Topic: Theology

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

The Bible in Jerusalem

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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

Bad Religion, Good Read

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Though Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (Simon & Schuster, 2012) was published almost two years agoBad Religion (Douthat) now, I just got around to reading it over Christmas. It is one of those books I could hardly recommend more to sincere Christians who are trying to sort out the role of Christianity in the public square today. Douthat is an op-ed writer for the New York Times (one of the two token conservatives on staff), whose first two books and multitudinous articles have established him—young as he is—as a prominent cultural critic and observer. Douthat has been praised especially for his balance, which is on rather remarkable display in his most recent book. He sets forth his own positions incisively and with an engaging writing style, while mindful of the weaknesses within the groups he represents; yet is also able to see the strengths and potential good in his opponents' positions. In other words, he betrays a genuinely Catholic sensibility.

Every Christian in America today is aware, on some level, of the ideological battles that rage between and within different communions, the various camps often (and unhelpfully) drawing their vocabulary, attitudes, and posture towards the world, from the clunky categories of the American political scene. As a Generation X convert to the Catholic faith myself, I often have to work very hard to figure out how battles that were fought in the 1960s and '70s—over, say, formal or informal liturgy, abandoning or sticking to traditional theological vocabulary, whether clerics should wear distinctively religious attire or not—are still relevant today. Many have noticed that these post-Vatican II battles, or at least the language and set of cultural assumptions within which they emerged, seem even more remote to the generation following mine, the "Millenials."

The first great service of Douthat's book is to familiarize someone like myself with the "world" of 1950s American Christianity, then the various historical and social forces that, in the ensuing decades, led to the quite complex and varied situation we have today. This is the burden of the first half of the book. The second half goes on to detail a set of "American heresies" Douthat sees operative in the minds and hearts of most average American Christians today. The first half, though, begins by drawing off political trends, social scientific data, theological movements, and broader cultural features, to paint a picture of what Douthat calls the "Lost World" of the 1950s. It is not a lament for a pristine era—to my mind the author is careful not to fall prey to false idealization, despite what some reviewers have said. Rather he sets forth, for the sake of comparison, a broad array of features that characterized the American Christian scene circa 1960.

He points out, for example, that in the 1950s Christianity had a—startling to even utter—strong public presence in the United States that was, on the whole, respected by politicians and intellectuals alike. Having grown up myself in the 1980s in what is known as the "mainline" (as opposed to evangelical) wing of American Protestantism, I was astonished to see that the mainline denominations—Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.—actually experienced growth in the post-WWII years. (Since the 1960s they have experienced an almost universal decline in numbers.) The public prominence of such figures as Fulton Sheen, Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr., bore witness to a Christianity that was, though confessionally varied, intellectually respectable, politically engaged, and strong enough to wield significant cultural influence. Thinkers, writers, and scholars forged within a Christian worldview abounded, able both to engage and win respect from the highest levels of academia, as well as assert a public presence that shaped Christian thinking and consciousness: W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Flannery O'Connor, from the literary side; Christopher Dawson and Arnold Toynbee as historians; John Courtney Murray and Jacques Maritain as theological-philosophical minds who summoned their impressive abilities to political influence.

And then came the '60s. Douthat suggests five factors that, taken together, contributed to the deep fractures American Christianity experienced in the ensuing decades: (1) political polarization, and an increasing politicization of religion; (2) the sexual revolution; (3) globalization; (4) the religious consequences of increased wealth; and (5) class. Politically, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement sparked generational conflicts between an older Eisenhower-era generation in favor of change, but the slow and gradual type; and the younger leftward-leaning generation who demanded more confrontational "shake things up" tactics. Religion within this atmoshpere became increasingly wedded to political agendas, a trend Douthat illuminates by contrasting two pairs of leaders, one from the "old" and the other from the "new" order. In the 1950s and '60s, Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr., though coming out of politically opposite constituencies, managed to transcend their political affiliations, and remain effective Christian witnesses. Graham grew to respect and eventually support King's work; and King would have been, as much as Graham, recognized as a Christian clergyman of public import. By the 1980s, on the other hand, an unseemly picture emerges: Pat Robertson, in a Billly Graham & MLK, Author-Billy Graham (www.billygraham.org); Source-Wikimedia Commonsmanner the heir of Graham's largely white, conservative constituency, intentionally allying himself with the Republican Party vis-à-vis the Christian Coalition; and Jesse Jackson, on the left, summoning his religious clout to the full support of the Democratic Party platform. Each makes a bid for the 1988 Presidential election, a spectacle almost inconceivable for their 1950s and '60s forbears, who seem to have come out of a less-partisan, and hence relatively more united, Christian milieu.

In turn, the sexual revolution, globalization, and a burgeoning post-War middle-class, confronted America's Christian leadership with a juggernaut of issues it could hardly have foreseen, and had little idea how to effectively address. From the radical shift in sexual ethics and moral reflection brought on by the availability of contraception; to the seeming relativization of Christianity's uniqueness in light of a "global world" that seemed to draw Asia and alternative religious experiences nearer; to the slough of problems the gospel associates with wealth flooding into an upwardly mobile Baby Boomer generation; to theologians like Harvey Cox and James Pike who seemed altogether cheery about Christianity's capitulation to, and merging with, the rising secular state: all these amounted to a perfect storm for America's Christian leadership, who found themselves increasingly on the outs with the trends and direction of mainstream culture.

Douthat classes the responses to these challenges into two broad categories: accommodation and resistance. In the accommodationist camp one found men like Cox and Pike (mentioned above), along with Protestant mainline, and the lion's share of influential Catholic thinkers and bishops. If the world is speaking of progress and political action, and is tired of "old fashioned" ways of doing things, then, well, the Church ought to abandon these old ways as much as possible, since modern man finds them so displeasing. Jesus was interested in social justice and challenging the existing authorities; so ought we be. Jesus met people where they were at; so we ought to be less concerned about formality in liturgy, and adopt a more folksy guitar and tambourine approach, in line with what young people are "really" interested in. One very interesting section along these lines draws comparisons between the language of men like Cox and Pike—who came to positively and unashamedly deny central Christian truths—and the language of the 2nd Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, whose optimism about the possibilities of the "City of Man" often seems, at best, anachronistic, and at worst, almost incoherent. Exemplary of his detachment, though, Douthat reminds someone like myself—who, in the year 2014, finds himself on most points in favor of re-implementing in a new context, the "more traditional" ways—that in 1965 the accommodationist approach was altogether arguable, reasonable, and even compelling. Christianity faced an array of issues that were unprecedented in Christian history. Why not tinker with the way doctrine is couched, and the manner liturgy is done, in order to draw more souls to Christ? The real effects of accommodationism, needless to say, were another question. Douthat quotes James Hitchcock to summarize (107):

"Progressive clergy shed their vestments on the sacristy floor, threw their incense in the trash, and sold their golden vessels to antique dealers, only to discover that somehow the puritanical young men and women who had marched with them on the picket lines had got hold of all these discards and more besides—tarot cards, Ouija boards, Tibetan prayer wheels, and temple gongs. The Latin had been eliminated from the Mass so the young could comprehend it, but they preferred instead to chant in Sanskrit. Campus chaplains had ceased trying to sell prayer and were selling social action instead, but their former constituents were hunting up Hindu gurus and undertaking systematic regimens of meditation and fasting. Some clergy lectured the Church severely about the evil of sacral liturgies which are "escapes from life," but the young increasingly preferred drug-induced euphoria and hallucinations."

The fruits of accommodationism were increasingly smaller congregations, who seemed increasingly less committed to traditional Christian truths, from the theology of God, who now was to be "nearer" to me and so grow and change and learn things like me; to moral and sexual issues, which on any number of points contemporary Christians were either indifferent to or positively rejected; to recognizing any substantial need for "institutional religion" at all.

First Things Cover, Author-JoeCarter888; Source, Wikimedia CommonsOn the other side was the "resistance" approach of evangelicalism and a smaller group of Catholics, who found themselves unlikely allies in an emerging "culture war" against the rising tide of secularism. The journal First Things came out of this improbable alliance (first issue, Spring 1994), as did the increasingly politically aligned pro-life movement. Though generating a significant amount of internal strength and sense of purpose, and doing what no other post-1960 Christian community seemed capable of, winning converts, weaknesses emerged almost in lock-step with the growth. A certain strain of anti-intellectualism emerged in debates over evolution and biblical inerrancy, and an often too-close-for-comfort political association with "old time Reagan republicanism" made the claims of the emerging "Christian right" less credible. Their culminating victory almost became the defining defeat. With the election of George W. Bush to the White House, a convinced and assertive evangelical had finally made his way into the Oval Office. Yet Bush's administration was hardly against using government power to effect cultural change (a supposedly forbidden practice for conservatives), and the unfolding debacle of American intervention in Iraq, whatever the original intentions, dealt repeated blows to the American Exceptionalist camp's vision for a Judeo-Christian America, and a Representatively Democratic World. "Among young people, in particular," Douthat writes, "Evangelicalism's appeal waxed among Generation X...but then waned as the Xers gave way to the Millennial Generation. A quarter of Americans under thirty identified as Evangelical in the middle 1980s, but by the election of Barack Obama in 2008, that number was below 20 percent and dropping" (138).

The Resistance movement, particularly its Evangelical base, tended to thrive on a "para-church" approach that rejected the establishment institutions and sustained itself through high-profile personalities and leaders: from Billy Graham to Chuck Colson to Francis Schaeffer to Jerry Falwell. But, Douthat writes,

"[T]hough the 'para' groups were immensely successful at religious mobilization, they weren't as effective at sustaining commitment across a life span or across generations. They were institutions for an anti-institutional faith...organized around personalities and causes and rarely created the sense of a comprehensive, intergenerational community that both Mainline churches and Catholicism had traditionally offered. You couldn't spend your whole life in Campus Crusade for Christ, or raise your daughter as a Promise Keeper, or count on groups like the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition to sustain your belief system beyond the next election cycle. For that kind of staying power your needed a confessional tradition, a church, an institution capable of outlasting its charismatic founders. Instead, Evangelicalism became dominated by empire-building megachurch pastors whose ministries often burned brightly and then just as quickly burned out."

One could find, I would further assert, parallel trends in the Catholic neo-conservative cluster that defined themselves against the mainstream Catholic leadership: effective in important ways at gaining adherents and martialing forces, yet ultimately with little to show in culturally-shaping influence.

The first half of Bad Religion gives an important, even vital, context to Christians today seeking a place to move forward. But the second half of the book is even more rewarding, and more practical. Douthat's thesis here is that, contrary to popular belief, we do not live in an un-religious or absolutely un-Christian America. Rather, any number of social scientific studies and other cultural indicators show that Americans are more religious now than they have ever been. Instead, Douthat argues, we live in an age of Christian Heresy. If a "mere Christianity" (to borrow Lewis' phrase) is conceivable, a Christianity whose fundamental affirmations Christians through history would recognize—be they Protestant or Catholic—fewer and fewer Christians today believe in it. The heresies Douthat pinpoints, in turn, are:

(1) the historical Jesus heresy, which explains away the historicity of the Gospels, while holding up pseudo and Gnostic versions of the Nazarene as somehow more to be reverenced; it is the Christianity of Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, and John Dominic Crossan, on the scholarly side, and Dan Brown on the popular side;

(2) the prosperity Gospel of preachers like Joel Osteen, whose pervasiveness Douthat sets forth in frightening terms—who knew there were so many, or how much influence they have?—Douthat actually points to authors who have argued, almost convincingly, however far-fetched, that the housing bubble of recent years was virtually caused by prosperity preachers (!);

(3) the "God-within" heresy of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, where God becomes identified with my own inner-feelings and primordial instincts, whose Divine Voice might tell me to abandon my marriage vows (as Gilbert claims the Voice told her), and go on a spiritually narcissistic romp through Italy, India, and Indonesia in search of "self-actualization"; it is the god which denies original sin, and identifies the Deity with human nature, as well as trees, rocks, streams, sentimental romantic flings, and good Italian espresso;

(4) the "City on a Hill" heresy of American Exceptionalism; it is the God of, on the right, Glenn Beck, Michael Novak, and R.J. Rushdoony, who would see America as the culmination of God's divine plan for the human race; and, on the left, of the secular messianists of the Woodrow Wilson stamp, who believe America to be the standard-bearer for all things properly good, progressive and democratic, as the Lord of Heaven rightly wills it, and wills it inevitably for the whole world.

Douthat concludes with four possible options for the Christian world of contemporary America, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses: (1) the "postmodern opportunity," which exploits the cultural breakup of recent years to fashion "emerging churches" and "para-" groups that seek change society from the "ground up"; their temptation is to simply become, as Douthat puts it, "warmed over accommodationism"; (2) the "Benedict option," named after the monk and saint, which operates on the principle that Christianity must contract—if necessary into sub-cultures that retreat from the mainstream—before it grows; the danger here is to risk "paranoia, crankishness, and all the other pathologies of the religious ghetto...effectively giving up on those co-believers who aren't capable of opting out" of mainstream social engagement; (3) the "Next Christendom," which recognizes and builds on the strong emerging presence of Christianity in the "global south," reckoning within the borders of the United States with the continued influx of immigrant populations from the developing world; here Douthat makes the understandable observation that "not every form of cross-pollination is healthy," for the newly arrived representatives of Christianity from outside America's borders may import as many faults as positive and fresh emphases; and (4) to simply lower expectations as to the possibilities for Christian public and cultural influence.


By any reckoning, Bad Religion is an impressive and formidable effort. It would make excellent study material for a parish group. For sheer breadth, it's one of those books that is an education in itself, drawing together statistics, names, and social and cultural trends, into a richly informative overview of the state of Christianity in the United States in 2012 anno domini. What is more, Douthat manages to articulate—as I mentioned at the outset—highly controversial and complex social, political, and ecclesial trends in a manner both accessible and balanced, giving the reader much to mull over, whatever his or her personal ideological posture. I came to agree with almost everything Douthat argues in Bad Religion. Where I disagreed it tended to be a matter of emphasis here or there, or where I wanted him to better explain some unstated assumptions (e.g. the existence of a "mere Christianity," or the concept of "heresy," apart from the Catholic Church); assumptions of which I knew he was aware, but which lay outside the purview of the book. In any case, for the Catholic, Christian, non-believer, and everything in between, Bad Religion is worth the time, and is sure to reward the interested reader with much fruit for reflection, discussion, and debate.

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

Theology, Art and Judgment

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Typically one thinks of Advent as a time to prepare for Christ's Second Coming, since the readings of that season focus our attention, not only on the coming of Christ incarnate at Christmas, but also on the return of Christ at the end of time. Considering the fact that Lent is a season to reflect on the role of sin in our lives, and its effect on our relationships with God and one another, I believe this, too, is a good time to ponder the mystery of Christ's parousia. In order to do so, I offer part of a paper I wrote on Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" for our Christian Iconography class at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. The following excerpt deals with some of the artistic and Scriptural sources that influenced Michelangelo as he painted the altarpiece that now inspires so many visitors to the Sistine Chapel in Rome:

Anyone who has seen Luca Signorelli’s fresco of The Resurrection at the cathedral in Orvieto will notice a resemblance to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. In both works, the dead emerge from the earth with great difficulty, some still buried to the waist, others as skeletal figures half-clothed in flesh. This is no coincidence. In his book on Michelangelo, Howard Hibbard writes that “in the scenes of punishment and damnation, no less than in the scenes of resurrection, Michelangelo was notably influenced by Luca Signorelli’s famous series of frescoes in Orvieto depicting the end of the world” and that “the images of skeletons clothing themselves with flesh and of the torments of the damned are surely indebted to Signorelli.”1 Art historian Antonio Forcellino agrees, noting that Signorelli’s work had a profound impact on Michelangelo, particularly in regards to the demons at the bottom right of the painting. He states that, “while Giotto in Padua and Buffalmacco in Pisa depicted devils as creatures alien to the human world, Michelangelo followed the example of Signorelli in the San Brizio Chapel in Orvieto and the sculptures on the façade of that cathedral, where the devils are depicted as a slight degeneration of men and the angels.”2 In addition to Signorelli’s influence, Forcellino asserts that, “Michelangelo was undoubtedly very impressed by the depictions [of the Last Judgment] in the Florentine Baptistery and the Cemetery in Pisa, both of which were distinctive for their aggressive and monumental emotive force,”3 while Hibbard points out that Michelangelo’s portrayal of Christ, “is like an antique hero-god…developed from the figure of Jupiter in one of the Cavalieri drawings.”4

Although it’s clear that Michelangelo owes a great deal to Signorelli and Cavalieri, one cannot assume that Michelangelo’s imagination was stirred by the work of these artists alone. Literary sources, such as Sacred Scripture, also played a role. For example, the seven angels blowing trumpets beneath Christ’s feet are a reference to the Book of Revelation, according to Ascanio Condivi, one of Michelangelo’s biographers.5 In chapters 8, 9, and 11 of the Book of Revelation, the author – who tradition holds to be John the Beloved Disciple – has a vision of seven angels with seven trumpets. As each angel blows its trumpet, a different disaster strikes the earth. Despite the fact that Michelangelo doesn’t show each of these disasters, he alludes to them by depicting the angels as heralds of the apocalypse, and not just ministers of God. Naturally this is not the only Scriptural allusion in Michelangelo’s work. Throughout the fresco one notices that, “the angels fight to release the souls that have been saved from the grip of the devils. And, to their great satisfaction, the devils fight to push the ‘iniquitous souls’ down to their eternal damnation.”6 While many scholars typically associate this illustration as being reminiscent of “The Judgment of the Nations” found in Matthew 25:31-46, in which the Son of Man separates the people like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, Forcellino is describing a scene which could very easily be associated with Matthew 13:24-27, as well. In “The Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat” we find a landowner who lets the weeds and wheat grow up together until the time of the harvest, at which point the reapers gather up the wheat for storage in the landowner’s barn, while the weeds are separated out to be burned in the fire. In addition to these illustrations from the Gospel of Matthew, Hibbard points out that Michelangelo’s representation of the bodily resurrection, i.e., his “skeletons clothing themselves with flesh,” is an artistic citation of Ezekiel.7 He is, of course, referring to chapter 37, when Ezekiel is told to prophesy to a valley of dry bones. After Ezekiel speaks to the bones, they rise from their graves, come together, and are covered in sinew and muscle, flesh and skin. Finally, Hibbard suggests that Michelangelo’s depiction of Christ, whose appearance is more like that of Apollo the sun god,8 is probably based on a particular description found in the Book of Malachi. Hibbard believes that “the equation of Christ with the sun of Justice (cf. Malachi 4:2) may have influenced Michelangelo’s conception.”9

1 Howard Hibbard, Michelangelo (New York, NY: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1974), 252.

2 Antonio Forcellino, Michelangelo: A Tormented Life (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2009), 193.

3 Ibid., 192.

4 Hibbard, Michelangelo, 246.

5 Ibid., 242.

6 Forcellino, Michelangelo: A Tormented Life, 194.

7 Hibbard, Michelangelo, 250.

8 Andrew Graham-Dixon, Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008), 165.

9 Hibbard, Michelangelo, 246.

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

Not by "Faith Alone"

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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”.

[1]

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.

[2]




[1]

Trent (session VI, Decree on Justification) canon 28

[2]

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

 

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

The Mystery and Scandal of Sacred Scripture: A Christological Reflection

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“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 www.vatican.va).

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