Tuesday, November 10, 2009

the theological attitude

The late Cardinal Michele Pellegrino, sometime archbishop of Turin, provided an insightful introduction to Augustine's preaching in Part III, volume I of the new, comprehensive collection of Augustine's works in English, The Works of Saint Augustine, from New City Press. He brings forth many items of interest to students of Augustine and of the church life of fourth century Hippo. What I would highlight here, however, is Saint Augustine's attitude to the preaching of the Word of God.

There are many preachers today in the church, and many theologians in the academy, who take great pride in their expertise of their subject matter. I have witnessed it personally. I am not here to judge them, for they are a product of a certain culture, a certain approach to theology. It is what I would call the academic attitude. It is quite commonplace in the realm of modern biblical scholarship, but it can also be found in the preaching ranks of "conservative" churches. Unfortunately, one even encounters it in the seminary. One might expect that the greatest preacher and theologian of the Western Christian tradition, and a man whose preaching was always in demand, even by pagans and heretics, would have a fairly exalted view of his abilities over against the text of the scriptures. Not so. Instead, he gives us a different example. His is what I would call the theological attitude.

Let us pick up Pellegrino's discussion on page 35:

Precisely because the scriptures speak of God, they surpass human understanding, as Augustine says when commenting on the Prologue of the gospel of John: "And the Word was God. We are talking of God. Is it surprising that you do not understand? If you understood, he would not be God. Devoutly admit your ignorance rather than make a display of a rashly claimed knowledge. To touch God with the mind in even the slightest degree brings great happiness; to comprehend him is utterly impossible." The "mystery" of the scriptures thus urges us to humility.

Further on Augustine is quoted in one of his sermons thus,

That which is clear in the abundant riches of the sacred scriptures feeds us, that which is obscure urges us on; the former satisfies our hunger, the latter keeps us from becoming disgusted.

And then this:

Our attitude, dear brothers and sisters, as we meditate on the sacred scriptures and explain them should be by the indisputable authority of the scriptures themselves. That is, we should explain them with faith so that what is said obscurely will urge us to study.

The more the theologian learns to pray the scriptures, and meditate upon them in faith, that is, by faith in Christ, Whose cross alone is our theology, the more he will ready himself to expound the scriptures, not as one who stands over them, but as one who has learned to submit himself to them. When I make reference to the "theologian," I am assuming a man who studies the theological languages, and is skilled at the whole discipline of theology. I also have in mind someone who knows the liturgy, and makes it his home. His study, meanwhile, must be an extension of his prayer desk. When the theological task is approached in this way, unlike with other learned disciplines, the subject matter is not the object of our manipulations and experiments, but is truly the subject, and the theologian is the object. The Word is the Artist, and He has His way with the theologian and preacher. In this way, theology is best seen as an art, rather than a science.

The Christian, whoever he is, as a hearer, a lector, or a preacher of the Word, benefits from the Word by submitting himself to it in faith. The tradition of the Church has many great teachers and examples of this truth. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the best of them is Augustine, the Bishop, whose preaching vocation he never shied from and never took for granted.

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