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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Benedict XVI’s Theology of Beauty and the New Evangelization

“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.

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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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Benedict XVI on Freedom in Obedience to the Truth: A Key for the New Evangelization

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.

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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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Thoughts for December: The Dark Passages & The Birth of Jesus

This month I have a variety of thoughts to share with my readers which I am linking to below.

First, you can hear my short radio spot on EWTN’s Son Rise morning radio show which aired around 7:45 Eastern Time on 12/20.  It should be posted here within a few days.  The interview was about Benedict XVI’s biblical interpretation in general and his understanding of the Gospel infancy narratives in particular.

In the blogosphere there’s this interview I did with Brandon Vogt on my recent book Dark Passages of the Bible.

At Homiletic and Pastoral Review I recently authored a piece on reading Jesus’ infancy through the eyes of Pope Benedict XVI.  This piece discusses how and in what sense the Gospels record history and teach theology.

Today Brandon has published my article Common Ground for Catholics and Atheists?  Violence Is Contrary to God’s Nature on his wonderful site Strange Notions.  This site is dedicated to fostering dialogue between Catholics and atheists, serving as a “digital Areopagus.”

Finally, Crisis Magazine has published an article of mine, Benedict XVI on the Christmas Readings.  It helps us make sense of the seemingly boring genealogies in the Gospels.

Happy Advent and Merry early Christmas to you and yours.

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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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Current Scholarly Projects

I have been utterly neglectful of my blog the past couple months for a several reasons: the start of school here at BC, teaching over the weekend in Little Rock for their diocesan spiritual direction institute, my son breaking his leg, this new and intriguing papacy I’ve “had to” keep up on, and somewhat of a flurry of scholarly projects I’m engaged in.  I’m not going to post anything theologically new today; I just want to update readers on what I’m up to and what you can expect to find me writing on this blog in the future.

First, my book Dark Passages of the Bible is finally out and for sale on Amazon!  I just received my own copy yesterday, and it looks like a great read;)

Also in the works:

“Freedom in Obedience to the Truth: A Key for the New Evangelization.”  Homiletic and Pastoral Review (forthcoming January, 2014).

“In the Beginning: Aquinas, Benedict XVI, and the Book of Genesis.”  To be published in the volume Reading Sacred Scripture with Thomas Aquinas. Hermeneutical Tools and New Perspectives (forthcoming).

“Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus & the Substance of Catholic Doctrine: Towards a Realization of Benedict XVI’s ‘Hermeneutic of Reform.’” Forthcoming in Nova et Vetera, English edition.

 “Violence Is Incompatible with the Nature of God: Benedict, Aquinas, and Method C Exegesis of the ‘Dark’ Passages of the Bible.  Forthcoming in Nova et Vetera, English edition.

“Reception of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism,” to be published as a chapter in a scholarly volume on the reception of Vatican II after 50 years (forthcoming)

“Benedict XVI’s Hermeneutic of Reform: Towards a Rapprochement of the Magisterium and Modern Biblical Criticism” (currently under review with a journal).

Review of Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization by Ralph Martin (forthcoming in a scholarly journal)

“Benedict XVI’s Theological Aesthetics and the New Evangelization” (currently working on this to give as a presentation and then work into an article).

As the semester goes along I’ll be posting here and there with updates focusing on the results of these scholarly pursuits.

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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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Benedict XVI on the “Two Councils”

In one of his last public speeches last week, Pope Benedict offered a powerful reflection on the time he spent as an expert or peritus at the Second Vatican Council. The speech is at once chilling and hopeful. As we Catholics continue our journey in this year of faith, it is particularly valuable to consider what Vatican II actually taught vs. what people think it taught–and, most importantly, how we can put into practice what we now know it taught. The following part on the “two councils” is especially timely:

I would now like to add yet a third point: there was the Council of the Fathers–“the real Council”–but there was also the Council of the media. It was almost a Council apart, and the world perceived the Council through the latter, through the media. Thus, the Council that reached the people with immediate effect was that of the media, not that of the Fathers. And while the Council of the Fathers was conducted within the faith–it was a Council of faith seeking intellectus, seeking to understand itself and seeking to understand the signs of God at that time, seeking to respond to the challenge of God at that time and to find in the word of God a word for today and tomorrow–while all the Council, as I said, moved within the faith, as fides quaerens intellectum, the Council of the journalists, naturally, was not conducted within the faith, but within the categories of today’s media, namely apart from faith, with a different hermeneutic. It was a political hermeneutic: for the media, the Council was a political struggle, a power struggle between different trends in the Church.

We know that this Council of the media was accessible to everyone. Therefore, this was the dominant one, the more effective one, and it created so many disasters, so many problems, so much suffering: seminaries closed, convents closed, banal liturgy–and the real Council had difficulty establishing itself and taking shape; the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council. But the real force of the Council was present and, slowly but surely, established itself more and more and became the true force which is also the true reform, the true renewal of the Church. It seems to me that, 50 years after the Council, we see that this virtual Council is broken, is lost, and there now appears the true Council with all its spiritual force. And it is our task, especially in this Year of Faith, on the basis of this Year of Faith, to work so that the true Council, with its power of the Holy Spirit, be accomplished and the Church be truly renewed. Let us hope that that the Lord will assist us. I myself, secluded in prayer, will always be with you and together let us go forward with the Lord in the certainty that the Lord will conquer.

Benedict’s entire talk can be found here. For a much fuller treatment of these issues and more, I recommend reading Ratzinger’s book Theological Highlights of Vatican II which comprises his expert reflections written soon after the council.

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Pope Benedict XVI’s Resignation: An Act of Holiness, Humility, and Courage

When I awoke to the news of Pope Benedict resigning the other day, I had to check my calendar to make sure it wasn’t April 1. Too bad on two counts: it was not April Fool’s Day, and it was not Spring in Kansas. To say the least, I am very sad that our Holy Father is stepping down–not the least reason being that he still has two important documents (on Faith and the New Evangelization) that are–or were–due out. Much ink has already been spilt in the media covering this event. What I’d like to do is summarize a few key points and link to some of my favorite pieces which attest to the truth of this post’s headline.

2009: Benedict left his pallium at the tomb of Pope St. Celestine V. As Scott Hahn puts it in this piece, Celestine did not resign because he was a saint. Like Benedict, he resigned in order to become a saint–to complete his earthly pilgrimage in a life dedicated totally to prayer for the Church.

2010: In his book Light of the World, Benedict argued that there are times a pope could, and should, resign. That year, according to Benedict, was not the right time. A pope should not resign in times of particular turmoil or when people are calling for one’s resignation–as was the situation at the height of the clergy abuse crisis that year and in the case of John Paul II in his declining years. Benedict was already tired in 2010, already using a pacemaker, but like JPII he kept fighting the good fight.

2013: In his papal resignation speech, Benedict explained that his strength had deteriorated over the last several months to the point where he was incapable of exercising the Petrine governing office. In making this decision, Benedict broke a centuries-old precedent, and went out in a markedly different manner from his predecessor, Blessed John Paul II. Why? As we saw throughout his pontificate, Benedict was his own man. He was JPII’s right-hand man, but he wasn’t JPII. Whereas JPII’s aim was to demonstrate the sanctity of life and dignity of redemptive suffering while remaining in the Chair of Peter to the end, Benedict wanted to achieve something different but complementary. His action exuded the humility and courage that are only possible in a person of great holiness. He did what he had discerned God was calling him to do, knowing he would be misunderstood and that people will feel he failed to live up to the heroic expectations they took for granted in the life of JPII.

2/11/2013: Why did Benedict choose this day to give his 2-week notice? Popes always do things for a reason. Here something at first very subtle appears more clearly when you consider the day in light of the Catholic liturgical calendar and in view of Benedict’s comments in 2002 before becoming pope. First, this is World Day of the Sick, and Benedict is sick. It makes sense he would unite with his sufferings with those of the whole world by vacating the Chair of Peter on that day. Second, and more importantly, this is the memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, the famous shrine in France where countless healings have occurred. In his book God and the World, Benedict discussed how he felt a special closeness with St. Bernadette of Lourdes, “a simple girl…surrounded in a century of rationalism.” Nearing her own death, Bernadette had said, “My story is quite simple. The Virgin made use of me. Then I was put in the corner. That’s my proper place; I’m happy there; that’s where I’ll stay.” Sound familiar?

Finally, here are a few local media outlets for whom I was blessed to share my reaction to the pope’s resignation:

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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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