God Meditates: A Model for the 'Salvation Histories' in Three Homilies of Aelfric and in His 'Hexameron.'

By Grundy, Lynne | Medium Aevum, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview

God Meditates: A Model for the 'Salvation Histories' in Three Homilies of Aelfric and in His 'Hexameron.'


Grundy, Lynne, Medium Aevum


Writing at the end of the tenth century in a finely crafted vernacular, AElfric sought to convey to a contemporary audience the orthodox teaching of the Church. That audience was conceived of as urgently in need of good, correct teaching, perhaps to counter inaccurate or erroneous material in circulation, and certainly to provide a sound basis for the building-up of faith. In the Prefaces (Latin and English) to his Catholic Homilies,(1) AElfric expresses his strong desire to provide the reliable teaching that will be proof against the dangers and tribulations facing Christians at the end of the world. For him, the orthodox teaching of the Fathers, or |book-learning', is the protection each individual requires:

Gehwa maeg pe ea elicor a toweardan costnunge acuman, urh Godes fultum,

gif he bi purh boclice lare getrymmed; for an e pa beo gehealdene pe o

ende on geleafan purhwunia . (CH, I, 4)

Each person will be able, by God's help, to confront the more easily the

temptation which is to come, if he is strengthened by book-learning; for those

who continue in faith until the end will be preserved.(2)

The sources of that orthodox teaching are, of course, acknowledged: AElfric cites(3) four major patristic writers, Augustine, Jerome, Bede and Gregory, and two homilists, Haymo and Smaragdus. Among these sources, Augustine is the most profound influence. John C. Pope observes that in the homilies gathered together in his Supplementary Collection, Augustine is AElfric's primary guide.(4) This guidance can be discerned throughout AElfric's teaching, and I would suggest that for AElfric orthodoxy is largely Augustinian orthodoxy.(5)

In his faithful representation of Augustinian teaching, AElfric also shapes his material for his own particular time and place and, in so doing, he often shows a willingness to take an independent line.

In his teaching on grace, more than in any other aspect of Christian doctrine, AElfric keeps closely to an Augustinian model. The elements of his account of the historv of salvation may all be found in Augustine, beginning with the reasons for the Fall, and culminating in the Incarnation of the Son, God's gracious provision for the restoration of mankind. Augustine offers a convenient summary of his own teaching on grace in the Enchiridion, which may be compared with AElfric's treatment of the same doctrines.(6) However, despite this generally Augustinian understanding of divine grace, AElfric asserts an unexpected individuality against that model, in small but not insignificant ways.

Augustine's doctrine of grace asserts that every aspect of the Christian's conversion and salvation is dependent on the gracious provision of God. This grace, however, is unquantifiable, and appears (from a human perspective) to be somewhat arbitrarily bestowed: some will certainly be saved, others will just as certainly be lost. Augustine at his most extreme even suggests that some people are marked by God for punishment, just as others are chosen for eternal life:

bene utens et malis tanquam summe bonus, ad eorum damnationem quos iuste

praedestinauit ad poenam, et ad eorum salutem quos benigne praedestinauit ad

gratiam.(7)

Supremely good Himself, He made good use also of evils, for the damnation of

those whom He had justly predestined to punishment and for the salvation of

those whom He had mercifully predestined to grace.(8)

Whilst AElfric perceives the logic of this Augustinian way of thinking, he prefers to emphasize the mercy of God over against any predestined dispensation of grace, asserting that salvation is promised by mercy to those who are obedient in love to God:

Ac eft seo miccle mildheortnys ures Drihtnes us alysde purh his menniscnysse,

gif we his bebodum mid ealre heortan gehyrsumia . (lines 19-21)

But again the great mercy of our Lord has redeemed us through his

Incarnation, if we obey his commands with all our heart.

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