Hugh of St. Victor: A System of Mystery

What is systematic theology? How ought we to define its tasks and objectives? In this post I am beginning a new series which will comment ...



What is systematic theology? How ought we to define its tasks and objectives? In this post I am beginning a new series which will comment on various definitions of systematic theology, past and present. While I am interested in observing both consistency and development, this series will by no means offer a comprehensive historical survey of the question. My aims are more modest. I simply want to provide opportunities for us to think carefully together, in concert with voices from the church catholic, about the nature and character of systematic theology.

Our first featured theologian is Hugh of St. Victor (c. 1096–1141), a Saxon canon regular who became the head of the school at the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris. His book De Sacramentis Christianae Fidei is arguably the first major work of systematic theology in early medieval scholasticism.

For Hugh, the task of systematic theology is to provide an ordered account of the subject matter of Sacred Scripture. So, what is this subject matter?
The subject matter of all the Divine Scriptures is the works of man's restoration. For there are two works in which all that has been done is contained. The first is the work of foundation; the second is the work of restoration. The work of foundation is that whereby those things which were not came into being. The work of restoration is that whereby those things which had been impaired were made better.
Therefore, the work of foundation is the creation of the world with all its elements. The work of restoration is the Incarnation of the Word with all its sacraments, both those which have gone before from the beginning of time, and those which come after, even to the end of the world.
Accordingly, De Sacramentis Christianae Fidei is split into two books, one covering the work of "foundation" or "institution", the other covering the work of "restoration".

On the surface, the organization of topics in these two books appears to be merely chronological, a narrative sequence of biblical events in salvation history. For Hugh, this is a necessary consequence of the task of tracing out origins and ends. In order to discuss salvation, one must first discuss the fall. In order to discuss man's fall, one must first discuss his created state, and so on. Hugh's aim is to present the exitus-reditus movement of human existence without structurally straying far from the order and internal logic of the biblical account.

The organization of Hugh's system is heavily funded by an Augustinian hermeneutic, in which words and things in Scripture are sometimes signative of other things and meanings. "This subject matter Divine Scripture treats according to a threefold sense: that is, according to history, allegory, and tropology." Hugh's Didascalicon not only followed but in many ways enlarged and built upon Augustine's work in De Doctrina Christiana.

For Hugh, the narrative of Scripture is not merely historical but sacramental, an unfolding of mysteries from which doctrine may be derived (hence the title of his summa). God's works of foundation and restoration are performed in certain ways in order to teach humanity about his being and nature. Hence, for Hugh the creation of the universe in six days is historical fact, but historical fact with doctrinal content. The purpose of De Sacramentis Christianae Fidei is to help students grasp the doctrinal content discovered via the second stage of biblical interpretation, allegory.

Hugh offers a pedagogical justification for his approach by categorizing and relating the various academic sciences. Note here the classical structure presented, with theology ("the divine science") functioning as the governing queen of the rest:
It is clear that all the natural arts serve divine science, and that the lower wisdom, rightly ordered, leads to the higher. Accordingly, under the sense of the significance of words in relation to things history is contained, which, as has been said, is served by three sciences: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Under that sense, however, consisting in the significance of things in relation to mystical facts, allegory is contained. And under that sense, consisting in the meaning of things in relation to mystical things to be done, tropology is contained, and these two are served by arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy, and physics.
Besides these, there is above all that divine science to which the Divine Scripture leads, whether in allegory or in tropology; one division of this which is in allegory, teaches right faith, the other, which is in tropology, teaches good work. In these consist knowledge of truth and love of virtue; and this is the true restoration of man.
Allegory is a sort of theological and typological interpretation of Scripture, attesting to the unity of its content in relation to its divine origin. Tropology is the moral interpretation of Scripture from which ethics and righteousness are derived. Such a hermeneutic internalizes the exitus-reditus movement within the reading of Scripture. One begins with history (the foundation), then moves to allegory and tropology (the faith and good works, respectively).

The very unfolding of this movement draws one into the movement. Hugh is attempting to order systematic theology in accordance with biblical epistemology: first we are taught by nature and history, then we are given faith, then we pursue faithful actions.

Hugh's reluctance to stray far from the historical sequence of Scripture even in his treatment of its doctrinal content is indicative of some hermeneutical modesty and concern about overly speculative and fanciful allegoresis. The medieval tradition would continue on this trajectory, with Thomas Aquinas eventually concluding that only the literal sense of Scripture is necessary for the exposition and defense of sacred doctrine.

Perhaps most important for our interests is the observation that Hugh's systematic theology is shaped by a concern for pedagogy and spiritual formation, influenced by the work of Augustine. Theology is here presented not as an academic curiosity but as a spiritual discipline, one of growth in the faith for the purpose of Christian devotion toward God and right action before the world. For both Hugh and Augustine, it is critical that Scripture's mode of teaching ought to shape our own theological pedagogy. Both are interested in the perfect instructive rhetoric of Scripture.

Often in our modern world we divide the substance of content from the method by which it is taught, without allowing the former to inform the latter. Scripture, however, is not a mere collection of useful facts or ideas, but cultivates a certain kind of thinking and living in relation to God. For Augustine and Hugh, theological pedagogy ought in some way to imitate the method by which Scripture guides its reader from historical and sensible things to divine and mystical meanings.

We need not wholly embrace the Augustinian hermeneutic in order to feel the force of their concern here. Perhaps we might ask ourselves in what ways our theological teaching seeks to be biblical not merely in content, but in method. What would such pedagogy look like in connection with a Reformed hermeneutic which avers that Scripture only has one sense, the literal? How might such a pedagogy give shape to systematic theology itself?

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