Because repetition is the mother of all learning.
I am frequently struck by the extent and depth of the biblical knowledge of the fathers—the apostles, the fathers of the early church, the Mediæval doctors, the Reformers and the great theologians of the late-16th and 17th centuries. How did they manage to absorb the Scriptures so thoroughly?
This facility with the Bible is most obviously demonstrated in two features of their writing. First, there are the frequent minor errors in quotations and references, which show that the author is quoting from memory. Secondly, it’s frequently difficult to tell where the Scripture reference begins and ends, because the author’s language is so thoroughly suffused with biblical language as to blur the edges. (In NT scholarship, there is talk of “echoes” of Old Testament in the language of the apostles.)
Nor is this biblical facility restricted to professional theologians. I remember being struck, when preparing a performance of Heinrich Schütz’s Seven Last Words, to see that the composer grossly misquotes John’s reference to the hyssop branch used to offer a vinegar-filled sponge to Jesus. It’s obvious that (a) he had forgotten what hyssop was and, therefore, (b) he can’t have been copying the words down from a book, but rather from memory. He got all the other words verbatim.
How did they manage to learn so much, so well—all without Navigators flash cards?
The answer (at least part of it): the Office. The Liturgy of the Hours.
From time immemorial, the Christian Church has marked each day, and different parts of the day, with the Word of God and prayer. The form of these services has varied from time to time, from one place to another, and from one setting to another. But it has always been there.
When the Lutheran reformers, or the later Lutheran theologians, were little lads at school, they participated in the Daily Office. At the very least, each day began and closed with a service where they sang the Psalms and heard readings from the Old and New Testaments (as well as the Apocrypha). Day in, day out. Year after year.
Then they went to university (or the monastery), and carried on doing the same, or in the case of the monastery, an awful lot more of the same.
And then they were ordained, so they continued to do so as part of their vocation in the church.
A whole lifetime of singing, hearing, reading the Scriptures, twice-daily or more. Repetition upon repetition.
And so they learned.
Looking back at the brief history of my church, there is much that is good, worthy of gratitude. Some things I wish hadn’t happened, and some things I wish that had happened.
I do wish that from the very start, all pastors would have been encouraged—nay, instructed—to observe the Daily Office in their churches, and to encourage all members of their congregations to attend these services as much as possible, so that priest and people alike grow in the Scriptures.
As of this autumn, that is what has started to happen in my congregation (see details here and here). I have been saying Matins privately for years, mostly silently in my study. A few months of public recitation of the Psalter and the reading of Scripture has already made a significant difference.
I started at 40. God willing, if I’m as average as I appear in other respects, I may have another 40 years to go. If in those 40 years I absorb a small part of what Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Gerhard, Schütz or Bach absorbed, I will consider myself blessed.
P.S. I am increasingly convinced also that assigning the same melodies to the same Psalms is an important tool in the learning. If I ever edit a Psalter, each Psalm will have its appointed chant. But that’s really another topic for another post.