The River of the Immaculate Conception
by james matthew wilson
wiseblood, 28 pages, $10
In The River of the Immaculate Conception, James Matthew Wilson confirms his vocation as a public poet. Commissioned by the Benedict XVI Institute, this poem sequence of seven parts leads us through the lives of St. Juan Diego, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Père Marquette, with interludes on the interconnectedness of art, place, and theology.
One poem asks, “How does one make a song of holiness / Or speak of music without spoiling it?” Wilson’s answer is in what he calls “the gift of form.” Meter is not simply a gingering up of language. It is a mode of speech for those occasions when ordinary language is inadequate. It is incarnate thought. Wilson uses a broad palate of consonants and does not hesitate to invert syntax. To one unused to discursive poetry, these poems might seem like “mere verse,” but the high lyricism of “Gloriosa Dicta Sunt De Te,” the summit of the sequence, should settle any doubts.
This book is no treatise on poetry, though. These questions of language anticipate Wilson’s larger theme: how the City of Man must point us to the City of God. Of Junipero Serra’s mission to California, he writes: “extending with each step the Spanish Empire / But planting, too, a Vineyard of the Lord.” This is a sacramental vision of public life. The well-ordered state and the land itself become “a scene where destinies are shaped by grace.”
Never Doubt Thomas: The Catholic Aquinas as Evangelical and Protestant
by francis j. beckwith
baylor, 213 pages, $29.95
In recent years, a number of Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians have sought to retrieve Thomas Aquinas as a “common doctor” of the Church. Francis J. Beckwith’s Never Doubt Thomas is a concise and cogent contribution to this retrieval. The book commends Thomas’s thinking for its ability to illuminate four topics of contemporary relevance to Christians: the relationship between natural law or natural theology and Christian faith; the question of whether Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God; the issue of whether Christians should use Intelligent Design arguments; and the doctrine of justification.
In each of these areas, Beckwith addresses common misinterpretations of Thomas. For instance, he explains that Thomas’s modest understanding of natural law does not demand that reason establish God’s existence and moral will before faith can be exercised, but rather acknowledges the noetic effects of sin and the necessity of divine grace for Christian understanding. Beckwith pushes back on Intelligent Design theorists: Despite their laudable attempt “to defend the rationality of belief in God against incursions of scientism in our academic culture,” they concede too much to modern cosmologies and could benefit from a Thomistic conception of God’s transcendent agency. Finally, he argues that Thomas’s understanding of the doctrine of justification stands in continuity with classical Tridentine teaching and is not—contrary to the claim of certain evangelicals—a precursor to Protestant soteriology.
Though it contradicts several popular evangelical misunderstandings, Beckwith’s interpretation of Thomas accords with the way confessional Lutheran and Reformed theologians traditionally have regarded the Dominican master: as a common doctor of the Church from whom we may learn much about the natural knowledge of God and the nature of God’s transcendent being and agency—even as we must diverge from him on matters related to God’s free gift of justification.
—Scott R. Swain