Monday, March 16, 2009

Walsh: The Bones of St. Peter

Walsh, John Evangelist. The Bones of St. Peter: The Fascinating Account of the Search for the Apostle's Body. London: Victor Gollancz, 1983. (Also available online.)

In my trip to Rome a few years ago, one of the greatest highlights was the tour of the archaeological digs beneath the altar of St. Peter's Basilica. The close contact with the alien world of an ancient pagan Roman cemetery; the hints of early Christian identification of the site with St. Peter's burial: on the walls of one tomb: PETRUS ROGA XS IHS PRO SANCTIS HOMINIBUS CHRESTIANUS AD CORPUS TUUM SEPULTIS -- "Peter, Pray to Christ for the Holy Christian men buried near your body"; the remains of Constantine's great shrine, itself built over the humble red wall that marked the site held from earliest Christian memory to be the place where St. Peter's remains were laid to rest; all culminating in the glimpse, through thick glass and a crack in the wall, at what may be the bones of the apostle.

Part of the thrill of the tour is simply in learning the story of the excavations that brought all this to light again in the 20th century. The Bones of St. Peter recounts this incredible story. There can always be grounds for skepticism, the main objections being the limited access of archaeologists to the site, the unprofessional aspects of some of the work that led to the bones from the graffiti wall being lost for years and the difficulty in coming up with an explanation for the removal of the remains from the grave to the side wall. We may not be able to know for certain the identity of the bones, and the Vatican, although enthusiastic about the finds, has always remained circumspect in judgment, as it usually is in these kinds of things, but the bits of stories passed down through the centuries are largely corroborated by the discoveries, and the tale of the series of circumstances that leads to them makes for engrossing reading.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Swete: Patristic Study

Swete, Henry Barclay. Patristic Study. New York; Bombay: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1902. (Available for Logos Bible Software.)

Henry Swete's Patristic Study provides a succinct (less than 200 pages) introduction to the major names and works of the patristic era and is full of guidance to the beginning student, recommending starting points and courses of study aimed at particular areas of interest. Obviously, a more recent work will have to be consulted for developments in the field that have occurred since its publication, but it remains a helpful introduction to the age.

Friday, March 6, 2009

de Lubac: History and Spirit

de Lubac, Henri. History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture according to Origen. Trans. Anne Englund Nash. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007.

Origen has often been derided as the extreme example of the excesses of patristic allegorical interpretation of Sacred Scripture. In History and Spirit, Fr. de Lubac sets out to explain Origen's understanding of Scripture and defend him and his method against the criticisms and misunderstandings of subsequent ages--that, for instance, Origen denigrates or denies the literal sense of Scripture or platonizes Christianity.

De Lubac argues that Origen was a man of the Church, who understood himself to be simply handing on the understanding of Scripture given to him: the "rule of the Church", the spiritual interpretation that derives its examples from the exegesis of St. Paul and has its ultimate basis in Christ's claim that the whole of the Law and the Prophets point to him. The resulting method is certainly not without its faults, at times leading to arbitrary, artificial readings; but, taken as a whole, because he follows the same idea throughout--searching out Christ--it is not arbitrary. It is also this Christ-centeredness that puts Origen worlds apart from Platonism or the exegesis of Philo.

Going beyond mere defense, de Lubac attempts to draw out some of the subtleties of Origen's understanding of Sacred Scripture: its different senses, its relationship to the spiritual life of the believer, its inspiration and unity. Chapter VIII, on the Incorporations of the Logos is particularly interesting, illustrating the parallels Origen draws between the Incarnation and the dwelling of the Logos in the Scriptures, in the Holy Eucharist and in the Church.

The conclusion attempts to address what remains of this doctrine. After the developments of scholasticism, the controversies of the Reformation and the rise of rationalism, our faith can only rediscover with difficulty the kind of connaturality with Scripture found in patristic exegesis. We face an "anti-symbolism", a totalitarian "earth-boundedness" and humanism:
Our great temptation is to make God the symbol of man, his image objectified. Through this dreadful inversion, all biblical allegory, along with faith itself, would obviously be taken away with a single stroke.
De Lubac hopes for the revival of a "soundly spiritual exegesis on the basis of demonstrated science", but obviously such a thing faces profound challenges. The modern mind studying the Fathers in an attempt recapture that connaturality with Scripture struggles to move beyond history of interpretation.