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THE MASTER IN THE FATHERS
AND IN ECCLESIAL TRADITION

(especially in "De Magistro"
by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas)

Acts of the International Seminar
on "Jesus, the Master"
(Ariccia, October 14-24, 1996)

by Franco Pierini ssp

 

1. THE PRESUPPOSITIONS OF THE PEDAGOGICAL-THEOLOGICAL
DOCTRINE IN THE ECCLESIAL TRADITI
ON *

1.1. The master and the magisterium in the pagan environment

The figure of the master and the role of the magisterium, in the ancient Greco-Roman world, go through various stages of transformation. The physiognomy of the teacher and the relationship between the educator and the student reveal instances of progress and regress but above all modifications in the spiritual and religious sense.

The first form of education, prevalently of the oral, acted and musical kind, is a manifestation of the aristocracy. Witness to it is Homer’s poems. The protagonist of this kind of education is surrounded by a high level of appreciation and is presented as if a substitute of the divinity; his functions present some characteristics that approximates the oracles. In Rome this stage is represented by primitive education given by the "pater familias" according to the "mos maiorum".

The discovery and the spread of writing bring about a progressive democratization of culture. The educational-mystagogic function evolves ever more into specialized artisanship in view of pure and simple instruction. At this time in Greece emerge the figures of the pedagogue (primary instruction), of the grammarian (secondary instruction), of the rector and of the sophist (superior instruction). Along the same line, in Rome emerge the figures of the "litterator" or "ludimagister" (primary instruction), of the "grammaticus" (secondary instruction), of the orator and of the "magister iuris" (superior instruction).

From 200 A.D. onwards, with the dominance of the united Hellenistic-Roman civilization, the Greek and Roman scholastic roles have become completely identical.

The state’s intervention, either by the Greek "polis" or by the Hellenistic kingdoms, be it of the Roman imperial authorities (above all Vespasian and others), with the opening of the public schools and direct financing, confers new prestige to those working in the field of instruction. Nonetheless, the counterpositioning between rhetoric and philosophy (already represented respectively by Isocrates and Plato, then by Quintilianus and Seneca), plus the identity crisis itself of culture and of the Roman society under the Emperors Julius-Claudius, are reflected in the crisis of the school which becomes a world an end in itself, detached from life. Thus the criticisms of writers like Seneca and Tacitus, Petronius, Martial, Juvenal, Plutarch.

A relaunching of scholastic activity, a new season of scholarization emerges starting from the Diocletian age when instruction is ever more aimed at bureaucratic careers in the centralized State of the lower empire.(1)

Meanwhile, however, the very physiognomy of the teachers, of the students, of the school has changed under the influence of religious ideologies and philosophies of the Hellenistic and Imperial era and through the influences themselves that came from Judaism and from Christianity. Religion and school, originally united, eventually became separated due to the secularization of the Greek-Roman world, now meet again on the grounds of mystagogic-mystery religiosity, ever widespread since the II century A.D.

Isocrates, Cicero and Quintilianus, the most prominent exponents of the rhetoric culture, have pointed out as ideal of the "vir bonus dicendi peritus," the "paideia" or "humanitas." Plato and Seneca, from the philosophical point of view, have also expressed the same. Especially Plato had written (in polemics against the Sophist Protagora and his slogan, "Man is the measure of all things"): "God is the measure of all things" (Leggi, 716 c) and "God is the pedagogue of the universe" (Leggi, 897 b).(2) This pedagogical-theological ideal presupposed, however, on the part of God the "pr˛noia," or foresight and providence; on the part of the world, "order" or the characteristic of "kosmos"; on the part of man, freedom or "eleutherýa." "Pr˛noia", then, and "pÓideusis." (3)

Thus, beyond pure and simple instruction, by now broadly acquired, the man of late antiquity begins to aspire for a conversion-salvation. The distinction between essoteric teaching, addressed to all, and esoteric (or acroamatic) teaching (addressed to an initiated few) became ever more widespread. The distinction among the three stages of wisdom and salvific teaching: the "protrettic" or propagandistic stage prior to conversion; the "essoteric" stage, the initial indoctrination; and the "esoteric" stage, the true and proper perfecting stage, also became widespread.(4) (return to summary)

1.2. The master and the magisterium in the Hebrew milieu

In a world of scribes, like the ancient Near East, also Israel was soon alphabetized and equipped with schools, teachers and students. Although the epigraphic and literary proofs are scarce and questionable, they can make one suppose that already during the time of the kings, schools in the royal court must have already existed, regional and local schools, maintained by functionaries, levites and priests aside from the famous prophetic "schools." The teachers, in any case, did not yet possess a physiognomy, a social "status" that were well defined. The same could be said of the forms and the contents of teaching although one could already distinguish lower, middle and higher aims.(5)

This rather fluid situation would extend until the time of Jesus, till the destruction of Jerusalem. It was after the disappearance of other social, political and cultural structures that the figure of the rabbi and the structure of the rabbinical schools would emerge more clearly. In the place of the individual and informal relation which was the ordinary practice before, now came the institution of permanent schools of the primary kind (on the Bible), on the secondary level (Mishnah), and the superior level (on the Talmud). This evolution takes place during the first four-five centuries of the popular era.(6)

The rabbinical teaching, turned almost completely monopolized by lay persons, acquires, with the passing of time, quite paradoxically, an ever greater sacred nature. Even more, the school becomes a kind of "temporary monastery," with teacher and disciples having a common life, ascetic rules, etc.(7)

And soon, from the rabbinical-scholastic milieu would emerge, in this first historical phase, also a scholastic orientation, of the mystic, concentrated kind, in the contemplation of the "work of the heavenly chariot.(8)

Beside this principal trend of Hebraism (Palestinian, Mesopotamian, and then also European), with Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.-54 A.D.), would appear the allegorical-pedagogical interpretation of the Bible in imitation to a similar allegorism practiced by the learned Alexandrians, always for philosophical-pedagogical purposes, on the texts of Homer and on mythology. This method strongly influences, as is known, the ancient Christian literature. Beyond every organized school, there is God himself, who introduces himself through the Logos not only as lawmaker but also as lawgiver to man.(9) (return to summary)

1.3. The Master: Jesus Christ, Lord

The principal presupposition of Christian theological pedagogy is evidently Christ himself. Without wanting to intrude into others’ area of research and competence, it is necessary that we recall some points of reference which would be developed by ecclesial tradition.

Already in the tradition of the Gospels, it is possible to note that Jesus was and manifested himself above all as "rabbi," as teacher. The Jesus of the "sayings" is a teacher, sayings that were especially addressed to the Galileean disciples. Of him emerges an image still without messianic traces of the Christ kind, but nonetheless an extraordinary personality tasked by God among the people of Israel with the eschatological mission par excellence, that is, the proclamation of the forthcoming kingdom through words and wonders.(10) The Jesus of the "apoftegmi" addressed mainly to the Hellenistic disciples is a teacher.(11) The Jesus of the biographical narration is a teacher, narration that especially came out of the events of the passion and resurrection guaranteed by the lived and re-lived experience of the Christian community.(12) Teacher is the Jesus of the parables destined above all to the listeners from the middle class, hence he was "teacher of the sayings of the Lord seen with different eyes." (13) Still teacher is the Jesus of the miracle narratives which had as spectators and listeners above all the Galileean farmers.(14) Finally, teacher, but in the provocative and intrusive sense, is the personality which builds around himself a fame through the two episodes of the entrance to Jerusalem and the expulsion of the merchants from the temple.(15)

No matter how great were the similarities between the doctrine and the behavior of the rabbis at that time, the behavior of the "rabbi" Jesus of Nazareth, the differences were even more numerous and fundamental.

Considering the fact that the status of the rabbi at that time was not yet a well defined and organized class as it would be later, Jesus could be called "rabbi" or "rabboni" and at the same time more than a "rabbi." Jesus is called and calls himself "prophet," and at the same time he is considered and considers himself "more than a prophet" (cf. Mt 11:9; Lk 7:26). Furthermore, Jesus is wonder-worker, and this aspect of his activity appears closely linked to his being a teacher.(16)

In conclusion, Jesus started to reveal himself as "rabbi(17) and starting from here he went on to reveal the growing complexity of his personality and of his mission through a gradual magisterium wherein one could recognize three stages already known: the stage of persuasive invitation ("proptreptik˛s"), the stage of public instruction or essoteric and the stage of private and deep instruction or esoteric.(18)

All this is recognized and proclaimed by the disciples through the more than fifty different titles with which he was called in the New Testament: from Jesus to "rabbi," from "rabbi" to "Christ" and "Lord." (return to summary)

1.4. Elements of the prior pedagogical-theological understanding of the ecclesial tradition

1) In spite of the ups and downs of the scholastic institution in the ancient times, either among the pagans or among the Jews, it is doubtless that the period from the 8th century B.C. to the start of the Christian era was a period of intense, progressive scholarization above all after the spread of writing and of the alphabet. Either through the generalized and widespread, public and private, practice of the most varied "exposed writings" (epigraphs, graffiti, etc.), either through the use of documents and messages written on different materials, or through the ever greater spread (relative to the technological possibilities of the time) of "codices" and "volumes", the school and the teacher of oral culture were becoming richer and more perfect through the school and the teachers of written culture.

2) The teacher and the magisterium appear as the principal promoters of social communication of that time.

3) The social and cultural events led to an ever greater religious characterization of the school, of the teacher and of the magisterium above all on the higher levels of indoctrination, that is, in the sphere of the rhetoric and philosophical schools. In different manners everyone was involved in it, including the youngest ones and also the marginalized. Pedagogy, gathering an ever greater religious and saving value, also assumed ever more universal meanings and values.

4) The religious connotation of the teacher and of the magisterium appears ever more evident in the "rabbi" Jesus of Nazareth. His personality, his message acquire depth and weight the more the disciples decipher the mystery. Jesus appears as a teacher who does not exclude anyone. He, instead, seeks the least and the poorest while proclaiming the importance of the "spirit of childhood" in order to enter the "paideia" (cf. Mt 18:3-5; Lk 18:16-17), a message confirmed an developed by Paul when he proclaims in his turn the need of "growing in faith" (cf. 1 Cor 3:1; 13:11; 14:20; Eph 4:14; but also 1 Pt 2:2). This mystery of salvation is handed down to the following generations and is received and made their own by the Fathers of the Church.

5) The pattern of operation of the magisterium appears common either in the pagan world, or the Hebrew, or in the behavior of Jesus Himself: it is the pattern of invitation-instruction-deepening, or protrettic - essoteric - esoteric teaching. Also this pattern would be made its own by the Christian tradition,(19) which would develop it especially in the ascetic-monastic milieus under the form of the three ways: purgative, illuminative and unitive.(20)

6) Finally, developing the experiences and the biblical reflections as well as those of pagan culture, the Christian tradition would articulate the theology of Jesus Christ Lord like that of the God-pedagogue (philosophy and theology are necessarily also pedagogy) not only in relation with the individual person or with an individual existence, but also in relation with the entire community and the whole of history.(21) (return to summary)

1.5. Milieus and cultural orientations in the period of Christian pedagogy

The scholastic institution and the figure of the teacher do not always assume the same importance in the history of culture and of civilization. Periods of scholarization were followed and are followed by periods of de-scholarization: this has taken place in civil history and also in the specifically ecclesiastical history.

The Hebrew environment during the time of Jesus was characterized by a relatively strong scholarization, which would intensify after the destruction of Jerusalem, the disappearance of the temple and the beginnings of the Diaspora. This fact contributes to the explanation of the title "rabbi" attributed to Jesus and accepted by Jesus.

During the first two centuries, Christian scholarization is limited to the family instruction and education and to the catechumenate. It would only be in the III century, beginning precisely from the needs of the catechumenate, that the first specifically Christian school would be born in Alexandria, the "Didaskaleion". In this environment, through the work of Clement of Alexandria, would appear the first draft of a theological encyclopedia around Christ protrettic, pedagogue and didascalon.

A second relaunching of Christian scholarization takes place in the Roman Empire turned Christian during the period from 313 to about 450. In this environment and in this period the Augustinian reflection on the "interior master" would be born.

After the barbarian invasion, from 450, came a period of evident de-scholarization, with the exception of the Byzantine Empire which still conserves for some centuries a high index of alphabetization either in cities or in the outskirts. For the Christian West, time would still pass till the rather modest scholarization promoted by the Carolingian rebirth. The most original pedagogical fruit is the manual of Dhuoda. Around the year 950 came the end of the "early Middle Ages."

From 950 to around 1250 the appropriately called "high Middle Ages" would take place. Schools would be reborn and, above all, would be born the medieval university. The contact with the patristic tradition, nonetheless, is still strong either in the East (Simeon, the New Theologian), or in the West (Bernard of Clairvaux).

From 1250 to 1500, or during the so-called "lower Middle Ages," the school system is in crisis and the typical pedagogy of humanism and of the properly so-called renaissance would begin to show. The reflections on the "master" by Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure of Bagnoregio would be "descholarized" first but always within the sphere of the scholastic mentality of the "imitation of Christ" type of mystics, then de-scholarized even more at its root by the new "teachers" like Erasmus of Rotterdam.

In passing, let us remember that other periods of scholarization and de-scholarization followed from 1500 on, either in civil society or in the ecclesiastical circle. In particular, in Italy, from the unification onwards, would begin the scholarization and mass alphabetization undertaken by the State; in the ecclesiastical circle, with Leo XIII, the relaunching of medieval scholasticism, under the form of "neo-scholasticism" would take place. The teacher acquires credit and importance either in the civil sphere or in the ecclesiastical one. By reflex, also the figure of Jesus Master is reproposed. It is surely from here that Fr. Alberione draws inspiration.

Today, with the advent of the means of mass communication, audiovisual and cybernetic, there is an evident cultural tendency to de-scholarization or at least of de-motivation of the scholastic institution and of its teachers. Others are the true teachers. Due to this, the figure of Jesus understood as "master" could turn difficult to perceive and understand, and it would become necessary to repropose "magisterium" under categories more consistent with the current mentality. Certainly, however, Jesus remains to be he who was "rabbi", although he was not only this and he is above all "rabbi" inasmuch as he is Christ and Lord. (return to summary)

Continued: Pre-Constantine antiquity (until year 313)

return to summary

 

           Jesus Master yesterday, today and for ever

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