Monday, November 16, 2015

Learning Christ with Ignatius: A Most Valluable Monograph

I would like to plug a book of one of my former professors, Gregory Vall. I had been intending to write a brief review of this text since this past spring, when I had the unique privilege to study under the author himself. (I also had the privilege of two semesters of Biblical Hebrew with him.) In our apostolic fathers class, we spent the majority of our time on Clement and Ignatius, whom I had both studied in depth for quite some time (I actually wrote my paper on St. Melito of Sardis, who is not one of the "apostolic fathers." Don't worry, I had permission. I am in the process of finding a good place for it). I have shared the following review of Vall's text on Amazon:

Gregory Vall’s magisterial Learning Christ (2013, CUA Press) fills an enormous gap in studies on the apostolic fathers: there are plenty of studies on Ignatius, but there was a great need for a theologically penetrating examination of the seven letters of Ignatius. Vall’s monograph is the most complete such work in a long time.

Learning Christ is a refreshing look at Ignatius of Antioch, who has undergone a sort of second martyrdom in modern scholarship (see especially pp. 79-87). Ignatius, however, ought to be taken seriously as a theologian. Vall shows how already in the early second century Ignatius is beginning to articulate a Trinitarian theology (Ch. 3). His engagement with docetists and judaizers leads him to develop a Christology well ahead of his time in many ways.

I found the four principles Vall outlined in his introduction particularly helpful methodologically for patristic students. Too often in dealing with ancient texts, contemporary critics bring a heavy-handed agenda (of whatever variety) such that they neglect the preeminently theological purpose for which an ancient Christian writer wrote. That is not to say those other historical or socio-political considerations are not worthwhile, but the more intemperate hypotheses can trivialize what is theological in the ancient author’s view. This is more obvious in Biblical studies, but increasingly so in patristic studies. Historical theology is valuable in the same manner in which the historical critical method is—namely, accepting what is good and true from it, but not to empower the theoretical in it to destroy what is holy. It should not result in an iconoclasm of the saints. Learning Christ does not fall into this trap.

It is interesting that Vall points out how the commentators fail to recognize the significance of Ignatius’s views on martyrdom and spiritual warfare (Ch. 4). First principles are of such vital importance in any field. To fail to understand the ancient author’s own first principles seems to me to be an avoidable error, but a common one. Vall also enters into the conversation about whether Ignatius expresses a sort of latent gnosticism in the chapter on word and silence (Ch. 7). He shows quite convincingly how Ignatius’s allegiance is strongly linked to the New Testament framework, even if there are some conceptual similarities to gnosticism.

Vall’s reading of the early Church formation in Ignatius’s time (Ch. 9) challenges the contemporary positions on early ecclesiology, namely that the invention of the early Church hierarchy was a later development of power politics in order to achieve control in establishing a Hellenized version of Christian doctrine; it further seems that many the liturgical life of the early Church as simplistic with an underdeveloped ecclesiology (even though the evidence in First Clement and Ignatius’s letters suggests otherwise).

Having waded into the waters of Ignatian research, Vall’s text is the most significant theological look at Ignatius in a long time. That said, Vall does not fail to engage the conclusions (the good and the problematic) of modern scholars. This is by far the most refreshing text that casts the most favorable light upon the underappreciated saint. This gap had motivated me to write my own paper (now forthcoming on Ignatius of the Antioch and the episcopacy in Nova et Vetera 14). As a fellow student of Ignatius, I am most grateful that Vall wrote this book.

(Regarding my piece in Nova et Vetera, it should be out in three to four months in vol. 14, iss. 1.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Big Things are Happening at JP Catholic--Please Support Its Growth

The following news comes from John Paul the Great Catholic University. Not only are they planning to invest in another building (above), adding classrooms and parking, but they are also growing the schools of creative arts and business. Music to my ears especially is the idea of a Ph.D. theology program by 2022. Good things are happening at JP Catholic.

This is good news not only for the university, but also for academia and for the Church. If I had lots of funds to invest somewhere, this is where I would send them. I've taught Biblical Greek for JP Catholic since 2011, and I believe in the institution they are building in downtown Escondido.

Read the details of the announcement on the university Web site here. Please pray about it and be generous.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

"Does He Not Speak Entirely for Our Sake?" Understanding the Old Testament with St. Paul and the Fathers

I have more thoughts from our morning sessions at the Pappas Patristic Institute that I wanted to write down concerning the Fathers' hermeneutics or interpretation of Scripture. One of the key passages for understanding this 1 Cor. 9:1-11. Paul illustrates what the Fathers would do after him. This became one of the key texts for justifying the use of allegory.

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say this on human authority? Does not the law say the same? For it is written in the law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain." Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?

Interestingly, Paul, in justifying his right to "material benefits" (τὰ σαρκικὰ), appeals to Deuteronomy 25:4, which has to do with allowing the ox to eat the grain while he treads it out. Let the beast partake of the fruit of his labors. Now the passage in question really has nothing to do with Paul! Or so it seems. Paul, however, things just the opposite; it has everything to do with him! This is not a mere a fortiori argument, something like, "If God cares for the ox, how much more for Paul?" That's how I had always thought of this. The Greek adverb "entirely" (πάντως) suggests a more intensified reading. In Deuteronomy itself, God was not really thinking of allowing hard-working oxen to have a snack so much as He was thinking of Paul's needs when ministering to the churches.

What is going on here is that the apostle understands that Scripture is for the church. God has written it for him, for the Corinthians, and for us. He continues his reflections into the next chapter:

I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to dance." We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents; nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:1-12).

This is another key text for the patristic use of allegory. Here, Paul famously says that rock in the wilderness actually was Christ (ἡ πέτρα δὲ ἦν ὁ Χριστός). Other early Christians would pick up on this, saying that the saints of the Old Testament were saved because of their implicit faith in Christ, and one can see how Christ is hidden in the Old. Notice especially that Paul says that these things were written for our instruction. They served as an example for us, a fact which in no way degrades the significance of the Old Testament event in itself. This challenges a Western way of reading texts, as though in elevating a later thing that somehow denigrates the former thing. On the contrary, the rock of refreshment was so significant that it can only be compared to Christ himself; the "grumbling in the wilderness" was so significant that it would serve as a monition for all time;

And it is not as though Paul is the only one who gives Scripture this type of reading. It continues into the era of the fathers. As Margaret Mitchell points out, in the days of Gregory of Nyssa, there was a dispute over the validity of the allegorical method of interpretation opposed to the literal. Some thought that the literal was the only way. Saint Gregory disagreed, saying, "in our view there is nothing unreasonable in our seriously studying all possible means of tracking down the benefit (ὠφέλιμον) to be had from the divinely inspired scripture."

None of this is to degrade the literal meaning itself. The Scriptures are alive, divine, a treasure that cannot be fully plundered. The modern historical-critical project, however, has no room really for the allegorical or anagogical meanings of Scripture, because both presuppose divine authorship and therefore absolute inerrancy. These are presuppositions that many are unwilling to grant. Symptoms of such a hermeneutic include exclusive focus on the literal sense (unless of course the literal sense is miraculous!), dismissiveness of the fathers, and nifty reinterpretations of stories and events that attempt to annul the mystery and humanize the divine. So it does matter what the modern reader believes. Accurate commentary upon Scripture, the Fathers say, can only come from a virtuous life. It takes patience and faith to properly examine the stumbling stones.

Thomas Jefferson would cut anything
out of the Bible that struck him as super-
natural or miraculous. He explained
that he wanted only the moral message
of Jesus, nothing else. In making his
hole-y bible, he was clearly "inspired"
by the spirit of the Enlightenment, which
is not to say anything to his credit.
I think this is one of the reasons that gnosticism is making a comeback in our times, because it is a nifty way to completely wipe away all the dark sayings of the Old Testament. 'The Old Testament God is evil; Jesus is good God who supplants him; problem solved.' Such a way of thinking enables one to pick and choose what one likes from the Scriptures, and in doing so one does great violence to the sacred writings. Many people lack the patience for examining the stumbling stones of Scripture, whether it be a difficult event of salvation history (such as the sending away of Hagar and Ishmael) or moral teachings that conflict with modern values (such as 1 Cor. 6:9-10). It is much easier indeed to sanitize the Scriptures with the wash of modernity. Moderns will take up the razor with Jefferson and trace around the dark passage in order to remove it and leave it behind.

Even the dark sayings, however, can profit our understanding, as we saw with Paul's pointing out the benefit of the example provided by those who fell in the wilderness. I know you're thinking. 'You're telling me that something so horrible as the ban of destruction could be profitable?' Yes. It is Scripture, and it was written for our instruction. To quote Paul, "All scripture (πᾶσα γραφὴ) is inspired by God (θεόπνευστος) and profitable (ὠφέλιμος) for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17).

To give just one example of a Father commenting on this passage, St. Maximus the Confessor has an interesting interpretation in Ambiguum 10 (tr. Constas). See how this allegorical contemplation works:

Thus, again, when we read that, at that time Joshua took Hazor and smote its king with the sword, destroying all that breathed in it, though in former times it was the chief of all the kingdoms, it becomes clear what sort of typological mysteries are being put forward by these words. Our true Savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, destroyer of the evil powers and the inheritor of those worthy of grace, during the time of His Incarnation, took sin through the cross and smote its king the devil by His word of power (for at that time sin was ruling over all), and He destroyed all that breathed in it, that is, the passions that are in us, along with the shameful and evil thoughts that they create, so that in those who belong to Christ and live according to Him, sin would no longer be able to live and move about, like something alive and with breath.

Here is an unfortunate event of Biblical history that moderns detest, and one that gives most Christians severe allergies. Just watch a believer break out in hives trying to explain this to an atheist interlocutor, yet look how seamlessly Maximus moves through the difficulty. This is a good illustration of the limitations that a literal-sense-only perspective puts upon a modern reader of the Bible. This is not to say that the literal sense should be ignored or that certain events did not happen. They certainly did. Some things, however, are best read allegorically.

How do we know which way to read them? That all goes back to the rule of faith I mentioned in the previous post. The point is that we have most excellent guides for interpretation of the Scriptures today. Never before have the writings of the Fathers been more accessible to believers than they are today. Never has there been a better time to be a student of the Scriptures, provided that one set oneself at the foot of the right teachers.

There has come about among many Catholics a way of reading the Fathers that seems to put them on the same plane as the historical-critical method in an attempt to bring about a sort of Hegelian synthesis and a new reading altogether (I understand the point of attempting to pluck the good fruit from modern research). Embracing this dialectical view may be leading to some consequences in praxis, problems that some of us may be overlooking concerning the value of the Fathers' reading in itself. One of those consequences seems to be a trivializing of the role of allegory and anagogy. It seems that moderns are only interested in the moral sense when it comes to the spiritual "senses" of Scripture, if, indeed, they even grant something beyond the literal. But the Fathers, those righteous guides who were far more versed in Scripture than we are today, no matter how many lexicons sit on our bookshelves, were able to appropriate the literal and full spiritual senses in their readings. That is a topic for another day perhaps. There really is only one way to read the Bible in the modern world: in conversation with the fathers.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A King or a Dog? How the Hermeneutics of St. Irenaeus of Lyons Confront the Modern Reader

Has the patristic era lost its relevance for modern hermeneutics (i.e., interpretation) or exegesis? Not only do they have much to teach our age, but I hold that they are indispensable guides to the divinely inspired Scriptures. In order to illustrate this principle, I will consider a clever analogy that St. Irenaeus of Lyons used to show the deceptiveness of the gnostics of his own day.

Friday, April 3, 2015

A look at the ecumenism-based resistance to the Good Friday Reproaches (Improperia)

Are the Good Friday Improperia, also known as the reproaches, anti-Semitic? They have been controversial, particularly since Vatican II and Nostra Aetate. Some Jewish commentators resent them, saying that they are a parody of the Dayenu of the Haggadah. They do bear some resemblance (one would expect liturgical similarities between the rites of Judaism and those of Christian antiquity). I don’t think the similarity is strong enough to suggest derivation.

Regardless, it’s clear from the opposition that the Improperia are controversial. It may seem that since they are “optional” it may be un-ecumenical to include them. But is that really the case? I maintain that to exclude a liturgical rite for such reasons is not only bad ecumenism but also un-Catholic; the reasons for this conclusion I will detail below.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Read any Greek word ... Yes, you!

I thought I would publish some of my notes. Since 2011, I have been teaching Biblical Greek at JP Catholic University. One of the things that always surprised the students was how quickly they could read the Greek characters. You have probably noticed that I use a lot of Greek on this blog. I do presume that some of my readers know Greek, but I also cannot help it. I love it. Everyone should learn Greek if he or she does not yet know it. In fact, the classical languages of Latin and Greek would likely have been included in your basic curriculum had you grown up a little over a century ago (that in itself is proof that forward movement in time does not always equal progress in culture).

There are many reasons to learn Greek: reading the Sacred Scriptures in their original language, appreciating the beauty of the classics, improving your English vocabulary, preparing for medical studies, better understanding of poetry. Greek is a sacred language. “Jesus the Nazorean the King of the Jews” was not written on the Cross of Christ in English, or even Old English. But it was written there in Greek: Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων.

If you read this post, you will be able to read any Greek word that I post. If you want to learn more, at the end I will recommend some grammars to you and you can be on your way. I have two words for you: μὴ φοβηθῇς (Fear not!)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is Jimmy Akin correct that the Gospel of John was written during Peter's lifetime?

Recently, the Catholic Answers apologist Jimmy Akin wrote a very interesting post on the dating of the Gospel of John. I read the text differently than he does. Below is a synopsis of his argument (I would encourage you to read the whole post on his blog on the NC Register). First, the Scripture in question:

John 21:18-19 (RSV):
Truly, truly, I say to you,
when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would;
but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.”
(This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.)

Update: New Domain Name

Blogger read my mind. The address now redirects to the current one, That's far more fitting. When I looked into the address a while back, it was taken, so it must have opened up. If you stumble upon this Web site looking for tips for starting a fire, stick around and explore as you warm yourself. Maybe I can track down some guest bloggers and stoke the coals a bit now that my name is not in the URL.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Maximus the Confessor on Priestly Celibacy (7th century)

I stumbled upon a pretty awesome articulation of the theology of priestly celibacy from the 7th century. This defense of priestly celibacy from the patristic era is a very pithy and theologically loaded response in Maximus the Confessor's work Quaestiones et dubita (English translation available here: Questions and Doubts). Note that his answer has nothing to do with priestly corruption or practical concerns of governance (κ.τ.λ., as goes the modern narrative). The Greek is provided, and the translation is from D.D. Prassas.

St. Maximus, whom a pope should one day declare doctor of the Church, hits it out of the park, as usual:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Flowchart: Shall I, a Catholic, Talk to the Media about the Catholic Church?

After watching debacle after disaster of episcopal interviews with the mainstream media and having to deal (along with my fellow laypeople) with the "fallout" of these things, I decided to take a couple of minutes to put my limited flowchart-making skills to the service of the Church.

This is likely about as close to infallible as I can get as a layman.