The present trumps the past. Such is the rock-bottom conviction of our culture. Scientific and economic advances encourage us to look at the past with suspicion, to idolize youth culture, and to topple cultural edifices that do not match our current moral convictions. Moderns typically repudiate antiquity.
By way of reaction, we may be tempted simply to assert the opposite: Moral progress requires recognizing that the past is superior to the present and that priority in time implies priority of rank. Is it not respect for historical wisdom that has upheld most cultures in the past? Tradition was valued because the wisdom of the ancients was thought to outrank current notions.
Such traditionalism is not without its merits. Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly reminded us that moral progress is something quite different from scientific or economic progress. In fact, precisely because our wisdom and morality don’t improve along with technological advances, the latter often pose serious dangers to us. Today’s medical and military dilemmas require leaders of great moral stature—something of which we are largely bereft.
Priority of time often does imply priority of rank. This particularly seems to hold true where genetic dependence is in play. Saint Paul’s term “head” (kephalē) denotes origin or source as well as ranking, at one and the same time. For him, the church is causally dependent upon Christ as the head, much as Eve was taken from Adam’s rib. Cultures in which the elderly can count on the intuitive respect of younger generations are in line, I think, with biblical teaching. Deference and humility are trustworthy guides in our cultural evaluation and treatment of those who have preceded us: Patricide is an egregious evil.
Nonetheless, the preeminence of chronological priority is not absolute. What are we to make, for example, of the argument of Saint Ambrose that, considering his philosophical genius, Plato must have relied on Moses? The fourth-century bishop of Milan was so convinced that temporal priority implies moral superiority that he constructed a fanciful narrative: Plato must have travelled to Egypt, where he met Jeremiah, who after the fall of Jerusalem had made his way south. Jeremiah, so Ambrose thought, must have introduced Plato to Moses, because priority of time implies priority of rank.
Ambrose’s position is not as outlandish as it may seem. Many ancients (not only early Christians) posited some kind of dependence of Plato on Moses. Still, it would require serious chronological reconfiguration to get Jeremiah and Plato to travel to Egypt around the same time. And Augustine, who early in his career affirmed Ambrose’s viewpoint, rightly repudiated it in his later Retractions. Priority in time does not always imply priority in rank.
Ambrose was perhaps unduly influenced by this widely held ancient assumption. But again, this stance has more going for it than a cultural and political approach that lacks a shared, inherited point of religious and moral reference. Today’s adolescent disdain for history and heritage suffers from a serious blind spot: It blithely overlooks the consequences of replacing the bonds of patrimony with a utilitarian live-and-let-live approach to cultural mores. Cultural heritage holds considerable weight, which is why children are called to obey their parents—though they obey them “in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1).
This last phrase is key. Ambrose himself gave his traditionalism a Christological twist. In two sets of homilies, The Mysteries and The Sacraments, both preached to newly baptized Christians the week after Easter, the Milanese bishop helps his audience understand the baptism they have just received. He makes the argument that the sacrament or mystery of baptism is old because it is prefigured in the very origin of the world, with the Spirit moving over the waters (Gen. 1:2).
Ambrose takes his argument a step further when he insists that the Christian sacraments predate Jewish sacraments. Should his young converts be troubled that God rained down tangible manna on the ancient Israelites while they themselves only get invisible grace, Ambrose assures them that the Eucharist predates manna: Abraham received bread and wine from Melchizedek long before the Israelites received their manna.
At one level, Ambrose’s argument simply fits a traditionalist mold—the broadly shared conviction in antiquity that priority of time means priority of rank: The bishop attempts to demonstrate the chronological priority of the sacrament of the church over the sacrament of the synagogue, thereby to establish the priority of Christianity over Judaism.
Ambrose, however, reads Melchizedek’s encounter with Abraham in Genesis 14 as a theophany—an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ. The bishop of Milan defends this identification of Melchizedek with Christ through an appeal to Hebrews 7. Melchizedek was the “king of righteousness” and the “king of Salem” (or peace) (cf. Heb. 7:2). And just as Melchizedek appears in the narrative without father or mother, so Christ, the eternal Word of God, has “neither beginning of days nor end of life” (cf. Heb. 7:3). “Therefore,” concludes Ambrose, “the sacrament which you have received is not a gift of man but of God, brought forth by Him who blessed Abraham, the father of faith, him whose grace and deeds you admire.”
Ambrose constructs an argument for the chronological priority (and authority) of Christ. When Christ himself (through the figure of Melchizedek) shared bread and wine with Abraham, he prefigured to the patriarch his sacrificial death and the Eucharistic sacrifice. The theophanic character of the event is crucial for Ambrose’s Christological traditionalism: The church’s sacrament chronologically precedes the sacrament of the synagogue and as such holds superior religious authority.
Saint Ambrose rightly insisted that the self-revelation of God in Christ modifies and limits the ancient maxim that priority in time implies priority in rank. Our cultural traditions are not any more sacrosanct than those of the Jewish synagogue. All tradition stands under the judgment of the head (kephalē) of all things, the one who has “neither beginning of days nor end of life.” Christian political theory cherishes him as the most ancient truth, the origin or source of all genuine tradition, the ultimate criterion of every cultural and political achievement.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.