Reading the Apostle, the Doctor, and the Pope: An interview with Dr. Matthew Levering | Ignatius Insight | January 30, 2009
Dr. Matthew Levering is associate professor of theology and director of the Graduate Program in Theology at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida; he has taught at Ave Maria University since 2000. During 2006-2007, he held the Myser Fellowship at the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame. He is also associate editor of Sapientia Press, and serves as co-editor of the English version of the international philosophical and theological journal, Nova et Vetera. Noted Thomistic scholar Romanus Cessario, O.P., has described Dr. Levering as "one of the most promising of young Thomists" in the United States.
Dr. Levering is the author, co-author, and editor of numerous books, including Christ's Fulfillment of Torah and Temple: Salvation According to Thomas Aquinas (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), Sacrifice and Community: Jewish Offering and Christian Eucharist (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), Holy People, Holy Land: A Theological Introduction to the Bible (with Dr. Michael Dauphinais; Brazos Press, 2005), Participatory Biblical Exegesis (University of Notre Dame, 2008), and Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition (editor, with Matthew L. Lamb; Oxford, 2008). He also co-authored A Study Guide for Joseph Ratzinger's (Pope Benedict XVI) Jesus of Nazareth, published by Ignatius Press.
Carl E. Olson, editor of Ignatius Insight, recently interviewed Dr. Levering about a variety of topics, including the upcoming conference sponsored by the Aquinas Center for Theological Renewal, the year of St. Paul, St. Thomas Aquinas, Scriptural exegesis, and Pope Benedict XVI.
Ignatius Insight: On February 5-7, the Aquinas Center for Theological Renewal is holding a conference, "Reading Romans with St. Thomas Aquinas: Ecumenical Explorations". What specific topics will be addressed at the conference? What are some of the ways in which the Epistle to the Romans and the thought of St. Thomas can be part of ecumenical dialogue and exchange?
Dr. Levering: In ecumenical dialogue at present—and this is especially promising with regard to the dialogue between Catholic and evangelical theologians—the Fathers of the Church play an important role. There is a desire to reclaim the Church's tradition of faith-filled exegesis, and the Fathers are models of this.
For this reason, one of the most significant talks at the conference is the keynote by the eminent scholar Robert Louis Wilken. He will speak on Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas as interpreters of St. Paul. Bruce Marshall's and Michael Waldstein's discussions of justification in the Letter to the Romans should also be of primary importance for healing divisions among Christians. Michael Root and David Yeago are two of the premier ecumenically oriented Lutheran theologians in the country; the leading Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright is a good friend of Pope Benedict whose writings have been praised in L'Osservatore Romano.
The presence of such scholars brings enormous ecumenical potential to the conference. In addition, leading biblical scholars such as Markus Bockmuehl, Gregory Vall, and Mary Healy can be counted upon to enhance our understanding of the relationship of Aquinas's exegesis to contemporary exegesis of Romans. Scott Hahn has mentioned to me that he is going to be speaking on Aquinas's understanding of the literal sense, and I expect his talk to be a highlight.
Much more could be added. We are praying that God uses this conference to enrich our understanding of the realities revealed in Scripture, to develop fruitful modes of retrieving pre-historical critical biblical interpretation, and to bring Christians together in mutual friendship, understanding, and witness to our Lord.
Ignatius Insight: Your talk is titled, "Aquinas on Romans 8: Predestination in Context." It's safe to say, I think, that predestination has been and continues to be a hotly debated issue, both inside and outside of Catholic circles. What light does St. Thomas help shed on this difficult topic?
Dr. Levering: Paul does not actually use the word "predestination" in Romans 8:29, but he uses a Greek verb that the RSV accurately translates as "predestined." It is often overlooked that the Second Temple Judaism in which Paul was formed contained a good deal of debate over precisely the issues that later come up under the rubric of "predestination."
Aquinas's understanding of predestination should be carefully distinguished from views that imply that God knows "before" we do things: the reason being that there is no "before" or "after" in God. God is not temporal or spatial. Rather, God is the transcendent Creator of all things. For Aquinas, what predestination affirms is that God, from eternity, wills to draw some rational creatures to union with him, and God's will is not frustrated. According to his plan of predestination, of course, God draws us to himself via our free will as healed and elevated by the Holy Spirit; predestination is not determinism. Nor does predestination mean that God causes the salvation of some and that God causes the damnation of others. On the contrary, God does not cause the damnation of anyone. As Romans 8 makes clear, God's predestining has to do only with the free gift of salvation by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Predestination thus has as its center, according to Aquinas, the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection of Christ Jesus. From eternity God wills to bestow his graces upon us through the Savior Christ Jesus. These graces are mediated in his Body through the sacraments and the prayers of the saints.
I am presently completing a book, titled Providence and Predestination: An Introduction, which examines the biblical witness and the widely varied theological tradition on this topic (particularly predestination). I discuss the views of the leading theologians from the patristic, medieval, Reformation/early modern, and contemporary (i.e. twentieth century) periods.
Ignatius Insight: You've written quite a bit about St. Thomas as a commentator on Scripture. Do you think that his writings and commentaries on Scripture are overlooked because they are, for many readers, overshadowed by the Summa theologiae? What unique insights or abilities does St. Thomas bring to reading Scripture, especially the writings of St. Paul?
Dr. Levering: For beginning readers of the Summa theologiae, which is St. Thomas's masterpiece, the Summa can often seem dry and overly metaphysical, almost rationalistic. Indeed, in the past century, many theologians turned away from Aquinas's thought precisely because they considered that, unlike the Fathers, St. Thomas had lost touch with the sap of biblical Revelation.
In studying Aquinas's theology for today, it is important to get into the sap of his theology—which is profoundly biblical—and thereby to see how his speculative insights arise out of his receptivity toward Revelation, always as interpreted by the Fathers and in the Church. The point, of course, is not thereby to present Aquinas as anti-philosophical, which would be crazy. On the contrary, his work embodies the value of employing philosophical reasoning so as to express more deeply the realities that we receive in faith. He is biblical and metaphysical at the same time.
His commentaries on Scripture exhibit the same interweaving of biblical interpretation and speculative theological reflection. Thus reading his commentaries not only sheds light on the realities described in Scripture, but also opens up for the reader a path for understanding the value of the Summa theologiae precisely for the biblical and patristic renewal of theology called for by the Second Vatican Council. This is a renewal that requires, rather than repudiates, the metaphysical insights that St. Thomas brings to his biblical and patristic exploration of the realities of faith.
Ignatius Insight: In your book, Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation, you offer a detailed, nuanced reflection on the interrelationship of exegesis and various understandings of history. How does one's understanding of history affect his reading and interpretation of Scripture? In your opinion, what role should historical-critical methods of research play in the exegetical work of Catholic Scripture scholars?
Dr. Levering: The contemporary understanding of history is very helpful. History as we experience it is a linear succession of temporal moments. These moments follow one by one along a chain of moments.
But is this all we can say about each historical moment? If so, then the Church today is only linked to the Church of the apostles via a 2000-year chain of moments, which would be a tenuous link indeed. But we know that God, the Creator of all time, holds each moment of time in his hands. We know that God directs the course of history so that the people of God in the year 2000 and the apostolic Church of the first century are not simply separated by a chain of moments. Rather, the Church now is the Church then—because both participate in the fullness of the Body of Christ, which God knows and wills from eternity.
Each moment of time, in short, is more than just another link of the chain that spreads out horizontally. Each moment of time, each historical moment, participates in God's providential plan. This participation in God's plan, in God as the Creator of all time, gives history a "vertical" or "participatory" dimension. It is this participatory dimension that necessarily falls out of purely historical-critical biblical interpretation (because the meaning of "history" in historical-critical methodology is limited to the linear chain of moments, cut off from the Creator of all moments).
The Fathers and medievals understood this participatory dimension—which they often expressed through the spiritual senses. It is in fact this participatory dimension that is the central truth about history, which is not to say that the linear dimension (where historical-critical research plays its role) is unimportant. The two dimensions of history need to be reintegrated within the Church's biblical interpretation.
All this sounds more complicated than it is! The key difficulty we face is that we have trouble conceiving of history as anything more than the linear set of moments.
Ignatius Insight: What stood out to you most upon first reading Pope Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth? What are some of the key insights made in that book?
Dr. Levering: As shown in his foreword to Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict's understanding of history contains the two dimensions I mention above. This sets him apart from most biblical scholars, and it explains many of the difficulties that have been expressed by biblical scholars in their reviews of his book.
The key to Pope Benedict's book is that he loves Jesus and hears Jesus teaching him in the Gospels. In the contemporary intellectual climate, it sounds strange to say that one can hear Jesus teaching his Church in the Gospels. Rather, one might say that (for example) "the Jesus of Mark's Gospel" teaches in his Second-Temple Jewish context in a way that suggests that he expected his words and deeds also to have significance for us today. Pope Benedict aims to employ historical-critical exegesis to show that he can in fact hear Jesus teaching the Church, hear Jesus speaking to us today.
Ignatius Insight: In Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition, which you co-edited with Matthew L. Lamb, you contributed an essay on Gaudium et Spes. That document continues to be a sort of lightning rod for many Catholics, some of whom criticize it as being overly optimistic, even naive, about modernity and human nature. What do you think of that criticism? What is your assessment of the document?
Dr. Levering: My essay treats the second half of Gaudium et Spes, where a variety of issues—marriage and the family, economics, war, etc.—are discussed in light of the Gospel, in dialogue with the developments of the mid-twentieth century. While some passages of Gaudium et Spes can be interpreted as overly optimistic, Gaudium et Spes's discussions of the problems facing the world exhibits profound rootedness in Church teaching and in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The second half of Gaudium et Spes would today be rejected by many as far too "conservative," precisely because Gaudium et Spes insists upon bringing the Gospel, as proclaimed in and by the Church, to bear upon the problems of the world.
Ignatius Insight: Speaking generally, how would you describe the state of Catholic theological studies and writing in the United States? More specifically, what is the state of Catholic Scripture scholarship? Who, in your estimation, are some of the theologians and scholars working today whose writings and teaching will have a lasting impact in the decades to come?
Dr. Levering: Many of the theologians and biblical scholars at the Reading Romans conference will have a lasting impact. In fact I would need to name them all, so great is my respect for them. Pope Benedict's writings, both as pope and in his own name, will be a beacon of light for the decades to come.
The situation in theology is presently difficult. The principles of theology must be received; theology is not like other disciplines where principles may be attained empirically or through natural reason. Theology requires a word from God, a revelation. This word has been received and proclaimed in the Church, the Body of Christ constituted by receiving in love his word of truth. What happens when the Church is no longer deemed a trustworthy mediator of God's holy teaching for our salvation? Theology itself as a discipline corrodes, and tends to degenerate into a political struggle to redefine the Church and thereby to make it a trustworthy bearer of God's word. The irony is that if humans can redefine the Church in this way, it would prove that the Church (even as redefined) is in fact untrustworthy.
In a nutshell, theologians have been turning away from the foundations of their discipline. Since this is even today highly rewarded at all levels of Catholic universities with prestige, power, and money, it is sometimes difficult to see how the situation will be reversed. The goal sought by new theological journals such as Nova et Vetera (co-edited by Michael Dauphinais and myself) is building bonds of friendship and intellectual exchange among Catholic scholars in theology, philosophy, and biblical studies who share a twofold common vision: receptivity toward the Church's teaching and desire to learn from the great teachers of the Church how to articulate, for today, the realities of faith.
Ignatius Insight: How would you describe the theological work of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI?
Dr. Levering: He is attuned to the liturgy, and his theology continually dialogues with Scripture in an effort to hear the word of God, give it full voice, and lift it up for praise. Without doubt he is the greatest of living theologians.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:
Biography of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
All books by or about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Excerpts from books by Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Articles about Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Biblical Aspects of the Theme of Faith and Politics | From Church, Ecumenism, & Politics: New Endeavors in Ecclesiology | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Introduction to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's God's Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office | Peter Hünermann and Thomas Södin
Benedict XVI's Theological Vision: An Introduction | Monsignor Joseph Murphy | From the introduction to Christ Our Joy: The Theological Vision of Pope Benedict XVI
The Theological Genius of Joseph Ratzinger | An Interview with Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.
The Courage To Be Imperfect | The Introduction to Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age (A Theological Portrait) | D. Vincent Twomey, S.V.D.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Priest and Doctor of the Church | Various Authors
God, The Author of Scripture | Fr. Dominique Barthélemy, O.P.
Going Deeper Into the Old Testament | An Interview with Aidan Nichols, O.P.
The Pattern of Revelation: A Contentious Issue | From Lovely Like Jerusalem | Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Origen and Allegory | Introduction to History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen | Henri de Lubac
How To Read The Bible | Peter Kreeft
Introduction to The Meaning of Tradition | Yves Congar, O.P.
The Bible Gap: Spanning the Distance Between Scripture and Theology | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
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