Benedict XVI, Paul, and the Parousia

Today we continue our series on the problem of the parousia as we turn to a sure guide in matters of biblical interpretation: our Holy Father Pope Benedict. In the following posts, we will be exploring how he deals with the problem of the early Church apparently erring in the expectation that Christ would return in glory during the apostles’ lifetimes. If you have not read my first post which sets up the problem at hand in light of the biblical evidence, I recommended perusing it first before reading on.

In his book of Catecheses on St. Paul, Pope Benedict takes up the text of 1 Thess 4:13-18 discussed in my previous post: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”

The Holy Father begins by observing that this text–the first of Paul’s letters and what some have deemed the earliest New Testament document–was likely written around 52 A.D. He indicates that the context and purpose of the letter was to aid the Thessalonian church being “beset by doubts and problems.” This purpose will play an important role in our discussion in a moment.

If you read Pope Benedict enough, you will not be surprised at some of his ensuing observations which may afflict the comforted Catholic. He describes this text as replete “with symbolic imagery, which, however, conveys a simple and profound message.” Benedict does not view 1 Thess 4 as a literal depiction of the Second Coming but rather as conveying theological truth through symbolic imagery. The “essential message,” he says, is that “our future is to be with the Lord.” What we can learn from this is that, regardless of whether or not Paul thought the end was imminent, this was not the claim or assertion of Paul’s text.

Moreover, the sense of the text is not changed even if Paul literally thought that the Second Coming would be ushered in with an angel blowing a trumpet (actually, who can verify this won’t be the case?). In the marvelous chapter of his book Miracles entitled “Horrid Red Things,” C.S. Lewis has a great treatment of the type of imagery that often disturbs the modern Christian. He says, “Even if it can be shown, then, that the early Christians accepted their imagery literally, this would not mean that we are justified in relegating their doctrines as a whole to the lumber-room.” The early Christian belief concerning the parousia and other doctrines like it “would survive substantially unchanged” even after “the falsity of the earlier images had been recognized.”

Like Benedict, Lewis affirms that images of how or when the parousia will take place are not the purpose of the biblical teaching concerning it. They are not errant because they are not asserted or taught for their own sakes in the first place. As Benedict and Lewis show time and again in their writings, Christians should not be afraid to admit the presence of symbolic imagery or myth in the Bible. Ask Lewis, Tolkien, or Chesterton, and they will tell you that myth does not equal falsehood. Now, in a way, this makes the Christian apologist’s task more difficult, as one now has to search out the essential message of biblical texts and show forth the enduring core meaning of it as distinct from accidental features that are not de fide. This requires more patience and skill than simply saying it is all literally true and needs no qualification. On the other hand, following the approach of Benedict and Lewis is liberating because Christians can be confident that there is a core message God wants to convey to us in the Bible and that this remains unchanged even if we grant the presence of certain difficulties in the text.

Getting back to Benedict’s catechesis, he next turns his attention to 2 Thess 2:1-4, which reads: “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.”

Paul here warns his church lest they be deceived in thinking an imminent Second Coming can be determined based on human calculations. He reminds his audience that “man of lawlessness” must come first, and that he plainly has not. The pope for his part tells us that “the intention” of this text “is primarily practical.” How so? Paul wrote this because he needed to correct Thessalonians who were rationalizing their neglect of worldly duties with the claim that the end was approaching soon anyway: “For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work” (2 Thess 3:11).

Teasing out Paul’s thought, Benedict teaches that the expectation of Jesus’ parousia does not dispense Christians of any epoch from working in the world but rather increases our responsibility to work in and for the world while not being of the world. This is but one of several examples in this catechesis of how Benedict characteristically follows his careful and critical exegesis with a spiritual exhortation for Christians to apply God’s word to our lives (see here for a brief overview of Benedict’s exegetical method). He concludes by teaching that, while Christians today might not pray for the end to come soon in the same way St. John did (Rev 16:22), we can truly pray for the Lord to put the injustices of the world to an end. We can also work for the world to be “fundamentally changed” into a “civilization of love.”

That said, Benedict’s catechesis does not completely resolve the problem of the early expectation of the parousia, but it does help us to see that teaching the precise moment of the Second Coming was not Paul’s real point in the theologically thorny text of 1 Thessalonians. To get a better grasp of the way Benedict approaches this, we will need to examine more of his writings in the next few posts.


The Pontifical Biblical Commission & the Problem of the Parousia (Part 3 of 3)

In today’s post I’m going to treat briefly the third question of the PBC in its document on the parousia. Then I’ll offer an extended treatment of how one might explain this document’s apparent discrepancy with the view of respected exegetes today who are open to the possibility that the early Church expected the Second Coming of Christ to occur in the first century. This is a critical issue because here we have an important biblical teaching which on the surface appears to be wrong. That said, here’s the last question:

Question 3: “Whether, after considering [the phrase “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord” of 1 Thess 4:15] we may reject as far-fetched and unfounded the explanation traditional in Catholic schools–which explains the words of St. Paul in 1 Thess 4:15-17 without in any way implying the affirmation of a Parousia so imminent that the apostle added himself and his readers to those of the faithful who would survive to meet Christ.”

Response 3: “Negative.”

This question makes a helpful contribution to our discussion of the early Church’s seeming expectation of a first-century parousia, for it explicitly addresses a biblical text that has been a stumbling block for exegetes. 1 Thess 4 numbers among the texts I provided in my first post on the problem of the parousia, which I recommended reading first before reading on if you have not done so already.

If I am reading it correctly, here the PBC document is not demanding that Catholic exegetes reject the possibility that Paul thought the parousia would occur in his lifetime. Rather, the question is phrased so as to teach that the traditional explanation (i.e. the view that Paul did not expect the Second Coming in his day) is not to be rejected as far-fetched and unfounded. There is quite a difference between these two, and I think the PBC was exercising due prudence in avoiding a blanket condemnation of the view that Paul expected Christ to return in his lifetime.

So much for my brief commentary on the three questions of this PBC document. By way of transition to a fuller answer to the problem at hand, I now wish to turn our attention to the place this PBC document and others like it occupy today in the Church. The reality is that a great number of Catholic exegetes today have come to different conclusions from those of the PBC in its early-20th century documents. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that the practice of Catholic exegetes today often displays little regard for Pius X’s 1907 motu proprio stating that all Catholics “are bound in conscience to submit to the decisions of the Biblical Commission.”

In addition to being visible in the documents of the PBC published over the last half-century, the Church’s new perspective is abundantly clear also in the way Joseph Ratzinger has long spoken of and practiced exegesis, continuing to do so even now as Pope Benedict XVI.

Indeed, in his press release of the CDF Instruction Concerning the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian, this theologian spoke of the PBC’s past decrees as “anti-modernistic decisions at the beginning of this century.” He had in mind here statements made on the topics of historical narratives (1905), the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (1906), the authorship and historicity of the Gospel of John (1907), the character and authorship of the Book of Isaiah (1908), the historicity of the first three chapters of Genesis (1909), the authorship and time of composition of the Psalms (1910), Matthew (1911) Mark and Luke (1912), the Synoptic question (1912), Acts (1913), the Pastoral Epistles (1913), Hebrews (1914), and, among others, the parousia discussed here. The question taken up in these decrees deals with the extent to which Catholics could have recourse to the modern historical-critical approach for insight into the Scriptures, and the response given by the PBC was, in general, “very little.”

But if Catholics today do not consistently heed the pronouncements of the PBC concerning the appropriateness of modern exegesis, this begs the question: what was the main point of these decrees, and does their substance remain valid today? In the same document just mentioned, Benedict observes that, “as warning calls against rash and superficial accommodations, they remain perfectly legitimate,” since they “performed the great service of saving [the Church] from foundering in the bourgeois-liberal world.” For example, from our privileged vantage point a century later, we can see that the principal goal of the PBC’s decree on Matthew did not actually consist in its assertions concerning when and by whom the Gospel was composed. Rather, the substance of what the Magisterium intended to convey at the time and which remains true today is the need to safeguard the authority of the Scriptures, the historicity of Jesus, and the Church’s divine foundation in the wake of deconstructive intellectual currents which would undermine the faith.

Be that as it may, immediately following the words of Benedict cited above, he soberly acknowledges, “Nevertheless, with respect to particular aspects of their content, [the early 20th-century PBC decrees] were superseded after having fulfilled their pastoral function in the situation of the time.” Here we find Benedict implicitly distinguishing the substance of the PBC’s teaching from its accidental features which were “superseded” over time, a reality observable in the way Benedict himself elsewhere speaks of the relationship of exegesis and the Magisterium.

Addressing the PBC as its president on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, Benedict wrote that this delicate issue was “one of the problems of my own autobiography.” While vigorously defending faith’s role in exegesis, he admits:

It remains correct that by making the judgments that we have mentioned, the Magisterium overextended the range of what faith can guarantee with certainty and that, as a result, the Magisterium’s credibility was injured and the freedom needed for exegetical research and interrogation was unduly narrowed.

It is striking to witness in this passage the humility and boldness of a Church official who recognizes that a frank appraisal of the limits of the Magisterium’s authority is a necessary step towards arriving at a deeper understanding of its nature and relationship to exegesis.

Also revelatory of Benedict’s stance towards modern exegesis is the evocative portrait this document, entitled Exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church, paints of his intellectual predecessors, who yearned, “like Moses on Mount Nebo, to gaze upon the Promised Land of an exegesis liberated from every shackle of magisterial surveillance.” He tells the story of Friedrich Wilhelm Maier, whose flowering academic career was dealt a sharp blow by the Magisterium. The latter decreed that the commentary into which Maier had been pouring all his energy had to be “altogether expunged from the education of the clergy” since it defended the so-called two-source theory, which Benedict countenances by telling us that today it is “almost universally accepted” as an account of the Synoptic problem. In light of this situation, he therefore sympathetically states, “It is perfectly understandable that, in the days when the decisions of the then Pontifical Biblical Commission prevented them from a clean application of the historical-critical method, Catholic theologians should cast envious glances at their Protestant colleagues.”

How, then, are we to explain the about-face in the Church’s attitude toward the modern historical-critical method today? Benedict offers a vivid comparison to make his case:

The process of intellectual struggle over these issues had become a necessary task can in a certain sense be compared with the similar process triggered by the Galileo affair. Until Galileo, it had seemed that the geocentric world picture was inextricably bound up with the revealed message of the Bible, and that champions of the heliocentric world picture were destroying the core of Revelation. It became necessary fully to reconceive the relationship between the outward form of presentation and the real message of the whole, and it required a gradual process before the criteria could be elaborated. Something analogous can be said with respect to history. At first it seemed as if the ascription of the Pentateuch to Moses or of the Gospels to the four individuals whom tradition names as their authors were indispensable conditions of the trustworthiness of Scripture and, therefore, of the faith founded upon it. Here, too, it was necessary for the territories to be re-surveyed, as it were; the basic relationship between faith and history needed to be re-thought. This sort of clarification could not be achieved overnight.

In this passage, Benedict sheds insight into the reason certain features of the PBC decrees in question stood in need of correction: those who crafted the statements were under the (false) assumption that the trustworthiness of Scripture–and thereby the faith itself–would be undermined if the Church entertained findings of historical-criticism that contradicted ancient traditions concerning such matters as the authorship and dating of biblical books. Over time the Church came to see that this premise was incorrect, but Benedict regrets that in the meantime the research of many scholars like Friedrich Maier was halted in its tracks and “much real wheat was lost along with the chaff.” He incisively indicates that this problem was symptomatic of an “anti-Modernistic neurosis which had again and again crippled the Church since the turn of the century,” an attitude which led to “an almost neurotic denial of all that was new.”

Despite his frank criticisms of certain aspects of past magisterial pronouncements, Benedict’s approach is worlds apart from an attitude that would conclude from such observations that the Magisterium has erred in an essential matter and thereby abdicated its authority to teach Christians today. For, while he does not shy away from facing the most alarming challenges to the Magisterium’s teaching authority, he writes in work Theological Highlights of Vatican II, “Yet, neither do we lightly condemn the past, even if we see it as a necessary part of a process of knowing.”

To be sure certain accidental elements of magisterial teaching have been superseded over the centuries, but we saw above that Benedict offers a framework within which to ascertain the substance of the decrees which was and remains sound doctrine today despite the ostensible change in the Church’s attitude towards “modernism.” At their core, these early statements of the PBC were warning cries against an indiscriminate application of the historical-critical method which would undermine the authority of Scripture. They are necessary to counter what he describes in his essay Biblical Interpretation in Conflict as the Kantian “ready-made philosophy” that would use historical criticism to draw false and destructive conclusions from the premise that God cannot intervene in history and reveal himself to man. Benedict tells us that such a being “is not the God of the Bible,” and proceeds to offer some examples of teachings which, in contrast with the subjects treated by the PBC, could never be altered as the result of historical-critical findings: the birth of Jesus by the Virgin Mary, the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus, and Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead.

Concerning this last point, Benedict tells us that Jesus’ bodily resurrection “is the meaning of the empty tomb,” as if to preempt any objectors who would claim that the essence of the empty tomb lay in a spiritual experience of the apostles and not a direct encounter with the Son of God in his glorified flesh. In short, Benedict emphasizes that the Christian faith requires us to profess “that Jesus–in all that is essential–was effectively who the Gospels reveal him to be.”

Wrapping up this post, I want to say a word about why I spent so much time on the PBC when our main discussion is supposed to be the parousia.

First, the PBC’s statements on the topic are one of the few (if not only) documents to address the particular problem at hand.

Second, it is a big problem if the magisterium today seems to contradict the magisterium of yesterday, so I believe that a compelling answer needed to be offered.

Finally, as we will see in blog posts beginning next week, Pope Benedict makes statements which seem to contradict the teaching of the PBC discussed in the last few posts. I therefore want to provide a justification for the development of doctrine that has taken place within the Catholic Church on this subject.

With that said, thanks for reading. I welcome comments and suggestions. For a fuller treatment of today’s topic, you can download my talk The Substance of Catholic Doctrine I: The Church & Exegesis.



The Pontifical Biblical Commission & the Problem of the Parousia (Part 2 of 3)

In the last post we treated the first of three points in the PBC’s teaching concerning the Second Coming of Christ. Today we turn to the second part of the document. I have abbreviated the question due to the fact that its grammatical structure is somewhat convoluted.

Question 2: “Whether it is fitting to affirm that the apostle Paul certainly declared in his writings nothing that is not in perfect harmony with that ignorance of the time of the Parousia, which Christ himself proclaimed to obtain among human beings.”

Response 2: “Affirmative.”

This one has a double negative that makes it grammatically challenging, but take that out and you find that the PBC teaches it is “fitting” to affirm that what Paul taught concerning the parousia was “in perfect harmony” with what Jesus said on the topic–namely that we know neither the day nor the hour when he will come again. The underlying reference here is to Mk 13:32.

The choice of the word “fitting” (Latin oporteat) here is perhaps significant. I would want to verify this with a classicist, but the word may be translated variously as “necessary,” “proper,” or “becoming” in addition to other renderings. Did the PBC deliberately avoid using a strong word like necesse (“necessary,” “essential”) in favor of a softer word so as to avoid requiring Catholics to affirm that Paul’s teaching on the time of the parousia is perfectly consonant with that of Jesus? I don’t know, but I would welcome input as it could potentially help exculpate this document if one were to conclude that Paul did in fact think that the end of time was near in his day. To my mind, however, when one takes into account the overall tenor of the PBC documents in this period, one good argument against this is that it seems unlikely the PBC would have been open to the possibility of a discrepancy between the thought of Paul and Jesus, respectively.

In summary, in this question we find the PBC teaching that Paul and Jesus both affirmed the impossibility of knowing when the time of the Second Coming will be. Good, but does this sufficiently deal with the problematic texts raised in the my first post on the parousia? And does it still leave room for the possibility that Paul thought Christ would return in his lifetime even if Paul himself did not know the precise hour?

As we will see in a later post, this PBC document served primarily a practical purpose. It was not concerned with providing sophisticated arguments but rather with giving concise, concrete guidance to Catholic exegetes in the early 20th century. For our purposes, that means we still need to give an argument that confronts the problem of the early Church apparently erring in its expectations concerning the Second Coming.

Before making this argument, however, we need to examine the PBC’s third and final question concerning the parousia. This is the topic I will address next time.


The Pontifical Biblical Commission & the Problem of the Parousia (Part 1 of 3)

This post is the second in a series which deals with Scripture apparently erring in its expectation that the Second Coming of Christ would take place in the first century. As a first step toward resolving the problem of an imminent parousia of Jesus, we actually need to throw in another wrench. Today’s post is the first of a short series concerning a 1915 document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, an office that served as an organ of the Magisterium in that epoch. This document can be found in Italian and Latin on the Vatican site and in English in the book entitled The Scripture Documents. Like the other documents of the PBC at the time, this document is in Q & A format, with the answers being the magisterium’s teaching on the matter in question. Today we’ll treat the first of the document’s three questions.

Question 1: “Whether it is permissible for a Catholic exegete, in solving difficulties that occur in the Letters of St. Paul and the other apostles, where the so-called ‘Parousia’ or Second Coming of our Lord Jesus is mentioned, to assert that the apostles, although they teach no error under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, nevertheless do express their own human views, into which error or deception can enter.”

Response 1: “Negative.”

This answer combats the notion that Scripture contains certain statements which issue from the pen of human authors who are liable to err when they are not writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In other words, what is condemned here is the attempt to preserve biblical inerrancy by saying that problematic biblical passages merely constitute the expression of a human point of view and are not as such inspired. From this perspective rejected by the PBC, only parts of the Bible are inspired.

In line with the PBC, Vatican II would later reaffirm the Church’s traditional teaching that “the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author” (Dei Verbum 11).

In the same section of Dei Verbum just cited, the council goes on to teach that “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit” (Dei Verbum 11). To give a hint of the argument which I will be making, one of the keys to addressing the riddle of the imminent parousia lies precisely in the correct understanding and application of this text. A few blog posts from now, we will take a look at how Pope Benedict XVI endeavors to ascertain the “fundamental message” and “essential points” being made in texts which appear to contradict the facts of history.

The reason why this PBC document constitutes another wrench for us is that it is not immediately apparent how Benedict’s approach is reconcilable with that of the PBC we’re dealing with here. We’ll get to that in due time, but for next time we’ll continue with this PBC document and examine its second question. If you’re interested in how Benedict approaches the early documents of the PBC, I recommend downloading my talk The Substance of Catholic Doctrine I: The Church & Exegesis.


Beginning with the End: The Problem of the Parousia

After a few weeks of getting this website together, I am now setting out on the enterprise of blogging. As I point out in the site’s About page, the blog will cover a wide range of subjects, focusing in particular on issues concerning the Bible, Catholic dogma and culture, world religions, and warranted religious belief. Of all the subjects I could treat, I have decided in good Thomistic fashion to begin with the end in mind and treat of eschatology, the study of the “last things.”

The particular subject I want to reflect on is the early Church’s expectation of Christ’s imminent return (parousia in the Greek of the New Testament). It’s a thorny issue that one may find more comfortable to avoid addressing, but one the aims of my intellectual apostolate is to grapple with hard questions like these and help present them in a way that respects their seriousness while also offering a serious response.

Over the next several blog posts, I’ll be reflecting on a series of sources, mostly from Pope Benedict XVI, on an existential crisis the early Christians had to face with regard to Christ’s return: Why hasn’t Christ come back yet like he seemed to say he would? By way of exploring this question, I wish also to show its relevance for our lives today and its implications for the way we ought to go about biblical exegesis as Catholics.

Aside from this brief introduction, today I want to do just two things. First, I want to refer you to my brief interview on Pope Benedict XVI for Benedictine College’s Gregorian Institute so you can get a handle on the approach to biblical interpretation I follow. In broad strokes, it consists in the attempt to follow the principles and example of Pope Benedict XVI, who according to many is the Catholic Church’s most erudite biblical scholar pope in centuries.

Second, I want to offer a few texts that concisely set up the problem of the early Church’s expectation of an imminent Second Coming, that is to say their belief that Christ would come back and usher in the Kingdom during the Apostles’ lifetimes. After setting up the problem, in future posts we will be able to offer responses.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

“But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”

  • What is the apparent discrepancy between the words in bold and the facts of history?

Mark 13 with its parallels in Matt 24 and Luke 21

“So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.”

  • The entire chapter of Mk 13 should be read, but verses 29-30 cited here are the seemingly problematic words I want to highlight.

1 Cor 7:29

“I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none.”

  • Again, the entire chapter 1 Cor 7 should be read to get a feel for the context. Paul is giving practical instructions to guide the Corinthian community as they live in distress and apparently await Christ’s soon return.

Jn 21:21-23

“When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!’ The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “˜If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?’”

  • This text is perhaps easier to explain than some, but it gives an additional angle into the general mindset of the disciples with regard to Christ’s return.

That’s enough to set up the problem and give you something to meditate on. We could adduce a number of other texts that would bring the problem into further relief. Feel free to add any of the relevant biblical texts you find particularly tricky on this topic.