The Making of the Western Tradition: An Imperfect Draft
The period between 430 and 1000 evinces a bewildering diversity of controversies, genres, themes, and personalities. In this period, the canon of Scripture, the emergent class of authors called ‘Church Fathers’, and the classical Liberal Arts (as they were refashioned by Christian authors) slowly became the established sources of theological reflection. How they merge into a unified practice that we now name as ‘scholasticism’ extends beyond the scope of this essay, but its beginnings can be seen in the development of biblical exegesis during this period. However, scholasticism, as the name suggests, required actual schools, that is, institutions and their concrete manifestations in flesh-and-blood, bricks-and-mortar organizations. The institution-building process that would later provide the soil for scholastic vines to be planted begins in the 8th century. But, as we shall see, the impetus in the Carolingian period to design and implement a standard curriculum for the training and study of sacred scripture was not the first of its kind: Augustine, Cassiodorus, Isidore, Bede and many others equally sought to establish a formalized process for the study of Scripture and the training of priests and monks. In the ninth century, Alcuin of York, Paul of Lombard, Theodulf of Orléans, and others were beneficiaries of a newly energized political process that sought to match the curricular designs with reforms of the educational institutions.
This institutional account must remain tethered to the spiritual project at its core: the contemplation of Scripture. The locus of Scriptural reflection links this period with that of the church ‘fathers’: just as before 430, Scripture undergirds the entire theological enterprise for ‘early medieval’ theologians. As Robert Markus once pointed out, the shift between the age of the ‘fathers’ and that of ‘medieval’ Christianity ‘might be described in terms of the way Christians read their scriptures and the ways in which they read their world in relation to their reading of the scriptures’. Between the fifth and seventh centuries the character of the Scriptural contemplation changed, one fundamental transformation of which is the greater awareness of and emphasis on contemplating Scripture as text. This shift, I shall argue, is a product of a complex process that includes (1) internal shifts in hermeneutical foci and criteria, (2) culturally-specific doctrinal polemics, and (3) educational institutions and policies. These three features will be differently constellated in each time and place in the 570-year period under question.
An Augustinian Style
The 6th through 10th centuries are often called the ‘Benedictine centuries’, a fact that says more about the institutional home of many theologians than the actual style of argumentation. But the Benedictine context must never be forgotten, for it provides a constant reminder that, though we have received texts that are ascribed to an individual author, what we find in this period is a product of communities of prayer. It is, however, Augustine of Hippo (354-430) whose influence is woven throughout this period in surprising and unexpected ways. Marking the year of Augustine’s death, 430 is not so much a definite turning point for the Western tradition as it was simply the beginning of Latin theology without Augustine’s prolixity. But even this representation of Augustine as somehow dominating Latin theology is curiously anachronistic: although Augustine would in time become a theological authority that is good for all (Western) time zones, in the late-5th century his legacy was mostly bound up with the on-going contestation of the ‘semi-Pelagian’ controversy. This controversy remained a lively source of theological reflection until the Second Council of Orange in 529, which did not so much resolve the question as declare it a nuisance and time to move on. The issues that were debated – grace, freewill, original sin – did not, of course, disappear, and on occasion they were brought back under the guise of an ‘Augustinianism’ (e.g., Gottschalk of Orbais’ promotion of ‘double predestination’ in the ninth century).
In the early middle ages, the most influential aspect of this controversy was not the baptism of certain doctrinal claims as theologically normative, though this certainly did occur. Rather, the semi-Pelagian controversy established a new form of theological argumentation that found a systemic though secondary place for Patristic witnesses in the interpretation of Scripture. In his seminal article on this development, Éric Rebillard demonstrated that as Augustine was struggling in the last decade of his life to marshal the authority of certain Patristic witnesses in defense of his reading of Pauline literature, Augustine inadvertently created a style of argumentation that relied on Patristic consensus to break interpretive impasses. It was common practice in theological polemics to appeal to a local saint or revered theologian in support of some interpretation. But this could simply be countered by citing yet a different but equally respected authority or a different interpretation of the passage under question from the same authority. While this kind of interpretive impasse was common, Augustine sought to find a way around it. In his Answer to Two Letters of the Pelagians, Augustine was simultaneously attempting to retain Scripture’s supreme authority while shoring up his view by appeal to a consistent stream of interpretation:
We do not set the authority of any commentator on a par with the canonical books, as if it was absolutely impossible that the views of one Catholic can in some sense be better or truer than those of someone else who is likewise a Catholic. Rather, we want to warn those who attribute some value to the statements of the Pelagians and to show them how Catholic bishops have followed the words of God on these topics before the vain and novel discussions of these people.
Augustine was, then, not simply trying to show that some such bishop supported his opinion but that his opinion has always been the teaching of the Catholic Church. In other words, it was not enough to have one authority; one had to prove, by reference to a string of authorities that his opinion was not novel (novus).
In his Commonitorium, Vincent of Lérins (d. 450) gave this kind of argument a precise definition in 434. In the absence of a definitive conciliar statement, Vincent recommends the follow:
One collect and examine the opinions of the ancients who, although they come from different places and times, remained however in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, and appeared as commendable teachers. One must understand that he too can believe without doubt what has been openly, frequently and constantly taught, written and defended not by one or two, but by all in the same way, according to one and the same consensus.
By the sixth century, this ‘ubiquity principle’ became more or less established as the ideal practice in Latin theology. It did not, however, fully clarify how this method of argumentation might be integrated into a unified practice of theology. For this, we must turn to Cassiodorus and Isidore, two of the most influential encyclopedists of the sixth and seventh centuries.
It is, however, worth dwelling for a moment on this convergence between Augustine and Vincent, for it reveals something important about the nature of theological influence in the mid-fifth century. There has long been speculation that the Commonitorium was anti-Augustinian, a judgment that has largely been based on the supposition that as monk of Lérins Vincent could not have avoided developing a bias against Augustine’s teaching on grace, and that this bias must be reflected in the Commonitorium. But there has also been a steady opinion expressing the Commonitorium’s Augustinianism. Despite being a loyal member of the Lérinian community, Vincent also produced a florilegium of phrases from Augustine about the Trinity and Incarnation in the Excerpta Vincentii, which conclude with the statement, ‘to oppose Augustine is to oppose the message of all the Holy Fathers’. While the evidence for the Commonitorium’s anti-Augustinianism is vague and inferential – e.g., it fails to mention Augustine’s name – it does seem to hard to deny that Vincent’s opposition to the idea of receiving grace without any effort by the Christian suggests, at the very least, a difference of opinion on this epoch-defining matter. The trouble begins when we assume either that someone’s allegiance to Augustine can only be measured by his or her agreement with Augustine’s late teachings on grace and freewill or that someone must be uniformly for or against Augustine. Vincent might very well have opposed certain aspects of Augustine’s teaching, but that did not define his assessment of Augustine tout court. Rather, Vincent, like many mid-fifth-century Gallic theologians, had a mixed opinion of Augustine, choosing to hold up Augustine’s teaching on the Trinity and Christology while rejecting certain late formulations in his doctrines of grace and freewill. This flexible, open relationship with Augustine will continue until theologians and their authorities are forced to reckon with it head on in the thirteenth century.
The Rise of Textbook Culture
The world of Augustine and his ‘Pelagian’ interlocutors, as well as that of the semi-Pelagian controversy, was part and parcel of a late Roman world. While the Western Roman Empire had, during the second half of the fifth century, disappeared, its culture and institutions still set the standard for both intellectual and social achievement. Commentators commonly cite Cassiodorus as the first to mark the caesura between his ‘modern time’ and ‘ancient time’. As debatable as this distinction might be, there is nevertheless something that Cassiodorus notices that is distinctly different about his age from that of the church ‘Fathers’. Among the many things that differ between Cassiodorus’ age and that of, say, Augustine is the location of education. Replacing the ancient or classical school, there appeared the monastery, an institution wholly devoted to religion and only incidentally interested in the pedagogical functions of its secular antecedent.
Where the ancient schools were populated with flesh and blood teachers of note, just as the fourth and early fifth century ascetic communities were, the sixth-century Western monasteries were dominated by the codicil. As Cassiodorus prefaces his Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning, ‘I was moved by divine love to devise for you, with God’s help, these introductory books to take the place of a teacher’. Theological instruction in Cassiodorus’ monastery proceeded from and returned to the Bible. However, this book did not sit alone on a desk, as if a monk sat steadily over the Scriptures, divining its meaning through a privileged and exclusive communication channel with the Holy Spirit. Rather, the book of Scripture sat alongside commentaries by all those authorities to which any given scholar had access. Nor was Scripture left without any person-to-person conversation. In the tenth book of the Institutions, Cassiodorus implores his readers to ‘seek frequent discussion with learned elders; for in conversation with them we suddenly realize what we had not even imagined while they transmit eagerly to us the knowledge they have gained in their long years’. But the center of education was the book of Scripture in a way that it was not in the ancient schools or even the ascetical communities to which Cassian submitted himself and through which he informed the monastic life of Gaul. This new center of gravity around the book will become more pronounced in the 9th and 10th centuries, when theological training is divided between the ‘internalist’ schools for monks and other ascetics and ‘externalist’ schools for secular clergy. But we will be begin to notice a shift between Gregory I and Bede in the interpretation of John, as the latter becomes more explicit about the scribal presence of John’s Gospel.
Cassiodorus’ Institutions enjoyed wide readership for over six hundred years in part because it served as a combined textbook for training in both Scripture and the liberal arts. A text that would become similarly popular, if partly because it furthers Cassiodorus’ development of Augustine’s program, is Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies. More so than Augustine’s On Christian Teaching or Cassiodorus’ Institutes, Isidore specifies a view of language that underwrites the claim that all knowledge can be discerned from the words of Scripture. By deepening his predecessors’ program, Isidore subtly changes certain key features of the practice of Christian learning. For Isidore, there is a close link between words and the reality they signify that one can investigate the essential realities through the origins and etymologies of words. According to Thomas O’Loughlin, ‘Isidore starts with the fact that there are two words, and assumes that since there are two words that this must relate to a difference in reality’. This naturalistic view of language is a departure from the fluidity with which Augustine treats language. For Augustine, words don’t have an intrinsic or natural connection with the things they represent, but their referential capacity is always dependent on the context and convention of use. This context dependency of meaning does not seem to be a significant feature of Isidore’s view of language. But neither is it a wholly novel view of language, for the idea that etymology can yield up a word’s ‘true sense’ has an ancient pedigree. Isidore never actually sought to develop a theory of language. Rather, he was more concerned with a theology of revelation and a program for acquiring its message. Developing the capacity of monks and priests, who likely did not have the good fortune of ‘classical’ training, to discern the message of revelation reliably was paramount for Isidore. While the good intentions that reside in this pastoral spirit could encourage intellectual habits that many others in the Christian West would deplore (namely, univocal views of language), it is important not to overlook that Isidore was working within the context of communal readings of Scripture, that the interpreting community was always in the middle of a crisis to which these words would be taken to refer.
For both Cassiodorus and Isidore, their manuals were not intended to function outside a monastic or clerical community of learning. Nevertheless, Cassiodorus and Isidore help to transform the Bible into a library. Through the Institutes and Etymologiae, the library of the bible is given an architecture for organizing the relations between the Word, Scripture, and the Church. As I have already intimated, the contemplation of Scripture undergoes a significant transformation from the contemplation of Christ via Scripture to the contemplation of Scripture as Christ. In other words, the scribal or bibliographic medium is increasingly felt and experienced as the entry point into the divine life of God.
Gospel of John, textbook par excellence
Augustine and Pope Gregory I (d. 604) shared in a textual world that, though different in significant respects, saw the text as shaping and forming a dialogue between the soul and God. They were both, in this respect, drawing from the deep (and culturally pervasive) well of Platonism: as like must contemplate like, so must the incorporeal soul be the organ for contemplating God who is spirit. Yet, for both Augustine and Gregory, the soul and God are radically different. Whatever Platonism might be ascribed to them, they are clear-eyed about the ontological difference between God and the soul, and see this not only in soteriological terms but also in hermeneutical terms. The Incarnation of the Word – announced in dramatic terms in John’s Prologue as ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ – is the theological meeting point of the soteriological and hermeneutical puzzles of how the human soul becomes divine through the nourishment of Scripture. But the interposition of the text between the soul and God is both solution and problem for this Platonist puzzle. Augustine and Gregory offer a rendition that latches onto the mediating power of John the Baptist, Bede and Alcuin focus on John the Evangelist’s doctrinal presentation of coeternal and equal divinity of the Father and Son, and Eriugena pushes beyond all four with a creative importation of Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, and Pseudo-Dionysius. With Eriugena we see a transformative ressourcement of the Augustinian and Gregorian vision of Scripture as an Arcanum. But this time the ‘Eastern’ heritage informs a creative inter-mingling of Greek and Latin theologies, suggesting not that Latin theology is somehow downstream from Greek theology, but rather that Latin theology is a zone of creative in its own right. The creativity of Latin theology is achieved, however, within the cultural context and expectations of the burgeoning educational institutions.
Figuring John the Baptist from the Pulpit
The In Johannis evangelium tractatus (Homilies on the Gospel of John) were one of the more widely distributed parts of Augustine’s oeuvre. Remarkably, these sermons were often transmitted in the full 50-sermon form, and despite being characterized as an arduous and difficult work (opus arduum et difficile) they directly informed almost all of the commentaries on John that came after it. Part of the reason for this august reception history is, of course, the authority of the author and the importance of the subject matter. But Augustine’s particular response to the Platonist puzzle of how a human soul can contemplate divinity is significant for how it structures the epistemic relation between the Logos, John the Baptist, and the interpreting community (i.e., the Church), which will provide a template for creative variation to later commentators.
Ever attuned to the difference between proximate and distal objects of inquiry, Augustine picks out John the Baptist as ‘someone great, of enormous wealth, of great grace, a most lofty peak’, but one who is a mountain that is lighted by someone superior (‘Marvel at the mountain as a mountain, but raise yourself up to the one who lights up the mountain’). In other words, ‘John too was a light, but the true light’. For Augustine, the light of John was necessary for humans to be able to see the light. ‘[Christ] turned his rays on John, who by confessing that he had been lit up by those rays and enlightened – he was not the source of those rays nor that of enlightenment – made the one who enlightens known, made the one who radiates known, and the one who fulfills known’. But John’s mediating light must be coupled with the incarnation of the Word: ‘Now, because the Word was made flesh and took up residence among us, by his very birth he made an ointment with which the eyes of our hearts could be cleaned, that we might see his majesty through his humility. That is why the Word was made flesh and took up residence among us; he healed our eyes’. The mystery of the Incarnation is, for Augustine, a mystery of humility: God became man by taking on flesh, the lowest of ‘part’ of the human, and through this humans might share in Christ’s resurrection.
This theological rendition has, however, a correlation with Augustine’s anti-Donatist polemics. As Adam Ployd has recently pointed out, one critical aspect of Augustine’s anti-Donatism is his condemnation of their lack of humility. For Augustine, the humility of Christ is something one ‘puts on’ over time through the reformation of thought and desire. The importance of this runs to the core of Augustine’s theological practice: the incarnation of the Word is, in a sense, the sine quo non of Christian theological reflection, for without it humans would not have the possibility for epistemic access to divinity. But the incarnation is not the full story for Augustine; we also require a mediating light of the light, a feature that will receive greater emphasis in later centuries. In his second homily on John, Augustine presents in miniature his three-fold hermeneutic of the Word through the metaphor of light – the true light, the reflecting surface of the light, and the light as received. While the reflecting surface of the light – in this case John the Baptist – is picked out as the crux around which the epistemological hammer swings, the incarnation of the Word provides the ontological possibility for these three lights (i.e., the true, reflecting, and received lights) to conform to an act of perceiving and understanding Christ as the coeternal and equal Son of God.
Gregory similarly directs his attention to John the Baptist in the fourth of his XL homiliarum in Evangelia libri duo, and extends Augustine’s visual metaphor through a reflection on the passage, ‘I am not worthy to undo the strap of his sandal’ (Jn 1:27). For Gregory’s multifaceted allegorical or ‘spiritual’ interpretation, both the strap’s material origin from a dead animal and its unbindable nature function to reconstellate the epistemic structure between the Logos, John the Baptist, and the Church that we observed in Augustine’s second homily on John. The sandal represents for Gregory, firstly, the enfleshment of the Word: ‘[Our Lord] appeared as if shod in sandals because he assumed in his divinity the dead flesh of our corrupt condition’. The human eye cannot, however, ‘grasp the mystery of Christ’s incarnation’: ‘In no way can we discover how the Word took on a body, how the supreme life-giving Spirit came to life in his mother’s womb, how we who has no beginning both is and is conceived’. John’s inability to undo the sandal strap thus points to the alien nature of the Incarnate Word: ‘John is not able to undo the strap of his sandal because not even he who recognized the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation through the spirit of prophecy can subject it to investigation’. Just as for Augustine, Gregory sees in John the Baptist a privileged access point to the Word – ‘John was filled with the spirit of prophecy’ – but one that still falls short of adequately and completely referring to Christ.
For both Augustine and Gregory, the proximate object of the inquiry is John the Baptist. They both take for granted that their access to this proximate object is through the even more proximate object that has been handed down (for them) as John the Evangelist’s text. Why Gregory and Augustine do not do so here (they both elsewhere acknowledge the specifically textual nature of revelation) highlights some important differences between their ‘late antique’ world and the ‘medieval’ world of Bede, Alcuin, and Eriugena. There are two inter-related aspects that might shine some light on this: the social structure of the audience and the charismatic identification of the preacher with the speakers within the text operate, in a late antique Latin milieu, to draw in listeners to participate in the performance of the text itself. To put it otherwise, the late antique preacher not only interpreted the text, but performed the text by blending the voice of the preacher with the voice of the biblical prophet. Augustine and Gregory both aimed to reach as wide and as mixed an audience as possible, and the social structure of their audiences reflect this intention. In Augustine’s case, sermons were a socio-political event for the good and great as well as the poor and destitute of Hippo Regius, and Augustine often explicitly offered his audience various voices from the text with which to identify. Likewise, Gregory preached his Homilies on the Gospels to a broad audience, newly equalized by the plague that struck Rome in 590 (most of his sermons on the Gospels can be dated between 590-593). The permixtus nature of their audience made it all the more important – and pedagogically viable – to employ a figurative exegetical style that took John’s announcement of the Gospel in their own mouths as a call to their listeners to participate in the humility of Christ. For Bede and Alcuin, as we shall now address, the socio-political structure of the audience could not be more different: they were addressing monks who, in many cases, spent at least four hours a day reading Scripture.
Interpreting John the Evangelist in the School
The Northumbrian Benedictine Bede is, in many respects, the intersection of so many intellectual, social, and institutional trends of the early medieval era. Writing in the late seventh and early eighth centuries, Bede effects a kind of transformation of Gregory’s spirituality that is fitted for his polemical and institutional context in the twinned monasteries of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow in the Northumbrian Kingdom (present-day Sunderland, England). Bede was passionately anti-Pelagian in a way that Gregory (but not Augustine) might have found confusing. Mirroring Augustine’s anti-Donatism, Bede promoted what he might call a ‘Roman’ Christianity over and against a ‘British’ Christianity that was, he thought, intrinsically susceptible to ‘Pelagianism’. The similarity is relevant not because Augustine was the chief representative (if not actual advocate) of Bede’s anti-Pelagianism, but that, like Augustine in his strife with the Donatists who had a stronger indigenous claim, Bede imports an elite Roman discourse to counter the ‘heretical’ indigenous Christianity of the British Isles. Moreover, Bede’s anti-Pelagianism was significantly different from Augustine’s: Bede was famously concerned about the dating of Easter and suggested that, if the Roman church were to celebrate before the time of that the resurrection occurred within the Triduum, they would be denying the full agency of Christ in their redemption. Gregory, the vatican-ruling monk, would have found this a puzzling hill to die on.
Bede and Gregory share an affection for St. Benedict of Nursia, the author of the monastic rule Gregory might have followed and the one that Bede most certainly obeyed. Bede’s Benedictinism manifests itself in such an obvious way that it is often overlooked: the first duty of Bede’s entire life was to apply himself to the study of Scriptures. Bede arrived as an oblate at a young age, growing up in the Benedictine conversatio that gave over 4-5 hours a day to reading Scripture, the Church Fathers, and other literature deemed pedagogically or spiritually edifying. Bede always had a practical end in mind: his biblical commentaries were directed toward cultivating a life of prayer. As Benedicta Ward has described it, ‘Linguistic work was not done as an exercise in arid scholarship; it was a part of his penetration through the words of the sacred text to its meaning, and his commentaries are equally full of a devout pondering of the text, which at times formed itself into prayers’. All of Bede’s writings exhibit this Benedictine urge to cultivate and refine the life of prayer.
It has often been said that Bede lacks originality. The difficulty with this claim is not that some suggest that Bede’s output can compared with the likes of Augustine’s or even Gregory’s, or that Bede had the clarity of vision exhibited by John Cassion or Benedict. Rather, this claim fundamentally misunderstands what Bede was attempting to do. Originality was hardly a virtue for Bede. Be that as it may, the process of selecting and organizing passages from the Fathers required a significant amount of judgment on his part. It is, in fact, one of Bede’s great virtues that he did not ignore the treasures shelved in the well-stocked library of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow. However, it was the Bible, which he called ‘the bread of life’, that provided the text and context through which the Fathers could inform his thinking. In other words, Scripture was the text constantly open before him and that which provided the criteria for incorporating the insights of the Fathers.
This Biblio-centrism is not utterly different from Augustine or Gregory. Both of these Latin Fathers were deeply informed by the rhythms, rhetorical patterns, and narrative structures of Scripture. What distinguishes Bede is something that was anticipated by Cassiodorus and Isidore’s textbooks: Bede very explicitly contemplated a text. As he opens his homily on John 1:1-14, Bede seeks to examine ‘the words of the blessed evangelist John’. We see here Bede foregrounding who he takes to be the author of the text. In the whole of this homily, he never explicitly mentions John the Baptist. It is John the Evangelist, not John the Baptist, of whom Bede says ‘deserved to grasp the hidden mysteries of [Christ’s] divinity at a more profound level and at the same time to disclose these to others’. In a passage that Alcuin will later re-use without attribution, Bede provides a famous Augustinian image of John the Evangelist drinking ‘the draught of heavenly wisdom from the most holy font of [Jesus’] breast in a more outstanding way than the other [evangelists]. And later, Bede credited John the Evangelist with recognizing ‘the eternal power of [Christ’s] divinity, through which all things come into being, and he handed this on in writing for us to learn’. More so than either Gregory or Augustine, Bede centralizes the scribal nature of Scripture. The Gospel is, in other words, a book whose words are the object of Bede’s contemplation.
The social and intellectual context of a monastic ‘school’, not to mention the reliance on the texts of the Church Fathers, significantly alters the conditions for reception. For the late antique bishops Augustine and Gregory, who were both attuned to the power and persuasion of Christian oratory, the prologue to the Gospel of John was a powerful figuration of the encounter with the Word made flesh. In their preaching, Augustine and Gregory embody the condescension of the Word through what Conrad Leyser has pointed out was their penchant for the persuasive power of humble speech. But for Bede, who learned to read and write within the walls of the monastery, the prologue to the Gospel of John was a text, and his homilies intended to nurture those who read texts: his fellow Benedictine brethren. In a monastery such as Monkwearmouth-Jarrow the bibliomania was, no doubt, more palpable than at other less wealthy or more remote monasteries. The wide circulation of Bede’s works suggests that his Biblicism was in demand, and we can tentatively say that he and his Northumbrian brothers transformed the very character of reception to be one about and with other texts.
The transformation displayed by Bede’s subtle hermeneutical shift toward the text might not have had such a long-lasting effect if it had not found reception by his fellow Northumbrian theologian Alcuin of York (735-804). In the eight century, Alcuin’s scholarly, clerical, and administrative abilities distinguished him among the theological advisors at Charlemagne’s court. It is often assumed that Alcuin was a teacher – indeed, he is often remembered as the teacher par excellence – but the evidence that Alcuin spent much of his time teaching beyond his years as a magister in York is scant. Where Alcuin would leave his mark is exactly where it is most important – and often under-appreciated by historians of medieval thought – that is, in the formalization of a plan of study for students of the divine page. The Admonitio generalis and Epistola de litteris colendis, both of which are strongly influenced by Alcuin, were intended to teach students the basics of reading, writing, shorthand, computus or calculation of dates and times, and grammar. Like Cassiodorus and Isidore in the sixth and seventh centuries, Alcuin and his colleagues’ energies were dedicated to organizing and disseminating what had, by the eighth century, became an accepted body of knowledge and attitude to learning. But what distinguishes the Carolingian Admonitio generalis and Epistola de litteris colendis from Cassiodorus’ Institutes or Isidore’s Etymologiae is not some brilliant new pedagogy or unique and enticing presentation of the material. Rather, it was the support Alcuin and his fellow educational bureaucrats received from their political rulers, most notably Charlemagne himself, that allowed the Carolingian reform to penetrate into the actual educational system in a way that previous efforts were unable to do so.
Educational reform does not just need new textbooks and political support. Reform on this scale also requires new personnel and purpose. In the case of Francia, the preferred method to expand the labor pool of teachers was to recruit and patronize foreign-born scholars. Alcuin is just such a case, as was his colleague Paul of Lombard. Through the life and writings of Alcuin, we can see the continuities between Northumbria and Francia. Like his Northumbrian predecessor, Alcuin was not attracted by the prospect of being an intellectual innovator. But Alcuin, more so than the Benedictine Bede, who likely provided a model for his scholarship, was more intensely inspired by pedagogical concerns. The study of the Bible in this period was shaped by demands Bede very rarely had to meet: introducing the Bible to educated lay men and women and administering a complex set of ecclesiastical institutions. The importation of Northumbria (and Lombardian) expertise did not, then, effect a change in Carolingian purpose. Just to opposite: Northumbrian scholarly expertise had to adapt itself to the demands and needs of Francia. We remember Alcuin above other talented biblical scholars precisely because he was able to acclimate so successfully to politics and culture of the Carolingian court.
The work that best drew out and displayed this array of scholarly sophistication and political acumen is his Commentaria in S. Joannis Evangelium, which was composed over a lengthy period of time and represents the fruit of many years of preparation and reflection.Alcuin did not finish his commentary until his final residence at Tours between 796 and 804. As is attested to in a prefatory letter to Gisla and Columba (Rodtruda), the former being Charlemagne’s sister and the latter his daughter, Alcuin’s commentary was needed because Augustine’s Tractates were ‘difficult to understand in certain places and are decorated with greater rhetorical expression than our limited intellectual capacity can comprehend’. In a seminal article, Michael Gorman painstakingly identifies hundreds of citations of and references to Augustine, Gregory, and Bede’s commentaries and homilies on John.
But Alcuin is not simply transmitting received wisdom. As he is citing these Latin authorities (among others), Alcuin subtly and without remorse changes their meanings. He is, in Gorman’s words, ‘re-writing’ their commentaries to address his own issues that mainly revolve around his campaigns against the Adoptionist heresy. Among others, comments from the Latin Fathers on John 1:1-3, 10:30, and 14:9-10 are all re-interpreted by Alcuin to rebut the errors of Adoptionism. Alcuin explains his own method:
First of all, I sought out the testimony of St Augustine who attempted very diligently to interpret the most sacred words of this holy Gospel. Then I culled a few passages from the works of the famous doctor, St Ambrose. I took many selections from the homilies of the outstanding father Pope Gregory and also from the homilies of blessed Bede the priest, and also from other holy fathers, as I found them. I set down all these comments, adopting their meaning and using their words rather than depending upon my own presumption, as attentive readers could easily see. I employed a very cautious style and with the assistance of divine grace, so I would not say anything contrary to the meaning of the holy fathers.
Alcuin’s commentary is a complex literary event that incorporates a ‘consensus of Fathers’, which is constructed out of and for the immediate purpose of refuting purported claims for the Son’s adoption by the Father, with a pedagogical task of speaking simply and directly to an audience Bede could not have conceived of (or desired).
Alcuin’s privileging of John as the vessel for this mission reaches back into his personal life and as such testifies to how a scholar would establish the authority to so blatantly reconstruct Patristic witness. The roots of this authority lay in the legacy his Northumbrian predecessor left: in Bede’s final days he was remembered as translating John’s gospel. But this important genealogical fact, which even if not true suggests that the Gospel of John had a unique and privileged place within early Medieval piety, is complemented by the story in the Vita Alcuini that records a vision Alcuin experienced while reading the text of this gospel out loud in the presence of his master. Both his educational pedigree and personal piety thus serve to construct his authority to leverage not only his Northumbrian predecessor’s reputation but also Augustine and Gregory’s authority.
Personal authority will get your books read, but it will not institute the educational vision they contain as a program of study. For this, intellectual and spiritual authority requires political authority. In his role as advisor to Charlemagne, Alcuin was able, in effect, to garnish royal authority for his efforts to re-write the Fathers. But political support never comes without a quid pro quo. As Douglas Dales has argued, the crucial question of the day was, ‘Who had the correct understanding of the mind of the Fathers?’. This was a significant question not simply because the Fathers were authorities and ipso facto needed correct interpretation but because they were seen as the key to interpreting Scripture truly. This is politically significant because the Carolingian state and its rulers required the moral support of Christianity to underpin its own authority to reform the religious and political institutions of Francia. A unified and integral interpretation of Scripture was more politically useful than a loose and contested interpretation of Scripture. In other words, Charlemagne could only truly be a Christian Emperor if he could lay claim to the true interpretation of Scripture. Alcuin and his successor Theodulf of Orléans were willing to construct and hand on such an interpretation to the political authorities. But this political ordering of theological labor does not suggest that the canon was closed or even that a Western emperor might not see it as advantageous to expand authoritative interpreters to include the Greek Fathers. Although the Greek Fathers were never forgotten in the West, it is in the work of the ninth century theologian and philosopher John Scottus Eriugena who translated and incorporated significant Greek authorities into his work and prompted new modes of Latin theology.
Performing John in the Court
John Scottus Eriugena is the enigmatic figure who, in many respects, embodies the renovating spirit of the Carolingian age. Charlemagne’s efforts to develop and execute a program of study and education is often referred to as renaissance, a term that makes modern scholars bristle and would puzzle those its meant to compliment. There is a sense, however, in which Erigena, more so than Alcuin, Paul of Lombard, Hrabanus Maurus, or Theodulf of Orléans, discerned that theological argumentation and production required some renovating. Eriugena could not, of course, go about this in the way that later theologians and philosophers would so boldly do, for the Carolingian adage still applies: one never sought to be a intellectual innovator. Be that as it may, Eriugena’s two treatments of John – Commentarius in Evangelium Iohannis and Homilia in prologum Sancti Evangelii secundum Joannem – provide a case study in how Latin theology extends beyond its territory to renovate itself. The impression this often gives scholars is that Latin theology was somehow lacking and the Greek theology was necessary to supplement it. But the incorporation of Greek material is a moment in the creativity of the Latin tradition, not the evidence of the lack thereof. In many respects, Eriugena is a continuation of a theological program that we have traced from Augustine to Alcuin, but in the ninth century a new expansionary mindset is instituted with a broader range of theological authorities.
The cultural landscape of Charles the Bald’s (823-877) court was as varied as Charlemagne’s. Continuing the trend of importing teachers and scholars, Charles took on Eriugena, who hailed, as his name doubly suggests, from Ireland (‘Scottus’ at that time referred to a person from Ireland, and ‘Eriugena’ signifies in Greek the same). Thanks to the scholarship of John Contreni, it is now more than a conjecture to speak of an ‘Irish Colony’ at Laon. There, Eriugena was accompanied by Martin Hibernensis (819-875) and other scribes and scholars of Irish origin. These Irishmen, who were thought to have fled their homeland because of the volatility brought on by Viking raids, found the mid-ninth century court culture consumed by old controversies that had been exacerbated by the collision of theological speculation and secular learning. Predestination, the Eucharist, iconoclasm, the vision of God, and the nature of hell were all disputed. Eriugena himself waded into the formal proceedings of only the predestination controversy, staking out he might have imagined would be a moderate position between Gottschalk of Orbais’s (808-867) Augustinian-inspired double predestination (i.e., if some are predestined to heaven, the rest must be predestined to hell) and Hincmar of Reims (806-882) who argued that only predestination to heaven is Augustine’s true view. In his On Predestination, Eriugena argues that, technically speaking, there can be no predestination because God is simple and unchangeable and as such cannot predestine the human will. Moderation is not what Hincmar, the bishop presiding over the controversy, saw in Eriugena’s position. Rather, because he denied the possibility of predestination tout court, Eriugena committed a capital offense: he contradicted Augustine’s teaching. Moreover, Eriugena was rebuked for using non-Christian sources and arguments in his refutation of double predestination. But while Gottshalk was persecuted until his death in 867, Eriugena was protected by Charles, who envisioned an important task for this talented theologian.
In the palace school of Charles, Eriugena was, as contemporary reports suggest, respected as a learned and erudite man, whose knowledge of secular and sacred literature was notable. But the aptitude that set him apart was his translations of Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, and Gregory of Nyssa, three figures who had already played a significant role in the formation of Western theological thought. But with Eriugena’s translations, their influence on Latin theology would intensify. These translation efforts contributed to Eriugena’s reputation as split between Eastern and Western authorities. In addition to his translation of Greek theology, Eriugena had read the Western fathers Ambrose, Augustine, Hilary, Isidore, Jerome, and Gregory I. Rather than seeing Eriugena as having divided loyalty, it is better to conceive of his relationship to Augustine as template: Augustine provided a model with which Eriugena could explore the depth and richness of Greek Fathers. It was only possible for Eriugena to be Dionysian because he drank so deeply from the speculative and open-ended reasoning of Augustine’s theological thought. Augustine was, in an sense, no mere authority; he was the master from which Eriugena learned the task of theology.
In his commentaries and homilies on Scripture Eriugena works through and experiments with the task of theology in ways that are obscured by his more philosophically dense Periphyseon. As with Augustine, Gregory, Bede, and Alcuin, John’s Gospel held a special place for Eriugena. John the Evanelist’s voice is that of the ‘bird of high flight… the spiritual bird who, on swiftest wings of innermost theology and intuitions of most brilliant and high contemplation, transcends all vision and flies beyond all things that are and are not’. This opening passage is suggestive of his debts to Latin and Greek theologies. The Eagle as a representation for John is attested in Gregory’s Moralia in Job and Bede’s Homilies on the Gospels. But the point of this opening is no mere report: in due time, the reader will be enticed to soar with John, a bold confidence Eriugena receives from Maximus’s Ambigua: ‘The Word descended to humanity so that, by him, they may ascend to God’. In moments like these, we can see Eriugena transforming Latin images into vehicles for a theology of deification.
But Eriugena’s debts to the Latin Johanine tradition run much deeper. It is not simply that, like the other early medieval Latin authorities, John is a uniquely authoritative text, but that, following Bede and Alcuin, Eriugena’s contemplation of John is first and foremost a contemplation of a text. ‘Christ’s tomb is Holy Scripture, in which the mysteries of his divinity and humanity are secured by the weight of the letter, just as the tomb is secured by the stone’. Again, this image reveals how Eriugena would pivot from a preoccupation associated with Latin theological discourses to one associated with Greek theological discourses. The letter secures the theological meaning for Latin thought: it is the strong foundation of the literal that provides the basis for theological speculation. But the letter of John was a unique and powerful instrument: ‘John, therefore, was not a human being but more than a human being when he flew above himself and all things that are… He could not have been able to ascend into God if he had not first become God’. Eriugena’s devotion to John was not simply as text – though as a Carolingian it was certainly that – but it was also as a spiritual vehicle. This transformation is informed, for Eriugena, by his readings of Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus the Confessor, and Pseudo-Dionysius. But the irony of Latin theology is that it needn’t have been so: both Augustine and Gregory equally found in John a vehicle for spiritual transformation. However, these Latin Fathers stopped short of human transformation into divinity in this age: they always kept their feet planted firmly on the ground. Eriugena had alas a sense of drama, for he knew that to effect the kind of East-West integration Charles the Bald desired, he would have to make a performance of it. It was the Gospel of John that provided Eriugena the right steps and voice to perform a new type of theology in the Carolingian court.
Theological Reform and Institutional Politics
In this selective rendition of a complex and varied five centuries, I have emphasized the indispensability of politically enforced institutions. Curriculum reform is only as good as the political will to enforce it. In the Carolingian era, theologians and scholars had the good fortune of being supported by political rulers and magistrates. However, political influence was not always beneficial or benign, and neither was it fully altruistic. The reform of theological curriculum in the 8th and 9th centuries was a way to exert control over a dispersed and diverse population. Part and parcel of this was the condemnation and suppression of ‘heresy’ and ‘heretics’ that, at times, was violently enforced. The Spanish Adoptionist Elipandus of Toledo and the Saxon advocate for double predestination Gottschalk of Orbais both experienced the unpleasant side of political support for theological regimes. For his interpretation of Augustine’s teachings, Gottschalk was whipped and shut up in the monastery of Hautvilliers. As later eras know all too well, the political support of theological regimes comes with great costs.
Unfortunately, the 10th century would yield yet more challenges. Charlemagne and Charles the Bald’s successes at reforming the theological curricula were made possible by the relatively stability West Francia experienced in the 8th and 9th centuries. The 10th century would, however, see Vikings settle in north France, the unification of the Kingdom of England, and Magyar cavalry running throughout Western Europe. Alongside these geopolitical shifts is the economic rise and expansion of monastic cities, which would provide new sites of renewed theological production and action. Among these emergent sites are Canterbury, Bec, and Cluny, the last of which would initiate a wholesale reform of Western monasticism. The reception of Latin theology would thus continue in the second millennium as a complex process of shifting theological criteria, culturally-specific polemics, and emergent educational institutions and policies.