Wednesday, November 28, 2012


(One’s level of piety, whether devotional or practical, depends much on knowledge being either learned or misconceived. In these analyses we have made mention, occasionally, of books that either help or hinder the grand object of piety. It seems natural, consequently, to supplement the analyses, now and again, with correlating book reports.) 


C. Warren Hollister, Joe W. Leedom, Marc A. Meyer, David S. Spear, eds. Medieval Europe (New York: Knof, 1982), 246 pp.

Medieval Europe is a textbook, a Short Sourcebook of documents from the Middle Ages. Each document is prefaced by its headnote for the purpose of supplying context. And the Introduction includes pointers on how to test the believability of a text.

What is perhaps the chief pointer concerns the purpose for which a document was written. Since the Roman Church purposed to extinguish every church that dared to exist beside herself, we should suspect her documents that were written to discredit other churches. Rome’s Account of the Albigensian Heresy is one such suspicious document. From reading the abstract allegations put forward in there, you get a sense that heresies among the Albigensians were not easily dug up. Happily, in case the reader has forgotten to use the pointers learned about early on, warnings of disingenuous documents appear in the headnotes.

Roman Catholicism, not surprisingly in a book of this nature, will occupy a lot of space. Its version of the gospel (salvation by works, which never works) may be found in summary form often: ‘By living in obedience, in poverty, and in chastity’ or ‘obedience and reverence to Pope’ (p. 140.) Its ridiculous rage against the ‘heretic’ is a prominent feature as well: “Let him be numbered with the wicked who shall not rise on the day of judgment…let the power of all the saints in heaven confound him and show upon him in this life their evident vengeance….” (p. 152.) Rome’s rage appears ridiculous, not just because of its exaggerated degree, but because of the doctrinal faults in the curses themselves. The wicked will rise on the day of judgment, just like the saints will; and the saints in heaven do not have power on earth. The practical dregs of Rome may be read about alongside her false dogmas and powerless anathemas. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a Roman Catholic abbot, admits that a certain monastery had been, not ‘a sanctuary of prayer and spiritual pursuits,’ but ‘a synagogue of Satan’ (p. 135.) There is a lot written between the lines there! His letter, in part, is a reproof regarding this. In light of Rome’s harlotries and haughty humor, maybe the most entertaining document of all is The Deposition of Gregory VII by Henry IV, even though Henry, an eleventh century Roman king, was guilty of hand-picking bishops. To Pope Gregory, this Holy Roman Emperor weighs in, “This is the way you have gained advancement in the church: through craft you have obtained wealth; through wealth you have obtained favor; through favor, the power of the sword; and through the power of the sword, the papal seat, which is the seat of peace; and then from the seat of peace you have expelled peace” (p. 155.) To this the Pope fires back, “I would rather have ended my days in exile than have obtained thy place by fraud or for worldly ambition” (p. 156.)

The earlier you go (if you delve back far enough), the less evil is the Roman Church. So Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) has some excellent insight into how to be all things to all people from the pulpit: “The gentle hissing that quiets horses incites puppies…Differently to be admonished are young and old men because for the most part severity of admonition directs the former to improvement, while kind remonstrance disposes the latter to better deeds….” (pp. 46, 47.) Along the same line are words penned by one priest to another (c. 723) regarding the attempted conversion of Germanic heathen: “At intervals you should compare their superstitions with our Christian doctrines, touching upon them from the flank, as it were, so that the pagans, thrown into confusion rather than angered, may be ashamed of their absurd ideas and may understand that their infamous ceremonies and fables are well known to us” (p. 65.) Maybe this gentle approach can work to convince, or at least enlighten, certain superstitious church-folks.

Islam is given the space of three documents, which I am thankful for because I was planning to read the Koran in order to gain some knowledge of that religion from its own literature. Having read these articles, my plan seems no longer necessary, nor profitable. The select passages from Sura 2 read like weak imitations of the Holy Bible, and some of the statements in there are self-defeating. If it says in Sura 2 (p. 54) to believe what was revealed to Jesus, why follow Allah and Mohammed since it was revealed to Jesus that he is the only way to the Father? If all Muslims obeyed select parts of the Koran, however, in not attacking first and in not compelling anyone to religion (p. 55), the world would be more peaceful. Women perhaps are respected somewhere in the Koran, I do not know, but not in the parts of it included here: “Women are your fields: go, then, into your fields as you please” (p. 55.) The Constitution of Medina from 622 is similarly dismissive and disrespectful: “A woman shall only be given protection with the consent of her family” (p. 58.) If the translations are trustworthy, it seems clear that the current abuse of women by Muslims might be sanctioned, and even driven, by their own ‘holy word’ and ‘Constitution.’ Since the New Testament supersedes most aspects of the civil law in force under Moses, there is nothing remotely approaching to, in the Christian religion, the oppression and injustice that are ratified against the weaker sex in the Koran. Not that the Old Testament endorses evil against women. The point is that the passages that are commonly cited from there for the proof of it are not in force. So there is no case to be made that the Christian and Muslim faiths agree concerning the treatment of women.

It should be obvious by now that a book like this is far from obsolete and that parts of it are singularly practical. Much more proof of this fact may be given. Is your conscience confused about whether you should give money to drug-addicted street-beggars who can work but refuse to do so? There is an answer for that in The Ordinance of Laborers from 1349, to the relief of your conscience and to improve your financial stewardship (p. 234.) Does Evolution seem too reasonable to dismiss as true? There is an irrefutable argument from the 13th century against theories like Evolution from reason alone (p. 203.) Do you think that systematic theology is a useless endeavor, and not worth your use? If you are a teachable sort, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) will sort you out about that, and you will be ashamed of your prejudice (p. 206.)

It is unusual for a reviewer to inject a story from his own life into his book report. But in consideration of the anti-intellectual mood of our moment, it is not unseasonable to do so. As briefly as I can, then, I will take you on a strange detour in defense of the relevance of systematic theology and of ancient books in general. I was scheduled to see a specialist on the day in question. My tendency is to be punctual so much that I leave myself ample time for getting ready to go where I am scheduled to be. As I was going through these motions that morning, my mind was directed, not just to a book of systematic doctrine, but to a systematic treatment on the person of Jesus Christ within such a book. I had read the lecture before, and had greatly enjoyed it, and now it was being suggested to me again very strongly. I took a look at the clock, and saw that I had just enough time to read that lecture before getting on my way. Later, while in the examination room with the physician, I was asked by him about how I occupy my time. When I told him that I studied theology, he confessed to me that he wished he had the time to do the same. He then requested that I answer his questions about Jesus while I was being examined. With that excellent, comprehensive lecture saturating my mind, I was well equipped to fulfill his request, and told this doctor about Jesus being both God and Man, having two distinct natures in one Person, etc. For about one half hour or so, I poured the knowledge out that I had so recently refreshed myself on, and then went home rejoicing all the way. God could have directed me to the Bible that morning. Or he could have bestowed the answers I would need straight from the Holy Spirit. Since God would rather employ the Christian in some labor, he does not usually flash into the mind the knowledge that we need. We must read; we must study. And God used a volume of systematic theology that morning because I needed the compressed knowledge of the disparate facts that are diffused throughout the Bible concerning the nature of Jesus Christ. The opinion of Aquinas in favor of systematic truth is approved by the providence of God in my own life that morning when I was led to reread a lecture from A. A. Hodge that was delivered by him over one hundred years ago, and which is now retained for us in that outstanding volume, Evangelical Theology. I do not doubt that similar blessings would be happening in God’s Church broadly if Christians would only get off the pabulum of the moment and into books that contain correct matter and mature knowledge that God can approve of. Systematic theology should always be in vogue. And a book approving of the same can never be wholly obsolete.

I hope that was a useful digression. Now to sum up the book report.  Because of the extracts I have made use of in this report, this volume of ancient literature might seem more arresting than it really is. Remember, this is a textbook. Like your typical textbook, this one suffers to some degree, from textbook dryness. It is worthwhile, but not wonderful; sometimes boring, sometimes interesting; deep in places, in other places shallow. Besides informing me on subjects as gloomy as the Black Death and as edifying as Natural Theology, it has led me to consider further exploration into literature from the bygone ages of medieval times. Dicuil’s letter on ‘ten questions of the art of grammar’ (c. 800) is probably long gone, but I might look for it; The Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius (b. 70 A. D.) is certainly available, and would be dark, enlightening, and gripping, probably; The History of my Misfortunes by Peter Abelard (1079-1142) I have already gotten to, and can recommend without shame.

Content: A- (Informative documents from medieval literature.)
     Style: A- (Not as dry as most textbooks.) 
     Tone: A- (A little cool.)
Grading Table: A: a keeper: reread it; promote it; share it.
                         B: an average book: let it go.
                         C: read only if you have to.

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