St. John Chrysostom preached the following little-known homily in Antioch, when there was a schism between Nicene Christians, some supporting the bishop Meletius, others supporting Paulinus. Both St. Athanasius and St. Basil worked to reconcile the two groups, but to little avail, as the split outlived both. Two of Meletius’s priests, who supported Apollinaris (of heresy fame), broke off in the 360s. In the following homily St. John attempts to suppress the heated rivalry between the partisans of the two groups. I have translated it (roughly) from the French translation here. A phrase here and there may be mistranslated, but overall it is certainly correct. It can be found in PG 48:943. Enjoy his words and, if need be, take them to heart.
This is sort of a preparation for my proposed post about my understanding of scriptural infallibility from the Fathers. It would be too long to include in that post, but it gives support to what I will say therein.
Now, St. Jerome is often given as an example of a Father who was rather fundamentalist about the historicity of scriptural narratives. As such, he is occasionally contrasted with the ‘allegorizing’ Origen. Jerome has been given this reputation in part due to a passage in his Commentary on Philemon 5:
Someone believes in the Creator God. He is not able to believe unless he first believes that the things written about his saints are true: that Adam was formed by God; that Noah alone was saved from the shipwrecked world; that Abraham, when first commanded to depart from his land and kinsmen, left to his descendants circumcision…
St. Jerome goes on to list other things which the faithful must believe: the binding of Isaac, the plagues in Egypt, the sun standing still in Joshua, Elijah ascending in a fiery chariot, and so on. But ironically, Jerome essentially is lifting this passage from none other than Origen, who wrote on Philemon v. 5 (cited in Pamphilus, Apology for Origen, 125):
He who believes in God and accepts that his teachings are true also believes that Adam was formed as the first man. He believes that God fashioned Eve to be Adam’s wife by taking one of his ribs. He also believes that Enosh truly “hoped to call upon the name of the Lord God”; and that Enoch was translated, because he had pleased God for two hundred years after he became the father of Methusaleh. He believes that Noah received an oracle to build an ark and that he alone, together with only those who had entered with him into the ark, was saved from the flood. Likewise, he believes that Abraham merited God’s approval and showed hospitality to three men, one of whom was the Lord, when he was under the oak of Mamre. He also believes the things concerning Isaac, both the manner of his birth, that he was offered by his father, and that he merited to hear oracles from God […] And he believes that Jesus son of Nun, having been heard by God, made the sun stand still over Gibeon and the moon over the valley of Helon.
Origen continues in this way, mentioning other facts from the Old Testament. If all of Origen’s works were lost save this fragment, doubtless we would have scholars claiming him as a clear example of a “fundamentalist”. But since more of his works have survived, we should compare this with what he says elsewhere, as quoted in the Philocalia of Origen (commonly attributed to Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian), 17f.:
Anyway, will any man of sense suppose that there was a first day, and a second, and a third, evening and morning, without sun and moon and stars? And the first, as it were, even without a heaven? And who is so silly as to imagine God, like a husbandman, planted a garden eastward, and put in it a tree of life, which could be seen and felt, so that whoever tasted of the fruit with his bodily teeth received the gift of life, and further that anyone as he masticated the fruit of this tree partook of good and evil? […] Why, even the Gospels abound in incidents of the same kind. We read of the Devil taking Jesus into a lofty mountain, that from thence he might show Him the kingdoms of the whole world and their glory. […] And, similarly, the careful student may observe countless other instances in the Gospels, and may thus be convinced that with the historical events, literally true, different ones are interwoven which never occurred.
Right after this passage, though, Origen defends himself from the charge that he believes none of the Bible is historically true. He gives a list of biblical events which he believes (not unlike the one quoted above) and concludes, “those things which are true historically are many more than those connected with them which contain merely a spiritual sense.”
We can summarize this by remarking that the Fathers can be quite stringent in holding to the historicity of what the Bible relates, including Origen. That said, they also all agree that sometimes Scripture should not be taken literally – John Chrysostom and Jerome included – although they usually only say this when a literal interpretation would mean saying something absurd about God (e.g., that He walked in the Garden of Eden). Origen also explicitly extends this to where interpreting Scripture literally would have us saying something absurd about nature or morals (but Gregory of Nyssa follows him here, e.g., Life of Moses, II.100).
P.S. Sometimes it is claimed that St. Jerome called Genesis a writing told in the manner of a popular poet (i.e., a folk-tale). This, however, does not come from St. Jerome and the misattribution ultimately stems from a mix-up that C. S. Lewis made between Jerome and something in Colet; for more details, see Arend Smilde’s excellent article.
In an old post I mentioned how excited I was to hear about a new book from Matthew Ramage, Jesus, Interpreted: Benedict XVI, Bart Ehrman, and the Historical Truth of the Gospels (CUA Press, 2017). Ramage is a bright Catholic scholar whose writings focus on the intersection of biblical scholarship with faith. I enjoyed his earlier work Dark Passages of the Bible, so I was pretty sure his latest work on the would be of equally high quality.
All theology of the liberal type involves at some point – and often involves throughout – the claim that the real behaviour and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by His followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars. Now long before I became interested in theology I had met this kind of theory elsewhere. The tradition of Jowett still dominated the study of ancient philosophy when I was reading Greats. One was brought up to believe that the real meaning of Plato had been misunderstood by Aristotle and widely travestied by the neo-Platonists, only to be recovered by the moderns. When recovered, it turned out (most fortunately) that Plato had really all along been an English Hegelian, rather like T. H. Green. I have met it a third time in my own professional studies; every week a clever undergraduate, every quarter a dull American don, discovers for the first time what some Shakesperian play really meant. But in this third instance I am a privileged person. The revolution in thought and sentiment which has occurred in my own lifetime is so great that I belong, mentally, to Shakespeare’s world far more than to that of these recent interpreters. I see – I feel it in my bones – I know beyond argument – that most of their interpretations are merely impossible; they involve a way of looking at things which was not known in 1914, much less in the Jacobean period. This daily confirms my suspicion of the same approach to Plato or the New Testament. The idea that any man or writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance.
Source: C. S. Lewis, ‘Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,’ in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), ed. Walter Hooper, pp. 157-158.
I was pleased to read the above passage in Lewis’s essay on biblical scholarship, as the same thought occurred to me when I was first reading about the various historians of philosophy who thought Aristotle had gotten Plato wrong. How was I to believe modern scholars working on the basis of a limited set of texts over the one who was actually Plato’s pupil for many years? Likewise, how am I to hold (as some scholars maintain) that a single verse, Mark 10:18, shows that Jesus did not think of himself as God when St. Paul, who knew the disciples first-hand, clearly did not interpret Jesus’s teachings this way? In any case, Lewis’s essay is excellent throughout and, in my opinion, should be required reading for seminarians.
Below is the biography of Eugenios Boulgaris written by Aurelio Palmieri, an early 20th century Catholic expert in the Eastern churches (hence the prejudiced remarks near the end, despite Palmieri being one of the more kinder Catholic experts on the East of his time). It is from the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, vol. 12, col. 1236-1238. I have not translated the second part of the entry, which is a very brief summary of Boulgaris’s theological works, but I may in the future. I have included the in-text citations of Palmieri, but for the full bibliography, refer to the end of the entry. I myself have added footnotes which show where Palmieri’s account diverges from a more modern biography, that provided by Efthymios Nikolaides in Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).
BOULGARIS Eugenios. – I. Biography. II. Theological Works.
I. Biography. – The most learned of the Greek theologians of the 18th century was born in Corfu in 1716, of Peter Boulgaris and Jeannette Paramythiotis. His family was originally from Zante (Zakynthos), and this is why those from Zante argue with Corfu over the glory of having give him birth. Idromenos, Ἡ πατρὶς Εὐγενίου τοῦ Βουλγάρεως, Parnassòs, 1881, vol. V, p. 209-216. If we follow Demetrakopoulos, Eugenios Boulgaris himself affirms that he was born in Corfu. Ὀρθόδοξος Ἑλλάς, Leipzig, 1872, p. 189. He received the baptismal name Eleutherios (Eleftherios) in memory of the miraculous delivery of his birthplace, saved from the Turks through the intercession of Saint Spyridon.
The following is a table summary of what I’ve found from two sources: primarily, the entry Science de Jésus-Christ in the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique (DTC), and secondarily, Raymond Moloney’s Knowledge of Christ (London: Continuum, 1999), chapter 4. Both sources also contain material from Scripture and later writers (e.g., medieval theologians, Protestants, and modern authors) on the problem of Christ’s knowledge. Francis Gumerlock’s article ‘Mark 13:32 and Christ’s Supposed Ignorance: Four Patristic Solutions’ also provides a good overview of patristic solutions as well as brief mention of certain contemporary evangelical positions. Another historical review in English can be found in Edward J. Hanna’s 1906 article ‘The Human Knowledge of Christ. I.’, published in the Catholic periodical The New York Review; greater focus on the fathers can be found in the third and fourth installments of the series.
The general pattern is that at least some fathers generally allow ignorance in Christ’s humanity (though not his divinity!) until, it seems, this hardened perhaps around the 6th century into not allowing any ignorance in Christ’s humanity. Bernard Lonergan provides an excellent summary: “And yet, little by little, the fathers reached a universal consensus. From the beginning of the seventh century, in East and West alike, common opinion insisted that Christ, even as man, was not ignorant.” (The Incarnate Word, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol. 8, p. 603; N.B. pp. 613-661 of this work provide an extensive patristic florilegium on this topic). The hardening was likely helped (but not initiated) by the Agnoete heresy, founded by the Alexandrian monophysite Themistius, which claimed some sort of true ignorance in Christ. This was combated by the Patriarch of Alexandria, Eulogius, and also attacked by Pope Gregory I (for specifics, see the DTC entry Agnoètes).
Note, though, that despite my distinction between ‘apparent ignorance’ and ‘real ignorance,’ the problem is more complicated. Denying ignorance in Christ’s humanity (i.e., holding ‘apparent ignorance’) does not necessarily mean believing that all of the divine knowledge was immediately present to Christ’s human soul, so that any show of increase in knowledge was merely ‘for show’. Aquinas, for instance, denies ignorance in Christ’s humanity but says, “if there had been no other knowledge in the soul of Christ [than the divine knowledge], it would have known nothing” (ST III.9.1, ad. 1), so Christ can truly be said to gain knowledge through his human faculties. I think something like this is also present in Bede (see his entry in the table below). Conversely, saying that Christ gained knowledge (‘real ignorance’), as do the author of De Sectis and Euthymius Zigabenus (who interestingly wrote in the 12th c., long after the mainstream position had been set), does not necessarily mean denying that the fullness of Christ’s divine knowledge was present to his human soul.
Organization-wise, the table is arranged in approximately chronological order and in general focuses on the positions of the fathers on two scriptural texts: Mark 13:32 (“of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”) and Luke 2:52 (“And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man”). Finally, for more detail on each father (for I could not include every one of their texts!), see the DTC articles above and please read the sources yourselves to verify my summaries! Where I was unable to find an English translation of a source, I have given a link to it in Migne.
- I have recently come across the project ‘Science & Orthodoxy around the World’. Looks promising! An article from their blog: ‘Theory of Evolution: The Apple of Discord in the Serbian Educational System‘. The conclusion is interesting: “What is intriguing about such petitions seeking to mollify Darwinist theory, they never originate from Serbian Orthodox Church, but academic circles.”
- Deborah Cohen discusses the origins of consumerism in a NYRB review of Frank Trentmann’s book Empire of Things.
- A cemetery in Russia dedicated to the burial of the remains of 75,000 German WWII soldiers: “Every soldier has a right to a grave.”
- A study of the brains/skulls of geniuses found that Descartes’s brain apparently had an unusual bulge in his frontal cortex. Too bad they were unable to investigate what every Cartesian knows really matters, the size of his pineal gland.
- I’ve been told by someone working on the project that a fully updated volume of the New Jerome Biblical Commentary is currently in production, which will be to the current NJBC what the NJBC was to the JBC. Very exciting news!