Archive for August, 2012


Theodicy – Chad Meister

August 31, 2012

Savior in Glory, 1408 Dormition Cathedral Vladimir by Andrei Rublev

Throughout the centuries, a number of theists have believed there are no pointless evils — that there are greater goods that justify the evil in the world. Attempts to vindicate God by providing an explanation for evil come in a variety of forms, and two of the best known are Augustine’s free will theodicy and John Hick’s soul-making theodicy. The essays are by Chad Meister, Professor of Philosophy at Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana.

Augustine’s Free Will Theodicy
One important theodicy was formulated by St. Augustine (354-430), and it has probably been the most prominent response to evil in the history of Christian thought. Fundamental to the position is Augustine’s view that the universe God created is good; everything in the universe is good and has a good purpose, some things to a greater extent, some to a lesser one. Evil, then, is not something God created. Evil is a privatio boni — a privation of the good. Augustine uses the example of being blind. Blindness is not a thing in itself, let alone a good thing. It is a privation of seeing. Evil, he argues, is like blindness; it is a privation of good.

Then, if God created a very good world, what brought about the privations? How did evil arise? It came about, he maintains, through free will. The story is familiar. Some of God’s good creation — namely persons, including angels and humans — were given the good gift of freedom of the will, a gift that reflected God’s image of being morally culpable and creative. However, some of God’s free creatures turned their will from God, the supreme Good, to lesser goods.

This act of turning from God was, in essence, the Fall. It happened first with the angels and then, after being tempted by Satan (one of the fallen angels), with humans. This is how moral evil entered the universe and this moral fall, or sin, also brought with it tragic cosmic consequences, for it ushered in natural evil as well. The Fall was no insignificant event; it was a disaster of cataclysmic proportions in the universe that accounts for all the moral and natural evils throughout history.

Augustine’s theodicy does not end without resolution, however, for in the eschaton God will rectify evil when he judges the world in righteousness, ushering into his eternal kingdom those persons who have been saved through Christ and sending to eternal perdition those persons who are wicked and disobedient and have rejected his good offer of salvation.

Although this free will theodicy does exonerate God from evil by placing full responsibility for it upon free creatures, and although it has been extensively advocated by Christians since its development in the fifth century, it has been highly criticized in recent times. [For a recent and impressive defense of the free will theodicy, see Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998]

One problem with this type of theodicy is that, even granting a robust libertarian view of free will, could God not have prevented the consequences of the evil decisions made by free creatures — consequences having to do with both moral and natural evils? For example, could God not have prevented the Asian tsunami in 2004 that swept through eleven countries, killing more than 200,000 innocent people? Could he not have stopped the Black Plague in the fourteenth century, which wiped out well over thirty percent of Europe’s population? And although perhaps God was not able to avert members of the Khmer Rouge from deciding to torture and execute hundreds of thousands of Cambodian people, could he not have orchestrated events such that the totalitarian leaders failed in their attempts — thus preventing the killing fields?

Richard Swinburne, a contemporary defender of the free will theodicy, responds by arguing that not only do free will choices have great value, but their successful implementation also has great value — value great enough that God is perfectly justified in not thwarting the consequences of such choices, even if they are evil. [Also see Richard Swinburne's Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 82-107, for his engagement with this problem.]

Furthermore (and this brings up the issue addressed earlier regarding skeptical theism), how do we know that there are not greater goods that result from these evil actions that would not have arisen without them? It seems likely that we are simply not in an epistemic situation to make such an assessment. As has been discovered by those working in the field of chaos theory, the slightest perturbations of the early conditions of a dynamic system can have significant effects on larger systems that would have been impossible to predict given empirical observations.

The death of one European peasant centuries ago could have had incredible effects or others at later times and places that would provide God with a morally sufficient reason for allowing it to happen. [William Lane Craig brought this chaos analogy to my attention in private conversation. For a fascinating introduction to the developing field of chaos theory, see James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Penguin, 1998).]

Another problem that has been raised with Augustine’s theodicy is that, given modern scientific understandings of the biological and social; development of homo sapiens, it no longer seems plausible to maintain that human beings began in a state of moral and spiritual maturity and perfection and then fell into a state of moral depravity as depicted in the early chapters of the book of Genesis. Rather than biological, social, and moral devolution, the story of human history is now generally seen as one of evolutionary development and progress. Furthermore, geology has demonstrated that natural evils existed long before the emergence of human life, and thus could not have been the consequence of a human fall.

However, perhaps the Augustinian theodicy can survive intact despite these developments. First, it is at least possible that natural evils are the result of the choices of free agents in the spirit world prior to the emergence of humans. Perhaps an angelic fall could account for “nature red in tooth and claw,” to quote Tennyson. Although this will seem farfetched to many modern ears, it is within the general purview of the Christian story, as C. S. Lewis intimated in his space trilogy. Furthermore, as Michael Murray has recently argued, it is possible to explain at least some natural evil as an unavoidable byproduct of a nomically [vocab: To know something nomically is to know it because it is implied by a natural law] regular, natural, good world. [See Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).]

With respect to the evolutionary account of human beings, it can be argued that there is no irreconcilable conflict between the standard neo-Darwinian account of human evolution and the view that there was an early pair of morally culpable hominids in whom God granted moral and spiritual awareness not unlike those depicted in the garden story of Genesis. Nevertheless, another attempt at theodicy developed by John Hick provides an overall better fit with the current scientific story of human development.

John Hick’s Soul-Making Theodicy
Based on the work of Irenaeus (c230-c.202 CE), John Hick developed a theodicy that is, in some ways, in stark contrast to the Augustinian approach. He maintains that his soul-making theodicy has the benefit of God’s having a close, developing relationship with his creation over time, whereas the Augustinian type presupposes an impersonal or sub-personal relationship between God and creation.
[Hick spells out this criticism of the Augustinian theodicy in his Evil and the God of Love (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)] Instead of God creating a paradise with perfect human beings who then freely fell into sin, on this account God created the world as a good place (but no paradise) for developing a race of beings from an early state of animal selfishness and self-centeredness to an advanced state of moral and spiritual maturity

God’s purpose was not to construct a paradise whose inhabitants would experience a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of pain. The world is seen, instead, as a place of “soul making” or person making in which free beings, grappling with the tasks and challenges of their existence in a common environment, may become “children of God” and “heirs of eternal life.” Our world, with all its rough edges, is the sphere in which this second and harder stage of the creative process is taking place.
John Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

God created good but undeveloped persons and moral, spiritual, and intellectual maturity requires experiencing trials and hardships in life. Evil, then, is not the result of perfect persons choosing to sin but, rather, is an inevitable part of an environment necessary for developing mature character. Thus, by placing evolving beings in this challenging environment, through their free will to choose what is right and good, they can gradually grow into the mature persons that God desires them to be, exhibiting the virtues of patience, courage, and generosity, for example.

Furthermore, as the theodicy goes, God will continue to work with human persons, even in the afterlife if necessary, by allowing them non-coercive opportunities to love and choose the good so that eventually everyone will be brought into a right and full relationship with God; everyone will finally experience redemption. [Eleonore Stump develops a version of the soul-making theodicy that centers on a particular theological good. See her "The Problem of Evil," Faith and Philosophy 2 (1985):] In this view, God allows moral and natural evils in the world to nurture virtues within individuals in order to make morally and spiritually mature souls or persons.

One objection that can be raised is that although it may be true that a soul-making environment cannot be a paradise, the degree and extent of pain and suffering that exist in the world surely are not justified. Why: need there be an Auschwitz, for example? Could not mature characters’ be developed without this kind of horror? In addition, some evils seem to be character destroying rather than character building. Not all people improve through the hardships they endure; often, the difficulties in one’s life cause it to end in tragedy. Think of a child with a debilitating. disease who is made fun of or who is always the recipient of charity, and then dies at an early age; or a woman who is brutally raped, held captive, and then murdered days later. Do such examples of gratuitous evil not count against soul-making type theodicies?

Hick responds by claiming that apparently pointless evils are not, in fact, without purpose and merit. The kinds of sympathy and cornpassion, for example, that are evoked by such seemingly indiscriminate and unfair miseries are very great goods in and of themselves — goods that would not arise without the miseries appearing as unfair and indiscriminate. [See Hick, Evil and the God of Love, Chapter 10] Although God did not intend or need any particular evils (such as Auschwitz) for his soul-making purposes, he did need to create an environment where such evils were a possibility. Thus, although each individual instance of evil may not be justified by a particular greater good (purpose or merit), the existence of a world where evil is possible is necessary for a world where soul-making takes place.

Furthermore, as noted earlier, on this theodicy a positive doctrine of life after death is crucial, for there are cases in which difficulties in an individual’s life breed bitterness, anger, fear, and a lessening of virtuous character. So in these instances, at least, the soul-making process would need to continue on into the afterlife if it is to be successful. In addition, as will be argued subsequently, on a Christian account of resurrection, an afterlife could also perhaps provide future goods that are great enough to justify even the worst horrors experienced in this life.

The free will and soul-making theodicies share a common supposition that God would not permit evil that is not necessary for a greater good. But a number of theists affirm that some evils are not justified, that some horrors are so damaging there are no goods that outweigh them. If there are such evils, why would God allow them? It may be that “restricted standard theism” — the view that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent, omni-good being who created the world, accompanied by other religious claims — is inadequate to provide a response. Perhaps an adequate reply requires “expanded theism” — the view that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent, omnigood being who created the world, accompanied by other religious claims, such as those provided by orthodox Christian theism.


Why Art? R.R. Reno

August 30, 2012

Icon of the enthroned Virgin and Child with saints and angels, and the Hand of God above, 6th century, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, perhaps the earliest iconic image of the subject to survive.

R.R. Reno is a Senior Editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University.


Why art? Countless millions cry out for food to relieve their hunger. Many are caught up in wars, praying for some semblance of peace. There are diseases to cure. Environmental disasters to prevent. International institutions to build. Why, indeed, art?

From the very beginnings of human history — times of far greater hunger, violence, and injustice — men and women made drawings, formed figures, and decorated everyday life. We were not created, it seems, for mere survival. We do not simply want life; we want life adorned, life bathed in beauty. To neglect the aesthetic dimension of our humanity — even for the sake of noble endeavors to improve the lot of others and to advance the causes of justice — diminishes us.

Our desire for beauty has many dimensions. Art is, for example, a craft, a training of the eye and hand. But at a deeper level, art plays an important role in culture because it is a habit of hesitation. Art grows out of the disposition to stop and allow oneself to be arrested by what is real, not with an eye toward manipulating the world, not even toward good ends, but in submission and service to reality.

In the Christian tradition, this habit or disposition of attention goes by the name of contemplation. Aristotle associated this habit with leisure, which he thought was the culmination or pinnacle of human endeavor and the basis of a fully developed, humane society. With the notion of leisure he did not mean “downtime,” but instead the capacity to set aside the affairs of the moment in order to give uninterrupted (and unscheduled) attention to higher things. Worship, for example, or philosophical discussion, or aesthetic reflection.

We need encouragement to enter into moments of leisure and art helps us slip into this sense of wonder. If we would tarry for a moment, the lilies afloat in a shimmering pond invite contemplation, but we pass them without a backward glance. They were, however, enough to occupy Monet for nearly three decades of his life.

Both Monet, in applying oils to his canvas, and the viewer, looking at the beauty produced by his brushstrokes, invent a world. His can be found in the painting itself. The viewer’s emerges in his mind in response to what he sees. Both of these inventions, so different from the world itself, are (or at least can be) saturated with reality. It’s an odd experience. Moments of fancy and invention draw the solidity of what is real into our imagination and us into the real. And it is precisely this that sheds light, I think, on the intrinsic importance of art.

We live our lives forward, always leaping through the present, leaving behind the recent past and entering into the future. In a fundamental sense, therefore, we are stretching away from what is real — the solidity of experiences we’ve had (and are having) — toward what we can only imagine. And in this stretching we sense the danger of the future: that our hopes and dreams, our plans and projects for the future, will be unrealistic and unattainable. We also feel a backward-looking threat: that as our past experiences recede they will lose their reality and our lives will come unraveled.

This danger and threat are not only personal. Modern man often feels uprooted from the past, which rapid social change often makes seem remote and unreal. So we search for something that promises a new future, a way of living we can inhabit permanently and with confidence. Cast out of the past, we want to be at home in the future, and therefore we are tempted by collective utopian dreams that have brutalized reality in order to achieve unrealistic goals: eliminating private property, achieving ethnic purity, ensuring absolute equality.

Art can train our imaginations to be more retentive and receptive to reality, and respectful of it as well. Imagination, properly developed, stretches our sense of the real — or more accurately it allows the depth and breadth of what is real to stretch us. The effect is a more capacious, more absorptive sense of life, one capable of renewing the solidity of our memories of the past and giving reality to our dreams for the future.

In the modern era, technology, economic dynamism, and social change tend to drain reality from life. We need not simply to look again, but to look more closely and with far greater focus. In its many different forms, modern art has largely been a series of experiments in intensified seeing: pure color, pure form, pure perspective pushed to extremes.

By my reading, these modern experiments in art have involved mostly pulling apart the threads of perception rather than putting them back together again. Abstraction, for example, isolates form and color. Cubism and other techniques rearrange the planes of three dimensional reality, changing our experiences of perspective. And perhaps that’s to be expected, even desired. In our era, advertisers conjure many finished images, so we come to suspect that a straightforward presentation of reality risks being folded back into the endless aesthetic games that try to manipulate our imaginations so that we will buy or vote or think a certain way.

There are of course many artistic tricksters who play games with our aesthetic expectations. Yet, at its best, modern art rightly resists the impulse to recompose our visual experience into reliable forms. The complicated and often contradictory contemporary forms of our visual experience needs to be taken apart so that we can engage at least one dimension, trusting in its reality.

We live in an age of cultural disintegration, or at least weakening, and to a great extent the tendency of modern art toward pulling visual experiences apart reflects this truth. As a result, we face the temptation to move too quickly toward restoration, prematurely reintegrating, rushing to give beauty its shapely fullness as an expression of what is true and good. The danger here is that our synthesis will fall in line with prevailing ideologies. Unfortunately, there’s a great deal of didactic (and self-congratulating) contemporary art that does exactly that. Or the temptation can be more mundane (and more common): We return to the air-brushed visual comforts of familiar commercial images.

A Christian, however, is equipped to live in our present age of fragmentation, even deconstruction, and do so with an Easter confidence. The death of the Son of God on the Cross shatters the world, pulling it apart at its very foundations. Yet, in the New Testament “the world” is not the same as reality. On the contrary, in the biblical account, “the world” refers to the shape that the power of sin and death gives to our experience. Thus, faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ does not carry us away from reality, but instead reweaves the fabric of experience according to his eternal truth, which has been present from the beginning.

We need art. It trains our imaginations to linger, to hesitate, to receive the textures and colors and shapes of the world. We need this training in receptivity so that we can see and participate in Christ more fully. For if our imaginations are saturated with reality, then with the eyes of faith we are better able to see him in all things.


Scholastic Thought – Professor William R. Cook

August 29, 2012

Giovanni Bellini’s Allegoria Sacra (Sacred Allegory) hangs in the Uffizi in Florence. The subject of this painting is a mystery to art historians. The earliest figures of Christian and ancient mythology are gathered together on a balustrade by a sea or a wide river, surrounded by hills on which can be seen, in the distance, village huts and a palazzo. St. Sebastian, the Madonna, a centaur, small children playing by a tree in the center, a Saracen-Muslim, a man somewhat like the Apostle Paul with a sword in his hand, in the background a peasant with a mule, two beautiful ladies one of whom is St. Catherine, a naked old man reminiscent of Job – this is a far from a complete list of the heroes who Bellini brought together in this picture. One interpretation of this painting is that it showed Purgatory, where the souls of the righteous, of virtuous pagans and of unchristened children await their fate – heaven or hell.

Some notes from Professor Cook’s great courses lecture on the history of the Catholic Church.


In a real sense, Christian learning is as old as Christianity itself; that is to say, if we take a look at the texts of the New Testament, they are written by not only intelligent people, not only people of faith, but people who have a great deal of learning. We know, of course, than the entire New Testament was written in Greek, and therefore any New Testament writer could have read, and in many cases we know did read, great Classical texts by authors such as Plato or Thucydides. I mentioned examples of that: The Letters to the Hebrews, for example, pretty clearly shows in one passage that the author has read Plato and uses Platonic language and Platonic ways of thinking in order to explain a part of the faith to the people who were the original audience for that letter.

We need to remember from the very beginning that the question really arises: In what ways can Christians use things outside the biblical tradition, outside the Hebrew predecessors, to interpret the meaning of Jesus, to explain it, and to persuade people who were, in fact, very often Greek-speaking gentiles to follow, to convert to Christianity.

We know that there was a debate in the early church over exactly what kind of learning was useful, or even acceptable, to Christians. On more than one occasion I’ve already mentioned the famous question of Tertullian, a third century theologian: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” What has that great pagan learning of the past to do with our faith and the way we teach and practice our faith? We saw that Tertullian’s answer was “It has nothing to do with it.”

It is important to say that Tertullian was not trying to dumb down Christianity; he wasn’t saying Christianity is for people who don’t think or don’t reason. In fact, Tertullian used a very sophisticated Latin vocabulary, even though he did not like the idea of using foreign — that is, non-Judeo-Christian — ideas as ways of understanding or explaining Christianity.

But we saw that Tertullian’s position really wasn’t the dominant position in the Latin-speaking West. For example, I’ve pointed out that both Augustine and Jerome in somewhat different ways both thought a great deal about the question of the relationship of pagan learning to Christianity to the revelation that’s contained in the Bible.

In both cases, we would say perhaps that Augustine and Jerome were sort of moderate on this issue; that is to say, clearly Classical knowledge doesn’t get you there. Classical knowledge, to use Augustine’s image, can sort of show  you where you want to go; but only faith in Jesus, only the knowledge of the Christian scriptures can show you how to get there. Nevertheless, Augustine and Jerome recognized value in their own lives personally of the classics, and also recognized their value in understanding, teaching, and explaining the Christian faith.

We saw that Jerome, in fact, was a great: scholar; he translated the Bible — that is to say, the Hebrew scripture and the Christian scripture, which of course was written in Greek — into Latin, ” and his translation became the standard translation used for 1,000 years of Catholicism. Clearly, it took a great scholar to be able to do that.

Let me also suggest that tone of the issues that the Latin-speaking West had to deal with was the fact — and again, I’ve mentioned this before — that all the councils, the four ecumenical councils, were held in the Greek-speaking word, had mostly Greek bishops, and issued all of their teachings and decrees in Greek; and there were some difficulties in translating some of that theology, some of those texts, into Latin because Greek was a more highly nuanced language with regard to having a sort of philosophical therefore borrowed theological vocabulary. It’s important to remember that Latin theology developed somewhat differently than the theology of what later on we’d call the Orthodox world at least in part simply because of the languages being so different.

When we talk about the development of Latin theology, as we saw in a previous lecture, the figure we turn the most to is Saint Augustine. Saint Augustine’s writings today — the ones that survived — are about 50 volumes worth of writing, and clearly he is the great Latin theologian of the West. However, remember that Augustine died in 430, and literally — the barbarians, in this case the Vandals, were at the gates of Hippo where Augustine was bishop and where Augustine died. Therefore, as we know, not long after Augustine died — less than a half century — Roman imperial authority in the West had essentially collapsed and for all practical purposes disappeared.

Therefore, what we tend to do, unfortunately, is sort of assume because here come the Germanic tribes of a, b, and c that somehow or other theology must have also sort of gone downhill if not almost disappeared; that’s sort of the mythology of the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.

Let me suggest there are very important Catholic writings that occurred, really, in every century; however, they aren’t necessarily often studied today. One reason is because these were works written by monks in monasteries to a great extent — although not entirely- and therefore those works seem to be about topics that are not of particular interest to, if you will, in the pew Catholics today.

Certainly people study them, but they don’t seem directly relevant to Christians — Catholics in particular — raise today. However, I want to suggest that there is some wonderful Christian history, history written from a Christian point of view; I mentioned, for example, Gregory of Tours and the Venerable Bede as examples.

I also want to point out that one of the most important Catholic genres of literature of the early Middle Ages were the saints’ lives; and today, again, to a great extent saints’ lives are out of vogue. They are out of vogue in part because they sort of sound like they’re history on the surface — they tell a story that starts at the beginning of a life and ends at the end of a life — but they contain a lot of things that seem to many people today to be believable; and therefore we tend to sort of be uncomfortable with them and maybe even push them aside and look for something more sophisticated, we might say.

I would argue that those works are very sophisticated whether it’s a life of Saint Patrick, for example, written in the seventh century, or other Saint’s lives. I would suggest that in some ways if more Catholics — and I mean the pew Catholics, not seminarians, monks, and whatever — got to know the literature. It’s around, it’s in existence, and a lot of it has been translated into English, but it’s still not very widely read or very well known.

I also want to suggest that during the period of Charlemagne — we call the period around the time of Charlemagne, because of some cultural developments that took place, the Carolingian Renaissance, although there are many who would not want to apply the term “renaissance” to anything that happened in the eighth and ninth centuries — there was a renewed interest in Classical literature, although very limited amounts of Classical literature and there was a good deal of theological discourse and indeed, theological dispute. Some of those issues that were disputed and debated again, tend not to have a lot of interest for people today; some of them seem very obscure to us, for example. But I simply want to remind you there is a continuous tradition of Catholic writing and Catholic learning that runs even through the darker periods of the Middle Ages and all of Christian

But about the year 1000, we began to get the development of new kinds of thought; it began slowly, and then we’ll see it developed in the 11th and 12th century and really flourishes in the 13th century. The place we usually start is with a man named Gerbert, who was ultimately elected Pope Sylvester, and he was, indeed, pope in the millennial year; he was pope in the year 1000.

In his life before he was elected pope, he was one of the men to say: We need to have better schools, we need greater learning we need to go back to a curriculum that had existed in antiquity, in late antiquity, called the Seven Liberal Arts. The Seven Liberal Arts, like a lot of things that have seven on them, are divided into a group of four and a group of three. The first three are called the trivium — it simply means “Three,” you can hear the “tri” in there — and they are grammar, rhetoric, and logic.

By the time that Gerbert’s around, around the year 1000, it seems that in the monastic schools — which are about the only schools in Europe — the only subject that’s really being studied is grammar.

“Grammar” means “learning how to read and write Latin properly”; grammar is broader than it might sound like to us, because grammar involves reading ancient models of Latin to learn what good Latin is like. That can be, for example, Cicero, or it can be Virgil for poetry, or whatever. Nevertheless, grammar, it seems, was largely what was taught in the monastic schools in the 10th century. Gerbert said we need to go beyond that and recapture the interest in and study of the other two parts of the trivium: rhetoric, which is in a sense learning to read, to write, and understand and speak Latin elegantly beyond just having proper qualities; and then there is logic, which is learning to speak, read, and write and make an argument in Latin. Gerbert is one of the first one to say to various monastic schools — and he himself came from a monastic tradition — we need to have this somewhat broader education. As I said, there are seven liberal arts, and the four others called the quadrivium are more close to what we would call science today.

They are: arithmetic; geometry; music, and music here don’t mean learning to play the fiddle, music means the study of harmonics and ratios, if you will; and the fourth one is astronomy. At least with Gerbert there was a little bit of interest even in the quadrivium; and as there as this renewed interest in the Seven Liberal Arts, or at least the first three of them, we began to get a little more interest in Classical texts. That’s Latin texts, which of course people could read because Latin was the language of the church, but also there had been some Greek texts that had been translated into Latin late in antiquity: some works of Greek philosophy, science, and whatever; they were quite limited.

For example, there was a little bit of Aristotle, a little bit of Plato, none of Thucydides, none of the great Greek tragedians we think of, none of Homer; so it was a very limited Greek list, but nevertheless, the interest in these subjects beyond grammar led to more interest in these Classical texts, because they would be of help in explaining, teaching, and persuading people about Christianity.

Around 1100, we had an Italian serving as the Archbishop of Canterbury in England, and his name was Anselm. Anselm used elements. of Greek Classical learning, in particular, formal logic — how to construct an argument — to write some very important books. He wrote a book called Why God Became Human (Cur Deus Homo, in Latin), and in it, he tried to explain using reason why, given the problem of sin and disobedience in the world; it was logical and necessary for God to send a son to take on our form, our life, and be crucified. It was trying to explain as much as possible the mysteries of the faith using reason, because, what Anselm believed was, if we can explain these things by reason or at least get closer to a full understanding by reason, that’s valuable in preaching, teaching, and evangelizing.

He wrote another book that is very interesting where he talked about the proof for the existence of God; how do you know God exists? Again, today, there are people who think his proof still makes some sense — we call it the ontological proof of the existence of God –  there are others who say, “Well, it doesn’t hold up today.”

Whichever one of those positions you take, what we need to recognize is Anselm believed it was important to try to explain as much as one can God’s existence by reason, because everybody can follow reason. Obviously you need faith, and, in fact, Anselm never lost sight of the primacy of faith; he even talked about the fact that what he’s trying to do was have his faith seeking understanding, or he said, “I believe in order that I may understand.” He did not deny the primacy of faith, but his faith could be reinforced and strengthened by reason, by being able to make arguments about the existence of God or why God became human — one of the unique claims, after all, of Christianity that would be a good thing. Anselm was an important churchman and a holy man; he is indeed Saint Anselm, there’s a college named for him in New England.

What I want to talk about now is to go another generation forward to a fellow named Peter Abelard. Peter Abelard was a Frenchman, kind of cocky as far as we can tell; he taught at what was called the Cathedral School in Paris. Ahelard sort of took some of what Anselm did and pushed the envelope further. Here’s the problem: We seek truth, but truth is very hard to find in the Christian tradition because, by this time, Christianity was more than 1,000 years old. You not only had the New Testament, but you had decrees of popes, decrees of councils, theological writings like those of Augustine — which again, run 50 volumes-and those of Jerome, Ambrose, Gregory, laid the other great writers of the church; and at least on the surface, they sometimes seemed to disagree with each other seriously. How do we deal with that? How do we understand what is true when our great authorities seemed to differ with one another?

Abelard had an answer. He wrote a book that has this wonderful title in Latin Sic et Non (it simply means Yes and No); and what Abelard says is, “What I want to do is construct wonderful questions, important questions, that we want an answer to. Then what I will do is the research to find what various authors have said about that topic”; some, no doubt, seeming to answer the question “yes” because he always sets the question up so it could be answered in theory “yes” or “no.” There are a number of “yes” answers, and very often a number of “no” answers. That’s as far as this book gets; that is to say, Abelard doesn’t draw the synthesis, doesn’t say, “the yeses are right,” or “the no’s are right,” or “both are sort of right,” he doesn’t do that; but what he suggests is this is the way we go about things: We ask the right questions, we do our research — we set these texts that seem to be in opposition to one another there — and then we use reason, we use our intellect to figure out what the truth is.

Peter Abelard really, in a sense, raised the bar for the importance of learning and reason, especially, again, that third part of the trivium, that is to say logic, in finding Christian truth. Some of you may know that Peter Abelard sort of got himself in trouble, not because of what he wrote so much — although there were opponents to what he wrote — over a, how do we say this politely, incident involving a student, a female student, he was tutoring is Paris named Eloise. The romantic story and the tragic aftermath is not relevant here, but if you don’t know that story, it’s the kind of thing of which operas are made; I’ll just leave it there and tell you that, by the way, their ashes are buried together — Eloise and Abelard — in a cemetery in Paris, and today, lovers and people about to get married go there and pay their homage to this tragic love affair of Eloise and Abelard.

As much as Abelard wanted to use reason, wanted to use logic, to figure out exactly what the truth of Christianity is through all the maze of a thousand years of tradition, he didn’t have very good tools to do it with it. The great writer about logic was Aristotle, and with very few exceptions Aristotle’s writings did not exist in Latin in Abelard’s time, so Abelard was using what we might say are snippets of Aristotle’s writing. But in the latter half of the 12th century, there was a movement to get Aristotle — all of Aristotle — into Latin so it could be used at the various schools and what would soon emerge as the universities of Europe.

Interestingly enough, the translation was not made from Greek into Latin, but rather from Arabic into Latin because Muslims had been using Aristotle for centuries; they had translated it from Greek into Arabic, they had commented on Aristotle – that is to say they’d written commentaries — and they were dealing largely with the same question that Christians were dealing with in making use of Aristotle: How can a Greek polytheist be of any use to a religion that is monotheistic, that is revealed, and that has a sacred text, because none of those things apply to any of the Greek forms of religion that Aristotle or others of his time would practice. The advantage of translating Aristotle from Arabic into Latin was that you had Arabic commentators, and they were used in the 13th century a great deal by the greatest theologians of that time as guides to how to use Aristotle for the kinds of things they were using Aristotle for.

Another thing that happened in the second part of the 12th century was the creation of what became the great authoritative textbook of theology called The Four Sentences of Peter Lombard.

Almost every student for the next several hundred years who did an advanced degree in theology wrote as what we might call a kind of doctrinal thesis, a commentary, on Peter Lombard’s Sentences. There were also new educational institutions developing, in particular the university. In Paris, Bologna and other cities, we had a new kind of institution because the monastic school; and the cathedral school really didn’t include the new kinds learning, the enthusiasm for Aristotle; and so the University of Paris evolved into the cathedral school that Peter Abelard taught in, it was not directly under the control of the bishop and the cathedral chapter as the school had been early on.

Another reason why we had a flourishing of theology and a concern for getting the details right in the 13th century was because of the rise of heresy; we talked about the Cathars and the Waldensians. When nobody challenges the basic truths of the faith, there isn’t any need to define it carefully; but when those are challenged, you need to get things in the right language. You need to say, “We believe this, we don’t believe that; this is correct, this is incorrect.” The very challenge of heresy led to the need for clarification and explanation in more detail than perhaps was necessary before.

What we talked about developing in the 13th century is a particular kind of theological discourse that we call scholastic theology. “Scholastic” doesn’t just mean here “academic”; scholastic theology refers to a kind of theology that was done at the universities — the most important one of which was Paris — in the 13th and following centuries.

Let me just simply try to say that although there is a method to scholastic theology very much based on what Abelard did; let’s make some questions — and by the way, it gets much more complicated: Is it the number of questions? How do you relate question one to question two? Then question three must follow question one and two; organization becomes important — but let’s ask questions, let’s get the various answers that exist in our tradition, and then let’s synthesize them. Maybe they really are ultimately not in disagreement at all; maybe one simply is right, one simply is wrong.

It isn’t always you get the same kind of answer; you don’t always get a synthesis. But very often what these theologians discovered was if you asked the right questions and read specific passages in context, understanding exactly what words meant in specific contexts, many of the apparent difficulties and contradictions disappeared or at least were minimized.

Let me suggest that not all scholastic theologians agreed on things; agreed on how you do things, nor did they get the same results. Let me try to suggest briefly three major schools within scholastic theology. The most conservative we can use as our representative here: Saint Bonaventure, the great Franciscan theologian who died in 1274. For Bonaventure, although the technique of Aristotelian argument was important to him, the substance of Aristotle’s thought — what he said about politics, literature, or ethics — was not particularly important to Bonaventure; so if you will, he borrowed more the technique than the content of Aristotle, and he was in that sense more conservative. I think it’s still fair to call Bonaventure an Augustinian; and his theology was perhaps as much mystical as it was academic.

The main school of scholastic theology, the one we know the best today, was represented by Thomas Aquinas who died the same year as Bonaventure, in 1274. Thomas Aquinas was a Dominican; and it’s Thomas Aquinas and his fellow Dominicans that really were the major figures in what we call scholastic theology.

By and large, it’s fair to say, that Aquinas used both the techniques — the methods of arguing — of Aristotle; but also much of the substance of Aristotelian thought, whether it’s about politics, literature, ethics, or the many other issues that Aristotle talked about. Don’t get me wrong, Thomas of Aquinas was perfectly willing to disagree with Aristotle when Aristotle directly contradicted scripture. Aristotle believed in the eternity of matter; Thomas Aquinas said, “Aristotle’s wrong, because we. know from Genesis that matter is not eternal. God created matter at the beginning”; we learned that in Genesis 1, after all.

But I think it’s fair to say in general that Aquinas believed that there was compatibility between what we might call faith and reason; between the revelation contained in scripture and the reason as the best reasoners — that is to say, people like Aristotle — were able to do things. Thomas Aquinas  developed this idea that Abelard had a century earlier way beyond anything that we could’ve imagined, perhaps. The collection of questions all very carefully arranged so that one follows the previous one, today, even though that work was unfinished, it covers about 4,000 printed pages (by the way, he died at the age of 50, which makes you wonder what you have done with your life since he was able to crank out 4,000 pages and he wrote other things, too, in his 50 years of life).

But in addition simply to the quantity, he tried to include everything; he wrote about all human knowledge. Even though we would say he was bound to fail in this great work called the Summa Theologiae, it’s one heck of a try; it’s one of the great intellectual achievements — Christian or not, it seems to me — in the history of the West.

The third school of scholastic theology, which is the least important and I’m going to mention it very briefly, we call the Latin Averroists, named after an Arabic commentator on Aristotle called Averroes. The Latin Averroists basically used Aristotle uncritically; while Thomas Aquinas was willing to challenge Aristotle when necessary and Bonaventure was skeptical of a lot of Aristotle, it seems these Latin Averroists were not particularly discriminating when they used Aristotle, and therefore they came to something that we sometimes call — maybe this isn’t quite the right term — a double truth; something could be true in philosophy but false in theology, and vice versa. They were always on the edge of condemnation at the University of Paris.

These scholastic theologians — again, Bonaventure and Aquinas being the greatest examples, but there were many, many more in the 13th and following centuries — turned out an extraordinary amount of theology, carefully argued and thought theology; but also, it’s clear when we read, for example, Thomas Aquinas, maybe the great reasoner about Christianity of all time. He was also a man of very deep and profound faith; he’s not just a great Catholic scholar, I remind you, he’s also a Catholic saint, and his life — as well as his writings — is an important contribution to Catholicism.

Let me suggest that one of the popularizers of a great deal of scholastic theology in the vernacular — because all of the theology was written in Latin — was the great Italian poet Dante. Dante, in fact, meets both Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure in Heaven, and clearly his laying out of this great scheme of the afterlife and trying to include all Christian knowledge is simply not a theological treatise in verse, but certainly he borrows very deeply from both Dominican and Franciscan tradition because he was educated by both of them in Florence.

Let me suggest that by the 16th century, there were some real problems. People like Erasmus (great Catholic writer) and Martin Luther (the founder of Protestantism) mocked the scholastic method because, they said, first of all, too much of this Aristotle guy; but even more so, they sort of mocked it because it could very easily be turned into trivialization of Christianity, it could become a lot of academic debate rather than a real search for truth. On the other hand, in the 16th’ century during the Protestant Reformation, Catholics wanted clarity in their thought; they wanted to be able to respond precisely to the Protestants. Who’s the number one guy who could help them do that? Good old 13th century Thomas Aquinas; and so Aquinas gained a great deal more importance in the Catholic Church because he’s the most useful theologian to refute the Protestants.

Let me suggest, finally, that as we look at scholastic theology, we can praise its great achievements and its contributions to the church; but let me also suggest a couple problems with this kind of theology: First of all, it’s hard to go from some of these very technical debates and these sort of very scholarly works to how does this make a preacher better? How does this make an individual Catholic better out there on the farm, in the workshop, as a merchant? It didn’t easily and automatically translate into better pastoral care. Second of all, it subordinated everything to theology: Science was included in Thomas Aquinas’s Summa, and everything in the Summa wasaimed toward knowing about God. If science is a handmaid of theology – a 13th century term — that means then that science has to be guided by theologians rather than being guided by having its own way of finding truth its own experimental way. It’s only really in the 14th century that there is least a partial divorce between science and scholastic theology that allowed for a more independent development of science.

Finally, to go back to the criticism of people like Erasmus, it was very easy to go from this profound kind of exploration of Christian understanding say, “I want to win a debate with you. Let’s argue more about less and less.” Anybody who’s been to a university knows that’s a tendency that academics have. So one of the criticisms of scholastic theology is what we might sum up as people spend their time debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin rather than anything that really is relevant to the faith.

Scholastic theology is one of the most important kinds of theology church ever produced, and it flourished in the context of the other things we’ve talked about in the 13th century.


The So-Called Immorality of Christianity – Jeffrey Burton Russell

August 28, 2012

Giovanni BELLINI, Sacred Allegory, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The cover of the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic, asked, “Did Christianity cause the crash?” In fact, a tide of anti-Christian propaganda is holding that “Christianity caused  —————“(fill in anything you don’t like). The only good thing about it is that Christians can learn how Jews have felt for centuries. Antitheists believe that Christians who do good are either not really Christians or else do good despite their Christianity: Christians cannot do good on the basis of their beliefs, because their beliefs are bad. [Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), pp. 173-9)]

They also think Christianity is immoral: it supports war, denies rights to minorities, pits itself against science and blocks progress. The antitheists attack all religions but focus on the three most prominent Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and their prime target is Christianity. They fail to note that in Europe and America Christians originated hospitals, orphanages, schools and universities. Humanists fail to recognize that their humane values come from Judeo-Christian religion. And one may ask what Christian oppression actually exists in contemporary America: the one that controls universities? The one that controls business and finance? The one that controls the media? The one that dominates the public schools? The one that runs the government? The one that conducts foreign policy? Where is all this hateful oppression anyway?

Immorality is sometimes distinguished from amorality (the lack of any kind of morals), but a more important distinction is between immorality and illegality. Many things are illegal without being immoral — double parking, for example — and many things are immoral without being illegal — for example, paying yourself hundreds of times more than your employees. Sometimes, as in Nazi or Soviet society, it is even illegal not to be immoral: you are obliged by law to inform on your neighbor. Illegality depends on whoever is in control of the state. Immorality is quite different: it means violating a fundamental code of behavior.

Morality and religion don’t necessarily go together. In many other cultures, religion has to do with offending or placating gods who are themselves morally ambivalent. The first religion to tie morality inextricably to divine law was Israelite monotheism. An old question asks whether rape and murder are wrong because God says so or whether God condemns rape and murder because they are wrong. Judeo-Christian morality dissolves the difference: some actions are good and some evil by both natural and divine law. Even Christianity is not primarily about morality but about God’s love for humanity expressed in Jesus. A recent study of the sense of fairness in societies showed that fairness correlates significantly with participation in religion. ["Fair Play," The Economist, March 20, 2010]

To be moral or immoral requires a free choice. Bacteria, ants, pelicans and robots can be neither moral nor immoral, because they are programmed to act exactly the way they do. Most atheists think that humans, like pelicans or robots, are programmed by genetics and circumstances to do exactly what they do. Having no freedom of choice, we are incapable of either morality or immorality. Now, if there is no such thing as immorality, Christianity can’t be “immoral.” What antitheists really mean by saying that Christianity is immoral is that they believe Christianity is opposed to certain values that they think are good.

Christians believe that morality is living in harmony with the divine law found in the “two books”: the Bible and nature. In the Bible the truth is revealed in words; in nature it is revealed through mathematics and research into the universe. [Josef Zycinski makes the point that "the mind of God" in modern physics is mathematical rather than Platonic; he traces the change back to the seventeenth century: God and Evolution: Fundamental Questions of Christian Evolutionism (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2006)] A principle is a basic truth from which consistent ideas and behavior proceed, and Christians believe that their primary principle is the truth of the two revelations.

In contrast, atheist and humanist morality can have no principle [The latest effort to establish atheist morality is Sam Harris, Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010).] Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov notes that if God does not exist, everything is permitted. If a humanist wants to do good, how does he or she know what is good? If the response is that human nature is basically good, the evidence of both biology and history is counter to the claim. Further, to assert that “man is good” requires some Good by which to measure good. If there is no perfect Good, secularists have no principle on which to base their ideas of what is good. Humanists imagine that the world, once purged of religion, would adopt their own vague, liberal morality, but why would it? Why assume that such a world would embrace compassion, equality, or freedom? [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions] Those ideas come from Christianity.

Secularists have been trying to establish secular moral codes without the principle of the Good and have repeatedly failed. Without this basis, ethics become relative, and “a simple `I disagree’ or `I refuse’ [or `I am offended'] is enough to exhaust the persuasive resources of any purely worldly ethics.” [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions] I once heard a witness in a child-rape trial say, “Who’s to say what’s right or wrong in this round world?” The effort of secularism to create a principle in the welter of relativism is like pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.

The very point of relativism is that it doesn’t have a principle: everybody chooses his or her own values. Relativism therefore means that morals become a matter of fashion or else are imposed by a self-appointed authority. The atheist Jurgen Habermas and Pope Benedict XVI agreed in a debate that “there had to be some value system.” [97Micklethwait and Wooldridge, God Is Back] But any value system man creates will be dissolved by man. What evidence is there of moral progress, unless by “moral progress” one means that certain things one personally admires have recently become more common? Relativism and materialism are antithetical to one another, but the two converge in denying a principle of morality based on anything other than personal or cultural preference.

This degrades the “very notion of freedom, its reduction in the cultural imagination to a fairly banal kind of liberty,” and the result is both triviality and monstrosities like eugenics. [David BentleyHart, Atheist Delusions] Our own will, based on nothing but itself, feels any limitation on its choices to be intolerable. Any reasonable system of belief, any principles, must be avoided because they interfere with our illusion of absolute freedom, an illusion that ironically leaves us open to infinite manipulation. “The inviolable liberty of personal volition” cannot permit any “standard of the good that has the power (or the right) to order our desires toward a higher end…. Choice [seems] to exercise an almost mystical supremacy over all other concerns.” [David BentleyHart, Atheist Delusions]  The result is “an abyss, over which presides the empty power of our isolated wills…. The original nothingness of the will gives itself shape by the use it makes of the nothingness of the world — and thus we are free.” [David BentleyHart, Atheist Delusions]

Atheists argue that a coherent morality can be created out of evolutionary principles. They argue that overall the process of evolution rewards altruistic behavior over selfish behavior, breeding more and more altruism into the species. However, there seems to be more evidence against this idea than for it. Allowing it for the purpose of argument, the most it can do is account for the inclination that people have to protect their children, not the moral duty to do so. If we don’t abandon our child, fine; if we just don’t feel like protecting her, we have no moral duty to keep her. If a Nazi shoves a Jew into a gas chamber, we can say, “That makes me feel bad,” or “I find that inappropriate behavior,” or “I’m offended,” or even “That is unhelpful to evolutionary development,” but we have no basis for saying, “That behavior is immoral.” We can argue all day with the Nazi or call him all sorts of names, but we can offer no principle on which to dispute his choice.

Sade argued, consistently with his atheism, that without basic moral principles behavior is simply a matter of choice. If you prefer dining to raping, okay, so long as you don’t prevent him from raping. [Jeffrey Burton Russell, Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986)] If you don’t like killing Jews, fine, but on what basis do you interfere with the preference of others to do so? The rights of the victim? Without a moral principle there is no basis for assigning rights to the victim — or anyone else. The idea that evolution, when defined as being without purpose and goal, can produce a basis for moral action is illogical, unfounded and frankly impossible. Under some circumstances, violent xenophobic behavior fits with evolutionary development better than altruistic behavior. The horrors of post-Christian behavior are no longer speculation but already being realized. [David BentleyHart, Atheist Delusions]

If there is no absolute standard of morality, then there is no standard by which individual and social moralities can be judged. No standard at all. And this means, for deconstructionists and radicals, that the dominant morality will be determined by domination, power and force. The only real alternative to absolute morality is imposition of a manmade morality on a public intimidated by power and deluded into thinking that their choices are their own. The arrival, persistence and success of new elites who operate by repression and intimidation will continue.

Humanists and other secularists affirm that causing others unnecessary suffering is bad, but they cannot explain on what basis it should be considered bad. If one insists that there is no principle on which to base morality other than human preferences, then one has destroyed the possibility of moral truth and abandoned morality to either personal preference or to the dictates of power groups. Ian Markham calls this a “cozy atheism” that bases its morality on Judeo-Christian values while claiming not to. Values without principle are simply products of whoever is in power. If God goes, morality goes. Although the antitheists “are good at deciding to affirm basic moral values, it is difficult to see how the discourse is justified.” [Markham, Against Atheism] Since both Christians and atheists can be immoral, is there any distinction in their behavior? Often not, but “as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either. That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.” [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions]

In historical fact, the gentle values promoted by humanists and other secularists today are themselves based in Christianity. [Berlinski, Devil's Delusion] Where did the idea of liberty, equality and fraternity come from? Not from the Greeks or Romans. Christianity was a giant rebellion against the pure power assertions of the ancient Not from the Aztecs or the Mongols, either, but from the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment came from what preceded it: Christianity.

Christianity is the first philosophy to have enunciated and promoted these values. Christianity invented the idea of human rights. [Berlinski, Devil's Delusion]  There were no human rights in antiquity — in Egypt or Babylonia, Greece or Rome, China or India or Mesoamerica. There was only power. Christianity speaks truth to power, and it does so on the basis that there are rights inherent in every human being that are inalienable because they derive from the God who is both human and divine. Those who deny that there is truth can’t use it to speak to power. If there is no God, there are no inherent rights — only temporary artificial “rights” imposed by pressure groups. [Mark D. Linville, "The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism," in Contending With Christianity's Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors, ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2009)]

This is not a question of belief but of reality. As William Lane Craig put it, belief in God is not required for morality, since many atheists behave morally. It’s much simpler: the actual Being of God is necessary for morality. [William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010)] God the Creator is the basis of moral behavior.


Creating a Spiritual Space — E.A. Carmean Jr.

August 27, 2012

Henri Matisse, Chapelle Du Rosaire Des Dominicanes De Vence, 1951

“In 1941, Henri Matisse, who lived most of the year in Nice in the south of France, developed cancer and underwent surgery. During the long recovery he was particularly helped by a young part-time nurse, Monique Bourgeois, who had answered his ad seeking “a young and pretty nurse”and who took care of Matisse with great tenderness. Matisse asked her to pose for him, which she did, and several drawings and paintings exist. In 1943 Monique decided to enter the Dominican convent in Vence, a nearby hill town to Nice, and she became Sister Jacques-Marie.

Matisse eventually bought a home at Vence, not far from the convent where the young nun was stationed. She visited him and told him of the plans the Dominicans had to build a chapel beside the girls’ high school which they operated in Vence. She asked Matisse if he would help with the design of the chapel. He had never done anything like it, but Matisse agreed to help, beginning in 1947. Father Marie-Alain Couturier, who collaborated on several artistic Catholic churches after World War II, was also involved in the project.

At the age of 77, Matisse began the greatest project of his life and spent more than 4 years working on the chapel, its architecture, its stained glass windows, its interior furnishings, its murals, and the vestments of the priests. It is perhaps the greatest ensemble artwork of the 20th century, and certainly the greatest religious commission. While Matisse had been baptized a Catholic, he had not practiced the religion for many years. He designed the chapel as an artistic challenge.

The story of the friendship and collaboration of Matisse and Sister Jacques Marie is related in her 1992 book Henri Matisse: La Chapelle de Vence (ISBN 2909767000) and in the 2003 documentary Model for Matisse Sister Jacques Marie died in 2004, aged 84.”


Jesus’ Parable of the Mustard Seed, with its imagery of a seed growing into a plant big enough for birds to perch in, is often seen as foretelling the growth of Christianity. Arguably the greatest religious art and architecture project of the 20th century, Henri Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary, provides another reading.

While recovering his health in 1943, Matisse had hired a young nurse who four years later became a novitiate in the Dominican Sisters of Monteil. Once, Sister Jacque-Marie mentioned to Matisse her order’s dream of a new chapel. Four years later, the Chapelle du Rosaire des Dominicaines de Vence, perched above the French Mediterranean coast, was consecrated by the local bishop. In a statement read at the occasion, Matisse wrote, “I consider it my masterpiece.”

Planned principally for the sisters’ daily prayers, the chapel is modest. Yet it is replete with Matisse’s glorious creations, from the images on walls and the vestments worn by the clergy, to the altar and its liturgical objects.

Matisse’s stained-glass windows are the center and glory of the chapel. There are two tall windows behind the altar, and another set of 15 windows divided into two groupings — six along the nave; nine placed behind the sisters’ stalls in an area adjacent to the sanctuary.

For all of them, Matisse drew from the text of Revelation 21-22  and its description of the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem. His two sanctuary windows present the Tree of Life, with plantlike forms and geometric shapes. The other windows, with upward reaching leaves, continue this imagery — with the nave and stall windows creating what Matisse called “a garden behind a colonnade.” At the same time, these 15 extended forms recall the lancet windows of medieval churches, albeit with rounded tips.

For an artist long held as a master of color, the windows’ palette of only three hues — yellow, green and blue — may seem restrictive; but Matisse planned on the complementaries of red, orange and purple being cast by the filtered light’s shadows, even testing this effect in his studio. Matisse’s colors provide a corresponding Christian iconography, with yellow a symbol of the sun and heavenly light; green of plant life and the earth; and blue of the sky, the sea and the Madonna.

When the chapel’s “official” architect — hired for practical purposes, while Matisse and two clerics, Father Marie-Alain Couturier and Brother Louis-Bertrand Rayssiguier, created the actual design — suggested supplementing the stained-glass with neon lighting, Matisse rejected this idea, saying this would cause the church to resemble “store windows.” In Christian architecture since the Romanesque era, natural light and candlelight have been seen as the symbolic presence of the Divine.

To receive this symbolic light, the artist designed interior spaces limited to white tiles featuring spare, linear images. These pieces were fired with a glaze that reflects and enhances the natural, color-filled illumination.

The sanctuary is commanded by a towering figure of St. Dominic, the patron saint of the sisters’ order, who was said to have been given a rosary by the Madonna, thus making those prayers the center of Dominican practices. Matisse’s model was Father Couturier wearing his cowl.

Across the nave from the tall windows is an image of the Virgin presenting the Christ Child to the world — the infant standing on her lap with his arms extended, both to embrace the faithful and to foreshadow the Crucifixion. The word “AVE,” or the “Hail Mary” of the Rosary prayers, is at the upper left, a connection underscored by the 11 flowers (the number of the post-Resurrection disciples) that surround the figures: Legend says that Mary’s flower garland was the first rosary strand.

Medieval images often represent Mary and the Christ Child in a hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden, like the setting suggested here and one most appropriate for the sisters’ gatherings for their liturgical Hours. Matisse, who admired medieval art, had earlier lived in Paris only a few blocks from the Cluny Museum, with its fabled Unicorn Tapestries. Their rich woven fields of plants and flowers spread out around a center image are echoed in Vence, especially when the multicolored dappled light falls on Matisse’s AVE picture.

The walls’ somber notes are provided by the Stations of the Cross, which Matisse placed directly opposite the altar’s Tree of Life window, perhaps acknowledging medieval texts that held that the wood of Christ’s Cross had come from the Tree of Life in Paradise. For this Passion series, Matisse turned to Old Master paintings; for example, the Station I image of Christ before Pilate borrows from a work by the Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna.

Matisse participated in virtually every detail of the project, creating the interconnection of elements sometimes called a church’s Holy Fabric. His work included both the altar’s simple shapes made of a brownish, porous stone — to suggest the bread of the Eucharist — and the liturgical objects upon it: a crucifix and six candlesticks, and the tabernacle and the ciborium used to hold communion bread. Matisse also designed the vestments, planning each of the half-dozen different chasubles in one of the six church-appointed ecclesiastical colors for Seasons and Holy Days.

Before and after its June 25, 1951, consecration, Matisse’s chapel was sometimes disparaged. But praise won out. Pope Pius XII requested a set of the chasubles for the Vatican, and soon so many visitors began coming as to require restricted open hours to preserve the chapel’s — and Matisse’s — intended purpose of serving the sisters. Amusing — and telling — was the story of an English tourist asking directions to “the chapel of St. Matisse.”

As for the artist, Matisse said that “I wanted to create a spiritual space.” He did.



August 25, 2012

The Icon of the Trinity of Rublëv

“Immortality is attained by virtue of the spiritual principle in man and its connection with God. Immortality is an end-task, the realization of which presupposes a spiritual struggle. This is the realization of the fullness of the life of the person. The immortal is in regard particularly to the person, and not to the soul as a natural substance.

Christianity teaches not about the immortality of the soul, but about the resurrection of the integrally whole human being, of the person, of the resurrection of the body of man also, as belonging to the person. Mere immortality is partialized, it leaves man fragmented, whereas resurrection is integrally whole. Abstract spiritualism affirms only a partialized immortality, an immortality of soul. Abstract idealism affirms only the immortal ideal principles in man, only the ideal values, and not the person. Only the Christian teaching about resurrection affirms immortality as the eternity of the integral wholeness of man, of the person. In a certain sense it can be said, that immortality is a conquest of spiritual creativity, the victory of the spiritual person, endowed with body and soul, over the natural individuum.”
Nikolai Berdyaev



August 24, 2012

All June
and July, berries,
enough berries, more
than enough, berries for the birds
and us!  Each morning
we’d go out in the still
and savor, marveling
in low sunlight at their burgeoning
abacus, subtracting,
the ripest, the best.

Now Carolina August
and only a few
remain — ones we’d have passed
over, or thrown away, it only seems
moments before.  Yet we pluck,
and find, in their barely
bitter, a remembered
flavor — then happen upon one
cluster our soured mouths swear
the sweetest of the season.

When I was a boy I picked blueberries. We would walk over to a swampy lowlands and step into another world of mosses and fallen trees. If the mosquitoes weren’t bad we could spend an afternoon. My mother would spread a blanket and we would scurry off to fill out coffee cans that father had fashioned with a handle of string. It was a perfect afternoon for mother because each of us was off on our own and she could sit and read a book, one of her period romances no doubt. Purple tongues betrayed the child who was not working for a blueberry pie or a blueberry upside down cake. We all dutifully reported from time to time with our coffee cans filled and dumped them into the larger basket that mother had brought with her. There was also a picnic with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and devilled eggs. We made careful to pick only the largest berries leaving the smaller ones to grow for later in the summer.  Everything seemed perfect.


The Composition of Matthew, Its Message and Relevance Today — Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri

August 23, 2012

Detail, Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew

The question of how Matthew composed his Gospel embraces a study of its sources as well as its structure. Scholarship devoted to these issues considers both the raw materials that went into the work as well as the shape of the final product after it left the hands of the evangelist.

Research aimed at uncovering the sources of Matthew’s Gospel is within the domain of source criticism, a modern discipline that seeks to identify what written or oral materials were utilized by the evangelist at the time of writing. A small number of scholars, in agreement with early Christian tradition, contend that Matthew was the first of the four Gospels to be written. [See Basil C. Butler, The Originality of St. Matthew: A Critique of the Two-Document Hypothesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951); Bernard Orchard, Matthew, Luke, and Mark, 2nd ed. (Manchester: Koinonia Press, 1977); John Wenham,  Redating Matthew Mark, and Luke (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992).]

On this assumption,  it is uncertain what sources Matthew may have utilized, from written accounts to oral traditions to his own eyewitness memories. The belief of most New Testament scholars, however, is that Matthew’s Gospel was not written until after the publication of Mark. Based on this chronology of composition, it is commonly said that Matthew drew material from at least three sources. The first is the Gospel of Mark, more than 80 percent of which is paralleled in Matthew.

The second is a hypothetical document called Q (an abbreviation for quelle, the German word for `source”). This is said to be a lost collection of predominantly “sayings material” that is reconstructed from the teachings of Jesus that appear In Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. The third is called M, which stands for those episodes found only in Matthew. The evangelist’s M source may have been a written document, a pool of oral tradition, or a combination of both.

Enormous effort has gone into source-critical research in modern times, and yet the uncontested conclusions gained from it have been relatively few. This is not to say that investigation along these lines is misguided or unprofitable. It is only to say that the conclusions so far advanced about the sources of the Gospels remain hypothetical. There is yet no evidence supporting the independent existence of a Q document; interpretive judgments about the extent of any given oral tradition are difficult to verify; and even the question of how the synoptic Gospels are related to one another on a literary level continues to be debated.

For these and other reasons, we think it best to build an interpretation of Matthew on the final form of the text as it has come down to us. In our estimation, the canonical Gospel we possess is a more secure starting point for theological and pastoral exegesis than a theoretical reconstruction of how its pre-canonical parts came together. It is the canonical text that the Church recognizes as the inspired Word of God.

Investigation of the structure of Matthew’s Gospel is the search for an overall plan of composition that provides clues as to the meaning and flow of the whole. Modern books do this type of work for us by providing a “Table of Contents” page. Ancient books are generally less transparent in their structure, yet these too are capable of revealing their underlying framework. Often the structure is indicated by the repetition of formulas or phrases that a reader, or hearer, will easily note and remember. Matthew appears to utilize such a technique in making the outline of his Gospel open to detection.

Most scholars today accept either a threefold or a fivefold division of Matthew. Proponents of a threefold outline find its structural clue in the formula, “From that time on, Jesus began;’ which appears in 4:17 and 16:21 and which serves to introduce new phases of the story. The claim is that Matthew, in marking off his text in this way, draws our attention first to the person of Jesus (1:1-4:16), then to the proclamation of Jesus (4:17-16:20), and finally to the passion and resurrection of Jesus (16:21-28:20). [See Jack D. Kingsbury, Matthew: Structure, Christology, Kingdom (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 1-37] The simplicity of this scheme is attractive, and it does take note of important transitions in the storyline. Nevertheless, many scholars object that a short phrase that appears only twice in the entire Gospel lacks the prominence necessary to serve as a structural indicator.

More popular is a fivefold outline that finds the structure of Matthew revealed in the refrain, “When Jesus finished these. ..” (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). This formula occurs five times in the Gospel, each time after Jesus delivers a major sermon.

It thus marks five transitions from speech to storyline, indicating that Matthew has given us five discourses of Jesus separated by story reports focusing on his actions. Add to these an initial Infancy account (chaps. 1-2) and a climactic passion account (chaps. 26-28), and what emerges is a gospel made up of alternating blocks of narrative and discourse. It is clear on the basis of this observation that the Gospel of Matthew is a well-crafted piece of literature, a book with an organizational scheme that was carefully thought out in advance.

Some would posit a theological purpose behind this structure, saying that the five units of narrative and discourse are deliberately reminiscent of the five Books of Moses. [See Benjamin W. Bacon, Studies in Matthew (London: Constable, 1930).] At the very least, Matthew’s back-and-forth movement between story and speech underscores the dual significance of Christ’s works and words as the means of our redemption. An outline illustrating the fivefold structure of Matthew’s Gospel follows this introduction (see page 29).

The Message of Matthew
The Gospel of Matthew is preeminently the Gospel of the kingdom.
The first indication of this is statistical: the word “kingdom” appears over fifty times in the Gospel, with its keynote expression, “the kingdom of heaven;’ accounting for more than thirty occurrences. [Matthew's "kingdom of heaven" occurs twelve times where parallel passages in Mark and Luke read "kingdom of God.”]

The biblical world was no stranger to the concept of a kingdom but this leading motif in Matthew points us to something radically different from the normal fare of historical monarchies to Matthew’s theology, the kingdom of heaven is the divine perfection of the ancient kingdom of David. As such, it answers the ancient expectation that Yahweh, in fulfillment of his oath (Psalms 89:3-4), would establish the kingdom of David forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16) by sending a royal messiah, a new and “definitive David” [The expression is that of Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 10] to reign forever as the heir to his throne (see Isaiah 9:6-7; Jeremiah 23:5; Ezekiel 34:23-24; Hosea 3:5).

This prophetic hope has at last become a reality in Jesus. He is the royal Davidic Messiah who reigns as king, not in Jerusalem, where the descendants of David once sat enthroned, but high above “at the right hand of the Power” (26:64), where he wields “all power in heaven and on earth” (28:18). The new and everlasting covenant established through Jesus Christ is thus a transcendent fulfillment of the Davidic covenant of kingship, raising its rule from earth to heaven and extending its reach over the entire creation. [See Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life, trans. Henry Taylor (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2003), 15-16.]

Matthew’s kingdom motif radiates throughout the Gospel and colors his presentation of its main themes: Christ, the Church, and the Christian vocation.

  1. Christology in Matthew. Matthew’s vision of Christ can hardly be captured by any one title or theme in the Gospel. It is simply too rich and multidimensional. But since the dominant theme of the Gospel is the kingdom of heaven, it is no surprise that Jesus is frequently portrayed as a king. He stands in the royal Davidic line (1:1-16); he is born a “king” (2:2) in Bethlehem, the hometown of David (2:6); and two of his most prominent titles in the Gospel are “Messiah” and “son of David.” [France notes that "the title 'Son of David' occurs more frequently in Matthew's Gospel than in the whole of the rest of the New Testament"(Matthew, 284).]The first means “Anointed One” and was a title once borne by the Davidic kings of Israel (see 2 Sam 22:5 1; Psalms 2:2). In fact, the royal messianism current in Jesus’ day was tied to the hope that the Lord would raise up one of David’s descendants (12:23) to restore the glories of his kingdom (Mark 11:10). The second was also a royal title that brought to mind the original son of David, King Solomon. He stands out in the Gospel as a type of messiah inasmuch as Jesus declares himself “greater than Solomon” (12:42) and stages his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to recall Solomon’s entrance into the holy city as king of Israel (21:1-11; 1 Kings 1:32-45).

Other Christological portraits in Matthew are similarly rooted in the Old Testament. For instance, Jesus is the “Son of Man” envisioned by the prophet Daniel (24:30; 26:64; Daniel 7:13-14) as well as the “Servant of Yahweh” foreseen by the prophet Isaiah (8:17; 12:18-21; Isa 42:1-4; 53:4). Typological links between the great figures of Israel’s history and Jesus also combine to present him as a new and greater Moses (4:2; 17:1-7), as well as a new Jonah (12:38-41; 16:4).

Most spectacular of all is Matthew’s teaching that Jesus is the “Son of the living God” (16:16). At this level, nothing could prepare us to embrace the full mystery of the man from Nazareth, who is nothing less than God-with-us (1:23). The Son possesses divine knowledge and enjoys an unparalleled intimacy with the Father in heaven (11:25-27); he is worshipped by his disciples (14:33); he is present amid his disciples gathered in prayer (18:20); and once risen from the dead, he wields universal authority over heaven and earth (28:18-20).

2.  Ecclesiology in Matthew. Matthew’s vision of the Church is closely connected with his messianic conception of Jesus. First, it is noteworthy that Matthew’s is the only Gospel to refer explicitly to this ecclesial community. The Greek term ekklesia, meaning “church;’ appears first in 16:18 and then twice in 18:17. The first passage is significant because it forges a link between the Church and the kingdom of heaven. There Jesus promises to build his Church upon Simon Peter, who will serve as the foundation of God’s messianic people, envisioned as a living temple.

From this we recall that the Lord’s temple in Israel was the architectural sign of God’s covenant with David constructed by the original son of David, King Solomon. Now Jesus is cast in this Solomonic role as the builder of the Church. And not only this, but also Jesus entrusts Peter with “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (16:19), an allusion to “the key of the house of David” that the Davidic ruler of Israel would entrust to his chief steward (Isaiah 22:22). Thus the kingdom of heaven not only finds its historical and visible manifestation in the Church but it also implies that the Church is in some respects modeled on the royal government of David and Solomon. The difference is that the Church’s authority is spiritual rather than political; its function is not to manage the earthly affairs of societies and nations, but to transform the temporal order of this world and infuse it with the blessings of heaven.

Ultimately the kingdom of heaven is present in the Church “in mystery.” [Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 3.] The pilgrim Church on earth is its historical manifestation, but not its final realizafion. The coming of the kingdom in its fullness remains the joyful hope of the Church, for which she prays daily to the Father (6:10: “your kingdom come”). Only when the Son of Man returns will his kingdoms unseen glory be revealed to all (25:31-46).

3.  Discipleship in Matthew. Included in Matthew’s vision of the kingdom are the principles, priorities, and imperatives that define the Christian way of life. Throughout the Gospel the discourses of Jesus urge listeners to embrace the demands of discipleship.

The initial summons of the kingdom is a call to repentance (3:2; 4:17). This is a turn from sinful and selfish ways to Jesus, who has come to save us from our sins (1:21; 26:28). From this starting point, the teaching of the Gospel stretches across a broad canvas of moral and spiritual matters. In terms of priorities, disciples are challenged to put God and his kingdom first in their lives (6:25-33) and to pursue a righteousness that surpasses the letter of the Mosaic Law (5:17-42). The goal of Christian discipleship is nothing less than unconditional love, a form of perfection that imitates God’s love for saints and sinners alike (5:43-48). Commitment to these standards will make believers a light shining in the world and a witness to God’s power to change lives for the better (5:13-16).

Of the many specific injunctions in Matthew, we are told that following Jesus means imitating his humility (11:29) and shouldering the cross of suffering as he did (10:38; 16:24). Disciples should be dedicated to integrity of speech (12:36-37), to exercising a generous mercy toward others (18:21-22), and to performing works of service (25:35-36). Spiritual commitments also include fasting (6:16-18), almsgiving (6:2-4), and communion with the Father in prayer (6:5-13; 7:7-11). All this amounts to building a relationship with Jesus, which is the one true necessity (7:22). The disciple who is known by the Lord is the one who does the will of the Father (7:21) and comes to possess the kingdom in heaven (25:34).

The Relevance of Matthew Today
Matthew’s Gospel is as potent today as when it first appeared in the cradle of the ancient Church. Despite the centuries that have passed, its power to change lives and to bring men and women into a living relationship with Jesus has not lessened in the least. For the early Christians, it was the precious first witness to the story of Jesus from the pen of an eyewitness apostle. For us too the Gospel of Matthew is the flagship of the fourfold Gospel canon and the first testimony to Christ that appears in the New Testament. Then as now, it comes to us as the word of salvation.

Like all the Gospels, Matthew is designed for proclamation and instruction. It presents us with Jesus the Teacher and allows us to hear his voice in all of its thunderous wonder. Sometimes we are privileged to eavesdrop while he schools his disciples privately and challenges them with the demands of Christian faith and life. Other times we observe the Lord reaching out to sinners and the “un-churched” of his day with a call to repentance. Given this dual focus in Matthew, the First Gospel is uniquely suited to catechetical instruction and evangelical proclamation.

Catechesis has traditionally made extensive use of Matthew, earning it a reputation for being “the catechist’s Gospel” [John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae 11] One thinks of the Sermon on the Mount, where so many essentials of Christian living are brought together into an inspiring vision of the new life made possible by Christ (chaps. 5-7). So too the ecclesial discourse stresses that humility and mercy are the hallmarks of authentic Christian leadership and service to others (18:1-35). One also finds teachings on prayer (6:5-15), celibacy (19:12), marriage (19:1-9), children (19:13-15), and keeping the commandments (19:16-19). At its core, Christian formation involves modeling our lives on Jesus, who says, “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (11:29). Now as always, the way of the disciple is the way of imitating the Master.

Of the many catechetical gems in Matthew, one that is often underappreciated is its instruction in reading the Old Testament. Too many of us read the New Testament in isolation from the Old. As a result, we have little sense of how God’s plan of salvation developed to reach the point of fulfillment in Christ. Matthew teaches us to read and ponder the whole Bible with reference to Jesus, for he recognized that our understanding of God and his ways are deeply enriched by discovering the unity of the Father’s plan as it unfolds in the pages of Scripture.

Evangelization is also at the heart of Matthew’s Gospel. Not only does Jesus set the example by his actions, but this is also the subject of his final words in the book: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit” (28:19). This missionary mandate still has the force of marching orders for the Church today. At one level, Jesus calls us to engage in personal evangelization, which means sharing the good news with friends and family members, coworkers and business contacts, neighbors and new acquaintances. However, it is also a summons to transform entire nations by inculturating the gospel and shining the light of Christian truth into every corridor of human society and its institutions. This is what it means for disciples to be “the salt of the earth” (5:13) and “the light of the world” (5:14).

Finally, a word should be said about Matthew, evangelization, and the Jewish people. It is a regrettable fact of history that some Christians have invoked the authority of the First Gospel to accuse the Jews of perpetual bloodguilt for the murder of Jesus Christ (on the basis of 27:25). In reality, this is anti-Semitic slander and a serious misreading of the Gospel.

It is true that Matthew portrays Jesus engaged in heated polemic with the Jewish authorities of his day (e.g., 23:1-39) But this is precisely what the prophets had done when denouncing the transgressions of Israel and summoning the people to repentance and faith in the Old Testament. The Church therefore insists that responsibility for Jesus’ death must not be laid on the Jewish race or religion, as though it followed from Scripture that the Jews are now a rejected or accursed people. [See Vatican II's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate, 4). Other statements of the Church pertinent to this issue include the Catechism 597-98, the Pontifical Biblical Commission document, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2002), and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops document, God's Mercy Endures Forever: Guidelines on the Presentation of Jews and Judaism in Catholic Preaching (1988).] On the contrary, the New Testament considers them “beloved” by God to this day (Romans 11:28).

In point of fact, Matthew’s Gospel should lead us to appreciate the spiritual heritage that Jews and Christians share in common. Clearly a profound reverence for the Torah shines through the pages of the First Gospel (5:17-18). Its moral commandments are as binding on the followers of Jesus as on their fellow Jews (19:16-19); so too are its demands that we love God and neighbor with our whole heart (22:34-40). Most of all, to affirm the messiahship of Jesus is to affirm the messianic hope that was nourished for centuries among the chosen people. In this respect, the faith of Israel has become the faith of the Church now centered on the Jewish man from Nazareth.


Outline of Matthew

August 22, 2012

Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri provide this outline for the overall structure of Matthew’s Gospel. It struck me it would make for a good reading plan, so I attached it to the previous post. I’ve linked some memorable passages. Keep scrolling past this if you are coming to a link for  payingattentiontothesky. Today’s post follows!!


I.   Prologue: Birth and Infancy of the Messiah

A.  Genealogy and Birth of Jesus (1:1-25)

B.   Visit of the Magi (2:1-12)

C.   Flight to Egypt, Return to Nazareth (2:13-23)

II.   Narrative: Preparations for Ministry in Galilee

A.  John and the Baptism of Jesus (3:1-17)

B.  Temptation of Jesus (4:1-11)

C.  Inauguration of the Galilean Ministry (4:12-25)

III.   First Discourse: The Sermon on the Mount

A.   Beatitudes (5:1-12)

B.   Vocation of Disciples (5:13-16)

C.   Fulfillment of the Law (5:17-46)

D.   Almsgiving, Prayer, and Fasting (6:1-18)

E.   Wealth and Divine Providence (6:19-34)

F.   Judgment, Supplication, and Golden Rule (7:1-12)

G.   Narrow Way, False Prophets, and True Disciples (7:13-23)

H.   Building on the Word of Jesus (7:24-29)

IV.   Narrative: Nine Miracle Stories

A.  Three Healings (8:1-15)

B.  Jesus the Servant and Would-be Followers (8:16-22)

C.  Calming of the Storm (8:23-27)

D.  Healing of Demonized Men and a Paralyzed Man (8:28-9:8)

E.  Call of Matthew and Question of Fasting (9:9-17)

F.  Healing a Woman and an Official’s Daughter (9:18-26)

G.  Healing the Two Blind Men and a Mute Demoniac (9:27-34)

H.  Compassion of Jesus and Choosing the Twelve (9:35-10:4)

V.   Second Discourse: The Missionary Sermon

A.   Instructions for the Twelve (10:5-15)

B.   Persecution and Witness (10:16-33)

C.   Divisions and Discipleship (10:34-39)

D.   Rewards for Receiving Disciples (10:40-42)

VI.   Narrative: Diverse Responses to Jesus

A.  Inquiry and Witness of John (11:1-19)

B.   Woes on Unrepentant Towns (11:20-24)

C.   Prayer and Yoke of Jesus (11:25-30)

D.   Sabbath Controversies (12:1-14)

E.   Jesus the Servant Messiah (12:15-21)

F.   Beelzebul Controversy and Dangerous Speech (12:22-37)

G.   One Greater Than Jonah and Solomon (12:38-42)

H.   Parable of the Unclean Spirits (12:43-45)

I.    Spiritual Family of Jesus (12:46-50)

VII.  Third Discourse: The Parables of the Kingdom

A.  Parable of the Sower (13:1-9)

B.   Mysteries of the Kingdom (13:10-17)

C.   Parable of the Sower Explained (13:18-23)

D.   Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat (13:24-30)

E.   Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast (13:31-33)

F.   Fulfilling the Scriptures with Parables (13:34-35)

G.   Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat Explained (13:36-43)

H.   Parables of the Buried Treasure, Costly Pearl, and Dragnet (13:44-50)

I.    Treasures Old and New (13:51-53)

VIII.  Narrative: More Diverse Responses to Jesus

A.   Rejection in Nazareth (13:54-58)

B.    Death of John the Baptist (14:1-12)

C.    Feeding the Five Thousand (14:13-21)

D.    Peter, Walking on Water, and Healings (14:22-36)

E.    Tradition of the Elders (15:1-20)

F.    Canaanite Woman and Other Healings (15:21-31)

G.    Feeding the Four Thousand (15:32-39)

H.    Confrontation with Pharisees and Sadducees (16:1-12)

I.     Peter’s Confession, First Passion Prediction, Cost of Disciple­ship (16:13-28)

J.     Transfiguration and John as Elijah (17:1-13)

K.    Exorcism and Second Passion Prediction (17:14-23)

L.    Temple Tax (17:24-27)

 IX.  Fourth Discourse: The Ecclesial Sermon on Life in the Community

A.   Greatness in the Kingdom (18:1-5)

B.    Temptations to Sin (18:6-9)

C.    Parable of Lost Sheep (18:10-14)

D.    Discipline in the Church (18:15-20)

E.    Parable of Unmerciful Servant (18:21-35)

X.  Narrative: Journey to Jerusalem and Controversy in the Temple

A.   Marriage, Divorce, Celibacy, and Children (19:1-15)

B.    Rich Young Man and Eternal Life (19:16-30)

C.    Parable of Vineyard Workers (20:1-16)

D.    Third Passion Prediction, James and John, and Two Blind Men (20:17-34)

E.    Triumphal Entry and Temple Cleansing (21:1-17)

F.    Fig Tree Cursed and Authority Questioned (21:18-27)

G.    Parables of Two Sons, Tenants, and Wedding Feast (21:28-22:14)

H.    Taxes, Resurrection, Torah, and David’s Son (22:15-46)

I.     Woes against Scribes and Pharisees (23:1-36)

J.     Lament over Jerusalem (23:37-39)

XI.   Fifth Discourse: The Eschatological Sermon

A.   Prophecy of Temple’s Demise (24:1-2)

B.    Birth Pangs and Great Tribulation (24:3-28)

C.    Coming of the Son of Man (24:29-35)

D.    Day and Hour Unknown (24:36-44)

E.    Parables of Unfaithful Servant, Ten Virgins, and Talents (24:45-25:30)

F.    Judgment of All Nations (25:31-46)

XII.   Epilogue: The Passion and Resurrection of the Messiah

A.   Plot in Jerusalem and Anointing at Bethany (26:1-13)

B.    Treachery of Judas (26:14-25)

C.    Last Supper and Denial Foretold (26:26-35)

D.    Agony and Arrest in Gethsemane (26:36-56)

E.    Trial before Sanhedrin (26:57-68)

F.    Peter’s Denial and Judas’ Suicide (26:69-27:10)

G.    Trial before Pilate (27:11-26)

H.    Mockery and Crucifixion of Jesus (27:27-44)

I.     Death and Burial of Jesus (27:45-66)

J.     Resurrection of Jesus (28:1-15)

K.    Great Commission (28:16-20)



The Author, Audience and Date of Matthew — Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri

August 22, 2012

Saint Matthew and the Angel (1602) is a painting from the Italian master Caravaggio (1571-1610), completed for the Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. It was destroyed in 1945 and is now known only from black-and-white photographs and enhanced color reproductions.

The Gospel of Matthew was the most widely diffused Gospel in early Christianity. More often than not, from the second century onward, it was Matthew’s account of Jesus that found its way into homilies, pastoral letters, theological writings, and catechetical instructions. Even after the fourfold Gospel canon had begun to crystallize, and orthodox leaders throughout the ecclesiastical world had come to recognize the authority of Mark, Luke, and John, a primacy of honor was still accorded to Matthew. This is not to say that Matthew’s Gospel stands on a higher footing than its canonical counterparts, or that its portrait of Jesus is more trustworthy and true. It is simply a fact of history that when the early Church wished to contemplate the life of Christ, or to listen again to his voice, it usually turned first to Matthew.

The reasons for this are not difficult to imagine:

  1. Matthew, after all, was the first Gospel to be published bearing the name of one of the twelve apostles.
  2. Second, the Gospel is both well written and well organized — two great advantages for assisting memorization in a predominantly oral culture such as prevailed in the early Christian centuries.
  3. Third, the Gospel offers a beautifully balanced picture of Jesus, alternating between his mighty deeds and his memorable discourses. I’ve attached an outline of Matthew that feature some reading links but it also functions as a reading plan, if you wish to match your readings to the overall structure of the gospel.
  4. Fourth, the Gospel of Matthew has important things to say about the relationship between the Old Covenant and the New, providing the earliest Christians instruction on what it meant to live as the messianic people of God and in what ways this differs from living according to the legal and liturgical traditions of Israel.
  5. Finally, the First Gospel insists that the good news is destined for proclamation, not only among the Jewish people but also among the Gentiles. Whatever else can be said about the reasons for ‘its popularity, it is clear that Matthew’s Gospel was well suited to the needs of Christian formation and supplied the ancient Church with a charter for its life and mission in the world.

A measure of insight into Matthew’s Gospel may be gained by examining its historical context, its literary composition, and its theological and spiritual content. Analysis of the circumstances that gave birth and shape to the Gospel will help us to appreciate Matthew’s unique perspective on the Messiah and his message.

The Author of Matthew
Early Christian testimony is virtually unanimous in identifying the apostle Matthew as the author of the First Gospel. So far as the evidence available to us indicates, no rival tradition ever circulated that linked the work with the name of any other ancient figure. Everyone from St. Irenaeus in the second century to Origen and Tertullian in the third century to St. Jerome and St. John Chrysostom in the fourth century to St. Augustine at the beginning of the fifth century held that the Gospel according to Matthew was a gospel written by Matthew.

The same verdict is rendered by the earliest extant Greek manuscripts that preserve a title page for Gospel, all of which bear some variation of the heading Kata Maththaion, “According to Matthew.” On the strength of this tradition, the apostolic and Matthean authorship of the First Gospel went on to become the uncontested position of theological scholarship for most of Christian history.

Today, however, the apostolic authorship of Matthew’s Gospel is maintained by only a minority of biblical scholars. The reasons for this change of position are varied and complex. Suffice it to say that a shift took place in nineteenth-century scholarship that subordinated the Gospel of Matthew to the long-neglected Gospel of Mark. Since then, a majority of Gospel specialists have come to hold that the author of Matthew obtained substantial information about Jesus from the Gospel of Mark. This new hypothesis — that Mark was written before Matthew and was utilized as a source for Matthew — has had a direct impact on the question of authorship.

If the writer of Matthew made extensive use of Mark, a Gospel that everyone acknowledges was written by a non apostle, it would seem to follow that the author of Matthew could not have been an apostle either. After all, why would a companion of Jesus, an eyewitness to the Messiah at close range, rely on the work of someone else, much less on an account written by a non-eyewitness such as Mark? Such is the reasoning of many scholars today.

From here the discussion of authorship typically proceeds to an analysis of the internal data of the text. The aim of this undertaking is to establish a profile of the evangelist based on what he has written. When this detective work is done, most scholars are convinced that the Gospel of Matthew was written by a Jewish Christian. Several considerations support this verdict:

(1)  The author of Matthew seems to have known Hebrew. Not only does he write Greek in a noticeable Semitic style, but several of his quotations from the Old Testament are translated directly from the Hebrew original rather than cited from the existing Greek translation, called the Septuagint. Knowledge of Hebrew in addition to Greek was all but unknown in the first century outside the Jewish community.

(2)  The author displays a marked interest in the fulfillment of the Scriptures. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah who accomplished all that was foreseen and foretold in the Old Testament. So saturated was his mind in the biblical tradition that research has turned up nearly two hundred citations, allusions, and verbal parallels to the Jewish Scriptures embedded in the text of the First Gospel! This level of specialized knowledge of Judaism’s sacred texts was extraordinarily rare among the Gentiles of the ancient world.

(3)  The author was familiar with a variety of religious customs and institutions that would hardly constitute common knowledge beyond the sphere of Judaism. On the basis of these observations, the conclusion appears solid that the Gospel of Matthew comes from the hand of a Jewish Christian author, one whose cultural and religious background gave him a firsthand knowledge of the language, writings, and traditions of Israel.

In the final analysis, the view of Christian tradition (the author was Matthew) and the view of critical scholarship (the author was a Jewish Christian) need not be pitted against each other. It is notable that Matthew was a Jewish disciple of Jesus (9:9; 10:3). And being a tax official in Galilee, he would have been conversant in Greek as well as the Semitic tongues of Palestine.

Consequently, it is no great leap to suggest that the person the Gospels call Matthew fits rather well the profile of the evangelist ascertained by modern scholars. [Several episodes unique to the First Gospel feature references to currency, debts, investments, and payments (17:24-27; 18:23-35; 20:1-16; 25:14-30; 26:25; 27:3-10; 28:11-15). This could be viewed as favoring Matthew's authorship inasmuch as teachings involving money might be expected to catch the attention of a one-time tax officer. Also, it seems unlikely that a gospel intended for Jewish Christians would ever be ascribed to a tax collector unless the claim had some basis in historical tradition, for the Jews generally despised tax collectors as greedy, unclean, and unpatriotic.]

This is not to ignore that little is known about the apostle Matthew, or that the profile just examined is too general and nonspecific to make him the obvious choice. But as we read the evidence, the apostle Matthew is as suitable as any potential candidate for the authorship of the Gospel. [Even the hypothesis that Matthew used Mark does not rule out the apostolic authorship of Matthew. One could argue that the apostle Matthew utilized the Gospel of Mark with the awareness that Mark, according to tradition, had written down the preaching of Peter. See Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, WBC 33A (Dallas: Word, 1993), LXXVI.]

The Audience of Matthew
Christian scholarship has historically maintained that Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Palestinian Christian audience
. [E.g., Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.24.6; Jerome, On Illustrious Men 3.] The Jewish outlook of the book seemed to point in this direction, as did an ancient tradition that Matthew had originally written his Gospel in a Semitic language, either Hebrew or Aramaic. [This tradition, which is widely attested in early Christian writings, is too complex to be treated adequately within the limited scope of our introduction.] Since few Gentiles would have been interested in a work dominated by Jewish concerns, and few communities outside the land of Israel could have read it in a Semitic tongue, every indication was that Matthew’s Gospel was intended for the early believers in Palestine.

Biblical scholarship today places Matthew’s original readers in the eastern Mediterranean. Some have attempted to locate his target audience in Alexandria, Egypt; others have suggested the Transjordan region directly east of Palestine; still others have opted for a Phoenician port on the coast of Syria, or even Caesarea on the coast of Palestine. The majority of modern scholars, however, think that the Gospel of Matthew was written to a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians in or near the Syrian city of Antioch.

Several factors form the basis of this judgment.

(1)   Antioch is known to have had a sizeable Jewish population living alongside native Gentiles. This is precisely the demographic situation presupposed in the Gospel, which is noted both for its Jewish emphases and for its open acceptance of Gentiles (24:14; 26:13; 28:19-20). Not only that, but the book of Acts tells us that a group of Jewish Christians fled from Jerusalem to Antioch and there initiated a systematic outreach to Gentiles (Acts 11:19-26).

(2)  Matthew’s Gospel displays a marked interest in the person and authority of Simon Peter (10:2; 14:22-33; 16:13-20; 17:24-27). This is significant insofar as Peter not only ministered in Antioch (Gal 2:11-17) but, according to an ancient tradition, served as bishop in the city before making his way to Rome. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.36.2; Jerome, On Illustrious Men 1]

(3)   St. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch in the early second century, is one of the first post-apostolic authors to allude to the Gospel of Matthew in his writings. [See, e.g., Epistle to the Ephesians 19.2 (= Matt 2:2); Epistle to the Smyrneans 1.1 (= Matthew 3:15); and Epistle to Polycarp 2.2 (= Matthew 10:16).] Allusions to passages in Matthew are also found in another early document, called the Didache, which many scholars trace to the Syrian city of Antioch.[ See, e.g., Didache 3.7 (= Matthew 5:5); 7.1 (= Matthew 28:19); 8.2 (= Matthew 6:5, 9-13); and 9.5 (= Matthew 7:6).] 

(4)   It is curious that when the synoptic Gospels narrate Jesus’ inaugural mission in Galilee, only Matthew tells us that his fame spread throughout “all of Syria” (Matthew 4:24).

Though specific locations remain uncertain, it is probable that Matthew’s original audience lived somewhere in the Syria-Palestine region. Ancient tradition points in this direction, as do the efforts of modern scholarship. It is there that we find the unique mix of Jewish and Gentile concerns addressed by the First Gospel.

The Date of Matthew
Scholars widely agree that the Gospel of Matthew was written in the latter half of the first century AD.
However, when it comes to narrowing the range of possible dates, opinions divide into a majority camps [E.g., Raymond E. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 216-17; William D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 1, ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989), 127-38; Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7: A Continental Commentary, trans. Wilhelm Linss (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 92-93.] that dates the Gospel in the 80s or 90s and a minority camp [E.g., Robert H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary on His Handbook for a Mixed Church under Persecution, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 599-609; R. T. France, Matthew: Evangelist and Teacher (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1989), 82-91; John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 14-17.] that dates its composition in the 50s or 60s.

The many factors underlying this difference of opinion can only be summarized here. The question more or less hinges on the interpretation of three critical issues: the synoptic problem, [This is the name scholars give to the relationship that exists among the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Research devoted to the synoptic problem strives to determine the chronological order in which these Gospels were written and identify which Gospel writer(s) most likely relied on the work of his (or their) predecessor(s).] the fall of Jerusalem, and the Church’s relationship with Judaism in the first century.

(1)  The most widely accepted view of the synoptic problem holds that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, and that Matthew and Luke made independent use, of Mark when composing their accounts. The issue, then, concerns the date of Matthew relative to Mark. If Mark was written shortly before or after AD 70, as many scholars hold, then Matthew probably appeared in the late first century. The reason is that sufficient time must be allowed for the Gospel of Mark to have circulated and become an authoritative document in the Christian community.

Other scholars, however, think it probable that Mark was written much earlier, perhaps in the 50s. If this chronology is accepted then Matthew could have been written toward the middle of the first century. Finally, for those scholars who adopt a different solution to the synoptic problem, one that sees Matthew as the first written Gospel, the date of Mark is of no consequence except to indicate that Matthew must have appeared sometime in the middle of the first century rather than near its end.

(2) All agree that Matthew’s Gospel makes reference to the conquest of Jerusalem (22:7) and the demolition of its temple (24:1-28). Historically, these events took place in AD 70 when the Romans marched on the Jewish capital and leveled the sanctuary. The question is whether these Gospel references, which appear in sayings attributed to Jesus, are prophecies in the strict sense or whether they betray knowledge of the events as already accomplished. Scholars who date Matthew in the post-70 period often allege that the evangelist, knowing some of the details of Jerusalem’s downfall, adjusted the words of Jesus to conform to contemporary reports of the event. Scholars who date the Gospel in the pre-70 period make the opposite claim, namely, that Jesus’ prophecies show no signs of updating based on eyewitness accounts of the city’s demise.

(3)  Scholars of all stripes acknowledge that Matthew’s Gospel displays a painful tension between Jesus and the Judaism of his day. They also tend to agree that Matthew highlights this theme because he and his fellow Christians found themselves in a similar situation — at odds with the Jewish community and targets of persecution by Jewish authorities. The agreement ends, however, when it comes to defining more specifically the historical circumstances involved.

Advocates of a date in the 80s or 90s generally hold that Matthew’s Gospel shows evidence of the rupture between church and synagogue in the late first century. It is said, for example, that the evangelist’s recurrent use of the expression “their synagogues” is a thinly veiled reference to Jewish synagogues that had already excluded Jewish Christians (4:23; 9:35; 10:17; 12:9; 13:54). This is significant because the ties between Judaism and Christianity were not formally severed until about AD 85. [Scholars often trace the official split between Christianity and Judaism to an ancient synagogue prayer that utters a curse against "heretics" (a group that probably included Christians but was not restricted to them). Talmudic tradition links this with a rabbinic ruling made in the Palestinian town of Yavneh (also called Jamnia) in the 80s of the first century.]

Furthermore, Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus denouncing the Pharisees is cited as evidence of a late date (12:24-32; 16:11-12; 23:1-36), because in the aftermath of AD 70 it was the Pharisees who spearheaded the reorganization of Judaism and whose doctrines went on to become the basic tenets of rabbinic theology.

Advocates of a date in the 50s or 60s point out that Christians faced Jewish persecution from the beginning, some of which was more severe than mere exclusion from the synagogue (see Acts 7:57-58; 8:3; 26:9-11). Of greater import, supporters claim, are those features of the Gospel that had direct pastoral relevance only in the period before AD 70. This includes, for example, its warnings and criticisms directed against the Sadducees (3:7; 16:1, 6, 11-12; 22:23, 34). Early on the Sadducees were sworn opponents of the budding Christian movement (Acts 4:1-3; 5:17-18; 23:6); however, they were no longer a factor to be reckoned with in the post-70 period, since the sect was all but exterminated with the devastation of Jerusalem.

Likewise, one can understand why Matthew, if he was writing before AD 70, would include Jesus’ teaching on the temple tax as a lesson on fostering good relations with the Jewish community (17:24-27). But after AD 70, when the Romans diverted this tax to the temple of Jupiter in Italy, Matthew’s presentation of the episode runs the risk of seeming to promote idolatry in the name of Jesus. Proponents of a mid-century date for the Gospel thus contend that Matthew included these traditions in his Gospel because they were live issues faced by his readers at the time of writing.

On the question of dating the Gospel, our view is that placing the Gospel of Matthew in the middle of the first century yields the best sense of the text in relation to its original readers. The commentary will thus proceed from this standpoint, though not to the neglect of Matthew’s message for us today.


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