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‘In the Beginning Was the Word’ - the Word of God

BY Servais Pinckaers Op

December 29, 1996-January 4, 1997 Issue | Posted 12/29/96 at 1:00 PM

 

Father Servais Pinckaers OP, professor emeritus of moral theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, delivered a lecture June 20, 1996, on the occasion of his retirement from the institution, where he had taught since 1973. Register readers are familiar with his writing on the Our Father, which was featured in early 1995 in the context of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. His farewell address is excerpted below.

If we consult the textbooks of moral theology used in the past four centuries, we note that their scriptural foundation has been reduced to the Decalogue, which, moreover, has been reformulated for the use of diocesan catechisms and [has come to be] interpreted as constituting a code of obligations and prohibitions imposed by the law of God. This moral teaching has certainly not been false—it remains fundamental—but, obviously, its contact with Scripture has been reduced considerably. As a result, the moral domain has been limited to obligations alone. Please allow this variation on a comparison found in the Gospel: When one forces the New Testament through the sieve of the negative precepts of the Decalogue, one risks capturing the gnat but losing the camel. Moralists limit their interest to a few Gospel verses, or those texts from St. Paul that correspond to the Decalogue, such as the prohibition of divorce (Mt 5, 31-32; 19, 9). It is up to spiritual writers or exegetes to study the rest of the New Testament—as if it did not contain any teaching that is specifically moral.

This deficiency has been all the more harmful because this concept of morality corresponds to the spirit of the times. It harmonizes with modern philosophy, by virtue of which the more or less categorical imperative has become the characteristic mode of moral teaching. This explains why exegetes themselves, influenced by this concept of moral theology, have not paid much attention to Scriptural texts that are not strictly imperatives, classifying them instead as simple spiritual exhortations…. They have been overlooking the major texts on morality found in the Word of God. …

The Sermon on the Mount

The first and most obvious of these texts is the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in St. Matthew 5-7, with its parallel in St. Luke 6, 17ff. Clearly, the evangelist wanted to give us … a summary of Jesus'teaching on the justice to which He called His disciples, a set of rules that they were to follow in life and action. We are dealing, therefore, with one of the chief Gospel sources of moral theology. St. Augustine shows his perfect understanding of this in his “Commentary on the Sermon of the Lord on the Mount.” For St. Thomas, the Lord's discourse belongs to the New Law, in a parallel of the Decalogue, being the expression of the Old Law. Both Doctors saw in the beatitudes Christ's answer to the question of happiness, the inquiry that underlies morality as it did all ancient thought….

We can also call upon a more recent witness, Henri Bergson, who describes the Sermon as presenting an “open” morality, in contrast to the “closed” morality imposed on society by obligations. “The morality of the Gospel is essentially that of the open soul,” he writes in The Two Sources. The philosopher stresses the essential difference between these two types of morality: The one is static, motionless, like a momentary pause in the course of progress; the other expresses movement and progress itself. Fittingly, it often uses the language of paradox, as in the precept of turning the other cheek.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has happily filled in the gap left in moral theology by the absence of the Sermon of the Lord by returning the latter to its rightful position in fundamental moral theology, under the aegis of the “evangelical law” (No. 1965-1970). It is significant, however, that in the thematic index of the Catechism, whether in French, Italian, German, Dutch or English, there is no reference to the “Sermon on the Mount.” This surprising omission shows that this vital text has not yet fully retrieved its place among our moral categories.

After the sermon, which is attributed to the direct authority of Christ, the New Testament offers us several texts devoted to apostolic paraclesis. Paraclesis, used 38 times by St. Paul and appearing 108 times in the New Testament, is a technical term that introduces a moral teaching, as in Romans 12, 1: “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, (parakalĂ™ oun humas) by the mercies of God”….

However, such texts have been neglected because they are considered to be a minor genre of simple exhortations added to ethical imperatives, relating to spirituality rather than morality. Yet, paraclesis seems to signal the specific form of primitive Christian moral teaching, which moved beyond the teaching of the Law—that operates through commands and prohibitions—toward an approach better suited to the growth of charity and the virtues under the impulse of the Holy Spirit. It is again a matter of that passage from a static to a dynamic morality, as Bergson noted. According to the custom in the synagogues, later adopted in Christian liturgical gatherings (Acts 13, 15), paraclesis, or a word of encouragement from the prophets, teachers and most especially from the apostles, was addressed to the faithful not in the imperative mode, as one would command servants, but by way of exhortation, as one speaks to brothers or friends. Jesus'words reported by St. John come to mind: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15, 15). An exhortation, in this sense, is an encouragement given to brethren whom the Spirit has enlightened concerning the designs of God, and whom charity renders capable of taking initiatives. On St. Paul's lips, paraclesis is the word of an older brother or a father, addressing the communities he has founded….

How, then, should the moral theologian—and every thinking Christian—read Scripture, in order to draw moral teaching from it?….

Where moral theology is concerned, our ordinary method of reading is often too narrow and restrictive. I am referring to the way we may search the Scriptures for texts that formulate commands and prohibitions, and then take these to be expressions of the divine will. This view of Scripture is materialistic. Divine law is seen as something imposed upon us from the outside; the Word of God is thus reduced to a legal text, a collection of general and impersonal norms. It is no longer truly a Word engendering a relationship between persons. Happily, few texts of the Bible lend themselves to this method. The Sermon of the Lord is particularly resistant to any kind of codification whatsoever. For this reason, it cannot be incorporated in moral systems of obligation….

Viewing the beatitudes in Matthew as mapping our Christian journey to the Kingdom of heaven, St. Augustine comes up with an original interpretation of the beatitude of the meek. After his own conversion from pride to humility—to the following of Christ in the way of the first beatitude—he looks at meekness in relation to Scripture and explains it as docility. Meekness also includes a conversion. It does not allow us to judge Scripture from the lofty height of our own ideas, or according to our feelings, but inclines us rather to judge ourselves according to the Word of God— whether this Word accuses us and reveals our sins … or whether some passages seem incomprehensible to us and spur us on to seek further for the truth they contain.

“It is piety that we need then, so that we will be meek and not contradict the divine Scripture when it clearly confounds some vice of ours, or if, when a passage is not clear to us, we think we know better and can judge better. On the contrary, we ought to think and believe that whatever is written therein, even if the meaning is hidden from us, is better and truer than anything we could know of ourselves.” (De Doctrina christiana, Bk. II, VII, 9)….

What will our attitude be toward Scripture, and in particular toward the Gospel? Shall we set ourselves up as judges, depending on our own knowledge, or shall we let ourselves be judged by Scripture and meekly allow ourselves to be guided?

Augustine began by judging Scripture. He admitted that he “barked fiercely against the holy writings” that he did not understand, and which, among other reasons, he disdained because of their lack of stylistic elegance. He was one of those of whom the psalmist says, “What right have you to recite my statutes, or take my covenant on your lips? For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you” (Ps 50, 16-17). We may not be carrying our aggressiveness this far, but many of us also feel tempted to judge Scripture according to our own criteria, our exegetical, philosophical or theological knowledge, or simply our opinions and preferences. In an echo of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, isn't it characteristic of the modern spirit to assume the right to judge everything and to refuse to be judged by anyone or anything else? Isn't the sum and substance of rationalism contained in the affirmation of reason's supremacy in judging truth, and in the rejection of any mystery that claims to transcend it?

If we adopt such an attitude toward Scripture, if we set ourselves up as its judges, it will without doubt remain a closed book for us. Even though we may esteem it, we treat it as one more book in our study among others, a collection of historical documents from a far distant past. It will remain a text subjected to the scrutiny of specialists, a subject for the discussion of scholars. It will never become truly a word that touches us in the present and illumines our lives. It will never be a guiding light for our actions, a source and inspiration for moral theology.

To escape this impasse, we need the courage to embark, with the help of Augustine and many others, upon the path of docility to Scripture, as if we were back in school again, listening to it with the freshness of children. Let us return to our question once more: How can the Gospel become a Word of life and action for us?

Intimacy of the heart

I am incapable of having you hear and understand the unique Word of God, unless he speaks to you, to us, directly, through the word of the Gospel, as he alone knows how to do, with a voice echoing, beyond human words, in the intimacy of the heart. It may be that he will speak with the force of thunder, as in his conversations with Moses on Sinai, or with the lightness of a whispering breeze, as in his encounter with Elijah (1 Kgs 19), or again as the Good Shepherd calling his sheep, one by one, by names known to him alone.

This was precisely the Word for which Augustine and his mother Monica yearned in their last conversation together at Ostia. “… If to any the tumult of the flesh were hushed, hushed the images of earth, and waters, and air, hushed also the pole of heaven, yea, the very soul be hushed to herself, and by not thinking on self surmount self, hushed all dreams and imaginary revelations, every tongue and every sign … and if he alone should speak … that we may hear his Word, not through sound of thunder, nor in the dark riddle of a similitude, but might hear him whom in these things we love, might hear his very self without these….” (Conf., Bk. IX, 25).

We must silence all the clamor and ideas that fill our minds and learn to listen to him with our hearts, with a longing to discover the precious truth that his Word contains. This is how St. John is understood: “In the beginning was the Word, the Word of God….” The Word of God is our spiritual origin and it has the initiative. It calls to us, illumines, judges and leads us. That is why it is the principle source of theology and Christian exegesis. But the Word cannot penetrate us and bear fruit unless we give it a welcome, and meekly surrender to it with the docility of faith….

One after the other, each in its own way, the eight beatitudes promise us happiness and prompt us to desire it with all our hearts. But then, immediately, they overturn our ideas and challenge us. For how can it be that the poor and afflicted are happy? Don't we think exactly the opposite? The shock is all the more powerful in that this message comes to us not in the serene atmosphere of a conversation or a conference as if it were some general teaching. When God addresses us it is usually in the painful context of poverty, sickness or failure, in the consciousness of sin, or, in the midst of trials of all kinds. He does so in a very personal manner, as best expressed by St. Luke: “Blessed are you poor … woe to you that are rich….”

Then the decisive question is put to us, revealing the heart of the Gospel truth: “Do you have the courage to believe that for you, too, poverty, humility, meekness and suffering open up the road to happiness, to the Kingdom?” The word “believe” takes on its full meaning here: It means the adherence of mind and heart to the word and person of Another, who leads us into the luminous obscurity of his mystery, the mystery of the Cross. It is here that a choice is made between the violence of refusal, of rebellion and the docility of the faith….

Beyond the historical truth of documents from the past, the Word touches us in the here and now of our personal life, placing itself at the very root of our actions. It gives us access to a future ready to be born and evolve from the moment we consent to him who speaks to us “as friend speaks to friend.” The moral teaching does not derive from any external constraint—it proceeds from the inner Word that reveals God's plan for us. At the same time it infuses us with the strength to follow this plan, a strength issuing from the mysterious but sure presence of the one whom we recognize in the hidden depths of our conscience.

This penetrating intuition led St. Thomas to define the New Law as an interior law. Contrary to the common opinion of his time, the Angelic Doctor dared to affirm that this law did not consist of a written text, not even that of the Gospel, but that it drew its essence and took its power from the grace of the Holy Spirit received through faith in Christ—and operating through charity, through the love of Christ poured into hearts…. Thomas took up the teaching of Augustine: “What are the laws of God inscribed in the hearts of the faithful, if not the very presenceof the Holy Spirit?” (Ia IIae, qu. 106, a. 1)….

There is yet one more important question to ask: If the Word of God and the New Law are interior and spiritual, what function shall we attribute to the letter, the texts of Scripture, the Sermon of the Lord and the moral catechesis of the epistles, as well as to Church teaching that has transmitted them to us, featuring all its interpretations and applications? All this doctrine surely comes to us externally, through the Bible and Church documents, such as the Catechism and the recent encyclicals, Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae.

The teaching of St. Thomas on the New Law enables us to put things into focus. The texts of Scripture and of the Church are secondary elements, instruments which the Holy Spirit has formed—either directly, by way of inspiration, or through the mediation of the successors of the Apostles—in order to communicate the Word of God to us who have need of words and books in order to reach the truth. These are the normal means for putting us in contact with the Spirit. They contribute to our moral formation, practice of spiritual discernment, and discovery of the ways of God….

‘Ask, and you shall receive’

We need to know how to use these instruments, however, if we wish to profit by them. The definition of the New Law holds up two main criteria that place us under the impulse of the Spirit. In order to penetrate these texts and grasp their essence, the first condition is to read them with faith in Christ, who makes us discern beneath the letter the very person of the Lord speaking to us, as the countenance of Christ appears through the texts as our model. Through faith and the work of the Spirit, these texts become truly real for us, as if they had been written for us. However, in order to obtain this light of the Spirit, the Gospel warns us to become first of all like little ones, however learned we may be, and to persevere in prayer, which is essential to the theological method: “Ask, and you shall receive, … knock, and it will be opened to you.”

The second criterion is charity. This was St. Augustine's general hermeneutic and catechetical principle: All of Scripture should be interpreted as a Word destined to teach us the love of God and neighbor, as revealed to us in Christ, and to foster its growth in us (De catechizandis rudibus, Ch. III, 6-8). This is the heart of the evangelical Law and moral theology….

This is a way of reading Scripture that in no wise prevents a historical and positive approach; it may even favor it. However, it gives our reading a spiritual penetration that carries us beyond the purely scientific or human level of reading to the Scriptural level, formed by the very Word of the living God.

There is one last criterion taught us by the Lord himself at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount. All reading of Scripture, especially of its moral catechesis, will be without profit to us unless we put its teaching into practice, thereby building on the rock of the Word of God rather than the sand of human words. This criterion is all the more important since by practice we acquire experience, and this gives us a kind of knowledge richer than any science learned from books. It is a knowledge by way of connaturality, proceeding from charity and forming wisdom—the gift of the Spirit who engenders all theology.

Translated from the French by Sister Mary Thomas Noble OP.