My Response to Dr. Peter Williamson’s “Teaching the Doctrine of the Spirit as the New Law
While Explaining Galatians 5:13-23”*
Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. / Professor of Moral Theology / Sacred Heart Major Seminary
Joint Faculty Orientation Session on Teaching Doctrine from Sacred Scripture
August 24, 2011
Not that I needed much convincing, but my colleague Dr. Williamson has persuaded me that Galatians 5:13-23 needs to be added to the key list of Scripture texts in our fundamental moral theology courses (Introduction to Moral Theology, Fundamental Moral Theology, and Foundations of the Christian Moral Life). He has provided us moral theologians with a fine model for how to relate Scripture – in this case Paul’s teaching in Galatians on the Holy Spirit as the New Law – to the moral life, not only theoretically, but practically and pastorally.
While this scriptural text is not (yet) on our list, in my own experience of having taught here for well over 20 years, I have found myself more and more coming back to this text and similar ones to portray for our students what the moral life is all about – to “live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16; cf. Gal 5:25). It is among my favorite texts in all of Scripture. So it is with some disappointment with myself, I must confess, that I did not include it on the list, as Peter points out. I only hope that he does not remove me from the Seminary’s “Scripture Across the Curriculum Committee” (SACC) and take away my membership badge!
Peter’s approach to constructing a “bridge,” as he calls it, from Scripture to theology – in this case, moral theology – showing how this doctrine is related to Scripture is, I believe, a fruitful one. I think that his method covers all of the necessary steps that need to be covered to achieve this goal. He provides context, exegesis, personal experience, how other biblical texts confirm and clarify the biblical doctrine, how the tradition of the Church confirms and clarifies the doctrine, and its pastoral relevance. His pedagogical tips for teaching doctrine from Scripture are also quite sound.
Given our short time frame and my role as humble respondent, this last area concerning pedagogy is what I would like to comment on, as well as offer my own modest proposals for teaching doctrine from Scripture, especially in the classroom and especially this Pauline text, building on and integrating Dr. Williamson’s excellent suggestions.
II. Ten Practical Ways of Teaching Moral Doctrine from Sacred Scripture
Firstly, once I have identified and assigned a text in a course, I ask my students to read it prayerfully and carefully, without a commentary at first, and with a disposition of openness to letting the Holy Spirit change us, i.e., to letting the Spirit transform our hearts and minds. The goal, I tell them, with a nod to Bernard Lonergan, is intellectual, religious, moral, and affective conversion. This very “direct” and “immediate” way (I hate to say “method”) of reading the Scriptures is how the Fathers of the Church read them.
Secondly, I ask the students to identify and describe the particular moral teaching that is being communicated by the sacred author. Is it a specific moral law or norm? Is it a virtue or vice? Is it a commandment or beatitude? Is it a principle or value (e.g., man as created in God’s image and likeness or the goodness of procreation) that can be used to deal with an issue that the Bible does not (explicitly) address (e.g., in vitro fertilization)?
Thirdly, I ask the students to consult a respected commentary (I give a few suggestions) after they have first allowed the Holy Spirit to speak directly to them “heart to heart.” I give minimal background information about the text, presupposing that they can find this in the commentary or learn it from our Scripture courses (This will become more accurate to presuppose now with our SACC effort).
Fourthly, we then will often read the text silently and/or out loud in class, seeking insights that the students have gained from their meditating on the text in the silence (or noise!) of their home. What does the text say about this particular moral doctrine? How is the Lord Jesus in this text confronting us with the need to change our ways of thinking and acting? What are its pastoral implications for the people we teach or minister to? Sometimes I will have prepared questions for them either before or after their reading.
Fifthly, as Peter noted we should do, I try to relate the text to how the Tradition/Magisterium has used the text, e.g., especially how the popes have used it in an encyclical (Indeed, sometimes the choice of a text on my part is determined by the fact that it is used in an encyclical or in the Catechism). The same is true for how a saint or Doctor of the Church has used the text. My approach is often to see how St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine (my “leading lights”) have used the text in their teaching or preaching.
Sixthly, as Peter has also suggested, I relate the text, if relevant, to my own experience – both in my own personal life and in my teaching and pastoral work in the parish. As Peter tells us to ask: What difference does this doctrine/Scripture passage make in my life/your life? Having helped found a Men’s Group and a Prayer Group in my parish, has helped me gain insights into the Scriptures that I might not otherwise have had without these parish activities. So, for teaching doctrine from Scripture, I highly recommend involvement in the parish!
Seventhly, in preparation for studying the text, I inform myself and have the students often read, in addition to commentaries, a theologian or biblical scholar who has not only exegeted the text well (e.g., identifying its literal sense), but who seems to have appropriated the theological meaning of the text in the Spirit (e.g., identifying its moral sense or spiritual sense). As Dei verbum #12 teaches: The Bible “must be read and interpreted in the same Spirit in whom it was written.” One could well ask: Can one do an authentic exegesis without reading the text in the Spirit?
I recommend to my students that they read such contemporary scholars as the Catholics Joseph Ratzinger/Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, Fr. Francis Martin, Benedict Ashley, O.P., Servais Pinckaers, O.P., Robert Louis Wilken, and Fr. Frank Matera; the Protestants Gary Anderson, Brevard Childs, and Robert Gagnon; and the Jew Leon Kass. These are men (some of them deceased) who not only know the Bible well, but they believe it as God’s word. I have learned much from them and others, including from those on our own faculty! I highly recommend that our students let themselves be (in)formed by them and others in our recent past such as Cardinal Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Rudolf Schnackenburg, and Blessed Pope John Paul II (The latter provides a remarkable model for teaching doctrine from Scripture in his encyclicals and his “Theology of the Body”).
Eighthly, I make the effort to assign textbooks that not only “pay lip” service to Vatican Council II’s call to renew moral theology by rooting it more deeply in the Scriptures, but actually do so – and not by “proof-texting” or by simply looking to the Bible for inspiration, i.e., parenesis. Here we ask: How is this text the font or source for the doctrine that is being considered?
For example, both Ashley and Pinckaers have written well-received texts in fundamental moral theology that display a thorough familiarity with the Scriptures, but that avoid both a “fundamentalist” reading and a “revisionist” reading that would explain away the Bible as irrelevant to our modern scientific world (Although, it must be admitted that Pinckaers is not too fond of modern historical scripture scholarship). The late Fr. Ashley, however, is very knowledgeable about and appreciative of modern methods of biblical exegegis and that shows in his moral textbook, which he in fact subtitles, A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology (Its title, Living the Truth in Love, is of course derived from Ephesians 4:15). Fr. Pinckaers, for his part, makes the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the New Law central to his whole approach to the renewal of moral theology, showing too how this doctrine has a solid Scriptural and Thomistic foundation.
In his celebrated book, The Sources of Christian Ethics, the late Fr. Pinckaers shows how for St. Thomas, the New Law is “the grace of the Holy Spirit given through faith in Christ and operating in charity.” Because Thomas was quick to see the Sermon on the Mount as the “text” of this New Law, he wanted to link, as did Augustine, the Beatitudes of the Sermon with the gifts identified in Isaiah 11. According to Thomas, there is a twofold realization of the Beatitudes: through the virtues and the gifts (S.T., I-II, Q. 69, a. 3), with the latter penetrating the virtues in the form of “inspirations” so that we might perform actions that transcend our human reason and conform to divine faith and charity. Thus, the New Law is an interior law that is assisted by the Beatitudes and the gifts and fruits of the Spirit.
Ninthly, as Pinckaers has made clear, to reestablish the deep bond between Scripture and moral theology, one needs to do more than multiply Biblical quotations in one’s teaching and writing. Pinckaers argues persuasively that if one is in fact to draw from the entire Bible – Old and New Testament – to offer solutions to moral problems, the biblical category of happiness (beatitude), rather than that of duty/obligation (as it is for many moderns) must be front and center. Then one can develop in moral theology a non-legalistic interpretation of the Decalogue rooted in the love of God and neighbor, fruitfully appropriate the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, and skillfully incorporate the principal texts of apostolic moral catechesis. This means seeing moral truth in passages that on the surface might not seem to offer moral doctrine, but actually do. Even passages that speak of eschatological themes, e.g., heaven and hell, have obvious moral content! How could they not!
Tenthly, I try to teach my students to approach the Scriptures – indeed all the theological disciplines, but especially moral theology – with a “clean heart.” As John Paul II recommended that we do in an April 1993 address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission, I ask my students to pray hard for the Holy Spirit’s guidance and for the grace of continual conversion so that they will be enabled to hear what God is saying to them in his word. Living a good and holy life, i.e., practicing the moral and theological virtues and rooting out sin from our lives, equips us – teachers and students alike – to discern God’s will for us.
III. The Christian Moral Life as Life in Christ, Life in the Spirit
Peter has so wonderfully shown us that for St. Paul, the moral life is about faith in Christ, life in the Spirit, and not a bunch of “do’s” and “don’ts” that restrict our freedom. Morality in the Bible is a life-giving message! Paul tells us that the Son of God died for me so that I might have life; and he did it out of love for me (cf. Gal 2:20). However, as Peter indicates several times (and this needs to be emphasized), we don’t throw out the Law, i.e., the Ten Commandments, but we live the Law in a radically new way: according to the “Spirit of Christ” (cf. Rom 8:9). For now we have within us a new principle of action, an inner impulse or dynamism that does not proceed from our own wills, but from the “promptings” of the Holy Spirit.
In his masterful 1993 encyclical on the moral life, Veritatis splendor, John Paul II references Galatians 5 some 13 times! The pope teaches that Jesus brings God’s commandments to fulfillment, particularly the commandment of love of neighbor, “by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning” (VS, #15). He concludes the paragraph by emphasizing the role of the Spirit in this process of interiorizing. Jesus himself, he says, is “the living ‘fulfillment’ of the Law inasmuch as he fulfills its authentic meaning by the total gift of himself: he himself becomes a living and personal Law, who invites people to follow him; through the Spirit, he gives the grace to share his own life and love and provides the strength to bear witness to that love in personal choices and actions (cf. Jn 13:34-35).”
Now, if we teach and live this kind of moral life – and I try to do so, however inadequately – we could revolutionize our parishes, our families, our schools, our workplaces, and our culture! No longer is reading Scripture like reading Shakespeare – very worthwhile, yet merely of, say, historical or aesthetic interest – but a message addressed to me personally by God himself which engages me in the most profoundly existential way possible.
I thank Peter for having initiated the SACC committee here at Sacred Heart Seminary, of which I have been a member from the beginning, and for organizing this program this afternoon. I also thank my other colleagues who have presented and responded today. Further, I am grateful for the faculty discussion. May much fruit come out of our efforts as we let the Spirit guide us in this and in all things that we do. I hope that I have contributed in some small way to this goal of seeing to it that Scripture informs our entire curriculum. This re-bonding of Scripture with moral theology is important and long overdue.
*This revised version of the paper is dated March 15, 2014.