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.

cover pic

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

Franciscan Way crop.pdf

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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Dark Passages of the Bible

Ramage large cmykI was happy to find out this week that my forthcoming book is in the Fall catalog of Catholic University of America Press and set to be in print by September. It is already available for pre-order on Amazon. A more extended blurb can be found on the CUA Press website.

 The cover we decided on (above) is a Rembrandt sketch of the scene from Gen 22 when Abraham is called by God to slaughter Isaac–a dark passage indeed! Of course, Abraham did not have to go through with the physical action, but it still stands out as a particularly evocative “dark passage” and one that is well represented in the Church’s artistic tradition.

Continue reading

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Good Exegesis in Two Steps

I knew Pope Benedict’s third volume of Jesus of Nazareth was going to fulfill my expectations already by the second paragraph of its foreword. One of the major themes in Benedict’s exegesis over the years has been his insistence on the necessity of a two-pronged approach to interpreting Scripture, an approach which is relatively little known and all too rarely practiced in the Church. In the foreword to his third installment treating the life of Jesus, he insisted on this same method just as he had insisted upon it in the forewords to his previous two books. In the words of the Pontiff:

I am convinced that good exegesis involves two sages. Firstly one has to ask what the respective authors intended to convey through their text in their own day–the historical component of exegesis. But it is not sufficient to leave the text in the past and thus relegate it to history. The second question posed by good exegesis must be: is what I read here true? Does it concern me? If so, how? With a text like the Bible, whose ultimate and fundamental author, according to our faith, is God himself, the question regarding the here and now of things past is undeniably included in the task of exegesis. The seriousness of the historical quest is in no way diminished by this: on the contrary, it is enhanced.

The governing idea of Benedict’s exegetical plan is really quite simple, but by no means simplistic. First, to understand the Bible, you first have to appreciate what it meant within its original context. Scripture was written by the Holy Spirit, but it was also written by human authors who had particular aims within their unique historical context. According to the Holy Father, we do violence to Scripture if we forget its place within the history of salvation, what God wanted to achieve for his Chosen People through it, and what challenges the sacred word presents for us now looking back on that history.

Second, for Benedict good exegesis requires that we let the Bible speak not only for itself within its original context, but that it speak also to us today. Here the things of the past which we encounter in the first step of exegesis take on significance in the here and now. We bring the Bible to prayer and patiently meditate on it. We ask how its message applies to our lives today, how it can transform us in the concrete circumstances of our daily existence.

In this post, I am simply articulating the basic principles at stake here. I have an entire book forthcoming on the subject, and on this blog you will see me talk about it quite a bit as I continue my posts on Jesus of Nazareth. For now, let me conclude this first post by offering you some other examples of Benedict teaching the same principles in other works:

You can call the patristic-medieval exegetical approach Method A. The historical-critical approach, the modern approach, is Method B. What I am calling for is not a return to Method A, but a development of a Method C, taking advantage of the strengths of both Method A and Method B, but cognizant of the shortcomings of both. (Biblical Interpretation in Crisis)

The historical-critical method–let me repeat–is an indispensable tool, given the structure of Christian faith. This method is a fundamental dimension of exegesis, but it does not exhaust the interpretative task for someone who sees the biblical writings as a single corpus of Holy Scripture inspired by God. The inner nature of the method points beyond itself and contains within itself an openness to complementary methods. In these words from the past, we can discern the question concerning their meaning for today; a voice greater than man’s echoes in Scripture’s human words. (Jesus, Vol. 1)

[A] properly developed faith hermeneutic is appropriate to the text and can be combined with a historical hermeneutic, aware of its limitations, so as to form a methodological whole. Naturally, this combination of two quite different types of hermeneutic is an art that needs to be constantly remastered. I would not presume to claim that this combination of the two hermeneutics is already fully accomplished in my book. But I hope to have taken a significant step in that direction. Fundamentally this is a matter of finally putting into practice the methodological principles formulated for exegesis by the Second Vatican Council, a task that unfortunately has scarcely been attempted thus far. (Jesus, Vol. 2)

The historical-critical method will always remain one dimension of interpretation. Vatican II made this clear. On the one hand, it presents the essential elements of the historical method as a necessary part of access to the Bible. At the same time, though, it adds that the Bible has to be read in the same Spirit in which it was written. It has to be read in its wholeness, in its unity. And that can be done only when we approach it as a book of the People of God progressively advancing toward Christ. What is needed is not simply a break with the historical method, but a self-critique of the historical method; a self-critique of historical reason that takes cognizance of its limits and recognizes the compatibility of a type of knowledge that derives from faith; in short, we need a synthesis between an exegesis that operates with historical reason and an exegesis that is guided by faith. (Light of the World)

[I]t would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery.” (Verbum Domini)

Scientific exegesis and lectio divina are both necessary and complementary in order to seek, through the literal meaning, the spiritual meaning that God wants to communicate to us today. (Angelus, October 26, 2008)

Examples abound where Benedict goes on to put these ideas into practice in his various works. If you have any other examples of him speaking in similar terms, please post them.

 

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