“Like Dwarfs Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”: Static Vs. Dynamic Concepts of “Tradition” in the Twelfth Century

“Like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants…” So wrote Bernard of Chartres in the twelfth century, giving a good summary of the innovative approach to Scripture that shook exegesis in that period. The reformation of the eleventh century had looked backward to the past, to the age of the Fathers, and had claimed to be doing nothing other than what had been laid down then.:”(See for instance, Gregory VII’s Registrum 3.10, where the pope asserts “…we returned to the teaching of the holy fathers, declaring no novelties nor any inventions of our own, but holding that the primary and only rule of discipline and the well-trodden way of the saints should again be sought and followed, all wandering paths to be abandoned,” as translated by Ephraim Emerton in The Correspondence of Pope Gregory VII [New York: Columbia University Press, 1990], pg. 88.)”: Even as the dust of the revolution was settling, however, many exegetes began to question the value of such a seemingly slavish past-oriented approach. For instance, Richard of St. Victor, in his commentary on Ezekiel (a book hitherto considered to have been exegetically mastered by Gregory the Great some six hundred years earlier) wrote:

But I shall not pass over silently the fact that certain people, supposedly out of reverence for the church fathers, will not try their hand at anything left undone by them; they say they don’t want to presume to go beyond their venerable predecessors. But having thus covered up for their inertia, they dawdle about lazily and deride, ridicule, and mock the industriousness shown by others in the quest and discovery of truth. But he who dwells in heaven shall ridicule them; the Lord shall mock them. :”(In visionem Ezechielis prologue [PL CXCVI, 527], cited in the essay “Tradition and Progress,” in M.D. Chenu, O.P., Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century: Essays on New Theological Perspectives in the Latin West [Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1968], pg. 310.)”:

In another commentary, on Isaiah, Richard developed this theme citing the authority of no less a biblical expositor than St. Jerome:

If Jerome had judged it idle, rash, or presumptuous to expend enthusiasm and work for the sake of investigating the truth of the scriptures after the fathers had taken such great care to elaborate upon them, then never would that wise, industrious, and good man, who kept in mind that it is written: “Make good use of your time,” have worked so hard on this task or have spent his whole life at it. For he surely knew, that learned man knew—he knew, I say, and he knew best—how obscure truth is, how deep it lies buried, how far from mortal sight it has plunged into the depths, how it will admit only a very few, by how much work it is reached, how practically no one ever succeeds, how it is dug out with difficulty and then only bit by bit….Careful search can find it, but only in such a way that careful search can still find more. No one can bring out all of it but ferrets it out in bits and pieces and, when all is said and done, in vain. While fathers and forebears discovered it, more remained for sons and descendants to find. While it is always sought, more always remains to be sought. While it is always being found, more always remains to be found. Therefore, just because our forebears gave themselves over to the search for truth through studying and expounding sacred scripture, there is nothing dishonorable or presumptuous or wrong or idle or superfluous about us lesser men devoting ourselves to the same search.:”(In Isaiam prol., cited in Chenu, ibid., pg. 313.)”:

The same view was expressed by Reupert of Deutz in his commentary on the Book of Revelation:

But someone will say: What those far better and no less holy and learned men discovered and wrote is already quite enough. It is wrong, it is rash to add anything to what was said by the renowned and catholic fathers, and thus to make readers sick by swelling the multitude of commentaries.

To which I say: The broad domain of the sacred scriptures surely belongs to all the confessors of Christ, and the freedom of investigating them cannot by right be denied anyone, provided that, the faith remaining unharmed, he say or write what he feels. For indeed who can be properly indignant when, after the fathers before them dug one or two holes, their sons and heirs dig yet more by their own labor in their common property?:”(In Apoc. prol. [PL, CLXIX, 826], cited by Chenu, ibid., pg. 314.)”:

Representing the older view, the view that one should not go beyond the Fathers lest one necessarily stray into the realm of innovation and possibly even heresy, Stephen of Tournai opined:

Scriptural studies have lapsed into a state of confusion in our time, for students applaud nothing but novelties and the masters are more intent on glory than doctrine; everywhere they draw up new and modern little summaries and supporting commentaries on theology, and with these they lull, hold, and deceive their listeners, as if the words of the sacred fathers did not still suffice.:”(Epp. Ccli [PL, CCXI, 517], cited by Chenu, ibid., pg. 311.)”:

Similarly, Robert of Melun warned:

Moreover, a new type of teaching has lately appeared, or rather a childish way of prating has gained inordinate popularity among certain men who hunt only for the leaves that cover up the fruit.

Those who are busy teaching this way seem not to know and not to want others to know the things they pride themselves on teaching. Or perhaps they are anxious to be thought to teach new and bizarre things; I say this because by their weird and disgusting newness of terminology they do not fear to divulge what they hope.:”(Sententiae praef., cited by Chenu, ibid.)”:

Such strong devotion to a “tradition” conceived in such a narrow manner as to be limited only to the Church Fathers seemed arbitrary to exegetes such as Richard of St. Victor and Reupert of Deutz. Indeed, had not the recent work of Peter Abelard in Sic et Non not only vastly increased the number of authoritative passages readily available from the patristic corpus, but also demonstrated that the Fathers often disagreed and that therefore modern men needed to approach them with a critical perception, not a mere slavish and caricatured devotion? As Abelard had said of all non-Scriptural writings:

All writings belonging to this class are to be read with full freedom to criticize, and with no obligation to accept unquestioningly; otherwise they way would be blocked to all discussion, and posterity be deprived of the excellent intellectual exercise of debating difficult questions of language and presentation…The fathers make a very careful distinction between the Scriptures and later works. They advocate a discriminating, not to say suspicious, use of the writings of their own contemporaries. :”(Excerpt from Sic et Non.)”:

Interestingly, the battle between these two positions, one refusing to ever go beyond ancient boundary markers and the other refusing to restrict Christian intellectual development in that fashion, were but instances of a battle that has recurred many times in history: the battle between the supposed certainties of the “ancient” and the supposed improvements of the “modern.” For the “ancients,” here meaning the age of the Greeks and Romans and extending through the Church Fathers, novelty was automatically suspected of being erroneous and what was “received” automatically considered right and true. This was a major reason why, prior to the cultural triumph of Christianity, educated pagans despised the Faith: it was “new,” it was “modern,” it was “innovative,” it despised the legacy of the past in favor of things never before heard of.:”(See my post Augustine on Development and Change for some interesting quotes on this point.)”:

Many Christians also adopted this view, not least because of St. Paul’s words to “Avoid new, profane forms of speech” (1 Tim. 6:20) and to mark those who taught new things not taught by the Apostles (Romans 16:17.). Taking these words up into the “ancient” matrix with which their whole frame of mind had been formed, a strong prejudice against the “modern” came to characterize much of Christian discourse prior to the twelfth century.

But as Chenu points out, the word “modern” simply means “current,” and so paradoxically every age is to itself “modern” and to later ages “ancient.” The word “modern” was, in fact, already being used in this sense in the ninth century, with the Carolingian poet Walafrid Strabo who referred to his own times as “the modern age” (saeculum modernum).:”(Chenu, ibid., pg. 317.)”: Chenu cites one Walter Map (1160-1210) on this distinction:

I know what will happen after I die. When I have decayed, only then will I be savored; all my defects will be made up for by my death; in the furthest posterity antiquity will render me authoritative, for then as now, old copper will be preferred to new gold….Every age has found its own modernity displeasing, and every age after the first had preferred a past age to itself.:”(Ibid., pp. 320-321.)”:

Tension about the “modern,” about the possibility and desirability of moving beyond the venerable Fathers, affected every aspect of discourse in the twelfth century. Not all conservatives were as conservative as Stephen of Tournai and Robert of Melun. Gerhoh of Reichersber, though apparently not inclined to give carte blanche to things “modern,” tried to chart a less reactionary course: “Since every learned scribe in the heavenly kingdom is like a householder who brings forth from his treasure both new things and old, let us add to the testimonies of our predecessors new testimonies written in our times.”:”(Ibid., pg. 324.)”: Presumably, the “new testimonies” would at the very least not contradict the old ones, but would rather enhance them. Writing of the tension in the field of theological terminology, an author known only as “Pseudo-Hugh” [of St. Victor] gave the following explanation, taking note of St. Paul’s injunction to avoid “profane” speech:

It is asked whether all terminological innovations are to be avoided.

Reply: No, because they are not all profane, for example the Christian term homoousia (same substance); mandatum novum (new order), testamentum novum (new testament), and canticum novum (new song) refer to innovations which are not profane but holy and religious. The use of the term hypostasis, however, constituted a profane novelty in the time of the heretics, who applied it to either a person or a substance, in order to deceive the unlettered. But use of that word does not any longer constitute a profane novelty because the word has been restricted to signifying persons. Therefore one could now easily grant that the Trinity consists of three hypostases, and not one. Such a statement could not have been made without qualification when the word still retained several meanings.:”(Ibid., pg. 325.)”:

Debate throughout the twelfth century on points such as these brought more clarity to appeals to “tradition.” At the same time as the “old guard,” following the recent lead of men such as Gregory VII, urged for serious caution in going beyond the “tradition of the Fathers,” which in effect amounted to always trying to passively maintain a previous era’s conditions regardless of changes in the surrounding world,:”(Lest the reader wonder, “passive” is not my own description of this kind of appeal to tradition; Chenu says as much in his description of the new critical engagement with ancient authorities, pp. 314-315.)”: other currents of thought developed the idea of being faithful to the tradition and adapting it to new circumstances: “It ought not be judged reprehensible if human institutions sometimes adapt to changing times, especially when urgent necessity or obvious utility demands it. God himself often changed in the New Testament what he had established in the Old.”:”(Unnamed writer cited in ibid., pg. 327, from Mansi, XXII, 1035.)”:

While “moralists” (as Chenu styles them) like Walter of Chatillon complained “We moderns ignore the path trodden by the ancients,” adherents to the belief in “progress” like Peter of Blois insisted “We are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants; thanks to them, we see farther than they: busying ourselves with the treatises written by the ancients, we take their choice thoughts, buried by age and the neglect of men, and raise them, as it were, from death to renewed life.”:”(Ibid., pg. 319 and 326 respectively.)”:

The theme of adaptation of old truths to new circumstances would underlie much of what followed, from the “apostolic poverty” movements against the worldly splendor of the Church to the development of Scholastic Theology to the conciliar movement’s protest against an entrenched papal system which could not handle new situations. But the “ancient” view would also remain a formidable force for centuries to come, especially in widespread appeals by reformers conservative and radical to the need to “recover” the condition and attributes of “the primitive Church.”:”(See for instance Glen Olsen’s “The Idea of the Ecclesia Primitiva in the Writings of the Twelfth-Century Canonists,” Traditio 30 [1969]; Louis B. Pascoe’s “Jean Gerson: The Ecclesia Primitiva and Reform,” Traditio 30 [1974]; Gordon Leff’s “The making of the myth of a True Church in the Later Middle Ages,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 1.1 [1971]; and Ernest W. McDonnell’s “The Vita Apostolica: Diversity or Dissent,” Church History 24.1 [1955].)”: Even as exegetes and philosophers strove to incorporate “modern” knowledge into their worldview, partisans of the “ancient” continued to seek perpetual re-pristination of a supposed Golden Age that did not partake of the supposed “decline” of contemporary times.

It would be interesting to examine how these factors came into play during the Protestant reformation, which in some ways seems so “modern” and yet which was, at least in the belief of its primary movers, so “ancient.” It will have to be left to a future post to summarize some of these currents. In the meantime, what may be seen from all of this is that the concept of “tradition” in the later Middle Ages was by no means a mere given upon which everyone agreed. The category was subject to intensive scrutiny and debate and could be qualified in ways which made it more flexible than we might first think. And, in more contemporary movements such as Ressourcement scholarship in Catholicism, we can still see the spirit of active, critical, faith-based engagement with tradition rather than statically pretending that nothing has ever changed and nothing ever will. There are still those who believe that, though themselves dwarves, they can see farther by standing on the shoulders of giants.

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