Essay / Theology

Definition: Disjectamembra

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The Roman poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65-8 BC) once said that a true poem would still be poetical even if you rearranged all the words in it. Or perhaps what he said was that a good poet would still be poetical even if you hacked his body to pieces. Horace seemed to think that word order was important for doggerel (his own verse, or the work of someone named Lucilius), but that a really great poet (he cites a few lines from one Ennius) could be transposed, reversed, and jumbled, and still come out recognizably poetic. Of course, he could have been joking. With Horace, there’s always the chance that he was actually making fun of people who would say that sort of thing. Through all the levels of Horatian irony, it’s hard to be certain.

One thing that’s certain is that he used a catchy little phrase, “disiecti membra poetae,” or “scattered members of a poet” (Satires, I, 4, 62). These scattered members are what you could still discern in the mush if you were to put a really good poem in a blender. John Conington’s heavy-handed English translation nicely captures the notion that this is not an operation you should carry out, but that the poet would be recognizable even so:

‘Tis Orpheus mangled by the Maenads: still
The bard remains, unlimb him as you will.

Obviously a limbed bard is preferable to an unlimbed, and the point is that you can still discern the substance of a great poet, even in the mangled mess of bits and pieces. Hack poets can’t survive a hacking: Their too-precious compositions are hothouse flowers which, unless maintained just so and presented exactly as intended, dissolve into unpoetic embarrassments. Great poems, on the other hand, can withstand the weather. Homer is still poetic if you read him backwards. So strong is the spirit of true poetry!

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People liked this little Latin phrase for alluding to jumbled parts and their hidden wholeness. It got cleaned up and anglicized into “disjecta membra,” and shows up thus in Latin phrase books. The Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield (1851-1921) used the phrase in the opening paragraph of one of the best modern essays on trinitarian theology, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity” (first published in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia in 1915, republished in his Biblical and Theological Studies, 1952).

The doctrine of the Trinity lies in Scripture in solution; when it is crystallized from its solvent it does not cease to be Scriptural, but only comes into clearer view. Or, to speak without figure, the doctrine of the Trinity is given to us in Scripture, not in formulated definition, but in fragmentary allusions; when we assembled [sic] the disjecta membra into their organic unity, we are not passing from Scripture, but entering more thoroughly into the meaning of Scripture.

Warfield’s essay is where I first ran across the phrase, and I appreciate the way he uses it to describe the relationship between God’s self-revelation in scripture on the one hand, and systematic theology on the other. “Formulated definition” does not improve on scripture, as if the Bible were a big confused mess waiting for theologians to come along and rescue it from its own ambiguity and meaninglessness. Good theology sees that scripture is full and strong, capable of bearing its own meaning and making itself eloquently clear. It does not need to be presented just right in order to have its effect. You can read it translated, backwards, dissected, and in fragments, but the spirit is still there in the disjecta membra: done faithfully, theology can render the reasonable service of providing a conceptual distillation that helps lead readers “more thoroughly into the meaning” of the Bible.

Anyone who’s worked closely with the Bible will admit that the membra seem pretty disjecta sometimes, and that it requires training to discern the hidden wholeness in the “fragmentary allusions.” Suspicious minds will see this training as an illegitimate hermeneutical stunt, teaching readers to impose a doctrine on the texts. I think otherwise. I think there’s really someting trinitarian to be seen in scripture. I want to spend my life helping others see what is there.

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