Front Page Titles (by Subject) III.: Character, Authorship, and Date of the Treatise On The Sacraments (de Sacramentis) - On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments
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III.: Character, Authorship, and Date of the Treatise “On The Sacraments” (de Sacramentis) - Ambrose, On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments [387 AD]
On the Mysteries and the Treatise on the Sacraments by an Unknown Author, trans. T. Thompson, ed. with Introduction and Notes by J.H. Strawley (New York: Macmillan, 1919).
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Character, Authorship, and Date of the Treatise “On The Sacraments” (de Sacramentis)
The treatise On the Sacraments consists of six sermons delivered to the newly-baptized in Easter week. They deal with Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Prayer, and Prayer. The work is nearly related to de Mysteriis, which it closely follows, embodying and expanding most of its contents. Its description of the rites of baptism is at times more exact than that of de Mysteriis, and it quotes several of the actual formularies employed, where they are either merely referred to, or passed over, in the earlier work.1 The author supplements the account of the “feet-washing” contained in his source by a statement that it is not practised at Rome, and while expressing his desire to follow in all respects the pattern of the Roman Church, he vindicates in this respect the custom of his own Church (iii. 1. 5-6). On the Eucharist he gives much fuller information than Ambrose. Not only does he refer to the prayers preceding the Canon (iv. 4. 14), but he quotes a considerable portion of the Canon itself, as well as the doxology at the close of the Lord’s Prayer (iv. 5. 21-23; iv. 6. 26-27; vi. 5. 24). The exposition of the Lord’s Prayer in Book V. is not found in de Mysteriis, nor is the description of the parts of prayer (vi. 5. 22 f.), which is modelled on Ambrose, de Inst. Virg. ii. 8-10. With these exceptions the treatise for the most part reproduces the contents of de Myst. But though the author has made free use of the materials of the earlier work, his style is different from that of Ambrose. He frequently introduces his point by a short question, a rhetorical device very sparingly used by Ambrose. He nowhere rises to the spiritual fervour exhibited by Ambrose in de Myst. vi. 29 (with its personal address to our Lord). Moreover, he shows occasionally his independence of the earlier work, rearranging its material, omitting or expanding particular points, and sometimes developing the ideas suggested by a passage of Scripture quoted in his source (cp. e.g. the application of Eccl. ii. 14 in de Myst. vi. 30 and de Sacram. iii. 1. 1). In the treatment of the doctrinal significance of the “feet-washing” he silently corrects the conclusions of Ambrose (de Myst. vi. 32; de Sacram. iii. 1. 7). In his eucharistic teaching he follows Ambrose in his assertion of the operative power of the word of Christ in changing the elements into the body and blood of Christ. But he goes further than Ambrose in his recoil from the materialistic conclusions that might be drawn from this doctrine, and in so doing he falls back on the earlier language which speaks of receiving “the likeness of the death” and “drinking the likeness of the blood,” and comes very near to conceiving of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as a presence of grace and power only (iv. 4. 20; vi. 1. 3. See further, p. xxxvii below). In the passage iii. 2. 13 f. he may possibly have in view the Pelagian denial of original sin, in which case we have an indication that the author is later than Ambrose. If, further, the reference to the Greek custom of communicating once a year (v. 4. 25) is due to acquaintance with Chrysostom’s homilies (see note, l.c.), we have a further indication of late date. Lastly, it is improbable that Ambrose would have so closely copied an earlier work of his own.
Like de Myst., this treatise came prominently into notice in connexion with the controversies between Catholics and Protestants at the time of the Reformation. Its authenticity was attacked by Bullinger, by Aubertin (whose verdict was “He is the ape of Ambrose”), and by Daillé. Aubertin assigned it to the seventh century, Daillé to the eighth. Doubts were also expressed on the opposite side by Cardinal Bona and the Benedictine editors. Various theories have been propounded as to the authorship. Tillemont’s suggestion of Maximus of Turin has gained little credence. It has been revived in recent times by Schermann (Röm. Quartalschrift, xvii. (1903), 254 f.), who points out that in the oldest MS. of de Sacram. the book follows immediately the Homilies of Maximus. Another theory, advanced by Probst (Lit. des viert. Jahrh., p. 239) and Dom Morin (Revue bénéd. (1894) xi. 343 f.), is that the book was compiled from notes taken by those who had heard the sermons of Ambrose. But this theory fails to explain the peculiar characteristics which distinguish it from the genuine works of Ambrose. The question of authorship therefore remains open.
As to date, the presence of the treatise in the St. Gall MS. 188 of the seventh century, shows that it must be earlier than that period. Other indications are supplied by the fact that the treatise presupposes a condition of Church life in which adult baptism was still the rule, and in which baptism was normally celebrated at Easter (see iv. 1. 2, note), while other passages imply that heathenism still flourished (vi. 4. 18; vi. 5. 21). The prayers quoted in iv. 5. 21-23; iv. 6. 26-27 are of an earlier type than the Roman Canon in the Gelasian Sacramentary (see below, pp. xxxii ff.). The writer refers to Arianism (vi. 2. 10; cp. v. 1. 1, note), and possibly to Pelagianism (iii. 2. 13 f.), though the indirect character of this latter reference suggests a date at which the controversy had not yet been fought out. A less certain indication of date is afforded by the character of the Scripture quotations, which present in the Old Testament a form of the Latin Version earlier than the Vulgate (see below, p. xlii). The writer shows respect for the Church of Rome, whose pattern and rule he expresses a desire to follow (iii. 1. 5), though he claims a certain degree of independence in the matter of the usages of his own Church. His attitude in fact suggests a position of affairs like that revealed in the letter of Pope Innocent I to Decentius (416 a.d.), in which the see of Rome was advancing its claims over other churches in the matter of liturgical conformity, no less than in matters of discipline. These indications suggest a date in one of the earlier decades of the fifth century. The affinity of the rites of baptism with those of Milan, the resemblance of the Canon of the Mass to that of the Roman rite, and the author’s attitude to Rome, suggest that he lived in some North Italian district closely associated with Milan on the one hand and Rome on the other. Duchesne (Christian Worship, Eng. tr., p. 177) suggests Ravenna.
The author is acquainted with other works of Ambrose, besides de Mysteriis. He makes use of the language of de Officiis in describing the sevenfold gifts of the Spirit (iii. 2. 9), and his discussion of the parts of prayer is, as we have seen, based on de Institutione Virginis. His treatment of prayer and the Lord’s Prayer suggests that he was acquainted with Origen’s treatise de Oratione. Elsewhere (ii. 6. 17, 19) his teaching echoes that of Greek Church writers (see notes).
The addresses, six in number, appear to have been begun on Tuesday in Easter week and concluded on the following Sunday. At the close of the fourth address (iv. 6. 29) the author expresses his intention to continue his discourses “to-morrow, Saturday, and on Sunday” (crastina die, sabbato, et dominica), where “Saturday” is in apposition to “to-morrow.” But a misunderstanding of the words led to the idea that there were three more sermons to follow. Hence the St. Gall MS. divides the last book into two parts, beginning a new book with vi. 5. 25, obviously an unnatural division. Similarly, some MSS. of de Mysteriis describe that work as Book I. of de Sacramentis, and rearrange the numbering of the books of the latter treatise accordingly; while in one MS., after the present six books of the treatise, there appears, under the heading “Book VII.,” a sermon found in the Appendix of Augustine’s works (Serm. 247; Migne, P. L. xxxviii. 2200), which is attributed to Ivo of Chartres.
[1 ]Cf. e.g. de Myst. ii. 5, de Sacr. i. 2; de Myst. iii. 8, de Sacr. i. 5. 18, ii. 5. 14; de Myst. v. 28, de Sacr. ii. 7. 20; de Myst. vi. 29, de Sacr. ii. 7. 24; de Myst. vii. 41, 42, de Sacr. iii. 2. 8, 10; vi. 2. 6-8.