Monday, June 30, 2008

Was Jonah A False Prophet? No.

Over on Dave Armstrong's blog a commenter has suggested (twice) that Jonah was a false prophet. I propose to address this suggestion here, where I have room to be more verbose (as is my habit :-)

The commenter has suggested that Jonah was a false prophet because he said, "Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed" (3:4), and this didn't actually happen. This makes him a false prophet (according to the commenter) because Deuteronomy 18:21-22 says:
If you say to yourselves, "How can we recognize an oracle which the Lord has spoken?", know that, even though a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if his oracle is not fulfilled or verified, it is an oracle which the Lord did not speak. The prophet has spoken presumptuously, and you shall have no fear of him.
Well, that sounds like an open-and-shut case, but I propose that it's not.

First we must consider what Jonah was commanded to do.
This is the word of the Lord that came to Jonah, son of Amittai: "Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me" (1:1-2).
What did Jonah do? He fled. He ran in the other direction. "But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish away from the Lord" (1:3).

Why did he do this? We don't have to guess; he tells us. After Nineveh had repented and God relented from judging them, Jonah "became angry":
"I beseech you, Lord," he prayed, "is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? This is why I fled at first to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, rich in clemency, loathe to punish." (4:1-2).
Jonah was angry because God spared them, and he knew from the very beginning that if the people of Nineveh repented, that God would do that very thing. And basically God confirms in 4:11 that this is how he works, and certainly how he was working with respect to Nineveh:
Should I not be concerned over Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left, not to mention the many cattle?
It's a rhetorical question, obviously: of course God is concerned for them. That's why he sent Jonah!

On the other hand, though, Jonah clearly hated the Ninevites: he knew that God would be merciful to them if they repented (4:2), he didn't want that to happen, and so he fled in the other direction so as to avoid (if possible) any chance of being involved in the deliverance of Nineveh. When God made it clear that he couldn't run away, then Jonah repented.

The only question that remains for the "false prophet" proposal comes up now. After Jonah was vomited out of the fish/whale onto the beach, God tells him again: "Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and announce to it the message that I will tell you" (3:2, emphasis added). We know (3:3) that Jonah obeyed God as far as going to Nineveh was concerned. The only question left for the present discussion is: Was Jonah's message in 3:4 the one that God commanded in 3:2 or not?
"Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed."
3:10 tells us that God relented from destroying the city because they repented. Therefore Jonah's "prophecy" didn't come true. So he's a false prophet, right?

Wrong (with all due respect to the commenter).


Either God told him to preach this message or he didn't. Clearly God told him to preach something (3:2), so either this was it, or it wasn't.

If it wasn't, then Jonah didn't preach the message that God commanded. He preached something else, and so it would seem that he could be called a false prophet. But it is simply inconceivable that Jonah didn't preach the message that God commanded. In the first place, he had originally refused to preach at all, and so he tried to flee to Tarshish. But he repented of this, and instead he went to Nineveh in obedience to God. But for Jonah to have preached some other message than one that God commanded would mean that he didn't really repent at all: his "repentance" would be a foul-weather one no better than Pharaoh's various "repentances" over the plagues in the book of Exodus: "I repent [with crossed fingers, until these present bad times are over]." But there is nothing in the book of Jonah to suggest this. In fact, the evidence suggests nothing of the sort: God didn't criticize him for what he preached, and Jonah basically says (4:2), "I knew this would happen. I knew if I went and did what you told me to do, they would repent, and you would relent from judging them. And that's what happened!" And really, the only criticism of Jonah in chapter 4 has to do with his attitude, not what he preached: in other words, God reproves him for his sin (his anger), but not for what was not sinful (his message).

In short, then, it's clear from the "wrap-up" in chapter four that Jonah preached exactly what God wanted him to preach. And it seems completely incredible to suppose that Jonah's repentance wasn't complete; there is no evidence for that at all in the book.

The only alternative that remains is that the message Jonah preached in 3:4 was exactly what God wanted him to preach. Well, how can that be, if Deut. 18 says that a true prophet's prophecies have to come true?

I think it's clear that we have to say that it is not a prophecy per se, but rather a warning: "God will destroy this city [unless you repent.]" This makes perfect sense with what Jonah says in 4:2-3. It makes perfect sense with God's response to Jonah in 4:11. It makes perfect sense with the fact that God had to have given him this message: clearly it couldn't have been intended as a literal prophecy, so it must have been something else, and it makes perfect sense as a warning.

We have another very similar example with another prophet. Please see how the horribly wicked king Ahab - the most evil king Israel ever had - repented when Elijah prophesied his doom.
"Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days; but in his son's days I will bring the evil upon his house" (1Kings 21:29, but start reading with verse 17).
Other similar examples: God tells Abraham that he'll spare Sodom if he finds fifty - no, forty-five - no, forty - no, thirty - no, twenty - no, ten righteous men there (Genesis 18:16-33). Which is it? Well, it's not that God doesn't know what he's going to do. He answers prayers, and he answered Abraham's. But the Ninevites prayed, too (Jonah 3:8). This doesn't make Jonah a false prophet any more than God's answer to Abraham's prayer in Genesis 18 made God a liar in what he first told Abraham.

Or how about Numbers 14, where God says:
How long will this people [i.e., Israel] despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs which I have wrought among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you [i.e., Moses] a nation greater and mightier than they (Num. 14:11-12).
God said he was going to destroy them and reject them, and make a greater nation from Moses' descendants. But that's not what happened. Moses prayed for them, and God relented. Does that make God a liar? Of course not! And in the same way, the fact that the Ninevites repented doesn't make Jonah a liar or a false prophet. His message was God's message to them: his word to them, just as Moses and Abraham received similar messages of judgment which (in response to prayer) God later "modified" (not that God literally changes his mind, which is ridiculous - but that's a subject for some other post!)

When it comes to "prophecies" that come upon people threatening judgment, there is frequently (I can't say always, but I might say "almost always") a condition attached - often unspoken: unless they repent. So there is just no reason to suggest that Jonah was a "false prophet" because his warning didn't come to pass: it didn't come to pass because the people repented, and because God is slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. This is a great and wonderful thing for us as well: when we sin horribly, and do monstrous evils, we absolutely must not suppose that God will not receive us if we repent. We are never so wicked that God will not forgive us if we repent.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Theology of St. Thomas - Compulsion of Belief

This could be considered a controversial issue (even though 8 centuries old), and I don't mean to suggest by presenting it here that I agree with St. Thomas about it. The Church does not.

Should unbelievers be compelled to become Christians?
It is written (Luke 14:23): "Go out into the highways and hedges; and compel them to come in." Now men enter into the house of God, i.e. into Holy Church, by faith. Therefore some ought to be compelled to the faith (ST II-II Q10 A8).
An important word there is "some".
Among unbelievers there are some who have never received the faith, such as the heathens and the Jews: and these are by no means to be compelled to the faith, in order that they may believe, because to believe depends on the will...
Those who have never believed must not be compelled to do so. One must will to believe - he must want to do so - and this cannot be compelled. So the attempt would be futile. This is not to say that it hasn't been tried: Charlemagne did, for example.

But St. Thomas says that some in fact may be compelled. Who? Apostates and heretics.
On the other hand, there are unbelievers who at some time have accepted the faith, and professed it, such as heretics and all apostates: such should be submitted even to bodily compulsion, that they may fulfil what they have promised, and hold what they, at one time, received.
Now on the one hand I can understand the principle behind what he says here, which is that people ought to honor the promises and vows and commitments that they make. And to one extent or another we do this even today: men are obliged to fulfill the contracts they make, for example. And it's no good for us to say in complaint against St. Thomas that in all likelihood the heretics and apostates he would compel only made their promises at baptism as infants. This is certainly true, but I am an American citizen by birth, and I am perfectly liable for fulfilling the responsibilities of a citizen even if I never agreed to them myself as an adult. It's not an excuse for tax evasion, for example, nor for evading the draft (if we have one again), to complain, "I never agreed to be a citizen." By the same token it would be unfair to St. Thomas to criticize his view on the grounds that those whom he would compel had only made their promises by means of infant baptism.

Nevertheless, I think that with respect to the faith St. Thomas overlooks something: namely, that (as he says) "belief depends upon the will." But if this is the case for those who have never been Christian, it is the same for the Christian as well. How then can it be that St. Thomas accepts that the will cannot be compelled when the man in question is a heathen, but he is perfectly willing to compel the will of the heretic? This seems to me to be a contradiction, and I don't see how he can have it both ways.

I think it ought to be said that this must be distinguished from a somewhat similar question - namely, the question of the supremacy of the conscience. To concede that a man may not be forced to be a Christian is not the same as granting that his conscience is some sort of ultimate measure of the truth above even the Church. No. But that's a subject for another day and another post. For our purposes today, the important thing to notice is: granting the fact that one cannot be forced to believe something he doesn't wish to believe is not the same as saying that his conscience is supreme. If I am going to be Catholic, I'm obliged to believe what the Church teaches. I have no right to say I'm Catholic while disbelieving anything that the Church proposes for belief. But no one can force me to believe anything against my will.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Theology of St. Thomas - Can Unbelievers Do Good?

Can non-Christians do anything good, or is every act they perform a sin? I've discussed this before, but at the time I had forgotten that St. Thomas also addresses this subject.
As stated above (I-II, 85, 2,4) mortal sin takes away sanctifying grace, but does not wholly corrupt the good of nature (ST II-II Q10 A4).
One example:
Unbelief does not so wholly destroy natural reason in unbelievers, but that some knowledge of the truth remains in them, whereby they are able to do deeds that are generically good (ibid., ad 3).
Unquestionably non-Christians are able to discern truths that reason can attain, and consequently they can do good things. But this is not to say that they are able to do meritorious works such that they could merit salvation apart from Christ. Such works only are possible by the grace of God.
Since therefore, unbelief is a mortal sin, unbelievers are without grace indeed, yet some good of nature remains in them. Consequently it is evident that unbelievers cannot do those good works which proceed from grace, viz. meritorious works; yet they can, to a certain extent, do those good works for which the good of nature suffices.

Hence it does not follow that they sin in everything they do; but whenever they do anything out of their unbelief, then they sin. For even as one who has the faith, can commit an actual sin, venial or even mortal, which he does not refer to the end of faith, so too, an unbeliever can do a good deed in a matter which he does not refer to the end of his unbelief.
Just as we Christians are not perfectly consistent and sometimes sin when we do things that are not ordered towards our last end - the beatific vision - so also the unbeliever. He too is inconsistent, and does things which do not conform to his unbelief.

And these considerations give us good reason for not thinking the worst of our fellow man, but for viewing him with charity. We do not need to suppose that others' motivations are only evil all the time. Sometimes they really do good, and we ought to give them the benefit of the doubt, just as we would like to receive the benefit of the doubt ourselves.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Theology of St. Thomas - Cafeteria Catholicism is No Catholicism

Can one be a faithful Catholic while disbelieving even one thing proposed for belief by the Church? If he deliberately does so, knowing what the Church teaches, and knowing that what he believes is contrary to it, and willfully refusing to repent, the answer is no.
Neither living nor lifeless faith remains in a heretic who disbelieves one article of faith.

The reason of this is that the species of every habit depends on the formal aspect of the object, without which the species of the habit cannot remain. Now the formal object of faith is the First Truth, as manifested in Holy Writ and the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth. Consequently whoever does not adhere, as to an infallible and Divine rule, to the teaching of the Church, which proceeds from the First Truth manifested in Holy Writ, has not the habit of faith, but holds that which is of faith otherwise than by faith. Even so, it is evident that a man whose mind holds a conclusion without knowing how it is proved, has not scientific knowledge, but merely an opinion about it. Now it is manifest that he who adheres to the teaching of the Church, as to an infallible rule, assents to whatever the Church teaches; otherwise, if, of the things taught by the Church, he holds what he chooses to hold, and rejects what he chooses to reject, he no longer adheres to the teaching of the Church as to an infallible rule, but to his own will. Hence it is evident that a heretic who obstinately disbelieves one article of faith, is not prepared to follow the teaching of the Church in all things; but if he is not obstinate, he is no longer in heresy but only in error. Therefore it is clear that such a heretic with regard to one article has no faith in the other articles, but only a kind of opinion in accordance with his own will (ST II-II Q5 A3).
The man who refuses to believe even one article has effectively demonstrated that he does not hold the Church's teaching on faith and morals to be infallible. But if he has denied this infallibility, then he has no better reason for what he believes other than his own will - what he chooses to believe or not, on his own authority. In this way he has ceased to be Catholic.

We are not free to pick and choose that which we will believe from what the Church teaches. The Catholic Faith is not a smorgasbord. We are obliged to believe everything that the Church proposes for belief. It is truth. To deny this truth on any point is to say that the Church lies. But that is impossible, for her Head is the Lord Jesus Christ himself. The Church cannot err precisely because she is totus Christus (CCC 795) with him - Head and Body. It's not that she is infallible in and of herself - hardly! Rather, it is because she is united with her Head. To say that the Church could err would be the same thing as to say that Christ himself can err.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Theology of St. Thomas - Salvation outside the Church?

It has often been said (by detractors of various stripes) that Vatican II deviated from the historic Catholic Faith by saying that it is possible for a man to be saved who is not a Catholic - nor even baptized.
Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience (LG 16).
This, it is supposed, is a theological novelty. Well, no. In the first place Romans 2 suggests it. In the second place, there is at least a hint of it in St. Justin Martyr's First Apology (chapter 46; cf. some discussion of it in the Catholic Encyclopedia article here, in the section on his Doctrine). And in the third place, there is an acknowledgment of the possibility in St. Thomas.

Let it be said first off that it's not my purpose to present a defense of what the Church teaches on this subject. I'll leave that for folks who are better equipped for it. It is sufficient in my book that the Church does teach it, and that it is by no means either contrary to the Bible (cf. Romans 2), nor contrary to the teaching of the Church through the ages. My purpose in this post is to highlight something said by St. Thomas.

First of all, we have to be clear that for St. Thomas (and for all Catholics) the rule is this: "The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude" (CCC 1257). But this cannot be understood in such a way as to admit of no exceptions: the Church has always affirmed the baptisms of desire and blood. But there may be other exceptions as well, as St. Thomas acknowledges:
If, however, some were saved without receiving any revelation, they were not saved without faith in a Mediator, for, though they did not believe in Him explicitly, they did, nevertheless, have implicit faith through believing in Divine providence, since they believed that God would deliver mankind in whatever way was pleasing to Him, and according to the revelation of the Spirit to those who knew the truth, as stated in Job 35:11: "Who teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth" (ST II-II Q2 A7 ad 3).
Yes, it's possible for a man to be saved apart from Baptism. "[I]n ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him" (CCC 847, quoting AG 7: "God in ways known to Himself can lead those inculpably ignorant of the Gospel to find that faith without which it is impossible to please Him"). It seems to me to be quite unfair to turn this acknowledgment into some sort of so-called move towards universalism. It's not. It is simpy a recognition that God is not bound by the sacraments: he may save some in ways that he alone knows. We do know, however, that even such folks as these are saved by Christ, and by the application of his atonement to them in ways that we do not know. The fact that there may be exceptions does not invalidate the rule.

Theology of St. Thomas - No sola fide

"It would seem that the New Law should not prescribe or prohibit any external acts." That's the first issue St. Thomas addresses on the topic of the contents of the New Law (ST I-II Q108). He rejects this idea:
Through the New Law, men are made "children of light": wherefore it is written (John 12:36): "Believe in the light that you may be the children of light." Now it is becoming that children of the light should do deeds of light and cast aside deeds of darkness, according to Eph. 5:8: "You were heretofore darkness, but now light in the Lord. Walk . . . as children of the light." Therefore the New Law had to forbid certain external acts and prescribe others.
That seems pretty obvious: Christ would have us be children of light; St. Paul commands us to walk as children of light; ergo there must be some rule by which we know what it means to walk as children of light.
...the New Law consists chiefly in the grace of the Holy Ghost, which is shown forth by faith that worketh through love. Now men become receivers of this grace through God's Son made man, Whose humanity grace filled first, and thence flowed forth to us. Hence it is written (John 1:14): "The Word was made flesh," and afterwards: "full of grace and truth"; and further on: "Of His fulness we all have received, and grace for grace." Hence it is added that "grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." Consequently it was becoming that the grace flows from the incarnate Word should be given to us by means of certain external sensible objects; and that from this inward grace, whereby the flesh is subjected to the Spirit, certain external works should ensue.

Accordingly external acts may have a twofold connection with grace. In the first place, as leading in some way to grace. Such are the sacramental acts which are instituted in the New Law, e.g. Baptism, the Eucharist, and the like.

In the second place there are those external acts which ensue from the promptings of grace: and herein we must observe a difference. For there are some which are necessarily in keeping with, or in opposition to inward grace consisting in faith that worketh through love. Such external works are prescribed or forbidden in the New Law; thus confession of faith is prescribed, and denial of faith is forbidden; for it is written (Matthew 10:32,33) "(Every one) that shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father . . . But he that shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father."

This is not to say that the New Law is as extensive as the old one.
On the other hand, there are works which are not necessarily opposed to, or in keeping with faith that worketh through love. Such works are not prescribed or forbidden in the New Law, by virtue of its primitive institution; but have been left by the Lawgiver, i.e. Christ, to the discretion of each individual. And so to each one it is free to decide what he should do or avoid; and to each superior, to direct his subjects in such matters as regards what they must do or avoid. Wherefore also in this respect the Gospel is called the "law of liberty."
Nevertheless, we cannot expect to see the Lord's face if we ignore what he commands: "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15). It is not enough simply to believe.