Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Are the Dead Conscious or in "Soul Sleep"? A Look at the New Testament's Teaching

Part 4 of "The Catholic Understanding of the Saints". (Read Part 1Part 2 and Part 3).

Before the summer session started I began a series on the Catholic understanding of the saints. It originated--as do most things in biblioblogdom--as a response to a post from my friend Jim West. I know it's been a while, but I haven't abandoned the topic. I've just been very, very busy over the summer. But, for better or for worse, I'm back. . .

Anyways, when we left off last time, we had identified some basic questions that needed to be addressed:
  1. Are the dead conscious or are they just in a state of ‘soul sleep’ until the resurrection?
  2. Are the dead aware of the needs of Christians on earth?
  3. What biblical justification is there for the idea that the dead do in fact pray for the living?
  4. Isn't asking the saints in heaven for their prayers a violation of the biblical prohibition against necromancy (e.g., Deut 18:10-15)? 
I want to tackle each of these in separate posts. Today we will look at the first question: Are the dead conscious?

Why the Pope has to be Infallible, Part 2a

The semester is in full swing for many of us, and the time to blog is scarce.  In preparation for my next post on papal infallibility, I'd like to call attention to this well-known essay by Protestant theologian Stephen Long from Garret Evangelical Seminary, who made some excellent and succinct remarks on the necessity of the papacy during the time of John Paul II's funeral and the election of Benedict XVI: click here for the pdf.  While Long does not specifically address infallibility, the points he makes about the necessity of the papacy are relevant to the issue.

Some of my favorite quotes from the essay:

* "The final logic of this version of Protestantism can only be that each individual makes up his or her own religion, which will then be defined over and against every other individual's religion. In other words, what
holds this tradition together is that it is against something. This kind of Protestantism needs an object against which it dissents for its own identity."

Monday, August 29, 2011

Exegesis as Theology, Theology as Exegesis

One of the most jaw-dropping sections in Pope Benedict's recent letter, Verbum Domini, states the following:
"where exegesis is not theology, Scripture cannot be the soul of theology, and conversely, where theology is not essentially the interpretation of the Church’s Scripture, such a theology no longer has a foundation" (Verbum Domini, no. 35).
In a sense, here Pope Benedict is reiterating what the Second Vatican Council taught, namely, "the study of the sacred page is, as it were, the soul of sacred theology" (Dei Verbum, 24).

In fact, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger said that "dogma is by definition nothing other than an interpretation of Scripture” (“Crisis in Catechesis,” Canadian Catholic Review, 7 (1983): 8/178. Thus he explained, “the Bible becomes the model of all theology” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987], 321).

But in some ways Benedict's vision in Verbum Domini goes even further beyond these statements. For Benedict exegesis must be theology and theology must be "essentially the interpretation of the Church's Scripture".

The latter line has especially hit me hard. Can Catholic theologians really describe their work as "essentially the interpretation of the Church's Scripture"? This is more than merely proof-texting; theology must be exegetical.

The Real Story: 1.5 Million Young Catholics Attend World Youth Day

Fr. Barron has a great video up on how the media totally missed the story regarding Pope Benedict's trip to Spain. Focusing on a handful of protestors rather than talking about the significance of 1.5 million young Catholics attending a Catholic event and supporting the Holy Father.

The media's preferred narrative tells the story of a Catholic Church which has lost the future. This doesn't fit that template.

Why the Pope has to be Infallible, Part 2


In my last post,  I tried to show that there were two basic positions about who is the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture, either (A) the Church or (B) the individual Christian, and if (A) is true, then the Church has to be infallible; otherwise one returns to the default position (B).

I think many are willing to grant that the Church is infallible.  I would have accepted that proposition in theory even as a Protestant.  However, I would have held it in a form something like this:

(C) The Church is infallible, but the voice of the Church is not to be identified with any of her ministers, bodies or representatives.

It follows from a position like this that no Pope, Bishop, theologian, council, synod, etc. can be identified as speaking for the Church.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Cost of Discipleship: Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time


If last Sunday’s Readings were a soft-ball pitch, a nice high arc to knock out of the park, this Sunday’s Readings are a wicked curve ball for the Catholic preacher.  Nonetheless, while these readings aren’t the “feel good” homiletical experience of last week’s, the truths are just as important and just as “Catholic.”

We begin with a troublesome passage from the prophet Jeremiah

Reading 1: Jeremiah 20:7-9
You duped me, O LORD, and I let myself be duped (Heb. patah);
you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.
All the day I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why the Pope has to be Infallible, Part 1


In response to my post from last Sunday’s readings, Emil Anton has made some interesting interventions in the comments raising issues about papal infallibility.  So I though it might be pertinent to walk through the steps that lead to papal infallibility—at least, the ones I find convincing.

Let’s start with the question: who is the final arbiter of the interpretation of Scripture?  I start with this point, because (surprisingly) Catholic and non-Catholic expressions of Christianity are largely agreed that the interpretation of Scripture is the essence of Christian doctrine.  For example, Benedict XVI has stated that the dogmas of the Church are, in essence, nothing other than the authoritative interpretation of Scripture.  I paraphrase, but this is close to how he phrased the point.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Biblical Basis for the Papacy: The Readings for the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time


In terms of Catholic “preachability,” today’s Readings are a soft-ball pitch, a long high arc that every homilist ought to be able to knock out of the park.  The lectionary readings have been set up for a clear explanation of the nature of the Papacy and its basis in Scripture.

Servants of God's Love

I'm late posting my usual reflections on the Sunday readings because I spent the last few days with the Servants of God's Love, a charismatic women's religious order in Ann Arbor, MI.  We had a wonderful time together, talking about one of my favorite biblical topics: nuptiality in the Gospel of John.  Some readers of this blog will know one of the members of this order, Sr. Ann Shields, the much-beloved author, speaker, radio and TV personality who teaches on spirituality and Scripture (second row, second from right).  The Servants are involved in teaching, counseling, foster care and hospice ministry in the Ann Arbor area, where they give a beautiful witness to the radical call of the Gospel!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Who Let All the Riffraff Into the Covenant? The Readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time


According to Wikipedia (that source than which none more authoritative can be thought), “Riffraff is a term for the common people or hoi polloi, but with negative connotations. The term is derived from Old French ‘rif et raf’ meaning ‘one and all, every bit.’”

My ancestors are Dutch, and—like many other ethnic groups—the Dutch think they're pretty special.  The saying is, “If yah ain’t Dutch, yah ain’t much.”

Monday, August 08, 2011

Are War and Schism always Sins Against Charity? Reflections on Matthew Levering's The Betrayal of Charity

What would happen if, through some bending of the space-time continuum, it were possible to bring together at a conference table contemporary literary critics, theologians, and biblical scholars such as Harold Bloom, John Howard Yoder, and Richard Hays, as well as the common and angelic doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas? What would be the result if these interlocutors were to take as their topic of discussion not only “love” in the abstract, but the concrete sins against love: violence, hatred, sloth, envy, discord, schism, war, and scandal?

In The Betrayal of Charity: the Sins that Sabotage Divine Love (Baylor University Press, 2011), the prolific theologian Matthew Levering turns this imaginary scenario into a reality by doing what he does best: putting some of the most diverse writers and thinkers you can imagine into dialogue with the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and Sacred Scripture and letting their sometimes clashing differences throw fresh light on key theological questions. 

The plan of the book is straightforward: after an opening chapter on the idea of love Aquinas, Levering launches into a chapter-by-chapter consideration of each of the classical sins against charity: violence toward neighbor (1), hatred of God (2), sloth (3), envy (4), discord (5), schism (6), war (7), and scandal (8). One of the great things about this book is that if you have some particular sin you’re interested in—say, violence or war—you can go straight to that chapter and listen in on the conversation.

For my money, the most fascinating sections were on ecclesial schism and just war. Both chapters were challenging and engaging, making me think about charity and the sins against it in new ways.

In Chapter 6, Levering turns to schism—i.e., the deliberate severance of an ecclesial unity willed by God—as a sin against charity. In order to do so, he focuses on the classic example of schism in the Old Testament: the story of Korah’s rebellion against the priestly authority of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 15-18). In this text Korah rises up against Moses on the basis of a sound democratic principle, saying to Moses:

“You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (Num 16:3).

According to Korah’s ‘ecclesiology’, the priestly hierarchy and the liturgical leadership of Moses and Aaron are not a divinely willed order but rather a pernicious threat to the unity of the assembly. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, modern exegetes like Walter Brueggemann are sympathetic to Korah’s position, holding that the priestly and hierarchical role of Moses and Aaron ultimately is just a form of “intolerance” and will-to-power.

By contrast, Levering shows how for Aquinas, the account of Korah’s rebellion in Numbers 16 is instead a window into the insight that schism is nothing less than a sin against the visible and liturgical unity willed by God, and hence, a sin against charity. Indeed, Aquinas considers it the greatest of all sins against neighbor:

Of all sins committed by man against his neighbor, the sin of schism would seem to be the greatest, because it is opposed to the spiritual good of the multitude.” (Summa Theologiae, 2-2.39.2 ad 3)

This is a striking claim. How many modern Christians would think of schism as the greatest possible sin a man can commit against his neighbor? For those of us living in a world of over thirty thousand Christian denominations, the experience of schism can easily become an unquestioned reality. Indeed, we live in Christianity so divided that even the very word “schism” seems to be disappearing from our theological vocabulary, though the New Testament lists it as among the most serious of sins (Gal 5:19-21).

In light of the testimony of Scripture, what might it mean in our day and time to speak of “schism” once more as a sin against charity? And what might it mean to take seriously Aquinas’ proposal that “it is impossible to keep men together in one religious denomination, whether true or false, except they be united by means of visible signs and sacraments?” (Summa Theologiae, 3.61.1).

Along similar lines, in Chapter 7 (“War and the Interpretation of Scripture”), Levering offers a riveting exploration of the question of just war in Scripture. He contrasts Aquinas’ treatment of the subject with interpreters such as Richard Hays and John Howard Yoder, who argue that biblical charity requires complete pacificism or non-violence.

This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. Although from a personal perspective I have never been inclined to strict pacifism (being somewhat pugilistic by temperament), from an exegetical perspective I’ve always felt like the position had a certain biblical edge. How can one reconcile any theory of just war with Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39) or his solemn declaration to Peter that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt 26:52)?

Again, Levering turns to the masterful treatment of the biblical texts in Aquinas’ question on war and charity (Summa Theologica, 2-2, 40). The upshot of the treatment is a remarkably balanced discussion of war in which Aquinas, on the basis of scripture, tradition, and reason, rejects one the one hand the sins that go hand in hand with war—“the passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, and unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things” (Summa Theologiae 2-2.40.1)—and the other, an all-out pacifism.

For Aquinas, a proper analysis of Scripture leads to the conclusion that those in authority may resort to waging war if they do so in order to obey God’s command in the Psalms:

Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Psalm 82:44).

In other words, when the weak and powerless are under the boot of an oppressor, war waged without “the passion for inflicting harm” can be an act of charity toward the powerless, rather than a sin against it (pp. 120-21).

These are just a couple of the fruitful and often controversial topics that Levering’s book opens up for discussion.

In his recent social encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI, wrote that “love” in the strict sense—caritas—is always in danger of being reduced to mere “sentimentality,” nothing more than “an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way” (Caritas in Veritate no. 3). In order to remedy this situation, Matthew Levering has taken something we poor banished children of Eve know all too well—the sins against love—and used our experiences of love’s opposites to throw light on the real shape of charity toward God and neighbor.

The result is a fascinating and often convicting foray into the mystery of caritas—one which, on several occasions, forced me to put down the book and prayerfully reflect on the ways in which I have committed sins against charity in my own life.


For more discussion of Matthew Levering's The Betrayal of Charity, go to the conversation being hosted by the Patheos Book Club.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

The "Big Event" and the Still Small Voice: The 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Does God reveal himself in nature?  Many public intellectuals are intent on denying this, even as increasing evidence pours in from disciplines like astrophysics and biochemistry that point to a creative mastermind behind the complex beauty we observe all around us.

The relationship between divine self-revelation and the power of nature is a motif that runs through the readings for this weekend’s Lord’s Day.

As a reminder, in this period of Ordinary Time we are doing lectio continua of Romans in the Second Reading and Matthew in the Gospel Reading.  The First Readings are being chosen week by week from OT texts that are both pivotal to salvation history and also thematically relevant to the Gospel and/or the Second Reading.

Monday, August 01, 2011

John Bergsma's Scandalous Past Revealed, Plus More Videos and Photos from the IABS Conference

I just made it back from the Institute of Applied Biblical Studies Conference in Steubenville. The conference was amazing as usual. This year we focused on the Gospel of Matthew. I gave two talks, one on Matthew 8-9 and one highlighting priestly imagery in the Matthean portrait of Jesus and the apostles. I also did two presentations in the Journey Through Scripture track.

Indeed, the event brings together many of my favorite Catholic academics and popular teachers: Dr. Scott Hahn, Kimberly Hahn, Dr. Brant Pitre, Dr. John Bergsma, Dr. Edward Sri, Dr. Jeff Morrow, Fr. Pablo Gadenz, Curtis Mitch, Jeff Cavins, Dr. Bill Bales, David Currie and, a new addition, Dr. Nathan Schmeidike. It is a rare treat to be able to sit around a table with so many knowledgeable scholars and teachers. I had so many amazing conversations and learned a lot!

Of course, these aren't simply colleagues but dear friends and it was wonderful to get a chance to reconnect with them all.

The conference attendees were also impressive and a joy to be around. What a remarkable group! To see hundreds of Catholics with well-worn Bibles was such an inspiration. And after doing this for a few years now there are so many familiar faces!

However, it wasn't all fun and games. One speaker--in fact, one of the contributors to this blog!--made some scandalous revelations about his past. Here is a picture of him giving his talk. Here he strikes his breast, saying mea cupla.