Tag Archives: theology

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.

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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.

UPDATE:

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.

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Swearing Oaths on Bibles

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

Image by Wonderlane, http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/

Image by Wonderlane, http://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

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.

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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.

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MOOC’s for Bible Students?

Recently, I’ve learned a little bit about MOOC’s (Massively Open Online Courses). A MOOC is usually a course taught for credit at a university that is then opened to the public for free. The first serious MOOC was offered by Stanford’s Sebastian Thrun in Fall 2011 with 150,000 students. The New York Times just did an article about MOOC’s which lays out the basics of the history and theory. The big MOOC companies are Udacity, edX, Coursera, and Khan Academy. Theses organizations put on courses of their own or help universities bring MOOC’s to market. For most schools, MOOC’s are really just an advertising ploy. If you get 100,000 people involved in a course that’s a pretty big deal and maybe you’ll get some paying customers (er…students) out of it.

Now my specific interest is whether MOOC’s could be used to teach the Bible or biblical things. MOOC’s tend to lend themselves to very technical subjects like math, physics, computer programming, etc. In technical subjects, interactive learning assessments can be designed to check  whether students are really learning since there is almost always a right answer and a wrong answer. But when it comes to the humanities (literature, history, art, religion, politics, etc.), knowledge is usually more “fuzzy,” for lack of a better term. Knowledge of successful political movements, of literary techniques, of what artist used what kind of paint, of theological concepts, does not have the same kind of hard edges that knowledge of formulas, equations, and computer code do. And with religion in particular, personal or organizational views/opinions/beliefs are often embedded in teaching and writing content so much that they cannot be separated from cold, hard, facts.

On the one hand, it seems to me that as the Internet and online education develop, theology and biblical studies will have to catch up. Theological educators of all kinds–from weekend warrior catechists to doctoral level professors–will have to change the way they approach education. It seems to me that the Internet is “democratizing” information at a very quick pace and that information is becoming more systematized by a crowd-sourced world. I think that has huge implications for religion. It used to be that if you studied at a seminary of a particular denomination, you only had access to the books in your seminary library and the denomination could choose to avoid putting certain books or journals in it, restricting the flow of information. But now, you can have access to whatever information you want anytime you want and no librarians can control who gets access to what. I think this kind of freedom is already re-shaping the religious landscape. When people have religious questions, they don’t go ask their pastor, they ask Google first. So to me, it seems that religious information will become organized, systematized and democratized in such a way that educators will need to re-think the way they educate.

On the other hand, I wonder if all this information-democratization process is good for religious education. I mean, can you really compress the Sermon on the Mount into a multiple choice question? There is something about theological education that is intangible, or perhaps, spiritual. It involves deeper movements of the mind and soul than solving equations or addressing technical matters. I think I could describe religious learning as involving the intuition–the indirect circuits of the brain–more so than deduction. Technical education, whether engineering or computer science, often deals with technical “problems” that need technical “solutions.” A great deal of the learning and the actual work of these fields deals with life on a problem-solution continuum. The role of the technician is to help clients get from one to the other. But in theology, philosophy, political science, etc., the role of the student and thinker is much different. The thinker must address the whole all at once, contemplating more wide-ranging questions of how everything fits together, what life really is all about and what my role in the universe is. Sometimes it seems that these kinds of issues cannot be crammed into a multiple choice question or a threaded online discussion, but require engagement with reality (say, through prayer or service), meditation (long, serious thinking), and conversation, in which those thinking about the same questions talk about how to understand the reality at hand and what to personally do about it. (E.g., if Jesus commands his followers to “go and make disciples,” how and in what way does that apply to me today? What should I do about it?) Can  the type of intellectual movements required for true theological engagement happen in a MOOC?

Now, I know that at least one quasi-theological MOOC has been attempted. The Catholic Distance Learning Network is doing two MOOC’s. One is on “Online Teaching and Learning.” The other is called “Teaching Research Design.” The project is being led by Sebastian Mahfood of Holy Apostles College and the CDLN worked with Edvance360 to set up the courses. There’s an article about it here. The effort is interesting and I hope they report to the public the results of the project. I’m especially interested in their enrollment numbers. I can’t imagine they’ll get 100,000 students! However, the courses are not truly theological. Both of them seem rather technical in nature–not as much as computer programming–but technical in terms of education and research strategies. I’d really like to see someone offer a MOOC on “Christology” or “Biblical Hermeneutics” or something much more difficult to assess.

The areas in theological and biblical studies that would lend themselves to a MOOC most easily are those that are most technical. I think, for example, that biblical language study would be the first place for MOOC’s to go for theology. But I wonder if other technical subjects like Thomistic philosophy or bio-ethics or even comparative religions might be able to be taught through a MOOC. The other thing is that MOOC’s might just be a fad, but there’s so much momentum behind them right now that I think they’ll be with us to stay at least in some format. I’m interested to see what theologians and Bible scholars come up with when it comes time to make a MOOC. I hope that someone will figure out how to use the new format to teach a new generation of religious thinkers. So if you hear of any theology or biblical studies MOOC’s going on, post a comment here to let me know.

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Scripture and Christology

I found a hard-to-find document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission today and I thought I’d share it with you. It’s called Scripture and Christology and was published in 1985 in Latin and French. Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J. did an English translation which has been reproduced online. So here it is: the English translation of the “Instruction on Scripture and Christology.

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