|FAITH Magazine November-December 2008|
Born of a Virgin: Proving the Miracle from the Gospels
by John Redford, St Paul’s Publishing, 218pp, £9.95
Despite its cramped narrowness the Enlightenment still throws dark shadows over our intellectual landscape, especially Scriptural exegesis. The Enlightenment’s absolutization of the laws of Newtonian physics led to a denial of miracles and of human freedom, emphatic points of the New Testament message. Although Newton’s worldview has been relativised by physicists, many exegetes in the wake of Bultmann insist on a closed world of uninterrupted causal series. Anything beyond hackneyed everyday experience, reproducible at will to ‘scientific’ observers, tends to be treated as superstition, magic, or myth. Naturally the virgin birth, attested by Matthew and Luke, is branded a theologoumenon, the product of the early Church’s refection which invented stories to highlight Jesus’significance. Unfortunately many Catholic exegetes have accepted the premises of Enlightenment Protestant exegesis, resulting in a lethal abyss between the Church’s faith and ‘historical-critical’ exegesis. Redford’s book goes a long way to uncovering the prejudices of such exegesis while showing the historical reliability of the Gospel narratives. Interestingly he does so by employing the historical-critical method, hoisting exegetes with their own petards.
After setting out the problem, Redford contends that the virgin birth of Is 7:14 is rightly understood as a prophecy in view of Christ. Jews and Christians accepted that God can inspire a deeper meaning than what is intended by the human author. He then upholds the reliability of the New Testament manuscript tradition. A fourth chapter shows that Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels were composed before the end of the first century AD and no previous witness contradicts their testimony to the virgin birth. The alleged ‘silence’ about the virgin birth from other New Testament authors cannot be used as an argument against it since its factuality would have been revealed by Mary only after the resurrection and it did not constitute the centre of the Easter message; Redford even finds hints thatother New Testament authors framed their affirmations to allow for the virgin birth. The central sixth chapter, examining alleged inconsistencies in the two accounts of Matthew and Luke, concludes that both accounts enjoy a ‘substantial historicity.’ While both evangelists wished to state facts, they employed traditions available to them, which may have contained some errors, e.g. Quirinius was not governor of Syria when overseeing a census in 4 BC. Such an error would be material, not formal, i.e. Luke accepted it from his source without intending to affirm its historical accuracy. Redford defends the birth at Bethlehem and, in view of multiple overlaps in the traditions behind Matthew and Luke, the historical reliability of the two accounts. It is possible to reconcile these accounts,even if difficulties are encountered. For a presumption in favour of the historical accuracy should be employed, as NT. Wright argued. Not only does Dei Verbum 19 affirm the Gospels’ historicity but also Luke 1:1-4 maintains that he relied on eyewitnesses and intended historical accuracy. The final three chapters summarily consider the evidence against and for the virgin birth, arguing that it is neither myth nor indemonstrable truth; instead the evidence for the existence of an historical tradition anteceding the Gospels, ultimately from Mary herself, is more credible than any alternative explanation; hence, for anyone open to the possibility of miracles, there is good evidence to affirm Jesus’ virgin birth on the basis of the New Testament’s testimony.
One wonders why no use was made of Jesus’ unique relation to His Abba? Given the importance of fatherhood in ancient societies and Jewish avoidance of naming Yahweh, how would Jesus have dared such a novelty without insulting Joseph and impinging on God’s transcendence unless God alone was His Father? It is strange that Redford refers to Jesus’ conception “from the seed of the Word who directly created him in the womb of the Virgin Mary” (p. 199). Did the Word generate Himself? Hardly. Furthermore, can Redford so distinguish inspiration from revelation that Scripture is not revelation but only contains it (p. 36)? Does my body only contain my soul? Can there be meaningful revelation apart from the words mediating it? Preferable is an analogous understanding: Jesus is the primeanalogate of revelation, while His words and words about Him participate in the primal revelation. John 8:39-41 is doubly interpreted: on pp. 81-82, 160 Redford favours the view that the verses obliquely refer to a charge of Jesus’ illegitimacy (and thus awareness of birth without a human father) while on p. 137 that view is rejected as “highly imaginative.” He also exaggerates the difference between gignomai and gennaomai (pp. 77-78); both words can mean “to be born,” and only after the Arian crisis was a consistent effort made to distinguish “to become” from “to be born.” Despite such difficulties this fine book is easily recommended.
John M. McDermott SJ
Sacred Heart Major Seminary
Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith
By Christopher Cardinal Schönborn, edited by Hubert Philip Weber, translated by Henry Taylor, Ignatius Press, 181pp, £14.50
On 7 July 2005 an article by Cardinal Schönborn called “Finding Design in Nature” appeared in the New York Times. It caused something of a stir – a reaction which the Cardinal seems very happy with: these are important issues and they should be discussed widely. Over the following year he explored the matter in his monthly catechetical lectures, which form the basis of Chance or Purpose. The book retains a catechetical approach, clearly presenting the point of view of the Catholic faith, but not engaging in extended analysis of alternative opinions. This level of approach is perhaps related to the Cardinal’s admirably frank admission that he is a layman in scientific terms. Even so, just occasionally his lack of familiarity with scientific ideas lets him down a little.For instance, when he says that Richard Dawkins rejects a “clockmaker” God, he has in mind a God who makes a clockwork world and then just lets it run, whereas Dawkins in fact turns his invective against a “watchmaker” God who designs the complex workings of living organisms.
The Cardinal begins by sketching the Catholic and scientific world views and their mutual relationship. The idea that science and religion are always opposed is a persistent modern myth, and if each keeps to its proper methods there can be no real confect. Nevertheless, since scientists are human beings, they will inevitably bring philosophical presuppositions to the discussion, which can be a source of apparent confect. This has been particularly true in the case of evolution, where the scientific theory has often been hijacked to promote a materialistic ideology. Here and throughout the book Schönborn admirably distinguishes between the scientific and ideological aspects of Darwinism. He also succinctly dismisses fundamentalist creationism as “nonsense” which exposes the faith toridicule.
Chapters 2 to 4 consider how God is involved in the evolution of new species. First of all Schönborn roundly rejects the deist idea of a Creator who simply brings the cosmos into existence at the beginning of time and then has no further dealings with it. Creation means more than God simply “blowing the start whistle”. But how have ever higher forms of life come about? The Cardinal rejects two views as irrational: the idea that evolution has some mythical power to direct itself, and explaining evolution away as the result of blind chance. The work of creation is ongoing. However, precisely how Schönborn understands this was not entirely clear to me: does each new species require an individual act of creation or not? At times he praises science’s rejection of such ideas: “It is not amatter of ‘intervening, case by case’ from outside” (p. 84); yet, for life to come about, “it truly needs the creative act of God, the ‘divine spark’” (p. 82).
The discussion of the problem of (physical) evil left me somewhat disappointed. Suffering and death are seen as the inevitable concomitants of a universe created in a state of becoming, and destructive natural phenomena are essential for sustaining life. Furthermore, solidarity with those who suffer can bring great love into the world – am I alone in finding this argument a little hollow? A deeper consideration of how sin leads to physical evil would have been a valuable addition.
The chapter on man as the goal of creation was much more successful. Schönborn nicely shows how the “dethroning” of man by Darwin in some ways only reintegrates man into nature after Descartes had separated him from it; yet ideological Darwinism has reduced man further, to the status of a mere part of the material world, leading ultimately in the direction of totalitarianism. The existence of the soul is beautifully demonstrated with a quotation from Hans Jonas, describing a group of scientists taking an oath to uphold materialism – what could such an oath mean except that they had some non-physical power over their brains? In fact, the Cardinal’s use of telling quotations is one of the joys of this book.
The discussion of Christ as the ultimate goal of evolution left me simultaneously elated and astonished: elated because Schönborn clearly sees the cosmic significance of Christ as the centre of God’s plan; astonished at how effusively he praises the “fascinating” yet “controversial” vision of Teilhard de Chardin, whom he calls a “mystic of evolution”. The Cardinal is not unaware of difficulties here. He acknowledges that Teilhard does not do full justice to science or the faith, in particular that he runs the danger of “naturalising” Christ. All the same, some further critique of his ideas would have been welcome, since they seem to come close to animism and even pantheism: “The entire universe is … animated by [Christ’s] form. … Christ becomes the energy of the cosmos itself” (p. 141).(For a fuller discussion of Teilhard’s difficulties see Chapter 5 of Holloway’s A New Synthesis, advertised on page 30 of this magazine). It all seems at odds with the Cardinal’s orthodoxy and his desire elsewhere to avoid any mythologisation of evolution. That said, Schönborn is quite right to admire the impressive focus on Christ, the rejection of materialism, and the vital importance of a new synthesis of science and the Catholic faith for today’s world. And, in the end, Schönborn only devotes two and a half pages of his book to Teilhard.
A valuable chapter explores the question of man’s “dominion” over creation, making interesting links to a wide range of ethical issues including gender and homosexuality, animal rights, utilitarianism, and the basis of human dignity.
Overall, Schönborn identifies the Catholic position well. Both science and faith have an essential part to play in understanding ourselves and our world. They do not contradict one another and they can meaningfully communicate. Faith in God the Creator does not begin where scientific knowledge fails, rather it is based on our rational knowledge of the world. The Creator is no God-of-the-Gaps. But science alone is not enough to understand the purposefulness of evolution as a whole. If I was a little disappointed at times, it was partly because of the catechetical nature of the discussions – the title Chance or Purpose had led me to hope for a more in-depth analysis of both sides of the debate – and partly because the Cardinal seems so keen on Teilhard de Chardin. If I was pleased,it was because he clearly shows the vital importance of these questions for the proclamation of the faith today.
The Spirit of Celibacy
by Johann Adam Möhler, edited, annotated, and with an Afterword by Dieter Hattrup, English language edition edited by Rev Emery de Gaál, Hillenbrand Books, 166pp, $21.95
This is an excellent little book and surprisingly up to date, given that the German original was first written as an article entitled Illumination on a Memorandum in response to a Memorandum on the Abolition of the Celibacy Requirement for Catholic Priests submitted by certain theology professors to the Archduke of Baden, the Baden Parliament and the Archbishop of Freiburg in 1828. Then as today the opponents of priestly celibacy made their voices heard.
Möhler’s work itself is preceded by a preface and an introduction to the English language edition, both written by its editor. The introduction ends with a brief section about the editor of the original German edition of this book, Rev Dieter Hattrup. It would have been helpful to have had this separately referenced in the Contents for ease of reference when reading the extensive and illuminating Afterword from Hattrup which concludes the book. But this is the only negative comment I have to make.
The Illumination is divided into five chapters, describing in turn the state of things in 1828, the Biblical counsel of continence, an examination of celibacy’s origins in pagan, Jewish and Gnostic religions, celibacy in the early Church and, finally, the theology of celibacy.
Möhler laments the state of the Baden clergy of 1828 describing them in general as “neither very bright nor very spiritual,” having “a rather materialistic and worldly attitude, almost completely devoid of any spiritual life” with “no sign of real spiritual fruit among them – only a stiff and lifeless formalism.” The authors of the Memorandum appear to be aware of this “spiritual emptiness and hardness” in the clergy “and the remedy they are proposing for it is the abolition of celibacy. So inwardly and spiritually impoverished are the Baden priests … that they are reduced to … looking for joy outside themselves; so the cry has gone up from them: ‘Who will give us wives?’ ” as if the provision of wives will give the Church the priests it lacks.
Drawing on Scripture and Tradition, Möhler says rather that prayers should be offered for priests who are “full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Barnabas – Acts 11:24), combining “the profundity of an Augustine, the erudition of a Jerome, the rhetorical talent of a Chrysostom, and the gentleness of Hilary.” Möhler points out that attacks on clerical celibacy often come about at times when there is significant decadence among the clergy. The Church’s normal reaction at such times is to call for a renewal rather than a relaxing of clerical discipline.
Möhler’s biblical analysis looks at the teachings of Jesus and St Paul. Whereas the authors of the Memorandum dwell on the supposed impossibility of continence (“Not all men can receive this precept”) Möhler says that Our Lord is talking about a positive reality, the Kingdom of Heaven, and the power given to men to become eunuchs for its sake (cf. Mt 19:12). Möhler complains: “Instead of raising the spirits of all Christians and especially the clergy, [the fallacious interpretation of Mt
19:12] depresses them; instead of inspiring and blessing hearts with uplifting ideals, it brings them down to the commonest heathen reality and weakness.”
As for the supposed impossibility of continence, so enthusiastically were the people of Corinth embracing it that St Paul had to encourage them not to “refuse one another except perhaps by agreement and for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again…” (1 Cor. 7:5). Contrary to the assertion of the Memorandum that the Church emphasised virginity because it considered marriage as bad, in the chapter on the theology of celibacy Möhler says that he “will demonstrate incontrovertibly that it cannot be considered an accident if the Catholic Church, which honours virginity so much, also has the deepest grasp of marriage and hallows it as a sacrament.”
In this connection, one can recall what GK Chesterton wrote: “It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasised celibacy and emphasised the family, has at once (if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colours, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink.” (Orthodoxy, ch. 6 The Paradoxes of Christianity)
In the same chapter, Möhler refers to the close relationship with their community that the Catholic priests have in contrast to the Protestant clergy. While favouring dialogue, he argues against compromise with the spirit of the age. Priestly celibacy is the guarantee of the freedom of the Church from submission to the State, as also from any secularising tendencies arising in the Church. The chapter provides a critique of the foundations of Protestantism and asks: “Why is it … that the enemies of celibacy always seem to be hostile to the Pope while defenders are on his side?” Möhler links the demands for the abolition of celibacy to attempts to make the bonds of communion with the Pope weaker. And then local Churches would become weaker in the face of pressures from the State. “Thestates deal with bishops as with subordinates, whereas the Pope is respected as an acknowledged power independent of all states. In him, we are free.”
There is much more that one could write in favour of this excellent book. It deserves to be read by everyone, priest, seminarian and lay faithful. In an age when so much questioning of the value of celibacy can, as Möhler says, undermine the idealism of priests who have generously given up wives and children for the sake of the Kingdom, priests will find this book immensely encouraging and inspiring, seminarians will acquire a conviction early in their formation of the worth of abandoning everything for the sake of the Kingdom, and laity will find reasons to pray for their priests and for more vocations to the priesthood.
Humanae Vitae Forty Years On: A Commentary
by George J Woodall Family Publications, 224pp, £8.95
In Humanae Vitae Forty Years On Fr Woodall presents a cogent translation of Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, accompanied by a comprehensive commentary. As the translation text is set out on the left page with the commentary on the right it is easy to follow. However, one minor distraction may prevent quick referencing: whilst the paragraph numbering of the text matches the numbering in the commentary, the commentary seems to use an unduly complicated system of lower case letters and roman numerals sometimes to indicate a subparagraph or particular distinctions made within the text. Thus, for instance, n.10.3 in the text is considered in (10) b in the commentary; n.14.1 is discussed in (14) (a) i. Despite this very slight difficulty, overall, Father Woodall’s book isuser-friendly. In addition to his commentary Fr Woodall offers a more general commentary dealing with questions on the status of the encyclical, response of conscience, arguments raised in the wake of the encyclical to illuminate the teaching and observations on later ‘developments’: assisted and substitutive procreation, the condom and HIV, rape and other violent sexual intercourse.
Fr Woodall hopes in his commentary “to shed some light upon the problems tackled and especially on the teaching given” in the encyclical (p.7). He usefully discusses Paul VI’s appointment of a commission in preparing the encyclical and he points out that the role of the Commission was advisory (p.33). Yet his assertion that the majority report (that advocated the use of contraceptives where there was grave reason) can be seen as a “real change” rather than “just a development” in the moral teaching of the Church (p.37) may have benefited from a critique of the arguments used by the opposing side. After all, arguably, in the call for the renewal of moral theology lines were being drawn up between revisionists who saw change as the answer and conservatives who called for continuity yet alsoa deepening of understanding. Indeed, some of the other views, the “popular presentations” (p.69) and “ill-formed” (p.79) opinions to which Father Woodall alludes could either have been given to the reader with precise reference or been dealt with more thoroughly, and surely most successfully, by Fr Woodall himself. In that way the reader would be able to appreciate the genuine difficulty and struggle some found in accepting the teaching, even if their reasoning was in some sense misguided.
Whereas Fr Woodall helpfully makes some additional distinctions in his refection on n.14 subsection 4 (see his Foreword p.7) to clarify the Pope’s line of argument, his introduction to n.14 could be clearer (p.93). The Pope makes an important distinction between “regulating the number of children… already begun” (my italics) especially through the illicit means of direct abortion (n.14.1), then sterilisation (n.14.2), then methods that impede procreation (n.14.3). Fr Woodall begins his refection of n.14 by focussing on the issue of avoiding another child since he says the purpose of the encyclical is to consider contraception and the “new pill” (p.105). Fr Woodall does comprehensively discuss direct abortion, but an interesting point of refection is this cleardistinction between a child who has “already begun” and impeding procreation in the first place, particularly today when arguably many see early abortion as a form of contraception.
Again, Fr Woodall does remind his reader that Pope Paul reflected diligently on the response he was about to give, but he does not seem to allude to the Pope’s feelings of anguish and responsibility. Such feelings point to the idea that the encyclical was prophetic not only in the subsequent developments that Fr Woodall mentions (eg assisted procreation). The Pope was pastorally sensitive also to the demands made on married couples. The difficulty modern society has in understanding this teaching whether from cultural blindness, structures of sin, complexities of life or the widespread anti-life mentality mean that in an often hostile world Pope Paul charges married couples themselves to be prophets, to witness to and proclaim life as a gift and a blessing from God.
Undoubtedly Fr Woodall gives a clear and concise perspective on the encyclical and Church teaching on marriage and responsible parenthood. He gives it context not only by discussing the arguments in their historical and cultural setting but also by considering documents of Vatican II and other Church teaching and finally he brings the teaching forward by including reference to the writing of John Paul II.