Book Review

Peter Auksi, Christian Plain Style: The Evolution of a Spiritual Ideal.
Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995, $49.95. ISBN 0-773-51220-9.

'In the beginning was the Word': but how does God speak? Oracularly, as at Delphi? Figuratively, as in the Book of Revelation? Threateningly, as through some Hebrew prophet? Or simply and plainly, as in the sayings, and particularly the parables of Christ? There appears to be, as Peter Auksi puts it, 'an aura of moral virtue' as well as religious reasons for settling for the clarity of the latter. More pressing, however, is the question how one passes on the Word in sermon, exhortation, homily or lesson. Why do we feel that it is best to be plain and simple, and as Chaucer's Franklin bluffly put it, avoid all Ciceronian 'colours of rhetoric' and use only 'such colours as growen in the mede...'? George Herbert in two short poems (strikingly entitled 'Jordan', thus recognizing the firm divide of the alternatives) said, 'Shepherds are honest people, let them sing... Who plainly say, My God, my King'; and 'There is in love a sweetness ready penn'd/Copy out only that, and save expense.'

Those poems have recently been much discussed in the context of English seventeenth-century 'Plain Style'. More recently, work has been done, like that of Brian Vickers, on the Greek and Roman rhetoricians as influences on literature in English. James Murphy has surveyed medieval and early modern rhetoric. We have seen in the second half of this century the revival of attempts to analyse, rather than simply register the very complex rhetorical influence of the Bible. Northrop Frye's The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (1982) comes to mind. Further, Hebrew scholars like Robert Alter and critics of the New Testament like Frank Kermode, have begun to shed light on the way the rhetorics of the originals are transmitted and received, in the light of the latest critical theories.

The sayings and parables of Jesus, however, are often spiritually more subtle than label 'plain and simple' would suggest. A sermon or homily addressing them needs to be able to catch some elusive senses, even if not 'at two removes', as Herbert has it. Can a simply 'plain' style work? Are not some more complex literary devices in order'? After all, God's creation is itself marvellously complex, as we go on and on discovering. Can Scripture itself, in all its variety, illuminate the problem?

What we have not had, until now, is a book surveying the whole field of the uneasy relationship of Christianity and rhetoric, a marriage that began in Scripture, developed in the early Fathers, grew through the medieval richness to its height at the Renaissance and then suddenly declined at the end of the seventeenth century. Peter Auksi has supplied that book. He is learned, wise and lucid. He analyses a most formidable battery of primary sources from classical, biblical, patristic, medieval and Renaissance times, reporting easily on Latin and Greek texts, comfortably (and comfortingly) at home in the myriad technicalities of rhetoric. His survey has outstanding value in that only when he has surveyed each field can he convincingly demonstrate the historical impulse of the western Church to simplify the arts that it had taken over.

The plain style, he notes, ultimately derives from the presence in the Bible 'of two polarities: divine simplicity and human simplicity'. Matters, of course, are never quite so simple, and what that statement means sets Auksi first of all digging at the roots of secular classical philosophy, particularly the major Greek rhetorical traditions, of Aristotle, Isocrates and Dyonisius of Halicarnassus.

I have always been intrigued by the fact that William Tyndale, appalled to find that theology in the Oxford of his day was founded on study of Aristotle and not Scripture, worked, alongside his study of Erasmus's Greek New Testament, on translating into English an oration of Isocrates (a translation since lost). This was partly a demonstration of his competence in Greek, which must have been high as Isocrates is far from easy. But it must also have shown that he knew and could work with the highest forms of classical Greek rhetoric, with effects on all his work that we have so far hardly begun to understand, particularly in his aims towards rhetorical simplicity.

Peter Auksi cannot write a dull sentence. On the first page is a fascinating account of the etymology of 'simple' through the Latin simplex and cognates that mean, surprisingly, folding. When Auksi in the third chapter leaves the classical world for the biblical, he notes: 'As a guide to any mode of artistic practice, the Bible is not a promising text.' He has already, however, given us the best short account that I have come across of the pioneering work of the German scholars Norden, Curtius and Auerbach, so that we know that the unique power of the styles of the Bible will be comprehensively presented. (Auksi's account of Auerbach on humilis is exceptionally useful.) This chapter is, moreover, much more interestingly wrestling with the problems of artistic creativity inside, and in the light of, Scripture — when does creativity lead to idolatry? How does Paul's combination of humility and artlessness work?

There follows a superb chapter on Augustine and Paul: the unchronological order is a little troubling at first, until one grasps that Auksi wants the dozen pages on the rhetoric of Paul, as fine an account as one could wish for, to be, very properly, the springboard of the second half of the book. As a student of the Reformation, I shall come back again and again to those pages; for, rightly referring to John Coolidge's 1970 Pauline Renaissance, Auksi understands that the immense power of the Reformation across Europe came from the rediscovery of Paul — and not only the doctrine of justification by faith: Paul's antitheses (particularly of flesh and spirit), his driving rhythms, rich to the point of carelessness with rhetorical schemes and tropes, his rapid-fire parataxis, his building of climaxes, all generate, most strangely, a plain and simple presence — Auksi later remarks, of Christianity, 'the early medium of communication was the warmly personal epistle'.

A solid and compelling chapter on 'The Church Fathers and Christian Style' leads to their rich and confused heritage, a territory where clarity must be the only guide, 'Medieval Rhetoric'. This long and detailed study of precisely what it means for a homiletic manual, for example, to depend not on Cicero but 'the Holy Ghost and... artless speakers such as Christ and Paul' includes pages on Wyclif.

Analysis of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli follows, compellingly. So clear is this chapter, that one can only look forward with impatience to Auksi on Tyndale — who gets no mention in the Index, and is only in eight words in an endnote. The omission of Tyndale is both surprising and serious, for the next two chapters, on 'Renaissance Plainness' and 'Spiritual Rhetoric and the English Reformation' would have both different and better foundations were he present. Though he did not write a manual of rhetoric, Tyndale gave us more than enough to go on: and his influence on the manner of English Christian prose, and verse, is vast. Tyndale attacked 'poetry', by which he meant not high imaginative verse but the meretricious adornment of truth, and the use of decoration as cosmetic disguise of untruth. Erasmus is present here in the discussion of the flight from Cicero, as are many writers, some much less known.

Yet to discuss 'Spiritual Rhetoric and the English Reformation' without analysing the effects of the English Bible does look unbalanced. It is as if Auksi is suddenly blind to a colour of the spectrum — as, for example, he can mention Reuchlin and Melanchthon without noting their colossal impact on the study in Europe of Hebrew and Greek respectively, and the following transformation of understanding of Scripture, leading to seminal translations into vernaculars across the continent. Auksi is as always fresh and interesting — a mention of how the establishment of scientific English prose under the Royal Society at the Restoration was influenced by Paul's rhetoric through John Wilkins could itself be a major study — but my only caveat about this splendid book is that what could have been a grand climax, analysing the impact of the Bible in English, is not there. He could argue, and no doubt will, that his subject was rhetoric and homiletics: yet he can quote Northrop Frye, 'the simplicity of the Bible is the simplicity of majesty, not of equality ... its simplicity expresses the voice of authority', without apparently seeing the implications, just as Frye used the Authorized Version and seemed unaware of Tyndale. At a time when historians are being dragged (by Christopher Hill and others) into recognition that the most significant thing in sixteenth and — especially — seventeenth-century England was not economics, nor the philosophy of monarchy, nor even rising populism, though all had their place, but the English Bible, particularly the Geneva Bible and its notes, it is a pity that the one book that everyone read, the avatar of Christian Plain Style. properly treated, or even mentioned. Such a concentration would also have led him to the more significant Dissenters, rather than his slightly odd conclusion with Methodists and Quakers.

On three occasions that I noted, Auksi 's attention — or that of his editor — slipped. The phrase 'the church triumphant' does not mean what he thinks it does: the word kerygma is somewhat older than Frye's use of it; and the story of the woman with the alabaster box in the Gospels is misunderstood.

These are very minor quibbles indeed for a very significant work. A common humanist name for an essential book (famously used by Erasmus) was Enchiridion, which means both 'handbook' and 'dagger', that is, something that can be grasped instantly and used at a vital moment. Peter Auksi deserves our congratulations and thanks for having read all the difficult books so well, written so refreshingly, and given us the Enchiridion of Christian Plain Style. My copy will sit close to my hand for many years to come.

David Daniell

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