Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dawkins, Gnosticism, and Dark Passages in Scripture

If we want to understand the Church Fathers in such a way that their teachings, faithfully and authentically developed over the centuries, are a source of renewal, we must also understand those teachings which the Fathers opposed such that we can recognize their presence in new and varied ways today. In the case of the Fathers’ understanding of Sacred Scripture, particularly its unity and various senses, their writings answer the prevalent gnostic and Marcion heresies of their day. While the specific teachings of the innumerable groups and sects are not worth repeating here, it is in fact helpful to consider the underlying motivation or driving force that unites them. Confronted with the colorful drama of salvation history, the believer seeks an explanation, an understanding that might alleviate him of the discomfort or even embarrassment of the various “‘calumnies’ directed against Scripture and the Christian faith.”[1] In other words, at stake for the believer is the ease of mind and release of tension created by these so called “dark passages” in the Scriptures.

In order to resolve this tension, the Gnostics created “from elements of ancient Greek tradition, oriental, and Egyptian doctrines of redemption, and reinterpreted episodes and words from the Bible” what Hans Urs von Balthazar called “the myth of the second century.”[2] This myth was a set of “symbolic secret doctrines, a spiritual expression of a privileged race of higher human beings,”[3] that could only be expressed to others in simple inchoate ways much like a parent might rationalize things to a small child. For the gnostic, then, knowledge (gnosis) of these secret doctrines saved; redemption was found in the understanding of these hidden truths.[4] While this decision was ultimately the tragedy of human pride,[5] it seems that this saving knowledge shared amongst spiritual men provided a blanket of security and reassurance from the discomfort of the aforementioned “dark passages” in Scripture.

Particularly for Marcion, this meant the rejection of the Old Testament as divinely inspired, or rather the rejection of its being inspired by the same God as the New Testament. While Marcion admits that the Old Testament may function as a history and even a decent code of righteousness, its author was a Demiurge, not the God of love revealed by Jesus Christ in the New Testament.[6] As such, Marcion would easily be able to avoid the personal and public struggles with the Christian heritage found in the Old Testament.   
Ironically, this insight into the gnostic heresy—the tragic resolution of tension present between the Old and New Testaments—sheds much light one of the most popular of threats to the Christian message in Richard Dawkins. While in no way does Dawkins want to salvage the difficulties of the Christian message with a myth (indeed, he plays on these difficulties to create disbelief in the Christian God[7]), he does attest to what I would call “Neo-Gnosticism.” Like Marcion, Dawkins applies the popular intellectual tendencies of his day with great vigor to his understanding of Scripture (or religion in general). For Marcion, this meant adopting the gnostic myths of the pleroma and adapting it in a most extreme way such that he identified the evil demiurge of the gnostic myth with Yahweh of the Old Testament.[8] For Dawkins, this means accepting Enlightenment thinking, progressivism, and scientism and applying them fiercely to the Scriptures, identifying what I might call the backwards and oppressive “cruel ogre” of religion with the God of the Old Testament.[9] In other words, Marcion’s condemnable evil Demiurge of the Old Testament is now Dawkins’ arch-type for religion as a whole. And Marcion’s redeeming knowledge of the God of love proclaimed by Christ in the New Testament is the salvific faith in science proclaimed by Enlightenment thinkers such as Darwin; the Greek, oriental, and Egyptian myths of Gnosticism are replaced by scientific theories and enlightened speculation.

In sight of this mounting refutation of the Christian faith Pope Benedict XVI calls for scholars and pastors to help people approach and understand these “dark passages” in such a way that their meaning shines forth in the paschal mystery. For “it would be a mistake,” he says, “to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us a problematic.”[10] For the formulation of a response, Benedict XVI gives two directions in which both scholars and pastors might begin.

He begins saying that “it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages, and despite human resistance.”[11] I might call this the argument from Divine Pedagogy. This teaching is already clearly presented and developed in the Fathers, particularly Irenaeus. Irenaeus speaks of the unity between the two testaments as the unity between two covenants as seen in the progressive fulfillment of the law foretold by the prophets and revealed in Christ.[12] Indeed, Irenaeus says specifically that it pleased God to reveal the new covenant in this way “that they might always make progress through believing in Him [Jesus Christ], and by means of the [successive] covenants, should gradually attain to perfect salvation. For there is one salvation and one God.”[13] Later on Irenaeus shows the continuity of the two covenants in a more specific way by demonstrating the continuity of the new commandment Jesus gives and the Mosaic Law.[14] He does this by showing that the first and greatest commandment of each testament are in essence the same: “Moreover, He [Jesus Christ] did not himself bring down [from heaven] any other commandment greater than this one, but renewed this very same one to His disciples, when He enjoined them to love God with all their heart, and others as themselves.”[15] He then concludes that if the command is the same, the author must be the same, the same Father of both new and old covenants.[16] Interestingly, Irenaeus completes his explanation of the continuity of the two laws by proving that they both instruct man to follow Christ. Here, Irenaeus points to the “ascending series (velut gradus) before those who wished to follow Him, the precepts of the law, as the entrance into life.”[17] In short, Irenaeus forges a clear argument for the unity of the Scriptures and the unity of its author, God, by putting His actions in the context of a loving pedagogy which prepared men to receive their Savior, His Son Jesus Christ.

Building off this first direction, Benedict XVI indicates a second aspect by which these “dark passages,” particularly the lack of condemnation of such “dark deeds,” can be explained by historical context. Yet, he says, such passages require “a degree of expertise, acquired though a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective, which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key ‘the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ.”[18] This argument I would call the argument from sensus plenior. Here we find precedence for such a method in the typological master, Origen, who himself acknowledges the difficulty of seeing all of Scripture as inspired: “while some [passages of Scripture] show themselves most plainly to be works of providence, other are so obscure as to appear to afford grounds for disbelief in the God who with unspeakable skill and power superintends the universe.”[19] Yet he insists that just as God’s providence is not thwarted by our ignorance, “so neither is the divine character of scripture…abolished because our weakness cannot discern in every sentence the hidden splendour of its teachings.”[20] It is our part, then, through increased faith and knowledge to seek out in spite of our weakness that sensus plenior, something Origen says will only come to light after the advent of Jesus.[21] A similar notion is captured by Henri de Lubac when he speaks of the full sense of Scripture given by the Holy Spirit. He says that progress in our understanding of the spiritual sense will require on our part a joint effort by both scientific exegesis and faith, learned men to deliver us from ignorance and spiritual men to provide the gift of discernment.[22]

Yet this method of spiritual exegesis must be carried out in such a way that the supernatural difference is most clearly present, that such an interpretation is not as De Lubac says simply “the consequence of an evolution of minds”[23] as may be seen in other religions. Indeed, the historical exegete must avoid any sense of expressing a “prophetism of progress,” recognizing clearly that “the history of revelation also offers the spectacle of a discontinuity that has no equal , which makes the traditional idea of allegory…irreplaceable.”[24] In point of fact, to fall into such a fallacy would be to agree to the same delusion in which Richard Dawkins and the like find themselves.



[1] Henri De Lubac, S.J. Medieval Exegesis, vol. I, chp. 5: “The Unity of the Two Testaments,” Edinburge: T & T Clark, 1998, p. 244.
[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “#98 People of the Church: Irenaeus,” The Von Balthasar Reader, New York: Crossroad, 1982, p. 382.
[3] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “#98 People of the Church: Irenaeus,” 382.
[4] Cf. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, London: Adam & Charles Black, 1968, p. 26.
[5] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “#98 People of the Church: Irenaeus,” 383: “The Word of God unmasks the myth: it is the desperate pride of human beings who will not bend under God and thus forges their own paths to heaven. The final result of this attempt is just as grotesque as it is tragic…the deity that the myth-maker pretended to comprehend in its plenitude (pleroma) is ultimately unveiled as silent emptiness and anonymity, as the empty depth of humanity itself from which rise…the anxiety filled swarm of thoughts, fantasies, and addictions cast monstrously, demonically, and crazily against the wall of the Absolute.”
[6] Cf. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 67.
[7] Cf. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, London: Random House Group Ltd, 2006, p. 51: “The god of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleaner; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
[8] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “#98 People of the Church: Irenaeus,” 381.
[9] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 283
[10] Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation: Verbum Domini, 42.
[11] Verbum Domini, 42.
[12] Cf. Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses) IV. 9-12, 25-26 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. I the Apostolic Fathers---Justin Martyr---Irenaeus, Edinburge: T & T Clark, 1989, pp. 472-477, 495-498: “Now, without contradiction, He means by those things which are brought forth form the treasure new and old, the two covenants; the old, that giving of the law which took place formerly; and He points out as the new, that manner of life required by the Gospel” (IX:1).
[13] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), IX:3.
[14] Cf. Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), XII.
[15] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), XII:2.
[16] Cf. Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), XII: 3.
[17] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), XII:5.
[18] Verbum Domini, 42. Clearly the Holy Father is restating the words of the Second Vatican Council when it says: “To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to ‘literary forms.’ For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another,” 12.
[19] Origen, On First Principles (De Principiis), book II, chp. 4. 1-2 & book IV, chp. 1, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966, IV:1.7
[20] Origen, On First Principles (De Principiis), IV:1.7
[21] Origen, On First Principles (De Principiis), IV:1.6: “after the advent of Jesus that the inspiration of the prophetic words and the spiritual nature of Moses’ law can come to light.”
[22] Cf. Henri De Lubac, S.J., “The Unity of the Two Testaments,” 266-267.
[23] Henri De Lubac, S.J., “The Unity of the Two Testaments,” 228ff.
[24] Henri De Lubac, S.J., “The Unity of the Two Testaments,” 234-235.

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