Readers of this blog know that I have been waiting for the publication of my new book, Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics. I am pleased to say that the book is available now both in print and electronic editions. (My author copies have just arrived.)
There on the cover is a statue of the Archangel Michael at war, calmly driving a sword down the flaming mouth of the Serpent: A fitting image of virtue conquering vice. It adorns the Basílica de Guadalupe in Mexico City.
This is the latest in my series of commentaries on aspects of the Summa Theologiae. The first was my Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law, which came with a free online partner volume, Companion to the Commentary. Among some writers on ethics, there is a certain tendency to separate rules too sharply from virtues, but as the Angelic Doctor knew, neither can be understood properly apart from the other.
Old Testament stories like the divine command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac present real difficulties, but the main difficulties are false ones.
The greatest false difficulty is expressed in the question, “How could God have approved child sacrifice?” He didn’t. Since God intervened to prevent the slaughter, the point of the story of the command to sacrifice Isaac is not that He wanted child sacrifice, but that Abraham needed to be trained to believe what God has promised him. For Abraham, the issue of trust arises because God has promised to make of his descendants a mighty nation, but now, in Abraham’s extreme old age, He instructs him to slay his only descendant. Indeed, as we learn when the divine law is given, much later in salvation history, God loathes child sacrifice -- but Abraham comes too early in history to know that. He is surrounded by nations that sacrifice their children to their gods. Perhaps it didn’t shock him.
By the way, Abraham did tell Isaac that the Lord Himself would provide a sacrifice -- and He did. It may also be that not only Abraham’s trust, but also Isaac’s trust is at stake. In a letter to the Christians at Corinth, St. Clement, one of the Patristic writers, maintains that “Isaac, with perfect confidence, as if knowing what was to happen, cheerfully yielded himself.” And as we know now, a substitute sacrifice has been provided for all of us.
Ever seen video of protestors dragged off by police? It may not be what you think – at least not in Berkeley, California.
When I read the item in the Wall Street Journal, I wondered whether it was a satire. Nope. You can check it out for yourself at the Event Planning Checklist provided by the Berkeley Police Department for groups planning protests.
First the checklist instructs the organizers to file event forms at the Recreation Department. (Did you know protests are recreation?) Next comes a section asking them to provide the Police Department with information about such things as the purpose of the protest, the route of the march, what the organizers will be wearing, and so forth. The provide-this-information section closes with the following questions:
• Do you want symbolic arrests?
• If so, where and when?
A good many Christians treat either liberal or conservative ideology as the authentic political expression of Christianity. For example, the left tends to view having compassion for the poor as practically identical with being liberal, and the right tends to view having respect for 'traditional values' as more or less the same thing as being conservative. Back in the ‘nineties, I wrote a pair of articles for First Things magazine to explore the problem -- one called “The Problem with Liberalism,” the other “The Problem with Conservatism.” Last year, The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture asked me, not to give a rehash of the articles, but to reflect on the problems with liberalism and conservatism today. They talked First Things into sponsoring the lecture, and I’ll be giving it this very week.
The date is Thursday, April 27. The time is 5:30pm. The location is The University of Texas at Austin, Flawn Academic Center (FAC) Room 21, 2304 Whitis Ave #338, Austin, Texas. If you’d like to come, you can register to attend here. I hope you can come.
The Lord is Risen! This is an abbreviated outline of one of Thomas Aquinas’s homilies for the season of Easter. Besides being crisp and illuminating, it shows how he labored to extract every last grain of meaning from every pronouncement of Scripture. I think it’s an excellent model.
+++++ + +++++
Christ said, “I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to the Father." – John 16:28.
He “came forth from the Father” for three reasons: To He might manifest the Father in the world; to declare His Father's will to us; and to show the Father's love towards us.
He “came into the world” for three reasons: To enlighten it; to reconcile it to God the Father; and to deliver it from the power of the Devil.
He “left the world” for three reasons: Because of its wickedness; because of the perversity of its ingratitude; and to give us an example – “Do not love the world or the things in the world”; “You are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world.”
He “ascended to the Father” for three reasons: That he might intercede with Him for us; that He might give to us the Holy Spirit; and that He might prepare for us a place with the Father.
To which place may He lead us. Amen.
Thomas Aquinas believed the relation among natural law, Old Testament law, and New Testament law to have been well expressed by John Chrysostom’s commentary on Mark 4:28, that God “brought forth first the blade, i.e. the Law of Nature; then the ear, i.e. the Law of Moses; lastly, the full corn, i.e. the Law of the Gospel.” In other words, what is implicit in the natural law is made explicit in the Old Law and brought to glowing maturity in the New.
The practical implications of this blending of natural and Divine law are brought out in a strangely lovely way in St. Thomas’s own commentary on Christ’s remark, “But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into” (Matthew 24:43):
“The house is the soul, in which man should be at rest. ‘When I go into my house,’ that is, my conscience, ‘I shall find rest with her [that is, Wisdom].’ The householder of the house is like the ‘king who sits on the throne of judgment,’ who ‘winnows away all evil with his eyes.’ Sometimes the thief breaks into the house. The thief is any persuasive false doctrine or temptation .... Properly speaking, the door is natural knowledge, in other words, natural right. Therefore, anyone who enters through reason, enters through its door, but anyone who enters through the door of concupiscence or irascibility or some such thing, is a thief. Thieves usually come at night. As Obadiah says, ‘If thieves came to you, if plunderers by night – how you have been destroyed!’ So if they come in the day, do not fear. In other words, temptations do not come when a man is contemplating divine things; but when he relaxes, they come. For this reason, the prophet rightly says, “forsake me not when my strength is spent.”
The fact that we are directed to behave virtuously through reason may make it mysterious why Divine instruction is necessary at all. Here it is good to remember that faith is not the constriction of reason by blind dogma, as our own time so often views it. Rather it is the unshackling of reason by grace, and its enlargement by the data of Revelation. Reason is not only set free from sin, but also given more to work with.
But the fact that Revelation exceeds what we could have figured out for ourselves introduces a puzzle. How can it be reasonable to submit to help from beyond human reason?
In at least five ways.
1. Since the reality, power, wisdom, and goodness of God can be philosophically demonstrated, it is reasonable to consider Revelation possible.
2. Since, even though we have a natural inclination to seek the truth about Him, our finite minds, still further weighed down by self-deception, could never equal His infinite mind, it is reasonable to consider Revelation necessary.
3. Since He who gave us the inclination to seek Him must desire us to find Him, it is reasonable to consider Revelation likely.
4. Since the record of Revelation is well-attested by miracles, it is reasonable to believe Revelation authentic.
5. Since faith is accompanied by the experience of grace, it is reasonable to believe Revelation confirmed. The Psalmist cries, “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” Expressing the same thought in a different key, St. Paul exhorts, “test everything; hold fast what is good.”
By the light of Revelation, the mind is not only able to see more clearly those things that lie within its natural reach, but is also able to understand and explain many other features of the world that would otherwise have remained utterly baffling, such as why our hearts are so divided against themselves. When reason rejects Revelation, it is not being more true but less true to itself; only illuminated by God can it come into its own.
The hope of faith is that one day our thoughts may be lit not only by the reflected light of Revelation, but by the direct illumination of face of God Himself: That although now our minds only smolder, one day they will blaze with fire.