Sunday, September 18, 2011

Visit Steve Long and Me at

In my final post for EMW I mentioned that I would be moving on to other blogging projects. One is now underway. Steve Long and I have migrated to The site was started in 2000 by Mark Johnson, professor of theology at Marquette University, as "a news site for the academic study of St. Thomas, with opinions, newsletters, picture galleries, and the like."

Over the Summer, Mark, who found that he had too much on his plate, reached an agreement with The Aquinas Center of Ave Maria University (i.e., the unversity where Steve and I teach) to take over the operation of the site (with Mark continuing as an adviser and contributor). So, this is where Steve and I are now with our AMU colleagues Fr. Matthew Lamb, Roger Nutt, and Michael Dauphinais, along with several colleagues from other universities. You can find Mark's announcement of the transfer here and a statement by Roger and me about the "new" here.

As far as the other blogging project goes, that's still in the planning stages.

Friday, July 1, 2011

It's Been Fun

"And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain..."

This noble project that was the end of the modern world, etc. blog has come to an end. I and my fellow contributors would like to thank all our readers, commenters, and followers. We've had over 33,000 page views since the blog was launched less than a year ago in October of 2010. Not bad for a nine month run.

I've been asked to help run a site/blog dedicated to the work of Aquinas and Thomism generally as well as do some blogging more directly connected to AMU. These projects are still developing, so I'm not going to say more about them now. If you're interested in these new undertakings, feel free to email me at for further info.

It would have been too much to work on these new blogs and continue to run EMW. It would have meant more time away from my dear family and from my professional obligations -- neither of which I have any interest in doing, especially not the former.

Kevin O'Brien, of course, continues to blog away elsewhere: at his own blog, Theater of the Word Incorporated, the St. Austin Review's Ink Desk, The Distributist Review blog, and the Gilbert Magazine blog.

Joseph Pearce also continues to blog at the Ink Desk.



Sunday, June 12, 2011

Reading in the Spirit: A Reply to John Martens

Several days ago John Martens, a theologian at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and a columnist for America Magazine, the national Jesuit weekly, made some lengthy comments at the America site on a May 25 post of mine entitled "Aquinas and Modern Biblical Exegesis." I would like to respond to his comments here. If you have not done so already, I would encourage you to read the original posts in their entirety.

Let me begin by saying that I am a philosopher by profession and not a theologian, much less a biblical scholar, but as a good deal of my research, teaching, and publication are on Aquinas and as I have a general familiarity with biblical exegesis, I feel there is some justification (but probably not much) for my taking the risk of entering into a discussion that seeks to relate the two. I am grateful to Prof. Martens for dignifying my earlier remarks with his penetrating comments. I will turn to my reply to those comments now.

I had suggested at the beginning of my original post that the modern historico-critical approach to Sacred Scripture tends "to focus on the meaning that the human author of the text could have intended and aims at narrowing that meaning down as precisely as possible" and, borrowing a phrase from Nietzsche, added, with some measure of comic hyperbole, that the hope of these exegetes is to find “the single beatific interpretation.” I contrasted this with the approach of Aquinas and the Fathers, who I said "were quite comfortable with permitting the text of Holy Writ an indefinite variety of meanings, within certain parameters of course." Martens offers a gentle correction:

I do think it is correct that the trained exegete or historical-critical scholar, but even the ordinary reader of Scripture, does try to find out the meaning of a scriptural text and to interpret it and analyze it as carefully as proper.  We can do nothing more as interpreters than understand the text to the best of our abilities. It is inevitable that in considering interpretive options we would propose one best reading, whether this is best called “the single beatific interpretation," I doubt. It seems to me that the next step is the consideration of other interpretations: what the best interpreters do, from Augustine, to Aquinas, to the present day, is keep themselves open to other possible readings, especially if those readings have some strong precedent in the Church. What I have found currently is not that professional interpreters are unwilling to consider other possible readings, but that biblical apologists in the Church are offering “one size fits all” readings of the Scripture and ignoring the depth of Scriptural interpretation, which is the heritage and tradition of the Church.
Certainly my portrayal of modern historico-critical biblical exegetes was a bit of a caricature and Martens is right to show that they are probably more open to alternative interpretations than the caricature seemed to allow.

Still, I would query Martens about his observation in the above passage that “[i]t is inevitable that in considering interpretive options we would propose one best reading.” How does he mean this? I (and I believe this is Aquinas’s approach too) would be hesitant even to propose a “best reading” and acknowledge rather that there is a range, perhaps quite wide, of plausible readings. This would not mean, of course, that just any reading would do. It goes without saying that whatever readings are allowed as plausible will logically exclude their contraries and contradictories. Given that I take this view, I agree with Martens in deploring “one size fits all” readings of the Scripture that ignore “the depth of Scriptural interpretation.” Neither is this way of handling Scripture in tune with the traditional Catholic approach.

In my post I further contrasted the historico-critical approach with Aquinas’s by arguing that the modern approach is interested in the meaning intended by the human author while Aquinas is interested in the meaning(s) intended by the Holy Spirit. Martens agrees with the importance of recognizing the divine inspiration of the Scriptures but wonders what difference this makes to the way we go about the task of interpretation:

Not every biblical interpreter, it is true and strangely so, acknowledges divine authorship of Scripture, but for someone like myself who does, it is hard to see how this acceptance ought to change the concrete practice of interpretation. Thomas might not be “at all scrupulous about limiting the text’s meaning(s) to what the human author might have understood,” but what impact does this have, or ought it to have, on an interpreter, even one who acknowledges the divine authorship? The interpreter is bound to understand the text or passage as fully as he or she can and it is difficult for me to know how one can determine what is limited to the human author or the divine author. If the meaning is embedded in the text, how does one distinguish amongst levels of authorship, attributing one meaning to the human author, who was nevertheless inspired, and one (or more) to the divine author, the source of inspiration? All meaning in the text must go back to the same locus: the text which was written by an inspired human author.
There is a lot that I would like to respond to here but will have to limit myself to a couple of issues. First, I think Martens makes a good point about not forcing too strict of a dichotomy between the intention of the human author and the intention of the divine author. And perhaps I was tending in that direction. I will definitely reflect on this further.

Second, I would like to ask Martens for clarification on what he means when he says that it is hard to see how the acceptance of the divine authorship of Scripture ought to change the concrete practice of interpretation. I would have to know what he thinks should go into this practice before I would be prepared to agree or disagree. If a professional exegete takes Scripture to be inspired, then he/she will not only make use of the tools of the historian (which I do believe are important despite the criticism I have made of some who employ them), but will also, as Dei Verbum 12 says (citing Benedict XV and St. Jerome), “read it in the same Spirit in which it was written.” This Spirit is encountered not only in Sacred Scripture but in the Sacred Tradition (DV 8), in the Sacraments, in our fellows, in prayer, in the teaching of the Church. I think one can only “read in the Spirit” and so read Scripture rightly, when one recognizes and deeply values all of these places where the Spirit dwells. Only then will one’s “hermeneutic situation” be in order.

If ever, then, a particular reading of Scripture strikes us as historically plausible but, to the best of our knowledge, seems incompatible with the Tradition or with the clear teaching of the Church, we will question the genuine plausibility of the interpretation. But, again, we should not imagine that this will mean that there will be only one way to interpret a scriptural passage. There will undoubtedly be a range of plausible readings of a passage that will be in harmony with the Tradition and the Church’s teaching. Recognizing the normativity of these guides simply does not entail the straightjacket approach to exegesis that I (claiming to follow Aquinas) want to eschew.

But mere intellectual acquaintance with the Tradition and Church teaching will not suffice for reading in the Spirit. As I have already said, it also requires living a Christian life (prayer, reception of the Sacraments, good relationships with others). St. Athanasius has some edifying thoughts on the importance of an authentic Christian life for understanding Scripture. I posted them back in December ("Reading Scripture Rightly: Athanasius on the Hermeneutic Necessity of Holiness").

Judging from what he said in his comments, I would guess that Martens would agree with most of what I say about reading in the Spirit, although it is possible that he would want to add more to what I have proposed. But I don't want to anticipate his response too much!

Moving on, we come to the question about what is meant by the “literal sense” of Scripture. In my post I had said that it appears that for Aquinas the literal sense is the meaning intended by God. I quoted ST, I, q. 1, a. 10: “Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of sacred Scripture is God, who by one act comprehends all things by his intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in sacred Scripture should have several senses.” This struck me as different from the way that Raymond Brown once defined “literal sense” in the Jerome Biblical Commentary. This is what I said:

[Aquinas’s] understanding of the literal sense of Scripture is quite different from the dominant understanding of this term in contemporary biblical hermeneutics. Raymond Brown, writing in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, which has become one of the standard reference works for Catholic biblical hermeneutics, defines the "literal sense" as "[t]he sense which the human author directly intended and which his words convey." Brown is well aware of the traditional understanding of the literal sense of the medievals, like Aquinas, and the Fathers. But in his piece in the JBC that understanding only seems to have the status of an historical curiosity. (Am I being unfair to Brown?)
Here is Martens’s response:

In answer to Trabbic’s question, I do think he might be a bit unfair to Brown, though I would not choose to define the literal sense “as that which the human author directly intended and which his words convey.” I would define the literal sense as that which is conveyed by the text, for it is impossible to know which was intended by the human author and which by the divine author. What we have is the text. Still, I do not see how reading the text in historical context, dependent upon a human author, renders the medieval understanding of the literal sense “the status of an historical curiosity.” I cannot speak for Brown, but I would suspect that he sees this as the essential building block for all of the other senses of Scripture, including the Sensus Plenior, which he did so much to define. He also, quite definitely, understood the Bible to be inspired. I would also think that it would be worthwhile to read later writings of Brown, from the New Jerome Biblical Commentary (NJBC) in particular, which revised his earlier writing in the JBC, to give the best assessment of his thought on this matter.
I did not mean to imply that Brown might have doubts about Scripture’s divine authorship. This is nothing that I would ever suspect of Brown as he has always appeared to have the intention of orthodoxy. I still do think, however, that in the JBC he treats the medieval understanding of “literal sense” as a mere historical curiosity because while he registers it as a past point of view, he does not present it as a live option for current biblical exegesis, seeming only to regard his own concept of “literal sense” as viable today. But if someone can show me that he does in fact think that the medieval concept remains a legitimate option, I will happily concede this point.

Martens continues on this theme:

Yet, there is a literal sense upon which the other senses rest, so it is important that readings remain within certain parameters if they are not to devolve to a sort of “anything goes” interpretive ethic. There must be tools, history is one of them, with which one can define what are “valid” or “good” readings, even if there might be a level of contingency, such as openness to other readings and a willingness to consider other data, that attends to anyone’s interpretation. The literal sense is the building block, as Thomas says, upon which all other senses rest, so it is important to use historical, literary, and philological tools, to define this as best as possible, acknowledging that more than one reading might be valid.
But if, following Aquinas, we say that the literal sense is the one intended by God, historical, literary, and philological tools are important to be sure, but so too is “reading in the Spirit,” as I sketched this above.

Finally, in my original post I stressed the importance of “reading with the Church.” In the present post I have spelled out what I mean by this further in what I have been saying about reading in the Spirit. In the original post I wrote:

There is a movement in the Church today -- not really a coordinated one but significant nonetheless -- to get Catholics to become biblically literate. All well and good. St. Jerome says, as we are often reminded, that "ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." But in our haste to promote Bible study groups, let’s not forget that it’s not the bare biblical text that we need to be familiar with but the text as Christ teaches it through his Church: “he who hears you hears me.” Reading Scripture in isolation from the Church is another typically modern -- and dare I say Protestant -- exegetical mistake.
Martens wonders how these words square with (a) what I have said about Aquinas’s view that the literal sense has multiple meanings and (b) with the teaching of Dei Verbum:

Yet I would want to ask, as right as he is, how does this square with Thomas' notion that the literal sense might have more than one meaning? How does this accord with Dei Verbum 8 which states that “this tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit”? The passage in Dei Verbum 8 continues, “for there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.”
As I hope I have made evident in the present post, I don’t believe that my understanding of what it means to read with the Church is at odds with the notion that any given passage of Scripture can be subject to multiple legitimate interpretations. And I don’t believe that I said anything in the original post to the contrary.

Immediately following the above remarks, Martens presents his own notion of what it means to read with the Church: “To read with the Church means paying attention to the sensus fidelium, the work of theologians and the Magisterium. This, it seems to me, accords more with the interpretive possibilities of which Thomas speaks.”

I quite agree. I have not yet spoken of the sensus fidelium in this post but I concur with Martens about its importance. Without a doubt, as Cardinal Newman has reminded us, part of the shaping of Catholic doctrine involves a complex, fruitful dialectic between the sensus fidelium and the magisterium. The details of this relationship would make a good topic for a future post. But in the meantime I can say that any adequate concept of reading with the Church (i.e., reading in the Spirit) would have to incorporate an attentiveness to the sensus fidelium.

Continuing on this same topic, Martens has some reservations about my suggestion that “as Aquinas understands things, God is sovereign over the Church and Scripture and both proceed from him but the latter two do not have equal status in this economy. Faith is not determined by mere appeal to the Scriptures but to the Church’s reading of them.”

In response Martens writes:

Surely, though, the Church is also the people of God engaged in this reading of Scripture and, it is fair to say, that the Church has defined very few passages which must be interpreted in a particular manner, which accords again with Thomas’ notion that a passage might have more than one possible meaning. Apart from this Dei Verbum 10 specifically speaks of the role of the Magisterium as not above that of Scripture: “this teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”
The one quibble I might have with these thoughts is Martens’s reading of DV 10. I mentioned this to him in an email. Here is what I said:

You say that [in DV 10] the Council "specifically speaks of the role of the Magisterium as not above that of Scripture." In a sense that is true. The magisterium serves the word of God in Scripture and in tradition as the passage says. But I had the interpretation of Scripture specifically in view and in that regard it seems that the magisterium, concretely speaking, is the final arbiter (unless Scripture needs no interpretation). This doesn't put the magisterium above Scripture. The magisterium serves Scripture by safeguarding its proper interpretation (as DV 10 appears to suggest). And I would say that it is helped in this by using the tradition (the other normative source of the word of God according to DV 10) as a hermeneutic key.
The only thing that I would wish to add to this statement at the moment is that the magisterium cannot properly fulfill its duties unless it is appropriately influenced in its thinking by the sensus fidelium and the Tradition (not to mention Scripture itself).

Well, I have gone on much longer than I had expected to. I hope that this post will serve to clarify my position and I look forward to Prof. Martens’s further comments. I have already learned much from what he has had to say. I understand that there are many issues here that are far from settled and I expect that I may be persuaded by Prof. Martens to change my mind on some and helped by him to explain better my position on others.

[Addendum: I take this discussion to be specifically about professional biblical exegesis and not about other contexts of scriptural reading, say, lectio divina. The latter is a distinct context and would call for some of the same considerations but also some new ones. I assume, however, that Catholic exegetes will always approach Scripture in a spirit of prayer, even when they are dealing with it in their professional capacity. This is an integral part of the "reading in the Spirit" that I proposed above.]

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The "God Particle" is Back in the News

Unfortunately, the latest is that the elusive Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle," still remains elusive. You can read more about it here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

L'Italiano Live

André Rieu exudes tackiness but this has got to be the best live version of Toto Cutugno's "L'Italiano" in history.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Comments on My Post on Aquinas and Modern Biblical Exegesis

John Martens, America columnist and professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, has a thoughtful response to my May 25 post "Aquians and Modern Biblical Exegesis" at the America site. I hope to have time in the near future to respond to his comments.

[A kind reader pointed out earlier that the link to Martens's comments had been hijacked. The link actually led to a cigar store's website. I checked and found that he was right. I also realized that I was the unwitting hijacker. Apologies to all non-cigar smokers.]

[UPDATE: I have responded to Martens's comments.]

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Irrelevance of Christ

According to Archbishop Antonio Maria Vegliò, the president of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, man today “does not find the answers to the questions of life in Christ, and not so much because he rejects Christ, but because he does not seek answers, he does not ask himself about his existence, he is not concerned to give it meaning.”

Archbishop Vegliò made these comments at last week's conference on interreligious dialogue among Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Gödöllö, Hungary organized by the Hungarian presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Obviously what the archbishop says is a huge generalization and I only have the above snippet from an article on his talk and don't have the original text. So, I don't know what sort of evidence he offered for this claim. But we can verify it for ourselves in our own experience. If it's true, it's a sobering thought.

If the Church preaches Christ as the savior of the world, who cares? What does the world need to be "saved" from? What do I need to be saved from?

If the Church tells us that Christ offers meaning to our lives, who cares? What is "meaning" anyway and why does life need it?

That consumate pessimist Schopenhauer remarked in his magnum opus The World as Will and Representation that man is a "metaphysical animal" because of his penchant for posing ultimate questions. Schopenhauer understood better than most that man poses these questions not solely because of a detached intellectual interest in them (if there is any such creature as a "detached intellectual ineterest" in things) but because he himself, his fate, is implicated in them.

Finally, Schopenhauer is an idealist, in the philosophical sense, and I don't follow him there. But he is right that deep down we do have these "metaphysical" questions. The problem, however, is that we are not always in touch with what is deepest in us, sometimes for very good reasons: there are many moments when waxing philosophical is just not appropriate, like when we need to swerve to avoid some idiot who is getting over in our lane without looking.

But our whole life cannot be one of distraction from the metaphysical questions. In an age of cell phones, iPods, and blogs (all of which I have), it is especially difficult not to live that way. (But, let it be noted, I don't and never will have earphones for my iPod.)

We know that the word of the Gospel will prove fruitless if it falls upon unreceptive, unmetaphysical, soil. So, now as ever, the world needs to be prepared for the Gospel. How that gets done concretely depends on the particular historical context. Monsignor Vegliò might have put his finger on the sort of preparation required for many in our comtemporary culture (including ourselves), at least our contemporary western culture.

I don't like to sermonize, so I'll stop here.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury on the Papist Shakespeare

I was intrigued to see that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has publicly professed his belief that Shakespeare was a Catholic. He is, however, wrong to presume that such a belief is unbuttressed by documentary evidence. Visitors to the St. Austin Review site (where I do most of my posting) will not need reminding that a host of scholars have provided evidence for the Bard's papist sympathies and we can only hope that Archbishop Williams will be introduced to this scholarship. I was also wryly amused by Williams' confession that Macbeth was the character with whom he sympathized most in the Shakespearean canon. Since Macbeth signifies the Machiavellian spirit that animated the foundation of the church of which Williams is the highest contemporary dignitary, the connection is providentially symbolic, albeit unwitting.

Here's the link to the article about Williams' confession.

As a post-script to this discussion, longtime readers of the St. Austin Review, which I co-edit, will recall that Archbishop Williams once contributed an article to our journal on the subject of the Russian Orthodox liturgy. For a relatively small journal, we can feel an element of pride (in the non-theological sense) that both the present Pope (as Cardinal Ratzinger) and the current Archbishop of Canterbury (as the Bishop of Wales) are amongst our luminous and illustrious constellation of contributors.

As a further post-script, I'd like to remind visitors to this site that the Portsmouth Institute in Rhode Island is hosting a conference on the Catholic Shakespeare on June 10th & 11th. Speakers will include Father Peter Milward, all the way from Japan, and Lady Clare Asquith, all the way from England, as well as a contribution from myself, with the assistance of the Theatre of the Word, on the Catholicism of Hamlet. Please see the entry on this site on my speaking engagements in June for further details. Perhaps someone should send the Archbishop of Canterbury an invitation ...

(A version of this post also appears at the St. Austin Review site.)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Hölderlin, Balthasar, and Wild Hearts

Ah! For man's wild heart no home is possible.

Friedrich Hölderlin, Hyperion

God is so wide that, within his spaciousness, even the longing for unfulfillable longing can soar freely.  Gregory of Nyssa understood this best and gave an answer to Rilke’s convulsed nostalgic pathos.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Grain of Wheat

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Great Italians No. 3: Renato Carosone

Here is the long-awaited third installment of my series on great Italians. The last installment was on December 21. Why have I waited so long? To build up anticipation and excitement. Why else?

This post is on Renato Carosone.

Carosone, who was a piano player, singer, and composer, was born in Naples in 1920 and died in Rome in 2001. During the Second World War he served with the Italian army in Somalia.

After the war, in 1949, he formed a trio that performed in Naples and, after certain personnel changes, he and his crew hit the big time in the mid 50s.

But Carosone wasn't all that keen on the limelight and, at the height of success, dropped out of the music scene in 1960, explaining his decision thus: “Preferisco ritirarmi ora sulla cresta dell’onda, che dopo assalito dal dubbio che la moda jè-jè e le nuove armate in blues jeans possano spezzare via tutto questo patrimonio accumulato in tanti anni di lavoro e di ansie.” Pretty noble, I'd say.

Carosone spent most of his later years studying classical music and painting, only doing occasional performances and recordings.

"Tu vuo' fa' l'americano," for which Carosone wrote the music and Nicola Salerno wrote the lyrics, was a big hit in 1956. Carosone and his crew perform it in the below clip from YouTube.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hemingway's Old Man and Baseball


     “I’ll be back when I have the sardines. I’ll keep yours and mine together on ice and we can share them in the morning. When I come back you can tell me about the baseball.”
     “The Yankees cannot lose.”
     “But I fear the Indians of Cleveland.”
     “Have faith in the Yankees my son. Think of the great DiMaggio.”
     “I fear both the Tigers of Detroit and the Indians of Cleveland.”
     “Be careful or you will fear even the Reds of Cincinnati and the White Sox of Chicago.”
     “You study it and tell me when I come back.”

(The Old Man and the Sea)

The old fisherman does have some wisdom but it is clearly limited. Indeed, you should always fear the Tigers of Detroit. Everyone knows in his heart of hearts that they always have been and always will be the greatest team the sport has ever known. The statistics may not bear this out, but greatness, my friends, is not measured by statistics.

I am quite hopeful this season. We're at .519 and just five games behind the Indians, who, by the way, are a total fluke this year. They won't last.

The Yankees cannot lose? No comment.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Aquinas the Rationalist?

Aquinas has been accused at sundry times by sundry people of sundry forms of rationalism, something that continues to this day. I can understand this to a certain extent even if I think that it is misguided.

Among those who have leveled this accusation at Aquinas appears to be Augustin Bonnetty, a nineteenth century French philosopher and theologian and founder and editor of the journal Annales de philosophie chrétienne. Bonnetty, a layman, was an exponent of "traditionalism" (not to be confused with the the traditionalism we talk of today with respect to critics of the post-Vatican II Church), a kind of fideistic approach to the truths of the faith. Traditionalism was one of the theological movements that Vatican I attempted to deal with in its decrees.

After the archbishop of Paris had expressed concerns about Bonnetty's ideas to the Congregation of the Index in Rome, he was asked by that congregation in 1855 to endorse four theological propositions with his signature. The fourth proposition was the following, which I came across while doing research for a paper on natural theology:

Methodus, qua usi sunt divus Thomas, divus Bonaventura et alii post ipsos scholastici, non ad rationalismum ducit, neque causa fuit, cur apud scholas hodiernas philosophia in naturalismum et pantheismum impingeret. Proinde non licet in crimen doctoribus et magistris illis vertere, quod methodum hanc, praesertim approbante vel saltem tacente Ecclesia, usurpaverint.
[The method used by St. Thomas, by St. Bonaventure, and, after them, by other scholastics, does not lead to rationalism, nor does it explain why, in modern schools, philosophy should fall into naturalism and pantheism. Hence these doctors and masters cannot be reproached for using that method, especially with the approval, at least tacit, of the Church.]
It is surprising to see Bonaventure also suspected of rationalism since it is often the case that those who regard Aquinas as a rationalist of some variety, or as having strong rationalist tendencies, praise Bonaventure's supposedly more affective and mystical theology as an alternative. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Aquinas on True Freedom

The servitude of sin consists in being inclined to evil by a habit of sin, and the servitude of justice consists in being inclined to good by a habit of justice. And in like manner freedom from sin means not being overcome by the inclination to sin, and freedom from justice means not being prevented, out of love for justice, from doing evil. Nevertheless, since man, by his natural reason, is inclined to justice, while sin is contrary to natural reason, it follows that freedom from sin is true freedom which is united to the servitude of justice, since they both incline man to that which is becoming to him.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Aquinas and Modern Biblical Exegesis

[This is a revised and expanded version of a post from last December. Further thoughts have occurred to me and I decided to rework the old post rather than write an entirely new one.]

In the course of an article in the De potentia on matter and creation (q. 4, a. 1), Aquinas has a remarkable discussion of biblical hermeneutics. Actually, it may only be “remarkable” for us, that is, we moderns who prize the historico-critical approach to Sacred Scripture and thus tend to focus on the meaning that the human author of the text could have intended and aim at narrowing that meaning down as precisely as possible, hoping to find, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, “the single beatific interpretation.” I suppose our ideal would be: one Scriptural proposition/one meaning, something not dissimilar to the ideal language that the early Wittgenstein seems to dream of at times in the Tractatus.

Whatever the case may be, Aquinas, like the Fathers, was quite comfortable with permitting the text of Holy Writ an indefinite variety of meanings, within certain parameters of course. Aquinas’s rule in the passage in question is that the meaning suggested not go against the letter. But he does not imagine that this will be overly restrictive, “for it is part of the dignity of the Divine Scriptures that under the one literal sense many others are contained.”

The other “remarkable” thing (for us) about this passage is that although Aquinas acknowledges that the human author’s intention has a role to play in interpretive decisions, he is not at all scrupulous about limiting the text’s meaning(s) to what the human author might have understood because, in his view, what is essential is that the meaning(s) be what the Holy Spirit understood “since he is the principal author of the Divine Scriptures.”

Aquinas writes:

[T]wo things also are to be avoided [in interpreting Scripture]. One is to give to the words of Scripture an interpretation manifestly false: since falsehood cannot underlie the Divine Scriptures which we have received from the Holy Spirit, as neither can there be error in the faith that is taught by the Scriptures. The other is not to force such an interpretation on Scripture as to exclude any other interpretations that are actually or possibly true, not compromising the literal sense of Scripture, for it is part of the dignity of the Divine Scriptures that under the one literal sense many others are contained. It is in this way that there is an adaptation to the various levels of intelligence among men, so that each one marvels to find his thoughts expressed in Divine Scripture. But also Scripture is all the more easily defended against unbelievers in that when one finds his own understanding of Sacred Scripture to be false he can fall back upon some other. Hence it is not inconceivable that Moses and the other authors of the Sacred Scriptures were given to know the various truths that men would discover in the text, and that they expressed them under one literary style, so that each truth is the sense intended by the author. And then even if commentators adapt certain truths to sacred Scripture that were not understood by the [human] author, without doubt the Holy Spirit himself understood them, since he is the principal author of the Divine Scriptures. Consequently every truth that saves the literal sense of the Divine Scriptures, is their sense.
If the literal sense (sensus litteralis), which Aquinas also calls the "historical sense" (sensus historicus, cf. ST, I, q. 1, a. 10), is what sets the limit to the vast possibilities of meaning, we would do well to ask what Aquinas means by the literal sense of Scripture. He explains his understanding of it in the Summa in q. 1, a. 10. Here again his theory of biblical hermeneutics is remarkable: for Aquinas the literal sense is the sense that God intends as the author of sacred Scripture. Aquinas makes that claim toward the end of this passage from the corpus of ST, I, q. 1, a. 10:

The author of sacred Scripture is God, in whose power it is to signify his meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division. For as the Apostle says (Heb. 10:1) the Old Law is a figure of the New Law, and Denys says (Coel. Hier. i) “the New Law itself is a figure of future glory.” Again, in the New Law, whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do. Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense. Since the literal sense is that which the author intends, and since the author of sacred Scripture is God, who by one act comprehends all things by his intellect, it is not unfitting, as Augustine says (Confess. xii), if, even according to the literal sense, one word in sacred Scripture should have several senses.
This understanding of the literal sense of Scripture is quite different from the dominant understanding of this term in contemporary biblical hermeneutics. Raymond Brown, writing in the Jerome Biblical Commentary, which has become one of the standard reference works for Catholic biblical hermeneutics, defines the "literal sense" as "[t]he sense which the human author directly intended and which his words convey." Brown is well aware of the traditional understanding of the literal sense of the medievals, like Aquinas, and the Fathers. But in his piece in the JBC that understanding only seems to have the status of an historical curiosity. (Am I being unfair to Brown?)

One final point. There is a movement in the Church today -- not really a coordinated one but significant nonetheless -- to get Catholics to become biblically literate. All well and good. St. Jerome says, as we are often reminded, that "ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." But in our haste to promote Bible study groups, let’s not forget that it’s not the bare biblical text that we need to be familiar with but the text as Christ teaches it through his Church: “he who hears you hears me.” Reading Scripture in isolation from the Church is another typically modern -- and dare I say Protestant -- exegetical mistake.

Here again Aquinas is unmodern:

The formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith … faith adheres to all the articles of faith by reason of one mean, viz. on account of the First Truth proposed to us in Scriptures, according to the teaching of the Church who has the right understanding of them. Hence whoever abandons this mean is altogether lacking in faith.
The text comes from ST, II-II, q. 5, a. 3. As Aquinas understands things, God is sovereign over the Church and Scripture and both proceed from him but the latter two do not have equal status in this economy. Faith is not determined by mere appeal to the Scriptures but to the Church’s reading of them.

If you want your parish to have a Bible study group, you should also make sure that the participants know their catechism.

* * *

UPDATE June 12: I've been having an exchange on this with John Martens. Here are his comments at the America Magazine site from June 6:

Aquinas, Modern Biblical Exegesis, and Dei Verbum

Here is the response that I made today to his comments:

Reading in the Spirit: A Reply to John Martens 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Emails with an Atheist - Part III

Yes, I do indeed believe that humanity can come to more accurately align our ideas about the world with reality. The scientific method and a skeptical worldview help us do that. Religion doesn’t.

A question: I’m quite impressed to hear that you agree that critical thinking and a scientific worldview can “work wonders” when comes to understanding the universe -- but I was thrown off by you specifically saying that these benefits apply to the “material” universe. Is there some other universe where critical thinking and a scientific worldview cease to be helpful in understanding?

A comment on faith: The word ‘faith’ is complicated; very complicated. It has a dozen different meanings, each one less comprehensible to me than the last. Earlier when I used the word, I meant the idea that it is virtuous to believe in something despite evidence to the contrary, or despite a lack of evidence. That seems to be the point of the Doubting Thomas story in John 20, isn’t it? “Blessed are those who have not seen but believe,” Jesus supposedly said.

Regarding the “secular, everyday” faith that you mentioned, I don’t use the word “faith” in that context. I do live my life by certain paradigms and conceptions, but I don’t think the word “faith” is accurate to describe any of them. I do, however, agree that there is a place for having, as you said, “a persistence of will regarding that which we are fairly certain is true.”

Hell: Regardless of if Hell is mentioned commonly in Catholic sermons, it is an article of the Catholic faith. In fact, the idea is fairly important to the notion of salvation at all; any Catholic who tries to understand salvation would necessarily encounter it and would be told that believe in it is necessary. It is, of course, a reprehensible, embarrassing dogma. The message is that if you disbelieve, there’s a chance you’ll be tortured forever. This teaching certainly does have a psychological effect on the doubter, and that’s shameful.

On to your questions: Sure, I believe in the human emotion called “love.” I’m rather compelled to, aren’t I? I suppose you should be concerned about me if I didn’t. Also, I do indeed enjoy art, music, and beauty generally. It’s in my nature. And of course, the scientific method and rational skepticism doesn’t have much to say about how an artist should paint, or how a musician should compose, or what a particular person should find beautiful.

But emotions and ascetics are in a whole different ballpark than an idea like “God impregnated a virgin with his son, who was also himself,” is it not?

Also, you seem to be using some special definition of Reason-with-a-capitol-’R’ that I’m unfamiliar with. Normally, I’d say that the kind of discourse one engages in when thinking about some objective facts about the universe -- like, say, man-made climate change, or economics, or the existence of God -- is totally different than the kind of discourse we engage in when discussing the ascetic value of a particular movie or piece of music. The first should rely on evidence and careful reasoning and a skeptical worldview, and the second is just, well, completely different. Anyway, I’m interested in hearing your next point on this subject.


Dear Adam,

1. For your question, "Is there something other than a material universe," how should we attempt to answer that? Should we answer it with a religious prejudice, or should we use reason and examine the evidence?

2. Let's look at the Doubting Thomas passage as a story, without a claim that it's true. Let's suspend the investigation into whether or not it actually happened. The story as a story tells us this: Thomas doubts. He says, "Unless my senses provide me with clear evidence, I will not believe." Jesus appears to him. Thomas uses his senses to examine the facts - nail marks, side wound. He then believes - and rightly so, for within the confines of the story, at least, Jesus has indeed risen from the dead. (Remember, we are suspending all other claims of "religion" on this issue; we're just looking at what the story teaches). Thus, when Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen me, yet believe", He is simply saying, "Thomas, you have discovered via the scientific method what is true. Since this is true, those who believe in this truth without having to test the evidence are blessed." That's the point of the story, and that's the point of faith. But on the contrary, if we have faith in that which is false, we are fooling ourselves. As St. Paul says, "If Christ be not raised, then is our faith in vain ... and we are the most miserable of men." Indeed, if you have faith in a lie you are cursed; if you have faith in the truth you are blessed. Now, granted, this says nothing about whether those who have faith in God are right or wrong - whether their faith is valid or misplaced. But as far as the lesson of the story goes, it is correct. Faith in what is true is a blessing. Faith in what is false is a curse. I think we'd both agree on that. And faith is simply using your will to assent to something you think is true, but that you don't have complete knowledge of (which applies, on a practical level, to almost every single thing in life).

3. Hell. Yes, it's embarrassing and frightening, but is it true? Let's say a group of kids get stranded on an island, sort of like in "Lord of the Flies". They manage to survive and know nothing of the real world. One of the oldest ones says he thinks they will die someday, like the animals around them; he seems to recall his parents telling him something like this before the ship sank and the kids were washed ashore, separated from their families. The other kids say, "What an appalling idea! To think that we will rot and stink and just lie there forever! I object to that idea!" Well, obviously they may object away - and death is indeed objectionable - but is it true? You are correct that hell is part of Catholic teaching, but your objection to it (understandable and healthy as that is) tells us nothing of the truth of the teaching. Certainly, hell may simply be a myth used to bully and intimidate people. I will tell you that I have not seen it used like that once since I converted. I'm sure it has been used like that in the past, and even if true, the teaching is vulnerable to that kind of abuse; but still the question is, "Is this truth claim valid?" Is there a hell?

4. My point about Reason capital-R is that one can discover the truth in ways that are more broad than just via the scientific method. The things that poetry and music and art and love teach us are true things. Certainly, there's an element of subjectivity in assessing them. But the reason there are film critics, let's say, is there is some standard by which a work of art can be judged that is not merely arbitrary and subjective. You've probably seen movies and then said, "Well, it was a good film, but I didn't like it." My point is that our aesthetic sense is not merely a subjective sense, though it has many subjective elements in it. A great work of art is great because it attains some sort of objective beauty that most people can recognize. And this objective achievement can not be measured scientifically. I'm simply saying that scientific reasoning is very valuable and is a subset of Reason with a capital R. Reason includes science and is bigger than science; science is a type of and an example of the use of reason, but is not reason itself. For instance, this whole discussion is not merely scientific, as we're talking about things that science can not measure or address; but we're using our reason to do so. Now, the scientific method and logic will certainly be a part of this discussion - if science manages to prove the existence of God or disprove the existence of God, we have both agreed to accept what science teaches us, for we are both committed to accepting the truth and living by it, even if it hurts. I realize that we could get into a whole discussion about what science can and can not say about God, but I'm simply pointing out that science strictly speaking (measurement, hypothesis, experiment, etc.) is a very sharp tool but one that can't be used for everything. Hammers are great things. But you can't use them to paint a picture, at least not a very good one.

Well, this is all quite interesting. I'm glad that you're a patient and reasonable debater and that you're enjoying this. I hope we can both avoid the shrillness and name calling that sometimes characterize these discussions. So far we have, and that's why this is fun!

I suggest, however, that we focus on one thing at a time. Otherwise our emails will go on forever and I won't get anything else done in my life. Also, since one issue will lead into the next, let's just take our time and follow where each issue leads us, putting some things off for later. For instance, I think the key question at this point in our debate is the first one. How are we to determine if there exists something other than matter? This is not exactly the same thing as saying, "Is there a realm beyond nature?" It's a similar question, but it's still only a question about the natural world. Is there something other than matter and energy in the natural world, and what are we to use to essay this question? Reason or prejudice? How shall we approach the question of "What is the world made of?" - evidence and experience or unexamined dogma?