My review of Stephen Bullivant’s outstanding volume The Salvation of Atheists and Catholic Dogmatic Theology came out in this quarter’s edition of Nova et Vetera. If you wonder about the question of how to reconcile Vatican II’s teaching on the possibility of salvation for non-believers with traditional Catholic doctrine, this is the book for you. Immediately below is my condensed review I posted on Amazon, followed by a link where you can download my full review to learn more about Bullivant’s book.
Stephen Bullivant’s monograph offers a welcome contribution to an area in the theology of Vatican II that continues to require clarification fifty years after the Council. The aim of this work is to elucidate “how, within the parameters of Catholic theology, it is possible for an atheist to be saved.” While not intended as an apologetic response to the New Atheism, Bullivant is correct in observing that his work will challenge one item in the New Atheist arsenal, namely the assumption that individuals who happen to lack certain “religious information” are thereby automatically assumed to be damned. The primary focus of this study consists in elucidating two poignant sentences of Lumen Gentium 16: “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life.”
Bullivant’s post-mortem solution to the problem of how atheists might be saved is plausible and well-argued. In brief, Bullivant proposes that atheists can be saved in accordance with what they have done to Christ’s “least ones.” In a move all-too rarely made in contemporary theology, Bullivant offers hagiographical evidence to corroborate his claim. After a delightful analysis of how his paradigm is reflected in the lives of St. Benedict and St. Martin de Tours , the author dwells at greater length on the theology of Bl. Mother Teresa, who taught that Christ is present “in his distressing disguise” in the poor themselves. If this presence is as the saints describe it, then moral atheists not only act under the influence of grace but also have an objective encounter with Christ himself when performing corporal works of mercy for his “least ones.” Echoing D’Costa, Bullivant thus argues that the atheist already in this life has an “ontological relationship” with Christ, whereas the requisite “epistemological relationship” with him will only be rectified post-mortem. None of this, he argues, requires that we attribute to the atheist implicit or anonymous faith; rather, in this case it is Christ who is anonymous. Briefly stated, “Anonymous Christs do not entail anonymous Christians.”
For this reader, a significant remaining objection concerns how Bullivant seems to imply the presence of charity in an atheist while denying that this virtue is accompanied by at least implicit faith. It is difficult to see how the salvific grace an atheist receives in his encounter with Christ’s “least ones” is not accompanied by some noetic content.
Read the full review here!
Well, it’s been some time since I’ve posted any scholarship on here. Alot has happened in the last six months: I had open-heart surgery, a total hip replacement, and my dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack. It has been a trying period, but I am returning to health. And so many prayers and masses have been offered for my dad that–when combined with his holy life and death–it’s difficult to see how he could not be presently beholding the Lord face to face!
Over the coming months I should have several items to share on this blog, but for now the most recent publication is actually a book review of my Dark Passages of the Bible that appeared in the most recent edition of the international theological journal Nova et Vetera, which is quite possibly my favorite journal. You can download and read the review here! My thanks to Christopher Baglow for his kind words!
Over the past fifty years, there have been dissenting Catholics of various stripes who based their rejection of the Magisterium on the seeming contradiction between what Vatican II taught regarding who is able to be saved over and against the ancient doctrine extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation). I have just published a paper in the journal Nova et Vetera which takes up the thorny question of whether salvation is possible for those outside of the visible Catholic Church and, further, whether the teaching of Vatican II may be reconciled with the magisterial teaching ecclesiam nulla salus that preceded it. You can read the full article Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus & the Substance of Catholic Doctrine: Towards a Realization of Benedict XVI’s “Hermeneutic of Reform” here. If you are into theology and want a serious quarterly journal that seeks to wed the new and the old within the Christian tradition, I highly recommend subscribing to Nova et Vetera.
Over the past couple years of Francis’s pontificate, I have had fielded innumerable questions from college students, colleagues, and parishioners who are confused by our reigning pope’s approach in general and his views expressed in Laudato Si’ in particular. Actually, I think that the pontiff’s recent encyclical ought to be applauded by all Catholics, and this is what I have taken up in my recent article published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
Contrary to the perception of many who have not read the document, it turns out that the question of climate change holds only a minor place within the scope of the encyclical, and it is largely irrelevant to Francis’s overarching message. In other words, the text is not “an encyclical on climate change,” as some have called it. It treats a number of other scientific issues and much, much more besides that. In this piece, what I do here is to offer a reflection on what I take to constitute the heart of Francis’s vision for an “integral ecology” and the “ecological virtues” demanded by it. In so doing, I assuredly touch on certain themes that others have treated, but I also hope to add some nuances that have not been addressed in the various commentaries currently circulating in the blogosphere. You can read the entire article here.
Look up the following texts and ask yourself whether they ring true:
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
1 Corinthians 7:29 and 15:51-52
Today I am excited to share an article of mine that will be published in the forthcoming issue of the Josephinum Journal of Theology. It is on the fascinating but very thorny topic addressed in these biblical texts: the New Testament’s ostensibly failed expectation that Christ’s second coming would occur within the first Christian generation. I thought about this topic for years and never found a really compelling answer to until I read what Benedict XVI had to say on it. Thus the point of my article is to tease out Benedict’s thought and draw it all together in one accessible piece. The article abstract can be found below:
In the effort to advance a more biblically sound theology within the Church, this paper shows how the theological principles and exegetical practice of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI provide an outstanding example of how to implement the above mandate of Dei Verbum as highlighted in the International Theological Commission’s recent work. The paper applies Ratzinger’s thought to concrete biblical texts involving the New Testament’s ostensibly failed expectation that Christ’s parousia would occur within the apostolic period. The question that arises from a reading of these texts is quite simple: Why has Christ not come back yet like he seemed to say he would? By searching out the intention of Scripture’s sacred authors in relation to the expectation of an imminent parousia, Ratzinger offers a compelling apology for the existence of thorny biblical texts and dogmatic formulas within the Catholic tradition.
If you wish to read the entire article, you can download it here.
If God exists, he is not the God of the Christian Bible.
At least this is the conclusion drawn by many prominent authors and cultural commentators in our society today.
The rise of agnosticism and atheism in contemporary culture cannot be traced merely to a single cause, but, certainly, one significant factor lies in a recent increase of interest in the Bible. Mind you, what I am talking about here is, not popular devotion, but, rather, the fashionable trend of calling attention to the deep discord that seems to exist between the God Christians preach and the God casual readers find, when they actually explore the Bible. Pick up Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem, or any number of similar titles, and there you will find the same basic conviction: you cannot read the Bible seriously and still be a Christian.
The recent barrage of attacks on the Bible in the media has elicited a series of responses from the Catholic Church, most recently, in the form of documents from the International Theological Commission (ITC) and Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC). Although I have authored a book-length treatment of this subject, I have not yet had the occasion to comment on these particular texts which were published just last year. Seeing that neither I, nor hardly anyone else, has commented on these texts, I thought it appropriate to offer a survey of their principles. You can find my recently published article “How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian: The Problem of Divine Violence as Considered in Recent Curial Documents” this month in Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
Today our outstanding Benedictine College class of 2015 graduated, and with that summer begins for us here in Atchison, KS.
Just in time for summer, I have a new piece of scholarship to share. The file I’m attaching here is a chapter I wrote for a book entitled Reading Scripture with Thomas Aquinas, forthcoming later this year.
The chapter explores the respective exegetical methods and practices of Thomas Aquinas and Ratzinger/Benedict XVI as applied within the account of primeval history narrated in Genesis 1-3. Before treating commonalities between Aquinas and Ratzinger, I address the latter’s critiques of neo-scholasticism first so as to make it clear that Ratzinger is not strictly speaking a Thomist. With this initial caveat in place, there follows an overview of principles illustrating key points of contact in which Ratzinger implicitly (and explicitly at points) connects his exegetical programme with that of Aquinas. Finally, the core of the chapter consists in illustrating how the shared principles of Aquinas and Ratzinger are applied to specific realities within the biblical text.
In sum, I aim to show that Ratzinger conducts his exegesis of Genesis in a way that is much in the spirit of Thomas and indeed shares many parallels with Thomas’ exegesis of the same texts. At the same time, I endeavor to make it clear that Ratzinger makes significant advances beyond Aquinas with the help of the modern scholarly tools to which he is privy. Thus I hope the reader will see that Aquinas’ exegesis continues today to exert its influence and to remain profitable even as it needs to be supplemented by the best scholarship currently available—precisely the view advanced by a leading biblical scholar who was to become bishop of Rome.
Download the chapter here!
Purchase the book here!
“Violence is incompatible with the nature of God.” In his 2006 Regensburg Address, Pope Benedict XVI penned this line as part of his ongoing effort to disentangle theology from ideologies which “might even lead to the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness.” Although Benedict had Islam in his sights in making this particular point, the same warning equally applies to Christian theology and Scripture.
In its recent document God the Trinity and the Unity of Humanity, the International Theological Commission offers important principles to reconcile the many Old Testament texts in which God ostensibly acts against his own nature by commanding deeds such as the slaughter of men, women, and children. I am publishing a piece on this subject in the upcoming volume of Scripta Theologica, which is published by the University of Navarra in Spain. Since most of you probably don’t have access to this journal, I’ve attached the pre-publication version of the article here. Basically, it summarizes key hermeneutical principles from my book Dark Passages of the Bible, adds several helpful cues from the International Theological Commission’s recent work, and applies them to Psalm 137, one of the most beautiful and yet disturbing texts of the Old Testament.
My previous post at Strange Notions underscored the often-unacknowledged philosophical premises at work when believers and non-believers sit down to debate about things biblical. In the course of my argument, I pointed to a possible area of common ground for Catholics and agnostics/atheists. A survey of statements by thinkers as different as Benedict XVI and Bart Ehrman reveals an important agreement upon the reality that everyone carries their own philosophical presuppositions and that a purely objective consideration of Jesus’ miracles is therefore impossible.
Today I carry forward this discussion. By way of doing this, I first briefly summarize Bart Ehrman’s position on Jesus’ divinity and resurrection. Then I critique what I consider to be an insufficient (but very common) Christian response to the skeptic’s position. Finally, I dwell upon a couple keys given by C.S. Lewis and Pope Benedict XVI which point out from a Christian perspective the direction a philosophical dialogue about miracles needs to head. Find the article here at Strange Notions.
At its core, the debate about modern exegesis is not a dispute among historians: it is rather a philosophical debate.” – Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Today at Strange Notions I published a reflection revolving around this poignant line from Joseph Ratzinger’s 1988 Erasmus Lecture in which he famously called for a “criticism of criticism.” In penning these words, the German cardinal was looking for a self-criticism of the modern, historical-critical method of biblical interpretation. On the part of those involved in the craft of exegesis today, this would entail the effort to identify the philosophical presuppositions we bring to our reading of the biblical text and to consider honestly the degree of certainty warranted for the conclusions we draw when it comes to things biblical. Check out the article here.
“I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth…are the saints and the beauty that the faith has generated.” Throughout his career, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI has, time and again, emphasized that the via pulchritudinis, the way of beauty, constitutes a privileged path by which to advance the New Evangelization. In a de-Christianized society that is often hostile to the Church’s truth claims and moral norms, Benedict believes that recourse to the universal language of beauty is indispensable if today’s evangelist is to compellingly present the Gospel to would-be believers.
This week I published a reflection exploring the concept of beauty in Benedict’s theology, suggesting areas in which it might be fruitfully applied by the Church today in her ministry of evangelization. You can read the piece here at Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
Now that our semester here at Benedictine College is coming to a close, I am able to take some moments to update on recent happenings in my scholarly life. I have a handful of articles coming out here and there which I will eventually post, but here are a few book reviews (of my book and a published review of another book).
REVIEW BY ME:
Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization by Ralph Martin, for Nova et Vetera 12.4 (2014).
The above text is a must-read for Christian, especially Catholic, evangelists as it challenges the widespread conception that pretty much everyone is going to be saved. In this work Martin takes two very important Catholic intellectuals to task–Rahner and Balthasar–and argues persuasively that a proper reception of Vatican II must involve renewing our understanding of the possibility of damnation for those who culpably reject the gospel. While continuing to have immense respect for the great theologians Martin critiques, I have had to revisit my assessment of their soteriology in light of Martin’s thorough analysis.
In sum, Martin’s work is a timely reminder that the true spirit of Vatican II is to be found within its texts in their entirety. To be sure, Lumen Gentium represents a development with regard to how the Church views the status of non-Christians. However, Vatican II also soberly reaffirms the real possibility of damnation and thus the need for Christian missionary activity. The Church today needs a properly balanced pastoral strategy cognizant of both the universal action of the Holy Spirit and the pervasiveness of sin which poses a real threat to salvation.
REVIEWS OF MY DARK PASSAGES VOLUME:
Franciscan Way (Summer 2014): 11
First Things (April 2014): 64
Scripta Theologica 46 (April 2014): 239-40
New Blackfriars, vol. 96, issue 1061: 108–109 (January 2015)
Irish Thomist blog (November 2014)
UPDATE 12/31/14: Thanks to Dr. Michael Barber over at The Sacred Page for listing Dark Passages of the Bible among his Top 5 Academic Reads of 2014!
The next project I’ll be tackling is a pair of articles on Benedict XVI’s Jesus series which I hope will eventually comprise chapters in another book. We’ll see when that gets done…
Summer is over and things are back in full academic swing here at Benedictine College. As a result, I now resume the work of sharing works here and there as I have them published in various venues.
The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars puts out a wonderful monthly publication called Teaching the Faith. This is a great resource for homilists and faithful alike who wish to enter more deeply into the liturgical readings. The following is my essay which will be appearing in the publication for the upcoming feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross on September 14: This is the website where you can download this and other other new meditations every month.
Our recent popes have made it clear that today’s prevailing western culture is confused over what the reality which we call “freedom” truly means. As Benedict XVI put it so well, true freedom is not what most people think. It comes not from inventing our own ideas, or even deciding upon them democratically, but rather through loving submission to the truth that has been revealed to us through Christ’s Church.
In a piece I published today aimed at homilists and catechists but really for any Catholic, I argue with Benedict that we need to rediscover and carry out the words of St. Peter: “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren, love one another earnestly from the heart” (1 Pet 1:22). For St. Peter as for the Catholic Church today, authentic love and evangelization of our brethren is impossible without purification of our own souls. In particular, what I am talking about consists in that purification which comes through a sincere love of the truth and the courage to live in accordance with the moral truths of the Church—in other words, obedience to the truth. Check out the article here over at Homiletic and Pastoral Review.
“What great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?” This passage from the Book of Deuteronomy was recently proclaimed in the Catholic Church’s Lenten liturgy, and it touched right at the heart of something I have been pondering for some time: evidence of polytheism in the Bible and the relationship between ancient Israelite and Canaanite religious traditions.
Popular critics of the Judeo-Christian God frequently focus on the apparent incompatibility of the biblical portrait of God with what we insist must be essential moral attributes of the divine nature should it even exist. Both critics and believers, however, are often unaware of another crucial problem that would seem to contradict traditional Christian doctrine concerning the nature of God. In a nutshell, the tension lies not only in the relation of the biblical God to violence and evil, but also on the arguably more fundamental level of whether the Bible reflects belief in only one divine being in the first place.
I have devoted a chapter to this very theme in my book Dark Passages of the Bible, and even there I barely scratch the surface of this issue. Nevertheless, I have continued to ponder this issue over the past couple years and believe something meaningful can be said within the constraints of a blog post. You can find my response here which went up today over at Strange Notions.