Augustine passages commenting on the epistles of Paul (I'd bogged down in Romans for a while), I came across this passage from one of his letters to Jerome that is the best expression of some of the points I've been trying to make in my on-going posts on Biblical interpretation.

It occurs on pp. 222-23 of Excerpts from the Works of St. Augustine on the Letters of the Blessed Apostle Paul, and is on Gal. 5:18:

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are no longer under the law.
What is being under the law in the way the Apostle finds faulty may be seems to me an important question. I do not believe [here he contrasts his view with that of Jerome, to whom he was writing] that he said this on account of circumcision, or the sacrifices once made by our ancestors, but not now made by Christians, or other things of this kind, but on account of this saying of the law, 'You shall not covet.' This I grant Christians definitely must observe, and must preach with all the light the gospel sheds on it.

In other words, the law that Paul is saying doesn't justify is precisely the law that Christians must observe, not some other, obsolete, law.

The words of the law, 'You shall not covet,' bind a guilty person under it, and, if human weakness is not aided by God's grace, rather condemn a transgressor than set a sinner free. How much less, then, could those things commanded because of what they pointed to -- circumcision and the rest, which had to be abolished while the revelation of grace was becoming more widely known -- justify anyone?

Once law is redefined in this way, then circumcision is seen as not something bad in itself. It's not a question of good laws versus bad ones, but of the general problem with law as a category. Even so, Augustine does not envision a church with permanent religious-cultural* diversity:

And yet they [i.e. Mosaic rituals] were not for this reason to be shunned, as if they were the diabolical sacrileges of the nations, even while the grace that such signs foreshadowed was beginning to be revealed. They were to be allowed for a while, especially to those who had come from that nation [of the Jews]. Later on, however, they were to be honorably buried, so to speak, by all Christians, and given up without blame.

So eventually, mature Christianity will lead to ritual conformity and the "honorable burial" of all religious culture that diverges from the mainstream. As I have said before, this is part of the way, but still considerably short of where Luther and the Evangelical Reformation put the question of liturgical/ritual diversity.

*On this term, which I prefer to the nihilistic-sounding adiaphora, see here.

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