Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Church Fathers on "Works of the Law"

Michael Bird has been writing on patristic interpretation of Paul's phrase "works of the law" (ergōn nomou), noting that some link the term to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament (here, here). Bird mentions that this interpretation is found in Ambrosiaster, Jerome and Pelagius.

I cover the history of interpretation of this phrase whenever I teach Pauline Epistles and thought I'd share some what I give to my students here.

The view that "works of the law" relate to the ceremonial precepts is found as early as Origen:
“One should know that the works which Paul repudiates and frequently criticizes are not the works of righteousness [opera iustitiae] which are commanded in the law, but those in which they boast who keep the law according to the flesh; that is, the circumcision of the flesh, the sacrificial rituals, the observance of Sabbaths and new moon festivals [cf. Col 2.18]. These and works of a similar nature are the works by which he says no one can be saved, and concerning which he says in the present passage, ‘not on the basis of works; otherwise, grace would no longer be grace.’ For if anyone is justified through these, he is not justified gratis. But these works are by no means sought from the one who is justified through grace; but this one should take care that the grace he has received should not be in him ‘in vain’ [cf. 1 Cor 15.10] . . . So then, one does not make grace become in vain who joins works to it that are worthy and who does not show himself ungrateful for the grace of God. For anyone who sins after having attained grace becomes ungrateful to him who offered the grace.”—Origen, Commentary on Romans 8, 7, 6. Cited from Thomas Scheck, Origen and the History of Justification: The Legacy of Origen’s Commentary on Romans (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008), 48–49.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Does it Matter How We Treat Others? The 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Does it matter how we treat others?  What does my neighbor’s suffering have to do with me?  Can I continue living in comfort while bypassing those around me who are in misery?   
These are questions that the Readings for this Sunday raise, and to which they provide uncomfortable answers.  Let’s read and let the Holy Spirit move us outside our comfort zone.

1.  The First Reading is Am 6:1a, 4-7:

Thus says the LORD the God of hosts:
Woe to the complacent in Zion!
Lying upon beds of ivory,
stretched comfortably on their couches,
they eat lambs taken from the flock,
and calves from the stall!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

God and Mammon: The 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

As Jesus continues his “death march” to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 9–19), he challenges us this Sunday to choose, in a clear and conscious way, our goal in life: God or money.  The First Reading reminds us that wealth was a seductive trap for the people of God throughout salvation history.

1. The First Reading is Amos 8:4-7:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Prodigal Son Sunday: 24th Sunday in OT

This upcoming Sunday marks one of only two times in the main Lectionary cycle that we hear the Parable of the Prodigal Son proclaimed (the other being the 4th Sunday of Lent [C]).  The Readings are marked by the theme of repentance and forgiveness. 

1. Our First Reading is Ex 32:7-11, 13-14:

The LORD said to Moses,
“Go down at once to your people,
whom you brought out of the land of Egypt,
for they have become depraved.
They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them,
making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it,
sacrificing to it and crying out,
‘This is your God, O Israel,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Cost of Discipleship: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

One of the most famous German opponents of Adolf Hitler and Nazism was the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom the Nazis executed by hanging in April 1945 for his involvement in a plot against Hitler himself.  Bonhoeffer’s most famous work was a meditation on the Sermon on the Mount entitled (in English) The Cost of Discipleship.  In it, Bonhoeffer parted ways with a Protestantism that understood “salvation by faith alone” as some kind of easy road to heaven.  Bonhoeffer criticized “easy-believism” as “cheap grace”:

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.

Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Bonhoeffer was a Protestant, but there is much in his writings that a Catholic can affirm, including the passage above.  Like St. Maximillian Kolbe, he died at the hands of a totalitarian government because he would not compromise his faith in Christ.  I could not help thinking of Bonhoeffer as I meditated on the Readings for this coming Sunday, which stress the high cost of discipleship to this mysterious man Jesus of Nazareth, who is nothing other than the Wisdom of God in the flesh.

1.  Our First Reading is Wis 9:13-18b:

Monday, September 02, 2013

A Protestant scholar on the miracles at Lourdes

There is no more comprehensive work on the credibility of New Testament's account of miracles (e.g., Jesus'), than the two-volume monograph written by Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

Keener, of course, is a Protestant. Yet one of my favorite aspects of his book is his treatment of the miracles at Lourdes, the site where the Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have appeared (vol. 2, pp. 675-686).

Scholars have long turned to Lourdes as a stunning example of well-documented instances of miraculous healings. A great treatment can be found in John P. Meier's work. Meier writes that even though numerous cases have been certified by impartial medical examiners as inexplicable (1,300 between 1948 and 1993) only 18 have been recognized by the Catholic Church as legitimately “miraculous” (cf. Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2:528, n. 528).

I won't reproduce the whole section but Keener has numerous reports, including ones from non-Catholic sources (e.g., a Methodist source).

He concludes with the following:
Whether one feels free to count the religious context at Lourdes affects one's interpretation of the results. One scholar skeptical of supernatural approaches readily grants that the healings occur. He affirms that "some utterly extraordinary cures" have occurred there 1, noting that enemies of the Catholic Church and leading medical scientists like Alexis Carrel have been persuaded by the data.2 He concedes that some cases cannot even be explained psychosomatically;3 among examples, he lists "the instant healing of a terribly disfigured face, and the instantaneous healing of a club foot on a two and one half year old child," showed by non-Catholics to be permanent. Further, he cited a news article about a three-year old with terminal cancer and the bones being eaten away; after the healing, even "the bones in her skull grew back. Her doctor, a Protestant, said that 'miracle' would not be too strong a word to use."4

Yet this same scholar notes that scientists can reject the supernatural interpretation at Lourdes by suggesting that some sort of naturalistic interpretation would arise if only we had sufficient evidence. The collocation of natural factors in this case might occur together only one in ten million times, he argues, but, because he assumes the miraculous impossible, must have occurred here.5 Scientists need autonomy to do their work, he insists, not having to wait to see if theologians will pronounce some event miraculous.6 Some theologians might wish to retort that they need some autonomy to evaluate miracles without the theological premise of their entire discipline being ruled out by thinkers committed to antisupernaturalist assumptions. The scholar's antisupernatural assumptions in this case have made a fair evaluation of the data impossible.

Graphic Novel on "The Big Questions"

I have to give a plug for a great new book released by Catholic Answers called "The Truth is Out There".  It's a graphic novel that follows the adventures of two eccentric characters, Brendan and Erc, as they travel space while debating fundamental philosophical and theological issues: why do we exist?  Is there a God?  Is there any right or wrong? 

I gave it to my teenage boys, and they were through with it in 24 hours and loved it.  It's a great book to share with teens, especially in this culture of "New Atheism" that thinks Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were just "idiots."