- The Fathers and Beyond: Church Fathers between Ancient and Medieval Thought
The “beyond” of the patristic authors referred to in the title of this collection “looks backward, and sideways, as they reflected on and made diverse applications of their classical and early Christian heritage.” It also, writes Marcia L. Colish, “looks forward, to the ways in which the fathers themselves served as polyvalent sources and authorities . . . and hence stimuli for critical thought to their high medieval successors” (p. vii).
The papers are arranged under four headings. The first group of eight articles (I–VIII) studies the Latin patristic writers and their use of their sources. The second group (IX–XI) focuses on Carolingian intellectual history. The third group (XII–XIV) centers around, or culminates in, the thought of Anselm of Canterbury. The fourth group (XV–XVII) traces the patristic legacy as it impacts the thought of the high Middle Ages.
The first group centers on the thought of Marius Victorinus, St. Augustine, and Ambrose. Paper V, “Cicero, Ambrose, and Stoic Ethics: Transmission or Transformation?,” characterizes much of the post-Burkhardtian reading of the Middle Ages “as an authentic bridge between the ancient and modern worlds and as an integral part of a Western tradition whose fidelity to its classical roots is its very definition”(V, p. 96). Colish, however, would “move beyond the idea of a Middle Ages as a conveyer belt of classical sources . . . [and] move beyond the idea that . . . classicism was a donor only. It was a beneficiary as well” (V, p. 97).
The first paper in the second group is an excellent demonstration of this position. “Carolingian Debates over Nihil and Tenebrae: A Study of Theological Methods” begins with Augustine’s “conviction that the liberal arts can shed light on the concept of nothingness” (IX, p. 757). Carolingian authors, Colish shows, exhibited great “freedom and flexibility” in their use or rejection of classical and patristic sources (IX, p. 758). [End Page 573]
Among the third, or Anselmian, group of papers, “The Stoic Theory of Verbal Signification and the Problem of Lies and False Statements from Antiquity to St. Anselm” provides a comprehensive history of an important philosophical question. That question is raised by the Stoic insistence that words “signify their referents naturally and automatically.” But in such a system “how is it possible to tell a lie or to make a false statement?” (XIV, p. 21). Colish’s consideration of the history of the question, emphasizing Augustine and Anselm, demonstrates the contribution of early medieval thinkers to the theory of verbal signification, to logic as an autonomous discipline, to intentionality as the norm of moral acts, and to the role of judgment in cognition (XIV, p. 41).
Of the three papers in Colish’s fourth group, the most interesting is the third, “The Virtuous Pagan: Dante and the Christian Tradition.” There was a broad range of theories about the possibility of pagans’ salvation in Dante’s time, “both in the high theological culture of medieval Christianity, and in the tradition of popular Christian literature, both in Latin and the vernaculars” (XVII, p. 1). Some authors addressing the question Colish calls ecumenical maximalists, those holding that salvation is literally universal. Others “place more stringent conditions on access to heaven” (XVII, p. 1).A common position among the early Fathers was that pagans living before the time of Christ received from God a special revelation. “A more radical approach . . .was the argument that they held, by reason, the same truths that Christianity teaches, and that their moral conduct, guided by natural law, was on a par with Christian standards” (XVII, p. 18). On the other hand, “in the City of God and other works, Augustine rejects the idea that pagans can be saved (XVII, p. 19). Dante, it turns out, “is more of rigorist than any theologian or popular author up to his time. The one exception is his lowering of the requirements for the admission of...