The Three Horizons: Burrows on Gerson’s View Of Theology As Biblical, Ecclesial, And Traditional

Scripture stands as a text written ad nostram doctrinam and thus teaches the way in which we should proceed through life. It is meant to educate and guide all vioatores, effecting an erudition not merely of the “intellect” but “much more of the heart”, an allusion to Gerson’s portrayal of faith “formed” through the virtues (fides formata) and hence integrated into the texture of human life. And, in a surprising affirmation which moves beyond the medieval teaching regarding the heirarchy of faith which existed in the church, Gerson extends in this treatise the responsibility which the laity assumed toward scripture: here he demands of all viatores, the laity (idiotae) along with the higher clergy, a “certitude” and “explicit faith” (fides explicita) not only of the creed’s twelve articles bu of “the whole of sacred scripture”. – Mark Burrows, Jean Gerson and De Consolatione Theologiae: The Consolation Of A Biblical And Reforming Theology For A Deformed Age, p.81

A page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Courtesy of The British Museum Online

A page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Courtesy of The British Museum Online

Chapters III and IV form a cohesive unit, interweaving methodological and theological and programmatic discussions of Gerson’s text outlined in Chapter II. In this post I’ll be taking a look at what I’m calling “the three horizons” of theology about which Gerson is explicit: Scripture in its entirety; Scripture as the sacred deposit of the Church; and the role of the teaching office of the Church (what the much later Council of Trent would refer to as the dual authority of scripture and tradition in determining doctrinal correctness). In a later piece I’ll talk about what Burrows calls “the paideutic” role of this theology, specifically how theology, understood in the way Gerson defines it, serves as the guide for all Christians in their journey toward God.

For now, we are concerning ourselves with the source of the believer’s guide through the travails of life to that very Augustinian idea of the beatific vision. Burrows points out that, for Gerson, “theology” is and ought to be considered little more than the sacred Scriptures with a minimal gloss. Indeed, it is the literal understanding of any Scriptural text that is sufficient, except, as Burrows notes, for instances where the Scriptures are either vague or contradictory. In such instances – Burrows uses a discussion of simony as an example – people are left to the scholastic method to figure out the truth. All the same, in what should be understood as a surprising move for the former Rector of the University of Paris and a professor of theology, Gerson is very clear that “theology”, properly understood, is the property of the whole Church, not just a particular learned guild. What Burrows calls this “democritization” of theology, serving not only the monastic orders and secular clergy but also the laity, is part of the larger project of understanding theology as “consolation”: While it is the duty of Christians, regardless of station, to be what Burrows repeatedly refers to as viatores, it is important to recognize that this journey happens with a guide, personified later in Gerson’s dialogue as “Lady Theology”.

Previous to the above-quoted passage, Burrows writes the following:

Gerson accomplishes this identity most clearly is in his persistent fusion of theological argument and biblical text, creating in the process a literary treatise saturated with scriptural citation and allusions – at times a key phrase, but more often whole sentences culled from the scriptures, and above all from the Psalms and Pauline literature. . . . In this project what remains undetected is the breadth fo such references as well as the flavor these bring to the paideutic function of theology; scripture itself provides the theological substance of the consolatory argument found in this treatis. One notices this functional character of scriptura in Gerson’s use of a subtle literary technique throughout the treatise: he personifies theologia by giving her a voice, and she uses this voice in an insistent manner to “reveal” scripture: “Among those truths [revealed by God], though by no means against the dictates of reason [non irrationabiliter], theologia offers this one: that God “rewards those who seek him. . . .” The truth, of course, which theologia announces bears no original thought, nor does it offer arguments from the arsenal of scholastic disputation. Rather, theology – or perhaps we should read “Lady Theology – articulates the plain scriptural text (Hebrews 11.6) in the logic of its literal sense. (pp. 80-81)

This conflation of theology and the Scriptural text, however, is not the possession either of the learned or the faithful lay person seeking to journey toward being before God.

[A]s we have earlier pointed out the scriptural text for Gerson, though sufficient in itself, never functions by itself: he insists that the perspective of the reader plays a critical role in determining the functional utility of the biblical text, a theme we have earlier characterized under the rubric of the “correlation” of text and reader. And yet precisely on this point Gerson insists that the reader is not sufficient as biblical interpreter, or to put this in a positive form, the reader must interpret scripture within the context of the church. This insistence, accentuated apparently by the sharp conflict met with the Hussite faction at the Council of Constance, prompts Gerson to qualify his view of scripture’s sufficiency, and here we find ourselves in the midst of a complex late-medieval debate regarding theological authority: namely, the relation of scripture to another source of authority, usually referred to under the ambiguous term “tradition. . . . Gerson set the hermeneutical question within an ecclesiological framework, the church is finally the arbiter of exegetical disputes, functioning as the tradition within which scripture is to be interpreted. . . . Gerson distanced himself from the Hussite position by . . . invoking the church as the formal medium of interpretation, not because the church added anything to scripture in this process but because the church as the historical community of biblical interpretation (i.e., tradition) held a position of singular authority vis-a-vis scripture. . . . Gerson insisted that the church the normative interpreting community; hermeneutics becomes a function of the church, since scripture as a sufficient authority is neither self-authenticating nor self-interpreting, particularly in disputed passage, as we have seen. (pp. 115-116)

As Protestants, a bit too impressed with our abilities as readers to understand the biblical text as it was intended, we are far too quick to set aside the last two horizons – the church and its peculiar authority as well as the history within which Biblical interpretation (i.e., theology in the Gersonian sense) – and rest just a bit too easily on the sufficiency of Scripture. Gerson’s wisdom, however, is recognizing the necessity of context – textual, historical, and historical – in understanding the “plain meaning” of the Bible. While the Bible certainly works as a literary text abstracted from its theological function, such a reading far too easily misses the main point of the texts so studied.

Theology is, in the end, more than just “the science of the church”, although it most certainly is that. It is, for Gerson, the guide both for individuals and the church as a whole on its journey toward God. As such, while the scriptures are sufficient, they can only ever be sufficient within the Church as the particular body formed by and informing Scriptural interpretation; and only be properly interpreted by taking into account the traditions in which the Biblical text is interpreted.

Particularly in America, we have pushed the “democratization” of theology and Scriptural understanding far beyond the realms of authority not only Gerson insisted were necessary; we are now at the point where anyone and everyone, whether a part of the Body of Christ (understood broadly, perhaps in a way Gerson would have found heretical) or not, insists upon his or her unique authority as an interpreter of the Bible. We are long past due for a kind of conservative reformation, one that returns to the Church (again, understood more broadly) as the place within which Biblical understanding is taught and learned, and the authoritative tradition which limits just what and how “theology” ends up being a science of the Church.

As a Seminarian, I heard a visiting Biblical scholar insist that interpreting Biblical texts needed to take account of the whole history of the Church’s teaching, both those from which we continue to find solace and guidance as well as those we fund repugnant. Thus it is I find myself wondering at all those Scripture scholars – again in a uniquely modernist love of primitivism as an arbiter of truth – who continue to insist it is not only necessary to leap over two millennia of Scriptural interpretation, but that we must ever and always continue to dig deeper and deeper into the unknowable history of specific texts themselves (relying whether they know it or not upon a kind of Bultmannian confidence in the historical transparency of particular texts). Whether they are The Jesus Seminar or those who spend their time arguing against the Jesus Seminar; whether they are a kind of modified fundamentalist or a more progressive reader, the goal continues to be finding the original meaning of the text as the goal for a true and therefore authoritative understanding of Scripture.

Burrows notes that Scripture is neither self-interpreting nor self-authoritative. As such, “the literal meaning” of texts is neither a kind of fundamentalism nor a facile proof-texting. Rather, theology is our guide on our Christian journey only through the power of the Scriptural sufficiency, as interpreted within and through the teaching office of the Church. Truly to be a viator in Gerson’s understanding of the Christian life is to understand oneself living and journeying within the Church, and with the teaching office of the Church as guiding our reading and understanding of theology. We cannot, nor should we wish to, escape the three horizons that provide Lady Theology with the tools to guide us on our way.

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