Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Macrina the Younger: Teacher and Philosopher (part 1)

Quick quiz: Do you know who Macrina the Younger is? Do you know why she is holding a picture of the three bearded guys in this image? Why does the icon call her a "teacher"?

Macrina the Younger

Writing this book on the reception history of the parables continues to be a lot of fun. For example, I get to read a number of fascinating interpretations of the parables, as I did many years ago for my What Are they Saying About the Parables? (that book was about recent academic scholarship, though). I also get to reread texts that I had not read for many more years (e.g., Irenaeus). Best of all, I get to expand my research into new areas of art, music, and literature, which includes discovering and reading texts/works of art from and about people I had never really researched before.

Macrina the Younger is one of those people of whom "I had heard by the hearing of my ear" (to borrow words from a vastly different context) but never had the opportunity to study in depth. A bit of background about her life, before I talk about her views on Scripture and specific uses of the parables. 

Macrina the Younger (ca. 327-380)

Macrina the Younger (her paternal grandmother is known as Macrina the Elder) was the older sister of three men who would become bishops and saints of the church: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Peter of Sebaste. They are the ones depicted in the icon above (left to right: Gregory, Peter, Basil). Basil and Gregory also are, along with Gregory of Nazianzus, the famous “Cappadocian Fathers." 

Macrina would also be canonized as a saint, and many details of her life are found in her brother Gregory’s hagiography of her, which takes the form of a letter, Life of Macrina (ca. 380-83). She also is the focus of Gregory’s treatise, Dialogue on the Soul and the Resurrection.

Macrina was born into a wealthy family in Cappadocia (in modern Turkey). Macrina’s father died when she was twelve, and, as the oldest daughter, Macrina played a significant role in the raising of her nine siblings. Her brother Gregory, for example, just four years her junior, repeatedly calls her teacher [Greek didaskalos] in his writings and in his Life of Macrina says that she was “father teacher, guide, mother, counselor in every good” (37).

When Macrina’s fiancé died before their marriage, Macrina decided to remain unmarried and to become an ascetic, also convincing her mother to leave her “ostentatious life-style.” She and her mother retreated to a family estate in Pontus, where they followed a strict regimen of prayer, frugal diet, and manual labor. Macrina, as a “consecrated virgin,” became head not only of the household but also of a community of female ascetics and dedicated herself “to the attainment of the angelical life.”

Gregory concludes his Life of Macrina with a lengthy description of his last meeting with her. She was in the grip of a “grievous sickness” (p. 41), resting not on a bed, but on two planks of wood. Even though she was weak and was “tortured gasping for breath,” she still “expounded arguments of such excellence,” explaining the human condition, unveiling the actions of divine providence, that uplifted Gregory “inside the heavenly sanctuaries by the guidance of her discourse.”

This is the conversation that Gregory describes in detail in his On the Soul and the Resurrection. In many respects, Gregory’s On the Soul and the Resurrection is a Christian Phaedo, since it is reminiscent of the death of Socrates in Plato’s Phaedo. Gregory plays a role similar to Plato, and the dying Macrina is like Socrates on his deathbed arguing for the immortality of the soul. Gregory’s treatise, though, also demonstrates Macrina’s vast knowledge of the Bible and her dedication to following it. Although influenced by Origen, Macrina refuses to conjecture beyond what is found in Scripture about the origin of the world or of the soul (124), which contrasts with Origen’s tendency to speculate beyond Scripture (I'll blog about Origen and the parables in a few weeks). Unlike “Gentile philosophy, which deals methodically with all these points,” such as the origin and nature of the soul, Macrina says (according to Gregory):

we are not entitled to such licence, I mean that of affirming what we please; we make the Holy Scriptures the rule and the measure of every tenet; we necessarily fix our eyes upon that, and approve that alone which may be made to harmonize with the intention of those writings (CCEL).

Scripture is the authoritative source of Christian theology, but, guided by the Holy Spirit, human reason can supplement and bolster one’s faith.

Over the next two or three posts in the next week or so, I'll talk about this work and the use of the parables within it (specifically the Rich Man and Lazarus and the Wheat and the Weeds/Tares parables).

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Clement of Alexandria (part 5: Prodigal Son, Wedding Feast’s Garment, and the power to "butt our enemies")

A final post about Clement that includes some items that most likely will not be discussed in the book, primarily because the parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the four parables most prevalent in various types of interpretations. I have so many other Prodigal Son examples to include that I think are more valuable and interesting.

Clement’s oration on the Passover places the parable of the Prodigal Son in the context of those who have become exiles and fugitives from God. Such exiles, who have squandered their inheritance from God in a “profligacy of debauchery,” can arise and return to God. In response, God is moved with compassion, takes the first step while the son is still far away, runs toward the prodigal, and bestows upon him glory and honor. The actions of the father in the parable are symbolic: The best robe denotes the robe of immortality; the ring is a royal signet ring and divine seal of “consecration, signature of glory, pledge of testimony” (citing John 3:33); the shoes are “not those perishable ones”—and not “the shoes of the sinful soul, by which it is bound and cramped”—but are instead shoes that do not wear out and “are suited for the journey to heaven,” such as the ones put on by those whose feet have been washed by “our Teacher and Lord” (an apparent allusion to John 13:13). The shoes given to the repentant son thus “are buoyant, and ascending, and waft to heaven, and serve as such a ladder and chariot as he requires who has turned his mind towards the Father.”
Jan Luyken, The Man Without a Wedding Garment   
Clement then takes a brief detour to connect the parable of the Wedding Feast’s garment and the delicacies of that dinner (Matt. 22:1-14) to the feast celebrating the return of the prodigal. The fatted calf killed for the celebration of the son’s return may be “spoken of as a lamb (not literally)” because it is not small but “the great and greatest.” Christ, then, is the fatted calf (lamb), because he is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:19) and who “was led as a sheep to the slaughter” (Acts 8:32; cf. Is. 53:7). The sacrifice of the lamb symbolized in the killing of the fatted calf is also symbolic of the Eucharist, because Christ “is both flesh and bread and has given himself as both to us to be eaten.” To the “sons” who return to God as father, God gives them the calf, “and it is slain and eaten.” But those who do not return to God, God “pursues and disinherits, and is found to be a most powerful bull,” whose “glory is as that of an unicorn” (Numbers 23:22) and who gives this strength to those who partake in the Eucharist and are given the power to “butt our enemies” (Psalm 44:5).

The elder son reacts negatively to the party the father gives for the younger son, but Clement asks, “what greater joy and feast and festivity can be than being continually with God, standing by his side and serving him?” The text then, after giving this “strict meaning of the parable,” includes an interpretation that some scholars believe is written by a later hand, a hand that explicitly moralizes the parable: God gives human beings the power to reason, to discern between good and evil, and the responsibility to pursue what is good and avoid what is evil. Many, however, act like the prodigal and choose evil (e.g., “swinish gluttony”), even after being baptized, because their “reason is darkened.” When they repent, though, God restores them. The prodigal thus represents the love that God shows to those who return and repent, putting on the best robe is baptism and forgiveness, and the giving of the ring symbolizes the mystery of the Trinity.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Clement of Alexandria (part 4: Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved? continued)

Vincent van Gogh
The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix), 1890

As I noted yesterday, Clement’s reasoning about Jesus' real meaning about the dangers of wealth being "one’s attachment to wealth" also has a practical benefit. If wealthy people give away all they have and become destitute, they cannot help anyone else and also might need assistance themselves: It is much more beneficial, Clement says, that rich people not be destitute—and therefore in need of assistance themselves—but they also must help others with their possessions (13):
How could one give food to the hungry, and drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and shelter the houseless, for not doing which he threatens with fire and the outer darkness, if each man first divested himself of all these things? 
The rich should therefore act like Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector who gave away half of his possessions to the poor (Luke 19:1-10). After Zacchaeus had done so, Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Clement concludes that riches that also benefit our neighbors “are not to be thrown away” (13); on the other hand, we must “renounce those possessions that are injurious” (15; cf. Clement’s discussion of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus and the parable of the Great Dinner in which he argues that possessions themselves are not condemned but the covetous “inordinate affection” for possessions is condemned; Stromata 5.12).
Clement notes that Jesus declared the greatest commandment to be to “love the Lord your God with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Clement tends to cite biblical passages imprecisely), with the second being to “love your neighbor as yourself.” When the lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus did not say a “blood-relation, or the fellow-citizen, or the proselyte, or him that had been similarly circumcised, or the man who uses one and the same law.” Instead Jesus speaks of someone who was stabbed (Clement adds this item to the story) and left half-dead by robbers, passed by the priest, looked sideways at by the Levite, but pitied by the vilified and excommunicated Samaritan. The Samaritan, unlike the others, did not travel “by chance,” but came provided with things the wounded man needed to nurse him to health—oil, bandages, a beast of burden, and money for the inn-keeper. The point of the parable is that the despised Samaritan proved to be the neighbor of the man in distress, and Jesus says to go and do likewise (28).

After this discussion of the moral aspects of the story, Clement begins to apply the parable to his contemporaries with some allegorized elements. Jesus is the Good Samaritan, because he has “pitied us, who by the rulers of darkness were all but put to death with many wounds, fears, lusts, passions, pains, deceits, pleasures.” Jesus is the true physician who has

poured wine on our wounded souls (the blood of David’s vine), that brought the oil which flows from the compassions of the Father, and bestowed it copiously. He it is that produced the ligatures of health and of salvation that cannot be undone,—Love, Faith, Hope. He it is that subjected angels, and principalities, and powers, for a great reward to serve us . . . . We are therefore to love Him equally with God.

The best answer to Jesus’ question about which one proved to be the neighbor (Luke 10:36) is that Jesus, as Savior, proves to be the ultimate “neighbor,” with human beings being the wounded man who is healed by Jesus (see Roukema 61). Clement then closes his treatise by saying that one who loves Christ will keeps his commandments to love God and neighbor (Matt. 7:21, 8:16-17; Luke 6:46), including caring for the needy, since Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, the stranger, and the prisoner (Matt. 25:34-40; Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved? 29-30).

I was fortunate to see van Gogh's The Good Samaritan (above) in person last fall. It was on loan to the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Biblical topics are rare from him. Since the painting was on loan, I was unable to take a picture, but it was placed next to his Pietà (also after Delacroix), 1889, and I was allowed to take a picture of it:

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Clement of Alexandria (part 3: Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved?)

In my James Through the Centuries, one of the most fascinating aspects of the reception history of James is how people interpret the sections where James highlights the most challenging and radical aspects of Jesus’ message about wealth, poverty, power, and social justice (e.g., from the Sermon of the Mount). James inherits in many ways the heart, mind, and message of Jesus (Patrick Hartin and others make this case as well), but these challenging statements have usually been domesticated (or ignored altogether) since the time of Jesus and James. The reception history of Jesus’ parables shows a similar dynamic.

Clement’s Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved? gives an interesting example of how later Christians interpreted Jesus’ radical teachings about the dangers of wealth. In addition, the treatise includes an interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example story almost completely free from allegorization.
Clement begins his work with harsh words against those who “bestow laudatory addresses on the rich.” They are dishonorable flatterers and “godless and treacherous,” because instead of praising and glorifying God, “who is alone perfect and good,” they “invest with divine honors” those rich who wallow “in an execrable and abominable life” (1). Such flattery even further corrupts the rich whose “wealth is of itself sufficient to puff up and corrupt” their souls.

So Clement does not excuse the wealthy, but he also looks at the other side of the coin: Salvation appears to be more difficult for the wealthy for a number of reasons, but some (presumably wealthy people) who hear Jesus’ admonition that “that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:24) begin to despair of the possibility of their salvation, although others (correctly) comprehend that all things are possible with God (2). Clement obviously doesn’t want the wealthy to despair of salvation, so he explains further.
Clement then paraphrases the story in Mark 10:17-31 about the rich man who came to Jesus and was told to sell all that he had and give to the poor. Although the story seems straightforward, Clement says that since Jesus always teaches with a “divine and mystic wisdom,” there is more to the story than meets the eye. Therefore, “we must not listen to His utterances carnally; but with due investigation and intelligence must search out and learn the meaning hidden in them” (5). There is a “superabundance of wisdom in Jesus’ words which must be contemplated figuratively, with a “supercelestial depth of mind.” Jesus’ words are actually about the condition of the soul, says Clement:

And what is this? He does not, as some conceive off-hand, bid him throw away the substance he possessed, and abandon his property; but bids him banish from his soul his notions about wealth, his excitement and morbid feeling about it, the anxieties, which are the thorns of existence, which choke the seed of life (11).

Clement thus says that Jesus really means that it is one’s attachment to wealth that is the problem, not wealth itself. It is not the outward act of giving away one’s possessions that Jesus wants; instead it is “the greater, more godlike, more perfect, the stripping off of the passions from the soul itself,” the ridding one’s soul of “the lust and desire for money” (12).

Clement’s reasoning also has a practical benefit, one that I will examine tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Clement of Alexandria (part 2: The Sower)

A very short example today from Clement. Later this week, I will post a lengthy discussion of Clement’s fascinating treatise, Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved? and, perhaps, a bit about his interpretation of the Prodigal Son.

Pieter Bruegel the ElderLandscape with the Parable of the Sower, 1557
In Stromata 1.7, Clement comments on the parable of the Sower and illustrates how the preparatory knowledge of God came through Greek philosophy. This preparatory knowledge came not with a definite direction but in the way in which showers fall down on, for example, good land, the dunghill, and houses:

And here we are aided by the parable of the sower, which the Lord interpreted. For the husbandman of the soil which is among men is one; He who from the beginning, from the foundation of the world, sowed nutritious seeds; He who in each age rained down the Lord, the Word. But the times and places which received [such gifts], created the differences which exist. Further, the husbandman sows not only wheat (of which there are many varieties), but also other seeds—barley, and beans, and peas, and vetches, and vegetable and flower seeds. And to the same husbandry belongs both planting and the operations necessary in the nurseries, and gardens, and orchards, and the planning and rearing of all sorts of trees.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Update on Bunyan Research

I have finished writing the sections on Bunyan's life, his overall view and use of the parables, and an analysis of his lengthy interpretation of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (A Few Sighs from Hell, which I am tempted to rename, A Few Thousand Sighs from Hell). This is for Chapter 3 (out of 5 chapters).

I am a New Testament scholar, trained in historical-critical, literary, and social-scientific approaches to the NT, primarily the Gospels and Acts. As such, my almost exclusive focus has been on the history and literature of the first century. It is only in the last few years that I have become fascinated with reception history. Thus of Bunyan's works, I had only previously read Pilgrim's Progress. Now I have read his autobiography, Grace Abounding, as well as his A Few Sighs from Hell, A Barren Fig Tree, and The Pharisee and the Publicane. I also have read a few secondary works, such as Richard Greave's brilliant 2002 biography of Bunyan, Glimpses of Glory. Michael Mullett's John Bunyan in Context has been exceptionally helpful as well.

The dilemma I face with Bunyan is the same I have faced everywhere in writing this book: there is simply too much great material to fit into the number of words I have to cover them. Note to James Ernest (my esteemed editor): If you are reading this post, you can stop here!

Once again, I have already exceeded my allotted word count for this section long before I have finished. The biographical sketch, overview of Bunyan's use of parables, and my treatment of his A Few Sighs from Hell far exceeded the length I wanted. Yet A Few Sighs from Hell is essential for understanding Bunyan and the parables (e.g., parables signify "wonderful realities"). It also includes, since it is early in his career (1658, when he was 30 years of age), a more significant socio-economic critique of the clergy and the wealthy (in addition to the "normal" sins he always rails against--the ones he left behind after his conversion) than do his later works.

So when I began to write on the other two texts (A Barren Fig Tree and The Pharisee and the Publicane),  I thought I would just write a paragraph summarizing the importance of them. When I started writing about A Barren Fig Tree, however, I realized more fully that there are critically important elements of Bunyan's view and treatment of the parables (including how he uses other parts of the Bible in general and other parables in particular to explain that parable). I expect the same to be true for The Pharisee and the Publicane. So, the question is: Do I include shortened treatments of all three or a lengthy treatment of one and shortened versions of the others? TBA, after I work through the last two works more carefully. 

I face the same issue for all of the chapters I have written so far. I have completed the first two chapters, and they both are over 10,000 words over the word count I need. This is after I have gone back over them once each and deleted as much "chaff" as I could find. The next time I go over them, I will use an even more critical eye. I also intend to write drafts of all five chapters before making the key decision about how to proceed with the editing (I always write long--which helps me think through the issues--and then go back and trim/cut/machete to form what I hope is a more cohesive argument and text).

The main decision for each chapter will be this one: Do I shorten substantially every section on each person/item I cover or will I also need to delete one or more whole sections? For example, in chapter 2 I had intended to cover John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Langland (Piers Plowman). After I wrote the sections on Gower and Chaucer, though, I decided only to mention Langland in passing. But since I have a wide range of others I need to cover, do I really need both Gower and Chaucer in the chapter? They were contemporaries (and friends; Chaucer called him "moral Gower"), so there is not a huge amount of diversity there. If I cut one of them, I suppose that deleted section would make the foundation for an article I could publish elsewhere. I also have an upcoming lecture/paper at the University of Oxford in June, so I could expand upon it for that as well.

At the heart of all this deliberations, though, are what things would be the most beneficial for the intended audience of this book.

Next week, I will return to Clement of Alexandria's treatment of some specific parables.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Clement of Alexandria (part 1)

Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150 – ca. 215)

Jerome writes an account of Clement’s life in his work, Lives of Illustrious Men. That work seeks to demonstrate that there were excellent “ecclesiastical writers,” and Jerome’s list includes 135 men (with Jerome being the 135th). Chapter 38 of Lives of Illustrious Men tells us that Clement was a presbyter in the church at Alexandria, that he was “the author of notable volumes, full of eloquence and learning, both in sacred Scripture and in secular literature,” and that he succeeded Pantaenus as the head of the Christian catechetical school in Alexandria (although Jerome’s depiction of a coherent “school” at this early stage may be somewhat idealized).

The Christian “school” in Alexandria leaned toward utilizing typology or allegory to interpret Scripture, an approach also taken by Philo of Alexandria (a similar approach had long been used by Greek interpreters of Homer and other ancient Greek works). Clement can show much interest in the literal words of the biblical text, however (more so than other Alexandrian interpreters; Cosaert 2008: 23).

Clement’s symbolic interpretations of parables are more understandable after reading his discussion of the “symbolic” style by poets and philosophers (Miscellanies 5.8). Symbolism is used by all who seek the truth—whether Hebrew, Egyptian, Greek, and even “barbarians” who pursued philosophy— including “concealment,” enigmas, and symbolism. Similar to how the secrets of the Jewish Temple were restricted to a few, likewise the Egyptians, for example, “did not entrust the mysteries they possessed to all and sundry, and did not divulge the knowledge of divine things to the profane.” They instead only divulged those mysteries to royalty and the “worthiest” among the priests (5.7). Clement thus argues:

Very useful, then, is the mode of symbolic interpretation for many purposes; and it is helpful to the right theology, and to piety, and to the display of intelligence, and the practice of brevity, and the exhibition of wisdom. “For the use of symbolical speech is characteristic of the wise man,” appositely remarks the grammarian Didymus, “and the explanation of what is signified by it” (5.8).

Clement also says that symbolism is important, because the truth must be concealed from those who might abuse or pollute it. Symbolism contains more power than simple, direct statements of truth, and it also permits more than one layer of meaning. Thus, Clement argues, interpreters who understand this symbolism must be sought so they can discern and explain the truth within it. This interpretation is most important, in Clement’s view, because God’s prophetic Scriptures that contain the plan of salvation are filled with metaphors and parables, and Christ the incarnated logos gives us the knowledge by which we can reach the spiritual world beyond our senses. Some people will remain ignorant; for them the prophecies remain enigmatic parables and, in some cases, stumbling blocks. For those “who have ears to hear,” however, the truth of the Scriptures will be explained (Hägg 2010: 180). So, unlike the Gnostics, Clement’s view of gnosis (knowledge) is not a secret, hidden teaching only revealed and passed on to a select few (and Jesus was truly incarnated; he became flesh and blood within human history to reveal the nature of God’s character); it is a collective truth in that it comes from the apostolic tradition and the Scriptures.

Roland Bainton sums up Clement’s view succinctly: For Clement, “Christianity was the true poem, and he waxed poetic in his description of the work of the Lord Jesus” (78). Clement’s allegorical means of interpreting the Bible is part of that poetic approach that discerns the truth veiled within enigmas, symbols, and allegories (e.g., Miscellanies 5.4).

How does this approach apply to the parables? In Stromata 6.15, Clement presents the way to interpret “in a manner worthy of God and of the Lord” and “according to the teaching of the Lord by His apostles.” The task of a true interpreter of Scripture is to proclaim “what you hear in the ear” (i.e., figuratively in a hidden manner and in a mystery)—from the rooftops, “according to the canon of the truth.” Jesus announced the divine mysteries in parables, a form that was not easily apprehended by all (Matt. 13:34; cf. Mark 4:10-12, 33-34;).

Clement notes that when Scripture “hides the sense” by using parabolic, symbolic language, it stimulates us to be inquisitive (cf. C. H. Dodd’s “tease the mind into active thought”; 1961: 16). This ambiguity stimulates us to be “ever on the watch for the discovery of the words of salvation.” Also, in Stromata 6.15, Clement discusses what he means by parable:

Wherefore also [Jesus] employed metaphorical description; for such is the parable,—a narration based on some subject which is not the principal subject, but similar to the principal subject, and leading him who understands to what is the true and principal thing; or, as some say, a mode of speech presenting with vigour, by means of other circumstances, what is the principal subject.

Clement then argues that the whole “economy” prophesied by God appears as a parable to “those who know the truth,” and that it is of “the greatest antiquity” so that the Holy Spirit could speak to the philosophers among the Greeks, as well as the wise ones among the barbarians. All this is in addition to “the prophets who foretold the Lord’s coming,” “the Lord Himself, in explaining the Scriptures,” and Jesus’ “disciples who preached the word like Him,” all used parables.

The next post will discuss specific examples of interpretations of parables by Clement.

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman

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