On Piety—Part II
By Travis Copeland
From its antique beginnings in Greco-Roman society, piety took a new and radically different shape in the Middle Ages.
Go here for Part I.
Christian tradition holds piety to be one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, rooted in the Old Testament, prophetic book of Isaiah. In the eleventh chapter, characteristics are enumerated that are the foundation for the seven virtues or gifts of the Spirit. Traditional Christian communions (such as the Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox) hold to these gifts. Alongside wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and fear of the Lord, piety is drawn from the ancient world but re-interpreted in Trinitarian terms. Plato and Aristotle had sacred roots for piety; however, neither rooted them in a Trinitarian God that could bestow these gifts upon man. Socrates in Plato’s dialogues remarks that piety is loved by the gods. The gods seek to embody it, and man should seek and love the things of the gods. However, the Bible moves beyond mere assent and desire to incarnation. Indeed the New Testament upholds the normative definition of the word.
St. Paul and the Gospel writers inhabit the Greco-Roman world. Therefore, their understanding of piety and the Trinity bring together a new understanding of piety. Piety is deeper than merely something to love and embody. Now, it is located perfectly within God the Father, Son, and Spirit. Piety is sacred duty and devotion, something that the Father, Son, and Spirit have for one another perfectly. The Trinity does not merely desire it; they are it. The essence is then given to Christians by the Spirit of God, and as Gregory the Great wrote, “through fear of the Lord, we rise to piety.” The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the born again life for Christians is about being given piety from which it can then be pursued. St. Paul’s commandment in Romans sums up the Christian pursuit of piety:
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
The distinction between the Greco-Roman ideal and Christian is the role humility plays. Piety and glory, found in the Greco-Roman world, was replaced by the humility of desert monastic communities. The well educated and highest officials were quickly becoming those that should hold humility deeply. Lowly humility stands instead as a chief pursuit of all Christians, especially those in sacred offices and places of learning. Glory belongs to God alone; humility is submission to that glory. In turn, piety is directly affected by this shift toward humility. Now, piety is the pursuit of submission to God through virtue and not the exaltation of honor that, like Achilles, will echo eternally through the ages. Christian piety saw authority and piety as connected to God. Loyalty or allegiance to God governed all other loyalties and created a humility and virtue in the lowliest Christian and highest authority. Christ and not the Christian is the pursuit of embodied piety. In St. Paul’s writings, Christian piety developed further in Medieval Europe and Christendom.
The classical piety of Pericles’ Athens or Augustan Rome slowly gave way with the collapse of Rome to Christendom and a distinctly Christian understanding of piety. Courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom remained central to understanding piety; however, Christian theology began to understand virtue and pious living in distinctly Christian ways. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, restructured the sacred nature of individual and societal piety of the classical world. Influence from the old Roman Empire, the budding monastic culture, and increased papal authority began to unify much of Europe around this new, distinct Christian piety. Ultimately, Biblical pietas was founded on the ideals of the church, especially the sacred nature of the priesthood, the sacramental system of the church, and the Trinitarian faith distinct to Christianity.
St. Benedict’s Rule outlined the basic principles that governed the growing movement of monasteries and monks in Europe during the sixth century. Benedict’s dictum, “Let everyone that comes be received as Christ,” exemplifies a new Christian piety that sets Christ at the center. The church replaced the state as the highest authority, Christ replaced the Emperor, and the sacrament system of the Eurcharist and relics within the church replaced the varied religions of the Ancient world. The influence of monastic teaching on the broader Medieval world meant that believers sought to embody the piety of Jesus founded in righteousness, humility, and repentance. Likewise, their neighbors were to be honored “above themselves” as a way to embody piety to others. Furthermore, the sacramental system, concentrated on wine and bread (the body and blood of the Lord Jesus) further infused the essence of piety into daily practice. A pious Christian partook in the sacraments and suffered like Christ. Piety then was to look, act, life, suffer, and die like Jesus. This is not to say that the classical ethic was not to a large degree openly smuggled into Medieval piety. Two key figures in this development deserve discussion: St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.
The fifth-century Bishop of Hippo was one of the most famous early church Fathers. His writing swings the full range of Christian doctrine, including piety. Augustine was particularly equipped to talk about piety, because he ascribed to Manichean philosophy, closely connected to Platonism, prior to his conversion. Augustine understood piety as faith. One of the most significant Christian writers of all time, Augustine’s teaching became one of the chief extra-biblical foundations for early church theology. To be a pious Christian means to have saving faith in God’s saving work, namely the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and then to work out that faith in faithfulness or pious actions in service to God and his church. Augustine’s conversion experience, being told by a child-like voice to take and read the scriptures, and his classical philosophy background inform how he speaks to the church about faith.
For Augustine, faith was a pious thing of the spirit. In City of God, he works out that the church is made up of the visible and invisible, those who will be saved and those who will not are mixed together on earth. The pious are the faithful, those who possess saving faith. The damned have no faith and therefore no piety. The physical nature of the church was set subordinate to its spiritual nature. Faith carried by one spirit was the embodiment of piety in the Medieval church, and only the pious would see the Lord. Augustine’s Confessions, an autobiographical work of his coming to Christianity, are an example of the workings of faith and piety in the individual from initial encounter with God through a life-long pursuit of salvation and holiness. Augustine’s theological integrity within the church fathers would only increase the desire of later authors to consider classical piety and the Christian faith.
Between Augustine in the fifth century and Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth, monastic orders flourished, political and religious structures were cemented, and the Christian pietistic tradition became the normative way of thinking for Medieval Christians. It would seem with such a strong tradition that no more magnificent contributions could be made to Western theology and piety. However, Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth-century Italian Dominican friar, made some of the most significant theological contributions to Christian theology in history. Specifically, Aquinas reintroduced the West to Aristotelian philosophy as he sought to integrate Aristotle’s ideas on classical virtue and flourishing into the Christian tradition.
Augustine explained piety as the worship of God, while Aquinas referred to piety as union with God. Aquinas does not disagree with Augustine; he states in the Summa Theologica that piety comes first in the form of a virtue, and that it is first a duty to God and fellow man. However, Aquinas goes farther. Building on the eudaimonism (εὐδαιμονία) of Aristotle, which refers to ultimate human flourishing or the good life, Aquinas says that eudaimonism is achieved in union with God. Through virtue, duty, and union, man becomes perfectly happy, thus flourishing. However, man cannot fully attain this pursuit because of the stain of sin. Piety for Aquinas is duty to God and man through union with God. Through the incarnation, Jesus, the Son of God, makes a way to God through grace. In Christ, man can be joined to God. Indeed, life can be lived within the Triune God. No longer does sin keep man from God. Now, God and man are joined together in union through the work of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, burial, and resurrection from the dead.
For Aquinas, this union reshapes piety. Pious loyalty to God as Father recast the classical household piety with a Christian understanding. Piety can be initially obtained through union with God, but it must also be continually practiced. In Summa Theologica, Question 121, St. Thomas writes, “as by the virtue of piety man pays duty and worship not only to his father in the flesh, but also to all his kindred on account of their being related to his father, so by the gift of piety he pays worship and duty not only to God, but also to all men on account of their relationship to God.” Medieval Christians were to practice this duty to God and neighbor, seeking to live pious lives of justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance. Their only way to be truly pious, according to Aquinas, was through union with God and his church. Thus piety could not be an independent pursuit for a noble man.
But this, of course, was not the conclusion of the story.
Travis Copeland holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, and teaches humanities at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a “Hobbit” lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.
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Published on 25th October, 2023. Page image of Our Lady of Vladimir, a twelfth-century ikon written in Byzantium, currently housed in the Church of St. Nicholas in Tolmachi, part of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, Russia.