Category Archives: Theology

St. Augustine and the Memory Palace

I have talked about memory and memorization before, but not about the Memory Palace. What brought it to mind was this passage from Book X of St. Augustine’s Confessions:Illuminated_Manuscripts_(Middleton)_figure00

And I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses.

While St. Augustine is waxing eloquent about the beauty and power of memory, he drops this line which contains a relatively inconspicuous idea that is incredibly profound: the Memory Palace.

Several writers have explored the concept of the Memory Palace, how and why to build one, but let me simply just get at what it is: A Memory Palace is an imaginary building you can make in order to store information. Think of it as a mental hard drive from the Middle Ages. Hard drives have sectors where information is stored in chunks, all the way down to bits and bytes. Similarly, human beings can only store information by breaking it down into pieces and filing it away in our minds.

Unfortunately, most of us were never taught how to memorize, we were just given a pile of information and told to memorize it. Memorizing without any technique is what we call “rote” memorization, where a person simply repeats and repeats the information until it sticks. Because rote memorization is so difficult and seemingly fruitless—most of us lose whatever we had memorized in a couple days—a lot of schools have simply given up on memorization altogether. But this is a mistake.

The ancients and medievals had to memorize loads of information because few knew how to read and write proficiently and of those who did, writing utensils and parchment were expensive and hard to come by (kind of like how a pack of sticky notes will cost you ten bucks now, only worse!). So, these people had to compensate with the only computer on hand: the brain. But they weren’t lazy about it. They didn’t just throw their heads at information and hope that the two would stick together. No. They developed battle-hardened techniques over a long period of time. The essential technique is the Memory Palace.

It starts with associating an idea with a physical object like a door, or a chair. One then can “walk” through say, your own house or apartment and stow pieces of information “in” different objects. There are two themes to the technique. One is the word-object association, the other is proceeding through the palace in a certain order.


For example, imagine you had been asked to give a speech on the classification of living creatures. If your house has five rooms, you could put each the five kingdoms in a separate room (Bacteria, Protozoa, Plants, Fungi, Animals) and then each piece of furniture in the room could represent the phyla within that kingdom. As you proceed through this Memory Palace, you could recall each of the phyla of all five kingdoms as you give your speech. In fact, the Memory Palace was the origin of speakers saying “in the first place…” and “in the second place…” The “places” they refer to are the rooms within their memory palace.

I have found it to be a very helpful memorization technique, especially when paired with the link system and other memorization aids (e.g., making exaggerated and silly word-pictures). As our generation copes with information overload (deluge, tidal wave), we have to find ways to remember the information that is important to us, the information we need to use, connect and synthesize, not the trivia we can look up. If we want to avoid becoming Google Glass fixated cell phone addicts who can’t hold a coherent conversation because we’re so distracted with looking things up online, we might need to recover the Memory Palace that St. Augustine stood in awe of and thanked God for saying, “Great is the power of memory; very wonderful is it, O my God.”


Were You Made for Greatness or for God?

One of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s most often quoted lines is this:

 “The world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.” (Sources: 1 2 3)

It’s a good line, but did he ever really say it? Well, I’ve been doing some digging to try and track down this line (Others have tried too). To me, it looks like he never actually said it. However, he said a couple things that were close. In a visit with German pilgrims in the first month of his pontificate, back in April, 2005, Benedict said:

“Christ did not promise an easy life. Those who desire comforts have dialed the wrong number. Rather, he shows us the way to great things, the good, towards an authentic human life.” Source

The original German reads,

“Wer Bequemlichkeit will, der ist bei ihm allerdings an der falschen Adresse. Aber er zeigt uns den Weg zum Großen, zum Guten, zum richtigen Menschenleben.”

The main difference here is that Benedict is saying that he’s saying that Jesus is showing the way to great things, away from the false temptations of comfort. Here the focus is on Him, not on us.

This next quote, from the same speech is the closest thing:

 “The ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness.”

Original German: “Bequem sind die Wege des Herrn nicht, aber wir sind ja auch nicht für die Bequemlichkeit, sondern für das Große, für das Gute geschaffen.

The first key word in the German is “Bequemlichkeit,” which can be translated as “convenience, comfort, ease.” The second key word is “Große,” which is hard to translate. It is a substantival adjective in the neuter singular, so we could translate we were made “for the great, for the good.” The Vatican translators opted for “great things.” Since translation is always an art including interpretation, we could even render it “you were made to do great things.” It seems to me that the “famous quote” is really an alternate translation/expansion/interpretation of this last example.

But wait! Maybe Benedict said something somewhere else that sounds like his famous quote, non-quote. In fact, he did. In his Encylical, Spe Salvi, he says, “Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched” (sec. 33). Here the official Latin reads, “magnam realitatem,” which could more literally be rendered “a great reality.”

What’s the point of all this translational nit-picking?

The point is that when we read, especially when we read something authoritative, it is very easy for us to import our pre-conceived notions into what we’re reading. Benedict’s point is simple enough—that a life of ease and convenience, a selfish life of me-pleasing, is not what God has for us. Instead, God offers something so much better—something great, in fact. But he is not saying that we were all made to be rich, famous, powerful and “great” in a worldly sense–as would be suggested from a typical use of “greatness.” In fact, notice that in each of the quotes, Benedict is pointing not to human attributes (like “being great”), but to the destiny to which God invites us, the magnam realitatem, He Himself. The great thing we’re made for is God.


“Feeling” in Biblical Times

The Catechism offers guidance on how to interpret the Bible, explaining that we must take into account the “modes of feeling, speaking, and narrating then current” (CCC 110). This idea of “feeling” struck me as kind of strange since the other verbs have to do with expressing ideas, not one’s inner emotions. And besides, don’t all writing professors get upset when students write, “I feel…”? So, I thought this might be a translation issue. In fact, it is.

This Catechism paragraph is based on Dei Verbum 12, which in the Latin uses the phrase, “sentiendi, dicendi, narrandive modos” to indicate the teaching. Well, the idea of “sentiendi” is translated in the Abbot translation of Dei Verbum as “perceiving,” which is much preferable to “feeling” in my opinion. The verb underlying this participle is “sentio” which can mean “feel, think, perceive, sense, judge, observe.” The Council fathers seem to be getting at the way that the ancients apprehended ideas and expressed them, not at the way they “felt” in terms of their emotions. We’re after how they thought, not how they “felt.” Notably, the official Latin version of the Catechism agrees with Dei Verbum: “modorum sentiendi.”

Is it a mis-translation? No, not really, but I think that one of the other translation choices for the Latin sentio, would be preferable. We want to think hard about how the ancient biblical authors understood and explained ideas, not in how they felt emotionally.


Editing Encyclicals

In John Paul II’s encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, was originally published with this sentence addressed to women who have had abortions:

You will come to understand that nothing is definitively lost and you will also be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. (Section 99; hosted at EWTN)

But if you check out the edition on the Vatican website it says:

To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. (Section 99; hosted at

The official Latin text, which agrees with the edition on, says:

Infantem autem vestrum potestis Eidem Patri Eiusque misericordiae cum spe committere. (

It’s not the end of the world, but it’s interesting to see papal self-editing in action. The big issue here is the fate of aborted babies (and others) who die without baptism and therefore in a state of original sin. The International Theological Commission recently did a study on this question so I won’t try to solve it here. The point is that JPII seems to have originally over-stated his case by teaching that all aborted babies were in Heaven and then edited out this statement so that it would not pre-empt the doctrinal development that is on-going. I am very curious as to how this question will eventually be resolved or if it will be.


A Catholic Theology of the Old Testament

One of my friends mentioned to me a couple weeks ago, “No one has written a Catholic theology of the Old Testament in over 40 years.” I took a look and well, he’s right. In fact, if you type “catholic old testament” into Amazon, almost nothing comes up. There have been lots of Old Testament theology books from Protestant scholars, famous ones too: Childs, Goldingay, Waltke/Yu, and of course, Brueggemann.

The exact goal of an Old Testament theology is a little hard to define, but it comes around to explaining how the Old Testament portrays God and man’s relationship with Him. Of course, Christian writers are interested in how the Old Testament prepares the stage for Jesus and the New Testament as well.

A specifically Catholic theology of the Old Testament should contribute all these things, but should add a lot on how to integrate Old Testament teachings with the official doctrine of the Church and her theology. This is not easy to do. Significant changes in Catholic theology have unfolded over the last 50 years, so the task has become even more complicated.

So, what old Catholic Old Testament theologies are there? Well, I just checked out one called Theology of the Old Testament by Paul Heinisch (originally written in German around 1940; published in English in 1965; Review here). Another one was Theology of the Old Testament by Paul van Imschoot (original in French? 1954; vol. 1 English translation in 1965)–three volumes were planned; two were published in French, only one in English.

Perhaps it is time for a new Catholic theology of the Old Testament.


I found a couple more Catholic theologies of the Old Testament in Frederick Prussner’s book, Old Testament Theology: Its History and Development. Here they are:
Cordero, Garcia. Teologia de la Biblia: vol. 1, Antiguo Testamento. Madrid: Editorial Catolica, 1970.
McKenzie, John L. A Theology of the Old Testament. Garden City: Doubleday, 1974.


Did Mary Crush the Serpent’s Head?

If you go to any Catholic Church or bookstore, you’re likely to see a statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a snake. A statue of the Virgin makes sense, but why does she always have a serpent underfoot? Well, it’s a long story.

The story begins with Gen 3:15, some of the words that God speaks to the serpent after deceiving Adam and Eve, inducing their Fall, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (RSV). So, you’re probably thinking, “I don’t see the connection. It says ‘he shall bruise’ not ‘she’.” And you’re right, for the RSV. But if you look at the Douay-Rheims version, it says, “she shall crush thy head.” What’s going on?

Well, what we have here really is a text-critical problem.

Hebrew Masoretic Text: הוּא יְשׁוּפְךָ֣ רֹ֔אשׁ  (hu’ yeshuphka rosh, “he will crush your head”)

Greek Septuagint: αὐτός σου τηρήσει κεφαλήν (“he will watch your head”)

Latin Vulgate: ipsa conteret caput tuum (“she will crush your head”)

Nova Vulgata (1979): ipsum conteret caput tuum (“it will crush your head”)

In the Hebrew, the masculine pronoun hu’ is referring back to the noun zera‘, which is a masculine noun. The other thing to mention is that the verb form, yeshuphka, is third person masculine singular with a second person singular pronominal suffix.  And the vowel pointing could not change it to feminine—the feminine form would include one different letter, not just vowel points. It would be תָּשׁוּפְךָ* (tashuphka). The masculine is not just in the pronoun, but is embedded in the verb.

In Greek, the masculine pronoun autos is used even though the antecedent (spermatos, seed) is neuter. It seems that the masculine is preferred here by the translator because the seed/offspring of Eve would presumably be a person, not a thing.

The Nova Vulgata uses ipsum, a neuter pronoun referring to a neuter noun (seed, semen). But St. Jerome’s Vulgate is the outlier here, reading ipsa, which here is the feminine nominative singular (not the nom/acc neuter plural) and the Douay-Rheims version is based on the Vulgate. I should also add that the Nova Vulgata is the current official version of the Bible promulgated by the Vatican.

The old Catholic Encyclopedia defends the Vulgate text of this passage thusly:

The reading “she” (ipsa) is neither an intentional corruption of the original text, nor is it an accidental error; it is rather an explanatory version expressing explicitly the fact of Our Lady’s part in the victory over the serpent, which is contained implicitly in the Hebrew original. The strength of the Christian tradition as to Mary’s share in this victory may be inferred from the retention of “she” in St. Jerome’s version in spite of his acquaintance with the original text and with the reading “he” (ipse) in the old Latin version. (emphasis added)

This explanation is rather generous, but it’s more helpful than saying that we just don’t know why Jerome translated this way.

Interestingly, Jerome’s translation made it into a very important papal statement, the declaration of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in Pope Pius IX’s Apostolic Constitution, Ineffabilis Deus:

Hence, just as Christ, the Mediator between God and man, assumed human nature, blotted the handwriting of the decree that stood against us, and fastened it triumphantly to the cross, so the most holy Virgin, united with him by a most intimate and indissoluble bond, was, with him and through him, eternally at enmity with the evil serpent, and most completely triumphed over him, and thus crushed his head with her immaculate foot.

I like the idea of the Virgin Mary having an “immaculate foot,” but I still think this statement is based on a flaw in Jerome’s translation. Interestingly, when John Paul II took up the Protoevangelium in his audience on Dec 17, 1986 he regards Christ as the agent of “crushing” not Mary.

Now, of course, from a theological perspective, every Christian shares in Christ’s victory over sin and the devil. The New Testament substantiates this: But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:13 RSV) “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.” (1 John 5:4 RSV) Mary, as the most Christian Christian, is as JPII teaches in the above-cited text, “the one who first shares in that victory over sin won by Christ.” So all Christians get to “crush the serpent’s head” through Christ’s victory on the cross and the Virgin Mary is the first to share in that victory. Are the statues based on a faulty translation? Yes. But are they still theologically correct? Yes.


Swearing Oaths on Bibles

With the upcoming inauguration of the President of the United States, much ado is being made

Image by Wonderlane,

Image by Wonderlane,,

about the Bibles that will be used for the cermonies. According to an article from ABC News, Obama will be using three different Bibles. For a first, private ceremony, the day before the public inauguration, he’ll use the Robinson family Bible, which has been in the First Lady’s family since 1958. During the public celebration, he’ll swear his oath of office on two Bibles: the one used by Lincoln in 1861 and Martin Luther King’s personal travel Bible. How exactly a person can swear on two Bibles at once is a mystery.

Presidential Oaths on the Bible

George Washington was the first President to swear his oath of office on the Bible. The oath was administered by Robert Livingston, the Chancellor and Grand Master of Masons of the State of New York. It was sworn on a Bible used for Masonic ceremonies at the St. John’s Lodge in New York City. (Oath-taking is a big part of freemasonry. You can read Charles Finney’s condemnation of it here.) This Bible was again used for swearing in Harding, Eisenhower, Carter and George H.W. Bush. It was supposed to be used in 2001 for George W. Bush, but was not because of rain. There is no constitutional requirement that the President use a Bible to swear in, but it is a tradition from the founding. Most interesting is the case of President Franklin Pierce, who “affirmed,” and did not swear his oath of office on a law book, not a Bible. He was a reportedly devout Episcopalian and some sects within the Episcopalian camp objected to oath-taking. So the Constitution built in an option for those who objected to oaths, that they could solemnly “affirm” a commitment rather than swearing an oath.

Objections to Oaths on the Bible

In Matthew 5:34-37, Jesus teaches:

But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,
35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
36 And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.
37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
(Mat 5:34-37 ESV)

And then in James 5:12, we read: “But above all, my brothers, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation. (Jam 5:12 ESV)

On the basis of these two scripture passages, several Christian groups have objected to oath-taking, as against the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Notably, Mennonites and Quakers have objected to oath-taking on these grounds. The problem, suggested by both of these passages, is that oath-taking seems to imply a double standard for truth telling, even to hint that under regular circumstances one is not obliged to faithfully tell the truth.

In fact, in Leo XIII’s condemnation of Freemasonry, which forbids Catholics from becoming Masons, he highlights the objectionable oaths of Masons:

“Candidates are generally commanded to promise – nay, with a special oath, to swear – that they will never, to any person, at any time or in any way, make known the members, the passes, or the subjects discussed. Thus, with a fraudulent external appearance, and with a style of simulation which is always the same, the Freemasons, like the Manichees of old, strive, as far as possible, to conceal themselves, and to admit no witnesses but their own members.” (Humanum Genus, 1884)

Now, what do Catholics have to say about oaths, especially oaths on Bibles?

A Catholic View of Oath-Taking

Catholics have a lot of oaths. Married persons take vows at their weddings, religious persons profess vows in special ceremonies, priests take vows at their ordination ceremonies. In addition, Pope Pius X commanded that all priests take the “Oath Against Modernism.” Catholic theology teachers often take the “Oath of Fidelity” to promise to hold to Catholic teaching–interestingly, the Oath includes placing one’s hands on the Book of the Gospels. The Catholic Encyclopedia takes a rather sanguine view of oath-taking and describes its various forms.

Thomas Aquinas has quite a lot to say about oaths (ST II-II, q. 89). He teaches that is “in itself lawful and commendable.” In specific, he cites, Hebrews 6:16-17, “For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath” (Heb 6:16-17 ESV). From this example, we see a New Testament author mentioning oaths as a normal part of life, without condemnation. Also, the author to the Hebrews insists that God himself makes an oath, swearing by himself (see earlier in Hebrews 6 for context). Now, to the problem of the Bible passages I listed above (Matt 5:33-37 and James 5:12), Thomas quotes Jerome and Augustine:

Reply to Objection 1.Jerome, commenting on Matthew 5:34, says: “Observe that our Saviour forbade us to swear, not by God, but by heaven and earth. For it is known that the Jews have this most evil custom of swearing by the elements.” Yet this answer does not suffice, because James adds, “nor by any other oath.” Wherefore we must reply that, as Augustine states (De Mendacio xv), “when the Apostle employs an oath in his epistles, he shows how we are to understand the saying, ‘I say to you, not to swear at all’; lest, to wit, swearing lead us to swear easily and from swearing easily, we contract the habit, and, from swearing habitually, we fall into perjury. Hence we find that he swore only when writing, because thought brings caution and avoids hasty words.” (Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 89, a. 2)

Augustine’s argument is rather weak. He argues that Scripture forbids something just to help us avoid the habit of it. I hope he wouldn’t say the same thing about murder or adultery! The Catechism of the Catholic Church does a better job explaining:

2154 Following St. Paul,83 The tradition of the Church has understood Jesus’ words as not excluding oaths made for grave and right reasons (for example, in court). “An oath, that is the invocation of the divine name as a witness to truth, cannot be taken unless in truth, in judgment, and in justice.”84

The citations in there are to 2 Cor 1:23, “But I call God to witness against me– it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth” (2Co 1:23 ESV), where Paul actually takes an oath in writing; and to Galatians 1:20, “(In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)” (Gal 1:20 ESV), where the same thing happens. The last citation is to the Code of Canon Law 1198, which has lots of rules concerning oaths. For example, an oath becomes non-binding if the thing sworn becomes evil.

So it seems, from a Catholic perspective, that oaths can only be sworn by God (e.g., “so help me God”) and can only be done for serious reasons. Oaths should not be taken lightly. Swearing an oath on the Gospels is part of an official Catholic ritual, so swearing oaths on Bibles does not seem objectionable. One must constantly keep in mind the gravity of the oath and one’s obligation to fulfill it.


Protestant Reformers on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

So I was skimming an article by Gary Anderson on “Mary and the Old Testament” Pro Ecclesia 16 (2007): 33-55. and found a fascinating footnote:

Timothy George notes that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli were all in agreement about the perpetual virginity of Mary even though Scripture makes no explicit judgment on this matter. “Strangely enough,” George observes, “Zwingli attempted to argue for this teaching on the basis of scripture alone, against the idea that it could only be held on the basis of the teaching authority of the church. His key proof text is Ezekiel 44:2: ‘This gate is to remain shut. It must not be opened: no one may enter through it. It is to remain shut because the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered through if” (“Blessed Virgin Mary,” 109). But this is hardly as strange as it appears. Zwingli is simply working from a typological identification that goes back to the patristic period.

Really?! The most protestant of Protestant reformers–in many ways the Big Three of Protestant reformers–all believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity. And they even use biblical evidence to back up their claims. Wow!

(Anderson refers to an article by Timothy George, “The Blessed Virgin Mary in Evangelical Perspective,” in Mary Mother of God, ed. Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 100-1.)

To me, this seemingly little point is actually huge for Protestant-Catholic dialogue, relations and for Protestants considering becoming Catholic. Often, the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity is a sticking point since it is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible and it is one of the big four Catholic Marian dogmas. To realize that the original Protestant reformers embraced this doctrine could, I think, soften some of the tension between Catholics and Protestants on Marian issues.


Confirmation: The “Full” or “Special” Outpouring of the Holy Spirit

If you read the Catechism on the Vatican website, which seems to have the text of the first edition, you will find this sentence at paragraph 1302:

  • “It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.”

But then of course, you might wonder if the second edition (in book form, the green edition) has something different and in fact it does:

  • “It is evident from its celebration that the effect of the sacrament of Confirmation is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.”

Did you catch it? Yep, just one word is changed. Confirmation has gone from being “the full outpouring” to the “special outpouring.” Well, perhaps its a translation problem. I dove through the translations available on the Vatican website and here’s what I found:

English, 1st ed.: full
English, 2nd ed.: special
Latin: specialem
French: spéciale
German: in Fülle
Italian: speciale
Spanish: especial
Portuguese: especial

So, it seems that the first English edition only matches the German. Odd, isn’t it? So my question is what is the significance of being “the special” outpouring. Is it possible for there to be several special outpourings of the Spirit? If so, what makes Confirmation unique in regard to other outpourings that one might experience? Is it really “full” or no? Why the change in translation?


Kasemann on the Root Sin

I came across an interesting thought from Ernst Käsemann in my reading today:

  • “To undertake to preserve independence over against God is the root sin…”

Ernst Käsemann, “‘The Righteousness of God’ in Paul” in New Testament Questions of Today (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969) 180.

How true!