St. Augustine on Theological Modesty

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I’ve been reading “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” by St. Augustine. Here are a couple of timely quotes from a 5th Century author. (page, chapter and paragraph numbers are added.)

 

“In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received.  In such as case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side, that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.  That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to with ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.” P. 41 (18.37)

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycle of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.  Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame in not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts when they themselves have learnt from the experience and the light of reason?  Reckless and incompetent expounders of the Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one if their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.  For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statement, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”  P. 42 (19.39)

St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J., Newman Press, NY, 1982

 

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Sayings with Strings Attached – John 7:24

spidermanbaloonWhen we lived in New York, we would travel from Queens to Manhattan to see the Macy’s Parade. Up close and personal you see that the balloons are maneuvered down the city streets by many helpers.  The balloons have not one but many strings.  These tie the balloon to the earth.  One year Spider man was not the vigorous super hero you see in the photo here, but having been battered by the wind against lamp posts he was limply carried by the helpers on the ground.

I wonder about embedded sayings in the biblical text.  One example is “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst.” Matthew 18:20.  Is this a saying that is true for potlucks, worship services and prayer meetings? Some say that this is only true for the immediate application to Matthew 18, which has to do with church discipline.  In other words, is the saying relatively free (few strings) or quite bound (many strings).

In John 7, there is a discussion about Jesus legitimacy.  questions about him abound in this passage.  Why is he in a backwater like Galilee when the real action happens in Jerusalem?  How can he be a teacher if he does not have formal education?  How can he break the law by healing on the Sabbath (referring to John 5). How can he be a great prophet or the messiah if he is from Galilee?

Jesus said this “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”  In the immediate context of v. 20-24 he is comparing the practice of circumcision on the Sabbath, which was considered lawful, with his act of healing on a Sabbath.  He is saying, quit just looking at the surface of things, but think deep.

In the context of John 7, this saying applies to the questions surrounding Jesus. Who is he? What right to belief does he have?

In the context of the Gospel as a whole we can find a wider application – that is, will you the reader come to faith in Jesus.  Belief or faith is tied to eternal life throughout John.  So take a deeper look at Jesus.

Can we take this saying and apply it even more generally.  “Christian, quit looking at the outward appearance, but look at the reality. Is it right and true?”  This could be limited to questions of Jesus identity, but could it not be useful for many ethical questions we face.  Is Candidate A truly patriotic because s/he wears a flag on his/her lapel?  Is it pro-life to be anti-abortion and pro-gun?

I think that there are limits (some strings on the balloon) based on the meanings of the words and the general associations with the larger biblical texts.  We should not limit sayings to only one application.

I think, for example, that John 7:24 compares favorable to Isaiah’s beginning chapters that criticize religious ceremony that is not matched by faithful hearts or just lives. (See Isaiah 1:10ff)

The sayings take on the quality of an “aphorism” which is a terse saying embodying a general truth, or astute observation.  There are many of these in the wisdom books and in the teaching passages of Jesus.

 

 

 

 

Whats the sin in John 5?

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Jesus heals a man at the pool of Bethesda.  Later, he says to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” (v. 14)

So what was the sin?

There is a theology as old as Job that illness is caused by sin. That idea is rebuked by the overall point of Job and by the speech of God at the end.  Then in John 9 Jesus was asked who was to blame for a man being born blind.  Was he to blame or his parents.  Jesus said neither. There was another reason.

So what are we to make of John 5?

Maybe the man was paralyzed from sin. Did he do something to cause it? Was he punished for some sin by being paralyzed?

I was reading the text for what the emphasis is there. What we know about the man is that he, like many, believed that the pool of Bethesda had some kind of healing power.  When the water was “stirred” the first to get in would get cured.  This man had been hoping to win that race for some time – his illness had lasted 38 years.

Just before this story in Chapter 4 is the account of a royal official who approached Jesus about his son who was close to death. He asked Jesus to come to his house, but Jesus simply spoke the word, “Go, your son will live.”  He found out later that at that moment was when his son was healed. This was the second “sign” miracle in John.  The Word of Jesus has power to heal.

Now I wonder if the text is calling us to read the signs.  Rather than looking to a bit of stirred water at a pool in a holy city, look to the Son of God who has, like the Creator in Genesis 1, the power to create by speech.  Has not John called Jesus the “Word” in John 1?

I am thinking that the sin might be a magical faith – the man in John 5 believed the bit about the water in the pool.  Maybe he should have put his faith in God instead.

In the history of religion, there as been a lot of excitement about holy places, holy objects, holy days and holy rituals, when God is not limited in time and place.

Was Jesus saying, something like, quit trusting in magic, trust me.

 

 

 

 

Reading an old Book

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I am reading St. Augustine’s “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” and found this quote. It is interesting because I am curious what pre-scientific era Christians had to say about Genesis.

Book 1, paragraph 25

“…although water still covered all the earth, there was nothing to prevent the massive watery sphere from having day on one side by the presence of light and on the other side,  night by the absence of light.” (underline added)

Hmmm. So much for flat earth thinking.