Benedict XVI’s Hermeneutic of Reform: Towards a Rapprochement of the Magisterium and Modern Biblical Criticism

Even a cursory overview of Benedict XVI’s exegetical approach reveals dramatic contrasts with magisterial teaching of previous epochs.  With appropriate reservations and criticisms, Benedict strongly advocates the use of modern scholarly methods to help Christians better discern the face of Christ revealed in Scripture.  In adopting many of these modern findings, however, it almost seems as if Benedict has forgotten or neglected principles enforced by the magisterium no less than a century earlier.

Though one may argue that the Church’s stance on modern biblical scholarship only indirectly bears upon faith and morals, the issue remains timely today insofar as a divide persists in the Church concerning the extent to which it is appropriate to incorporate the tools and findings of modern exegesis in Catholic theology.  Aside from Benedict’s own comments on his project, it is difficult still today to find an adequate account of how exegesis under his pontificate is reconcilable with many of the venerable traditions which preceded it and, in particular, with a magisterial approach which generally viewed modern scholarship with skepticism.

The lack of such an account is what prompted me to author an article in Nova et Vetera which addresses this very topic.  In the piece I endeavor to face head-on patent discrepancies in the Church’s approach to the Bible over the past century and, so doing, offer the principles needed for a robust apologia of Catholicism in its relationship with modern biblical scholarship. You can download and read the article here!

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The Salvation of Atheists and Catholic Dogmatic Theology

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.

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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!

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Dark Passages Reviewed in Nova et Vetera!

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!

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Benedict XVI, Catholic Doctrine and the Problem of an Imminent Parousia

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
Mark 13:26-33

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.

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How to Read the Bible and Still Be a Christian

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.

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In the Beginning: Reading Genesis with Benedict XVI and Thomas Aquinas

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.

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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!

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Christian Discernment of Divine Revelation: Benedict XVI and the International Theological Commission on the Dark Passages of the Old Testament

“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.

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The Bible and the Question of Miracles: Towards a Christian Response

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.

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Bart Ehrman, Benedict XVI, and the Bible on the Question of Miracles

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.

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This Year’s Book Reviews

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

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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…

 

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Authentic Freedom Comes from Accepting the Cross: A Meditation for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

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.

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The Gods of Israel: Does the Bible Promote Polytheism?

“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.

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Psalm 137: Is God Pro-Life or Pro-Death?

Read Psalm 137.  Read it all the way through, including its final few lines:

O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall he be who requites you
with what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!”

Now ask yourself, “How can that be in the Bible?”

Then try to explain that to atheists.

The following is a link to my attempt at doing just this.  It is published on Strange Notions, a popular website devoted to promoting dialogue between Catholics and atheists. The site bills itself as a “digital Areopagus,” echoing the famous dialogue of St. Paul with the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17.  I recommend bookmarking it and perusing the resources blogger Brandon Vogt has made available which are geared toward helping us Catholics better defend the faith in the modern, digital world.

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Did God Command Genocide?

This is not an easy question to answer when you look at all the evidence honestly, but there are answers out there!  This is a topic I take up in my recent book Dark Passages of the Bible, which was recently discussed along with other important works on the subject by Brandon Vogt. See his post here.

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Farewell to the Devil?

The existence of the devil is not very compatible with modern thinking. Such is the view confronted by Benedict XVI in a response he once wrote to a book called Farewell to the Devil. Its author, an Old Testament scholar, expressed the view of many a modern man in claiming, “By now we have understood that the term ‘devil’ in the New Testament simply stands for the term ‘sin.’” The devil is just an image for sin, just something Jesus talks about to keep a little holy fear in us—but not someone we really have to fear, someone whose existence we can prove and wiles we can’t explain otherwise through modern psychology.

I recently authored a book entitled Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI and Thomas Aquinas. In that book one of the three main themes I treat is the problem of evil in the Old Testament.  I encourage you to read my post at Benedictine College’s Gregorian Institute on what Pope Benedict has to say about the existence of the devil.  Do the Scriptures really affirm the existence of the devil, or is he a superstition from a bygone age which enlightened people today need to move beyond?

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