On Typology: A Polemic

Tony Sig

A couple months ago, Ben Myers wrote a dandy post against the types of books that force students to read, not the primary sources about which they are supposedly to learn, but books talking about them.

“Can you imagine signing up for a university course on Shakespeare, only to discover that you are expected to read summaries, introductions, cleverly worded journal articles – everything, in short, except Shakespeare? Or a course in biology in which the students spend so much time reading introductory literature on microscopes that they never actually get to look into one?”

Spot on. To the “student book” I would like to add another problematic form of writing that does pretty much the same thing, with the results, if anything, being more sinister. This form is common in the same student books but exists outside of them as well: Namely, the organization of theologians and their thought into typologies. Myers again, in a more recent post, lays out a new atonement typology in patristic thought contra Aulen, yet having laid out a more complex scheme says:

“Even from these summaries, one can see that these themes are normally found not as separate ideas but as closely interwoven motifs.”

Myers, I think, sees the work that his typology can do, but in the very act of constructing a new one is able to see the myriad ways his improved scheme falls short of accurately and fully describing the works under discussion.

But it’s not simply that typology cannot accurately represent the works that fall under its sway that riles me up – surely one should be able to accurately summarize a view without it being some kind of betrayal –  it’s that once a theologian or work has been typologized and the scheme imbibed into the academic bloodstream, it becomes unnecessary for the student or pastor to bother with the thinkers who fall into the ‘bad’ category. As with the ‘student book,’ we no longer need bother with primary sources, but not having read them, we can roundly dismiss them!

A classic example of this can be found in the way Anselm is routinely marginalized as a proto-evangelical who (from scratch!) came up with “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” Here we see not only the influence of Aulen but also the neo-patristic synthesis of modern Orthodox theologians. (One of David Bentley Hart’s lasting labor may be in his multiple defenses of Anselm and Duns Scotus against such typologies)

Speaking of the Orthodox, we also often see typology being used in service of declension narratives; yet using them this way works as a kind of shortcut past the harder work of constructing a disciplined genealogy. Even in the sustained work of Hans Frei or Karl Barth it’s not hard to feel that something is lost in the anti-liberalism – this despite the post-liberal I am.

The surest way around these problems seems to me to be to adhere to this dictum: Primary sources are for everyone, secondary sources are for specialists.


Ancient Documents and Magic Words Syndrome

Tony SigI was reading a journal article for my Latin class and was again reminded of something that I’ve been ruminating on for a while.  Historiography continues to fascinate me and is something I hope to dedicate plenty of energy to.  One of the most questionable activities that many historians and exegetes like to play around with is what I like to call “Magic Words Syndrome.”  If you’ve ever been reading a commentary and the exegete postulates an entire literary history for a document (in time, a critical edition of the text might be produced) we don’t have, belonging to a theoretical community we don’t know about, coming from an original oral source we’re unaware of, all based on a tiny handful or even a couple of words, then you know what I mean when I say Magic Words Syndrome.

This shows up in postulating “dependence” and “allusion” as well.

What is it about the fact that a document is in Greek or Latin that makes people believe that authors didn’t actually use language in some comparable way to the way we learn and use a language?  Nobody looks at three words in Joyce’s Ulysses and does this.  That’s because he wrote in English, and English is familiar to us, we use it with very little thought or in general, attention to detail.  Could you ever imagine someone arguing like this? –

“You see how Joyce uses “in the yard” here?  Clearly he is alluding to passage X in work Y who too uses “in the yard” in similar circumstances, that is, the protagonist is in fact coming into a yard.  Furthermore we know, based on person Z who is a contemporary of Joyce, that the use of work Y was “in the air” and broadly known of by crazed Irish intellectuals despite the fact that it is far from clear whether Joyce himself knew about work Y.  Either way, my argument does not depend on this. My own footnoted person T wrongly asserts that here Joyce is relying on work W because W uses “into the yard,” the preposition clearly shows that her reading is foolish nonsense.  Academic person H has argued, unconvincingly in my opinion, that the original form of the phrase in work W was “in the yard,” but the best sources all say “into,” thus this need not change our rendering. Furthermore it is my contention that “in the yard” needs to be understood according the neo-platonic use of the yard to signify the Elysian Fields, popular at the time in France, which surely Joyce knew about, himself being very familiar with random French neo-platonists.”

Now of course academics can often legitimately pick up an allusion.  The other day I successfully recognized one to Wesley on Facebook hidden in a stack of comments.  But that doesn’t change the fact that very often I think these kinds of papers and books are operating with a kind of reasoning that doesn’t take into consideration the way people actually use language.  It certainly doesn’t strike me as convincingly historical.  Partly this springs from the readings I did a few years back on hermeneutics.  It escapes me that entire worlds can be extracted from so little.  It seems like irresponsible reading to me.

All this to say, I need to read more on the writing of history.  de Certeau here I come!

The Idea of Feast Days

Tony Sig

According to the Episcopal Church’s Holy Women, Holy Men, today is a day available to celebrate the great Karl Barth.  Here is the collect:

“Almighty God, source of justice beyond human knowledge: We thank you for inspiring Karl Barth to resist tyranny and exalt your saving grace, without which we cannot apprehend your will. Teach us, like him, to live by faith, and even in chaotic and perilous times to perceive the light of your eternal glory, Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, throughout all ages. Amen.”

I noted this on my Facebook wall with a link and an interesting conversation ensued.  This began by something the always engaging Benjamin Guyer said, namely that Barth, a man who publicly berated his friends and who carried on a 20 year affair with Charlotte von Kirschbaum, could be said to be a major Christian intellectual but his moral conduct was far from being worthy of celebration on any calendar.

Responses tended to question whether this is a fair way to gauge the calendric worth of a saint.  After all, it was said by one, “Luther hated Jews, Augustine killed heretics, St. Paul killed Christians”…it seems that being a saint is not dependent on a wholly virtuous life.

Ben stood by his guns though and said that “Barth lived in various ways that are fundamentally incompatible with what a calendar of saints is intended to do – namely hold up for emulation particular men and women.”

This brought up a question in my mind:  Are calendars in fact intended to hold up lives for emulation?  It seems that it will at least do this, but I think there is a deeper way to look at this that I think might make room for the possibility of “flawed” saints being joyfully celebrated.

Not that long ago, Derek Olsen put a piece up on the Episcopal Cafe’ asking some much needed questions about the criteria used to compile Holy Women, Holy Men.  Do go read that piece.   Though he does not there lay out a full argument, I believe he points us in the right direction.  Ultimately, there needs to be a sense in which a calendar is christological and not reduceable to contemporary party idealogies.

I would like to suggest that the calendar of feasts should be less about pointing to exemplary lives for the sake of emulation, though this will be a very strong feature of many such celebrations, but more about recognizing that these lives represent particularly strong points of intensity in the life of the Church that witness to the saving grace of God – His salvation is here being worked out amongst us.  We recognize in them that God’s life and work became undeniably clear and the feast is not to celebrate the virtue in a life as such, but to respond in praise to the God who has made Godself known.  It is a mark of God’s continuing faithfulness to bring his work to completion.

To elaborate even further, I’d like to suggest that the saints point to a Life that makes our lives coherent.  The trustworthiness of these lives points to the trustworthiness of the God for whom they lived.  In pointing beyond themselves, there is room to ‘allow’ that even the saints will not always come off so saintly.  +Rowan Williams expresses what I’m trying to say like this:

“Often all we can do is go on telling the stories of those who keep us going; I may not look very credible, but I can at least point to someone who does.  And as long as there are those who effectively and bravely take responsibility for God, the doors remain open and the possibility is there for others, perhaps very slowly, to find their way to a point where they can say…’I want to live int he same world as them; I want to know what they know and drink from the same wells.” – Tokens of Trust, 28

I’m aware that +Williams was not talking about the same thing I am talking about per se, but I think this holds true for what the celebration of saints is supposed to accomplish.  By doing this there will be some who will inspire us to deeper levels of discipleship by emulation, but there are others who are significant for reasons that are not explicitly ethical, for instance someone like St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Just as there are many gifts, so there are many ways in which to build up the life of the Church.

Some Anselmian & Early Medieval Resources You May Not Know About But Probably Should

Tony Sig

I recently had the (these days) rare opportunity to purchase some new books and I decided against filling in more of my contemporary theological library and opted for some of the Patristic Fathers.  Among them I decided to procure works by St. Anselm of Canterbury.

In my experience most people on the English scene these days instantly think of the Oxford edition of his “Major Works.” Indeed I was going to get this collection.  One of the obvious problems for some who lean academically is that while this book has most of his primary works, there are several, especially of a “less theological” kind, that are omitted.  On top of that, the book is sort of a piece of junk; the paper is thin and easily warped, the cover is less-than-substantial, and the introduction is brief.

Luckily I stumbled across this book, The Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Anselm of Canterbury, by Jasper Hopkins and Herbert Richardson, out on a small Twin Cities publishing company, Banning Press.

The book as a physical product is vastly superior.  The cover is a regal hard-cloth purple, the pages are thick and the font basic and strong.  If this weren’t enough, as Hopkins himself wrote it, the “Introduction” to the volume is the entry on Anselm contained within the meticulous Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one should strongly consider getting this “Shorter” Routledge Encyclopedia).

Besides this, the volume contains the complete intellectual works of St. Anselm, including four didactic letters and his Meditation on Human Redemption; all the translations are based on the standard critical texts, the Sancti Anselmi Opera Omnia.  The book also points you in the direction of English editions of Anselm’s letters not found within.

All in all, at a mere $11, this is the obviously superior edition of these wonderful works.

As icing on the cake, having looked into Dr. Hopkins, it turns out that he teaches here at the University of Minnesota where I am currently engaged in study.  I was going to pursue at least some studies in Medieval Christian thought and how great it is to know that I may be able to steal some time with an Anselm expert!

If you follow the link to his personal site, you will find online all of these translations in downloadable format for free, including other works not in this book!  Dr. Hopkins apparently is also well studied in Nicholas of Cusa, and he has a sister book to the Anselm one, a collection of The Complete Philosophical and Theological Treatises of Nicholas of Cusa, all of which again are freely accessible on his site or in book format.  Dr. Hopkins has also written introductions and commentaries on both theologians.