Daily Archives: August 27, 2009

Nothing (Completely) New Under the Sun

In the Modern Academy, to earn a PhD (or, indeed, any kind of post-graduate degree in any field whatsoever) one needs to produce an original, fresh scholarly thesis in a relevant field of study. One of the things about this set up is that it encourages a particular kind of scholarship which views “new discoveries” and “originality” as the highest virtue. Which is quite appropriate in scientific fields, and explains especially the exponential increase in “break through” discoveries and inventions.

But when it comes to theology and scriptural scholarship, there is a problem – especially for the Catholic Theologian/Scripture Scholar – a problem which is infinitely less acute in the Protestant world.

That problem is this: The Catholic Church isn’t really into theological “originality” and “new discoveries” in scriptural exegesis. It is more about preserving the Deposit of Faith and faithfully passing on the Sacred Tradition.

Protestant theologians and scripture scholars, on the other hand, are not only unfettered by a living magisterium of any kind, but are literally encouarged by their dynamic and personal understanding of the “Word of God” to embrace the “ever new” approach. Of course, there are Catholic Theologians who want a bit of the freedom of their Protestant brethren and sistern also, and whom you will (occasionally) hear speaking about the “magisterium of theologians” as an adjunct to the “magisterium of bishops”. Whenever the Bishops make some assertion along the lines of “We are the teachers of the faith, not you”, the replying complaint is usually that the theologians right to “freedom of theological enquiry” is in some way being denied.

Still, the “new” or “original” discovery is still the best way to sell books. I might again mention one of my favourite (Protestant) theologians, Bishop N.T. Wright, as a classic case of this. He follows in a long line of new discoveries – or, in fact, “new perspectives” – on St Paul: first that of Ed Sanders, then that of James Dunn, and now that of Tom Wright. When a priest friend of mine asked “What is Wright on about?”, he expressed utter disbelief at my reply: “He thinks he has a new and correct understanding of what St Paul meant by the word “justification”.”

In his book, “Eschatology”, Joseph Ratzinger deals with one protestant theologian after another who, in the 20th Century, believed they had discovered the “original meaning” of Christian eschatology: Von Harnack, Barth, Bultmann, Cullman, Dodd, and right on in to Moltmann and Metz. At the end of this overview, he writes:

So what conclusions may we draw from all of this? In the first place, the importance of courage in evaluating the latest theories of one’s age with greater equanimilty, noting in a historically informed way their role in that criticism which historical reason carries out in its own regard, and understanding their place in the movement of history as a whole. The obverse of this courage should be the modesty of not claiming to have just discovered what Christainity is really all about by dint of one’s own ingenuity. Out of such modesty something even more valuable could emerge: the kind of humility that submits to reality, not inventing Christain truth as a newly discovered “find”, but truly finding it in the sacramental community of the faith of all periods.” (Eschatology, p60).

I think, whether your name is Martin Luther, N.T. Wright, David Schütz, or [insert name here], there is something in that for all of us.


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Quick Report on Fr Paul Turner’s Lecture on the Changes to the Translation of the Liturgy

The Archbishop’s Office for Evangelisation is to be commended for taking the opportunity to get Fr Paul Turner, who was in Sydney for the Societas Liturgica national conference, down to Melbourne to give us a presentation on the changes we can expect in the new English translation of the Roman Missal.

While Fr Turner estimated that it might yet be two years or more (Advent 2011 was his suggestion) before the new translation is put into practice, it was good tonight in a “congregation” of about 80 people to have a “dry run” with the spoken texts.

I must say that Fr Turner impressed me on three levels: he is meticulous (and knows his stuff – question time showed that he has a wealth of knowledge and experience ready for instant recall), he is pastoral (that is, he sensitively judged where his audience was “at” and aimed his comments in that direction), and above all he is clear.

For instance, one mystery was solved for me tonight. I have been having difficult working out the somewhat erratic (as it appeared to me) use of the vocative “O” in the new texts. Sometimes it was there, sometimes not. For instance, in the Gloria:

“Lord God, heavenly King,
O God, almighty Father.
Lord Jesus Christ,
only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God…etc.”

The “O” before God in the second line above stands out like a sore thumb. Why put it in, when all the other vocatives lack it? (What makes these lines especially confusing for me is that I grew up singing the Book of Common Prayer version – which went “O Lord God, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty. O Lord, the only-begotten Son Jesus Christ; O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father…” – in other words, the new translation puts an “O” precisely where the old English version didn’t have one and leaves all the others out!). In any case, Fr Turner revealed the rationale behind the mystery of the vocative “O”. Apparently it was put in wherever it was required to separate two stressed syllables, which would otherwise have been difficult to speak or sing. Fair enough. Just so I know.

He also made a very fair point in answer to a question about the fact that the new translations would result in us using different texts from our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. Currently this means that we are able to (for eg.) sing the Gloria together, and, indeed, to share musical settings across the board. However, Fr Turner pointed out that, on the one hand, the Protestant Churches are making their own changes and adaptions to the original ICEL texts, and on the other hand, the new translations do bring us into greater unity with the texts of the other CATHOLIC vernacular liturgical families. In other words, there is a kind of “internal” ecumenism going on in the process of bringing the English liturgy into greater conformity with the German, French, Italian, Spanish etc. liturgy.

In summary, I must congratulate Fr Turner for being able to maintain a generally upbeat and positive approach – one of anticipation almost – for the new translations. This was, is and will be difficult for those charged with introducing and implimenting the new translations, especially as even tonight most of the questions that were asked expressed at least a degree of disatisfaction or suspicion of the new translations.

At the moment, the situation may be compared to having just heard Father’s announcement that he is leaving the parish and that a new priest will soon be appointed. Many are disappointed that Father is leaving after so long; others are quitely rejoicing but respectfully keeping their joy to themselves in this time of general communal grieving. And then there is a general apprehension about what the “new priest” will be like. Yet, over time, and the “new priest” will become as loved and admired (and still, perhaps, resented by a small number who respectfully keep their resentment to themselves) as the “old priest” was. It will be the same with the new translations.


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