Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Seating Arrangement of the Last Supper

Ancient depiction of an early Christian "agape" love-feast

[Jan. 30, 2011] It is a well attested that there was no such thing as a Mass versus populum in antiquity, as all liturgies were done facing East in anticipation of the Second Coming of the Lord. In those situations where, for geographic or architectural reasons, the church building had to be constructed facing some other direction, and in which the priest celebrated Mass from behind the altar, there was still no versus populum Mass, as the congregation would have turned and faced the East during the Canon, so that priest and people were still oriented in the same direction. Thus, even if certain antique churches of Rome appear to have designs facilitating versus populum liturgies (as do most modern churches with altars removed from the wall), we must remember that the faithful, too, would turn to face East along with the priest. If there were circumstances where the priest and the faithful were facing each other, as at the homily, it was certainly not for the purpose of seeing the Eucharist as some sort of "communal meal" or celebration of the community; this would have been the last thing the Fathers would have cared about.

Praying East was universal in the early Church. St. John Damascene, writing around 740, said:
It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the East. But seeing that we are composed of a visible and an invisible nature, that is to say, of a nature partly of spirit and partly of sense, we render also a twofold worship to the Creator; just as we sing both with our spirit and our bodily lips, and are baptized with both water and Spirit, and are united with the Lord in a twofold manner, being sharers in the mysteries and in the grace of the Spirit.

Since, therefore, God is spiritual light, and Christ is called in the Scriptures Sun of Righteousness and Dayspring, the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship. For everything good must be assigned to Him from Whom every good thing arises. Indeed the divine David also says, "Sing unto God, you kingdoms of the earth: O sing praises unto the Lord: to Him that rides upon the Heavens of heavens towards the East. Moreover the Scripture also says, "And God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed:" and when he had transgressed His command He expelled him and made him to dwell over against the delights of Paradise, which clearly is the West. So, then, we worship God seeking and striving after our old fatherland. Moreover the tent of Moses had its veil and mercy seat towards the East. Also the tribe of Judah as the most precious pitched their camp on the East. Also in the celebrated temple of Solomon the Gate of the Lord was placed eastward. Moreover Christ, when He hung on the Cross, had His face turned towards the West, and so we worship, striving after Him. And when He was received again into Heaven He was borne towards the East, and thus His apostles worship Him, and thus He will come again in the way in which they beheld Him going towards Heaven; as the Lord Himself said, "As the lightning comes out of the East and shines even unto the West, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be."

So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten (De Fide Orthodoxa, IV. 12).
We must keep this Eastern orientation in mind when looking at early Christian liturgies. The Mass was rightly seen as primarily eschatological and sacrificial, not as a communal celebration. It is quite interesting to note that, historically, the first individual to propose a versus populum celebration of the Mass was none other than Martin Luther, and that he made this recommendation explicitly for the purpose of detracting from the sacrificial nature of the Mass. In 1526, Luther wrote:
"The Mass vestments, altars, and lights may be retained till such time as they shall all change of themselves, or it shall please us to change them: though, if any will take a different course in this matter, we shall not interfere. But in the true Mass, among sincere Christians, the altar should not be retained, and the priest should always turn himself towards the people as, without doubt, Christ did at the Last Supper. That, however, must bide it's time" (The German Mass and Order of Divine Service, III, "On Sundays for the Laity")
The two points of interest here are: first, that Luther sees a celebration "facing the people" as much more in keeping with his teaching on the Mass than the traditional ad orientem orientation. But second, note that he supports this opinion by appealing to the seating arrangement at the Last Supper, where Christ "without doubt" also faced the people.

If Luther is correct about the seating arrangement at the Last Supper, then we have here an excellent example of archaeologism, the practice of throwing out long-standing liturgical traditions in favor of a return to some presumed apostolic simplicity. Archaeologism is, of course, fallacious, as Pope Pius XII pointed out in Mediator Dei, because it denies the Providential guiding of the Church by the Holy Spirit in traditional developments for the simplicity of the early Church. In Mediator Dei, the Pope stated that "it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device" (MD, 62). It was in this vein that Newman made his famous statement in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: "They are ever hunting for a fabulous, primitive simplicity; we repose in Catholic fullness" (Part II, Chap. viii, Sect.12).

But, as it pertains to this argument, we should also mention that archaeologism fails on another account: that it is rarely accurate in its descriptions of what is and is not "apostolic." Communion in the hand, deaconesses, vernacular liturgies, Masses facing the people, and a whole mess of modern innovations are said to be of apostolic origin when in fact none of them are found in the primitive Church (or if there are traces of them, as in the case of altars removed from the wall, the modern liturgists completely miss the point as to why this was the case). This is indeed the case with Luther's assertion that Jesus ate the Last Supper facing His disciples and that ergo Mass should be versus populum because of this.

Where did Luther get his idea about how the Last Supper was eaten? Since the New Testament itself offers scant evidence, it was probably from contemporary, Renaissance era depictions that Luther formed his opinion—works like Da Vinci's famous "Last Supper." Out of concerns for symmetry, perspective, and establishing a focal point, Renaissance depictions invariably positioned our Lord at the center of the scene, but this positioning was artistic rather than out of care for historical accuracy. Luther, along with many since, have taken these famous depictions to reflect what actually occurred.

How would the seating of the Last Supper looked? Ancient meals were eaten in the reclining position, and as far as I know, this was universal throughout the Roman, Greek and Semitic worlds. Diners would recline upon their elbow on cushions placed in a semicircle around a very small, circular serving table. All the guests would have been seated around only one side of the table, leaving the other side completely open so that servants could move about freely to serve the food. You can see this all depicted below in the famous Constanza fresco, which portrays a secular Roman meal:

Furthermore, and more importantly to our discussion, the head or master of the banquet would certainly not have been seated at a central location. In antiquity, the center did not denote prominence as it does today; rather, the master of the banquet would have been seated at the far right of the table, as the "right hand" was the most honored seat. We see this in several ancient and medieval depictions of the Last Supper, the most famous being the San Apollinaire Nuevo mosaic in Ravenna, dating from early Byzantine times. Notice the semicircular seating arrangement with Christ clearly at the right hand of his guests:

We see the same thing in the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God in Monreale in Sicily in a depiction dating from the Norman period. Again, we see the semicircular arrangement with Christ at the extreme right, only this time seated instead of reclining, reflecting the change in dining customs that had taken place between the Byzantine and Norman periods:

Thus, the oldest depictions of the Last Supper tend to accurately reflect the seating arrangement common in the ancient world, a small semi-circular table with Christ seated to the right of his disciples.

Over time, however, what was originally the small, circular table in the center grew to dominate the scene. Below, in the Russian "Mystical Supper" icon, dated around 1497, we can see that the table has grown tremendously. Nevertheless, one will notice that the icon retains the semicircular seating with Christ at the extreme right of semicircle:


This form endured in the East much longer than the West, perhaps because the Byzantine Empire preserved many of the cultural customs of the ancient world longer than the Latin west. For example, the Gladzor Gospels of Armenia, illustrated around 1300, were still depicting the ancient semi-circular table with Christ to the right of His disciples: 

The form began to change in the West, however, sometime around 1000-1100. An interesting moment in the evolution of Last Supper depictions in the West is the Last Supper by Ugolino de Siena, painted around 1330. In this scene, we can see that Christ retains his traditional position on the left side of the painting (i.e., to the right of the disciples seated along the back of the table), but now the ancient semi-circular table has transformed into a conventional rectangular table with rows of seating on either side. Thus, from the viewer's perspective Christ retains His traditional position, but from the point of view of the disciples, He is now at a central position at the "head" of the table:

The advent of the Renaissance in the early 14th century—with its emphasis on technique, symmetry, proportion, and perspective—altered the manner in which the Last Supper was depicted. Seeking symmetry and focus, the Italian artists inevitably put Christ at the center; the only way to realistically depict twelve apostles seated around the Lord was to elongate the table into a very long rectangular structure, as in Da Vinci's version. This slowly became the norm from the time of the Renaissance onward.

To bring this back to Luther and the Mass, those who want to move the altar out into the congregation to attain a more "table-like" arrangement and cite the Last Supper as a justification are in error. In the first place, all of Christ's disciples would not have been gathered around him, but were in a semicircular line, one next to the other. Furthermore, they were not "facing" Christ, nor He them, but they would have had to turn slightly at a 90° angle to look at Him as He spoke. But then again, those who make such arguments don't really care what the early Church did or why she did it; like Luther, they are merely concerned with adopting the liturgy to suit modern ideas about what the Eucharist and the Church are. Rather than try to force a return to a past that never was, or revert back to a Semitic dinner seating arrangement that would be impractical for large liturgical gatherings such as the Mass, it is best to simply stick with the Tradition of the Church, not as it was frozen in time at the year 100, but as it developed through the ages and came down to us: with priest and people facing the Lord, showing forth the sacrificial nature of the Mass in anticipation of His glorious return.

Let us close with a quote from then-Cardinal Ratzinger, taken from a talk he gave at the 2001 Fontgombault Liturgical Conference entitled "Theology of the Liturgy."

"Meanwhile the problem has been aggravated by the fact that the most recent movement of 'enlightened' thought goes much further than Luther: where Luther still took literally the accounts of the Institution and made them, as the norma normans, the basis of his efforts at reform, the hypotheses of historical criticism have, for a long time, been causing a broad erosion of the texts. The accounts of the Last Supper appear as the product of the liturgical construction of the community; an historical Jesus is sought behind the texts who could not have been thinking of the gift of His Body and Blood, nor understood His Cross as a sacrifice of expiation; we should, rather, imagine a farewell meal which included an eschatological perspective. Not only is the authority of the ecclesiastical magisterium downgraded in the eyes of many, but Scripture too; in its place are put changing pseudo-historical hypotheses, which are immediately replaced by any arbitrary idea, and place the liturgy at the mercy of fashion. Where, on the basis of such ideas, the liturgy is manipulated ever more freely, the faithful feel that, in reality, nothing is celebrated, and it is understandable that they desert the liturgy, and with it the Church."

For more on this subject, please see Dr. Peter Kwasniewski's article "The Possibly Dubious Liturgical History of Leonardo's Last Supper" at New Liturgical Movement. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Summer Theology Course in Italy

The following message is from Anselm. This was something we discussed a little bit when we met last week and I am so happy he finally put this together. Please, please, please pass the word on to your friends, post this to your blogs, etc. Let's help Anselm get the people he needs! And the price is right - $975! Here is his message:

Please allow me to introduce you to the St. Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies, founded by yours truly together with two of my colleagues at the International Theological Institute.

The St. Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies is an organization dedicated to the revival of higher studies in theology undertaken according to the mind and method of the great scholastics. This purpose is realized principally through the regular hosting of two-week long Summer programs, in which participants are invited to an intensive course of studies in Catholic theology presented in the form of the great Catholic universities of the high Middle Ages. Unique to these programs is the combination of scholastic form and content, namely the study of St. Thomas Aquinas in the way that St. Thomas himself would have studied. Hence the dedication of the Center to his own teacher, St. Albert the Great.

The inaugural Summer program is taking place from June 20 - July 1, 2011 in Norcia, Italy. The academic focus of this year's program is Sacramental Theology, with readings taken principally from St. Thomas Aquinas, but also from St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, Ven. John Paul II, et al.

Participants are invited to attend daily Mass and to pray the Divine Office with the Benedictine Monks of Norcia.

Optional organized excursions include hiking in the beautiful Mount Sibiline National Park and trips to nearby Assisi and Cascia. For the Feast of Corpus Christi (June 23), we will organize a special trip to Rome in order to join the Holy Father for Eucharistic procession and adoration.

Who: Qualified applicants over the age of eighteen.
When: June 20 - July 1, 2011.
Where: Norcia, Italy. Cost: $975.

For more information on the program, or in order to apply, please see our website:

If you are willing to help us advertise, please feel free to print and make use of this poster.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

"David danced before the Lord"

Anyone who has ever been engaged in any earnest discussion about liturgy with persons of the progressive camp (or sometimes with charismatics) has probably come across the story of David dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant being cited as a precedent for liturgical dance and other such exuberant manifestations of piety. The argument as it is usually put forward is that since King David danced before the Ark of the Covenant, there can be no objections to dance being incorporated into modern liturgies. This argument is an interesting one - on the one hand, I don't know a single person against liturgical dance who has been convinced by this argument; on the other hand, I have yet to hear anyone give a real cogent response, either.

Any such response to this argument must both affirm David's antics in front of the Ark (as the Bible seems to) while at the same time explaining why such behavior is not appropriate for the liturgy. Such a response I will attempt to give in this post.

First, the  back story. The account of David dancing before the Ark comes from 2 Samuel 6. In this chapter David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem from Kiriath Jearim, where it had sat in the house of Abinadab for the past twenty years (1 Sam. 7:2). The bringing of the Ark up to Jerusalem was a highly festive occasion, for it was the first time in over a generation that the Ark was being returned to the holy tabernacle, its proper dwelling place. According to Scripture, this translation occurred in the context of a great procession. It was in this festive procession that David danced before the Lord:

And when they that carried the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed and ox and a ram: And David danced with all his might before the Lord: and David was girded with a linen ephod. And David and all the house of Israel brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord with joyful shouting, and with sound of trumpet. And when the ark of the Lord was come into the city of David, Michol the daughter of Saul, looking out through a window, saw king David leaping and dancing before the Lord: and she despised him in her heart. And they brought the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place in the midst of the tabernacle, which David had pitched for it: and David offered holocausts, and peace offerings before the Lord (2 Sam. 6:13-17).

In the first place, those who use this verse as a precedent in support of liturgical dancing do so in a very arbitrary, selective manner. David danced before the Lord, true enough; he also did so immodestly dressed, yet none of the proponents of liturgical exuberance would suggest we imitate the King of Israel in this regard. Note that Michal, daughter of Saul "despised" David for his dancing. A few verses later we see the reason for this contempt:

And David returned to bless his own house: and Michol the daughter of Saul coming out to meet David, said: "How glorious was the king of Israel to day, uncovering himself before the handmaids of his servants, and was naked, as if one of the buffoons should be naked" (2 Sam. 6:20).

Apparently, though David was "girded" with a linen ephod, this ephod did not in any way constitute a complete outfit, for David is accused of immodesty and indecency for wearing only the ephod; clearly this ephod didn't leave much to the imagination if he can be described as "naked" while wearing it. Do all of those who use this verse to support the use of dance in the liturgy because of King David's example also propose that we should follow David in doing it while half-naked?

More importantly, however, is the oft forgotten fact that David, besides being a king, was a prophet. The New Testament even declares him so in Acts 2:29-35. Anyone who has read the prophets knows that, besides delivering oral prophecies, the Lord sometimes has them actually "act out" the prophecies to get the point across. St. Thomas says that this is one of four ways in which prophecy may occur, which he calls "outward presentation of sensible images" (II-II, Q. 173, art. 3). A few examples of this sort of prophecy:

Isaiah 20:2-3: The prophet Isaiah is told to prophecy naked for three years time "as a sign and portent against Egypt and Ethiopia", signifying that the Assyrians will lead their captives away naked and barefoot. 

Jeremiah 27:2: To prophecy to coming captivity of the Israelites, the Lord tells the prophet Jeremiah to actually construct a heavy yoke and walk around with it on his shoulders as a sign of the coming bondage to Babylon.

Ezekiel 4: This passage offers us one of the most radical examples of the prophets acting out a prophecy. Ezekiel is told: As for you, son of man, take a clay tablet; lay it in front of you, and draw on it a city [Jerusalem]. Raise a siege against it: build a tower, lay out a ramp, pitch camps, and set up batteringrams all around. Then take an iron griddle and set it up as an iron wall between you and the city. Fix your gaze on it: it shall be in the state of siege, and you shall besiege it. This shall be a sign for the house of Israel. Then you shall lie on your left side, while I place the sins of the house of Israel upon you. As many days as you lie thus, you shall bear their sins. For the years of their sins I allot you the same number of days, three hundred and ninety, during which you will bear the sins of the house of Israel.When you finish this, you are to lie down again, but on your right side, and bear the sins of the house of Judah forty days; one day for each year I have allotted you. Fixing your gaze on the siege of Jerusalem, with bared arm you shall prophesy against it. See, I will bind you with cords so that you cannot turn from one side to the other until you have completed the days of your siege (Ezk. 4:1-8). This is a total of 430 days that Ezekiel spends laying down to signify the coming siege!

Hosea 1: To signify the infidelity of Israel, God commands the prophet Hosea to marry a harlot. The anguish the prophet goes through witnessing his wife's infidelities give him insight into the offense that Israel's idolatry gives to God.

These actions are all uniquely prophetic, and as such are not meant to be copied or used as precedents. Should David's dancing be interpreted in a similar light? I think so, for the simple fact that this episode of the dancing is prophetic of the coming of Christ in the New Testament. Just as David rejoiced and leaped to see the presence of God in the Ark coming into its rightful sanctuary of Jerusalem, so St. John the Baptist leaped before the presence of God in the womb of Mary as she came to the house of Elizabeth - and as the Ark had been three months in the house of Obed-Edom, so was Mary three months in the house of Elizabeth. Granted, the dancing of David is not prophetic in the sense that it specifically foretells the future, but in the sense that his actions are typologically related to one of the mysteries of the New Covenant (similarly, the selling of Joseph into slavery was a "prophecy" of the betrayal of Christ).

This means that the dancing was not "normal" behavior even in David's time. There is no prescription in Jewish liturgy anywhere for dancing, and if this sort of thing were normal, David's wife Michal would not have been scandalized by it. David was a man full of the Holy Spirit, and this action was carried out in a sort of inspired prophetic euphoria at the presence of God. This does not indicate an undue familiarity on the part of David; after all, this dancing occurs just after the episode of the slaying of Uzzah by God for merely touching the Ark (2 Sam. 6:7-9), an event that so thoroughly frightened David that he delayed bringing the Ark into Jerusalem for another three months. Another indication of the prophetic nature of this action was the wearing of the linen ephod, a garment reserved for the priests (see Exodus 28:4, 29:5, 39:2; Lev. 8:7), and as such should not have been worn by the king. The fact that the king does in fact wear one nonetheless points to Christ as both priest and king. We are in the presence of a prophetic moment.

Here is the crux of the matter: David's dancing was a prophetic act, not a liturgical one. As such, it should not be incorporated into the liturgy. Liturgical actions should come from other liturgical actions as their precedents; actions that are prophetic should not be forced into liturgical settings. In fact, because of the often bizarre or disarming nature of prophetic actions, a key characteristic of them is that they not be repeated. Consider how the apostolic Fathers regarded prophetic actions in the Didache:

[E]very prophet, proved true, working unto the mystery of the Church in the world, yet not teaching others to do what he himself does, shall not be judged among you, for with God he has his judgment; for so did also the ancient prophets (Didache 11).

What does this passage mean? The writer of the Didache warns his readers that the actions of the prophets may seem a bit bizarre, yet by their actions they signify the "mystery of the Church in the world." It is recognized that this was always how prophecy worked. Therefore, despite the oddity of their prophecy at times, they should not be hindered, so long as they do not try to teach others to do what they themselves are doing. It is one thing for Isaiah to preach naked, or Jeremiah to walk around wearing a yoke, or the prophet Agabus to tie his own hands and feet with the belt of St. Paul (Acts 21:10-12), for these are prophetic acts; but as soon as anybody starts insisting that such behavior be imitated by all, then there is a problem. Thus, the writers of the Didache state plainly that, so long as a prophet does not teach others to "do what he himself does," his prophetic actions should not be judged, regardless of how bizarre they may seem, "for so did also the ancient prophets."

A main characteristic of prophetic activity is that it is for a specific time and person alone and is not to be imitated. If we recognize, as the St. Luke tells us in Acts, that David is a prophet, and if we recognize in his dancing a spirit-inspired prophetic action, we immediately see that this action falls into the same category as Hosea marrying a harlot and Jeremiah walking around with a yoke on his neck, and as such should not be imitated. If there remain any doubt as to whether this is in fact the case, I challenge you to search the Scriptures for even one more account of any person dancing in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. The fact that this display was apparently never repeated in the Old Testament should be enough to convince us of its uniqueness for that time, place and event (a similar prophetic action permissible only to David at a certain time and place was his eating of the Showbread; see Matt. 12:3-4, 1 Sam. 21:2-7).

Therefore, if even in Old Testament times this was considered an aberration, something permissible to David at that point but not done by any previous or subsequent ruler, why would we take David's prophetic action and say that its one, solitary occurrence in salvation history is a good enough precedent for it to become a liturgical norm? This would be quite an argument, especially considering that many of these same folks who use this one example from David's time to justify liturgical dancing would also be against ad orientem Masses and communion on the tongue, practices with vastly greater degrees of precedent than liturgical dancing. Thus, the fact that an inspired prophet and King of Israel, a "man after God's own heart", should dance in front of the Ark emphatically does not mean that the sort of thing seen here should become the norm.

David's dancing was not liturgical. There never was any such thing as liturgical dancing in Judaism; there was celebratory dancing and prophetic dancing, but never liturgical dancing - and to take something that is not liturgical and try to force it into liturgical constructs destroys the very liturgy it attempts to enliven.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Boniface & Anselm

Me (left) and Anselm (right)

This week witnessed a very rare event: Anslem and I actually met in person for the first time in two years. As you all know, our co-blogger in absentia has been studying theology at the International Theological Institute in Tramau, Austria for the past three years and has just recently received his Master's Degree in theology, the fruit of which was his excellent little booklet on St. Thomas' doctrine of the atonement (here). No sooner did he receive his Masters than he signed up for a licentiate program and will be back in Austria for God knows how long.

Last Tuesday, the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, we took advantage of the brief time Anselm and his family were in the states to go visit him for dinner (his wife prepared a wonderful dish for the occasion called "ex cathedra chicken", which was essentially chicken marinated in beer and prepared in an upright, sitting position; hence the name; the colloquial name for it is "beer-butt chicken"). We were able to chat for awhile, enjoy each other's families (Anselm is my son's godfather), and then, to make ourselves feel very self-important, present each other with autographed copies of our own books.

God bless you Anslem, and God be with you as you begin your licentiate program!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

An urgent appeal from Unam Sanctam Catholicam's founder, Boniface

Okay, sorry for the lame Wikipedia-esque post title but if Wikipedia's "urgent appeal" was able to net them $14 million, maybe my appeal will be able to get me some of the help I am looking for.

Don't worry! I am not going to ask you for a dime. What I really need is some expertise; some faithful Catholic with the right skills to help me take this blog to the next level. Allow me to explain.

This blog is going on its fourth year. In that time it has gotten around 279,000 unique visits and has an average readership of about 180-220 per day. I have published 723 posts on everything from liturgy to history, politics to economics, patristics to apologetics, saints to Oprah and everything in between.

For some time now, I have been wanting to take this blog to the next step and make it more professional by expanding it into a legitimate website. Using a website instead of a blog would offer many more opportunities to customize layout and do a few things not possible with a blog; I do not just want to "upgrade" to Wordpress or hide a blog behind a dot com domain name and some code.

Here are some of the things I'd like to do with this website:
  • First, it would be much more aesthetically pleasing than this blog, that's for sure. That alone is a definite improvement.

  • The tone of the site would be different than that of this blog. This blog was founded as a place for me to air grievances - a place to say, " I see X,Y, and Z wrong in the Church and nobody else seems to care." Since I began blogging, I have of course realized that there are many persons out there who are likewise concerned about the Church's direction. The way I see it, the task now is not so much to air grievances as much as to be "evangelical" with Traditional Catholicism - instead of complaining about X,Y, and Z, pointing out why aspects A,B and C or Catholic Tradition are so beautiful and vital to a renewal of the Faith. While not shrinking from addressing challenging issues, this new site would be a much more positive elucidation of the traditional Catholic "position" than most of the other sites out there.

  • I'm hoping to transfer some of the very best posts from this blog, but mainly it would be new content, and of a much more scholarly tone than the off-the-cuff stuff I post on here (and yes, everything I post on here is off-the-cuff, unlike Athanasius who meticulously and responsibly researches his posts for weeks before doing them).

  • To facilitate getting more and better content up, I'd like to take on at least two more contributors to this new site who could post at least on a semi-monthly basis. Writings would have to meet some scholarly standards, but there would also be a place for opinion pieces. 

  • This new site will also feature some great multimedia stuff I am working on. I've been talking to some people and will be working this summer on doing some prototype video projects - some talking-head type stuff, but also some other things...I'm not going to say too much more about this at the time, save to say that it could generate a lot of traffic to the site.

  • One thing I am really excited about is using this site to post a lot of pastoral resources that I accumulated during my three and a half years as a DRE and Youth Director, specifically exhaustive notes and outlines for RCIA and resources for building an orthodox Youth Group. There is literally nowhere else on the web that offers this and I consider it to be one of the most important things offered by this site - especially since they will be FREE.

  • There will also be a section for reviews, mainly book and film. I envision these reviews as coming from a variety of contributors, almost in a Wikipedia type style of submission. I'd like to build a broad base of solid, Catholic reviews that would help guide Catholics in what they watch and read (and break up the monopoly that Stephen Greydanus has on them - sorry Steve).

  • The site will need to be able to be set up to take credit cards without the use of PayPal - not because I am expecting to make a lot or any money off of it, but because I want to have a store that can serve as a clearinghouse for good, Catholic books (especially slef-published ones) that could use more visibility: excellent books like Jeff Pinyan's Praying the Mass, the book by Anselm on the atonement I just reviewed (Poena Satisfactoria); great books that may be published mainstream but are not receiving a lot of attention from the Catholic press, like Alyssa Pitstick's massive tome Light in Darkness, a 458 page behemoth that thoroughly and decidedly trashes von Balthasar's theory of Christ's descent into hell. And of course, my books as well (here and here).

So what do I need? Somebody to set the site-up for me; I don't need anyone to actually manage it - I am pretty good at web design stuff once I understand the software that is being used, and I have other friends that will do the artwork, etc. I just need someone to throw up the skeleton of the site and teach me how to fill it in. I am willing to pay, though I don't have much. I have some friends who paid $1500 for a site and $49 every month to maintain it. Well, that's prohibitively expensive for me, especially since this site won't make much money. But I am willing to pay. So, what I need is someone who is willing to do this, can do it, and will do it promptly. I have had other people offer to help me with this before, but when I actually want to get started they are very non-responsive - what I need is someone who will actually be motivated to get this thing off the ground  and can do it in a timely manner.

I am hoping to start building this site within the  next six months and open it within a year.

So, post in the combox with your email address is you:

1) Are interested in being a contributor once this site goes up.

2) Are an individual with web expertise who can help me build this site.

3) Can refer me to someone who can build the site.

I do not have a name in mind for the new site yet, but the motto will undoubtedly be Mutans Tenebras In Lucem - "Turning darkness into light," from the famous anonymous poem "Pangur Ban."

Well, that's my vision. Is there anyone out there who can help me get this thing off the ground?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Reliability of the Fathers: (part 2 of 7)

Last time in this series I spoke on the issue of the cultural sensibilities of the early Church Fathers, and whether the fact that the majority of the Fathers were not 1st century Jews living in Palestine made their exegesis of Scripture suspect, since they were outside the cultural context in which the Scriptures were produced. I answered this in the negative, citing as proof the fact that :

(1) there was much more that went into the faith of the Fathers than the simple reading of a text; their faith was formed by a living Tradition primarily and by textual exegesis only secondarily. This provided a doctrinal continuity across the generations despite the fact that the ethnic make-up of the Church may have changed over time

(2) Greek and Romans of the 2nd and 3rd centuries were very well acquainted with eastern ideas; in fact, eastern religious ideals had thoroughly permeated the west in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries of our era. We have no reason to assume the Greco-Roman Fathers were ignorant of eastern culture

(3) At any rate, it is not the Father's intellectual knowledge or cultural background that gives them authority (though these are important), but their holiness and closeness to God.

The Fathers certainly have their issues at times, but nothing so thorough  as to render them unreliable, as our interlocutor would suggest. Our interlocutor, a Protestant intellectual, after citing his objection based on the Fathers' "cultural horizons" went on to cite a further problem with the Fathers. In his words, this was:

[A] profound and pervasive change in perspective due to major shifts that had occurred in the development of institutional churches [for example], the evolution of Christianity as a form of Judaism which was (more than) open to admitting or "grafting in" Gentiles into a Christianity as a largely Gentile religion to be distinguished from Judaism.

So the Fathers cannot be trusted to offer reliable expositions of the Faith because the apostolic Church was largely Jewish ethnically while the Church of the 2nd, 3rd amd 4th centuries was primarily Gentile (especially Greek).

At the outset, I would question the interlocutor's assertion that early Christianity was "more than open" to grafting in Gentiles. The apostolic Church was not "more than open" to grafting in Gentiles. Remember, while our Lord was on earth, the Gospel was emphatically not preached to the Gentiles in anyway - recall our Lord's seemingly harsh words about dogs and crumbs to the Canaanite woman. In the years immediately following the Ascension, most of the apostles seemed to have viewed the Faith as something to be preached to Jews only; it took a divine revelation to St. Peter for the apostolic Church to finally admit that Gentiles were even capable of becoming Christians (Acts 10). Even after this, actual practice was sometimes reflexively anti-Gentile (as we see in Peter's conduct in Gal. 2:11); the issue of the welcoming of Gentiles and to what degree they were bound to obey the Law was so disruptive in the early Church that it led to the first council at Jerusalem.

Though the apostolic Church finally accepted Gentiles, it did so grudgingly, and the Jewish sect ("Judaizers") resisted it at every step. Even after the Council of Jerusalem the Judaizers remained a potent force within the Church, leading eventually to several early schisms - the Ebionites, Nazarenes and Nicolaitians, to name a few. Therefore, it is very misleading to state that the apostolic Church was "more than open" to grafting in Gentiles. The apostolic Church did indeed allow Gentiles to enter in, but it was a slow process and the environment remained hostile ot Gentiles for some time.

Despite this hostility, however, the Church did in fact become more and more Gentile in character. This was for two reasons (1) There were simply more Gentiles than Jews, and as the faith spread, simple demographics suggests that the Church would of course become more and more Gentile in character, and (2) following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and especially after the Second Jewish War ended the Jewish state in 135, the ethnically Jewish segments of the Church lost much of its influence. It is uncertain when it is in fact that the Church specifically "became" more Gentile than Jew, but I would say it was no later than 150, possibly earlier.

It is this ethnic transformation of the Church that our interlocutor sees as reflecting poorly on the theology of the Fathers. I don't see why; perhaps it is another way of phrasing the first argument about "cultural horizons." Whatever the point of this argument, I see it as holding little weight for two reasons:

First, the Jewish Christians alive during this period of transformation would not have been caught up in the revolts against Rome and vanquished - in the First Jewish War, most Jewish Christians, remembering the prophecy of Christ, fled Jerusalem to Pella and waited out the war in relative safety. In Bar Kochba's time (132-135), Jewish Christians again refused to participate in the suicidal revolt against Rome, inasmuch as Bar Kochba was hailed as the Messiah, he would have been seen as an anti-Christ in the eyes of the Church. This means that, throughout the Jewish wars and the fall of secular Israel, there was a continuous Christian presence in Palestine under an unbroken succession of Jewish Christian bishops. Eusebius says:

"Of the dates of the bishops of Jerusalem I have failed to find any written evidence; ­ it is known that they were very short-lived ­ but I have received documentary proof of this, that up to Hadrian’s siege of the Jews, there had been a series of fifteen bishops there. All are said to have been Hebrews in origin, who had received the knowledge of Christ with all sincerity, with the result that those in a position to decide such matters, judged them worthy of the episcopal office. For at that time their whole Church consisted of Hebrew believers who had continued from Apostolic times down to the later siege [A.D. 135] in which the Jews after revolting a second time against the Romans, were overwhelmed in a full-scale war. As that meant the end of the bishops of the Circumcision, this is the right moment to list their names from the first" (Ecclesiastical History, 4:3)

He then gives a list of fifteen Jewish-Christian bishops: 

* James, ‘the Lord’s brother,’ First Bishop of Jerusalem
* Symeon, Second Bishop of Jerusalem
* Justus, Third Bishop of Jerusalem
* Zacchaeus, Fourth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Tobias, Fifth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Benjamin, Sixth Bishop of Jerusalem
* John, Seventh Bishop of Jerusalem
* Matthias, Eighth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Philip, Ninth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Seneca, Tenth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Justus II, Eleventh Bishop of Jerusalem
* Levi, Twelfth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Ephres, Thirteenth Bishop of Jerusalem
* Joseph, Fourteenth Bishop of Jerusalem
* and Judas, Fifteenth Bishop of Jerusalem

The point is that in Palestine there was an unbroken succession of bishops from the time of our Lord until the time when the Church became Gentile, which Eusebius attributes to the siege of Hadrian and the subsequent banishment of all persons of Jewish origin from Palestine. Despite the political upheaval of the time, the fact that the episcopal succession endured unbroken, and then switched from Jew to Gentile around 135, suggests that there was no radical break bewteen the Jew and Gentile phases of the Palestinian Church, but that this transition happened smoothly and organically, despite the warfare going on all around.

Just because there was a transformation does not mean there was a radical break, at least certainly not the kind that would cause the Greek Fathers to be rendered completely unreliable only a century later. This tendency of assuming some kind of radical break  whenever there is any demonstrable change is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, perhaps due to our accustoming ourselves to a world in a constant state of flux and disorder.

Secondly, and more importantly, to say that the transformation of the Church from Jew to Gentile makes the Fathers lose credibility is to, in some way, deny the divine guidance of the Church - it is to deny that Christ willed the Church to take the turn of development it did. If we are told in the Scripture that God willed Gentiles to be incorporated into the Church (Acts 10), and that prophecy from the Old Testament said that "all nations" would "flow" into God's Church (Isa. 2:15, Mic. 4:1-5), and that St. Paul specifically tailored his missionary journeys towards the Gentiles, explicitly preached to them as a consequence of his rejection by the Jews (Acts 13:46) and called himself the "apostle to the Gentiles" (Rom. 11:13), and that our Lord prophesied that the kingdom of heaven, though at first small, would grow so large that "all the birds of the air" would be able to nest in its branches (Matt, 13:31-32), are we justified in regarding the surge of Gentiles into the Church as anything other than part of our Lord's divine plan? With such a vast amount of Scripture pointing to the "Gentilization" of the Church as positively willed by God, are we not demonstrating an insulting lack of faith in God's providence to keep sounding off on the thoroughly modernist mantra about the regrettable loss of the Church's "Jewish" identity?

Perhaps our interlocutor will argue that, while God willed Gentiles to be incorporated into the Church, He never willed for them to become such a majority or for the Church to ever lose its Jewish character. If someone would make this case, I would say: fine and good - but how can you prove this, and where will you draw the line as to when the Church is becoming "too Gentile," and where is it written that the Church is to be forever beholden to Jewish cultural forms, remaining forever some Christianized form of Judaism? This view reflects a modern evangelical preoccupation with ethnic Judaism, a desire to make the Church more "Hebrew" in character. 

Did the Church go from largely Jewish to largely Gentile in the 2nd century? Absolutely. Does this mean the Gentile Church of the 3rd century had lost or corrupted the apostolic faith of the 1st? By no means. There is no reason, either historically or theologically, to suppose that the Gentilization of the Church as it occurred was anything other than God's plan. The Church organically develops, and of course the Church of the 3rd and 4th centuries will look different than the Church of the 1st, just as the Church of St. Bernard looked different from the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola and the Church or today looks different than the Church of Vatican I. But once again our interlocutor is tripped up by external changes in the structure or demographics of the Church whilst ignoring its supernatural origin and the divine life of grace that vivifies it. Whether Hebrew, Greek or Latin, the Fathers constantly attest to this supernatural character.

Next time we will examine a bigger problem - whether the post-Nicene Fathers lose their credibility when the Church changed from being a subversive challenge to existing authority to being supported by that authority with the rise of Constantine.

I apologize for the focus on patristics in my last several posts, but this seems to be where the Lord is leading me at this time. God bless you.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Baptism of Our Lord

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord by St. John  the Baptist. The meaning behind Christ's baptism is of perennial interest, since He had neither sin to repent of  nor anything to be cleansed of; Christ Himself says that He submits to baptism to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15), but what does this phrase mean exactly? There are several reasons why Jesus consented to a baptism that, as John the Baptist noted, He did not need. I have put together the four most commonly given reasons, from the Fathers and the Magisterium of the Church.

First, according to the Catechism, it is a manifestation of His self-emptying and identification with humanity, which stands in need of God’s grace and forgiveness (CCC 1224). In doing so, he shows what we are to do. Similarly, he was circumcised according to the precepts of the Mosaic Law, even though circumcision symbolized a cutting off of sin, which Jesus did not have. St. Thomas Aquinas makes this same point: "It was fitting that Christ should not only fulfill what was prescribed by the Old Law, but also begin what appertained to the New Law. Therefore He wished not only to be circumcised, but also to be baptized" (STh III.Q. 39 Art. 1), and Augustine, "because He wished to do what He had commanded all to do" (Sermo cxxxvi). This is what He meant by "to fulfill all righteousness."

Second, we could see Christ's baptism as the formal inauguration of His messianic mission, wherein He is anointed by the Spirit for His ministry (Luke 4:16-20). This is how the event is portrayed in the Gospels.The Catechism (536) says: "The baptism of Jesus is on his part the acceptance and inauguration of his mission as God's suffering Servant. He allows himself to be numbered among sinners; he is already "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world". Already he is anticipating the "baptism" of his bloody death. Already he is coming to "fulfill all righteousness", that is, he is submitting himself entirely to his Father's will: out of love he consents to this baptism of death for the remission of our sins. The Father's voice responds to the Son's acceptance, proclaiming his entire delight in his Son.The Spirit whom Jesus possessed in fullness from his conception comes to "rest on him". Jesus will be the source of the Spirit for all mankind. At his baptism "the heavens were opened" - the heavens that Adam's sin had closed - and the waters were sanctified by the descent of Jesus and the Spirit, a prelude to the new creation."

Third, by His baptism, Christ sacramentally sanctifies the waters for us, prefiguring the baptism He was to later inaugurate. Here is the way this works; consider leprosy: Anyone who came in contact with a leper contracted the leper's uncleanliness; but Christ, rather than contracting uncleanliness, transfers His own divine cleanliness to the lepers upon contact with them. Similarly, instead of being made unclean by touching a dead body, the dead body is made alive by contact with Christ. This case applies to water as well; instead of the water purifying Christ, it is Christ who purifies the water. This theme of Christ sanctifying the waters is present in many of the writings of the Fathers as well. Consider:
St. Ignatius of Antioch: "For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived by Mary by the dispensation of God, as well as of the seed of David as of the Holy Spirit: he was born, and was baptized, that by himself submitting he might purify the water (Letter to the Ephesians, 18).

St. Gregory of Nyssa: "[In] the birth by water and the Spirit, Jesus himself led the way in this birth, drawing down upon the water, by his own baptism, the Holy Spirit; so that in all things he became the firstborn of those who are spiritually born again, and gave the name of brethren to those who partook in a birth like to his own by water and the Spirit" (Against Eunomius 2:8, c. 382).

 St. Ambrose of Milan: "The Lord was baptized, not to be cleansed himself but to cleanse the waters, so that those waters, cleansed by the flesh of Christ which knew no sin, might have the power of baptism. Whoever comes, therefore, to the washing of Christ lays aside his sins" (Commentary on Luke 2:83, A.D. 389). 
St. Maximus of Turin: "Someone might ask, "Why would a holy man desire baptism?" Listen to the answer: Christ is baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, and by his cleansing to purify the waters which he touched. For the consecration of Christ involves a more significant consecration of the water. For when the Savior is washed all water for our baptism is made clean, purified at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to the people of future ages. Christ is the first to be baptized, then, so that Christians will follow after him with confidence" (Sermon on the Feast of the Epiphany, c. 430)
Finally, we could say that Christ's baptism mystically reveals what occurs spiritually every time a Christian is baptized. When we come to the Holy Font, the heavens are opened, the Spirit descends, and the Father pronounces, “You are my beloved son.” St. Aphrahaat says, "From baptism we receive the Spirit of Christ. At that same moment in which the priests invoke the Spirit, heaven opens, and he descends and rests upon the waters, and those who are baptized are clothed in him” (Treatises 6:14:4, A.D. 340).St. Hilary of Poitiers says: "Everything that happened to Christ lets us know that, after the bath of water, the Holy Spirit swoops down upon us from high heaven and that, adopted by the Father's voice, we become sons of God" (In Matth. 2,5, c. 360). 

In conclusion, let us quote from St. Thomas Aquinas (III.39.1), who wraps up all of these reasons in a single, concise answer:

"I answer that, it was fitting for Christ to be baptized. First, because, as Ambrose says on Luke 3:21: "Our Lord was baptized because He wished, not to be cleansed, but to cleanse the waters, that, being purified by the flesh of Christ that knew no sin, they might have the virtue of baptism"; and, as Chrysostom says (Hom. iv in Matth.), "that He might bequeath the sanctified waters to those who were to be baptized afterwards." Secondly, as Chrysostom says (Hom. iv in Matth.), "although Christ was not a sinner, yet did He take a sinful nature and 'the likeness of sinful flesh.' Wherefore, though He needed not baptism for His own sake, yet carnal nature in others had need thereof." And, as Gregory Nazianzen says (Orat. xxxix) "Christ was baptized that He might plunge the old Adam entirely in the water." Thirdly, He wished to be baptized, as Augustine says in a sermon on the Epiphany (cxxxvi), "because He wished to do what He had commanded all to do." And this is what He means by saying: "So it becometh us to fulfill all justice" (Matthew 3:15). For, as Ambrose says (on Luke 3:21), "this is justice, to do first thyself that which thou wishest another to do, and so encourage others by thy example."

Friday, January 07, 2011

Book Review: Poena Satisfactoria

It is with great joy that I just finished reading the Master's Thesis of my friend and co-blogger, Anselm, who, as you know, as been plugging away at this thing for the past three years at the International Theological Institute in Tramau, Austria. I am happy to promote his wonderful work here, which he recently self-published as a short book (106 pages, available through the USC webstore, here) entitled Poena Satisfactoria.

Poena Satisfactoria is both a devastating criticism of the Protestant theory of atonement known as "penal substitution"and an explication of Thomas' teaching on the atonement, which the author refers to rightly as "vicarious atonement." The author also includes the doctrine of St. Anselm, put forward in the classic Cur Deus Homo, and contrasts this with both St. Thomas' doctrine and that of the Reformers.

While the author has a great deal of praise for St. Anselm for his contribution to the field of soteriology, he finds fault with Anselm's satisfaction theory of atonement in that it seems to exalt the objective standard of justice by which atonement is demanded almost above the freedom of God. According to St. Anselm, mankind owed a debt that could not be paid. Justice demanded that satisfaction of the debt must be paid by those who incurred it - mankind. However, man could not pay the debt of sin insofar as its weight is beyond the capability of any mortal to accomplish, since sin is committed against an infinite Person (God). Only God could be capable of making such a payment - but justice demanded that man must pay it. Therefore, a God-Man was necessary to pay this debt and fulfill justice. Christ fulfilled this obligation by the formal perfection of His offering, thus satisfying the demands of justice and reconciling man with God. Though true in its fundamentals, the biggest critique the author offers of Anselm's view is that God seems constrained by the demands of "justice", which seems to be almost above God. Any atonement theory, to be truly satisfactory, must at the same time reconcile the perfect justice established by Christ's atonement with the complete freedom of God in the atonement. The book refers to St. Anselm always with respect, but not without disagreement.

The views of the Reformers are put forth and repudiated. I am not going to go through all the arguments that our author provides, as to do so involves delving into the depths of Lutheran and Calvinist soteriology, which I am loathe to get into here. I do suggest reviewing my co-blogger Anselm's writings on soteriology (linked about halfway down the sidebar) and rereading his introductory post on the subject here. It is sufficient to mention that according to the Reformers, the real value of Christ's death lies in the physical pain that He endured on the cross. The simple punishment (poena simpliciter) suffered by Christ's body is made to be the essential principle of the atonement. This punishment is seen as the actual "wrath of God," inflicted by the Father as the agent upon Christ, who though innocent, takes the full punishment due to sin upon Himself. God's wrath is still outpoured, only it is upon Christ instead of sinners. Once this wrath is "emptied" upon Christ, His justice is satisfied and man can be reconciled to God.

In explicating St. Thomas' teaching on the atonement, the author points to the perfect charity of Christ as the source as the primary reason for the acceptability of His sacrifice, which goes hand in hand with Christ's sinlessness, perfection and divine nature. In making charity the animating principle, St. Thomas is able to avoid basing the atonement on an appeal to an exalted "measure of justice" that even God must obey, while at the same time placing the value of Christ's sacrifice not on His physical sufferings (poena simpliciter) but on the perfect charity with which He offered Himself to God to endure those sufferings. This perfect offering, voluntarily undertaken in perfect charity, makes the punishment Christ endured a satisfactory punishment (poena satisfactoria).

There is much more too - there is a great chapter on the end on Christ's descent into Hell complete with a deconstruction of the Balthasarian interpretation of this event, which would have us believe that our Lord suffered the pains of Hell on Holy Saturday. This argument is opposed by appealing to St. Thomas' teaching, that Christ descended into Hell with regards to place, but not as one of the damned - He came as a liberator, not a victim.

I am sorry for my poor explication of my friend's wonderful book; no doubt I am leaving out important points and possibly butchering some of his arguments. But the book is way better than my review of it. Readers will appreciate its scholarly tone, its tendency to be relevant to a dozen side-issues while remaining focused on only one, and Thomists will appreciate the copious amount of the Angelic Doctor that is cited in the text and footnotes. I highly recommend this book for getting to the traditional, Catholic view on the atonement of Christ.
Click here to go to the USC webstore and purchase Poena Satisfactoria; and don't forget to check out John's other book, Cathedra Veritatis on papal infallibility!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Reliability of the Fathers (part 1 of 7)

I recently had a discussion via private email with a Protestant scholar of Church history on the reliability of the Church Fathers for understanding the beliefs and practices of the early Church. This is a pivotal point for discussion with Protestants, who can usually be classified into two categories, at least with regard to the Fathers: (1) those who are ignorant of the existence of the Fathers and naively believe that early Christianity was essentially Protestant in appearance, and (2) those who know very well of the Fathers and what they say but either reject their testimony or else pick and choose which elements of patristic theology they will accept (basically reading the Fathers through the context of Luther).

In my experience, more and more Protestants are falling into group two, those who are familiar with the Fathers but disagree with us on the value of their testimony. This would be the category into which this Protestant fellow I was speaking with fell in to.  The discussion I was having with this gentleman was actually an outgrowth of the research I was doing on my previous post regarding head coverings (see here) and we were talking about the value of patristic insight into the issue, which gradually shifted the whole conversation from head covering to the value of the Fathers in doing theology.

This fellow (I do not feel at liberty to divulge his name since the conversation took place in a string of private emails) basically asserted that the Fathers deserved no pride of place in interpretation of Scripture; that, essentially, modern methodology and sensitivities to cultural context makes modern (20th century and up) biblical exegesis more reliable than patristic commentary. Using Chrysostom as an example, he writes:

When I was a college student, I used to think that early Greek writers like Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople (ca. 347-407), would have a better handle on the meaning of the Greek New Testament text than we moderns could have. They were native speakers, after all; and he was only a few centuries removed, whereas we are nearly two millennia removed. But I eventually came to realize that they were profoundly removed from the text due to (a) an insensitivity to the different cultural and temporal horizons -- their's versus the text's -- and (b) a profound and pervasive change in perspective due to major shifts that had occurred in the development of institutional churches, such as:

(1) The evolution of Christianity as a form of Judaism which was (more than) open to admitting or "grafting in" Gentiles into a Christianity as a largely Gentile religion to be distinguished from Judaism.

(2) The evolution of Christianity as a progressive and subversive challenge to social structures into Christianity as an upholder of said social structures.

(3) The rise and dominance of the legalistic and ascetic strains within Christianity.

(4) The formation of orthodoxy by way of the deselection and eventually the oppression of other expressions of those who claimed to be followers of Christ; or, to put it another way, the shift represented by the historical arc of Christianity from its First and Second Century welter among the  welter of religious choices into a largely homogenized religion with residual welter pushed to the margins.

(5) The rise of orthodox Christianity to a position of power under Constantine (d. 337), which flipped the Christian perspective from one of being temporally "the last" to one of being temporally "the first," to allude to Mark 9:35; 10:31 and parallels.

The divide between Chrysostom and the New Testament was already a huge gorge, a veritable chasm. The least advantage that scholars have today is that many -- the vast majority, I hope -- are keenly aware of it. As we attempt to scrub away what can be scrubbed away of our own presuppositions in exegesis, it is important that among those presuppositions scrubbed away are those that have been passed down to us by John Chrysostom and other patristic writers. Rather than reading the New Testament through the lens of John Chrysostom, good exegesis of the New Testament in its own context should serve as a foil against which we can compare and contrast later interpretations.

These are intelligent, well formulated responses (which I nevertheless disagree with); many Catholic theologians bring these very same points up if there is a dispute between the "Ancients and the Moderns" within theology. Let's look at these objections one at a time.

The first point brought up is the Father's "insensitivity to different cultural and temporal horizons." This means that the Fathers were reading the Scriptures in light of a different culture than that in which the Scriptures were composed (Greco-Roman versus Semitic); in other words, they didn't have degrees in cultural anthropology and therefore there was no way the Greek and Latin Fathers could get it right when looking at the Jewish Scriptures. According to this view, the Fathers would be interpreting the Scriptures in context of Greco-Roman thought whilst ignoring the differences between their own culture and that of the Jews, as well as changes in culture that arise from the passing of the centuries. Therefore, the interpretations of Scripture given by Fathers of the fourth or fifth centuries cannot be entirely reliable.

This assertion asks us to grant the presupposition that the Fathers approached the faith the same way as modern Protestants do: through reading and studying the Scripture in isolation from any living tradition. This is not unnatural for a Protestant to do, since Tradition is not a pivotal factor in their exegesis. However, if we think about how the Church developed in the first four centuries, we see immediately that the alleged division between Greco-Roman and Semitic cultures was not as radical as might seem at first. The Faith did not develop in individualist isolation, the way a Protestant might approach the Bible alone and draw his own conclusions from it apart from any tradition, On the contrary, though the Church did indeed spread from the Semitic east to the Romanized west, it preserved intact the deposit of faith by means of Tradition, through which the teachings of Christ were safeguarded and interpreted. In same cases in a literal way, such as when an eastern bishop like Irenaeus is physically transplanted to the west; in some cases by means of preaching and ordination, as when St. Peter the Jew came to Rome and ordained Roman Christians. Can we think that the barrier of cultures was so great in polygot Rome so as to render it impossible for St. Peter from the east to communicate the truth effectively to a disciple from Rome? We do the early Christians a great disservice if we think so; besides, if this were the case, it would be a strong argument against any present day missionary activity - after all, if we can't be certain that missionaries from the east could get the point across to the west in Roman days, why should we trust that any Christian missionary from America or Europe could bridge the even greater gap and present the faith to someone from Africa or China without culture distorting the message? Thus, we must give Tradition it's due. To say otherwise is essentially to deny the Church its divine unity. As Tertullian says, it is Tradition that binds all the churches together in their unity and apostolicity:

"They then in like manner founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches. Every sort of thing must necessarily revert to its original for its classification. Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive church, (founded) by the apostles, from which they all (spring). In this way all are primitive, and all are apostolic, while they are all proved to be one, in (unbroken) unity, by their peaceful communion, and title of brotherhood, and bond of hospitality—privileges which no other rule directs than the one tradition of the selfsame mystery" (Prescription Against Heretics, 20).

Second,we must remember that Rome had united the whole Mediterranean world, east and west, under a single cultural aegis in the first century before the coming of our Lord. East and west were not cut off from each other, as we are used to thinking of them, but were united politically. This political unity led to a social and cultural unity in the first and second centuries A.D. as Greek thought and Oriental cults and immigrants from Asia Minor, Syria, Judea and Egypt flocked to the west. This movement was even patronized by the emperor Hadrian, who was fond of all things Greek; later emperors Alexander Severus and Elagabalus officially promoted Syrian mysticism in Italy. As early as the reign of Trajan (98-117) the writer Juvenal complains about the degree to which eastern customs, religions and populations had penetrated even the heart of Italy. The point is that the average Roman (Christian or pagan) of the second, third or fourth century was not at all ignorant of eastern customs and ideas, be they Greek or Semitic. In fact, as time went on and the focus of the emperors started to shift to the east, I'd say the average Roman was more knowledgeable of the cultures of the east than, say, the Rome of Caesar's time. There were already colonies of Jews, Syrians Persians and all sorts of other easterners living all over the empire in the first century, even as far away as Gaul and Britain. There was a thriving Jewish community in Rome during the time of Julius Caesar. Chances are that most educated Romans were already quite familiar with Judaism and eastern culture in general by the time the Church came on the scene. Following Octavian's conquest of Egypt in his war with Antony there followed a great fascination with all things Egyptian that swept through Rome in the following decades; also, if we look at the list of Jews present at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, we get an idea of the extent to which eastern culture had penetrated the Roman world by the mid-first century:

"We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs" (Acts 2:9-11).

Rome was thoroughly acquainted with eastern culture, especially in the second and third centuries where it is most accurate to look at the empire as a single cultural entity rather than impose divisions between east and west on it that it did not take on till later.

Finally, to this argument that the Fathers are unreliable testators of primitive Christianity because they could not understand or appreciate Semitic culture, we must remember ultimately that insight into the mysteries of the Faith does not come solely from having a cultural sensitivity to ancient societies. Insight into the mysteries of the Faith comes through a holy life and closeness to God, regardless of what culture you may belong to. Thus, while a Syrian saint of the third century offers valuable insight into Christian belief in his time, no less valuable is the testimony of an Irish saint of the fifth century, for both, in drawing close to the same God are illuminated by the same light. The Popes have made the same case in their writings on the Fathers. Leo XIII says:

"[T]he Holy Fathers, We say, are of supreme authority, whenever they all interpret in one and the same manner any text of the Bible, as pertaining to the doctrine of faith or morals; for their unanimity clearly evinces that such interpretation has come down from the Apostles as a matter of Catholic faith. The opinion of the Fathers is also of very great weight when they treat of these matters in their capacity of doctors, unofficially; not only because they excel in their knowledge of revealed doctrine and in their acquaintance with many things which are useful in understanding the apostolic Books, but because they are men of eminent sanctity and of ardent zeal for the truth, on whom God has bestowed a more ample measure of His light. Wherefore the expositor should make it his duty to follow their footsteps with all reverence, and to use their labors with intelligent appreciation" (Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, 14).

And also Pius XII:

"In the accomplishment of this task the Catholic exegete will find invaluable help in an assiduous study of those works, in which the Holy Fathers, the Doctors of the Church and the renowned interpreters of past ages have explained the Sacred Books. For, although some less instructed in profane learning and in the knowledge of languages than the scripture scholars of our time, nevertheless by reason of the office assigned to them by God in the Church, they are distinguished by a certain subtle insight into heavenly things and by a marvelous keenness of intellect, which enables them to penetrate to the very innermost meaning of the divine word and bring to light all that can help to elucidate the teaching of Christ and to promote holiness of life"
(Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, 28).

Essentially, this is the same power of the Spirit granted to God's servants that the Sadduccees marveled at in the apostles when Scripture says:

"Observing the boldness of Peter and John and perceiving them to be uneducated, ordinary men, they were amazed, and they recognized them as the companions of Jesus" (Acts 4:13).

Note that, despite their lack of formal education, the fact that they had "been with Jesus" gave them boldness and insight into the Faith. As it was with the Apostles, so with the saints and Fathers.

Well, in this first post of the New Year we have answered one of the seven objections. Perhaps by New Year next I shall have gotten through all seven!

Click here for part 2 in this series.