Early Church Fathers
It seems necessary to give the following outline of the history of this Oxford translation. It was undertaken as part of the great series of original translations which appeared "under the patronage of William, Archbishop of Canterbury, from its commencement, a.d. 1836, until his Grace's departure in peace, a.d. 1848." It proposed to include all the "Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church before the division of the East and West," and this exposition was dedicated as a memorial of Archbishop Howley in the following words:-
"To the memory of the most reverend father in God, William, Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of all England, formerly Regius Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford, this Library of ancient bishops, fathers, doctors, martyrs, confessors, of Christ's Holy Catholic Church, undertaken amid his encouragement, and carried on for twelve years under his sanction, until his departure hence in peace, is gratefully and reverently inscribed."
The preface to the first volume was by the saintly Charles Marriott of Oriel College, with whom I enjoyed some acquaintance. It is well worth preserving here, and is as follows:-
In any commentary on a portion of the Old Testament by a writer unacquainted with Hebrew, exact criticism, and freedom from mistake, must not be expected. But the Psalms have been so in the mouth and in the heart of God's people in all languages, that it has been necessary often to find an explanation suitable to imperfect translations. And no doubt it is intended that we should use such explanations for the purpose of edification, when we are unable to be more accurate, though in proving doctrine it is necessary always to remember and allow for any want of acquaintance with the original, or uncertainty with respect to its actual meaning. However, the main scope and bearing of the text is rarely affected by such points as vary in different translations, and the analogy of the faith is sufficient to prevent a Catholic3 mind from adopting any error in consequence of a text seeming to bear a heterodox meaning. Perhaps the errors of translation in the existing versions may have led the Fathers to adopt rules of interpretation ranging too far from the simple and literal; but having such translations, they could hardly use them otherwise. Meanwhile St. Augustin will be found to excel in the intense apprehension of those great truths which pervade the whole of Sacred Writ, and in the vivid and powerful exposition of what bears upon them. It is hardly possible to read his practical and forcible applications of Holy Scripture, without feeling those truths by the faith of which we ought to live brought home to the heart in a wonderful manner. His was a mind that strove earnestly to solve the great problems of human life, and after exhausting the resources, and discovering the emptiness, of erroneous systems, found truth and rest at last in Catholic Christianity, in the religion of the Bible as expounded by St. Ambrose. And though we must look to his Confessions for the full view of all his cravings after real good, and their ultimate satisfaction, yet throughout his works we have the benefit of the earnestness with which he sought to feed on the "sincere milk of the word."
His mystical and allegorical interpretation, in spite of occasional mistakes, which belong rather to the translation than to himself, will be found in general of great value. It is to a considerable extent systematic, and the same interpretation of the same symbols is repeated throughout the work, and is indeed often common to him with other Fathers. The "feet" taken for the affections, "clouds" for the Apostles, and many other instances, are of very frequent occurrence. And it is evident that a few such general interpretations must be a great help to those who wish to make an allegorical use of those portions of Holy Scripture which are adapted for it. Nor are they adhered to with such strictness as to deprive the reader of the benefit of other explanations, where it appears that some other metaphor or allegory was intended. Both St. Augustin and St. Gregory acknowledge, and at times impress on their readers, that metaphorical language is used in Holy Scripture with various meanings under the same symbol.
The discourses on the Psalms are not carried throughout on the same plan, but still are tolerably complete as a commentary, since the longer expositions furnish the means of filing out the shorter notices, in thought at least, to the attentive reader of the whole. They were not delivered continuously, nor all at the same place. Occasionally the author is led by the circumstances of the time into long discussions of a controversial character, especially with respect to the Donatists, against whose narrow and exclusive views he urges strongly the prophecies relating to the universality of the Church. Occasionally a Psalm is first reviewed briefly, so as to give a general clew to its interpretation, and then enlarged upon in several discourses.
For the present translation, as far as the first thirty Psalms, the editors are indebted to a friend who conceals his name; for the remainder of the volume, with part of the next which is to appear, to the Rev. J. E. Tweed, M.a., chaplain of Christ Church, Oxford.
After the first two volumes edited by Mr. Tweed of Christ Church, the third volume (carrying the work down to the end of Psalm lxxv.) appeared with this announcement signed by Mr. Marriott: "The whole of it, as well as a few Psalms at the end of the former and the beginning of the following volume, is translated by T. Scratton, Esq., M.A., of Christ Church, Oxford." The fifth volume appeared in April, 1853, with the name of the Rev. H. M. Wilkins, M.a., of Merton College, as translator. In December, 1857, came forth the last volume, with the following advertisement from the pen of Dr. Pusey:-
The first hundred pages of this volume were printed, when it pleased God to withdraw from all further toil our friend, the Rev. C. Marriott, upon whose editorial labours the Library of the Fathers had for some years wholly depended. Full of activity in the cause of truth and religious knowledge, full of practical benevolence, expanding himself, his strength, his paternal inheritance, in works of piety and charity, in one night his labour was closed, and he was removed from active duty to wait in stillness for his Lord's last call. His friends may perhaps rather thankfully wonder that God allowed one, threatened in many ways with severe disease, to labour for Him so long and so variously, than think it strange that He suddenly, and for them prematurely, allowed him thus far to enter into his rest. To those who knew him best, it has been a marvel how, with heath so frail, he was enabled in such various ways, and for so many years, to do active good in his generation. Early called, and ever obeying the call, he has been allowed both active duty and an early rest.
This volume, long delayed, has been completed by the Rev. H. Walford, Vice-Principal of St. Edmund's Hall. The principal of St. Edmund Hall, Dr. Barrow, has, with great kindness, allowed himself to be referred to in obscure passages.
St. Augustin's Commentary on the Psalms, then, is now, by the blessing of God, completed for the first time in an English garb. Although, as a commentary, it from time to time fails us, because it explains minutely and verbally a translation of Holy Scripture different from and inferior to our own, yet, on this very ground, it is the more valuable when the translations agree. For St. Augustin was so impressed with the sense of the depth of Holy Scripture, that when it seems to him, on the surface, plainest, then he is the more assured of its hidden depth. True to this belief, St. Augustin pressed out word by word of Holy Scripture, and that, always in dependence on the inward teaching of God the Holy Ghost who wrote it, until he had extracted some fullness of meaning from it. More also, perhaps, than any other work of St. Augustin, this commentary abounds in those condensed statements of doctrinal and practical truth which are so instructive, because at once so comprehensive and so accurate.
May He under whose gracious influence this great work was written, be with its readers also, and make it now, as heretofore, a treasure to this portion of His Church.
E. B. P.