Saturday, December 24, 2011

Some Have Unknowingly Entertained Angels

       It is often said that Jesus’ birth would be insignificant apart from the Resurrection. But is this really true? If we took the mystery of the Incarnation in isolation, could we truly understand it? Could Jesus’ birth have any meaning for us without any knowledge of the events that followed? Two thousand years ago, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14A). This Word was the Logos – the meaning of life. In other words, God came into the world as a human person. At the very moment of his conception, Mary very literally became the Mother of God. How can such a miraculous birth be insignificant for us? That God didn't just suddenly appear on Earth as a fully grown man never ceases to baffle me. If Jesus hadn't died on the cross and risen victorious on the third day, his birth would have been just as miraculous as it is for us today. God would still have become man and many people would still have been healed. The trouble, though, with a hypothetical scenario like this one is that the event is just that – hypothetical. It fails to take into account the real experiences of the people who were contemporary with Jesus. It is true that Simeon and Anna recognized the real identity of the baby that they held in their hands, but always in full knowledge of what was to come. They were prophets who were given the gift of foreknowledge. On Christmas Eve two thousand years ago, the inn-keepers, centurions, and ordinary passers-by were not given the gift to recognize the true identities of the pregnant woman and her unborn child. For as Kierkegaard wrote, “Life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards.” What astounds me about the disciples is that without knowing the end of the story, they lived in obedience to Jesus, with only their faith to guide them. They dropped their nets, abandoned everything, and followed a man whose words they didn’t fully comprehend but who promised life and life to its fullest” (cf. John 10:10). The Gospels continually remind us of the ignorance of the disciples.

      Maybe, instead of creating hypothetical situations that disregard the ignorance of humanity, we should ask ourselves a different question. Namely, if life can only be understood backwards, how must one live forwards? The author of Hebrews writes, “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (13:2). Here, we are reminded of Abraham and Sarah who fed angels without recognizing who they were feeding. Without in any way undermining the importance of faith in the lives of the disciples, we must never forget that the reason why we care for the poor, the sick, and the prisoner is because Jesus had a unique kinship with such people. Jesus was born in a stable to poor parents, lived a life of absolute poverty, and died the death of a criminal. Good works are important not because they give us fuzzy feelings or are meritorious (even if they may do all these things) but because without them, one cannot truly have faith.

    The disciples did not fully understand Jesus’ life before the Resurrection. They did not understand all his parables or realize that his life was a fulfillment of the Law.  But it would be false to say that Jesus’ birth was insignificant before the Resurrection. Not for the disciples anyway. The disciples were able to follow Jesus without knowing what we know today because they realized that faith means obedience. They realized that it is only in being open to another’s needs that one is open to God and it is only in being open to God that one can truly know how to love his neighbor. Jesus shows us that a human person’s life has significance regardless of what we may or may not know about that person because only God knows the end of the story. Any one of the thousands of babies that Herod slaughtered could have been the Son of God. We do not always know the way God reveals Himself but our ignorance should only lead us to love more. And we can only love more if we trust God and live to serve Him. Pope Benedict reminded people in November 2008 that “faith is not opposed to charity.” In fact, apart from charity, faith is impossible. The inn-keepers, the centurions, and the ordinary passers-by may not have been fully able to see who Jesus was, but they (like us) were given sufficient Grace to follow God in obedience. The question is: Will we accept the Grace in faith knowing that faith requires obedience in love? “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” – or the Son of God.

                I wish you all a very Merry Christmas!! 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What Luther Got Wrong: Rediscovering the Real Aquinas

In some earlier posts, I introduced you all briefly to a book by Franz Posset called Pater Bernardhus. Posset showed how Luther was influenced by the writings of St. Bernard. There is another theologian though whom Luther encountered in his studies, a theologian whom he ultimately opposed. This opposition lead to the Protestant Reformation and the theologian was Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas has often been seen as the enemy of Protestant theology but Steinmetz, in the article below, argues that Luther was influenced by Gabriel Biel's interpretation of Aquinas whose theology tended toward Pelagianism. I find this article incredibly edifying because it is further evidence that Lutheran scholarship is still in its birth-pangs. A closer re-reading of Aquinas may in fact further Protestant-Catholic dialogue. 

What Luther Got Wrong
by David C. Steinmetz
David C. Steinmetz teaches church history at Duke Divinity School. This article appeared in The Christian Century, August 23, 2005, pp. 23 and 25. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Thomas Aquinas has had a long but, on the whole, not very happy history among Protestants. While some early Protestant reformers were well versed in Thomistic theology, Martin Luther was not among them.
Most of Luther’s important teachers were disciples of the Franciscan theologian William Ockham. The Occamists taught a theology of grace that tilted in a decidedly Pelagian direction. Pelagianism is theological shorthand for a theology that deemphasizes the role played by grace in human salvation and overemphasizes the role played by human free will. Gabriel Biel, the Occamist theologian Luther knew best, even argued in a burst of anthropological optimism that human beings were able to love God perfectly without the assistance of grace. While Biel admitted that the human intellect and will were fallen, he thought they were nevertheless largely undamaged by sin. He concluded therefore that acts of extraordinary moral heroism, unassisted by grace, merited divine favor. Not surprisingly, Luther found no authorization inSt. Paul or St. Augustine for such a rosy view of human nature, and he rejected all Occamist accounts of salvation.
A prominent early-20th-century Roman Catholic historian, Joseph Lortz, agreed with Luther that Biel’s theology of grace was thoroughly "uncatholic" and he thought Luther was quite right to protest against it. The problem, from Lortz’s perspective, was that Luther seemed unaware of the best Catholic antidote to the Pelagianizing tendencies of Biel -- the thought of Thomas Aquinas.
If only Luther had been trained in Thomistic theology, argued Lortz, he would have had at his disposal all the resources he needed to oppose Bid and to do so without drifting into what Catholics regard as heresy. Had Luther studied Aquinas at Cologne rather than the Occamists at Erfurt and Wittenberg, he would have found a better way through his theological crisis and would have avoided the tragedy of the Reformation.
Lortz’s thesis was immensely influential but not altogether satisfying. The principal difficulty was that it presupposed a state of affairs that did not exist -- namely, that only one Thomas Aquinas was on offer in the 16th century. Actually, there were at least three.
The Dominican theologian John Capreolus (d. 1445) portrayed Aquinas as a thoroughly Augustinian theologian. Whenever readers encountered ambiguous passages in Aquinas that might be interpreted in a less than fully Augustinian way, Capreolus advised them to remember this simple rule: always choose the reading closest to the spirit of St. Augustine. That would uncover the mind of St. Thomas.
Thomas de Vio Cardinal Cajetan (d. 1534) -- also a Dominican -- was not so sure, He was far more impressed by Aquinas the Aristotelian philosopher. In Cajetan’s view, Aquinas, more than any other scholastic thinker, had success-hilly adapted the vocabulary and categories of Aristotle for Christian use. This was not an easy task, and Cajetan could only admire what Aquinas had achieved. Whereas Capreolus read Thomas as a faithful disciple of Augustine, Cajetan read him as the foremost Christian interpreter of Aristotle.
Biel (d. 1495) offered a third version of Aquinas, this one in complete agreement with the Pelagianizing tendencies of the school of Ockham. When Luther read Biel’s account of Thomas’s theology, he encountered a theologian whose doctrine of sin and grace differed in no significant way from the Occamist teaching Luther had come to despise.
In short, Lortz misread the situation. The problem was not what Luther did not know, but what he did know. Far from offering Luther resources to combat the Occamist account of sin and grace, the Aquinas that Luther knew reinforced it.
Nor would Luther have been helped by paying closer attention to the Aristotelian Aquinas offered by Cajetan. Luther thought that Christian theology could be renewed only by breaking free from Aristotle. The problem with Aristotle from Luther’s perspective was not that he believed in the eternity of the world and the mortality of the human soul (which he did), but that his philosophical vocabulary was ill-suited for theological use. Grace cannot be understood as habits and acts, and the Aristotelian notion that the repetition of good acts makes anyone who performs them righteous turns St. Paul’s theology on its head.
In Luther’s view, theology deals with God in his relationship of judgment and grace toward sinners, and deals with sinners in their relationship of faith and faithlessness toward God. Therefore the proper vocabulary of grace is relational rather than metaphysical. One does not become a theologian with Aristotle, cried Luther, but only without him.
In his early lectures on the Psalms, Luther insisted that the word substance in the Bible refers not to the quiddity or whatness of a thing but to what "stands under and supports it," The substance of a human being, therefore, is defined by the foundation on which he or she rests. Who human beings are is determined by what they trust, by what -- when push comes to shove -- they are willing to risk their lives on.
In other words, the vocabulary of the philosophers obscures, willy-nilly, the intention of the Bible, which defines human beings not by their quiddities and qualities but by their faith and hope. No philosophical description of human beings, resting as it does on what can be seen and measured, can reach the profundity of biblical anthropology, which rests upon invisible relationships.
The most important thing about a human being for Luther is what that human being trusts, loves and expects. Human beings are defined by things that cannot be seen, things that in the nature of the case can only be hoped for. When Luther asked, "What, then, is a human being?" he answered that a human being is not a rational soul individuated by a body, as Aquinas might have put it, but a creature who trusts either the true God or an idol. On this question Aristotle can offer no useful insights.
While Protestant thought before Kant found its own uses for the philosophy of Aristotle, Protestant thinkers remained haunted by the ghost of Luther. Aquinas was for them either a Pelagianizing theologian who relied too little on grace and left too much to human free will or a philosophical theologian who counted too heavily on human reason and too little on divine revelation. Biel and Cajetan had succeeded in driving Capreolus’s account of Aquinas from the Protestant imagination.
Aquinas was not helped by his increasing prestige among Catholic theologians outside the Dominican order -- including, of course, the Jesuits. Since Protestants characteristically thought that Catholic theology was insufficiently Augustinian, they were not surprised that Catholic theologians admired a theologian who embodied this deficiency. There were even some Protestant theologians who thought that Aquinas had constructed an immense philosophical substructure based on reason alone, to which he had added a flimsy theological superstructure grounded in divine revelation.
Other developments made matters worse. Kant put an end to metaphysical speculations for many Protestants, while Friedrich Schleiermacher developed a new kind of liberal dogmatics that took Kant’s critique fully into account. Liberal Protestants in the 19th century were quick to reject all things Greek (that is, metaphysical) and embrace all things Hebraic (that is, ethical).
The heart of the Christian gospel for many liberals from Albrecht Ritschl to Adolf Harnackwas an ethical message. Jesus was a preacher of the kingdom of God in which a new ethic was to be followed, a fact some thought had been obscured by Nicaea and Chalcedon. The ancient councils had lost in their metaphysical categories the liberal Protestant vision of a "young and fearless prophet of ancient Galilee, whose life is still a summons to serve humanity." Not surprisingly, there was no room for Aquinas in this particular theological inn.
The correction to liberal theology made by the dialectical theology of the early 20th century scarcely improved Protestant approaches to Aquinas. Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, Friedrich Gogarten and Emil Brunner turned to the teaching of the Protestant reformers of the 16th century for inspiration, and while these so-called neo-orthodox theologians did not simply repristinate the theology of Luther and Calvin, they saw no reason to abandon the prejudices of the reformers against scholastic theology.
Barth was particularly hostile to Aquinas’s appeal to natural theology. He argued that Calvin had rejected natural theology (which was true) and concluded that he had rejected all natural knowledge of God (which was false). Similarly, he argued that Aquinas had affirmed a role for natural theology (which was true) but had overestimated its role in theology (which was false). Aquinas made it clear from the very beginning of theSumma Theologiae how limited was the scope he assigned to natural theology.
As Aquinas understood matters, natural theology could be pursued successfully only by trained people who had both the intellectual power and the leisure to extract from nature, by reason alone, what the natural order has to tell about nature’s God. Even then, whatever they could learn would be fragmentary and inevitably mixed with error. Furthermore, reason could not wrest from nature the mysteries of the Trinity or the two natures of Christ. Indeed, without the self-revelation of God, reason alone could never discover what it most needed to know: namely, how God redeems wayward and erring humanity.
There were intimations by the middle of the 20th century that the old Protestant stereotypes of Aquinas might be crumbling around the edges. Per Erik Persson in 1957 published Sacra Doctrina: Reason and Revelation in Aquinas. The book was notable in treating Aquinas as a theologian rather than a religious philosopher and in offering a sympathetic account of Aquinas’s views not only on reason and revelation, but on a broader range of theological issues central to his thought. Persson pushed aside Biel and Cajetan and engaged Aquinas directly.
Since then, other Protestant thinkers have joined Persson in his direct engagement with the source. Christian ethicists like Stanley Hauerwas have utilized what Aquinas wrote about the cardinal and theological virtues in their own work on the formation of Christian character. Other theologians, newly liberated from the Kantian prejudices of the Enlightenment, have found Aquinas’s subtle and nuanced account on metaphysical questions bracing.
Even the biblical work of Aquinas on Romans and Job has elicited the interest of Protestant historians, who have found his commentaries to be sources of wisdom and insight into the biblical drama of redemption. In short, Aquinas the Augustinian theologian has emerged from behind the older Protestant stereotypes. Protestants have rediscovered the Aquinas Luther never knew -- the Aquinas of John Capreolus.
It would be too much to assume that Aquinas will ever be as central a theologian for Protestants as he has been for Catholics. But Protestants have begun to put an end to their own self-imposed impoverishment. They have opened the ranks of the theologians with whom they are in regular conversation to include Aquinas. It is a development long overdue.

The article was taken from: