Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Homer and Christ" - Prof. Karl Olav Sandnes in Leuven

From October 17-19, 2012, in the framework of an ERASMUS exchange, Prof. Dr. Karl Olav Sandnes from Norwegian School of Theology enjoyed the opportunity to visit KU Leuven’s Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies. At the invitation of Prof. Dr. Reimund Bieringer, he delivered a three-part lecture entitled “Homer and Christ: The Development of Early Christian Hermeneutics” which proved to be a tour de force on the hermeneutical challenges faced by the early Christian Church. The point of departure was represented by several photos of Papyrus Bouriant and by Raffaella Cribiore’s assertion according to whom: “Education became a powerful agent for preserving ‘Greekness’” (Gymnastics of the Mind. Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, 9). In adding to these, Prof. Sandnes emphasised the fundamental role played by Homer and his oeuvre in Greek encyclical studies. Finding herself in the impossibility to skirt this reality, the early Christian Church was confronted with the issue of dealing with pagan texts. However, Homer’s place in encyclical studies was already under criticism since Plato (The Republic, 379 d - 391 c) and the insufficiency of these studies was contended by people like Seneca (Ep. 88). In this respect, allegory came to be considered as an easy way out of criticism (cf. e.g., Od. 12, Penelope and the suitors). Similarly, a distinction began to be operated between propaideia, comprised of the study of letters and literature, and paideia, consisting in philosophy or virtue (e.g., Philo of Alexandria, On Mating with the Preliminary Studies). In this context, the Christian attitude towards Greek paideia varied from direct opposition to it (e.g., Tatian of Syria, Oratio ad Graecos 1.3; Didascalia Apostolorum 3.3-18), to a middle position of a noxious but required process (e.g., Tertullian, On Idolatry 10), and to its understanding as propaideia for faith (e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 15.3; Origen, A Letter to Gregory; Basil of Caesarea, Ad Adolescentes 4.4-5, 4.8-9; Gregory of Nyssa, De Vita Mosis 1.15). A special case presented by Prof. Sandnes was that of Augustine who reversed the propaedeutic logic (cf. Augustine, Conf. 1.13.22, 1.15.24) and argued for the importance of primary studies. Nevertheless, Augustine appeals also to the notion of usus and seems to plead for a criterion to assess human culture (cf. Doctr. 1.7). At the same time, Augustine’s stance testifies to the fact that the attitude towards encyclical studies is intrinsically connected with the discourse on pagan culture. 

In Prof. Sandnes’ own words Homer became “a catchword for the relationship between Christians and pagans.” As the completion of his lecture was approaching, Prof. Sandnes shared with the audience the observation that both those who were building a case against Greek paideia and those who were arguing for a content-based discernment of it invoked Scriptural passages in their argumentations. While he declared himself in favour of the latter opinion, Prof. Sandnes stated that he is not entirely convinced by the arguments put forward for it. Following this line, he voiced a challenging question: Why is the New Testament so silent about this topic? By way of conclusion, Prof. Sandnes admitted that he does not possess a final answer to this question, but that he can offer some considerations. Firstly, he believes that it took some time for the theological thinking to become mature enough to address this issue. Secondly, perhaps this hermeneutical issue was not a real concern in the first century. Thirdly, he mentioned the nature of Paul’s letters which do not represent faith treatises and refer to local issues. Last but not least, Prof. Sandnes maintained that one can deduce the notion of usus from Paul’s correspondence (cf. Gal 3,24; Phil 4,8-9; 2 Cor 10,4-5). According to him, truth and wisdom might be found outside the Christian community, but they should be looked at from a critical perspective.

Teodor Brasoveanu

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