Friday, March 14, 2008

Augustine and Origen on the Harmony on the Gospels

I’m currently reading through Francis Watson, ‘The fourfold gospel,’ in Cambridge Companion to the Gospels, ed. Stephen C. Barton (Cambridge: CUP, 2006) where he refers to how Origen and Augustine handled the plurality of the canonical gospels. Consider the following quotations:

1. Origen

"The student, perplexed by the consideration of these matters [differences among the Gospels], will either give up the attempt to find everything in the gospels true, and, not venturing to conclude that all f our information about the Lord is untrustworthy, will choose one of them at random to be his guide; or he will accept all four, and will conclude that their truth is not to be sought in the outward and material letter (Origen, Comm. Joh. 10.2)".

"[I]f they sometimes dealt freely with things which to the eye of history happened differently, and changed them so as to subserve the mystical aims they had in view – speaking of something that happened in one place as if it had happened in another or of something that took place at one time as if it had taken place at another, and introducing into what was spoken in a certain way some changes of their own. Where possible, they intended to speak the truth both materially and spiritually; and where this was not possible, they chose to prefer the spiritual to the material. Spiritual truth was often preserved, as one might say, in material falsehood (Origen, Comm. Joh. 10.4)".

2. Augustine

"Each evangelist constructs his own particular narrative on a kind of plan which gives the appearance of being the complete and orderly record of the events in their succession. For, preserving a simple silence on the subject of those incidents of which he intends to give no account, he then connects those which he does wish to relate with what he has been immediately recounting, in such a manner as to make the recital seem continuous (Augustine, Harmony of the Evangelists 2.5.16)."

"If you ask which of these different versions represent what was actually expressed by the voice, you may fix on whichever you wish, provided that you understand that those of the writers who have not reproduced the identical form of speech have still reproduced the same sense intended to be conveyed. And these variations in the modes of expression are also useful in this way, that they make it possible for us to teach a more adequate conception of the saying than might been the case with only one form, and that they also secure it against being interpreted in a sense not consonant with the real state of the case (Augustine, Harmony of the Evangelists, 2.14.31)."

From this it seems clear that Origen and Augustine were probably not inerrantists, but they still believed in the authority and veracity of the Scriptures as God’s Word communicated to human beings (whether or not they were consistent on that point will be for others to decide). Based on these quotes, Francis Watson the comments:

“In Augustine’s reflection on gospel differences, there is no trace of an a priori commitment to the precise historical accuracy of every part of every gospel. Rather, this is a pragmatic, inductive approach that considers each difference on its merits, and finds the harmony of the gospels more in the theological subject-matter than in the verbal expressions … Origen’s claim that a theological truth can come to expression in a historical falsehood, and that the fourfold gospel itself falsifies the absolute historicity of its individual narratives, seems better attuned to modern scholarly assumptions about the gospels. Yet, in the end, Origen and Augustine have a great deal in common. They have both made a careful study of the gospel differences; they are both convinced that the four gospels speak in various ways of a singular though infinitely rich theological subject-matter; and they both believe that this subject-matter is articulated in the differences and not in spite of them. In contrast, it is not clear that modern scholarship has achieved the balance sought by these patristic theologians in their reflections on the fourfold gospels: the balance between individual text and its plural contexts, or between difference and commonality (p. 50).

This raises some interesting issues for Gospel interpretation!


Alex said...


Thanks for posting these quotes. I think the modern church needs to gain some perspective on the early church opinion regarding the gospels.

When I read the Origen quote, Marcus Borg immediately came to mind. I haven't actually read him but from what I've heard of Borg views, this quote sounds like something that would have come straight from his mouth. Which raises an interesting question: Did the early church view Origen in the same light as the modern church views Borg? I get the sense that Origen was more "orthodox" than Borg is but I think it would be helpful to know. I think a lot of people who want to harmonize creation and evolution tend to see the Gen. 1-3 narrative in this light of truths being communicated through stories of questionable historicity.

In Augustine's quote, you can see how he slides closer on the scale towards orthodoxy. I like when he says, " teach a more adequate conception of the saying than might been the case with only one form..." I think you're right about them not being inerrantists and I think this quote gives an indication of that. They clearly saw the gospel writers as historians rather than Scripture writers, per se.

To me, the small differences confirm that the larger story is actual history. Because when real history is written, such as for example in modern daily newspapers, there are always differences of detail, opinion, and emphasis. If there weren't you'd wonder if there was collusion going on. I don't see collusion in the harmony of the gospels.

Brant Pitre said...

Sorry, Mike, but Augustine most emphatically did believe in inerrancy, because of his belief in the divine authorship of Scripture. He actually upraided Jerome on this issue and said:

"I absolutely decline to think that you would have people read your own books in the same way as they read those of the Prophets and the Apostles; *the idea that these latter could contain any errors is impious."* (Augustine, "Letter to Jerome," in Jerome, Letters, 116.3, cited in Pope Benedict XV, Spiritus Paraclitus, 5.)

I would encourage you to read the entire encyclical by Benedict; it gives a host of quotations from Jerome and Augustine articulatin their understanding of inerrancy. I've repeatedly encouraged Chris Tilling also to draw this material from the Fathers into the discussion. There are a lot of quotes that are being overlooked in current evangelical discussions of patristic views on inspiration and inerrancy. Let me know what you think!


shadow said...

A wonderfully comprehensive view of the differences between Origen's approach, that of Augustine, and modernist views, you might want to take a look at "A history of the synoptic problem : the canon, the text, the composition, and the interpretation of the Gospels" by David Laird Dungan.