The Dominican Story

IV. Dominican Contributions to Scripture Studies, Canon Law and Art

by fr. Gregory Anderson, OP (

In this chapter we want to consider contributions Dominicans have made to several fields of the Church besides theology The first of these is of Scripture studies. To preface our remarks we must first make a distinction. In these studies there are two areas. The first is called hermeneutics which is the effort to reconstruct the biblical text in such a way that it recreates the original as closely as possible. This also involves reconstructing the times, the culture and the customs of the writers. To do this, it uses the disciplines of archaeology, linguistics, paleography, philology and history and thus attempts to determine the sense of the author and find out what he intended to say.

The other area is exegesis which is the exposition or interpretation of a passage or book of the Bible. In other words, hermeneutics presents the exegete with an accurate text so that he can make his commentary or interpretation with some assurance that he is correctly interpretating the original author.

In the Middle Ages there was not much in the way of hermeneutics. The Latin Vulgate, done by St. Jerome in the fourth century, was the accepted text of the Scriptures, so all that an exegete had to do was to comment on the Vulgate. The only one to do anything resembling hermeneutics was a Dominican, Hugh of St. Cher, one of the towering figures of the thirteenth century. He was born somewhere around the year 1200 in the town of St. Cher, France, hence his name. In 1225, along with Humbert de Romans, who became the fifth Master of the Order, he entered the Dominicans. At that time he was already teaching at the University of Paris. In subsequent years he was to turn out a large number of theological works, serve as Provincial of France three times and as Vicar of the Order under St. Raymond of Pennafort. He was created a cardinal in 1244, the first Dominican to so honored. He died in 1263.

He too accepted the Vulgate but he recognized that the available texts varied greatly because of errors in copying by hand, as they had to do in those days, so it needed some scholarly scrutiny. In a work entitled the Correctorium he made the necessary corrections. This resulted in what was known as the Paris Bible or the Bible of St. Jacques, the name of the Dominican house in Paris. This was the text of used in the Gutenburg Bible, the first printed book.

He also prepared the first Concordance of the Bible and wrote another work which was a series of exegetical notes on every verse of the Bible both in its literal and spiritual sense. This was in common use for the next three hundred years.

Hugh's coreected Bible was used by a number of his confreres to make copious commentaries on the Scriptures, among them St. Albert the Great, who wrote numerous ones on various books of the Bible. Peter of Tarentaise and Nicholas of Gorran were others. The greatest of them all was St. Thomas Aquinas who aimed at a clear, literal and theological exegesis. An extraordinary work of his was the Catena Aurea which was a continuous exposition of the four Gospels using the commentaries of 54 Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church. He dictated it quoting all of these Fathers from memory.

In the 16th. century the great Dominican theologian, Cardinal Thomas de Vio Cajetan carried on in the tradition of St. Thomas by writing commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, as did many others whose names are not as well-known.

In time, the increased knowledge of of Hebrew and Greek, fostered in great part, as we have seen, by Dominicans, led to a desire to go back to the original text of the Old and New Testaments on which the Vulgate was based. Dominicans, unfortunately, were not involved in this movement.

In the 18th. century, it was taken over by liberal Protestants and rationalists, mostly German, who brought to their scholarship certain preconceived principles, such as a lack of belief in miracles, especially the impossibility of a virgin birth or a resurrection. This made it impossible for them to see the Scriptures as relating historical events that actually took place. They saw them as myths and accounts made up after the fact.

Re-enforcing this approach was the development of the sciences of archaeology, paleography and philology which, although they provided more tools for scholarly analyis and criticism, were in their crude early stages and often were misinterpreted and misunderstood.

The Church after the Reformation, had gone into a kind of siege mentality which took the position "stick to tradition, close your eyes to any new ideas or movements, hang in there and somehow it will all work out." This was exactly what was done as far as Scripture studies were concerned.

In 1893, a change began to take place with the encyclical Providentissmus Deus issued by Pope Leo XIII who was to break ground for the Church in so many areas. He described the situation thusly:

[These rationalists] absolutely deny that there is such a thing as divine revelation or inspiration or Sacred Scripture and proclaim that these are nothing but human devices and inventions --- that we have, not true narratives of real events, but either inept fables or lying histories: not prophecies and divine oracles, but either predictions forged after the occurances or presentiments conceived with natural powers: not miracles truly so called and manifestations of divine power, but certain marvelous events by no means transcending the forces of nature, or else mere illusions and myths. The Gospels and the writing of the apostles, they say, must be attributed to quite different authors.

He went on to encourage Catholic Scripture scholars to make use of the truly scholarly findings of those who were undermining the orthodox faith of the Bible, but cautioned them to remain loyal to the magisterium of the Church and the teachings of the Fathers. In a later letter he said:

[Catholic Scripture scholars] will have to cultivate actively the study of philology and its attendant sciences, and foster their continous progress. Since, in fact, it is through these sciences that attacks against the Holy Scriptures are generally being made, it is also in them that we must seek our weapons, so that there may be no inequality in the struggle between truth and falsehood.

This was a tremendous breakthrough for Catholic bibilical scholars who had until then been on the outside looking in. The Dominicans, however, were a little ahead of the Pope. Ten years earlier, in 1883, they had recognized the talents of a young French friar, Marie-Joseph Lagrange, and had sent him to Vienna to study oriental languages. In 1890, he went to Jerusalem to assist in founding the Ecole Biblique. rather impressive sounding in French but rather prosaic in English, the Bible School. Before he got there other Dominicans who had the dream of opening a center for Scripture studies had bought the church and grounds on the site where St. Stephen had been martyred. Those men, however, were in bad health so that very quickly Father Lagrange became the leader of the school. Pope Leo XIII had already had given his warm approval to the project.

Lagrange converted a former slaughterhouse on the grounds into a center for biblical research which has become pre-eminent in its field. It is not a degree giving institution, but a center to which scholars of all persuasions, Catholics, Protestants and non-Christians go to reflect, study and share their own insights and ideas with others. It was originally French but now it is international in its permanent staff. Associated with it has been such eminent scholars as Vincent, Abel, DeVaux and Benoit, and now men like Jerome Murphy-O'Connor and Benedict Viviano, an American, are a part of the staff.

For many years, the Ecole met with fierce opposition in Catholic circles. Father Lagrange was branded "dangerous radical." He was silenced by Pope St. Pius X but was later vindicated. He accepted this with complete obedience and thus laid down a principle for all Catholic Scripture scholars --- submit your work in biblical studies to the teaching authority of the Church so that its dogma and the Scriptures will always be in harmony.

There are numerous other distinguished Dominican Scripture scholars in other places, Noteworthy among them is Wilfred Harrington, an Irishman, Samuel Parsons of the Western Dominican Province and many others.

With the exception of St. Raymond of Pennafort, Dominicans have not distinguished themselves in the field of Canon Law until recently. The Maltese are now outstanding, expecially a Father Said who was mainly responsible for the new code of Canon Law.

In the field of Christian art, Blessed Fra Angelico who was born in 1386 and died in 1455, is, of course, one of the great figures. We are all familiar with his work such as he beautiful murals he painted in the Convent of San Marco in Florence. Contemporary with him was Fra Bartolmeo della Porta, who lived from 1472 to1517, also a Florentine at San Marco, who began as a somewhat pornographic painter but was converted by Savanarola and became a deeply devout Christian artist. Blessed Andrew Abellon, who was born in 1375 and died in 1470, was a noted illuminator of manuscripts, a high art in those days. Blessed James of Ulm, who even though he was born in Germany in 1407 did most of his work in Bologna. His contribution to art was in the field of stained glass windows. He was never a priest but remained a brother all his life. Two of his wondows are still in existence. One is in the Cathedral of Bologna. He died in 1491.

In our own time, Father McGlynn of the Eastern Province, a sculptor, was distinguished. His best known work is the statue of Our Lady of Fatima which stands in the facade of the Basilica of Fatima.

The Dominican Laity, however, have been the greatest artists of the Order. The most notable name has been Michelangelo, whose first work was two of the angels that hold up the tomb of St. Dominic in Bologna. His brother was a Dominican and he joined him in the Order as a lay man. One of his most touching indications of his Dominicanism was a scene in the Last Judgement on the back wall of the Sistine Chapel in which a few of those who were falling into Hell had caught on to a Rosary held out by some of those being saved and were being drawn up into Heaven.

In modern times, the eccentric Eric Gill, who was one of the the greatest typographers and who has developed fonts for printing that are commonly used today, has also made great contributions to art in sculpture, woodcuts, calligraphy and printing. A convert, he founded a guild of artisans which communely joined the Dominican Laity.

Father Guy Bedouelle, O.P. in his book, In The Image Of Saint Dominic, has this comment on the work of these artists:

These placed their talent at the service of proclaiming the Word Incarnate, which Word, in their hands, becomes again enfleshed. In the way of Fra Angelico, the Dominican vocation should lead us to discern the invisible through the visible. For our life includes the dimension of beauty to be discovered or fashioned in all that we do, in all that we sing, and in all that we preach. (p. 82)

One could go on and on but this is enough to show how greatly Domininicans have contributed to the life of the Church in a great many areas.

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