Thursday, July 07, 2011

Cornelius à Lapide: Flemish Catholic Exegete

We turn now from the once-radical-now-mainstream thought of Descartes and Spinoza to the quieter waters of Cornelius à Lapide, a model of Roman Catholic piety and erudition, to assess the meaning of his work, if any, in the history of biblical scholarship.
            Cornelius à Lapide was born in 1567 in Bocholt, now in Belgium, but at that time part of the Spanish (Hapsburg) Low Countries.[1]  His childhood and youth were marked by the turmoil of the so-called “Eighty Years War,” the Protestant-Catholic struggle for control over the Low Countries that ended with Calvinist dominance over the northern provinces, the modern Netherlands, and the Catholic sway over the southern, now Belgium.  Many years later, during his professorship at Louvain, Lapide would return during holidays to preach and administer the sacraments to pilgrims at the shrine at Scherpenheuvel in Belgian Brabant, a location the local Catholic populace associated with answered prayers for protection from Calvinist mob violence during the “Beeldenstorm” uprising in 1566.[2]

Lapide studied at Jesuit colleges in Maastricht, Cologne, Douai, and, ultimately, for four years in Louvain.  He entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1592 and was ordained in 1595.  From 1596 to 1615 he served as professor of Scripture and Hebrew at the Catholic University of Louvain.  In 1616 he was called to Rome to serve in the same capacity at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University until his death in 1637.[3]
            Lapide was a prodigious biblical commentator, producing prolix volumes on every biblical book with exception of Job and Psalms.  His first published commentaries were on Paul’s Epistles (1614) and the Pentateuch (1616), both published in Antwerp before his transfer to Rome.
            Many partial editions of his commentaries were published in his own lifetime, and dozens of editions of his complete works, as well as compilations of extracts, were published in the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries, mostly in France and Italy.  Unfortunately, almost all of these editions were in Latin and thus inaccessible to the lay person.  Thomas W. Mossman (1826-1885), a philocatholic Anglican clergyman who reconciled with Rome on his deathbed, translated most of Lapide’s commentary on the New Testament, first published in 1876.[4]  This is the form in which Lapide is best known in the English-speaking world.[5]
            Lapide’s death neatly coincides with the publication of Descartes’ Discourse on Method, such that Lapide serves almost poetically to illustrate the best of Catholic exegesis prior to the onslaught of the modernist paradigm in biblical studies.

[1] There is very little secondary literature on the life and work of Lapide.  The primary sources for biographical information are M. Paquot, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire littéraire des dix-sept provinces des Pays-Baz, vol. 7 (Louvain 1766) and C. Sommervogel, S.J., Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, vol. IV (Brussels/Paris, 1893), cols. 1511-26.  Pierre Gibert’s “Cornelius à Lapide” in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament 2.764-67 is one of the few modern assessments.  We cannot agree, however, with Gibert’s interpretation of Lapide as an anticipation of Richard Simon (“Lapide,” 767).  This reflects a failure to see Lapide’s continuity with the Catholic intellectual tradition, especially with Augustine and Aquinas.  Lapide’s emphasis on the literal sense is rooted in patristic thought and is not a movement toward the critical exegesis of Simon.
[2] See Charles A. Coulombe’s foreword to The Great Commentary of Cornelius A Lapide: The Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew Volume I (trans. T.W. Mossman; rev. M.J. Miller; Fitzwilliam, N.H.: Loreto Publications, 2008) viii-ix, hereafter Matthew I.
[3] Coulombe, “Foreword,” ix-x.
[4] The Great Commentary of Cornelius à Lapide (ed. and trans. T. W. Mossman; London: J. Hodges, 1876–86.
[5] Coulombe, “Foreword,” xii-xiv.


A. T. Wallace said...

Mossman's translation can be found online here.

Scanned pdfs of all of Lapide's biblical commentaries (in Latin) may be found here.

John Bergsma said...

Thanks for the links, dmw.