Christianity And Heavy Metal As Impure Sacred Within Secular West: Transgressing The Sacred by Jason Lief

Rather than a stereotypical understanding of heavy metal as an oppositional form of cultural discourse, the subversive function of metal is deeply connected with a subversive interpretation of the Christ event. This is not the pure sacred that appeals to a transcendent divine power as the guarantee of the status quo, and it is also no a religious attempt to escape from material existence into some higher, abstract, spiritual world. Instead. heavy metal is related to an interpretation of the death and resurrection of Christ that sees the crucifixion and resurrection as a social and political rupture stemming from te inbreaking of an “event” – a manifestation of an unnamable and unmappable force that relativizes every social, institutional, and cultural form of ideology. This interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a supernatural guarantee of a particular way of life, it is primarily an event that both demythologizes and remythologizes, rupturing the status quo to make possible a new way of being in the world. – Jason Lief, Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within The Secular West: Trangressing The Sacred, p.73

We walked away from Eden
Put Heaven in the sky
Put angels on the houses
That the devil lives inside – “In A Garden Made Of Stones”, Dead Soul Tribe, lyrics by Devon Graves

Polish Black Metal band Behemoth in concert. As I told my daughter when she told me they’re scary, “They’re supposed to be.”

Every once in a while, when on Amazon, I will type the words “heavy metal” and “Christianity” into the Books search bar. Up until a few weeks ago, all I saw were the usual, nonsensical “evangelical” books talking about how evil heavy metal is. What happened a few weeks ago was this book. I was shocked. Could it be someone had written the book I keep telling myself I’m going to write someday, a book that explores the complex, ambiguous, and contradictory relationship between heavy metal and Christianity, a book that takes both metal and Christianity seriously?

After hemming and hawing over the price – it was listed at $90, not unusual for an academic monograph on a specialized topic from a small publisher – I ordered it. Ironically, it arrived on Easter Sunday. I must admit I was excited to read this book.

Rarely have I read a book so poorly written, even more poorly printed (my copy is so filled with errata it became frustrating at  times to read), that said so little about something that deserves a far better treatment than it received here. While I applaud Jason Lief for the attempt, the execution was awful. It needed to go through at least one more rewrite with a polishing of proofs, judging just by the run-on sentences alone. This isn’t nitpicking. You’re supposed to be an academic. The least you can do is write like someone with an education.

Now, these are just the physical flaws in the presentation. It might have been rescued had Lief not said so little, said it over and over again, until I found myself having to wait a day or two between chapters. It is that bad.

First of all, if you’re going to write about the relationship between heavy metal and Christianity, you should be able to talk about the music qua music. It isn’t enough to point out that heavy metal represents more than just music, but a set of social and cultural practices. If you find yourself noting only, and often, that heavy metal music is loud, its lyric content often dealing in profane and even blasphemous subjects, you might want to stop and do research on the music itself. Not just the volume, but the mixture of timbres – heavily distorted guitars often tuned down, an emphasis on rhythm that pushes both the bass guitar and drums further up in the mix, vocal styles that range from operatic through nearly unintelligible grunting to heavily distorted screaming – the musical choices of modes and harmonic structures that rely on dissonance, all go to make up heavy metal’s appeal. The communities around metal form in response to the musical experience, then spreading out as other aspects, from the concert experience, serious discussion of lyrical content and choices, and setting the music in historic and social context. A serious discussion of heavy metal as a musical form (or forms, since there are varieties of heavy metal) is important if we are to understand how the music operates as what Lief calls “the impure sacred”.

Second, if you’re going to write about heavy metal and Christianity from the perspective both of a fan of the genre and a practicing, professing Christian, it might be a good idea to offer a clear theological framework at the beginning of your work, rather than relying on secular philosophers who, while certainly important for setting cultural and social questions in a larger context, are no substitute for a theologian or theologians whose confessional stance offers readers the opportunity to think differently about both heavy metal and Christianity. While I like the choice of Jurgen Moltmann as a theological guide, he is the only true theologian offered, and he makes a very late appearance at that. We are offered Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Bataille,Taylor, Bordieu, Zizek, and other social and cultural theorists long before we encounter an actual professing theologian. Again, this is not nit-picking. The title has Christianity as its first topic. It might be nice to have a serious discussion of the necessarily ambiguous nature of confessional theology when dealing with any cultural form. It might also be important to discuss, rather than just mention, how the profanity and blasphemy of some heavy metal operates; how it functions both as music and as cultural product; and the varieties of profanity and blasphemy on offer, from band names through stage presentation to the interactions of fans with fans as well as with the band on matters of religion and its symbolic place within heavy metal.

Furthermore, with regard to the matter of “Christianity”, please please please offer very clear definitions and distinctions. Early in the work, Lief attempts to separate “Christianity” from “the Christ event”, the latter being somehow separate from any theological or doctrinal impurities, as if speaking about “the Christ event” isn’t already offering a confessional and theological stance that needs to be fleshed out rather than merely stated. If, however, this is a distinction you wish to keep throughout the work, it would probably be a good idea not to use the terms interchangeably. Quite apart from the naive understanding of the use of the words “Christ event”, offering “Christianity” as a synonym even though you’ve already drawn in important distinction between the two terms was frustrating, to say the least.

The most frustrating thing, the thing that made me want to bang my head against a wall, was the repetition of the following phrase or its variant throughout the work: Heavy metal/the Christ event as impure sacred creates an abrupt break with the status quo, offering the possibility for genuine community and new forms of political activity. This sentence occurs so often, sometimes in the same run-on sentence, my eyes blurred when I saw it. My problem, however, is not the phrase itself; it is, rather, there is no discussion of how this happens or, except in a very brief discussion of Pauline theology, what constitutes these communities as distinct from the larger culture. Asserting over and over again that it happens isn’t enough. How it occurs, how these occurrences work themselves out in and through the various communities mentioned (but never defined) are all necessary if your goal is to show the similarities between heavy metal as socio-cultural practice and Christianity as more than simple confessional stance regarding the relationship between the created order and divinity.

I finished this book feeling taken advantage of. I spent a whole lot of money on a work that seemed to promise a thoughtful discussion of the complex and multifaceted relationship between Christianity and heavy metal. What I received was, for all intents and purposes, a poorly written first-draft of an undergraduate thesis that did little justice either to heavy metal both as a musical form and as cultural practice or Christianity both as confession and faithful practice.

I think it’s time I tried my hand at this.


Melting The Venusberg: A Feminist Theology Of Music by Heidi Epstein

Tannhauser In The Venusberg by August von Heckel. As presented by Wagner, the Venusberg is a garden of carnal delights, whose forbidden fruits tantalize.

Music’s theological significance now resides, not in its incarnation of harmony and order, but in its promiscuity and disintegration, that is, in its disorderly conveyance of power, pleasure, and intimacy among willing bodies. – Heidi Klein, Melting The Venusberg: A Feminist Theology Of Music, p.186

Few Christian doctrines are grasped as superficially as the Incarnation. Oh, we say the words of the Creed, that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. All the same, ever since St. Paul, most likely unconsciously, expressed his culture’s ambivalence regarding embodiment, we Christians have sought to minimize the full import of the declaration that in the man Jesus is the fullness of the divine Son of God. Jesus is a man. He got tired and hungry. He fell ill with all its uncomfortable bodily side-effects. He broke wind after a good meal. He enjoyed wine and festivities. And, yes, he understood sexual arousal at an embodied level. It is this last that we so often refuse even to imagine. How is it possible to claim dogmatically that Jesus of Nazareth was both fully human and fully divine if we cannot accept that this same Jesus understood the power of human sexuality? I suppose imagining Jesus farting is funny enough; there’s just something bordering on blasphemous, however, imagining Jesus having sexual feelings and thoughts.

Of the many gifts feminist and womanist theological re-readings have offered, it is this reclamation of the blessedness of our embodied selves in all their fullness that are most to be celebrated. By turning the tables on millennia of what author Heidi Epstein calls, in the title of one of her chapters, “A Phallic Rage For Order”, we are reintroduced to ourselves as whole beings, body-and-soul indivisible with the possibility that precisely in our enfleshed, embodied existence lies both the reality of salvation as well as a rich source of theological reflection. Overthrowing the dualities of traditional dialectics of body/soul, immanence/transcendence, sacred/ profane, in feminist theologies we are offered the possibility of an integrated understanding of salvation-as-reintegration of that which sin has rent asunder.

Heidi Epstein’s Melting The Venusberg* is an important, I daresay necessary, corrective to much of the tradition of theologizing about music we in the west have continued even to our day. Beginning her deconstructing of the western Christian tradition of theologizing regarding music with the great pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras, whose discovery of the way certain harmonic ratios are reflected in numerical ratios and relations, then through Plato’s preference for a restrained, perfectly harmonized music that reflects the image of the Form both of number and music, most of those who have commented on music, from John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Thomas up through the reformers to the 20th century with Karl Barth’s effusive theologizing regarding Mozart and Jaroslav Pelikan’s similarly enraptured commentary on Bach, have insisted that it is this harmonic resonance alone that both demonstrates and embodies the perfection of what Hildegard of Bingen called Jesus as God-made-music.

The western tradition has always maintained that music has an ethical and pedagogical core; in learning of harmony’s numerical perfection, people (men) would be educated into recognizing the goodness, truth, and beauty of Creation (an idea St. Augustine stole from Plato; an idea that continues to influence musicology and theology today). We learn about God through music. As her survey of the history of western theological reflection upon music demonstrates, however, Epstein emphasizes it is not just “music” as some abstract conception, but particular modes, with an emphasis upon harmony rather than either melody or rhythm. Indeed, it was precisely contemporaneous popular musics through the history of the west, with their emphases upon just those other elements, sidelining the numerical perfection of harmony as servant to other masters, that drew Christian commentator’s disdain. Like the Venusberg, music that impacts us bodily is a danger precisely because it is a pleasure and should thus be shunned, even damned.

In our fractured, post-modern, post-Christian context, however, this pursuit of harmonic perfection at the expense of the embodied pleasures of music is no longer even desirable, let alone theoretically defensible. Both theoretically and practically, Epstein offers an understanding of music that is wholly incarnational without ever losing sight that, as such, both sides must exist together. Theoretically, she defines music as a set of embodied practices, keeping it whole rather than, as she says, “dissecting” music’s body by breaking it down to its constituent parts in order to understand its whole. Practically she retrieves Hildegard of Bingen’s apologia for her own and her convent’s music-making against official clerical censure. She tells the story of Renaissance nuns in Bologna who defied clerical bans to create music in a contemporary idiom that was appreciated both for its aesthetic and contemplative powers. She reclaims woman-as-performer – something the west has always denigrated as little more than sexually promiscuous teasing (consider for a moment much of the criticism leveled at Nikki Minaj) – by retelling the stories of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and performance artist Diamanda Galas, we are confronted with the embodied practices of woman as conveyor of (musical) theological truths in subversive, transgressive ways precisely because of the sexual and ethical power they live in and through their musical performances. When we revision ourselves in light of Epstein’s ideas, passion and contemplation are no longer opposites, but inseparably linked through the disharmonies and even dissonances of Music-as-Woman. Rather than emasculating men (something men either covertly or overtly feared, at least according to much musicological theory since the 18th century in particular), a feminist theology of music makes us all, woman and man, whole again as we celebrate not the dialectic of Incarnation but its ever-present duality: always together in the single body of the God-man Jesus of Nazareth.

I’m not sure Epstein’s work is a “great” work, if only because I think the era of “great” theological works is long behind us. I do, however, recommend this book to anyone interested in thinking in new, productive, seductive ways about the revelatory power inherent in music.

*As envisioned by Wagner, the Venusberg is a cave/castle ruled by the eternal temptress, a place both of danger and pleasure. Epstein’s title, therefore, is equivocal in its notion of the “melting” of such a center of female empowerment. I accept, however, that precisely because it’s an obvious metaphor for women’s sexual power over men – a cave filled with both pleasure (sexual intercourse) and danger (dissipation in sexual wantonness; fathering an unwanted child) – the idea of “melting” also has an obvious double entendre I’ll let the reader consider for him- or herself.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Ethics

Already in the possibility of the knowledge of good and evil Christian ethics discerns a falling away from the origin. Man at his origin knows only one thing: God. . . . The knowledge of good and evil shows that [humanity] is no longer at one with [it] origin. . . .

The will of God is not a system of rules which is established from the outset; it is something new and different in each different situation in life, and for this reason a man must ever anew examine what the will of God may be. . . . It is no longer a matter of a man’s own knowledge of goo and evil, but only of the living will of God; our knowledge of God’s will is not something over which we ourselves dispose, but it depends solely upon the grace of God, and this grace is and requires to be new every morning. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, pp.17, 38

This book is not the Ethics which Dietrich Bonhoeffer intended to have published. – Eberhard Bethge, “Editor’s Preface,” p.7

Among a handful of texts that are now a deep part of how I view the world – the opening pages of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics . . . – Me, “Richard Rorty ‘Texts and Lumps’, No One Special, October 11, 2016

Albrecht Durer's engraving, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

Albrecht Durer’s engraving, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

Once many years ago I tried to explain Bonhoeffer’s basis for his Christian ethical reflection to someone. Needless to say, even quoting the author didn’t do much good. If one is predisposed to believe that the Christian life entails moral absolutes that are timeless, true always and forever across time and space and language and culture, then hearing that a well-known if little studied Christian theologian calls bunk on that just won’t sound right. All the same, the opening pages in Bonhoeffer’s collected writings on Christian ethics were little less than a bomb going off for me.

I remember the day I read this. It was a Saturday afternoon, mid-September, 1991. I was listening to . . . something . . . on the radio. The music was little more than background noise. I was taking a seminar on Bonhoeffer’s writings, and first up on the agenda was Ethics. A strange choice considering that of all his major works published after his death, it is precisely this volume that would have given the living Bonhoeffer fits. Assembled from bits and pieces of writings scattered across the years 1939 to Bonhoeffer’s execution in 1945, some of which his literary executor and editor admitted were written on scattered pieces of paper, some just a single sentence, the result can best be described as a mishmash of traditional Lutheran ethical reflection combined with truly mind-blowing insights.

When I read that first chapter, I remember thinking, “Oh my God! Did I just read what I thought I read?” I went back and read that chapter again. Yup. I did indeed read exactly what I thought I’d read the first time.

Words like “morality” get tossed around both by philosophers and non-philosophers as if everyone knew precisely what we’re talking about. Bonhoeffer gets to the heart of the problem with so much ethical and moral thought by insisting that, rather than concern itself with “good” and “evil”, proper Christian ethical reflection concerns itself with the will of God, sought and lived anew each day. Rather than yet again redefine a concept that had become (to use Rorty’s phrase) shopworn, Bonhoeffer cleared the boards completely.

I felt myself at a bit of an impasse regarding matters related to what it meant to live as a Christian; the relevance of personal moral uprightness to the call to live faithfully; the demand for a social ethic that replaced personal moralizing with a kind of political moralizing; these things and more were pushing me to wonder whether or not I could, in good conscience, even call myself a Christian. Then along comes Bonhoeffer. The Gordian Knot into which my brain had been turned was not only cut; the sword that dangled from it pierced me all the way through. It is impossible to describe every thought and feeling I had that warmish September afternoon 25 years ago. I can say with certainty that I felt an enormous, “YES!” ringing through the world, as if simultaneously confirming my questions were the right questions and that this, this presentation right here, offered a solution consonant with Christian Scripture and Christian doctrine that, while perhaps not fully realized by the author, was among the more revolutionary statements Christian theology produced in the first half of the 20th century.

“Does this mean you don’t believe in right and wrong?” That was the question I was asked a decade ago when I tried to explain all this. The answer to that question is simple: Any four-year-old understands the concepts of right and wrong. The belief for one moment that serious, faithful reflection on Christian living in our contemporary milieu should explain something clear enough to toddlers is ridiculous on its face. “Believing” in right and wrong is neither here nor there. As, too, is the distinction between good and evil. I remember well in the time after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington some on the right insisting that “liberals” were unwilling to call an evil act evil, or that the person who performed an evil act, in Pres. Bush’s words, an “evil doer”. Again, what relevance does such labeling have for serious reflection upon faithful living?

I think the best example of why I find the whole “Call it evil!” business is the following, in which I quote at length a piece no longer available on the web:

Every once in a while, I am sorry to say, some sick bastard sets fire to a kitten. This is something that happens. Like all crimes, it shouldn’t happen, but it does. And like most crimes, it makes the paper. The effects of this appalling cruelty are not far-reaching, but the incidents are reported in the papers because the cruelty is so flagrant and acute that it seems newsworthy.

The response to such reports is horror and indignation, which is both natural and appropriate. But the expression of that horror and indignation also produces something strange.

A few years ago there was a particularly horrifying kitten-burning incident involving a barbecue grill and, astonishingly, a video camera. That sordid episode took place far from the place where I work, yet the paper’s editorial board nonetheless felt compelled to editorialize on the subject. They were, happily, against it. Unambiguously so. It’s one of the very few instances I recall when that timidly Broderian bunch took an unambiguous stance without their habitual on-the-other-hand qualifications.

I agreed with that stance, of course. Who doesn’t? But despite agreeing with the side they took, I couldn’t help but be amused by the editorial’s inordinately proud pose of courageous truth-telling. The lowest common denominator of minimal morality was being held up as though it were a prophetic example of speaking truth to power.

That same posturing resurfaced in a big way earlier this year when the kitten-burners struck again, much closer to home. A group of disturbed and disturbing children doused a kitten with lighter fluid and set it on fire just a few miles from the paper’s offices.

The paper covered the story, of course, and our readers ate it up.

People loved that story. It became one of the most-read and most-e-mailed stories on our Web site. Online readers left dozens of comments and we got letters to the editor on the subject for months afterward.

Those letters and comments were uniformly and universally opposed to kitten-burning. Opinon on that question was unanimous and vehement.

But here was the weird part: Most of the commenters and letter-writers didn’t seem to notice that they were expressing a unanimous and noncontroversial sentiment. Their comments and letters were contentious and sort of aggressively defensive. Or maybe defensively aggressive. They were angry, and that anger didn’t seem to be directed only at the kitten-burners, but also at some larger group of others whom they imagined must condone this sort of thing.

If you jumped into the comments thread and started reading at any random point in the middle, you’d get the impression that the comments immediately preceding must have offered a vigorous defense of kitten-burning. No such comments offering any such defense existed, and yet reader after reader seemed to be responding to or anticipating this phantom kitten-burning advocacy group.

One came away from that comment thread with the unsurprising but reassuring sense that the good people reading the paper’s Web site did not approve of burning kittens alive. Kitten-burning, they all insisted, was just plain wrong.

But one also came away from reading that thread with the sense that people seemed to think this ultra-minimal moral stance made them exceptional and exceptionally righteous. Like the earlier editorial writers, they seemed to think they were exhibiting courage by taking a bold position on a matter of great controversy. Whatever comfort might be gleaned from the reaffirmation that most people were right about this non-issue issue was overshadowed by the discomfiting realization that so many people also seemed to want or need most others to be wrong. – “”Moral Indignation,” May 8, 2010

Whether it’s kitten-burning, or demanding liberals call evil acts “evil” or somehow be complicit in them, for some reason the proof of a proper moral outlook can only ever be that everyone speak out against, well, kitten burning and terrorism. As if somehow that makes on a moral person.

Denying to the Christian life any concern with good and evil certainly does not mean either being insouciant about them or, worse, condoning immoral acts. In just the same way, Christian ethical reflection does not exclude particular matters from consideration, including the old standbys of smoking, drinking, and sex on the one hand, or how best to participate in the social and political life of one’s community, whether that be local, national, or international. Rather, Bonhoeffer’s claim here directs the believer’s attention toward God and Divine Will. There aren’t any eternal moral laws, either revealed or accessible to reason. There is no once-for-all-time declaration from the Almighty regarding “what ought we to do”, whether in our personal or social conduct. All there is, for those whose faith declares the crucified, dead, and risen Jesus Christ as Lord, is a reliance upon Divine grace. This grace is, as Bonhoeffer notes, new each day. So, too, is the answer to the question, “What ought we to do?” Asking questions about good and bad or right and wrong, demanding to know the immutable moral will of God isn’t “wrong” in some absolute sense. They’re just the wrong questions to ask, the wrong matters with which to be concerned should one be seeking an authentic Christian life.

This is one reason why I find so much of our current moral discourse, whether it’s political or within the churches, so appalling. Rather than seeking in prayer what it is we are called to do, we pronounce eternal judgment upon those with whom we happen to disagree (regardless of which “side” one finds oneself taking), ignorant of how such actions are antithetical to real Christian ethical reflection. Despite Bonhoeffer’s status as a contemporary martyr, so little is known about his thought even among those who praise his courage in the face of Nazi tyranny that bringing this particular bit of his thought to light might well cause far more problems than it solves.

I read this at the same time I’d been reading Rorty. What I saw in Bonhoeffer, this emphasis upon our limited, contingent existence; a refusal to seek universal answers to particular questions; an opening to particular possibilities rather than general demands and laws; all this I understood was also part of Rorty’s ethical and political and antiepistemological agenda. I had long since become comfortable with a kind of general acceptance of the contingency of all that is as well as the necessary limits such contingency places upon us in our understanding. Now I had encountered a Christian thinker who seemed equally comfortable rejecting the long-running notion that the moral life was a set of hard-and-fast rules either revealed to humanity or accessible to human reason therefore accessible to all human beings at all times and places. Embracing human contingency of life, of thought, of language, and of action, Bonhoeffer offers the freedom from precisely all those phony and ridiculous “moral laws” and “ethical demands” that has so exercised western thought for millennia.

Few things taste and smell as sweet as that first breath of free air.

By Whose Authority?: Burrows On Gerson’s Vision of Ecclesiology As The Source And Locus Of Authority

[Gerson] admits in a provocative digression that he considered “the authority of ruling [auctoritas regiminis] to be the very basis of religion.” This is no small point, not only in terms off the theoretical basis of his eclesiology but for grasping the broader question of his functional view of religion: religio represented for Gerson, as in its classical sense, the structuring force for society in general terms. Obedience, therefore, was not a matter of one’s reasoned conclusion that the structures or duties imposed by superiores were correct and hence acceptable. Quite the contrary: authority itself served as the basis of religion, even if concrete instances of its exercise were somehow misguided . . . – Mark Burrows, Jean Gerson and De consolatione theologiae: The Consolation Of A Biblical And Reforming Theology For A Disordered Age, pp.264-265

Jan Hus burned at the stake at the Council of Constance. Gerson's friend and mentor, the Cardinal d'Ailly, was prosecutor. Gerson himself had been a long-time advocate for silencing Hus, agreeing with both the verdict of heresy and judgement that Hus be turned over to the secular arm for execution.

Jan Hus burned at the stake at the Council of Constance. Gerson’s friend and mentor, the Cardinal d’Ailly, was prosecutor. Gerson himself had been a long-time advocate for silencing Hus, agreeing with both the verdict of heresy and judgement that Hus be turned over to the secular arm for execution.

The quote is misattributed to Winston Churchill: ‘If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.’ Proving that a misattributed quote has little value, my own predilections and preferences have continued a leftward drift, socially, politically, and theologically. At the same time, I always temper my own radicalism with an unswerving dedication to particular institutional structures as the necessary context within which particular radicalisms make sense. For example, I have been very public in my agreement with the radical critique of American party politics and their elections as tools used by the ruling class, by and large, to provide the illusion of democratic control over public policy. In broad outlines, where the money talks and the bullshit walks, neither the Democratic nor Republican Parties differ all that much in their commitment to rapacious capitalism. A the same time, I am committed to the American electoral process – particularly in our present historical moment – as the last safeguard against the collapse of our republican experiment into a kind of amalgam of fascism and strong-man authoritarianism like much of the so-called Third World experienced during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

In a similar fashion, I side with those within my own particular denomination who, exhausted by the constant struggle against a better organized yet increasingly irrelevant conservative plurality, demand we change our policies regarding sexual minorities. At the same time, any movement toward schism, whether it is a left-leaning schism or right-leaning, is abhorrent to me. My prior commitments to the institution of the United Methodist Church – both to its theology as well as its current certainly flawed really existing structure – is the framework within which my radicalism occurs, and is the background against which I believe change should occur.

In the last chapter of his study of Gerson’s De consolatione theologiae, Mark Burrows looks at how Gerson underpins his vision of the Christian life as a pilgrimage, guided by theologiae, to our final rest in God. While Gerson’s text itself, his understanding of theology as paideia, his voluntarist soteriology, and his vision of the converted viator as working with God to bring about “the new Jerusalem”, all point to a series of changes, some of them particularly progressive considering the age, to Gerson’s thought, Burrows contends this vision of a biblical and reforming theology cannot be separated from Gerson’s prior commitment to the Church as the source of authority to which all must submit. While Burrows suggests the Gerson presents the Church, too, as in via, a pilgrim Church not yet “washed clean and without blemish”, it is precisely the actual structure and order of the church and its hierarchy that reflects a divinely ordained “law and order” forming the basis for all who would wish to be “on the way”.

The theme of authority runs throughout the chapter. It’s in a discussion of Gerson’s hermeneutic and view of “tradition” as the source for understanding Scriptural texts. It lies behind his distinction between what Gerson calls iustitia fraternae, the kind of admonishments necessary for the proper ordering and functioning of the institution, and the broader framework of lex divina et ordo, which for Gerson certainly justify silencing those whose teaching and practice threaten the very fabric both of the social and the ecclesiastical order. It is the heart of his polemics against, in particular Jan Hus’s overly-moralistic “neo-Donatist” vision of the Church as comprising only those “elect from eternity”, such election providing them not only with the confidence in their works but served as the basis for Hus and his followers to dismiss the authority of what was admittedly a broken and corrupt church.

Burrows describes Gerson as both a conservative and progressive reformer. Gerson wishes zeal to be tempered by moderation and patience. Gerson envisions what Burrows repeatedly calls “a pilgrim Church”; his return to a thorough-going Augustinian anthropology discussed previously allows him the freedom to condemn the kind of moralizing Hus and his followers both taught and practiced* as missing the point about the nature of the Church in via. He opposes a regnant apocalypticism with a moderate eschatology that, while always present as an operative part of his larger theological vision, is nevertheless tempered by a faithful patience. In a time in which one of Gerson’s theological opponents was writing polemics justifying regicide while Hus’s followers continued to declare the Roman Church the anti-Christ, Gerson’s conservative progressivism was a voice of reason in a time when, it seemed, reason no longer mattered.

And it all comes back to the matter of authority. As described by Burrows, Gerson saw the hierarchies of church and society as reflecting the Divine law and order. It did little good to kick against those pricks precisely because they were instituted by God; far better to work within this lex divina et ordo so that the Church could more properly set itself as the Church on its way, yet never to reach its final goal until the end of history, an end Gerson adamantly insisted was still a long way off.

We post-moderns, accepting the modernist critique of authority, struggle with matters of authority. The opposition of the social good versus the needs of the individual still exist despite the rejection of the theoretical foundation of authority, whether rooted in revealed truth, tradition, or some metaphysical understanding of human nature. Thus we find ourselves ill-equipped to weather the particular storms of our age, whether they be within the Church in its various manifestations or in secular society with its warring groups and the voices demanding the primacy of the individual. In the midst of this cacophony, a moderate voice like Gerson’s – appealing to authority as an already-existing and necessary part of human life, ordering and limiting any individual’s place within the interwoven strands of larger commitments, whether they’re social, political, or religious – would be welcome while, I think, little heard.

It is at this point that I want to add just a couple thoughts. First, I am glad that, 24 years after I purchased it, I committed myself to reading and reflecting on Mark Burrows’s book. This afternoon I was thinking of Ecclesiastes, how there seems to be a time for all things and each thing; this particular moment in the life of my own Church makes discovering Jean Gerson and his tempered progressive vision of reform not only welcome but, I think, important. Like Gerson’s insistence that theology is too important to be left to the professional theologians, Burrows’ book is far too important a source for insight into the complex and confounding history of the Church as well as one of its more neglected theologians to be relegated to academic church historians. While certainly not an “easy” read, it is one that should have a far broader audience precisely because in our own disordered age we are in dire need of a Biblical and reforming theology that is conservative in the best sense of the word while nevertheless progressive as is necessary.

And a special thanks to my good friend Mike Jones. A fellow Wesley Seminarian, I asked Mike to oversee my reading, holding me accountable both for reading and writing these reflections. Because of my commitment to that covenant, I feel like I’ve gained much from this study of Gerson’s dialogue. As I move on, I feel grateful for the peace that passes all understanding, as Gerson ended De consolatione theologiae, as it accompanies my further reading.

*It is not for nothing that while I sympathize in principle with Hus’s condemnation both of the structural rot of the Mother Church as well as the scandalous practices from simony to concubinage prevalent within the hierarchy I believe most of my immediate contemporaries would find little attractive in Hus’s highly moralizing vision of the Church. It is one thing to be right in principle; it is a wholly other thing to be right in all the wrong ways. Hus may have been correct in his description of the Church, and his judicial murder solved little; that does not make Hus’s antidote any more correct. It was a villainous era with few heroes, including Jan Hus and Jean Gerson.

It Is A Fearful Thing To Fall Into The Hands Of The Living God: Soteriology & Providence In De consolatione theologiae

In Christ, beside the divine will – for He was Himself God – the threefold will . . . is to be found. According to the first Christ wished continually whatsoever God willed, praising and approving the order of divine wisdom, goodness, and justice in whatever God willed and accomplished: in heaven regarding salvation, in the abyss of condemnation, and on land and sea regarding the various activities of those to be saved and those damned. Therefore we ought to imitate Jesus according to this will, even if we are not in everything able while we live to reach equality, both because we have not yet been confirmed and because through the second of these wills the higher will within us is able to be distracted and disturbed. – Jean Gerson, De consolatione theologiae, quoted in Burrows, Jean Gerson and De consolatione theologiae: The Consolation Of A Biblical And Reforming Theology For A Disordered Age, p. 201.

The Resurrection Of Jesus.

The Resurrection Of Jesus.

It is only fitting that the pivot point both of Mark Burrows’s study of Gerson as well as Gerson’s work is a consideration of the doctrine of soteriology, one which Burrows describes through the title of the fourth chapter as via media et regia. Encompassing as it does matters of Christology, atonement, election, anthropology, and Providence, how we understand and live through our understanding of salvation is how we show the world who we believe God to be. The heart of Christian discipleship lies here; matters of justification, questions of freedom within an acceptance of Divine Providence as absolute, and the place of the crucified and risen Jesus; the ethical obligation placed upon those who seek to be conformed to Christ; we either get these things right exactly at this point or we end up in a muddle.

Thus it is this particular chapter is both lengthy and extremely technical both in its exposition of Gerson’s views on these matters as well as in Burrows’s rhetorical point that by presenting a way through the scholastic divide presented by a near-absolute determinism on the one hand and a Pelagius-like reliance on the human will to achieve salvation through works Gerson has altered his previous reliance upon one particular strand of late-medieval thought. It would be ridiculous to attempt a summary of all Burrows has to say without essentially retyping his entire chapter. For our purposes, therefore, I wish to focus upon Burrows’s explanation of Gerson’s rather high Christology, with its emphases upon Divine grace as granting faith to those who have succumbed to the despair described in the previous post. I also want to point out how Gerson’s acceptance both of Divine election as well as the burden placed upon the Christian to follow Christ – using the late-medieval idea of imitatio Chisti – not only demonstrates what Burrows’s calls Gerson’s “linear dialectic” of despair and hope, but preserves a particular imputed dignity to the one living through faith in hope lived out in acts of charity. To those familiar with Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification, much of this might well sound familiar.

After opening sections in which Burrows grounds Gerson’s soteriology both upon the absolute will of God in the Divine Election and a species of pessimistic Augustinian anthropology, Burrows answers the unasked question: If God’s will is indeed absolute and the human condition is one of sin in its three-fold expression – original, acted, and habitual – upon what rock does human hope rest? That cycle of despair discussed previously, it would seem, leaves us nowhere but a kind of existential terror. It is precisely at this point in the discussion that Burrows begins a section entitled “Pastoral Theology In A New Key: The viator’s Role As Seeker”. Introducing this theme, Burrows writes on p. 176:

Gerson quite deliberately opposes any form of trust in one’s own accomplishments; salvation is “not by works,” since these inevitably lead to desperation in one’s abilities coram judice Deo. But the broader structure of the Ockhamist soteriology apparently remains intact: that is, what Gerson takes away through his suspicion of moral works he replaces with a covenant of seeking. Hence, the shift in the pastoral basis of Gerson’s soteriology from facientibus  to inquirentibus is extremely significant, since this conceptualization of the biblical covenant by which viatores become contractual partners with God both avoids absolute resignation while also preempting the pride falling upon those who trust in i own works as effecting salvation. Justification is “by grace alone” and not strictly speaking by works, though the biblical covenant of Heb. 11.6 calls viatores to the “work” of seeking God and trusting in divine rather than human iustitia.

Further, on page 177, he specifies the locus of our faith in and hope for salvation:

In a striking passage early in De consolatione theologiae Gerson establishes faith as the operative concept – or what has been called the “Klammer” or brackets – by which divine and human freedom are held together, thereby distancing his soteriology from the acceptatio Dei doctrine which for Scotus had served this purposes. . . .

Having argued that predestination and election occur “from eternity” and according to the “pure generosity and grace” of God, . . . [Gerson] argues that although God has ordained “fitting means without number for acquiring the “beatitude” that God’s acceptance promises, “principal among these means is grace” itself

It is important to point out that for Gerson this is not the mediated grace of the sacraments, relying as this idea did upon the idea of faith as a “deposit” held by the Church to be offered through sacramental practice to the faithful. Rather, this is the grace of Jesus Christ, of whom Gerson writes (quoted by Burrows on pp. 177-178), “since He has merited this grace in sufficient measure for all . . . .”

The rock of human hope, a word Gerson uses specifically (p. 184), then is the crucified and risen Christ. What Burrows calls Gerson’s “linear dialectic” of despair (from a zealous scrupulosity) and hope (rooted by faith in the hope that the Divine iustitia is incarnate in the crucified and risen Christ rather than any human act). As Burrows writes on p. 184:

[This inquiry into the linear dialectic} drives to the very heart of Gerson’s soteriology, exposing the foundation of his via media where doctrinal and pastoral considerations coalesce: namely his understanding of how faith and righteousness intersect, following the Pauline formuation credere ad iustitiam (Rom. 10.10). Indeed, this these establishes the biblical rational for Gerson’s newly conceived pastoral theology by which he argues for a “certitude” of salvation, since viatores who “believe unto righteousness” do so by moving from despair in themselves and their own iustitia to hope in God and a trust in the divine iustitia.

After moving through a discussion of humility and its place as the root of Christian discipleship, Burrows then asks the following question (p. 203) that pushes to the heart of the late-medieval conflict between a too-confident reliance upon imputed righteousness through good works (particularly partaking in the sacramental life of the Church) and a view of Election and Providence not just as precognition but as pure determinism, stripping humanity – and indeed all of creation – of any freedom whatsoever. “[I]s [Gerson’s] theology of seeking, rooted as it is in a mystical doctrine of justification, compatible with the voluntarist emphases of his soteriology, and particularly with his admonition that viatores are to conform their wills to God’s?”

This, it seems to me, is the question each generation of the Church must face squarely. How do we faithfully reconcile what, in plain terms, seems irreconcilable? After noting that Gerson’s discussion of the human will, discipleship as imitatio Christi in a particularly moral framework, Burrows notes that Gerson still does not allow this as the basis for any alignment of the Divine and human wills. “Ultimately, the conformity of the human and divine wills depends upon divine grace, as mediated per Jesum Christum, such that Gerson place the discussion of imitatio Christi within the broader soteriological framework of Christus victor.” (p. 205)

[D]oes Gerson allow any language of the free conformity of the will from the human side? Apparently his via media does allow for this, although without giving up any ground on the question of election. And with this he falls back upon the language of paradox, offering an argument strikingly similar to Aquinas’s explanation that “man’s turning to God is by free choice, and thus man is bidden to turn himself to God;but free choice can be turned to God only when God turns it.” Gerson echoes this Thomist theme in essential structure and logic . . . . [Gerson] prefers to speak of the human will not as free in an unqualified sense, but as “free by participation” in God’s higher will; the human will must be “freed” by participation in the divine will, since the libertas arbitrii is ultimately “fortified” and “established” insofar as the human will is “vivified in Go through grace.” (p.205)

It should be noted at this juncture that, as I pointed out at the beginning, Burrows roots Gerson’s soteriology in part in a thoroughgoing pessimistic Augustinian anthropology; yet Burrows does not point out that here, at the other end as it were of any discussion of theological anthropology we come face to face with the Bishop of Hippo’s understanding of how grace works in the life of the believer. To this extent, while Gerson might well be using the language of late-medieval nominalism, his thought is rooted in the heart of Christian theology – St. Augustine.

This idea of human freedom as “participation” leads directly to a discussion of Providence as “co-operation” of God and viatores.

[V]iatores serve as partners in God’s providence, and thereby act with a freedom which confers upon them what Thomas had called “the dignity of causality”. God’s ministratio does not stand over against, but encompasses free human acts in the broad spectrum of causation, yet these require “beyond nature” the “gratuitous governance of the spiritual” in order to attain “to the goal of eternal beatitude . . . an eschatological qualification which again brackets the scope of human freedom in teleological terms.

This conception of ministratio Dei, which unites divine and human freedom in a process of cooperation, overcomes any tendency toward determinism in Gerson’s soteriology. And, against a synergism of human acts, he conceives of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love along with “the prayer linked to them” as the means by which the viator freely chooses to “participate” in the divine will. (p. 208)

If this sounds familiar to any United Methodists, it should. With a high doctrine of Divine Freedom, a high Christology, and a modified Augustinian understanding of the redeemed human person as participant in the Divine will, viewed eschatologically, there is much in Burrows’s description of Gerson’s soteriology and Providence that resonates with Wesley’s view that sanctification is much the same journey Gerson’s viator travels, one’s actions ever more rooted in love for others to the glory of God (Wesley’s understanding of human perfection). I’m not suggesting Gerson is a protean Wesleyan (anymore than Burrows cautions readers in seeing Gerson a kind of proto-Lutheranism, either in a too facile sola scripturasola gratia, or sola fide). I am suggesting, however, that the roots of Wesley’s teachings regarding sanctification have deep theological roots that extend not only to the East, as is pointed out a bit too often. Those roots also lie squarely within this Western church tradition through Gerson to Duns Scotus, St. Thomas, and St. Augustine.

Gerson’s vision of humanity as free participants along with God in the penultimate work of preparing Creation for that final beatific presence not only snatches hope from the jaws of despair; it preserves the notion of humanity created imago Dei, this Divine image restoring itself by faith through grace in hope God’s righteousness, incarnate in the crucified and risen Christ, really is the final arbiter of divine justice.

“I Wish You To Despair”: Burrows on Gerson’s Vision Of Theology As Paideia

De consolatione theologiae represents no dramatic shift of theme regarding the high purpose of mystical theology, but this treatise does reflect Gerson’s altered strategy in conceptualizing the audience for this knowledge. Here his overriding concern is to present theology as a useful vehicle for assisting every viator on the journey toward God, as as such theologia already anticipates in functional terms what theologia msytica manifests: namely, a concern for the upbuilding of the entire church as it sojourns toward its identity as the heavenly city, the “new Jerusalem.” The treatise functions, to return to a theme explored in an earlier chapter, as an enchiridion for all wayfarers, such that its very comprehensiveness requires Gerson to introduce theologia and theologia mystica not in contrast in in continuity with one another, as steps on an ascending ladder in Deum. In so doing Gerson consolidates the diverse spectrum of themes and problems which had earlier engaged his thought in a single treatise, introducing theology in a “de-professionliaized” form accessible to all seekers of God. Mark Burrows, Jean Gerson and De consolatione theologia: The Consolation Of A Biblical And Reforming Theology For A Disordered Age. p. 148.

University of Paris classroom, mid-15th century. Courtesy of Manchester University

University of Paris classroom, mid-15th century. Courtesy of Manchester University

In his enormous, exhaustive, focused study of late-medieval sermons, confessional guides, and occasional writings Sin and Fear: The Emergence Of The Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Century, historian Jean Delumeau traces the path various ideas meant originally for a restricted and often rarefied and particular audience (usually monks in cloister) expanded beyond their original bounds without changing their often harsh – even violent – tone. Thus it was that by the time of the emergence of nominalism, a theological method that should certainly have tempered some of the harshness of much of High Medieval theology and pastoral practice, there was nevertheless the growth and expansion of all sorts of guides, usually for the lower clergy, to be used to remonstrate those who come to confession; as guides for sermons on particular texts and subjects; and on what is entailed in the personal journey that later generations would call “holiness”.

A good nominalist himself, although a peculiar one as Burrows points out, Gerson was a critic of the widespread use of these texts, particularly in regard to the matter of scruples, i.e. a spiritual inventory that led to a kind of spiral of despair in which the one searching his or her heart and mind finds a never-ending fountain of sin and evil within oneself. In De consolatione theologiae, however, Gerson offers no solace to a believer seeking rescue from the bottomless depths of his or her depravity. Thus the quote that serves as the title for this post: it is only when one truly despairs of one’s sufficiency in attaining salvation that the true viator is reborn as the follower of Lady Theology on the journey toward the final beatific vision. Until and unless one is convinced of one’s worthlessness, there is no chance for Divine Grace to rescue such a one from the pit of despair and give birth to the theological virtues: faith, hope, and (works of) charity.

In this post we shall be looking at what Burrows calls “the paideutic” function of theology, i.e., theology as the teacher and guide for Christians on their journey to God. In the previous post I looked at Burrows understanding of Gerson’s vision of theology. Now it is possible to look at how this theology functions for Gerson in this particular text. Already mentioned was Gerson’s “democratization” of “theology” as such; here we shall look at how such view of theology works for all Christians, lay and clergy. Of particular interest is Gerson’s eschatological (but anti-apocalyptic) and mystical understanding of the telos of such a journey.

In the first instance, however, it is important to note again that Gerson’s insistence that this journey of the Christian life is open to all is surprising coming from a scholar and administrator of Gerson’s standing. Yet, Burrows points out, already prior to the Council of Constance, in the first decade of the 15th century, Gerson had written polemically and fiercely as Rector of The University of Paris against what he viewed as idle theological speculation, insisting that scholars and students alike limit themselves to issues of practical importance to the clergy. As such, the pastoral nature of De consolatione theologiae is in keeping with a long history of Gerson’s primary concern that theological education, and theology itself, be the servant of the Church’s ministry.

An aside is in order, one Burrows notes as both odd and, coming from a late-medieval church theologian, surprising. Nowhere in the treatise does Gerson write of the role the sacramental system does or should play in the life of the venturing Christian.

Gerson was aware of but at at the same time sought to transcend what Huizinga has identified as the melancholy and despair of this period. And, more importantly perhaps, Gerson’s theological strategy in this treatise stands as a critical voice over against Tentler’s controversial interpretation of the church’s sacramental system as the basis for a “culture of guilt”. It appears that Gerson’s pastoral convictions after Constance prompt him to articulate a soteriological view of theologia which bears no reference to the sacramental system. Theology itself stands as the interior guide to leading vioatores on their pilgrimage toward God, and this is a path which offers consolation in the midst of desperatio facing all viatores. (p.64)

At this juncture it is also important to note the various ways “experience” enters as a central category for Gerson. First, Burrows writes of the role of temptation in the life of the Christian on pp. 65-66:

Gerson . . . grounds his discussion of consolatio not with a theoretical analysis of the human predicament, nor with a scholastic definition of the Fall or of original sin; rather, he identifies the experience common to all viatores, the sense of human abandonment in the tentationes of life and the utter despair to which this leads, not as the problem confronting theologians but as what he terms the very mouds and ars of theology. Viatores, according to Gerson, are to expect nothing more nor less than that life itself will become a “spiral” of despair, “warfare” (militia) leading them into an ever greater desolation. And here already we find the basis for his caution against an overly ambitious quest for mystical experience: he warns against presuming that one might escape from “the struggles of human being” or “the scourge of tribulation”, deciding not to live in hope but “in beatitude itself.” But this is only Gerson’s first word on the subject of tentationes, since these experiences which indeed lead viatores to a sense of desolation become at the same time the matrix in which we are to seek consolation. And, as he goes on to argue, these are the experiences through which theology is to lead us, guiding us beyond the limits of our innate knowledge, abilities, or experiences toward a “firmer” consolation.

It is only through the experience of temptation and the practice of a severe scrupulosity that the Christian can hear the consoling word of Theology that faith and hope and works of love that are the fruits of the journey to God.

There is also the matter of the shape of theology as Gerson here presents it. Using a phrase that many evangelicals will recognize, Burrows writes on p. 78, speaking of the intersection of theology and its formative impact upon the viator:

In the case of the theologian, this [the need for theology to be conducted by “good persons”] requires viatores to integrate theology in life, to “form” theology through exercising the theological virtues. This is, of course, a characteristic Gersonian claim by which he often insisted theologia is a matter one must grasp not only per intellectum, but much more in affectrum cordis. This theme appears at first glance strangely out of character since with it Gerson seems to embrace the “neo-Donatist” position as expressed in the Hussite critique of the “unworthy” priest. Upon closer scrutiny of the context, however, one detects that Gerson’s intention steers in another direction altogether: he intends to draw out in didactic rather than polemical terms the integrated nature of theology in human life, and the implications this carried for the tasks confronting not only professional theologians (magistri, theologi) bu the common people (idiotae) as well. All peregrini are to have a “formed” faith, though the “simple” will necessarily have a fides simplex alongside suavis charitas; at issue in not the quantity of knowledge, since this varies according to the person, but its quality. Gerson demands of clergy and laity an erudition of the “heart” by which faith was formed in the virtues.

Theology leads the wayfarer through the experience of despair resulting from the constant assaults of temptations outside and the understanding of sin within, both forming and reforming the person not just through an intellectual grasp of various doctrines, but in a changed “heart”, such internal change resulting in a change in the life of viator on his or her way. This is a chicken-and-egg matter, with the formation and reformation occurring along with a growing understanding of one’s dependence upon theology as the guide through life’s vicissitudes.

Emphasizing the role of experience, Burrows writes on p.91:

Just as the proper function of the biblical text depends upon the manner of approach, such that the way of living informs the prospect of a faithful reading which in turn reforms the way of living, so also Gerson assumes that human experience and the scriptural texts for a cohesive whole. This is not simply to repeat what we have already observed about the prescriptive role of the biblical text as paideutic, as shaping life through instruction and counsel, but rather to suggest that Gerson also presupposes a reciprocity between scripture and experience in this paideutic dimension. This conviction allows him to identify the language of experience and that of scripture from another vantage point within the hermeneutical circle, in this case by informing how the text is to be read through experience – scriptura cum experientia – by moving between biblical and experiential narratives.

For students of a particularly Wesleyan grasp of the theological task, all this should sound familiar. Yet in just the past year or so, there has been a growing attempt to remove “experience” as a legitimate theological category. The reasons vary, usually relying upon a kind of “Wesleyan fundamentalism” in which specific texts from Wesley (rather than his theological output in sermons, pamphlets, and other occasional writings) are cited to demonstrate that our contemporary understanding of “experience” has veered from Wesley’s “original intent” (as if this is some kind of shock were it true at all), thus delegitimizing “experience” as a proper locus of theological reflection. Thus it is odd indeed to find a 15th century Conciliar Theologian insisting upon the necessary relationship between theology and experience in the life of the believer, a view far more in keeping with the spirit of the vast bulk of Wesley’s actual theological output than the often ridiculous and ahistorical insistence that because the contemporary view of “experience” isn’t what Wesley intended (it isn’t; even if it were, that would matter not a whit).

The goal of this journey upon which theology guides the believer is identified, again and again, as God. Gerson, however, is not at all arguing for a kind of mystical union with or in God. Thus it is that Gerson avoids the twin pitfalls of an enthusiastic mysticism on the one hand or an apocalyptic eschatology (prevalent at the time) on the other. While this view is certainly eschatological in the traditional sense, it is one vouchsafed for the next life. In this life, Gerson is at pains to explain again and again using St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 as his source, we always and only see through a glass darkly. It is only “later” (in what Moltmann might perhaps call the eschatological time of God) that we shall see “face to face”.

On mysticism in particular and its place within this journey upon which theology guides us, Burrows writes on p. 146:

The point Gerson’s democratization of theology accentuates is that this journey is itself the matrix of theology, and theology is consequently to be understood as consolatory for all persons by leading them beyond despair toward the “highest hope” in God. Theology leads not toward the academy but toward God. And, although Gerson does not project the goal of the human pilgrimage ad Deum as a present reality, nor does he conclude that viatores are all to attain the summit of mystical experience, he insist that theology is to persuade all viatore to “aspire” to this state. . . . As a “democratized” instrument for the edification of the entire church, theology has a broader pastoral mission than the goal attained or even sought by the mystics, one which is comprehensive and useful in terms of its scope: it is present as “companion” to assist in the formation of each viator en route ad Deum, the refugium humanae peregrinationis. But it does not lead viatores beyond the life of this human journey.

This is a hearty antidote to so much that ails the church should we but be wise enough to hear what Gerson has to say: Theology as a guide for the Christian life, a guide that leads the believer through despair brought about by the experience of life as well as the heart upon a journey that leads to God. Yet it is God not yet fully before us, because that is only to come. We are not rescued from this life by immersion in the Divine Life this side of the parousia.

Gerson insists . . . that theology may lead to mystical knowledge and the experience of “the sweetness of God”, but never in a manner which obliterates its social responsibilities, a requirement which sustains Gerson’s conviction that the vita ambidextra itself and not the mystical experience is the means by which viatores finally attain perfection in this life. In this sense if theologia leads mystical theologians to God and “persuades” others that they ought to aspire to the vita contemplativa, it never eclipses its “useful” character which required assisting others on that journey. (p.147)

A balanced life, lived in the light of the Divine Countenance while still engaged faithfully, hopefully, and lovingly with the world – what Burrows has called “the matrix” of theology, viz., the journey of the believer toward this goal – is, again, an oddly Wesleyan notion indeed. For Wesley, it was about “perfection in love in this life”, an understanding that, in the end, is indistinguishable from Gerson’s understanding of the paideutic function of theology as a whole. Both the means and ends are the same: We are guided, formed, and reformed by a Biblical theology that leads us to aspire not to a life marked only by contemplation, but rather one in which such contemplation leads us back to the world to serve others “on the way”.

It pains me that there are currently those who seem far too willing to write out of Wesleyan fellowship those who would disagree with their far too narrow understanding of Wesley’s thought. One of the reasons tradition is a necessary theological category is it guides the viator precisely to those such as Gerson in whom one can find so much resonance. Despite time and physical distance, theology exposes inspired kinship across centuries, languages, and even confessional boundaries. This is just one of the many blessings of theology as paideia: within the text of De consolatione theologiae we can hear a distant echo of the ever-present need for theology to be an active part of the life of the believer, a guide not only through the thickets of life, but toward that love that becomes the sole source of all our actions.

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.