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Kirchengeschichte: Mittelalter


Backus, Irena [Ed.]


The Reception of the Church Fathers in the West. From the Carolingians to the Maurists. 2 Vols.


Leiden-New York-Köln: Brill 1997. XXIX, 1078 S. gr.8. Lw. hfl 540,50. ISBN 90-04-09722-8.


Samuel Rubenson

Covering a period of almost 1000 years and treating one of the most important topics in the history of Christian theology, these two volumes are a great achievement and should be seen as essential to any theological library. Although there are numerous studies on the reception of the Fathers during this period, as the eminent bibliographies attest, no other work can match the combination of breadth, variety and detailed discussions presented here. The two volumes are not only a sign of the growing awareness of the importance of histories of reception. The twenty-six contributions amply demonstrate the fundamental role the Fathers played for any theologian until the end of the eighteenth century. One can only hope that present-day revival of Patristic studies will help the Fathers to gain a place also in modern Christian theology.

The two volumes are divided into four parts treating the early and high Middle Ages, the later Middle Ages, the renaissance and the reformation (primarily the 16th century), and the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. An excellent introduction presents all of the contributions, helping the reader to find his way. The main interest of the editor, Irene Backus of the Institute for the History of the Reformation, is manifest in the fact that the first and the last parts are considerably shorter, while almost a third of the entire work is devoted to the 16th century. As is the case with any collection of essays the character and quality varies. There seems to have been little attempt to standardize the essays included, except for the fact that all are in English. Inevitably some of the essays translated into English have suffered from this and a number of cases of obvious misunderstanding of the original can be found (see for example p. 416 "a particular writer's work" for "in particular the work of writing"). In several places the contribution on Luther by Manfred Schulze has unfortunately become almost unintelligible (see for example p. 584, 589, 591 f., 594).

The two volumes are not, as the title might suggest, a comprehensive survey of the reception of the Fathers. Nor are they a handbook analyzing the history of reception as such. Fundamental questions about theory and method in relation to reception are, with a few exceptions, not discussed. What we have is instead a collection of essays primarily presenting a wide variety of examples of the use of the Fathers in the period covered. One third of the contributions treat the reception of the Fathers in a single author or work (for example the Glossia ordinaria, Peter Lombard, Robert Grosseteste, the Legenda aurea, Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin), others compare a few authors or discuss a certain tradition (for example Anselm, Abelard and Bernhard, the devotia moderna, the counter-reformation, Calvinism, the Jesuits, Anglican Theology or the Maurists) and only a few analyze a longer period (for example Carolingian theology, Scholasticism, the later Middle Ages, the Italian renaissance). Although one could have wished discussions on some authors now only mentioned briefly, like for instance Albertus Magnus, Ockham or Philipp Melanchthon, the main want is the lack of any treatment of the reception of the fathers in the mystical tradition (for example Eckhart, Rolle, John of the Cross) or in popular homilies.

Many of the contributions present excellent material for future work but contain little analysis or discussion and are thus primarily of interest for specialists (see for example the survey on scholastic patrology by Bougerol, the presentation of Zwingli and Bucer by Backus or the excellent catalogue of Jesuit patristic scholarship by Bertrand). Other articles, as for example Otten's discussion of Carolingian use of the Fathers, Lewis's important presentation of Grosseteste's contribution to Patristics, den Boeft's critical essay on Erasmus as editor of Patristic texts or Quantin's two well written essays on Roman Catholic and on Anglican 17th century reception of the Fathers, are of more general interest. A few articles are not only excellent presentations but important contributions to our understanding of the development of Christian theology. In the first volume I would like to single out the essay by Saak on the reception of Augustine in the Later Middle Ages, as well as Staubachs's discussion on the importance of the Church Fathers for Devotio moderna. Saak clearly demonstrates the necessity for a much broader view of Renaissance Augustinianism and a clear distinction between various kinds of use and abuse of Augustine. In his essay Staubach shows that the devotio moderna must be interpreted in its own right as a monastic type of revival movement, not a fore-runner of the reformation. Their use of the Fathers was not a question of interpretation, polemics or theological training, but spiritual nourishment. In the second volume the article on Italian Renaissance Learning and the Church Fathers by Charles Stinger must be mentioned as probably the best contribution of all. Here Stingers gives a vivid image of a great variety of reasons to study the Fathers in Renaissance Italy, ranging from the philological and rational interests of Valla and Traversari to the mystical speculation of Egidio da Viterbo and the spiritual training of the Cassinese monks.

As is amply demonstrated in the essays on the reformers, and perhaps even better in the profound analysis of the counter-reformation by Ralph Keen and the succint comparison of the Centuries of Magdeburg and the Annals of Baronius, by Enrico Norelli, the reception of the Fathers was a central issue in confessional debates. As Mark Vessey writes in his most readable survey of English translations of the Latin Fathers, it was the conflict between reformers and Roman Catholics that prompted a wider interest in the Church Fathers. Unfortunately the partisan and confessional use of the early Church by the two sides of the history of the reformation is still not reflected in some of the contributions. This is in particular true for the unfortunate article on Luther by Manfred Schulze, where it is often impossible to distinguish between Luther's often very assertive views and the opinion of the author. A comforting contrast is the excellent conclusion on p. 984 in which Jean-Louis Quantin deplores the polarization between Jansenist and Vatican use of the Fathers.

Finally it is only to regret that my review has had to pass over so much of the interesting and valuable material in these two volumes. Irrespective of interest any scholar working on the history or theology of Christianity will in these one thousand pages find much stimulation and useful material. The numerous suggestions for future research in the history of the reception of the Church Fathers show how much is still left undone.