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The Patristic brings together scholars of Christian antiquity from 12 different nationalities

From 9th-11th May, the Pontifical Patristic Institute Augustinianum hosted the fiftieth routine meeting of scholars of Christian antiquity.


A number of scholars from around the world - Italy, Germany, Poland, Canada, Denmark, Spain, Hungary, Malta, Croatia, Argentina, Romania and Austria - met to discuss almost as many different perspectives and opinions on the theme Words to say God; Theological language in Christian antiquity.  The three days were spent in a spirit of deep conviviality.


The following is the synthesis of this stimulating reflection, shared by Massimiliano Ghilardi, secretary of the congress.


Superior to everything, even language


Despite the possibility of achieving a high degree of precision, human language remains limited; yet its very limits are capable of feeling a genuine longing for that which transcends them: the God sought by philosophy who revealed himself in history, the God we think of as superior to everything that can be experienced in the context of the material world in which He nevertheless acts. 


However, it is only through language - setting aside the comfortable but ultimately futile path of apophatism - that man can venture to say anything about Him, in an attempt to express in words the One who transcends the very structures of what is said.


The oxymoronic need to say the unsayable is the mark of theological language, which has only ever had to count on (while constantly questioning) its own possibilities and limits.


The fact that the revealed God expressed himself, out of philanthropic condescension, in human terms does not reduce the problem. Rather, it expands it: how might we articulate the notions of God proposed by Sacred Scripture and in which the intrinsic limits of human expression are added to those that come from being conditioned by a specific historical and cultural context?


It could be said that the history of theological reflection is, in the first Christian centuries, the history of exegesis, and it might be argued that such reflection coincides with the effort to clearly enunciate what the Bible often presents in narrative, prescriptive or pragmatic forms, but with the awareness - always implicit and sometimes expressed in clear letters by the ancient authors - that human language remains an intrinsically imperfect, though unique, means of speaking of God.


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