Christian Motives for Esoteric Writing

In the opening passage from Boethius's On the Trinity, there was an implicit allusion to Matthew 7.6: "Do not give a holy thing to dogs, nor put your pearls before pigs; that they might not trample them under their feet and, having turned about, break you into pieces." Thomas makes the Boethian allusion explicit. This is not the earliest mention of the verse in Thomas's corpus.24 Earlier uses can be found in his Scriptum on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Nor is the Boethian commentary the verse's last appearance. The verse reappears as Thomas writes. Moreover, it is hardly the only Gospel passage that puts the issue of esoteric teaching, but it is one that attracted attention in works of theological synthesis well known to Thomas.25 The Summa "of Alexander," for example, devotes a whole section to the injunction from Matthew.26 So it is not surprising that Thomas recalls the verse often, from the Scriptum on the Sentences to the great Summa.

The Matthean injunction is cited explicitly in the Scriptum four times. Thomas gives it two readings, each authorized by patristic authorities and by his immediate predecessors. The first reading applies to theological teaching. While discussing the "translative" application of names to God, Thomas

24 For the dating, see Weisheipl, Friar Thomas, pp. 381—382, and Torrell, Initiation, 503.

25 For an introduction to the patristic debates on these passages, see Marguerite Harl, "Origène et les interprétations patristiques grecques de l'«obscurité» biblique," Vigiliae Chris-tianae 36 (1982): 334-371.

26 "Alexander of Hales" Summa theologica (CSB 4:936-939).

rehearses an argument that any teaching strives to make truth manifest. Metaphors and other symbolic locutions serve to conceal truth. They ought then not to be used in theology. Thomas replies that the truth should be made manifest in proportion to the recipient's capacity for receiving it. Some are hurt rather than helped by truth, either because they fight it impiously or because they cannot grasp it. So the truth of divine things should be hidden, as Matthew says.27 The same sense is given to the injunction in arguing that the unbaptized should not be catechized because sacred doctrine may not be delivered to the unclean.28 Thomas explains that the Scriptural text refers to those of the "unclean" who oppose faith, not to those who want to come to the faith.29

The second reading of the injunction in the Scriptum applies it to Eucharistic communion. When the issue is whether a priest ought to give the body of Christ to a known sinner, Matthew is cited to argue the nega-tive.30 Thomas emphasizes that the injunction prohibits not the giving, but the willingness to give, and elaborates a distinction between what the priest wills of himself and what he does as if by coercion.31 Matthew appears again to argue that Jesus did not give his own body to Judas at the Last Supper.32 Thomas replies that although Judas was truly a "dog" he was not one openly. Jesus did not want to expose him in front of the other disciples.33

Thomas also distinguishes these two readings of the injunction, the doctrinal and the sacramental, in his contemporary or slightly later Lectura of the Gospel of Matthew.34 Thomas situates the particular injunction within the Sermon on the Mount's treatment of "judgments (iudicia)'.' Christ has already taught that human judgments are restricted to externals and that they ought to be congruent, equitable, and orderly.35 The Lord now teaches that human judgments ought to be discriminating. Thomas appends two interpretations of Matthew's images. The first, drawn from Augustine, takes "dogs" to be heretics and "swine" to be those who are unclean. "Thus to give holy things to dogs is to minister holy things to heretics. Again if some

34 On the best arguments, the Lectura would also have been delivered in Paris during Thomas's first regency, that is, between 1256 and 1259. For the dating, Weisheipl, Friar Thomas, 371-372, who relies on H.-V. Shooner, "La date de la 'Lect. Matt.' de s. Thomas,' Bulletin thomiste 10 (1957-1959):153-157; compare Torrell, Initiation, p. 495.

35 Lect. Matt. 7.1. The references in the rest of this paragraph are also to this passage.

thing spiritual is said, and this is treated with contempt, it is given to swine." The second reading takes "holy things" as the church's sacraments, the "pearls" as mysteries of truth. The sacraments are not to be taught to the unfaithful, and the spiritual senses are not to be given to the faithful who lead bad lives. Thomas pauses to imagine an objection, as he often does in the Lectura. Christ said many good things to the unfaithful and they trampled upon his words. Thomas replies, very explicitly in his own voice, "I say that he did this on account of the good who were with the bad, who profited from [Christ's words]."

In these contemporary texts from the Scriptum and the Lectura on Matthew, Thomas approves two motives for esotericism in theological teaching. The first is that teaching without regard for the condition of the learners will harm some of them. It will harm them not least by making it more difficult for them to hear the offer of salvation at any future time. The second motive is that unreserved teaching may betray or beget a lack of reverence in the teacher. If this is the case, then the teacher too is being harmed. Both motives justify a discernment of audience and the use of means of concealment.

The motives are more fully developed when Thomas comes to treat the Matthean injunction in the Golden Chain, his continuous gloss on the Gospels composed from patristic excerpts. For Matthew 7:6, the Chain consists almost entirely and almost equally of passages from Augustine's On the Lord's Sermon on the Mount and from the Unfinished Work on Matthew (Opus imperfectum), widely received in the medieval West as a work by John Chrysostom.36 There is too much here to be summarized, but two excerpts can capture the reasons for esotericism in teaching. The first is from the Opus imperfectum:

Again the mysteries of truth, that is pearls, are not to be given except to those who desire truth and who live according to human reason. For if you give them to pigs, that is to those burdened by the enjoyment of a filthy life, they do not understand their worth, but count them as like the other worldly fables. And so they crush them by their fleshly acts.37

36 See the Catena aurea: in Matt. 7.3. Augustine occupies about 87 lines of printed text, "Chrysostom" about 77. The only other authorities used are Rabanus Maurus (4 lines) and the interlinear Glossa (2 lines). The Opus imperfectum is now attributed to a Latin-speaking Arian of the fifth century. On the text's authorship and its tangled medieval transmission, see J. van Banning, Opus imperfectum in Matthaeum: Praefatio, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 87B (Turnhout: Brepols, 1988), pp. v-vii and ix-xiii.

37 Catena aurea: in Matt. 7.3.

The deepest truths in Christianity are not to be spoken except to those who enact desire to hear them by living rationally. The rest, living against reason, cannot distinguish truth from glittering fiction, and they cancel the force of truth in their daily habits. This passage mixes the two motives distinguished above, but offers a more precise description of the condition of suitable learners: "those who desire truth and who live according to human reason." Human reason means here, not philosophy, but human rationality, which ought to be the highest internal power. Those who have seriously disordered souls are disqualified from hearing for the same reasons that Aristotle disqualified the followers of passion and the incontinent in the Nicomachean Ethics.

The end of this section of the Chain offers a last quotation from Augustine. It distinguishes those who cannot understand from those who cannot hear. The distinction lies between someone who covers her ears violently and someone who has them somehow plugged up. Nothing is to be taught openly to one who cannot understand, since such a person will "either infect it with hate, as a dog, or neglect it by contempt, as a pig." Someone who is prevented from hearing by uncleanness ought to be cleansed in order that she might begin to hear. The Lord was willing to speak before mixed crowds for the sake of those who could understand or who could be brought to understand. A competent Christian teacher may respond to earnest inquirers who might despair to think that their questions could not be answered.

The Augustinian passage balances the one from the Opus imperfectum. "Chrysostom" specifies the condition of suitable hearers rather rigorously, while Augustine insists on healing disordered souls whenever possible so that they can begin to hear the truth. Augustine urges the dangers of reserve - in his example, the dangers to earnest inquirers whose questions are met with silence. Between these two poles, Thomas stands much closer to Augustine, as the reader can see in his final uses of the text from Matthew.

Thomas applies the Matthean injunction to a number of cases in the Summa. It appears first and generally - as one would expect - in defense of the principle that Scripture should use metaphors. To the argument that theology is ordered to making truth manifest, Thomas replies that the "hid-denness of figures" is useful both for the "exercise of the studious" and against the "derision of the unfaithful."38 Exercise helps the faithful, and derision rebuffs the unfaithful. The same argument from derision is made with the same Scriptural support in a freestanding disputed question (quaes-

tio de quolibet) roughly contemporary with the middle of the Summa.39 The Summa itself then applies the injunction where we have not seen it before. Enumerating conditions that demand public confession of faith, Thomas judges that confession is not praiseworthy when it produces unrest in the unfaithful without any benefit.40 Again, in answer to the question whether someone can deceive in time of war, Thomas argues that human beings are not always held to make clear what they propose or understand. "Even in holy teaching (doctrina) many things are to be hidden, especially from the unfaithful, so that they may not deride [them]."41

There are other cases in the dialectic of the Summa where the Matthean injunction supports an objection. May someone put off doing spiritual goods because of scandal? One argument says that it is permissible, on analogy to sacred doctrine and Matthew 7:6. Thomas replies with a distinction between the truth of teaching and the act of teaching - or any other act of mercy - to avoid scandalizing the petty-minded, so long as one is not obligated to teach by some special office. Where there is the obligation of office, the act of public confession becomes necessary to salvation.42 A similar dialectic arises in applying the Matthean injunction to the case of Eucharistic communion. Should a priest deny the body of Christ to a sinner who asks for it? One argument holds that he should, because to admit a sinner to communion is an egregious case of giving something holy to dogs. Thomas replies that Christians are not to give holy things "to dogs, that is to manifest sinners. But hidden things cannot be punished publicly, but are rather reserved to the divine judgment."43

In these last four cases - three of which come from the heart of the Summa, from its persuasive and particular moral teaching, Thomas emphasizes prudential discernments. A Christian has to judge whether public confession will benefit the faith enough to justify the risk of public unrest. A theologian must decide how much to say before unbelievers, given the possibility of derision. A priest must determine which communicants are "manifest sinners." Perhaps most pointedly, Thomas requires that someone who holds a teaching office must put his own obligation against dangers of scandal.

39 Qq. de quolibet 6.1, paraphrasing Augustine's De doctrina christiana. Thomas here also adds a reference to Pseudo-Dionysius. For difficulties of dating, see Weisheipl, Friar Thomas, p. 367; Torrell, Initiation, p. 492.

42 Summa theol. 2-2.43.7 arg. 2 (with the Scriptural citation), ad 2, and especially ad 4, with the backwards reference to 2-2.32.2.

Thomas's ever more nuanced rereading of a single Scriptural injunction recalls several larger lessons. The first is that Thomas never inaugurates a comprehensive theological project without insisting on the need for caution in teaching. Whether he is expounding Peter Lombard's Sentences, commenting on the Boethian corpus, exhorting to Christian wisdom in two stages, or inaugurating the Summa itself, Thomas commends the need for reserve and provides a defense of concealment.44 In these discussions, as distinct from the discussions about philosophy, Thomas advocates not only a discernment of audiences, but obscure terminology, poetic forms, and multiple meaning. Indeed, he insists that Scripture has a unique textual multiplicity, far beyond the resources of a human author. The first task of the theologian is always to expound Scripture, to inhabit its multiple meanings. Clearly the theologian must then always be deciding how many of those meanings are to be clarified and before whom. Yet the reader should also note that here — perhaps especially here — Thomas does not permit the lie as a means of concealment. His esoteric devices are chiefly devices of postponement.

It might well be objected that the esoteric character of Scriptural language was a required topic in any academic discussion of theology by the time Thomas wrote. He could hardly have dispensed with it, any more than he could overlook the question, whether or how far theology was like a "science." The objection forgets that Thomas uses the reasoning behind theological esotericism not just in relation to Scripture. It is also the principle for the main structural division of Against the Gentiles. Truths that reason can touch are suitably argued before non-believers. Truths that reason cannot touch, much less comprehend, ought not to be debated before non-believers. Probable arguments for the truths beyond reason are only offered "for the exercise and consolation of the faithful."45 If they were presented as arguments to unbelievers, the result would be to confirm them in their error, since they would conclude that faith rests on such flimsy foundations.

The esoteric writing of divine truths, in Scripture and in the discourses arising from Scripture, is no mere topic for Thomas. It is a conviction. More: it is a powerful impulse for the construction of new forms for the teaching of Christian wisdom. Whatever hesitations Thomas felt over the motives for philosophical esotericism, he feels none over the motives of their theological inheritors.

44 Scriptum Sent. prol. 1.5, Super De Trin. 2.4, Contra gent. 1.9, Lect. Sent. prol. 4.1 arg. 2—3 and ad 2—3, Summa theol. 1.1.10.

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