Sunday, August 27, 2017

Fortunatianus' Commentary On The Gospels

There have been some media stories lately about the recent discovery and English translation of a fourth-century patristic work that was previously lost. For the background, see my Facebook post here. Having read the English translation, I want to expand upon that post. All numbers that follow in parentheses will be references to page numbers in the English translation just linked.

The media and the document's English translator, Hugh Houghton, have given a lot of attention to the highly allegorical nature of Fortunatianus' interpretation of the gospels. The allegorical approach supplemented a grammatical/historical one rather than replacing it. See, for example, Fortunatianus' comments affirming the historicity of the magi giving gifts to Jesus (18), the miracles Jesus performed (65), the miraculous events around the time of Jesus' death (95), etc. He harmonizes Jesus' genealogies (6-7). He refers to how Matthew, as an evangelist, "is not permitted to lie or deceive" (10). He tells us that John received "careful guidance" from the Holy Spirit when writing and "knew all secrets" (100-101). Fortunatianus sometimes tells us that an alleged allegory in scripture is referring to something supernatural, like the virgin birth (80), or is referring to something else that critics of Christianity often reject, so how can such allegorizing be equated to a rejection of such beliefs? And so on. Ironically, some of the places where Fortunatianus is most explicit in affirming the historicity of the gospels are when writing about accounts whose historicity surely would be rejected by people in the media and elsewhere who are appealing to his allegorizing. But since he is so allegorical in his interpretation, another point ought to be made on that subject.

The allegorizing discredits itself. It sinks from its own dead weight. If you want to see how superior grammatical/historical interpretation is and the unverifiable and dangerous nature of allegorical interpretation, read a work like Fortunatianus' commentary. Here are a few examples:

For he said: O woman, great is your faith. May it be for you as you wish. [Matthew 15:28] By saying O he indicates the culmination of the world, because O is the last letter in the Greek alphabet: this is the time at which the Church believed in the Son of God and recognised that the Lord had proceeded from the Lord. (64-65)

Regarding the figure of the camel [in Matthew 23:24], the slave of Abraham too is found to have led ten laden camels: these are the ten commandments of the Law from which everything is derived, which are the written burdens of the Law. (81)

For he had given out eight talents [Matthew 25:15], which we can understand as being the five books of Moses, one book of all the prophets (as if put in sixth place), while in seventh place comes rest (which is the Sabbath on which our Lord Jesus Christ came), and after his Passion, in eighth place, the Church is erected by the preaching of the apostles: they were sent to preach to all Gentiles, from whom they founded the Church. So the apostles multiplied the talents (meaning preaching) and, after them, their successors the bishops do exactly the same. (90)

A lot more could be said about the commentary. There's nothing in it that's of major significance. His views are mostly common ones for his day: Trinitarianism, baptismal regeneration, the perpetual virginity of Mary, a young earth, the traditional authorship attributions of the gospels and other Biblical books, etc. He also holds some unusual views, like alleging that we shouldn't take literally Jesus' denial that he knew the time of the second coming in Matthew 24:36 (85), denying that Jesus was actually sorrowful in Matthew 26:38 (93), and claiming that the apostle John was the child Jesus referred to in Matthew 18:2-6 (100).

What came across to me as the commentary's most significant characteristic, though, is one I haven't seen anybody in the media or anybody else mention. His allegorizing and his non-allegorical comments often focus on the subject of the church. He says a lot about the nature of the church, its history, its offices, issues of church authority, church discipline, church unity, etc. He frequently refers to bishops, presbyters, and deacons. But he says nothing of a papacy. Or ecumenical councils. His ecclesiology is relatively simple, not what we see in Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy.

He often refers to Jesus as "the rock" or specifically says that he's the rock upon whom the church is built (5, 32-33, 37, 47, 49, 83, 102-103). The closest he comes to referring to a papacy is when he refers to Peter as "leader of the others [apparently the other members of the Twelve]" (111). But many people who reject a papacy believe in some form of Petrine primacy, such as that he had a leadership role among the Twelve. It doesn't follow that he was a Pope. (Elsewhere, Fortunatianus refers to Peter, along with Paul, as one of "the two leaders of preaching" [75] and "the leader of preaching" [98], which doesn't involve a jurisdictional primacy.) When interpreting the account of the wedding in Cana in John 2, Fortunatianus refers to James as the "chief steward" and Peter as one of the "servants" under him:

Jesus says to them: Draw some out and take it to the chief steward and the rest. The chief steward is James, who sat as the first bishop in Jerusalem after the Passion of the Lord. So he said that the taste of this wine was good, not knowing where it was from. But the servants, who had drawn out the water, knew: this means Peter, when at his preaching the centurion Cornelius was the first of the Gentiles to come to belief and all the other nations were brought to belief through the Holy Spirit. This is what the chief steward did not know. And when some people wanted maliciously to accuse Peter, he explained himself, recognising what the will of God was with regard to the nations. Also, when those who came to belief from the Gentiles were being forced by some people to be circumcised, then James and the other apostles gave out a letter through the Holy Spirit instructing that anyone who came to belief from the Gentiles should remain as they were in the faith of the Son of God. (115)

It would be unreasonable to conclude from this passage that Fortunatianus believed that James was a Pope, and it would be even more unreasonable to conclude that he believed in a line of Popes throughout church history who are successors of James. He says nothing of any papal figure in apostolic or post-apostolic times. The bishops of Rome aren't mentioned at all, nor is any post-apostolic papal office referred to explicitly or implicitly. That's all the more significant in light of the fact that Fortunatianus was a bishop in Italy.

If you read his commentary or run some word searches on it, you'll see how extensively he discusses ecclesiastical issues. It's very unlikely that he would discuss those topics to such a large extent in a work that's more than a hundred pages long, yet never express belief in something like Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology if he held such a view.

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