Thursday, June 21, 2018

Catholicism in the dock, part 2

This is another installment in my selective review of White's The Light of Christ. For the first installment:

A good example of this is the 20C proclamation of the dogma of the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This teaching is an expression of what the tradition has always affirmed for the Virgin Mary, and for all human beings in our capacity to participate in divine life. Our bodies are not an impediment we need to shed for shared intimacy with God. From the earliest times the Church taught that all human beings will be resurrected from the dead in the end times and that the Virgin Mary was the new Eve, fully redeemed by the grace of Christ her Son (a teaching we will return to below)…Christ has worked perfectly in the Virgin Mary what he intends to work more broadly in all of humanity at the end of time (185).

Notice White's methodology. He's attempting to infer an event from an idea: the Immaculate Conception, Mary as the new Eve, and the general resurrection–then attempts to infer the Assumption of Mary from that set of ideas, as if you can infer a historical fact from mere ideas. But historical events derive from causation, not entailment. Events don't operate on the same plane as logical implications. Events are contingent facts. 

That's what makes the future humanly unpredictable. It's not like a logical syllogism. 

When thinking about the biblical foundations of Mariology, it is important to recall the Catholic principle that scripture is a book inspired within the context of the early apostolic community and rightly interpreted within the early tradition of that same apostolic Church…This scriptural teaching [the real presence] is clearest when one finds very express witnesses to it in the teachings of Church Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, Ambrose, and Augustine…We gain even better understanding, however, by a living participation in the liturgy of that same apostolic Church where there is the true confection of the Eucharist (by a validly ordained ministry)…Likewise, the scriptures that refer to the Virgin Mary are intelligible for us when we read them within the larger community of the early apostolic Church that is devoted to the mystery of the Mother of God as a deep and nonnegotiable aspect of the mystery of Christ (217).

i) That's a key preliminary move. In hermeneutics, one concern is to identify the implied reader. In standard hermeneutics, when you interpret a document, the context is the author's past and present. His past (e.g. background material) and present (e.g. when the author wrote, the first readers). What may have influenced him. What occasioned the writing. What's the situation of the audience he's responding to.

ii) By contrast, White is trying to make what is future to the author, reception history, the context. That's highly idiosyncratic. The biblical author wasn't writing with the church fathers in mind. He wasn't influenced by the future. 

iii) When they exegete the text, Catholic Bible scholars (e.g. Brown, Collins, Fitzmyer, Johnson, Meier) employ the same methodology as Protestant Bible scholars. What we're getting from White is a kind of theological hermeneutics that diverges from Catholic Bible scholarship. Two compartmentalized approaches that yield different and contrary results. 

iv) If you make representatives of your own sect or denomination the arbiters of what Scripture means, then by happy coincidence, Scripture invariably endorses your sect or denomination. Scripture can never be a corrective. 

v) Why does White even bother with the text of Scripture when the Catholic distinctive derive, not from Scripture, but from church fathers, church councils, &c? Scripture doesn't contain the specific claims of developed Catholic theology. That's why he must supplement the sacred text with extrabiblical texts that do. But in that event it's the extrabiblical texts that actually teach Catholic distinctive. At best, the biblical texts are merely consistent with subsequent developments, without affirming or entailing subsequent developments. But that means they're consistent with disaffirming subsequent developments. They're consistent with more than one theological trajectory. 

White's hermeneutic is like a treasure hunt in which you first plant your conclusion in the text from sources outside the text, draw a map to find the treasure, then "discover" what you inserted into the text. But if you admit at the outset that you're reading out of the text what you first put into the text, then the exercise is circular and self-delusive. When you interpret the text in light of subsequent theological developments, then by definition it will mirror those developments. But the exercise is patently fallacious. 

vi) And even if we use reception history as our frame of reference, that doesn't single out the church of Rome. If you say the author was writing for the benefit of posterity, reception history includes Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, Anabaptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Welsh Methodists, &c.

vii) Throughout the book, White appeals to the church fathers to document the antiquity of some Catholic dogmas. But there's a problem with that inference. Even in the case of the "apostolic fathers" who may have had some personal knowledge of the apostles, Christians are quite capable of misunderstanding what they were taught. Many NT letters are written to congregations which were instructed by the apostles. Yet despite that face-to-face teaching, they often misunderstood what they were told, which is why the same apostles wrote letters correcting their confusion. Or in some cases it may not be that they misconstrued what they were taught; rather, they filled the gaps with their own judgment. If it's possible and indeed common for 1C Christians with firsthand knowledge of apostolic teaching to misinterpret apostolic teaching, there's no presumption that the church fathers had the inside track on what the apostles meant. 

In addition, some church fathers are much further removed in time, place, and culture from the NT than others. It's fallacious to put them in the same basket as if all church fathers were in the same privileged epistemic situation. 

As John Henry Newman pointed out, she is referred to in the second and third century as the new Eve by St. Justin Martyr in Rome, St. Irenaeus in Gaul, and Tertullian in north Africa…By this term they mean to designate the Virgin Mary as the one who was distinctively sanctified by the grace of Christ…Where Eve fell, Mary was obedient to God in a particularly perfect way by the grace of God. Where Eve was a point of departure for the human race in the order of nature, the Virgin Mary was a new point of departure for the redemption of human beings, in the order of grace (214-15).

There's a sense in which you could say Mary is the new Eve. By the same token, there's a sense in which you could say Noah's wife is the new Eve. A sense in which Noah is the new Adam while Naamah is the new Eve. But that illustrates the risks and limitations of these facile parallels. 

The Virgin Mary is not only part of the mystery of the Church but is in a sense the most manifest realization of the Church. She shows us what humanity can become when redeemed most perfectly by the grace of Jesus. It is for this reason that the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls her an "eschatological icon of the Church": alive now in heaven with Christ, she is an anticipation of the final state of the Church. 

Based on NT teaching, the Church has always held that Mary was the worthy Mother of God, meaning that she was rightly disposed by grace to accept the Incarnation of the Son as her own mystery and to live deeply in accord with Christ as his most perfect disciple. This life was primordial in Mary, a gift of grace disposing her from the beginning of her existence to live out her vocation as the Mother of God. It allowed her to remain faithful to Christ to the end, interceding for sinners in the crucifixion, and being conformed to Christ even in his death and resurrection, by her bodily Assumption into heaven…Her life is a microcosm of the life of the Church and an example to all Christians… (216)

i) That's an exposition of Catholic Mariology. It's useful in telling you what pious Catholics believe about Mary. But it doesn't give a reader who's not Catholic any reason to agree with that biased viewpoint, any more than reading an exposition of Mormon theology is aany reason to believe it. In fact, it's just a statement of White's theological prejudice. 

ii) It illustrates how pious Catholics are intoxicated by the idea of Catholicism. Swept away by appealing ideas. (Appealing to them.) They begin, not with evidence, but wonderful sounding ideas. 

iii) Mary is not the only person alive now in heaven with Christ. She shares that distinction with countless other deceased Christians. 

iv) There's nothing in the Gospels about Mary interceding for sinners. 

v) She piously submits to her assigned role, but it's a fait accompli. God didn't put it up for a vote. Gabriel announces what will happen to her. Her submission is admirable, but God's plan is not contingent on her consent. 

So likewise as St. Jerome noted in the 4C Vulgate, when the Virgin Mary is hailed by the angel as "full of grace" (in Greek, kecharitomene), it is a perfect passive participle that is employed, one having a very strong sense: literally, "Hail, one who has been fully or most perfectly graced". The angel acknowledges that she is holier than he is (218).

i) Here's we see the process of legendary embellishment right before our eyes. Notice that White's argument is explicitly dependent on the wording, not of the original text of Luke, but the Vulgate. He's not even conscious of the problem when he departs from the Greek text to draw his inference from a nuance in the Latin translation that can't be traced back to the text that Luke actually wrote. That's not what it means in the Greek–or even the Latin. 

ii) It's an essentially fictional hermeneutic, where you allow for creative additions and expansions, like the evolving mythos of the Arthurian saga, the Faust legend, Dracula, Superman, Star Wars, or Star Trek. 

The mythos takes on a life of its own, independent of the original source, because it's not constrained by reality. Rather, it follows dramatic logic. 

Mary is depicted as this "new Eve" figure three times in scripture. This occurs twice in John's Gospel: at the wedding of Cana where her petition to Jesus inaugurates his ministry, and where he calls her "woman" (that is to say, Eve) and at the Cross near the end of the Gospel. In the latter passage he says to her "woman, behold your son," speaking of the apostle at the foot of the Cross, but also referring through him to the whole Church. Mary is the new Eve who is moved by God's grace to petition the adult Christ to begin his earthly ministry among us. She is the perfect disciple at the foot of the Cross, who stands (and does not wilt) as the perfect disciple in faith, even when her Son is crucified. By her loving consent to his mission as our redeemer, she becomes with him and in him an intercessor for the whole Church. "Woman, behold, your son" (220).

i) This illustrates the blinding power of a theological paradigm to overwhelm the prooftext–as well as the groupthink dynamic of self-reinforcing communities. It's also what makes interfaith debates so time-consuming, because there are so many layers to peel away. 

ii) Mary did not intend to make Jesus inaugurate his ministry at this point. She simply wanted to solve a practical problem, perhaps a socially embarrassing problem, at a wedding. That this precipitated a public miracle, thereby initiating his ministry, is an unconscious side-effect of her request. 

iii) The mere use of "woman" as a term of address must be an allusion to Eve? Is that how "woman" as a term of address typically functions in 1C Judaism? 

iv) Mary isn't the only one standing by Jesus right up to the bitter end. There's John, the Beloved Disciple and narrator. White completely omits that. 

Scripture refers to the Virgin Mary as the "Mother of God" overtly. The title is employed by Elizabeth in the infancy narratives of Luke (221).

That's not a title but a description. You can turn it into a title, but there's no reason to think Elizabeth is addressing Mary according to a formal title, like the queen. 

As we have noted above, the crucifixion scene in Jn 19 depicts the Virgin Mary standing next to the Cross of Jesus, faithful and unwavering even in the most extreme of personal trials. In her prefect discipleship she becomes not only the Mother of God but now also the Mother of the Church (221).

There's nothing uniquely holy, muchness vicarious, about Mary's presence at Calvary. It's the behavior of a devoted mother. Countless mothers would do the same thing. That's natural maternal devotion. 

This idea is shown symbolically but unambiguously in Revelation, where the Mother of God is depicted as a woman "clothed with the sun". The image clearly refers to Mary because it pertains to the mother of Jesus. Here she is the new Eve, the  woman who is attacked by the ancient serpent, as was Eve. She is also a figure here of the Church, persecuted by the Roman Empire, and she is protecting her "offspring," members of the Church, who are also then children of the Virgin Mary (221).

i) A basic problem with that interpretation is that it fails to be consistently literal or metaphorical. It arbitrarily careens between literality and figurality. 

If you identify Mary as the referent in Rev 12 because she's the biological mother of Jesus, then you can't suddenly drop that principle and say she's the metaphorical mother of Christians, or a symbol of the church. For if the depiction is metaphorical, then you can't infer that the referent is the mother of Jesus because Mary is his biological mother.

The interpretation needs to be consistently literal or consistently figurative on the same plane. The referents must operate on the same level of literality or figurality. If the woman is figuratively the Church, then the manchild can't literally be Jesus.  

ii) In this passage, Mary doesn't personify the church. Rather, the church/Israel is personified by a woman. In the OT, Israel is personified as a mother in labor. The text also evokes Exodus motifs. Cf. C Koester, Revelation (Yale 2014), 542.

iii) Although the passage alludes in part to Gen 3, the serpentine/dragonesque imagery also derives from passages in Isaiah and the Psalter regarding the Red Sea crossing (e.g. Ps 74:13-14; Isa 27:1). So that's not just about Eve, but Israel and the Exodus.  

White has cut the text loose from its literary moorings. It's now adrift, going wherever Catholic theology blows it. 

The "sun" with which the Virgin Mary is enrobed is the divinity of God himself. Just as the Lord was conceived in her womb and dwelt humanly with her, so she is assimilated by the resurrected Christ, her Son, into the life of God and by her bodily Assumption dwells spiritually with Jesus in the life of the resurrection (222). 

i) If the sun is the divinity of God himself, what about the moon and stars? White is arbitrarily picking certain elements while ignoring others. He doesn't offer a cohesive, integrated interpretation. For him, it's not about how these elements correspond to each other in the text, but how certain elements can be commandeered to correspond to Catholic Mariology. 

ii) Notice how far removed his conclusion is from his prooftexts. 


  1. For documentation of how widely the church fathers contradicted Roman Catholic Mariology, see here. The earliest patristic evidence is against Mary's perpetual virginity and sinlessness, rejects the veneration of images of her, and rejects praying to her. Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian refer to her as a second Eve, but also refer to her as a sinner either directly or indirectly. Some of the fathers also refer to other women as a second Eve. The appeal to Jerome's rendering of Luke 1:28 in the Vulgate is misleading, since he considered Mary a sinner. The earliest interpretations of Revelation 12 are non-Marian. For hundreds of years, fathers across the world discuss issues like who in history has been assumed to heaven and who never died, citing the examples of Enoch, Elijah, and Paul over and over again. They never cite Mary. It's highly likely that they had no concept of her being assumed. I discuss these issues and others in articles like the ones linked above. Roman Catholic Mariology isn't patristic Mariology. The two are contradictory. Appeals to development are erroneous, since an oak doesn't grow from a redwood seed.

    Going to John 2:4 for support of a Catholic view of Mary is shameless. The language Jesus uses there after referring to her as "woman" is used in other passages as well, so we have a lot of evidence indicating what the language means. Jesus is rebuking Mary, which implies that she sinned. For a discussion of that passage and other Biblical passages referring to Mary as a sinner, see the first article on the sinlessness of Mary on the page linked above.

    On the same page, you'll find some articles about whether Christ is present in the eucharist and in what manner. Roman Catholicism doesn't teach a "real presence". It teaches transubstantiation. When Catholics begin a discussion by retreating from the latter to the former, that tells you something about how deep in history their beliefs actually are. Men like Irenaeus and Augustine, like so many other people long before the Reformation, contradicted transubstantiation. Citing their belief in some form of eucharistic presence isn't a defense of Roman Catholicism. It's a defense of something else. The evidence suggests that there was a wide variety of eucharistic views from the patristic era onward, including views not involving a physical presence of Christ in the elements. A physical presence is less than transubstantiation, but a universal tradition or something close to that can't even be claimed for a physical presence, much less for transubstantiation.

    1. Yeah. I have heard that. For a Jewish man to call his mother "woman" is a rebuke an insult. The wedding of Cana is Jesus rebuking her.

  2. "Her submission is admirable, but God's plan is not contingent on her consent."

    Kapow! And that Arminians is predestination in one sentence.