By the nineteenth century, if one may speak metonymically, Aquinas ruled. Whereas medievalists like de Lubac, Louis Bouyer, M. What they discovered there was a vitality in relationship to Scripture itself which renewed for them also the life of the liturgy. The key to the intimacy of Scripture and worship in the early church and in the Fathers was clearly the vital place of spiritual exegesis in their practice as readers of the Bible.
Here is how it is explained by Bouyer: Spiritual exegesis, which is supposed by the whole liturgy, is an exegesis dominated by two principles. The first principle is that the Bible is the Word of God, not a dead word, imprisoned in the past, but a living word addressed immediately to the man of today taking part in the celebration of the liturgy. The second principle is that the Old Testament is illumined by the New, just as the New only discloses its profundity once it is illumined in the Old. We must be still more specific: the bond between the two is determined by allegory in the precise sense given to that term by antiquity.
De Lubac cites authorities from Clement of Alexander to Scotus to show that for the whole tradition: [Scripture] is neither an exposition of abstract doctrine, nor a collection of myths, nor a manual of the inner life. It has nothing atemporal about it. It is contained within a res gesta: a thing that has been accomplished. What was needed for a true revival in contemporary worship, de Lubac reasoned, was not so much continual dogmatic insistence upon Thomist and post-Tridentine formulations as a return to the source, Scripture itself, and a reestablishment of continuity with the pilgrim company of its great interpreters.
Joseph Lienhard, S. Jerome yet always supported by Gregory Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom was as much through misinformation as anything else condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople in It turns out that works were sometimes attributed to Origen which in fact were written by someone else. Thus, an How Firm A Foundation. The story, painstakingly yet beautifully documented by de Lubac, is broadly instructive.
In volume 1, de Lubac sets out to show us, however, something of still greater significance, namely, that the interpretation of Scripture in communio was the principal educational activity in the life of the pre-Scholastic Church. Before the twelfth century there was no such thing as systematic theology—all theological erudition was concentrated on biblical exegesis. Hermeneutics, the establishment of method and coherent ruling principles for interpretation, became the basis of organization for all other systems of education.
This is particularly evident in the cathedral schools of the twelfth century which were midwife to the rise of Christian universities. Hugh of St. In his twelfth-century Didascalicon,19 Hugh applied the term to the divisions and methods of academic study—now far removed from their foundation in the principled reading of Scripture—and here the term has stuck. It is often harder to find such a commitment to disciplina in our contemporary churches. With them as for St. Augustine, knowledge of the faith amounted to knowledge of Scripture.
Gal — Volume 2 of Medieval Exegesis is dedicated to showing how this great pedagogical schema was worked out in the teaching of the pre-printing press Christian Church. It is worth reflecting upon that, among Protestants in the Englishspeaking world at least, after the Bible itself, the best-known and most influential textual authority has been an allegory.
Once there he knocks repeatedly on the door and is eventually received by his host How Firm A Foundation. From the portrait of Evangelist to the man in the iron cage, each of these is presented as allegory in the strict doctrinal sense, but in fact they encompass also the moral sense of earlier Catholic exegesis e.
For Bunyan this guidance is necessarily infallible. Strikingly, the features of the portrait have an older iconographic lineage: It had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in its hand, the law of truth was written upon its lips, the world was behind its back; it stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over its head.
Like other saints, and in particular like St. Paul, the person in the portrait can beget children 1 Cor , and travail in birth with children Gal In the very next episode, the pilgrim Christian loses his own burden at the foot of the Cross. But the burden of finding the one right spiritual sense of Scripture—its unambiguous, unequivocal perspicuity—has not so readily rolled off the back of Evangelist and his successors.
Rather, the pressure to collapse all spiritual senses toward one often narrow doctrinal exposition of the literal level has occasioned, in evangelical tradition, a perilous proclivity to declare apodictic certitude where it may not in fact exist. The words of Truth, after all, were in singular fashion writ upon their lips. One advantage which accrues to the older way of reading Scripture spiritually is the expectation of a plurality of witnesses to the one Spirit.
Just as, at Pentecost, no individual language took precedence over others as a translation of the divine Word Acts —12 , so also with the possible registers of meaning in a given passage: no one valid register of meaning excludes the others. Since of that closure no human expositor can declare a final understanding, much at this level must remain mystery and foreshadowing. This modesty, I believe, ought to be more general among us. To this typically transparent sense of the text, all Christians are accountable.
I mean also to suggest that if our contemporary Evangelists are to unshoulder the grievously heavy burden of subjectively derived or populist authority, and the equally burdensome evidence of disjunction between hearing the Word and doing it among their hearers, then we need to return reflectively to the fork in our own road concerning the outworking of scriptural authority in the reading practice of all kinds of Christians.
Magister, magisterium—the teacher and the community of interpretation from which each teacher derives a greater authority: here is an idea about the Church in its largest sense, and hence about the normative trajectory of faithful contributions to our understanding of Scripture which is well worth tracking once again. Individualistic interpretation always runs the risk of being shallow, for it is necessarily partial. The same applies to fashionable, or merely subcultural interpretation. Interpreting in conversation with the wider Church—reading the Sermon on the Mount, for example, with Augustine, Chrysostom, and Martin Lloyd-Jones—can by its inculcation of disciplina lead to much deeper, better grounded reading and practice in any of us.
As is well known, the parables of Jesus can invite us to identify ourselves often unexpectedly with a character we may find unflattering. But it may be that we have squandered our own inheritance in quite another way than we have typically imagined. Nor ought we too readily to comfort our conscience that the elder brother is beset by his own domestic prejudices. We can do little about that. It is, after all, a house of many rooms, and of many faithful readers who can instruct us concerning what the Spirit has been saying to the churches for a very long time.
We need that, as a minimal check upon our own often shallow preoccupations. For the sake of its constraint of excessive individualism alone, earlier exegesis is of value for evangelicals; for a rehabilitation of authority both for Scripture and for its community of interpretation in the Church, it is of value for every Christian.
The foundation alone for both 14 Houses of the Interpreter Church and Scripture, that rock of wisdom which is the actual teaching of Christ, seems sometimes in grave risk of being ignored in these trendy times, and not only by our scribes and Pharisees. As we scrabble to build our various edifices upon easier and easier stuff, we should maybe think again of the old Sunday School song in its full scriptural context. And what has it announced? Nothing less than all things now present.
John Chrysostom, Commentarium in epistulam ad Galatas Grand narrative, it seems, has proven more resilient than its recent detractors imagined. Their favorite works of literature lived and moved and had their intellectual being within the ethos circumscribed by a masterplot. Superficially, such folk had less to fear than they thought. For Marxism, true to its Hegelian underpinnings, is itself a meta-narrative; the goal of its dialectical development through history, the heavenly kingdom on earth of the classless utopia, is a secularized and materialized revision of the dominant Christian grand narrative.
Unfortunately, by the late s and s, it was all too apparent to most Marxist intellectuals that the classless society 15 16 Houses of the Interpreter had become just as illusory as the Christian heaven or kingdom of God which they had rejected before it. Stung, embittered, they turned inward in paroxysms of alienation, narcissism, and the pursuit of privatized fantasy or narrow political advantage. The institutional power of the French intellectuals of the poste-garde in particular, and their American and European imitators secondarily, has been such that in the last two or three decades more effort has been spent on semiotics and revisionary gender politics than on the reading of traditional and culturally foundational works themselves.
Few would want to argue that all of this has been wasted time. Still fewer, however, will be likely to spend more time chronicling it a decade hence. Inevitably, of course, such reflection takes us back to basics, to questions about structure as well as style, about projected worldview, as well as Rezeptionsgeschichte. Nevertheless, I hope you will come to agree with me that a basic literary reflection is not, in our present historical context, without its merits. Further, it may help us intuit why it is that those cultures with a firm grip on their own native grand narratives have often the clearest appreciation of the signal differences in worldview signified by the structure and resulting historiography of others.
Islamic historiography affords one pertinent example: in Islam, history has unfolded as a series of incomplete realizations of an ideal kingdom in the past: the Medinan reign of the Prophet is the Golden Age to which the aspirant desires to return, so far as this may be possible.
Narrative Structure, Historiography, and Worldview To state the obvious in a more literary way: the structure of formative narratives, as much as their style, bespeaks a Weltanschauung, a worldview. Even in cases where as in biblical studies in the West the grand story is formatively naturalized, though not native, the putatively obvious can go so long unremarked that at last no one conjures with its decisive importance for meaning in history, either in the then-and-there of the original work or the here-andnow of its culturally contextualized interpretation.
But when we come to epic or otherwise foundational literature in a truly alien culture, we are much more likely to notice immediately how not style alone, but still more deeply, structure expresses a worldview. China affords another example—pertinent because its grand narrative patterns are ancient yet persist in modern literature as well as in historiography.
Tang Seng is aided by an acrobatic trickster Sun Wukong the Monkey King and other disciples as he makes his quest to find the True Scriptures. This takes ninety-seven chapters. Journeys to the West in search of wisdom are a cultural and literary motif in the Orient; they recur again and again. The characteristic form of such narrative in Western Christian cultures involves a journey out from and beyond one notion of civilization almost entirely in order to found another. It is a voyage in which, in certain crucial respects, the initial civilization is left behind, emigrated from, in pursuit of a certain emancipation of the spirit that becomes possible only when that which is Old is transcended or transformed in the light of a New vision.
There is at least the suggestion that to return to the precise beginning, even if enriched by foreign treasure, is not possible without losing precisely what in the new understanding was most valuable. The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer are, taken together, the prominent example. Together these epics comprise a journey out from the Greek homeland and, after suitable conquest and discovery, an emphatic return home. Yet the overall meta-narrative does not conclude, as we might at first expect, with the cremation and burial of the heroic Hector at the end of the Iliad.
Rather, for full closure to occur there must be added a vicarious return journey. Shacked up with Kalypso, the goddess who promises him immortality in exchange for sexual servitude, Odysseus can only bring shame upon himself. His voyage is instructive, pedagogical, and finally exemplary, a trope of the progress from unwisdom to wisdom.
Despite myriad sexual misadventures, the journey is circular; it culminates in confirmation of the old, original marriage and thus a reaffirmed identity in the city from which the pilgrim has set out Ithaca. In Homer also then, the greatest liability for the pilgrim is temptation to settle down along the way e.
With Vergil we enter into new territory and stay there. In the deepest possible sense it is a journey out of the past, away from a history that is bankrupt, toward a future history yet unwritten. What Leonardo da Vinci captures so memorably in his drawing of Aeneas with his old father Anchises on his back is a universal, yet revolutionary truth.
The pilgrim unable to return bears his past with him, but not all the way. Here too such lesser affections, no matter how appealing, must also be overcome in order for the journey to continue Dido. As such, the Bildungsroman moral shifts away from the older focus, having less to do with self-restraint and self-knowledge. Rather, a much stronger sense of manifest destiny is the 20 Houses of the Interpreter moral here. Govern; rule the world!
In the Aeneid there is considerable strengthening of the idea that the end justifies the means. A New City is founded, a civilization now of winners. The poem exudes a tone of triumphalism as well as a strongly historicist worldview—a strong theory of historical progress. For our purpose at hand it is the canonical New Testament Scriptures themselves with which we have principally to reckon, and that in respect of the structure they imply or project into Hellenic and Mediterranean expectations, shaped as they were in part by the Hebrew Scriptures—and in part, I think we should acknowledge, by Greek and Roman epic narrative.
There is thus an intractable sense in which everything of received history is received by faith. It also predisposes—though that is subject for another occasion—to an ethically counterproductive obsession with future speculation. Authority in the forms of remembering, I think we can say, is something with which the Church as a community ought still most properly to be concerned. This is not to say that there are no other parts of the biblical story important to memory in both traditions. Rather, it is to say that the central memory, narratively articulated, of an emancipatory experience of God in history, transforming history, is the matrix in which these other stories are embedded and in terms of which they make sense of a diversity of possible particular readings and parallel experiences.
Secondary stories acquire additional profundity when seen in the light of the central undergirding narrative or masterplot from which derives their and our common identity. A shard of pottery or even a 22 Houses of the Interpreter strand of hair may tell us something we could not otherwise know. But for an intelligible witness to questions of meaning and religious substance truth, value, authority one turns elsewhere. That such a commonsensical trust in the purport of the literary texts does not now pertain when we turn from the criticism of classical texts to biblical criticism is obvious.
Presumably, questions about the authority projected by the Roman past are far less troubling to us than questions about the authority projected by the narratives of biblical history. This does not mean that the activity is worthless; it may mean that the activity is worth much less either for or against the historical truth upon which the Church depends than its practitioners on either side imagine. British sociologist Anthony Giddens has reasonably contended that what we call postmodernism is really just a working out of the consequences of modernity.
Lewis, for example, lamented both the literalism of fundamentalists in America and the literarily obtuse grunt-work of Bultmannians in the United Kingdom almost in the same breath. On both sides, he might have added, the obsession with evidentialism is an attempt to substitute facticity for faith. The passages to which I have just alluded are pivotal remembrances of history-as-to-meaning both for biblical narratives and for other narratives where the Bible is a foundational text.
They remind us that the hermeneutic underpinnings of specific acts of interpretation are not often reducible to matters of method, or even of ideology more or less philosophically conceived. The power of shared memory, so constituted, is such that it has consequences for many things that might at first seem unrelated to the core narrative—theories of education, for example. Typically as for example in biblical and other oriental core narratives , this attitude will be one of profound respect. But this norm is not without exceptions. What we call modernity, with all of its consequences, implies a categorical contrary to this traditional regard for the past.
The French Revolution, for example, is nothing if not a dismissal of the reigning grand narrative. The American Revolution affords another example of an emphatic rejection of the past. What ensues in these events, undeniably, is a powerful myth of new beginnings. Old things have passed away, all things become new. But is the biblical scholarship of today, for all of our preoccupation with the questions of biblical history, doing very much to offset this nearly incalculable loss of biblical history in the shared memory of the Church?
Or is it, on both sides, merely abetting the fading from memory and imagination alike of the actual content of biblical narrative? For the erasure or fading away from present Christian consciousness of centering memory—in all its richness of texture and narrative detail—constitutes a loss of authority for the biblical past far more devastating in its implications than the obscure dubieties of academics about this or that textual correspondence or correlation. Biblical Meta-Narrative and Historiography Happily, the readers of this essay need no review of Old Testament narrative.
Permit me therefore to recall again something elementary: the narrative motif of exile and pilgrimage. Throughout the Hebrew Bible it recurs as a concomitant of the persistent dialectic of bondage and freedom. This foundational passage suggests a deep connection of law and liberty in the Jewish biblical imagination.
But careful reading of the biblical texts shows that this view of civic order is typically more effective when culture and identity are obliged to be a moveable feast. The tabernacle, not the temple, is the perdurable symbol thus of sanctuary for the writer of Hebrews chs. Postponement and frustration of progress toward the Promised Land are a result of disobedience and a neglect of holiness as well as worship.
Sin skews the itinerary, forgetfulness of the emancipatory meta-narrative leads to cul de sacs and to bondage all over again. Reiteration of the narrative is thus a necessity, especially where there are few fixed landmarks. In the New Testament, Yeru-shalem remains the vision—the visio pacis as Augustine would later call it. Yet the literal historical Jerusalem under the Romans becomes soon enough its own kind of captivity.
By the first century not the Roman occupation only but the ossification of Jewish halakah and, in some quarters, a resulting spiritual bondage to a petrified notion both of spiritual culture and of Law, has robbed Jerusalem of its shalom. And this, for our purposes here centrally, is substantially the charge Paul brings against the diaspora Galatians. In calling the Galatians to account Paul draws heavily upon the metanarrative the Judaizers most cherish to make the point that the end of the journey through history set out in Torah ff.
Torah has acted as a pedagogue or tutor to bring us not to Jerusalem but to Christ —25 , a destiny in which all who belong to Christ are now not slaves but adopted heirs. Indeed, this new state is a condition of spiritual life; the norms of political and social distinction vanish There is no property or geography associated with this inheritance, no distribution of acreage from Dan to Beersheba, no condominium waiting in Jerusalem. In this context the counterintuitive reversals of expected significance in the Abraham-Hagar-Sarah story make perfect sense.
Paul is not, I think, simply undermining what N. But does Paul endorse in any way what Wright describes as the first-century hope for a restoration of Jerusalem? Not, I think, in this text. He seems as far from that as he is from the secularizing justification and implied politic of Josephus. This is the way that Origen, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory the Great, Luther, Bunyan, and a host of interpreters since have understood him: he was speaking about temporal Christian experience. Nor, on the other hand, do all roads lead to Rome. To be a stranger and a sojourner is still, as it was for pre-Christian Jews, to be a creature wandering Masterplot and Meaning in Biblical Narrative 27 through space and time.
Now, however, the pilgrim heads toward no literal land of milk and honey, nor does she return to a capital city once thought of as home. In the new worldview, as we have seen, political and legal status, gender, and ethnicity are all transcended. The new order of culture is fluid, dynamic, and more than ever portable.
Thus, though externally bound, one may be internally free; we lose our life to find it; grace makes paradox of much that under the Old Law had been simply contradiction—discursively imperative and performatively impossible. Thus too, not only is the old Jerusalem and its Law a locus of our captivity, there is in some deep spiritual sense transience at best, captivity at worst, in any worldly city and its culture.
This world is not our home: we are now again to be like Abraham, strangers, sojourners, pilgrims. As I turn now to Hebrews, I want to affirm my strong agreement with N. Here is an example of what he says: It [the Christian meta-narrative] claims to be telling a story about the creator and his world. If it allows this to collapse for a moment into a story 28 Houses of the Interpreter about a god who is rescuing people out of the world, then it has abandoned something extremely fundamental in the worldview. There is a strong hermeneutical sense in which Hebrews is a recapitulation of Galatians.
This begins with its theme, but it works itself through the expositio of the tabernacle. The apparent shift to grand narrative at chapter 11 presumably accounts for traditional discussions of the structure of the letter. From patristic times and the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, most saw the epistle as having two movements; Aquinas is representative in describing chapters 1—10 as about the excellentiam Christi; chapters 11—13 as an exhortation that we should follow him in the pilgrimage of life.
But the bondage from which one journeys out is now spiritual; even the fear of death is bondage The deliverer is not Moses, but Christ, true Son rather than servant of God — All who were on the original pilgrimage out of captivity rebelled and so did not have of that voyage any closure — The eschatological overtones here are evident; in several Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writings, as well as in Talmudic sources, the age to come is described as a perpetual Sabbath.
Dei De Genesi ad litteram 4. As is well known, Augustine was on this model led to see world history as divided into six ages, of which the last would be followed by the millennial reign of the faithful with Christ cf. Principal commentators after him e. Were all these commentators improperly representing in their grand narrative the metanarrative of the New Testament?
Reading Hebrews, one would seem to find little to contradict this traditional version of the Christian grand story. Rev Whatever we make of the possible Alexandrian context of this letter, it seems to me inescapably the case that a literate first or secondcentury reader of this letter would be invited to contrast its implied metanarrative, a revision of the pre-existing Jewish grand story, with the most famous Hellenic grand story and its celebrated Roman revision.
But the striking revision we saw in Galatians now appears again directly: These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.
Heb —16 KJV On earth these folk were but strangers and pilgrims. In the Johannine report, of course, Jesus himself is the Way v. But his eternal abode is not our home yet—we simply journey toward it, in holy anticipation, by a radical mimesis coming to obedience through suffering as he did and as he has called us to do Heb —9; Luke Finally, in a last allusion to the mistaken impulse to return to the historical Jerusalem the writer to the Hebrews invokes the same contrast Paul uses in Galatians 4, that between Sinai Hagar and the Law and the celestial Jerusalem: You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them [.
You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
It has 32 Houses of the Interpreter been largely definitive for Christian literary tradition also, and it is to that, finally and in what I hope will be indicative brevity, that I would like to turn by way of conclusion. Vernacular Literary Understanding as Interpretation Augustine is, of course, both famously and infamously associated with turning the implied historiography of the New Testament as he understood it into a form of historiographical apologia for Christianity in his City of God. In this he may be said to be, formally speaking, the first Christian philosopher of history.
The alternative grand narrative with which he had to deal was not the narrative cherished by Old Testament Judaism or its Hellenic revision as a myth of return. It was rather a thoroughly entrenched Vergilian two cities model—the profound historicism by which Roman citizens and much of the empire clung to a worldview in which the triumph of Rome was still the only acceptable telos for history. When that telos was threatened again and again by political forces within and military incursions from without, Romans looked for a scapegoat and found Christianity ready to hand and obviously suspect.
They knew, however dimly, that Christian praxis did in some way subvert their own worldview. Nor was it lost on them that in some of the regions and cultures in which Christianity had most flourished there was evident political threat to Roman imperial supremacy. Even Christian Romans, we know, found this prospect unthinkable, and Augustine himself was sympathetic to them.
But he saw, as did few others, the idolatry in the Romanized manifest-destiny co-opting of the New Testament worldview, and in his City of God did his best to set it to rights. To do this, as is well known, he had to subvert the Roman metanarrative, in part by an extended deconstruction both of the Aeneid and of Homer. Augustine refers to Juno goddess of marriage and her hostility to the exiled Trojans, for example, as a means of establishing that the Roman story is effectively about the reestablishment of losers as perpetual victors and, also, to the elevation of the more frankly sensual Venus, rather than Juno, as mother of the new civic culture.
Dei 1. Aeneid 1. Let the charge be brought against Alba, as Troy was charged with adultery. Dei 3. Aeneid 6. Augustine does not deny the pagan virtues entirely; he concedes that in some respects the Rome Vergil celebrates began well, yet insists that its progress has bankrupted itself by investing so heavily in temporal power: At that time it was their greatest ambition either to die bravely or to live free; but when liberty was obtained, so great a desire of glory took possession of them, that liberty alone was not enough unless domination also should be sought, their great ambition being that which the same poet [Vergil] puts into the mouth of Jupiter Civ.
Dei 5. One must set out in faith, joining the vulnerable company of the blessed en route, but in the end the New Jerusalem is not so much to be attained by works as granted by grace , as it descends. Citizenship in this city is nonetheless proleptic, participated in already by the faithful as they journey. Augustine, it seems to me, has read the New Testament grand narrative of Galatians and Hebrews against the grand narrative of the Roman epics in a manner quite consistent with the way in which the two canonical letters themselves subvert the grand narrative of Old Testament Judaism.
That this constraint has been better appreciated in some contexts notably those of political adversity than in others notably those of political supremacy will be apparent to the most modest reflection on ecclesial and political history. To put this in another way: when Christians have been in largely unchallenged political power e. Maur , the basic features either of the Homeric or Vergilian epic. But the countervailing Augustinian redaction of New Testament grand narrative has tended to win out, if only by virtue of the per- Masterplot and Meaning in Biblical Narrative 35 sistent apprehension, even in such narratives, that heavenly kingdoms in the here and now are not realizable by human effort, even by Galahads in a state of grace.
In a final gesture toward the New Testament rather than the Roman imperial story, even the Arthurian romance must wistfully look to a Once and Future King and Kingdom. This, I think, is why John Milton, fresh from the defeat of the Puritan Commonwealth and politically at risk, rejected his first choice for an epic, the Arthuriad, and wrote instead Paradise Lost. Adam and Eve start in communion, but end in alienation and brokenness, exiled from Eden. Much that is too obvious to dwell on must accordingly be passed over here in silence.
Canterbury Tales In our time we have Zionism, Christian Zionism, and the neo-dispensationalism now made sensational by Jenkins and LaHaye. When in Magnalia Christi Americana ; publ. To her was given an express dispensation; to her were given new things under the sun.
And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. God has given us, for a future inheritance, the broad domains of the political pagan, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark, without bloody hands being lifted. God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world.
But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings. Yet in countless and various ways, it has become institutionalized as the de facto civic religion of America. I suspect it matters a great deal for faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus. But my point here is admonition concerning canonical balance: that Galatians, the most authenticated letter of Paul, and Hebrews, in many ways more influential than Romans in the literary history of Christendom, are very important constraints upon any disposition to make too much of history in the way the Enlightenment did.
Ours, in the end, is not a view of history that can comfortably integrate with that of the Enlightenment. It is to say that the community of faith, generation upon generation, moves through history to a destination which is finally beyond history. History, or Weltgeschichte, is not the protagonist here; nor is Heilsgeschichte. The protagonist is Christ, in whom the community of faith lives and moves and has its being. John the Divine, is history as poetry conceives of it, a 38 Houses of the Interpreter trope.
Nothing in this Pauline view denies the factuality of history. It does invite us to remember that some historical events have become grand narrative for us, upon whom these latter ages have come, that we might be instructed concerning what in our faith is of bondage and what of the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free. Augustine had been discussing figurative language, trying to establish characteristics by which, in the biblical text, figurative rather than ordinary literal speech might be properly identified. He stumbled. For it was becoming clear to him, even as he wrote, that the evident potential of each of these terms in Scripture for either an in bono or an in malo significance was constrained not merely by textual context, as he was in the process of asserting, but by ambiguities less easy to identify and control with anything approaching certainty.
One of these circumstances, of which he was becoming more aware as he 39 40 Houses of the Interpreter wrote, was the potential for both ignorance and arbitrariness in the expositor or teacher of the text.
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It now appears that there were other factors, not all of them purely intellectual, which might have moved Augustine to arrest his pen in the middle of the page. Of these, some will probably remain in their particulars unknown to us. But as to why he should have returned to this unfinished theoretical work twenty-nine years later precisely while working on his Retractions there is textual evidence that helps us. For example, there are elements in the revised and completed On Christian Doctrine itself which, given the tone and assembling architecture of books 1—3, we might not have expected to appear.
But we also have new and extraneous texts, in particular some recently discovered sermons, several of the most important of which were preached just at the time Augustine was breaking off from the On Christian Doctrine and just before and as he was writing the Confessiones Confessions. As a bishop in tumultuous pro-consular Numidia, Augustine struggled to improve the biblical literacy of Christian believers in general, but in particular that of priests and deacons. Syncretism was rampant in his diocese, fueled by strong currents of charismatic tribalism and parochial heresy. A large portion of the Punic speaking populace lacked even the most rudimentary elements of that sort of education Augustine considered necessary to read the Scriptures with minimal competence.
At the same time, he believed and often asserted that knowledge of the Scripture was the indispensable foundation of orthodox faith. Clearly, he had work to do. On Christian Doctrine is both a sophisticated and an introductory book. Book 1 takes the reader by gentle steps up the ladder of semiotics. Communication of all sorts, Augustine explains, depends upon tacit consensus within a theory of signs 1. Signification is, by definition, an instrument, a means. Intention and the ordering of value 1. Likewise, texts, including the text of Scripture, are a means, not an end 1. However, as I began to explain, if he is deceived in an interpretation which builds up charity, which is the end of the commandments, he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads.
But he is to be corrected and shown that it is more useful not to leave the road, lest the habit of deviating force him on to a crossroad or a perverse way. They lived a life above reproach, they thought, and yet they very often did not see a passage in the same way as the Catholic bishops. Chief among these were the Donatists. This escalation requires of Augustine that he now face squarely the problem, for any referential semiotic, of apparently unyielding obscurity in the text itself.
Now it will be clear even in our own context that for a skilled rhetorician the presence of semantic obscurity is often less a problem to be solved than an opportunity to exploit. Augustine the rhetor knew this all too well. But he had a conscience about it. He had already decried such opportunistic reflexes as unprofessional deception on the part of the interpreter. He means it: true Mediterranean aesthete that he is, he loves the tease of an incipient allegoresis and thinks that his reader will love it too.
Canonical context clarifies 2. De utilitate credendi 9; my translation Five years later, however, Augustine is not so confident. Ambiguity in signs is not, he now admits, entirely removed by these referential means Doctr. Augustine must have felt a certain embarrassment here. Jerome, who had become at great pains a true polyglot, was to goad him in this respect. Augustine is thus sensitive about the perils of working only from translation, but in his defensiveness resourceful enough to suggest that those who acquire the languages often find yet another obstacle: their linguistic achievement makes them a little proud 2.
This observation leads him to reflect further that the elite education of some expositors of classical pagan texts has prompted some of them to care more about trivialities such as correct accent than about truth. But he sees that present recovery of historically or culturally veiled truths is not guaranteed even by understanding authorial intent or rhetorical strategy. One must also contend, historically, with the fading of consensual understanding concerning signs 2.
There is need therefore for scholars to recover what may have historically and culturally been lost, from philological matters such as the meaning of Hebrew names to cultural associations of plants and animals in the ancient Jewish world. He does not mention, though later he certainly thought about it, that a peril of all such borrowing is that a sinful imagination may more likely want to use the borrowed metal to fashion a Golden Calf cf.
Exod — It is no accident that in book 3 Augustine turns to the role of intention as his subject. He is prepared with a knowledge of languages lest he be impeded by unknown words and locutions. He is also prepared with an acquaintance with certain 44 Houses of the Interpreter necessary things lest he be unaware of their force and nature when they are used for purposes of similitudes.
He is assisted by the accuracy of texts which expert diligence in emendation has procured. Thus instructed, he may turn his attention to the investigation and solution of the ambiguities of the Scriptures. That he may not be deceived by ambiguous signs, we shall offer some instruction. Now, additionally, he is troubled by the evidence of perversity of the will as an irrational element, even amongst those well instructed, creating further ambiguities.
Slavery to the sign 3. Idolatry projects idolatry. Pagan Numidians, he tells us in one of his sermons, observe Christian peasants venerating images on the pillars of the basilica and this looks to them like something familiar—just another version of the Phoenician religious phallic worship of the cult of Tanit Serm.
However misguided, that is to him at least explicable. Such confusion took many forms, but there was, perhaps, a common thread connecting them. Augustine himself had on similar grounds expressed anxiety about the syncretistic superstition of those who worshiped images of martyrs at their shrines and in other holy pictures De moribus ecclesiae catholicae 1. So here, in respect to the verbal sign, his self-consciousness about misplaced reference is grounded in a wider concern about idolatry: Just as it is a servile infirmity to follow the letter and to take signs for the things that they signify, in the same way it is an evil of wandering error to interpret signs in a useless way.
What Augustine now tries to do in the balance of book 3, as far as the break-point, is to show that the rule of charity, when installed as an hermeneutic principle, has the potential to cover a multitude of interpretative sins. But he cannot get it off his mind that there are still such things as interpretative sins, and that not all ambiguity is created by figuration in the text. We can almost feel inwardly how the irony here turns back upon our author himself. Figurative interpretation is, after all, the least veridical element in exegesis, at least in part for subjective existential reasons.
At precisely this point of recognition, having written himself into something of a corner, the vexed and probably weary Augustine laid down his pen. Theologically rigorous and sectarian, the Donatists were also ethnocentric and nationalist. Debate between Augustine and the Donatists over the interpretation of Scripture was already by in full swing in his sermons. In the many texts he wrote against them from the months just after completing the Confessions, and for the next decade, it becomes clear that they attacked him for arbitrariness in his exegesis of figurative passages. The Sermons of Summer During the summer of , as the unfinished manuscript of the On Christian Doctrine was growing cold in a corner and the Confessions was most likely taking shape rapidly in his mind, Augustine preached at least four sermons on texts he thought ambiguous, but not because of figurative language in the usual sense.
Rather, the ambiguities had been created because of apparent contradiction in interpretation or even, possibly, by an appearance of authorial mendacity in the biblical text itself being represented uncritically. Two of these sermons are in the Mainz collection of sermons newly discovered by Dolbeau; the others Serm. All four, however, were preached between May 24 and June 24 of that year, that is, between Pentecost and the Feast Day of John the Baptist. The way he seems to apply this verse is that any acknowledgment that subjective misrepresentation is normative to the human condition can quickly pass from distress to cynicism and passive acceptance, then in turn become a tacit license for self-serving mendacity.
In fact, Augustine wishes the statement of the Psalmist was a kind of misreading, or hyperbole, but its confirmation by St. Augustine is emphatic: So this is what scripture wished to demonstrate, that every human being— absolutely every single one—as regards being merely human, is a liar. It is precisely, you see, from what is our own that every one of us is a liar.
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Nor are we able, from what is our own, to be anything but liars—not that we can- Self-Examination and the Examination of Texts 47 not ever be truthful, but that we will never be truthful from what is our own. So if it happens that you really are truthful, it is because you have been filled, because you have begun to participate in truth.
With him, we begin to see how necessary, both spiritually and hermeneutically, his invocation is at the outset of the Confessions, as well as the repeated intercessory prayer in this text. The problem only intensifies when dissonance or debate with another viewpoint is involved. In another of the four sermons from this same brief period, preached perhaps almost contiguously, Augustine addresses the text in Galatians 2 in which Paul reveals that he and Peter had taken sharply disagreeing stances on Jewish cultic proprieties and Christian obedience.
To put this more sharply: it appears to Augustine as possible, even for a bishop, to err in biblical interpretation. He quietly accepted a rebuke from a man who did not precede him in the apostolate, but who came after him. What Peter did was difficult. Augustine concludes this sermon with an appeal to his hearers to keep carefully in mind a crucial distinction, that between the text of Scripture and any act of its exegesis: Everything written in the holy canonical books is [authoritative].
Well, we who engage in public debates and write books write in a very different fashion; we make progress as we write, we are learning every day, engaged in research as we dictate, still knocking at the door as we speak. In the holy writings we learn how to judge, in our own writings we are quite ready to be judged. It is not for nothing, you see, that the canon has been established for the Church. This is the function of the Holy Spirit. So if anybody reads my book, let him pass judgment on me.
For these and other reasons, I agree with Self-Examination and the Examination of Texts 49 Peter Brown, in the extensive addenda to his reissued biography of Augustine, when he says that he is quite sure that these sermons preceded the writing of the Confessions. Self-Examination in the Confessions So much has been written on self-examination in the Confessions that I forbear to add much more here. What I would do is to note, simply, the way in which, in this originary spiritual autobiography, self-examination is bookmarked, so to speak, by its author—referenced to the examination of texts.
In his early life when, he admits freely, he worked as much for applause as for understanding, he had written a work on aesthetics called Beauty and Proportion, now lost and, as he remembers it, not worth going back to because, it seems, it too may have conduced to a certain egoistic idolatry 4. It was about form and style, not truth and substance. Even at the point of his conversion he finds his intellectual motives are mixed—he is tempted to resign his teaching post before term-end as a kind of statement, then refrains, realizing that his action might well be seen as self-serving 9.
His persistent sensual appetites he finds distracting and disorienting And this is because, Augustine says, a certain kind of intellectuality for its own sake also enslaves: For in addition to our bodily appetites, which make us long to gratify all our senses and our pleasures and lead to our ruin if we stay away from you by becoming their slaves, the mind is also subject to a certain propensity to use the sense of the body, not for self-indulgence of a physical kind, but for the satisfaction of its own inquisitiveness.
Or is the truth of the matter that I deceive myself and that in heart and tongue alike I am guilty of falsehood in your presence? Book 10 of the Confessions concludes one of the most ruthless of principled self-examinations, I think, in the history of literature. Its central recognition is that in attempting to possess the Truth, even the truth of Scripture as the very counsel of God, the interpreter is capable of badly mixed and selfdeceiving motives and hence unreliable interpretation. In my selfish longing I did not wish to lose you.
Paul to say, was the surest way to forsake the Wisdom of God for the worship of mere creatures—an utter folly, no matter how apparently gifted the interpreter of the text cf. Rom — However subtly, we might say, the characteristic form of this kind of folly is to try to play God with the text.
What Augustine seems to have acquired from his experience is a deeper level of humility before the page from which he reads. His interpretations are less and less apodictic; his counsel concerning interpretation is more and more constrained. In a later sermon than those I have considered, he writes: Above all, however, take care not to let yourself be tempted if you do not yet understand the sacred scriptures, or to grow proud if you do under- Self-Examination and the Examination of Texts 51 stand them.
If there is something you do not understand, respectfully set it aside for another occasion, and cling with love to what you do understand. They have said things not opposed to faith: one man this, another that, without departing from the rule of truth. May the Lord help me through your prayers [. I do not know the answer, therefore, but I can conjecture existimem without yet knowing, without yet having an answer that is certain [. If the answer I suggest is true, may the Lord confirm it; if another answer appears truer, may the Lord give it.
They are not his own rules: they are borrowed, with full acknowledgment, from Tyconius the moderate Donatist, the most formidable of his opponents, a mere layman, almost certainly married. Augustine both summarizes and quotes the Liber regularum Book of Rules of Tyconius. He is not without his critical reservations—he thinks with respect to clarifying some ambiguous texts that Tyconius promises much more than he can deliver Doctr. Book 4 of On Christian Doctrine offers thus a very different conclusion, I think, from that which we might have expected from the original books 1 and 2.
Light shines now first on the Text, secondarily on the interpretative work of those whose language is not, after all, redactive of, but expressive of that Text. This is a very different voice than the one which we heard in book 1 of On Christian Doctrine, with its sharp, insistent rhetorical aggressiveness: e. Preaching from the text, we now know, he would refuse the pulpit, and instead sit on a chair before his congregation with the open Bible on his knees, a reader among readers.
He had become an interpreter who could, on these grounds, begin to separate the motives of the ordinary reader from the authority of an extraordinary text. Colossians , Vulgate It has occasionally been the case that problems in translation have been a major factor in biblical interpretation and hence in theological formulation in Western Christianity. The process by which these occasions of potentially significant confusion tend to work themselves out in time is both interesting in itself and highly instructive about the self-correcting character of the Church as a community of interpretation.
Moreover, as we shall see in more detail in Part 2, this historic community of interpretation is not adequately measured if only its ecclesiastical dimensions are considered; many of the most important contributions are found to have come from the interaction with Scripture of the arts, where engagement of Scripture and the formation of its teaching is often far deeper than any mere matter of adornment or pretext. Nowhere is the interaction of lay and clerical understanding of Scripture on better display than in circumstances where a central doctrine of the faith is at issue, or where a central biblical virtue is to be expounded in the biblical fashion—that is, by contrast with the vice or disorder which opposes it.
The historic and ongoing debate about the character and expression of Christian love affords a representative example. Jerome in rendering several biblical words for love accurately in the Latin equivalents available to him. It is never used, however, to describe human love for God. In St. Charity is not jealousy, conceit, ostentation, arrogance, selfcenteredness, and resentment various expressions of self-love ; it is rather expressed in patience, kindness, truth, righteousness, hope, benevolence, and endurance self-transcending love.
Paul, it is the greatest of them all 1 Cor Caritas and cupiditas thus become, in the Vulgate New Testament and early commentary upon it, divergent, even polar, words for love, the neutral Latin word for which was usually amor cf. What determines whether the amor tends towards caritas or cupiditas is not simply its object, but, in St. For Augustine this is the fundamental spiritual conflict figured in every ethical choice, whether explicitly or merely tacitly.
Vice and virtue, depredation and beneficence, wounding and healing—all manner of opposites which have ethical portent—offer an occasion of choice between cupiditous and charitable promptings of the will. The literary theory of On Christian Doctrine is founded upon this principle: searching for the charitable spirit beneath the letter of the text will, Augustine argues, prove both spiritually and aesthetically rewarding 2. For Augustine, the two cities spring from the two loves Civ. Peter Lombard, sup. Ps 97 [PL While cupidity is haunted by the fear of misfortune, charity is conditioned by that fear of God which leads to wisdom Prov , by which in turn the human spirit is enabled to rise above the happenstance of fortune and its temporal effects Jas —12; cf.
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