Thursday, May 31, 2012

Back to the Text! Amerbach's Augustine, and the Protestant Reading-Textual Ethic

I once wrote a post entitled A Brief Introduction to Christian Humanism: As the Social Impetus for the Protestant Reformation. In that same mood, this post briefly considers the textual culture that helped foster, even more directly, a fresh reading of Augustine by Martin Luther. At the end of this post I will offer a quick reflection on the impact ad fontes or to the sources continues to have on the Protestant reading and textual ethic.

If you read that other post of mine first (the one I link to above on 'Christian Humanism') you will appreciate the climate which someone like Martin Luther found himself situated. It was an atmosphere filled with the excitement and 'modern' freedom of going beyond the received ecclesio and hermeneutical tradition; going beyond the 'authority' and 'magesterial' reading and interpretation of both the scriptures and so called 'Church Fathers', of whom Augustine was prime. Luther, amongst his other contemporaries had access to the actual Augustine because of the work of a printer named Johann Amerbach. Amberbach's edition and compilation of Augustine's writings allowed people like Luther (an Augustinian monk) a door into the world of Augustine like never before; and thus a door that would only corroborate Luther's fresh reading of the New Testament (again something given impetus for Luther because of the Humanist movement of back to the sources V. back to the Roman Catholic Church as 'the' authoritative interpreter), a corroboration that made Luther believe that Christianity, even amongst one of the most revered Church Fathers---Augustine---was much different than he had been lead to believe by his Augustinian tutors. Here is how Arnoud Visser sketches the impact that Amberbach's edition of Augustine's writings had on the one who would be the lightening rod of the soon to be Protestant Reformation:

[...] Luther's reading of Augustine, for one, was transformed after he gained access to the Amerbach edition, around 1515. In 1516, for example, while still an Augustinian Hermit and Professor of Biblical Theology on behalf of his Order, Luther wrote to his humanist friend Georg Spalatin: "I defend Augustine not because I am an Augustinian; before I began to deal with his writings, he did not mean anything to me." Luther's words flatly contradict his earlier statements, dating from 1509, made in the margins of his copy of a selection of Augustine's works. Here, Luther in fact criticized Wimpfeling's claim about Augustine's lay status, defending the claims of his Order. Clearly in this period, when he was studying theology at Erfurt, Luther still read Augustine as an Augustinian. Once he could access the entire set of the church father's collected works, however, he started to see another Augustine, namely the author of the anti-Pelagian works. [Arnoud S. Q. Visser, Reading Augustine in the Reformation: The Flexibility of Intellectual Authority in Europe, 1500-1620, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 25].
[In the quote, Wimpfeling was a scholar in the Roman Catholic Church who challenged the authority of the Church by suggesting that Augustine was not a monk, but a lay theologian who finally of course became one of the great Bishops. This did not sit well with the RCC, because it challenged a fundamental conception about one of their fundamental teachers, Augustine; thus challenging a dearly held paradigm about being a 'monk' and devotee to the Church.]

It is interesting, at least to me, to see the impact that printed texts and words can have. There is an ethic illustrated by Amberbach as the printer, and Luther as the reader; I would suggest a Protestant one. One that desires to 'go to the sources'; one that seeks to get beyond the muddle of mediation (insofar as this is possible), and subordinate all of our thinking to the 'source'. For the Protestant this ends in sola scriptura, and listening to the 'Church Father's and the ecumenical councils convened under their watchful eyes (at least this is the historical 'end' of what it meant to go back to the sources). It is going back to the sources that we can engage in semper reformanda (always reforming); subordinating our creeds and confessions to the authoritative Word in Scripture, Jesus Christ. It is this Protestant move and reading-texutal ethic which finally leads us to the logical conclusion of the 'Text'; that is, the Text points beyond itself, even, and finally finding its full orientation in God's, Word, Jesus Christ. And yet without this Protestant (Christian-Humanist) turn to the text of scripture and her progeny (the Patristics, for example); the Text (Jesus) behind the text would remain clouted in the layers of tradition and popery which would leave our lives awash in the mire of textual abuse---because the text (scripture) would be cut off from her meaningful Text (Jesus) and replaced by a vicar who really is no vicar at all!

In the end, there is a Protestant reading-text ethic; one that gives rise to a mood of 'always reforming', and thus one that has given rise to what Myk Habets and I (and our authors) are trying to do in our soon to be released book: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church. 

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