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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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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