Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Tradition: Source of the Written Gospels

Years ago, when I was first reading the Epistle of James, a couple of verses in chapter five jumped out at me. James didn’t give any indication that he was quoting Jesus, but I clearly recalled the same words in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount:

Epistle of James
Gospel of Matthew
But above all, my brethren, do not swear either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath, but let your yes be yes and your no be no, that you may not fall under condemnation. (5:12)
Do not swear at all, either by heaven…or by the earth…Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from the Evil One. (5:34-37)
Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. (5:2-3)
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal (6:19)

Huh. Why didn’t James identify his source? Over the years, as I dug deeper into James’ epistle, I saw other places where he appeared to use Jesus’ words without any attribution. (Compare James 1:22 and Matthew 7:24; or James 3:12 with Matthew 7:16 and Luke 6:44.) What was going on here?

A couple of things occurred to me. The first was to realize that James, who was martyred in 62 A.D., probably composed his epistle in the late 40s or very early 50s – likely before Paul penned his first epistle and more than a decade before any of the gospels were written. Ironically, if I didn’t have those later gospels with which to compare James, I would never have known James was quoting the Lord! This leads to a second important realization: James wrote at a time when the Gospel existed purely in oral form, in Tradition.

That is extremely important, because Christianity was constituted, not as a religion of the book, but of the Word made flesh – alive and active in the ministry of the apostles. Jesus did not record his moral teaching or parables, nor write a monograph about the significance of his death and resurrection. Nor did he send forth the apostles with a command to write. Rather, his command was to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to observe all that He had commanded (Mt 28:18-20).

When the apostles preached, each drew from the Tradition those words and actions of Jesus that best met their individual audiences’ needs. It wasn’t necessary to stop and identify every time they quoted Jesus’ earthly teaching; because when James and the other apostles preached, it was received by the Church as Christ speaking in and through them (Lk 10:16).

Initially, their preaching focused upon Christ’s redemptive sacrifice and resurrection. But those required an explanation, and that was found in what preceded it – Christ’s life, teaching and miracles. Each apostle had his own recollections of Jesus and manner of recounting them, his own personality and theological emphases. [1]

We must keep this apostolic preaching in mind when reading the gospels, since the same principles hold true. Sacred Tradition – the deposit of truth entrusted to the apostles – was the source from which the four evangelists drew Christ’s words and actions in the construction of their narratives. Luke, who was not an eyewitness to Christ’s life, began his gospel by stating, “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning…just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Lk 1:3,2). Even though the four evangelists were inspired, the Spirit did not spare them the effort required of all authors; and that meant digging into the Tradition Christ had entrusted to the Church.

Each gospel bears the mark of its human author. “Of the many elements [the four evangelists had] at hand they reported some, summarized others, and developed still others in accordance with the needs of the various churches.”[2]  This accounts for many of the so-called contradictions between the four gospels. The sequence, for instance, in which the evangelists narrate Christ’s life differs in some respects. This is not a challenge to a Catholic’s faith in the inerrancy of Scripture. The Church has always understood that the order in which the evangelists recounted Christ’s words and actions were not meant as a rigid assertion of chronology. Catholics are also not shocked to discover subtle differences in the wording of Christ’s sayings. We are used to reading modern historical texts, but the evangelists were inspired to write according to the conventions of their time. There were no audio recorders in the first century, and the apostles were not stenographers. When the sacred writers drew from the Tradition, they sometimes communicated the sense of Jesus’ words instead of exact quotations:

James 3:12
Matthew 7:16
Luke 6:44
Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?
You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?
…for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.

The meaning asserted by each of the inspired authors is the same, even if the phrasing differs. Another example: When Jesus sends out the Twelve in Matthew 10:9-10, he tells them to take nothing for the journey, “no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the laborer deserves his food;” and yet in Mark 6:8-11 we read, “[Jesus] charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belt.” Whether Jesus said to take a staff or not, the memory drawn from the Tradition, and positively asserted by both inspired authors, was that Christ instructed the Twelve to look to God to supply their material needs. There is no true contradiction.

It’s funny how a couple of verses in James can lead to such heady subjects as inspiration and inerrancy and how Scripture is dependent upon Tradition – not just to be correctly interpreted, but to be written! That’s the way it was with God’s Revelation, though; it is all connected.

[1] Augustin Bea, The Study of the Synoptic Gospels: New Approaches and Outlooks (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 37.
[2] Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Historicity of the Gospels (1964), http://www.ewtn.com/library/curia/pbcgospl.htm

Monday, March 2, 2020

"Can a Catholic Be a Socialist?" by Trent Horn & Catherine R. Pakaluk

I've made no secret of my enjoyment of Trent Horn's work. He has a tremendous knowledge base and is very effective at crafting and presenting his arguments to non-specialists. That last point is especially important given the topic of his latest book, socialism, and its embrace by such an alarming number of young people with little true understanding of the ideology. 

To answer the question Can A Catholic Be A Socialist?, Trent partners with Harvard-trained, Catholic University business professor and economist, Dr. Catherine R. Pakaluk. I think readers will find them to be a formidable team.

Pakaluk and Horn adeptly explain socialism's aim: "a centrally planned economic system that rejects the ownership of private property." After debunking the claim that Christ and the primitive Church taught and practiced socialism, the authors trace its true genesis to the writings of Marx and Engels. From there they take us through its incarnation in Russia, China, and their satellites, up to its slick rebranding under the Democratic Socialists of America (with its stars, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). It's an informative history, especially helpful for those born after the fall of the U.S.S.R. I, for one, was surprised to learn that the Democratic Socialists of America was founded by a close collaborator of Dorothy Day's, Michael Harrington. Harrington left the Church, embraced atheism, and worked to "rehabilitate" Marx’s teachings from what he considered communism's authoritarian perversion.

The Church's social justice teaching can seem monolithic to outsiders, but Horn and Pakaluk zero in on key concepts such as the right to private property and subsidiarity and show their applicability to the question of socialism. It's a nice way to wade into the body of papal teaching. There's also a helpful appendix on distributism (and why it isn't a viable option today).

I imagine that the bulk of people reading this review have already arrived at the conclusion that socialism is incompatible with Christianity. By the time you finish this book, however, you will be able to articulate why capitalism - with its possibilities for abuse - is an inherently more realistic system than socialism. You'll also be equipped with example after example to illustrate your points.  I appreciated the chapters dealing with the demise of the Venezualan economy and the lie of Nordic socialism perpetuated by the likes of Bernie Sanders. (Denmark's prime minister went so far as to issue a statement clarifying that, "Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy. The Nordic model is an expanded welfare state...[p.151])

I found Can A Catholic Be A Socialist? to be a page-turner, and I'm sure you will too.