Browse by Topic: Scripture

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

The Bible in Jerusalem

Filed under: 

Basilica of St. StephenCan you imagine a better place to study Scripture than in the Holy City of Jerusalem? Earlier this January I had the chance to spend a few days there, at St. Stephen Priory (located on the site where tradition says St. Stephen was martyred), attending "The Bible in Jerusalem," a conference for new and upcoming Dominican Scripture scholars. St. Stephen's is the Dominican priory associated with the École Biblique et Archeologique Francaise de Jerusalem, a Dominican school of scripture and archaeology founded by Fr. Marie-Joseph Lagrange, O.P. in 1890. This gathering was the first of what we plan to make an annual event, the purpose being to promote and foster collaboration and fraternity among young Dominicans pursuing Scripture scholarship, all for the sake of the Order's mission of preaching the gospel for the salvation of souls.

Between January 3rd-5th, more than 15 friars participated from around the world (e.g., France, Poland, Ireland, England, Ukraine, Croatia, Mexico, the United States, and the Phillipines), most of whom have begun or recently completed doctoral work related to Scripture; I hope to begin doing so in a few years. We handled this first meeting with a two-pronged approach: (1) to provide individual friars with an opportunity to present their current research topics and interests; and (2) to have some focused exegetical discussions about the relation between intra-biblical and patristic exegesis. This second part focused on Luke 4:19-30.

Our sense of fraternity and devotion to studying, exploring, and proclaiming the written Word of God was very tangible. I presented a synopsis of my MA Philosophy thesis on "Truth and Hermeneutics," and all the presentations led to some very lively discussions. We spoke of how to collaborate with each other and with the École in our work of Scripture study, and how our way of life as Dominicans makes us uniquely suited to study, mediate upon, and preach from the Scriptures. The tradition of the Order of Preachers, and the work of the Ecole and its founder, offers us the opportunity to pursue a Thomistic approach to biblical exegesis, one that is both scientifically and academically rigorous, yet inspired by faith and thus theological.

I also found our exegetical discussions about Luke 4 to be very engaging and stimulating. We all agreed that such collective work and dialogue is something we would like to continue; and we proposed a theme of "The Word," and the text of Sirach 24, for our next meeting in January of 2016.

Fr. Olivier-Thomas Venard, O.P., the director of "The Bible in its Traditions" project, presented some of the purpose and structure of this ambitious, and decades-long project of the École to produce a wide-ranging exegetical tool and commentary on all of Scripture, to be made available online (examples can be found here). You can also read more about it on its blog here. He hoped we would be able to collaborate in this project, and we thought that we should use the "BEST" website (the French acronym for the project) as part of our annual meetings and preparation.

In spite of spending about 60 hours of travel time in 5 days, the visit was very worthwhile, and left me, and I believe the other friars who participated, hopeful for the future of biblical scholarship in the Order. This being my second trip to Jerusalem, it was no less poignant to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher again and to pray there, as well as at the Cenacle (the site of our Lord's Last Supper). Being physically present at "Mt. Zion, true pole of the earth," (Ps. 48:3) and in the very places in which our Redeemer lived and won for us a share in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), gives a whole new dimension and meaning to praying the Psalms everyday and reading the Scriptures! I look forward to further visits and time spent in Jerusalem and at the École Biblique.

Many thanks to the friars of the École Biblique and St. Etienne, especially Fr. Marcel Sigrist, O.P., the director of the school, and Fr. Guy Tardivy, O.P., the prior of St. Stephen's, for welcoming us and encouraging us in our collaboration for the renewal of Scripture studies in the Order. And to our own New Testament scholar, Fr. Gregory Tatum, O.P., who lives, studies, and teaches at the Ecole Biblique; he was kind enough to take me to the aiport early in the morning on my last day. Thank you, Fr. Gregory! May God bless the work of the École Biblique and all those pursuing Scripture studies, that by their work, the Word of God Himself might more fully illumine not only our Order, but the world with His Wisdom, His Truth, and His Grace!

Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

Scripture Study for Catholics

Filed under: 

"Sacred Scripture is the soul of theology," says the Second Vatican Council document Dei Verbum. What does this mean? What principles does the Church give Catholic exegetes for interpreting the Sacred Text. In this first of a series on interpreting Sacred Scripture in an ecclesial conext, I lay out the basic principles the Church sets forth for understanding and interpreting the written Word of God...


Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

Vanity of Vanities!

Filed under: 

King Solomon by Gustave Doré [courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes is one of my favorites. Now it may seem strange, at first, that this book would be a "favorite"—or even included in the biblical canon and revered as divinely inspired by Jews and Christians at all—when  perhaps more than any other, this book appears so permeated by pessimism about life and its meaning. How can a writing which repeats, thirty-seven times, the exclamation, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!" be a "word of God" to us, not only showing forth the mind of an ancient Semitic sage, but also be a "God-breathed" work which is both true, and useful for attaining wisdom (cf. 2 Tim 3:16)?

A partial answer to the question is captured in the witty claim of Dr. Peter Kreeft, who says that Ecclesiastes "is divine revelation precisely by being the absence of divine revelation"1; it shows us the results of the quest for knowledge and wisdom by a human mind to which God has not revealed himself. We see, in the narrator of this book—who calls himself "Qohelet," which might mean "Leader of the assembly," or, even the "Teacher" —the limits and apparent absurdity of life in the absence of God's revelation. Thus, it is as if God is saying to us through Qohelet, "Behold and consider what life would be like were I not to reveal myself to you! All is vanity without me!"

But, I think, this book also shows us a common human encounter with the complexities and injustices of life, even for those who have faith in the God who has revealed Himself. It shows, in its own way, that faith does not always give neat and easy answers to life's deepest problems, and that faith often does not give us exactly the answer we thought we were hoping for.

For instance, Qohelet tells us, speaking across the centuries in a rather melancholy tone, "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting, for that is the end of every human being, and the living should take it to heart" (Eccl. 7:3). "Sorrow," he then tells us, "is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser." These are not the words we may want to hear; but what wisdom, what profound life lessons are hidden in this short proverb, born of a lifetime of experience, forged on the anvil of decades of trial and error! And not only one lifetime, but that of generations, of centuries, of Jewish and then Christian men and women who have read and lived these words, and who testify, from the very grave, to their validity. A wise heart is born of sorrow! How hard this lesson can be to those of us now who suffer or mourn, and how unbelievable to those who have not yet tasted the bitter cup of grief! Why must our hearts taste sorrow in order to grow wiser? Why must we suffer such painful loss in order to grow up? While Qohelet sees wisdom in a willingness to face the harshness of life, he does not seem to have good answers to these underlying questions. Sometimes, even when we have faith in God, we do not—at the moment at least—have good answers in the midst of our confusion.

And yet, to get back to Dr. Kreeft's remark, for the Christian, even though our lived experience can indeed resonate with Qohelet's confusion—and almost anyone who has experienced suffering or loss knows the  "feeling" which can express itself in the phrase, "All is Vanity!"—this book of Ecclesiastes is not the final word. It is incomplete. He did lack something that we now have, and which can illuminate the darkness of meaninglessness which threatens to overwhelm us at times, and with which the contemporary world is all too familiar. We have a greater Word which fulfills and encompasses all that was said before, and all that will be said: the Word, the "Logos,"—the Reason and Meaning of Being—which precedes all things and gives them their existence, and which offers to them their restoration, healing, and elevation: Jesus Christ, the Word of God who become Man for our sake.

We, as Christians, can then appreciate a book like Ecclesiastes in a two-fold way. On the one hand, we can value the realism with which it describes the harshness and injustices of life, even for those who have faith in God. On the other, we can see it as a limited perspective—though still true within its own context—which God Himself has filled out, enlightened, and completed by his Incarnate Word. This Word is Wisdom-in-Person Who experienced the bitter cup of suffering, and yet Who by His own passion has opened up new meaning to our otherwise "vain" and apparently meaningless existence; a Word Who puts an end to sin, death, and vanity, by enduring them with humility, faithfulness, and love.

Thus, even in those moments when it seems as though "All is Vanity!", we can resonate with this ancient, divinely inspired sage, and we can also hold out hope that God will not—that God has not—left these cries of desperation unanswered. His answer—His Word—may not always be nice and tidy; it may not always make us "feel good" at first; we may not even like it—we may not even directly hear or see it—but we can know and believe that Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, has spoken and still speaks. It may be true that "all is vanity," empty and void, if we were to be without Him, if God were not to speak. But we need not be without Him, since He has spoken into our emptiness and darkness: "Let there be light." And there was Light. And that Light has shown in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.2

1. Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1989), 23.

2. Gen 1:2-3; John 1:5.
Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

“He shall be called a Nazarene”

Filed under: 

Mosaic of NazarethIn the Gospel of Matthew, we read about Joseph taking Mary and Jesus and fleeing Judea for Egypt because of Herod’s plan to kill all infant boys in the area. On their return after Herod’s death, Joseph is warned in a dream about Herod’s successor, and so they flee to Nazareth – where Jesus subsequently grows up. Matthew then writes that this happened “in order to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: ‘For he shall be called a Nazarene’” (Matt. 2:23).

What Old Testament passage(s) did Matthew have in mind when he wrote this? This question has puzzled biblical commentators for centuries, because the apparent quotation does not precisely match any known text of the Old Testament.1  One possible explanation is that offered by the research of Maarten J. J. Menken, who argues that Matthew has in mind the Greek translations of Judges 13:5,7, and 16:7.2

Judges 13-16 describes the life of Samson, a “Nazirite” known for his rather supernatural strength. His mother was originally “barren,” a rather shameful state for a woman, but was told by an angel, “You shall conceive and bear a son, whose head no razor shall touch. For he shall be a Nazirite of God, from his infancy and from his mother’s womb. And he shall begin to free Israel from the hand of the Philistines” (Judg 13:5).  The Hebrew term “Nazirite” is נָזִר or נָזִיר (pronounced “Naw-ZEER”), and meant “consecrated” or “holy.” It relates to those consecrated by a vow as prescribed in Numbers 6, in which those so consecrated must not shave their heads nor consume anything from the vine.

Interestingly, in some versions of a Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint (LXX), the Hebrew term נָזִיר (naziyr, or Nazirite in English) in Judges 13:5, 7 was transliterated into Greek as ναζιραῖος (naziraios). The same Hebrew word was treated similarly in Lam 4:7 LXX.  In various other Greek translations of the Old Testament, including those done by Jewish scholars of the early Christian era, in several places in the Scriptures this same Hebrew word was variously translated as ναζιρ, ναζαραιος, ναζηραιος, or ναζιραιος (nazir, nazaraios, nazeraios, and naziraios; notice that the only difference between these last few is that of one vowel).3 Matthew’s Ναζωραῖος also differs only by one vowel – the same vowel position (he uses the Greek ω where others used ι, α, or η). If we keep in mind that the Hebrew text originally did not have any vowels – these were only marked by later scribes for the sake of pronunciation –, there may be enough "wiggle room" to allow Matthew to see a linguistic connection between "Nazarene" (Ναζωραῖος) and "Nazirite" (Ναζιραῖος). It may be that Matthew was familiar with such Greek renderings of the Judges 13 passages, and he made precisely such a connection.

If Menken is right—and there is more to his argument than that briefly mentioned above4—, then it means that Matthew sees in the story of Samson a “type” of Christ. If we compare these two figures, we notice many parallels: Samson’s mother was promised by an angel that she would conceive and bear a son, that he would be a Nazirite (i.e., “holy”); her son was given a supernatural strength so as to bring (brief) respite for the Israelites from the Philistines. Similarly, in Matthew Jesus’ birth was announced by an angel who said that he will be conceived by the Holy Spirit and who promised that Jesus would save God’s people from their sins (Mt. 2:20-21).  Jesus himself is the “strong man,” overcoming the strength of Satan (cf. Mt. 21:29).

SamsonIf we continue with the comparison, we notice that, like all Old Testament foreshadowings of Christ, there are differences among the similarities: Samson falls for the ploys of the Philistines via the woman he loves, and as a result loses his strength, his freedom, his sight, and – eventually – his life. Jesus is confronted with the deceptions of Satan, but does not succumb. But Jesus’ ultimate act of triumph over his “enemies” – Satan, sin, and Bronzino's "Christ on the Cross" (1545)death – also involves the giving of his own life, on the cross. After Samson was captured, he stretched out his hands to dislodge the pillars of the Philistine house in which he was imprisoned, taking down numerous Philistines with him. Jesus, in turn, stretched out his own hands on the cross, and destroyed the powers of sin and death that reigned over the human race: a victorious strength exercised in weakness.

If Menken is correct, then, Matthew has drawn a typological comparison between Jesus and Samson, and we can see in Jesus the one who is truly “consecrated” to God (ναζιραῖος), the “strong” one who overcomes the enemies of God and brings freedom to His people.


  1. There are two common solutions to this problem, both of which St. Jerome noticed in his day, although he ended up favoring the one posited in this article: it could be referring to the Hebrew word for "shoot" in passages such as Isaiah 11:1; or to the Hebrew word for "Nazirite" in Judges 13:5. [Back to reading]
  2. Maarten J. J. Menken, “The Sources of the Old Testament Quotation in Matthew 2:23,” Journal of Biblical Literature 120, no. 3 (Autumn, 2001): 451-468. For those with full-text access to JSTOR, the article can be accessed here. Menken also sees the language of Isaiah 7:14 -- which Matthew has already invoked in chapter 1 -- being mixed in with the quotation, specifically, the use of the verb καλέω, "to call." [Back to reading]
  3. Additionally, the Greek text of Maccabees 3:49, which is believed to have been originally written in Hebrew, uses ναζιραῖος as the equivalent of “Nazirite.” [Back to reading]
  4. Menken also argues that Matthew's use of the Greek word ότι in Matt. 2:23 is intended to be part of the OT quotation itself, not as part of the quotation formula which precedes it (a purpose this word sometimes filfulls). In which case, the OT citation is, "For[ότι] he shall be called a Nazarene." And as it turns out, the relevant phrases in Judges 13 and 16 (in the LXX) all began with this same Greek word: ότι. Menken also notices that Matthew refers to "the prophets" (in the plural) when prefacing the quotation. He does not do this in any of his other formula citations of the OT, even when he forms a quotation by mixing two different prophets into one quote (e.g., Mt. 21:5 = Is 62:11 + Zech 9:9); in every other case, he speaks of "the prophet" (in the singular, and he often names the prophet). But if we consider that the book of Judges belonged to the so-called "former prophets," and that these books were not yet enumerated by individual authors by the 1st century like the other prophets (such a enumeration and naming was done later), this would account for Matthew's phrase, "what was spoken through the prophets" (Matt. 2:23), i.e., "through that unenumerated collection by the former prophets." These two points give further reason to suppose that Matthew is refering to Judges 13. [Back to reading]
Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

To Be A Neighbor is to Practice Mercy

Filed under: 

There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test Jesus and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The man said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered well; do this and you will live.” But because the man wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied… (Luke 10:25-37)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a story we’ve heard many times before, and yet like all of Jesus’ parables, it is not just a story. In this case it is Jesus’ mysterious response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Now Jesus could have been very direct and said, “Brother, sister, friend and enemy…all of these are your neighbor,” but instead he leads the scholar to the realization that the one who acts as a neighbor is the one who shows mercy. In other words, Jesus helps the young man to see that the real question he should be asking is: “Am I treating others with mercy?”

Mercy, or the lack thereof, is one of the themes addressed in the documentary Bully, which I recently watched for one of my classes at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. The film features five families whose children have been the victims of bullying, but the primary focus is a boy from Sioux City named Alex. At 13-years-old, Alex doesn’t like going to school. In addition to being taunted on the playground and called “fishface,” his bus ride to and from school is a nightmare. While one boy stabs him with a pencil, strangles him, and repeatedly slams his head into the back of a seat, another threatens, “I will end you.” 

Over the years there have been many responses to the question of bullying, why it happens, and how to stop it. Some have suggested that it’s just a phase, that “boys will be boys” and will eventually grow out of it. Others have taught that the only way to stop a bully is to stand up to him, or to ignore him entirely. Finally, there are those who believe that the only way to get a bully to stop being a bully is to teach him about compassion. Anyone who has been a victim of bullying or cyberbullying* would probably agree that this last option is the best one, for no one wants to wait for their bully to "grow out of it," and often standing up to a bully or ignoring him can make things even worse.

So how does one teach a bully about compassion? Surprisingly, the process begins with the victim showing mercy. Now this doesn't mean condoning the bully's behavior. A bully still needs to be shown that his/her actions are harmful; it would be unjust to do otherwise, and mercy never undermines justice. Mercy, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, is a certain kind of fulfillment of justice (ST, I, 21, 4 ad 2). In this case then, showing mercy means not returning like for like, not responding to physical and verbal abuse with further violence. For Alex, the young man in the film, this is extremely difficult. At one point he notes that, he "wants to become the bully." Yet to do so would only result in a further perpetuation of the problem. The young boys who bully Alex might learn about suffering, but it's high unlikely that they would learn anything about compassion and empathy. 

Mercy, justice, and compassion...these are virtues one must practice in order to be a neighbor, and in order to love one's neighbor. Without them, the possibility of inheriting eternal life is a long way off.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

*Cyberbullying involves the use of e-mail, text messages, and various forms of social media to harass and humiliate other individuals, and may include the spreading of rumors by way of a blog or website, the posting of embarrassing photos, and/or the use of hate speech in online conversations or posts.

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

A Little Lower than the Angels

Filed under: 

"What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet: All sheep and oxen, even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatever swims the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth!" – Psalm 8:5-10

There is perhaps nothing quite as perplexing, or important, in our contemporary age as the question, "Who am I?" This can be seen, if only implicitly, in the often existential, if not openly nihilistic, lyrics in popular music; in the various sub-cultures among teenagers searching for their identity; or behind heated political debates about freedom and rights in our own country. Yet not often, in public, is the question asked directly: What does it mean to be a human being? What is man? The psalmist asks this very question, noticing both man's humble stature and his glorious destiny. He is a little lower than the angels, yet crowned with glory and honor. Yet even in pointing out his humble stature, we can see an insight into human nature's dignity: the human being is, indeed, "a little lower than the angels" or "less than gods,"1 but this very comparison is itself telling: the Psalmist does not say, "He is a little greater than the beasts;" rather, the comparison is made with angels or gods. The comparison itself speaks of our rather high stature. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on this Psalm, notes how it is that angels and human beings are both similar and different:

"The image of God is found in the angels by the simple intuition of truth, without any inquiry; but in humans discursively: and therefore in man only in a certain small degree. This is why humans are called angels [in Malachi 2]... And, man is corruptible, but in a certain way; since, at a certain time, man will know all things without discursive thought in his homeland (heaven); and he will be incorruptible in the way of his body."2

So we are comparable to the angels in bearing in ourselves the image of God via our intellectual powers, although we differ in the limited, temporal way that reason works, and – of course – by our 'natural' corruptibility.

In a similar vein, in my metaphysics class I recently read an article by James Lehrberger commenting on Thomas Aquinas' account of human nature as seen in one of his earlier writings, De Ente et Essentia.3 Lehrberger argues that Thomas does not see the traditional Aristotelian definition of the human being – a "rational animal" as the final word or the most complete description of the human being. Instead, he argues that this physical definition (pertaining to the natural philosophy of Aristotle), stands alongside a more complete metaphysical account of the human being which holds that man is an incarnate spirit. That is, while the soul of man can be logically or physically categorized, on the one hand, with the souls of living things (and, more generally, with the forms of material bodies), it can also be (metaphysically) categorized with "separate intelligences" (i.e., angelic beings). In the first case, we see man as another being in the material world; in the second, he lives in the realm of spiritual beings. Yet we can see that neither account alone suffices; man does not belong only to the earth; nor, simply, to heaven. He dwells between heaven and earth, with a foot, so to speak, planted firmly in each realm.

We are, in fact, incarnate spirits, "links" or "bridges" between the merely physical realm and the purely spiritual realm. We live among rivers, rocks, trees, and cattle; yet we also live among – and have powers comparable to – angels. We are a little less than gods. If only we might recognize this unique role we fill, and try neither to be simply angels, or beasts, but rather incarnate spirits, embodied intelligences, displaying the image and glory of God in a bodily form, connecting heaven and earth. If we live as such, and recognize our place in the created order, we can look both at the earth as our natural mother, and heaven as our intended home.

And then we can see Christ, "crowned with glory and honor", having been given "all authority in heaven and earth" (Matt 28:18), as the one who has has brought about that most marvelous union between heaven and earth which is proper to man, but had been hindered by sin; the one who has done even more than this – for in heaven this glorified man is no longer "a little lower than the angels", but now is "far superior" to them (Heb 1:4). It is to this exalted state that our Lord has raised our nature; and it is to this exalted state that we are invited, if only we humbly accept our lot, and His mercy.


1. The Hebrew could be translated as "less than gods"; the Greek Old Testament and the Latin have "a little less than the angels."

2. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Psalm 8. Available online in Latin and English at 

3. James Lehrberger,  'The Anthropology of Aquinas's "De Ente et Essentia,"' The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Jun., 1998), pp. 829-847 (available on JSTOR for those who have access to that resource); Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia ("On Being and Essence"), available online at

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Not by "Faith Alone"

Filed under: 


Council of Trent

Over the last week of ordinary time before the season of Lent, we have been reading from the epistle of St. James during the weekday mass. As a former Lutheran, this epistle has played a special role in my life, due to the wrestling match forced upon me as I tried to reconcile my inherited belief in salvation by “faith alone” with the clear words of the second chapter of this letter, that salvation is not by faith alone. Needless to say, I lost the wrestling match, a loss which is not uncommon when fighting against sacred scripture, and have now embraced the full teachings of the Catholic Church. However this week has provided yet another occasion for me to reflect once again on how my own thinking developed during the years leading up to my entrance into the Catholic Church.

            When I was a Lutheran, I believed that, within the doctrine of salvation by faith alone the unpolluted, and pure core of Christianity was expressed with simple clarity. I believed that within this doctrine existed a key to that “Mere Christianity” that all Christians had been searching for. The very essence of the Christian faith was here contained and summarized, that man cannot save himself but is entirely dependent on the Grace won for him in Jesus Christ.

            But what about the epistle of James?

            “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” James 2:14-16

            What could James be talking about here by saying that faith without works is dead? What about all of those times in the writing of St. Paul where faith is continually contrasted with works and the two are apparently opposed?  How was I to understand this?

            The best explanation that I came across from the protestant camp, and the one that I held for some time, was this, that what James was talking about when he used the word “faith” was a mere intellectual assent, not true faith that saves. He is referring to the mere assent to certain propositions as true, like facts that are checked-off as on a list. There was no contradiction at all. What the reformed doctrine of Luther is referring to as opposed to St. James is (and this is the important phrase) a “Saving Faith”.

            I reasoned along with many Protestants that what is required for Salvation is a “Saving Faith”. Faith cannot be mere intellectual assent; it must be that faith which St. Paul speaks of, the faith that will unite us mind and heart to God. This is the answer; a clarifying and nuancing of the word “faith”. What is required for salvation is a “saving faith”. This is the faith that “alone” can save. This is at least how I would have reasoned ten years ago.

            But by saying this, what did I just do in my reasoning? By clinging to the doctrine of faith alone I was forced, in order to be faithful to scripture and to make sense of St. James, to clarify what I meant by faith. I was forced to make a distinction. I was forced to distinguish between faith in one sense and faith in another sense. The idea of faith must be qualified if it is to be a faith that saves. There is something about saving faith that makes it different from that mere faith that doesn’t; something about the faith of the saints that renders it wholly other than the faith of those who St. James is condemning for having “faith alone”. If there is truly a distinction between the faith of mere intellectual assent that James is referring to and the faith that saves, and there has to be if we are to understand James at all, then there must be something by which saving faith is different than mere faith. This something by which faith becomes saving must be something real; it must have real being. If it did not have real being there would be no reason to speak of the distinction at all and we must go back to the unacceptable contradiction. Also, this something by which faith becomes saving must be different than faith itself, it cannot just be “more faith”; otherwise St. James’s warning against “faith alone” would still stand as a contradiction. So there is something that must be added to the notion of faith to render it saving; and even if I were to recoil from the phrase ‘add to faith’ I still had to admit that there is something real to distinguish mere faith from saving faith. What is that? If there is something truly real by which the faith spoken of by St. James is distinguished from the saving faith of St. Paul, than that something must also be saving and essential.

            The next question: what is it that distinguishes faith to render it salvific? The faith that I had in my mind when I spoke of salvation through faith was a faith that opens the heart to the grace of God. It was a whole disposition of the soul, intellect and will, towards God. When I asked myself, “what is it about faith that is saving?” I had to conclude this. That faith in and of itself is an entire re-orientation of my life in the direction of God. And this is by no meansonly intellectual assent. It is indeed an intellectual assent at first, but that assent is immediately accompanied by ahope in God, a hope which surpasses human reason, and alove of God which is not of ourselves, not a love that arises from our own natural ability to Love, but a love that is infused from above, true Charity. This is the answer; what is added to faith that distinguishes it as saving is CHARITY! It is Charity that saves.

            This is the faith that St. Paul was talking about, a faith that, as soon as it was born in the heart, rebounded to acts of hope and love, and, as soon as the opportunity arose, overflowed into acts of obedience to God and acts of Charity to ones neighbor. This is what is truly saving, true Charity.

            I concluded thus: there is no such thing as the gift of the theological virtue of Faith alone. It is always accompanied by an infusion of all of the theological virtues and those virtues immediately begin the perfection of my natural powers to flourish as a human being and to know God. God Never gives the gift of faith alone but the gift of all the virtues. The faith can remain after the virtue of Charity has been lost, but once charity is lost through sin the faith that remains is “dead”.


It is Charity that saves. Just as what St. Paul said in the thirteenth Chapter of 1st Corinthians, it is Charity that is the supreme virtue.

            I came to realize that these two concepts, faith and works of Charity, were not separated at all but were two aspects of the same reality that was given to me at my Baptism, sanctifying grace. The gift of faith that, far from destroying my natural abilities to know, perfects them by granting them the power to rise and assent to divinely revealed truths that reason alone could not know, and the gift of charity, perfecting my nature by giving me the ability to love God for His own sake, are both aspects of the same gift of grace. This sanctifying grace was given to me as a free gift when I was reborn through baptism, but this grace did not remain dormant. This grace, then in seed form, began to sprout shoots, not only of acts of faith, but act of charity as well. This grace was not merely nourished by acts of faith but also by acts of love of God and love of neighbor. If this sanctifying grace given to me as a free gift at my baptism did not grow into free acts of charity towards my neighbor, the only thing that could be said about my faith is thatit is dead. As St. James so plainly puts it,“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead”.

            This is by no means an exhaustive account of the debate that has raged for almost five hundred years over the nature of salvation. It is, as I said earlier, my own personal reflection, in summary form, of how I struggled to come to terms with discrepancies between the teachings that I inherited from my Lutheran training and the truth as revealed through Sacred Scripture. I wrestled with scripture for many years. But to fight against scripture is to lose. For me, it was a glorious defeat. When the fighting was over I found myself staring at the true Gospel of Grace as articulated by the Catholic Church for the last two thousand years; and how beautiful a teaching it is.



Trent (session VI, Decree on Justification) canon 28


See the November talks (esp Nov 19) from 2008. Pope Benedict shows that it is Charity that saves, not faith.


Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

Touching the Untouchables

Filed under: 

Br. Michael James' preaching for Vespers on Saturday, February 11, based on the first reading from Mass on Sunday: Leviticus 13:1-2, 44-46.

Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

The Mystery and Scandal of Sacred Scripture: A Christological Reflection

Filed under: 

“The study of the Sacred Page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology.” (Dei Verbum #24)

Courtesy of Edal Anton LefterovThe Incarnation, said St. Irenaeus, is a scandal.  He borrows the term from St. Paul, where the Apostle uses the Greek skandalon to describe Jewish reaction to the idea that a crucified man could also be the longed-for Messiah.  Paul’s words are as bracing as they are instructive: “For Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling-block [skandalon] to Jews and folly to the Gentiles”(1 Cor 1:23).  The scandal and folly of the Cross sharpen our attention around a particular Christian doctrine at the very center of our faith as Catholics: the Incarnation, the assertion that the same God who rules sea and earth and sky, and holds all creation together in being, became a man like us in every way but sin.  This reality permeates almost everything we do as Catholics, from receiving sacramental grace poured out through the humble means of bread, water, wine, and oil, to discerning God’s active presence in our lives and in the world, to the reading and interpretation of Sacred Scripture.  This sacramental grace, this living with Christ day to day, this seeking of God’s wisdom revealed in Christ in the Sacred Scriptures; all these were folly and scandal to many in St. Paul’s time, and they remain so to many today.  But the last point in particular – the understanding of Sacred Scripture – is a particularly controversial arena of ongoing debate, controversial precisely because intimately connected with the mystery of the Incarnation.

In many ways, the Christian world in general has not fully recovered from, or addressed the implications of, the schools of what is called “historical-criticism” coming to fruition in Europe, mostly in Germany, in the 19th century.  The current Holy Father has been one of the most prominent spokesmen to address the crisis of faith that historical-critical schools gave rise to when applying their methods to the Bible beginning in the 19th century.[1]

It was in the late 18th century and then through the 19th,  that more rigorous and scientific methods were developed to ascertain a clearer picture of what has happened in the past.  For example if we are studying, say, Caesar’s Gallic Wars, we might ask: how many actual manuscripts do we have of the Gallic Wars? do they disagree with one another, and if so where and why? how much did Caesar’s own interests in furthering his political standing in Rome play into portraying himself as a successful general? did such an interest perhaps lead him to exaggerate certain facts, and can this be demonstrated by appeals to archaeological or other evidence outside the text itself? what do we know about the Roman Empire and the uncivilized areas of Europe at the time that help us understand more clearly what Caesar describes?

Questions like these are natural to ask if we want an historically accurate view of something, and we have access today to an enormous number of tools to do so that previous generations and centuries did not.  In this sense, the new methods are great gifts to learning and historical research.  When it comes to the Bible, however, the situation becomes more complicated.  To begin asking in a scientifically rigorous way questions like, “Did (or how) the Exodus really happen?,” or “Did Abraham really exist?,” or, let us say, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?,” brings into play not only historical questions, but questions which have dramatic spiritual implications depending on the answer.  What if the evidence is slim?  If the answer to the last question, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?,” for example, is negative, then Christians should pack up their bags and go home (see 1 Cor 15:12ff).  The direction much of the early historical criticism took (which has implications down to today) was to undermine the reliability of the Bible and thus the believability of many important Christian truths.  So: what if an historical inquiry results in a conclusion that contradicts the faith?  In principle, Catholics must say, it can’t, which is where the difficulties and debates begin.  What parts of Scripture may we count as “strictly” historical and which not?  Does the faith hang on, for example, asserting the historicity of the Book of Jonah?  Catholic scholars would say on this point, no; Jonah has a good amount of theological truth to give us despite its being more in the genre of narrative fiction, versus strict history.  The Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, however, are integral to the faith, even though many historians will admit that, on purely historical grounds (apart from faith), the Virgin Birth cannot be demonstrated.  There is also a very large gray area where lines are not so easily drawn.  It seems vital to me, for example, to assert that someone like Abraham and Moses existed and really did the things attributed to them, since the God’s salvific plan for the human race is something that takes place in history.  The faith does not simply drop down to us from above in dogmatic formulas of the Church; our dogma must emerge from the actual things God has done in history, one of which is preserve the Holy People of the Old Testament in preparation for the Messiah.  But many scholars would disagree with me there, seeing less necessity to assert the historicity of these narratives.  On the other hand, does Moses and Abraham’s historical existence necessitate every detail in the narrative of the Pentateuch being strict history, or can we not see literary art and intention and crafting of the author at work too?  Scholars will vary widely on the precise answers to this question.  We cannot here go into a more detailed explanation of the limits of “inspiration” pertaining to the Scriptures, interesting as that topic is.  What I want to point out is something even more fundamental.  The tension between how to use the tools of historical criticism and how to simultaneously affirm the truths of our faith is almost inevitable given what Catholics believe Scripture is.

The Sacred Scriptures are, on the one hand, a collection of historical documents by a vast array of writers collected together through time; using historical methods of inquiry, then, and following them out to their logical conclusions, must be valid in principle.  On the other hand, Christians also assert these documents are a divinely inspired “whole,” through which the Holy Spirit has narrated without error one single plan of salvation issuing from the Triune God.  The Bible has a human dimension and a divine dimension; it is, if you will, “fully God-inspired” and “fully man-crafted,” fully the result of the Holy Spirit’s inerrant authorship of salvation history by words and deeds, and fully the result of human art, style, intention, craft, and even weakness (see Dei Verbum #11).  If these two things seem in tension, that is because they embody in a secondary way the mystery of the Incarnation itself, the mystery of the Word of God who become Flesh, subject to all the weaknesses of the flesh but sin.  Origen strikingly says that in the Incarnation the Eternal Word “became Jesus” while in Scripture the Eternal Word “became a book.”  Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council says similarly that “the words of God expressed in human language have been made like human discourse, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took to himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men” (DV #13).

The problem for Catholic interpreters today is how to remain faithful to both the valid methods of historical inquiry, which have resulted in seeing much more clearly than past ages the complexity of the human dimensions of Scripture, while retaining a robust faith that all of Scripture, whatever the disparate array of particular contexts it arose out of, bears a unified witness to the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ.  An interpreter may, in fact, commit “Exegetical Heresies” paralleling the Christological heresies of the early centuries of Christianity.  Much 19th and 20th century exegesis tended to a kind of “Arian” exegetical heresy, focusing so narrowly on the human dimensions of Scripture that it lost sight of the divine.  The great split between the “Historical Jesus” and the “Christ of Faith” that began to be drawn so sharply is a result of this error.  Fundamentalists err on the side of a “Monophysite” exegetical heresy, wanting to speak solely and only of the way the Divine Author has  dropped down eternal truths from above into a text whose human dimensions don’t matter much and are not worth studying.  Ironically, both of these methodological errors fail in getting an accurate picture of the text (though for opposite reasons) and often end in being more a reflection of the ideological posture of the exegete.  A more subtle exegetical heresy is a “Nestorian” one, where the human and divine dimensions of the text are neatly syphoned off from one another and seen as not intrinsically related: here “exegesis” proper is done in an atmospherically sealed arena where faith gets “tabled” and conclusions are reached that might exclude, for example, the possibility of the supernatural, or contradict other elements of the Catholic faith; then “theology” proper takes the often reductionist conclusions and does its work, seen as a categorically different task.  To the Arian Exegete the divine aspect of Scripture is the skandalon of St. Paul – he wants to exclude and finds offensive the supernatural aspects (cf., for example, the Jesus Seminar).  The Fundamentalist trips over the human dimension of the text, constantly trying to see easy harmonies and do exegetical gymnastics to explain away the messiness and complexity of textual and historical issues.  The Nestorian Exegete thinks it foolishness to see the tasks of exegesis and theology as, though distinct, essentially one.  A very interesting study to make on this topic is some of the correspondence between St. Augustine and St. Jerome, when the latter was in the Holy Land making his translations into Latin of the Hebrew Bible without recourse to the Septuagint.  Jerome began to see a number of disturbing discrepancies between manuscripts, and notice where the Hebrew text differed from the Septuagint in many places.  St. Augustine, ever the stalwart theologian and pastor, chides Jerome for not using the Septuagint, which had gained authoritative prominence in the West as the source for the Latin Vulgate translation.  Jerome was attending to the human "messiness" of the text as a kind of proto-critical scholar, while Augustine was worried about the theological and pastoral implications of seeing tension and disharmony in the One Revelation of God, highlighting the "divine aspect."  Ultimately, a Catholic approach must see both dimensions in unity, reflecting the mystery and power of the Incarnation itself.

The ongoing discussion for Catholic exegetes today is exactly how to bring these two dimensions of the Sacred Text into an organic synthesis, both the human dimension which is legitimately subject to anything and everything right reason can discover, and the divine dimension which is mysteriously imbedded in, and visible through, the human.  Dei Verbum (#12) highlighted both of these necessary stages in exegesis – using critical tools and reading in the light of faith – in an authoritative way that remains a commission for Catholic exegetes today.  Benedict XVI has articulated the task, with characteristic eloquence and precision, in his 2010 post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (see especially #’s 29-39).  The task of exegeting Scripture as both human and divine testimony is ultimately one of bridging and seeing in mutual relationship the “two wings” of reason and faith which John Paul II spoke of; it is one of seeing the disparate and particular human circumstances out of which the Scriptures arose, as a developing fabric of one Divine Plan revealing the love of God in Christ; it is a task, though scandalous and foolish to the world in various ways, of seeing God reveal His Face in the Scriptures as in a mirror (DV #7), just as men gazed upon Christ when on earth and beheld the Face of the Father (Jn. 10:30).

[1] See his lecture “Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: On the Question of the Foundations and Approaches of Exegesis Today,” in Biblical Interpretation in Crisis: The Ratzinger Conference on Bible and Church, ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) 1-23; and his introductions in Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, tr. Adrian J. Walker (New York: Doubleday, 2007) and Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two: Holy Week, From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, tr. Philip J. Whitmore (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2011); see also the foreword to On the Way to Jesus Christ, tr. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius 2005), where he states his belief that “the crisis of faith in Christ in recent times began with a modified way of reading Sacred Scripture—seemingly the sole scientific way”(9); finally, see his most recent statements in the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini (given in response to the 2009 Synod on the Word of God), especially #’s 29-39 (available at