Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

perplexing pope

In “Between Two Synods” (January), George Weigel thoroughly summarizes the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family and the issues at hand for the coming Ordinary Synod of 2015, except for one pressing question: Where is the Holy Father in all the controversy? Reading Weigel’s account, one could get the impression that the “Vatican” acted at the synod completely apart from Pope Francis. But the pope appointed Cardinal Baldisseri and Archbishop Forte, and the rest of the synod leadership, and was himself present at the synod, sitting in the middle at the head table. Has Francis repudiated the infamous mid-term report and reprimanded its authors, or those who released it to the press? Or did he want the report to go out as it was?

Moreover, Pope Francis paid high compliments to Cardinal Kasper’s pre-synod paper with regard to divorced and remarried Catholics. Yes, Francis admitted that the proposal to allow Catholics in second marriages to receive Communion would be controversial; but did he say that such a proposal would be unacceptable since it is disjointed from the Church’s understanding of the sacraments? Has he affirmed the prohibition’s ­theological basis as identified by ­Familiaris Consortio, or the warning that if the long-standing prohibition were lifted, “the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of ­marriage”?

Perhaps I am mistaken to think that none of this has been answered satisfactorily. Nevertheless, it would be an important service at this time if the Catholic media and opinion makers, with reluctance and respect, were to inquire more deeply into the intentions of Pope Francis with regard to the synod.

Paul J. Malocha
ann arbor, michigan

No one can deny that George Weigel has been one of the best commentators on all things Catholic, and his article about the synod is no exception. I also have no doubt that Weigel was singularly impressed by ­Cardinal Bergoglio’s personal holiness and faith when he met the future pope in Buenos Aires in 2012. But when I finished reading “Between Two Synods,” I once again had the feeling that something was missing. Indeed, this element frequently has been missing in the writings of those nobly seeking to defend Francis by blaming the secular media who time and time again “misread” him.

Weigel states that the confusion at the synod was caused by the German bishops, such as Cardinal Kasper, in league with the synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri. Yet if Pope Francis had some grand design in calling the synod, shouldn’t he at least have some responsibility for how it was conducted and who was appointed to orchestrate its proceedings? But there is no hint of this in Weigel’s article. And if the objection is that these kinds of details are not the pope’s proper role, then why should we trust Francis to be able to implement some grand vision of perpetuating the new ­evangelization so ably begun by John Paul II and continued by Benedict XVI? Is there some evidence of where Francis has been successful in reenergizing the Church by, for example, increasing vocations in the way John Paul and Benedict have renewed much of Catholic life, especially among the younger generation, here in America?

Which makes me wonder about another point Weigel brings up and one with which I wholeheartedly agree. He asks why prelates from the spiritual wasteland that is much of Europe should lecture the African Church, where the faith is growing exponentially “by preaching the truths of the Gospel with compassion but also without compromise.” Time and time again this approach to preaching the faith has proved ­effective, whether it be in the Anglican communion or among Evangelical missionaries in South America. But again I ask, is this the approach Francis has taken in Argentina? Is the faith blossoming in South America as it is in parts of Africa and the West where preachers have followed John Paul and Benedict’s examples of proclaiming the truth without compromise? Surely Africa faces the same kind of economic challenges Latin America does, so it does not suffice to say these are different situations. If the faith in Argentina is flourishing, then this story needs to be told, especially when the media likes to report on things like Cardinal Bergoglio supporting civil unions as a compromise measure, or Francis telling a divorced woman that she can receive Communion. On the other hand, if the Church there is ­spiritually not really any different from its European counterpart, then can’t the same criticisms Weigel makes of the Germans be leveled against South ­American voices?

Pope Benedict said that the Holy Spirit protects popes from formally teaching errors, but this does not mean that everything a pope does or says must be good or correct. Catholic apologists shouldn’t have to bend over backwards to explain and clarify every apparent misstatement, nor should they simply ignore things that don’t fit with a particular narrative. When statements continually have to be clarified, or actions explained away, then it’s possible something may be amiss. Pope Francis may very much be as the media portrays him—wonderful on the life issues and the beauty of the family, and with a profound love for the poor, but also more progressive in areas such as Communion for the divorced and remarried.

Writers like Weigel should be willing and honest enough to acknowledge that Francis may not be who they think he is and that there is no good reason, at least none that has been shown so far, to say that his pontificate truly is a continuation of those of his two mighty predecessors.

Ryan Dowhower
west st. paul, minnesota

George Weigel replies:

I thank Paul Malocha and Ryan Dowhower for their thoughtful letters, which reflect the concerns of many Catholics. Those concerns are, in the main, shaped by media reports. And in this pontificate, as in its predecessors’, those reports have too often been skewed and distorting rather than accurate and insightful. What is different now, it seems, is that Catholics on both the port and starboard sides of the Barque of ­Peter accept these distortions as ­reality. The result is the phenomenon I’ve described elsewhere as Pope ­Francis, the global Rorschach blot, onto whom are projected all sorts of hopes and fears.

I take the pope seriously, and at face value, when he says that he is a son of the Church who believes and teaches what the Catholic Church believes and teaches. That means I “read” Synod 2014 through the conviction that Pope Francis believes and teaches what the Catholic Church believes and teaches about the nature and permanence of marriage and about worthiness to receive Holy Communion. In my two conversations with the pope since his election, I have been struck by his pastoral passion and by his determination that the Church reach out, like its Master, to “the lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Thus I also “read” these two synods, and the debates they’ve generated, as a process intended by the pope to explore whether there might be new, creative, and orthodox ways to address the crisis of marriage and the family in all its dimensions, including the hard cases within the Catholic Church (for example, the case of an abandoned spouse whose former husband or wife refuses to provide the testimony that would make an annulment possible).

The contentions created by Synod 2014 have usefully clarified that, in addressing those challenges, there is no consensus possible behind the proposals forwarded by Cardinal Walter Kasper; that there is no chance of a consensus forming behind the more extravagant claims about same-sex relationships in Synod 2014’s ­interim report; and that “progressive” Catholicism remains stuck in the grooves of the lifestyle revolution of the sixties, despite overwhelming evidence of the human unhappiness to which the sexual revolution has led.

Useful clarifications notwithstanding, however, the contentions surrounding the synods have also ­distracted many Catholics from embracing the vision of a “Church in permanent mission” laid out by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium—which nonetheless remains the definition of this pontificate’s grand strategy. If everyone would remember that, things might come into clearer focus than they do in the blogosphere. And if Catholics in the United States would take a lesson from the courageous African bishops at Synod 2014 and manifest a similar confidence in our ecclesial experience over the past thirty-five years—an experience that is not going to be negated by two synods, no matter how many strange things are said at or during them—then the many opportunities available to advance the New Evangelization in the field of marriage and family would focus our energies, which was frequently not the case during Synod 2014.

As for the suggestion, gently put, that I have been bending over backwards to “save” Pope Francis, that, too, strikes me as a result of the filtration of reality by media reports and by the battles of the blogosphere. I don’t mean to pull rank, but “Between Two Synods” was based on detailed knowledge of a complex situation and firsthand experience with the personalities involved. I hope my record of calling ’em as I see ’em in these matters has been sufficiently established over the last quarter-­century that readers need not worry that I’m losing a foot off my fastball.

Melchior Cano, whose theology helped shape the Council of Trent, was right when he said that “Peter has no need of our lies or flattery. Those who blindly and indiscriminately defend every decision of the ­supreme ­Pontiff are the very ones who do most to undermine the authority of the Holy See—they destroy instead of strengthening its foundations.” As it was with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, that has been my watchword in correspondence and conversation with Pope Francis, and in my writing on his pontificate; and it will continue to be so.


“How is it that groups so widely condemned as heretical by Islamic authorities receive so much tacit support from the mainstream Muslim world?” The lack of a clear response to this question in John Azumah’s article, “Challenging Radical Islam” (­January), seems to undermine his thesis about “Islam’s true face.”

Can non-Muslims declare al-­Qaeda, IS, and Boko Haram heretics because these groups don’t fight by the rules of Islamic law? Do ­ideals set out in Islamic law mean that true Muslims only fight according to its “clear limits”? Is it only a misguided application of sola scriptura that makes some non-Muslims—as well as many Muslims!—think these groups act out the essence of Islam? The sunna they claim to emulate is a source of authority even more powerful than scripture. What story is it that the Sira of Ibn Ishaq and the Maghazi of al-Waqidi tell?

Azumah helpfully points out that all of the practices of these groups can be found in the authoritative Islamic texts. The orthodox teaching itself is a problem, Azumah writes, “an invitation to rebellion and extremism.” Where exactly is the line between use and abuse of orthodox teaching?

Standard scholarly treatments of war in Islam make the line no easier to draw. The classical Islamic interpretive tradition through the fourteenth century favored qur’anic ­materials that make an “unconditional command to fight all ­nonbelievers.” By the third century of Islam, the ­canonical hadith collections so overwhelmingly encouraged military campaigns “in the way of Allah” that a trace of dissent is hard to find (­Reuven Firestone, Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam).

On the other hand, if these groups are indeed heretical, in which direction ought reform to proceed? Toward the letter of Islamic law? Islamic law divides the globe into the spheres of Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) and Dar al-Harb (House of War). According to this ruling, any region where Islamic law is not enforced is potential territory for conquest (Majid Khadduri, War and Peace in the Law of Islam). Is this, then, the true face of Islam?

If non-Muslims have the right to interpret Muslim traditions, it is not clear why they don’t also have a similar right to conclude that Islam, its scripture, and its messenger are problematic. Islam is the world’s most powerful political-religious system. In daily discourse, one frequently hears that certain political systems or ideologies are misguided. Many openly condemn all theocracies or fundamentalisms, evidently without fear that their judgments will encourage violence from groups within those systems. What is it about Islam, its scripture, and its messenger that makes us choose to give Islam a pass?

“If the Qur’an and Islam are the problems, what is the solution?” Azumah’s article seems to ask this question rhetorically, as if there is no answer. The answers he suggests appear to trivialize the attempt to answer it seriously. However, many Christians throughout history have offered an answer. As does the New Testament.

The solution is a good news message about the death and Resurrection of Jesus with the power to save humanity, whether Jew, Gentile, or Muslim. The solution is a change of heart by the wind of the Holy Spirit. The solution is a “new commandment”—the law of the Messiah, based on love and urging unconditional forgiveness and love of one’s enemy. The solution is an invitation to join a community of disciples ­gathered around the one who taught and modeled peace.

These solutions are very unpopular these days, and indeed are often greeted by ridicule and deep disdain. But are they unbiblical?

Gordon Nickel
trinity evangelical divinity school
deerfield, illinois

In his erudite consideration of radical Islam and its origins, John Azumah reaches a striking conclusion: While Islam is not the problem, Islam has a problem. He accompanies that observation with two questions that non-Muslims might pose to their Muslim friends. Azumah has not had space to consider all such possible questions. I offer several more for the consideration of readers.

First, Azumah concurs with what he terms “Islam’s own tradition” in declaring jihadi radical terrorists to be heretics, beyond the boundary of true Islam. An examination of the vast debates taking place in the world of Islam today quickly reveals that accusations of heresy are flying in multiple directions. So a further question for Muslims might be whether they consider non-Muslims to have the authority to declare which Muslims are heretical and which are not.

Azumah calls on Islamic scholars and leaders to reexamine the doctrines “that are so easily abused by extremists.” This is a worthy call but needs to be shaped more specifically, given the complexity of the vast web of doctrine in Islam, which is compounded by the diversity of interpretations according to sectarian groups, geography, and other factors. We might ask Muslim scholars to engage in a candid examination of their primary texts and to reform specific doctrines—say, jihad, the status of non-Muslims living under Islamic authority, and freedom of choice for those born Muslim as to which religion, if any, they follow.

Azumah suggests that the key radical groups such as al-Qaeda, IS, and Boko Haram “have their origins mainly in Wahhabi and Salafi thought.” As one looks for such origins, a question also arises as to where one should stop; for example, where does one look for the origins of Wahhabi and Salafi thought? This would be a good question for our Muslim interlocutors.

When he refers to “the central importance of Muhammad as exemplar,” Azumah implies an answer to that last question. It seems clear from diverse statements by today’s radicals that they do not look back to the eighteenth century, or even the eighth century. Rather, their statements and pronouncements are interlaced with references to sacred texts and the example of Muhammad. So a further question for Muslims in an inter­religious dialogue might be as follows: What would Muhammad think of today’s radicals, who jump over centuries of sophisticated theological and philosophical thought (which he himself was not alive to reflect upon) to take a literalist reading of his legacy?

While we are engaging in the interreligious dialogue, posing questions to our Muslim friends, it would be worth considering how different religions depict each other. The historical “Christian” domains have done much soul-searching about ­Islamophobia over the last twenty years. Most Muslims, not just radicals, have felt slighted at satirical cartoon representations of ­Muhammad—though it is clear from recent events in France that many Muslims do not support the murder of such ­cartoonists.

A final question to be posed to our Muslim friends might be as follows: While Muslims object to negative caricatures of Islam by non-Muslims, what is being done to address the negative caricatures of others (especially Jews) by organs of the Muslim media?

Peter G. Riddell
melbourne school of ­theology
melbourne, australia

John Azumah replies:

It is my pleasure to respond to these thoughtful questions from my respected colleagues. With regards to Gordon Nickel’s question about Muslim support for jihadi groups, let me say that Muslim support by itself does not make the jihadists representative of “Islam’s true face.” Does the massive Christian support of the Crusades for three centuries make the Crusades representative of Christianity’s true face? Muslims actively supported, reared, and turned a blind eye to jihadi groups (by the way, recent Pew polls show such support is plummeting in several Muslim countries) not because they viewed these groups as representing the “essence of Islam,” but because they saw them as “freedom fighters.”

Of course, sympathizers will insist that the jihadists are acting out the essence of Islam, but that does not make their views and actions Islamic. War has rules; otherwise there would be no war crimes. And so does jihad. Furthermore, I never said all the practices of the groups can be found in authoritative Islamic texts. On the contrary, I pointed out specific ways in which the jihadists clearly violate the mainline teaching on jihad.

It is true that the “classical Islamic interpretive tradition through the fourteenth century favored qur’anic ­materials that make an ‘unconditional command to fight all nonbelievers.’” That is why I talk of the need to rethink the mainstream teaching itself. And many thinking Muslims have done so over the years and are doing so today at great personal cost and risk. But it’s also true that, in spite of the classical tradition, for centuries Muslims lived in peace with nonbelievers in Africa and Asia. And 95 percent of the victims of today’s jihadi groups are Muslims, not nonbelievers. Sure, standard scholarly treatments of war in Islam are complicated and sharply qualified in several areas. But some things are made very clear, including the specific violations I pointed out in my article.

Of course, I don’t give Islam “a pass” in my studies and surely not in this article. I believe non-Muslims have a right to ask all the hard questions of Islam and of Muslims, especially under the present ­circumstances. However, non-Muslims don’t have the right to undertake a freelance interpretation of Islamic tradition in order to demonize the whole of the religion and its 1.6 billion followers. That is called polemics, not academics. Islam, like Christianity, has a mainstream and its own internal logic, which every serious student of Islam must ­engage with integrity.

By concluding that Islam, its scripture, and its messenger are problematic, Nickel’s solution is a call for all Muslims to convert to Christianity. As an African Christian, I strongly believe in evangelism and the right of people to freely propagate and change their religions. But I am also a realist who knows that Muslims and Christians have to learn to live together on this planet for a very long, long time. I am looking for a serious solution as to what to do with my Muslim relations and the Muslims around the world who have found good news in Islam. In the past, Christianity went through long seasons of violence, from which it has emerged reformed and thriving; why should we think the same couldn’t happen with Islam? I know Nickel’s “solution” is biblical, but I wish it were just as practical.

Peter Riddell raises additional questions of Muslims that I fully endorse. He queries “whether Muslims ­consider non-Muslims to have the authority to declare which Muslims are heretical and which are not.” A short answer is, certainly not. But I did not declare the jihadists heretics by my own authority. I am simply pointing out mainstream Islamic teaching. Every game has rules, and if you violate those rules, you are thrown out. By jumping over “centuries of sophisticated theological and ­philosophical thought . . . to take a literalist reading” of Islamic texts, the jihadists have, in fact, thrown themselves out of Islam. A deeper question is whether non-Muslims have the right to evaluate any Islamic teaching or practice. And my answer is, of course, yes. For those of us from the Muslim Majority World, these are not mere intellectual exercises. They are life-and-death issues affecting Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Relative to “the central importance of Muhammad as an exemplar,” that depends. Are we talking about the Muhammad who allegedly ordered the slaughter of hundreds of Jews in Medina in the seventh century, or the Muhammad who allegedly showed compassion to an old lady who constantly hurled insults and garbage at him every time he passed by her house? The ­Muhammad who inspires legalism in Islam, or the Muhammad considered as “the perfect human being” who inspires mysticism in Islam?

My position is that the determination of precisely that question of the moral stance of Islam presses upon all of us, Muslims and Christians, and that it should be carried out in a responsible and critical fashion. That’s the burden of all religious believers as we struggle to sustain our faith in an increasingly irreligious and anti-religious world. I believe Jesus would have just as many, if not more, questions for Christians as Muhammad would for Muslims if the two were to return. We have all fallen short of the glory of God!

testing testing

Mark Bauerlein’s “Standardized Culture” (January) feeds my wish that we abolish the SAT and ACT and substitute—since this is America and we need some standardized test results—Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or Advanced International Certificate of ­Education tests in college admissions. Those are the equivalent of final exams for introductory college courses. As such they have to delve into some juicy and troubling subjects because history, literature, and even some science courses are too full of them to ignore.

Such a change won’t happen, of course, but it is righteous enough a cause that we should keep talking about it until cultural and scientific advances—maybe direct connections to all human brains—make testing obsolete.

I love the way Bauerlein paints an entirely accurate picture of exams with no flair, no heat, no friction. It’s like reading college commencement addresses from great men and women, none of whom want to offend anyone in such audiences.

Bauerlein should take us one step further by writing up a few questions for an SAT or ACT course in another universe that doesn’t go by these rules. Maybe he can start a national club of rude high school seniors who take his alternate exam right after the regular SAT in a local restaurant—I would pick Burger King, where you always have it your way.

Jay Mathews
washington post
washington, d.c.

I have facilitated or observed only a few dozen test development review sessions related to one type of test (teacher licensing) in several U.S. states. I understand, however, that reviews tend to follow similar scripts across test types.

Extrapolating from my limited experience in test development reviews, I contend that they do not transpire as Mark Bauerlein suggests. Committees comprise from several to dozens of instructors, curriculum experts, and education administrators, not pressure group representatives. Even if a pressure group representative or two finagled seats at the table, their leverage would be minimal. Review committees are like juries so long as consensus is possible. They will, however, revert to vote-taking democracies if a majority sense unreasonable recalcitrance (or ignorance) on the part of one or two dissenters. Ultimately, the content standards written months before by different committees of educators and legislators, typically after public hearings, guide test content decisions.

How would Bauerlein design our public education system? Repeal the First Amendment? Require religious studies courses? Either seems more reasonable to me than adding religious content to general language arts or writing tests.

Richard P. Phelps
nonpartisan education review
asheville, north carolina

With so much importance attached to standardized test scores today, I can see the logic for test-making companies to avoid words and subjects likely to be unfamiliar to some students. But they and outside reviewers go too far when they remove every word or reference to topics that someone somewhere might find objectionable. At the same time, Mark Bauerlein in “Standardized Culture” goes too far in believing that “culture, faith, politics, or country” rightfully belong in such tests.

From my own perspective as a retired educator, it is impossible to tailor a standardized test to the personal needs and feelings of ­millions of students all over the country. Tailoring is hard enough in a single classroom of only twenty-five students. The best that test-makers can and should do is what educators were attempting to do when the SAT was originated: focus on socioeconomic fairness by avoiding content and language that favor children of wealthy, ­cosmopolitan families.

But it’s also impossible to create tests that would satisfy Bauerlein’s desire for inclusion of artistic, historical, and cultural topics. Our country has not yet become the “melting pot” envisioned during its years of mass immigration. Although many linguistic, religious, and cultural differences between groups that arrived in the nineteenth or twentieth century have been flattened, others remain. Moreover, new ones surface continually with the arrival of new ethnic groups and the emergence of new social and political allegiances. Including passages about grand opera or Mormonism on a test, for instance, would violate the basic concept of fairness.

The saving grace for all of us is that what the tests are meant to test is the ability to understand and use the English language—in all its ­spoken and written forms—not an individual’s feelings, beliefs, or familiarity with particular texts. Whatever the errors of test-makers in carrying out their mission, educators are justified in teaching any pieces of ­fiction or non-fiction they believe serve those purposes, be they great works of literature, graphic novels, historic speeches, song lyrics, news articles, instruction manuals, or comic strips. As long as the school district does not ban it, it is fair game!

Joanne Yatvin
portland, oregon

Mark Bauerlein replies:

Yes, to Jay Mathews on knowledge-based tests, and how about this prompt for the SAT writing exam, which aligns with one of the reading standards in Common Core?

Compose an essay discussing the nature and function of money in four of the following classics of American literature:

Ben Franklin, Autobiography
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham
Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
Willa Cather, O Pioneers!
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
One work of your own choosing

I don’t doubt Richard Phelps’s experience, but in the testing companies and education agencies I have worked for, the process of bias and sensitivity review usually takes place before and after the item development committee meets, not during its deliberations. Bias experts ruled out certain topics and terms in advance, before we even met, and they reviewed the results of our labors after we departed.

On his last point, yes, I would add all kinds of content to general tests, historical, literary, political, and ­scientific as well as religious, and stop trying to denature the ­responses we expect students to give to our instruction. Remember, if the tests contain those materials, teachers will teach it. Also, if in mentioning the First Amendment Phelps implies that religious content is illegal in the public school classroom, he carries separation of Church and state to extremes far beyond what the First Amendment actually warrants—but of course, that view is a powerful one at the present time.

Joanne Yatvin is correct in her identification of the core problem with tests in areas of historical and cultural knowledge. Some test-takers will be advantaged over others because of their respective cultural backgrounds. Fairness demands that history and culture be expelled, giving us assessments that only test abstract skills (“the ability to understand and use the English language”).

Let’s recognize, however, that in doing so we give up all distinctions of significant and insignificant, beautiful and vulgar, brilliant and pedestrian—as Yatvin asserts in her final list that runs from literary classics to instruction manuals to comics. And we see the outcome: young Americans who have passed through high school and college and still possess feeble knowledge of U.S. history, civic principles and practices, our literary and religious heritage, great works of art, architecture, and music . . .


David Bentley Hart’s “Ad Litteram” (January) criticizes our modern techniques of interpretation by asking us to read texts with the kind of “literal exegesis” that Nabokov used while reading Kafka. I sympathize with Hart’s longing for a richer reading experience, but I think he makes some critical errors in his piece.

On the one hand, he finds fault with the arid exegetes who wish to place the Bible within its ancient Near Eastern context using only a historical-­grammatical approach. On the other hand, he disdains the ­fundamentalists who use the same historical-­grammatical tools to argue for the historicity of certain events or to glean knowledge about biological science.

Hart tells his reader, “For ancient and medieval exegetes, however, the very question of whether the events recounted in the text had ever actually happened was largely a matter of indifference for how to go about reading the text literally.” To support this sweeping statement, he mentions Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and ­Augustine, claiming that the former two didn’t believe in the text’s historicity and that the latter did. His message seems to be, “Two out of three Church Fathers agree that the facts of history don’t matter.” But I don’t think his examples prove his point.

Origen is an outlier in many theological respects, and his works were condemned on a number of occasions. His views are always interesting, but Hart shouldn’t present them as representative. No one in the early Church wanted to be called an “­Origenist.”

I found his invocation of Gregory of Nyssa surprising. Hart says that ­Gregory didn’t believe that God ­really slew the firstborn of Egypt. But in his Life of Moses, Gregory says that though the destruction of Egyptian children seems contrary to reason, the history is actually trustworthy. Gregory explicitly tells his reader not to dismiss this story as a “fabrication without any truth.” Only a tendentious reading can make Gregory mean spiritual truth apart from historical truth.

Gregory’s approach isn’t too far from Augustine’s. Augustine taught that one can only trust the spiritual interpretation if one can trust the event’s historicity. The God who can save people from physical destruction with an ark can save people from spiritual destruction through Christ.

Moreover, I found it odd that in his discussion of ancient hermeneutics Hart didn’t mention the Antiochene school of exegesis, which focused on the historical-grammatical aspect of the text and avoided the depth and riches of allegorical and typological interpretation. Hart is wrong that the Fathers were indifferent to the historicity of the Scriptures. Ancient and medieval exegetes did not belabor the point of a text’s historicity because they lived and wrote in a community of believers who assumed that historicity. Hart must remember when reading ancient pastors that their concerns were not his own.

Collin Garbarino
houston baptist university
houston, texas

David Bentley Hart replies:

I thank Collin Garbarino for his letter, but I think he might have exercised a bit more exegetical care of his own in reading my column. I most definitely did not criticize modern historical-critical scholars who wish to read the stories of the Old Testament in their ancient Near Eastern context. That was not an issue I raised at all. In fact, I am a great proponent of such scholarship, precisely because I see it as a useful remedy to fundamentalist literalism of the late modern kind; it helps to restore for us what Origen called the skandalon of the text. As for the fundamentalists whom Garbarino also mentions, whom he fancifully describes as employing such scholarship to argue for the historicity of certain episodes in the Old Testament (which ones I cannot say) and “to glean knowledge about biological science” (which is nonsensical), I am afraid I cannot think of anything to say that would in all likelihood placate him. I regard fundamentalism as a late-modern heresy and nothing else.

I also did not say the Church Fathers were simply indifferent to the historical veracity of the stories of Scripture. I said that that question was a matter of indifference as regards what kind of exegesis counted for them as ad litteram. I was quite clear that many of the Fathers believed many of the tales to have been true, but that this in itself was not what they meant by a “literal” reading of the text. What we mean by “literal” is “accurately documentary”; what they meant by ad litteram was “textually explicit.” The issue of history was something quite apart. And, again, I recommend Augustine’s De Genesi ad Litteram as a magnificent example of what I mean.

As it happens, whatever opprobrium (and peril) may have come to attach to the term “Origenist,” Origen is the uniquely towering figure in the history of Christian exegesis, from whom the Church learned to read the Bible as a witness to Christ. All the Cappadocians admired Origen fiercely, Gregory of Nyssa no less than the others. As for the claim that only a tendentious reading of Gregory’s remark about the more-than-­fabulous “truth” of the story of Egypt’s ­firstborn could lead one to read it as meaning that the tale possesses “spiritual” rather than historical trustworthiness, my claim would be that only a poor reading of ­Gregory’s text could lead one to ­conclude otherwise.

Garbarino is correct that I did not mention the Antiochene school of exegesis (mercifully, I might add). But if he thinks that that school provides a model of “literalism” of the modern fundamentalist kind, I respectfully submit that he is simply in error.  

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift