Monday, January 27, 2014

Should Heretics be Tolerated? (Part 1 of ∞)

Photo taken Nov. 17, 2013, in St. David, AZ

I will return later to receptions of the parables in the early church (I’m looking at you, Clement of Alexandria!), but for the next couple weeks I want to discuss a topic that will arise again and again as I write this book: "Should heretics be tolerated?"

I have found some fascinating interactions with the parable of the Wheat and Weeds/Tares in my research on parable reception in the Middle Ages and discussions of what to do with "heretics." I'll discuss two main people in the next two weeks: Thomas Aquinas and Wazo of Liège. They use the Wheat/Weeds parable and reach differing conclusions about what to do about “heretics.” Although this parable is only one of 30+ that will appear in the book, the discussions of it are so important and compelling, I will need to include several interpretations of this parable in the book. The Reformation era should provide some other thought-provoking examples.

I also found something that I had never heard before: the alleged connection between vegetarianism and heresy in the Middle Ages! This is in contrast to some other earlier texts that connect piety and vegetarianism. More on both of those issues later.

The parable of the Wheat and Weeds (NRSV):

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

Thomas Aquinas interprets this parable in interesting ways in his Summa Theologica. But I want to set those discussions in context, so this post will talk about his life, career, and how he tended to interpret the parables overall.

Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1224/5-74)

Thomas was an Italian priest, philosopher, and the most influential Christian theologian of the Middle Ages. Born in Roccasecca (between Rome and Naples), Thomas was sent at the age of five to be an oblate at the Benedictine abbey at Monte Cassino. Against his family’s wishes, however, he entered the Dominican order in 1244 (his family actually held him hostage for almost two years to try to convince him not to join the Dominicans). He studied at the universities of Paris and Cologne, where Albert the Great introduced him to the works of Aristotle that would be so important to Thomas’s later work.

Thomas returned to study Paris in 1252 and received a masters of theology in 1256. He then became a “regent master” at the university (he was a contemporary of Bonaventure). In 1259, Thomas returned to Italy, where he served as a lecturer at several Dominican houses, and from 1265 to 1267, Thomas lived at Santa Sabina, the Dominican house in Rome, where he served as regent master of their studium (“study house”). It was here that he began his classic work, Summa Theologica. Thomas continued working on his Summa Theologica (and wrote various other works) during a second regency in theology in Paris (1268-1272), and he returned as a regent master to his alma mater, the University of Naples, in 1272.

During his twenty-five year career, Thomas wrote or dictated over eight million words, and one-fourth of them were biblical commentary (Kerr 2009: 19). Although he incorporated allegorical interpretations, Thomas emphasized literal interpretations, and this emphasis began the decline of allegorical interpretations of the Bible by theologians and scholars (see Kissinger 1979 for details). Thomas abruptly stopped writing and teaching in response to a mysterious mystical experience that occurred while he was saying mass on December 6, 1273, just three months before his death: “Everything I have written seems to me as straw in comparison to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me” (Kerr 2009: 19-20). His Summa Theologica remained unfinished, and Thomas died on March 7, 1274, while en route to a church council in Lyons. 

Thomas and the Parables

As Thomas writes in Summa Theologica, it is “befitting” for Scripture to explain spiritual truths metaphorically, “by means of comparisons with material things,” especially since “all our knowledge originates from sense.” This allows human beings, even “simple” ones, to understand these truths. Some truths that are revealed metaphorically are explained more clearly in other parts of Scripture, but the use of metaphors helps create “the exercise of thoughtful minds”; they also are a better way to hide spiritual truths from the “unworthy” (I. q. 1, a. 9).

Since God is the author of Scripture and has the power to signify meaning not just by words but also by “things themselves,” Scripture includes the first sense, the literal or historical, and a spiritual sense, which is based on the literal sense and, in fact, presupposes it. The spiritual sense occurs in three aspects: the allegorical (e.g., events in the Hebrew Bible signifying events concerning Jesus in the New Testament), the moral (what we ought to do), and the anagogical (signifying what relates to eternal salvation). Thus what is written in the Bible may indeed, as Augustine argued, have several senses (I. q. 1, a. 10).

This multiplicity does not, however, produce equivocation or confusion as far as interpretation is concerned, because all of these different senses are founded upon the literal sense of Scripture, and arguments about the meaning of the text have to be drawn solely from the literal sense not those intended in the allegorical sense. Thomas writes:

Nevertheless, nothing of Holy Scripture perishes on account of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense . . . .
The parabolical sense is contained in the literal, for by words things are signified properly and figuratively. Nor is the figure itself, but that which is figured, the literal sense. When Scripture speaks of God's arm, the literal sense is not that God has such a member, but only what is signified by this member, namely operative power. Hence it is plain that nothing false can ever underlie the literal sense of Holy Writ (I. q. 1, a. 10).

Thomas also clarifies whether the “literal” sense of a text actually is the meaning of the text itself, the historical event described by the text, or a combination of both. Thomas detaches event and text by saying that the “literal” sense does not designate historical events but the intention of the biblical authors. This development means, for example, that parables could now be interpreted as literary devices, not as allegories. They could be seen as poetic ways that human authors could express their intentions. This expanded literal sense, Thomas declares, was the “sole locus of authoritative sacred doctrine.” The spiritual sense of Scripture, on the other hand, is directly authored by God (Hood 2002: 167). Thomas thus defends and uses allegorical interpretations of parables, but he also cautions about an over-emphasis on allegorization: it adds nothing “necessary to faith” (Kissinger 1979: 42; Grant 1963: 125).

Later this week: Thomas, the parable of the Wheat and Weeds, and what to do with “heretics.”

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