Saturday, February 27, 2021

Nimrod: A Mighty Hunter "Before the Lord"

Last week I received an inquiry from a young man of Protestant background who is contemplating the claims of the Catholic Church. He had been listening to the Fr. Mike Schmitz through the Bible, in the course of which he encountered a difficulty understanding the figures of speech used in the Scriptures. This gentleman posed a question about consistent interpretation, using an example from Genesis 10:9-10. He wrote:
Way back in the beginning there was Nimrod, who was "a mighty hunter before God". It is explained [in the podcast] that "before God" is thought to mean "in opposition to God", which is kinda counterintuitive. Maybe five podcasts later, after blessing Abraham, God says to him "go before me". I doubt He is telling Abraham to oppose Him; he's actually telling him to be faithful to God. Why is "before God" in Genesis 10 taken to mean "in opposition to God" while the same concept in Genesis 17 taken to mean "be faithful to God"? One of the problems I have with modern religion is accuracy after multiple translations. Do you see now why I have reservations?

Here we have a classic problem of two similar biblical phrases being taken to mean different things. Such situations can raise questions about the integrity of a translation in particular, or the very plausibility of written divine revelation in general. Let's dig in to this question.

The phrase "before the Lord" in Hebrew is  ḡibbōr-ṣayiḏ lip̄nê Yahweh. This literally means something like "in the face of the Lord", according to my Hebrew concordance. The phrase can mean multiple things, just like in English. For example, a man who wants to say something important to someone he cares about might wait to "say it to their face" as a sign of respect. But the same phrase can denote insult or antagonism, like when a man says "I dare you to say that to my face!" The meaning has to be determined by the context and other cues other than the exact vocabulary. 

Elsewhere in Bible we see the same variation of usage. In Galatians 2:11, St. Paul says "When Cephas came to Antioch, I resisted him to the face because he stood condemned", where the idea of acting "in the face of" denotes bold opposition. But elsewhere it can signify familiarity, as when St. Paul says "show to them the proof of your love and of our boasting about you in the face of the churches" (2 Cor. 8:24). Here, "in the face of" means "in the midst of" or "in the sight of" and is used as to communicate intimacy.

This really isn't problem with the accuracy of biblical translation; it's just how language is. Words have lots of meanings that require context to sort out. Heck, the English word "set" has 432 different meanings. The Bible, being written by men and utilizing regular human speech, requires the same sort of contextual approach to understand. The fact that various phrases mean different things in different contexts is what we would expect any time human language is being used normally.

In the verses cited, Nimrod's life "before the Lord" or "in the face of the Lord" is taken to mean he was brazenly bold in his opposition to God. The context is derived not from the text directly, but from a longstanding Jewish interpretive tradition, going back to the Midrash, Philo, Pseudo-Philo, the Book of Jubilees, Josephus, etc. who all assert Nimrod was a villain. It's not necessarily discernible from the text, but it is a reasonable interpretation of the it. The pre-Christian tradition is unanimous that Nimrod is a villain, and thus we read the phrase ḡibbōr-ṣayiḏ lip̄nê Yahweh to mean "in affront to the Lord" or "in opposition to the Lord." The Vulgate, too, followed this tradition, calling Nimrod robustus, that is, stout, bold, or haughty. The fact this young man finds such an interpretation "counterintuitive" in its English rendering is neither here nor there. Rather, it's an example of why you need tradition to help you interpret Scripture.

Context is also key in Genesis 17, the passage the interlocutor referenced about Abraham walking before the Lord. Abraham is unanimously portrayed as a faithful man and hero of faith in both Testaments and in Jewish and Christian tradition. Therefore the the phrase "before the Lord" with reference to Abraham gets a more benign reading, which makes perfect sense. The context, either textually or in terms of extra-textual of tradition, helps  establish the meaning.

Incidentally, the Vulgate preserves this contextual approach perfectly. It translates "before the Lord" as in coram Domino, which means "in the presence of the Lord." In coram is a neat little phrase that means "in the presence of", "in the midst of", or "before", as in the sense of "to stand before." As with the English phrase "in the face of" and the Hebrew ḡibbōr-ṣayiḏ lip̄nê, in coram can denote intimacy as well as opposition. In ancient Rome, a man marrying a woman in the presence of the family is said to be marrying her cum manu in coram gente, whereas a man found guilty of a crime before an assembly was said to be condemned in coram populo. In the former case in coram denoted intimacy and fidelity, whereas in the latter it signified opposition and antagonism.

Ultimately, there's really no reason to have reservations about the meaning of these texts anymore than there would be to have reservations about the way any regular human being uses language. I have previously recommended The Book of Non-Contradiction: Harmonizing the Scriptures as a handy guide to sorting out a lot of these textual questions. Anyone interesting in learning more about reconciling biblical passages with each other should check it out.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Book Preview: Church Controversies under the Normans and Angevins

Grace and peace to you all, friends. For awhile I have been working on the manuscript of a book that will be on the subject of sacral kingship in the Middle Ages—the idea that the king, by virtue of his coronation, has a kind of sacred or theocratic authority, held directly from God, which enables him to exercise a trusteeship over the Church within his realm. I am super close to finishing the text and am quite excited with how it's turning out. 

I wanted to preview a section of one of the chapters here that I am very happy with. This chapter is on the ideology of the Investiture Controversy, but this sub-section deals with the theocratic pretensions of the Norman and Angevin kings specifically and their attempts to consolidate their power through turning the Church into an apparatus of the state. 

Also, I do have the text thoroughly footnoted in the manuscript, but the formatting did not transfer well into blogger so I omitted them here. But you'll have to take my word on it that I did my research : )

The Normans & Angevins

The Investiture Controversy was not limited to Germany and Italy. Ideals of sacral kingship were particularly strong amongst the Norman lords, who worked tirelessly to centralize Church and State under their command within their realms. While constraints of space do not permit an entire chapter devoted to the lords of Normandy, we will touch on some of the more important episodes of the 11th and 12th centuries germane to our discussion.

Consider the case of Roger of Sicily. Roger and his brother had conquered Sicily from the Muslims in a long war of attrition throughout between 1063 and 1091. In 1071 he was created Duke of Sicily, effectively creating his own insular kingdom on the island. Duke Roger’s power was absolute in matters of religion and politics. He personally established multiple dioceses and selected their bishops personally. He presided in liturgical matters, imposing the Latin rite in areas traditionally given over to the Greeks. Since the Normans of Italy were a counterweight to the Germans, the papacy tolerated Roger’s theocracy to keep him as an ally against Emperor Henry IV. Pope Urban II even made him Apostolic Legate in Sicily.

Roger’s son, Roger II was the first King of Sicily (1130-1154) and created the south Italian domain known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies that would endure until the 19th century. Imitating Charlemagne, he was crowned on Christmas Day, 1130, in the Cathedral of Palermo. History does not record who performed the royal coronation, but a mosaic in Palermo’s St. Nicolò dei Greci alla Martorana reveals how Roger wanted the event to be perceived. The famous coronation mosaic of the Martorana depicts King Roger in the garb of a Byzantine monarch. Bowing his head, his arms opened in the priestly orans posture, Roger receives his crown not from any bishop but from Jesus Christ Himself. Christ, hovering off the ground to highlight His divinity, gazes at Roger, while above the king’s head and paralleling the nimbus of Christ are the words Rogerius Rex in Greek letters. The particular bishop who crowned him is irrelevant; the royal authority comes from Jesus Chris, whose hand in the mosaic is still resting upon the crown. The royal crown forms a direct link from the person of Roger to the person of Christ, the royal office being that which invests Roger with the divine auctoritas of Christ. Such were the pretensions of the lords of Normandy.

By the time of Roger, England, too, had been overrun by the Normans. The first generation of Norman lords under King William the Conqueror (1066-1087) systematically replaced England’s Anglo-Saxon episcopacy with one from Norman stock in perhaps the biggest single exercise of lay investiture in the history of Christendom. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century many English bishops had begun adopting the tenets of the Gregorian reform, bringing them into conflict with the centralizing tendencies of the Norman kings. England had its own controversy over investiture from 1102 to 1107 and centered on the opposition of St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, to the policies of King William II Rufus (r. 1087-1100) and Henry I (r. 1100-1135). Both kings categorically refused to accept the principles laid out in Dictatus Papae. The former was guilty of pilfering Church properties while the latter insisted on Anselm receiving investiture at his hands. Anselm refused to be invested by a lay person, to the fury of King William Rufus. In the end, Rufus had Anselm dragged to his beside and forcibly shoved the episcopal crozier into his hand—and apt symbol of the Norman ideal!

There were other issues at stake as well, relating to William Rufus’ refusal to allow the Church to enforce certain precepts of canon law within his realm—most notably, Rufus refused to allow the English bishops to meet in independent council, asserting that issuing summons to gather in synod was prerogative of the crown. Anselm endured several exiles and journeyed to Rome in hopes of finding a compromise. A settlement was reached in 1107 in which the king gave up investiture, though the bishops were still permitted to do homage for their temporal possessions. This formula would be influential in shaping the Concordat of Worms fifteen years later.

The English Angevin dynasty (1154-1216) continued to assert the king’s supremacy over matters of the Church as a matter of divine right. The famous conflict between Archbishop Thomas à Becket and King Henry II had begun over King Henry’s claims to have juridical authority over clergy in criminal cases. The resistance of Becket led Henry to push for a general affirmation of the traditional royal prerogatives of the king over the Church in a document known as the Constitutions of Clarendon (1164). The Constitutions were a sweeping assertion of royal dominance. They maintained the king’s sole right to fill episcopal vacancies, denied the sole jurisdiction of the Church over clergy accused of crimes, forbid clergy from leaving the kingdom without royal permission, forbid the Church from inflicting canonical punishments unilaterally on any of the king’s vassals, forbid appeals to the pope without the king’s permission, transferred the standing of all disputes between laymen and clerks to the royal courts, required all bishops holding benefices from the king to attend on him in court, assigned all ecclesiastical revenues from a vacant bishopric or abbacy to the king during the time of its vacancy, mandated oaths of fealty to the king before a bishop-elect could enter into his office, and forbid the ordaining of commoners without the permission of their lord.

Becket alone refused to sign the Constitutions and went into exile. From exile in France, he proposed use of excommunication and interdict against Henry, but Pope Alexander III preferred a more diplomatic approach. The papacy negotiated a settlement with Henry to allow Becket to return in 1170, but Becket was soon at odds with King Henry again over the coronation of Henry’s son without him, a breach of Canterbury’s traditional privilege of coronation. Another round of excommunications followed, which in turn led Henry to mutter his famous words while he celebrated Christmas in the presence of his knights: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” Becket was subsequently assassinated in Canterbury Cathedral on December 29th, 1170 by four of Henry’s knights. Henry would do penance for the killing at Becket’s tomb, and the Church received a martyr in its struggle for liberty from lay interference.

By the reigns of Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199) and John (1199-1216), the medieval papacy was reaching the apex of its power, leaving sacral monarchy in retreat everywhere. Nevertheless, both Richard and John continued to assert the traditional rights of kings, by the power of God, to control the Church in their realms. Richard’s clerks adopted the phrase plenitudo potestatis (“fullness of power”) in describing the power within his realms, and this in direct imitation of the canonist popes of the 12th century who used the same phrase to denote the authority of the pope within the Church. Richard’s justices also declared in 1194 that the excommunication of a prominent royal servant was contra regale dignitatem et excellenciam, that is, against the dignity and eminence of the crown, and Richard complained that the excommunication was issued “to the prejudice of our dignity and to the liberty of our kingdom.” The Lionheart viewed the Church’s unilateral exercise of canonical penalties as a direct affront to the dignity of the royal power.

In fact, almost all conflicts with clerics during the Angevin period make reference to royal dignitas. The late 12th and early 13th centuries saw the ascendancy of systematized canon law—a movement which threatened to replace the king as the governor of ecclesiastical affairs. The Angevins consistently pushed back against the encroachment of canon law, arguing that canonical infringements on royal prerogatives were contra dignitatem nostrum (“against our dignity”). King John’s barons argued that the pope’s attempt to settle the disputed Canterbury election of 1209 would fail to respect his dignity; similarly, John’s letters to clerics complain of “any diminution of the right and dignity which our ancestors had”; or they defend royal interference in the Church “according to right and our dignity and old and approved custom” or “our dignities which our predecessors had.”

These references to “old and approved custom” or “dignities which our predecessors had” often contained appeals to old theocratic concepts from the Anglo-Saxon era. For example, in the disputed Canterbury election of 1205, John tried to force his candidate, John de Gray, against the consent of both the cathedral chapter and Pope Innocent III. The contest dragged out for years, during which John complained about the diminution of his prerogatives. He argued that “all my predecessors conferred archbishoprics, bishoprics, and abbeys in their chamber”, citing Edward the Confessor’s appointment of St. Wulfstan—who had recently been canonized—as bishop of Worcester. This very St. Wulfstan was the subject of a colorful legend, also alluded to by King John: William the Conqueror tried to remove Wulfstan from his bishopric. Wulfstan responded by thrusting his crozier immovably into the stone over the tomb of Edward the Confessor, where it remained miraculously fixed, and saying he would only surrender it to the king who had appointed him. This tale, according to John, affirmed the right of the king to appoint bishops and ratified this authority by divine intervention.

In 1212 John drafted a letter again protesting the Church’s attempts to rob him of his right to appoint bishops, again appealing to Anglo-Saxon tradition:

[I]t is notorious that in ancient times before the coming of the Normans, the kings of England, even those now canonized, granted cathedral churches to archbishops and bishops entirely at their pleasure. Since the conquest, elections have been subject to the king’s assent and hitherto have been carried out strictly in this form.

Though the Angevins drew appealed to older theocratic models to justify their attempts to hold onto royal control over the Church, King John was unable to prevail in his dispute with Innocent III. Stephen Langton was eventually installed as Archbishop of Canterbury over John’s protests (1207). John refused to accept Langton, and his obstinacy earned him an excommunication in 1209. John feigned indifference, until war with France seemed to be looming and he needed the pope’s support. Innocent III agreed to lift the excommunication in exchange for John offering England as a fief to the pope. John did homage to Innocent III in 1213, handing over England as a papal fief. Two years later he was humiliated before his nobles at Runnymede, who forced him to sign the Magna Carta. A year after he was dead, and with him died theocratic kingship in England—at least for a few centuries.


If you think you might like this book and would be interested in purchasing a copy, please email me at and I will make a note of it and email you when it is complete. I am anticipating the book to be ready for sale by April. Probably going to be close to 200 pages, hardcover. Pax.


Sunday, February 07, 2021

Leniency and Severity

Have you ever reflected on how your judgment of whether you are harsh or lenient with a particular sin is colored by your own experience?

We tend to assume that everyone starts on a level playing field—that when it comes to virtue and vice, we are all a blank slate. Perhaps this is true in the sense that nobody is born having committed any actual sin, nor with any particular virtue. But we must not forget that we all have certain natural dispositions inherent in our personality. These dispositions not only make us more or less susceptible to certain kinds of vices and virtues, but affect our culpability or merit respectively.

For example, a certain person by nature has an extremely gregarious personality: extroverted, talkative, sociable. Because of his gregarious nature, he is susceptible to the sin of gossip and falls easily into it. But another man by nature is reserved and solemn, not given to much talk in general let alone the sin of gossip in particular. The former can scarcely go a few days without gossiping, while the latter has probably never committed the sin in his life.

Now, the silent, reserved man might look at the chatterbox and feel irritated and judgmental about the latter's proclivity to gossip. From his perspective, it is not a difficult thing to refrain from gossip and he is annoyed that the other cannot exercise the restraint that he himself exhibits. He has no problems refraining from gossip, why can't the other?

What this man does not realize is that it is not his great virtue that restrains him from gossiping—he merely has a personality that is not disposed to it. Because he is not disposed to it, there is no struggle for him in refraining from it. Because he experiences no struggle, he can't understand that other people do. Because he can't understand this, he can't empathize. Because he can't empathize, he judges the other for his sin. And his assessment of his own virtue is distorted.

But what of his own sin? He may not be disposed to gossip, but he is certainly disposed to other sins. Perhaps because he is withdrawn he is often lonely, and turns to pornography now and then in vain hopes of consoling his loneliness. This is a struggle for him. He is deeply embarrassed by it. He understands the temptation and the difficulty surrounding this sin. Because it's hard, he wants empathy—and he easily gives empathy to others struggling with pornography as well. He is much less likely to judge himself or others for this sin. He is much more likely to feel like, "Nobody's perfect. I know I've got my faults, but I'm trying." He is more lenient.

In general, we are most critical of those sins we are not naturally disposed to commit anyway, while we are most lenient towards those sins we ourselves struggle with. Our own experience tends to be the lens through which we apportion severity or leniency to a particular sin. We think we are being fair, we think we are being level-headed, but really we are just justifying ourselves.

Of course, certain sins are objectively worse than others. Murder is worse than cheating on an exam, and I would argue pornography is worse than gossiping. But how much virtue we exercise in overcoming a particular sin is very relative to our own strengths and weaknesses. A man who struggles with a porn habit and, through prayer and much effort, manages to go three weeks without relapse may have exercised more virtue in this regard than a man who is not easily disposed to temptations of the flesh and has never looked at porn in his life. The man who, through grace-filled effort, manages to restrain himself from gossiping throughout Lent has exercised more fortitude than the man who isn't disposed to gossip to begin with. 

This is because virtue is not merely doing the right thing—it is doing the right thing habitually, because you have disciplined yourself to do so. A person who who has learned to be unperturbed through discipline has acquired the virtue of patience. A person who is naturally chill and unperturbed by things has considerably less patience, considered as a virtue.

Through the gift of wisdom, may we see with God's eyes and truly focus on removing the plank from our own eye.