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Mind of Christ


It was within the large kingdom of Phrygia, located in modern Turkey, that a small group of prophets arose around the year 170 A.D.  This group and their followers would start a movement that would fuel contentions within the infant Christian Church of Asia Minor (and then for centuries to come) regarding how God’s grace was understood to be distributed to individuals within the Christian community at large. Montanus, Prisca, and Maximilla were among these prophets who began to stress the apocalyptic elements of Christianity, specifically claiming that Christ would create the heavenly kingdom of Jerusalem from within the small village of Pepuza, located in the Phrygian region. Their sect also began to alter the practices of their Christian contemporaries by introducing elite refinements to their way of worship through severe fasting, radical purity and celibacy, and the encouragement of their members to volunteer for Christian martyrdom. Two of these prophets were women, who uncharacteristically taught among their community, when the majority of Christianity at this time forbade this public act. Their teachings seemed to include allusions to them being the last of their kind, when prophesying after these women would oddly cease among a group that so prided, and were identified by, their perceived charismatic gifts. This bizarre contradiction, however, was not the most alarming report to those who considered the Phrygians outside of orthodox belief.  Montanus, their leader, was thought to have brought the practices of his former life as a Hellenistic pagan priest to the group, and it was the ecstatic means by which they received their prophecies that was the most troubling witness to their peers, and to generations to come.

Over 200 years later, on an island in the Mediterranean Sea, the bishop of Salamis would compile a work of massive scope; a four volume set of over 1000 pages that would attempt to contain the summa of all known Christian heresies up to the present 380 A.D. Named for its intent, the Panarion, literally translated as “Medicine Chest”, was purposed to cure or prevent the 80 heresies that it contained from infecting the Church.

8 There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and maidens without number.
9 My dove, my undefiled, is but one;[1]

A score comprises twenty, so the concubines mentioned here in this passage from the Song of Songs represent the sects of Christianity who were set as infidels to the one true dove of the Catholic Church. Epiphanius, the author of this work, had been ordained the bishop of Salamis in 367 A.D. Originally from Israel, he built and directed a monastery in Palestine for over 30 years, before begrudgingly accepting his election in Cyprus. This work which he compiled there was to be used as a manual for the many heresies that stood opposed to faith throughout history, some even before Christ’s incarnation. The Panarion was meant to establish a true Christian identity in contrast to the many concubines listed within the work. One of the harlots considered insidious enough to be among its ranks was the already ancient sect known as the Phrygians.

While some of the polemics within his taxology are admittedly constructed from solely hearsay by Epiphanius himself, the large span of time between the birth of the Phrygian movement and the composition of this work is the first clue towards the deduction that Epiphanius worked from a collection of sources to produce the chapter devoted to the ecstatic cult, referenced as Panarion 48. Other clues include the many quotes directly attributed to the prophetesses at Phrygian, and similarities to other known works precedent to Epiphanius, such as Hippolytus’ Syntagma and Pseudo-Tertullian’s Adversus omnes haereses. From these and other unknown sources, and perhaps his direct experience with the cult and its effects during his lifetime, Epiphanius constructs his defense against this movement that would revolve most heavily around his objection towards the ‘mechanics’ of their form of ecstatic prophecy, and the fruits that it produced.

After examining this chapter, it is my assertion that Epiphanius was not against prophecy itself, as if he were putting forth a cessationist argument, but rather truly critical of the Phrygians’ prophetic method and perceived content, that manifested in contradiction to Catholic sensibilities. From here out then, I will first expose the problems Epiphanius found with the ecstatic state as experienced by the Phrygians. Then, I will explore the content of the Phrygians’ prophetic utterances, and how Epiphanius found them to be both contradictory to their own rule, and to Christ Himself.  And lastly, I will discuss some doctrinal concerns that, outside of their liturgical practice, Epiphanius held with Phrygian thought, and weigh in with other modern commentaries towards the cult’s beliefs.[2]

John Paul II famously said that, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth;”[3]  For Epiphanius, the reports he received regarding the Phrygian conduct revealed them to be clipped of one of their wings within their contemplative pursuits. When they appeared to enter their ecstatic state they would first talk in ambiguous terms, and then after fully entering their most accomplished surrender they would suffer the loss of their rational faculties and act as if they were possessed by the Holy Spirit Himself. One proposed prophecies from Montanus states:

“Lo the man is a lyre, and I fly over him as a pick.The man sleepeth while I watch. Lo, it is the Lord who distracts the hearts of men, and giveth the heart to man.”

While not unheard of in Biblical accounts, this perceived possession by the Lord seemed to take away the dignity of man by disabling his access to, and capacity of, reason, and violating the free-will within. This was troublesome for Epiphanius who recalled the many accounts of scripture where men spoke prophetic words to others from clear and conscious minds. Normally man does not render himself totally over to the Lord, as a puppet, but stays alert to receive and relay the word of God to others. On more than one occasion Epiphanius recalls an account of revelation in scripture that required man to refuse God, suggesting God’s preference towards this alert state of prophetic analytical consciousness.

       “3.7 Similarly, when the prophet Ezekiel heard the Lord say, “Bake thee bread on human dung.” he said, “Not so, Lord; nothing common or unclean hath at any time come into my mouth.” Understanding that which had been threateningly said to him by the Lord, he not go ahead and do [it] as though he were out of his senses. Since his mind was sound and rational he prayed and said “Not so, Lord.” These-both the teaching and the discussion– are marks of [the] true prophets, whose minds are sound in the Holy Spirit.”[4]

Here the good of the situation was easily discerned and found contrary to the request from God, who perhaps desired to reveal this dignity which He endowed to Ezekiel by prodding him to express his free will in defiance to His own inappropriate command. Epiphanius goes on to reply to another possible objection from scripture which could be offered as evidence by the Phrygians in testimony of an even deeper state of surrender for the ecstatic prophet, that of complete unconsciousness or sleep. Quoting Genesis, “The Lord sent an ecstasy upon Adam, and he slept,”[5]   Epiphanius explains this state as an anesthetic from God, to numb Adam of the pain of extracting his rib, rather than a portal to an unknown dimensions to receive a secret revelation. The real prophecy, he states, is when Adam regains his reason, and looks to Eve to claim with a sound mind, “This is now the bone of my bone and the flesh of my flesh.” It is this revelation of truth, both infused in the intellect and perceived through the senses, that is an accurate model of revelation that lends to true prophecy.

The second concern Epiphanius had, was with the validity of the claims to truth within the Phrygian prophecies. There seemed to be contradictions to both the rule of the Phrygian community, and  the Gospel of Christ from within their utterances. Maximilla, taking on a lead prophetess role, began to state that, “After me, there would be no prophet more[sic], but the consummation.” This was problematic on two accounts. First was the fact it had been roughly 200 years since her death, from Epiphanius’ vantage, and Christ still  had not returned to establish the new Jerusalem in Asia Minor. While this alone is not of great concern, seeing that several Biblical figures expected the return of Christ within their lifetime, it does prove her prophecy false in now, two different ways. The second way being the possibility of preserving the charismata among their sect. If Maximilla were to be the last prophetess of the Phrygians, how was it that the group whose identity was so connected with their spiritual gifts was to survive (which they had) until the time of Epiphanius, if their prophetic grace was schedule to cease after her death?

Another exposé of the unworthiness of the Phrygian claim, was demonstrated by an examination of the piety in the actions of their seers. Epiphanius recalls, “Christ taught us, ‘I send unto you the Spirit, the Paraclete,’ and to give the signs of the Paraclete, said, ‘He shall glorify me.’”[6]  Epiphanius goes on to state that the apostles all gave glory to God when receiving the Spirit, and even Christ gave glory to both the Father and the Spirit as the “Spirit of Truth”.  The Phrygians, Montanus in particular, glorified himself only when he spoke, claiming that the Father to overtook his body.  Never did he glorify Christ as  instructed, making a liar of the Lord in his personal witness. Their understanding of this possession by the ‘Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit’ at once, also revealed their error in monarchian belief, one that denied the three distinct persons of God and combined them together as one fictitious entity. Taking all of these discrepancies into account, the effectiveness of Epiphanius’ Panarion 48 in curing any notion of credibility among the Phrygians was perfect in its kind.

Many speculations can, and have, been made as to the cause or intent of the Phrygian ecstatics; from a political grab for power against the wave of a growing institutional Church, to demonic influences, to the result of psychological trauma gained in isolation from the church or otherwise, or simply to misconceptions about the truth of God due to human frailty– what can still surprisingly be attributed to this movement is that some aspects have continued to influence the Church to this day. While the proscription of Panarion 48 would help save souls from the dangerous Phrygian teachings and practices, (as the church often does) some characteristics of the sect were subsumed into the Church and baptised for Her use. Their charismatic signature can be seen throughout ecumenical sects in modernity (Pentecostalism), and many of their practices, such as priestly celibacy and compensation, consecrated virgins and head coverings, and other ascetical practices were adopted by the Catholic Church throughout the ages.

Despite the ferocity of Epiphanius’ attacks towards the process and content of the Phrygian prophecies, at no point did he ever discredit the ongoing occurrence of legitimate  prophecy within the Church itself, he rather asks of the Phrygians, “If we must receive gifts of grace, and if there must be gifts of grace in the church, why do they [Phrygians] have no more prophets after Montanus, Priscilla and Maximilla? Has grace stopped operating, then? Never fear, the grace in the holy church does not stop working!”[7]  Rather he states, “God’s holy church also receives the gifts of grace– but the real gifts, which have already been tried in God’s holy church through the Holy Spirit, and by the prophets and apostles, and the Lord Himself;”[8] — all whom remained conscious, obedient, and in union with the Father;  those who possessed the Mind of Christ.



Epiphanius. “Panarion 48.” In The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Sects 47-80, De Fide, trans. Frank Williams (The Netherlands: E.J.Brill,1994), p. 6-21

Wace, Henry, William C. Piercy, and William Smith. 1994. A Dictionary of Christian biography and literature to the end of the sixth century A.D.: with an account of the principal sects and heresies. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson.

Epiphanius of Salamis, St. P. CANIVET.New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. 2nd ed.  Detroit: Gale, 2003. p292-293. Word Count: 766.

Mursell, Gordon, ed. Christian Spirituality. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press). 2001.

David F. Wright [1897-2008], “Why Were the Montanists Condemned?” Themelios. (Sept. 1976): 15-22.

Nasrallah, Laura. An Ecstasy of Folly (Cambridge) (Mass.: Harvard University Press), 2003.

[1] Bible. Sg. 6:8-9

[2] There are a few references towards the end of Panarion 48 that deal with  other sects that Epiphanius found similar to the Phrygians. These brief treatments are both humorous and horrifying, and while I would recommend researching the etymology of the Tascodrugian cult for entertainment purposes, I will ignore these excerpts otherwise,  as they are irrelevant to our topic.

[3] Catholic Church, and John Paul. 1998. Faith and reason: encyclical letter Fides et ratio of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II on
the relationship between faith and reason. Sherbrooke [Que?bec]: Me?diaspaul.

[4] Epiphanius. “Panarion 48.” In The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Sects 47-80, De Fide, trans. Frank Williams (The
Netherlands: E.J.Brill,1994), p. 9

[5] Bible. Genesis 2:21

[6]  Epiphanius. “Panarion 48.” In The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Sects 47-80, De Fide, trans. Frank Williams (The Netherlands: E.J.Brill,1994), p. 6

[7] Epiphanius. “Panarion 48.” In The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Sects 47-80, De Fide, trans. Frank Williams (The Netherlands: E.J.Brill,1994), p. 7

[8]  Epiphanius. “Panarion 48.” In The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Sects 47-80, De Fide, trans. Frank Williams (The Netherlands: E.J.Brill,1994), p. 7

Virtue in the Catholic Moral Tradition

The answer is yes. Throughout salvation history this task has seemed elusive, and entirely too transcendent for the people of Israel, who while attempting to conform to Yahweh’s commands were largely subject to His perfection through their, and their first parent’s, sins, but through God’s gracious Incarnation and Paschal Mystery, Christ has revealed to us that this perfection is indeed the fulfillment of all our desires, and has made this way accessible to us by uniting humanity with His divine essence in His redeeming act. It is our choice then, our mission, and our joy, to conform ourselves to this eternal mold that possesses both human and divine elements, and to direct the whole of our efforts towards becoming one who perfectly loves. The Alpha and Omega of this endeavour is virtue, and it is our means and end in the moral life.

The beginning of this life is a school of discipline, that like the journey of Israel, focuses on both the positive and negative commandments of God in a moral code that is to be chosen, learned, and absorbed by us. “Discipline involves the communication of knowledge and the formation of the mind and will, within the context of a growing harmony between disciple and teacher according to the criterion of excellence.[1]” It is here that one learns that right action actually exists, directed by the decrees of God, and is compelled to leave the solely pleasurable desires of whim behind. Entering into exercises of seemingly coarse constraint, one is stripped of the indifferent freedom of will, that chooses blindly and without considering a good beyond that of this world. This purification by means of law, slowly dissolves these chains of liberal freedom, that are indeed chains which prevent one from progressing towards the Father, and His will that the student does not yet understand. This is largely a school of what not to do, and a struggle in doing so.  But throughout this course, when perceiving, then hearing, and finally complying to this task, a connection is established and covenantly sealed between God and man.

At this stage of development, perhaps not even a concept of virtue is yet held, and if so it is a distorted one that proposes an action to avoid punishment, either from one’s contemporaries or from God Himself. It is only towards the end of this stage that a question begins to arise. When one has stopped doing all that is opposed to the law, and done all that they are capable of to fulfill it, do they then begin to ask “What is one to do?” as so many did in the Gospels, and it is here that the stream of charity begins to spring forth in answer, that then needs to answer no more: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. ’This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

It is here that one can be said to enter the virtuous life, for with this kernel of love, an affection for the good begins to form within, and the intellectual thirst and ability to discern and accomplish it begins to increase.  Obedience is no longer the final cause at the end of the law, but it is the act itself and the joy derived from it is that is steadily pursued. Virtue is still at this stage what is to be done, in that through God’s grace one begins to attempt to act as God would act in different human dimensions (WWJD), but it is still an act that is assumed with a later goal of it being acquired within one’s self. It is unlike the previous call and response paradigm of the law, because virtue is performed here (in imperfect and inconsistent measures) with the actual mind of Christ, in that it is a participation with the nature God, where one begins to know the good, and will its existence cooperatively with Him. Although there are many virtues that have been considered throughout history ( “if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things[2]”) the Catholic tradition draws upon the four Cardinal virtues derived from antiquity as a comprehensive palette of the soul’s natural intellectual and moral mission towards the perfection of Christ.

With a soul that is aesthetically similar to God’s, where its essence and esse hinge on the act of thinking itself, man is a rational animal who through the power of virtue “achieves works bearing the stamp of his unique quality as a moral person.[3]”  Due to the nature of the soul, many have held prudence to be the pinnacle of all moral virtues, as one must first know the good to accomplish it successfully. So prudence (meaning foresight) entails the first stage of moral process that determines a course for the will to follow. St. Thomas divides this practical reasoning into four parts, or stages.[4] The first is to consider one’s means to an end, and what that end may be. The second is working through this end intellectually with the relevant principles and information provided. The third is an affirmation of the chosen course as good, and recursively the fourth stage imperatively fixes the target of this course for the will to execute. Colloquially, this can be simply stated as knowing what to do, and when to do it in any given situation.

Justice can then be said to be the next subsequent moral virtue, in that with the deliberation of prudence one is set to execute their love for others by ensuring that all are given their due. In the early disciplinary stages of the moral life, one disavows one’s self from the concept of retributive justice that is contrary to reason and the teaching of the Gospel. The formula for this mode of justice ultimately results in detracting from another which is contrary to love, as what one is due. Justice as virtue, and as virtue defined, is always an intrinsically good act or resolve that increases the good of the other, be it person or community at large. This mode is considered in at least three cooperative dimensions. One is a commutative justice that focuses on fair dealings while honoring the rights of individual persons or groups, usually manifest in contracts, exchanges, and labor. Another is a distributive justice that aims to tally the goods of the community, and ensure that these goods are equally distributed or shared with all, according to the needs and rights of each individual and their office. A third is legal justice, which  is a mediated affair that aims to ensure goods are communicated, transferred, or restored in accordance with the two aspects already mentioned. The aim of legislation is to promote, ensure, and cultivate virtue for all within the community. Seeing that virtue is the means and end to liberation, legal justice guarantees that all remain collectively free to to pursue it.

All three of these dimensions are contained in the general ethos of social justice, that is reliant on two inseparable principles of solidarity and subsidiarity for its existence. The first principle of solidarity reveals that all men are by their nature defined by their relationships to one another, as God Himself reveals within His own nature as a tri-personal being. A person does not exist without the intrinsic bonds relating each to another, and to neglect this relationship is to ignore this both human and divine reality. The second principle of subsidiarity considers the nature of social form, where the inter-subjective relationships of a community are nurtured coextensively with the objective vantages of governing entities of the larger polis. It is an order that does not reveal dominance, but again aims to mirror the perfect nature of the Trinity, consisting of an order without subordination.

I would like to pause for a moment to consider some problems surrounding the moral life, as they relate to these virtues and others, and discuss the distinction between the hellenistic and Christian virtues that we are describing in this work. Earlier I spoke of justice, and the many conceptions held throughout history. Some have proposed brute force, a fairness in retribution, or a utilitarian ethos as its perfection, and indeed today there are virtue ethics of sorts that can distort their real order and end. Specifically this can occur when one constructs a schema that is void of revealed law, void of God,  and considers the moral as the perfection of the faculty itself. For example, one can be shrewd in matters of robbery or murder, and prudently act to these malicious ends. Likewise, one can calculate the cost of the good detracted from themselves, and propose in error a contradicting ‘just evil’ to be sought as a moral course. This error is even found in Aristotle, the syncretic source of these moral virtues, where he posited the happiness obtained through the completion of these well executed acts as the final cause of the moral life. A pleasent goal that resonates with the human flourishing of the Catholic moral tradition, but short of the concept of Beatitude revealed in the Gospels, as a reception of something from beyond one’s self, where through and above the act itself one is blessed by God. With prudence and justice, and likewise for the rest of the moral virtues I will later detail,  the Christian distinction finds the good of the virtuous act beyond the ceiling of self, nature, reason, or form– and instead affirms their existence in Christ alone.

But even when holding this right understanding, there is also the truth of our fallen existence, that will distort the most virtuous act within the most virtuous community.  St. Thomas describes the effects of original sin as the darkening of intellects and disorder of wills within us all, and due to this fact, the perfect aim of prudence and absolute order of justice are unachievable for us here on earth. So while in theory the heathen errors, so does the Christian error naturally in execution, even after the virtuous habitus he assumes renders him competent to do otherwise. There is remedy for this, both in the waters of Baptism and in the theological virtues one acquires within, but explored on the natural level there is always a tear within and between men, that additional virtues are required to engage.

Courage is relevant for this dimension, as “ the emergency passion or emotion of the sensitive appetite directed toward a present evil, enabling one to stand firm in the face of danger or difficulty[5]”  Where justice fails, courage steps in to confront its negative, and provide a resolve within which the other virtues can flourish. Classically described as the willingness to die in battle, the Christian application of Fortitude understands the battle to be realized in the long  struggle against evil. It again uses but transcends this hellenistic concept of courage, that considers the threat of death as the catalyst for its inspiration. Instead, the Christian is inspired by God, and considers death an inconsequential hurdle in uniting with the good beyond it.

But even courage can be abused or confused if not properly yoked, and distorted by our passions to manifest a spectrum ranging from cowardice to enthusiasm. Passivism can cause one’s self or others unnecessary suffering, and likewise rashness can cancel one’s own efforts, however brave. Temperance is required to maintain this balance, and many others, in pursuit of holding the proper affections for what is good, as it cooperates with the other virtues in discerning honorable actions and how they are to be pursued. Temperance is also at play in governing pleasure, and ensuring that one’s desires do not become (overly) attached to the natural world, but are always rooted and reaching to God above it.

So is the aim of each moral virtue that man can accomplish to a degree by his own means. But it is clear that something more is required, if we truly hold recourse to perfection; something beyond the moral virtues, but contained within them; something that both begins the moral life, and also leads it above a ceiling where morals stall at their most realized and tandematic ends. There are virtues that are not found in our nature, even after these perfected powers are formed within it. Even when we become no longer humans that act virtuously, but virtuous beings ourselves, there is still more.

The gifted max reality of faith, hope, and love are exclusively rooted in the divine nature, that like even the crudest semblance of biological life (or soul) are beyond our ability to produce ourselves. These gifts are purely of God’s own self to us, which are are infused, or born within , and allow us to further climb towards our simple goal of becoming a being who loves, to become like God. The Hellenistic end of the cardinal virtues are transcended in the theological, although fueled by them from the beginning.

Where prudence is focused on practical reason, faith is the true perfection of reason that participates in  “the knowledge that God has of himself and of the world.[6]” Faith not only allows us to believe, and profess this belief, but to know and request of God what He is capable of in love. Faith can exist removed from (our) love, but is misconstrued towards something other than God’s true nature, and reaches a reduced understanding of God short of His  perfect virtue of charity He imbues. Faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,[7]” and in this way works through Christ to transcend the practical means of moral virtue and to see infinitely beyond man’s reach, and beyond the fractured realities of sin here on earth. If love is acting as God does, faith is in a way  seeing and reasoning as He would as well. Faith can move mountains, because it knows God can move mountains, and when mountains need be moved, this will be done.

Hope is the object of all moral virtue, as we as co-efficient causes move through liminal states of perfection. Hope is trusting that God is who He is, as He works in us particularly, and throughout His Kingdom in Providence. It infuses our will to extend beyond even the faith that we are granted, to look for God’s promise over all future events. Hope is a “weapon that protects us in the struggle of salvation[8]”, and is yet another gracious cure for the reality of sin as it pertains to our own lives, and that of the community. It looks back and forward to Christ’s redeeming work, beyond death and all temporal existence, and longs for Beatitude for all.  But as unfathomable as both faith and hope are, they are still subservient, and pale in comparison to that perfection of charity, that we know as God.

Love is the cause of all existence, and the nature of God. Even the other two theological virtues rest in oblivion without love, for they both look to God Himself, where charity is His nature in full. When one loves, they are in God, and there is no need for hope or faith anymore. “Love alone is credible. It is all that can be believed, and all that should believed[9]“, in answer to the questions of  both the source and purpose for the world and our lives. The perfect impetus of love, does not destroy the pallet of moral and theological virtues below, but contains and completes them with  infinite force of multivalent dimension. The knowledge of God and His simple infinite will are united in the one who loves, and they themselves share in the creative power of God. They have been raised to a state of being, that only wills the existence of all they encounter, as they empty God’s essence through themselves in every moment that they reside in Him. There is no law in love, because there is nothing greater to construct it, and nothing stronger to constrain it.  It is the true and only freedom of which St. Augustine can say, “Love and do what thou wilt.”— a redundant phrase that means, God’s will be done.

[1] Pinckaers, Servais. The Sources of Christian Ethics. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1995.

[2] Phil 4:8

[3] Pinckaers, Servais. The Sources of Christian Ethics. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1995.

[4] GILBY, T. “Prudence.” New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 11. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 787-792. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

[5] HOLLENBACH, M. W. “Courage.” New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 315-316. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 8 Nov. 2014.

[6] BENEDICT XVI. PASTORAL VISIT TO VITERBO AND BAGNOREGIO.Piazza Sant’Agostino – Bagnoregio. Sunday, 6 September 2009. Address

[7] Hebrews 11:1

[8] Catholic Church. “Life in Christ”. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice.Vaticana, 2000. Print.

[9] Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Love Alone Is Credible. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004.

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Reading Violence in the Bible

The answer is no.

To explore how this can be so, I would like to take a brief moment to describe the nature of God with the classical theology of St. Thomas. I think this is an important starting point for anchoring our hermeneutic towards these texts, and will give us reason to believe that whenever one understands Scripture to reveal a God who causes evil to any degree, that they have already interpreted these texts incorrectly. To discover what in fact these difficult passages do reveal to us about God, the Israelite people, and ourselves,  I think a good approach to doing so is to consider together the general hermeneutic of both the Alexandrian and Antiochian schools of Biblical exegesis. While this approach is not a comprehensive study of modern Biblical criticism, for the purposes of this discussion, these two ancient generalities aid us in understanding these passages in a both a literal and spiritual sense that allow us to rightly affirm the goodness of God consistently revealed throughout the whole of Scripture.

For the author of John’s Gospel, St. Thomas, and most contemporary theologians, God is understood as synonymous with love. Love is classically defined as “willing the good of the other.”  From the Genesis account of creation we see this love portrayed when God brought forth everything from nothing, and ordained it as good. God’s nature is the pure creative act that brings forth all existence, both “in the beginning” and perpetually, which is united with His essence as existence itself.  Evil then, as we understand it, is an act which is contrary to existence, contrary to love, and contrary to the reality of God. All evil acts goad against existence definitively or in gradience, from murder to insult. God is necessarily incapable of this. So when we come to passages such as Deuteronomy 20: 16-18, where God speaks to Israel, “…the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them…as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee:” (NRSVCE) we should hold this logical proof in mind, that affirms the perfectly loving nature of God, from which the rest of our exegesis will expand.

So expand from here we will, into the general interpretative methods from two early schools of thought within the Church. Alexandria was a hub of Jewish, Greek, and Christian scholarship in the 1st century and beyond. As a result of this synchronous study, many of the interpretations Christians derived tended towards an allegorical understanding of the texts; an allegory that revealed the Christological center of the entire canon of Scripture. Complementing, and not contrasting, this school was the Antiochian approach that produced a more “literal” interpretation of these texts, that emphasized the facts derived from particular diegetic and historical contexts. Literal should be understood as “that which has been expressed directly by the inspired human authors,”[1] and does not mean that all exegetes should assume a positive historical accuracy, but rather takes into account the human and divine element that went into the texts, along with a consideration of genre and form. The Church holds both of these aspects of ‘spiritual’ and ‘literal’ interpretation as necessary, but by nature relies more heavily on the grounding of the literal interpretation for doctrinal clarification.

The reason for this grounding is that void of this understanding the intentionality of the text (in both human and divine terms) is dissolved to where the symbols and typology have no grounding in the facts of the historical narrative. So to make sure we keep this grounding in our particular exploration, let us begin by examining the literal (Antiochian/Historical) contexts of the Joshua account.


The Purpose of the Ban:

The narrative describes that the ban, or harem, was to be carried out in these texts to prevent Israel from being spiritually polluted by the belief and practice of the Canaanites. Moses was originally instructed to rid the Promised Land of any factors that might lead to separating Israel from God in apostasy. Understanding rightly that it is a good thing not to be separated from God and to not entertain concepts of His existence from pagan religions, could God here be seen as protecting His people and doing a greater good by ensuring their well being? In other words, could God have been completing a sort of providential self-defense of His people? No. This would render God as a consequentialist, who performs small acts of evil to accomplish a greater good, which goes contrary to His nature as described earlier.

The Historical Record:

The history of the conquests are contradicted within the actual narrative of the texts themselves.  In Jos 11:23 we are told that Joshua did complete the ban and took the whole land for Israel, but later in Jos 13:1 God tells Joshua that there is more of the land to be possesed. The book of Judges also relays that many of the tribes failed to drive out the Canaanites completely. So if we do suppose that we are to put maximum weight in the fact that “God said” to kill all the people of Canna, how do we hold this confidence against the false report of its completion, where Joshua “left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.” (Jos 10:40, NRSVCE)  It is clear that the linear plot of the text is not accurate.

The archaeological record has also proved inconsistent with the accounts as well. It was thought that the text could be related to scientific findings, but the cities of Jericho, Ai, and Gibeon were found to have be uninhabited at the end of 13th century BCE, which is when Joshua  is commonly thought to have taken place. There were other cities that were discovered to have been destroyed around this time as well (Shechem, Hazar, Lachish), but their conquered ruins span a period of centuries and are more in line chronologically with when the events in the book of Judges were thought to have taken place.

The Genre of Joshua and Deuteronomy:

This begs us to ask how we should understand the narrative of Joshua as it relates to the actual history of Israel. One way that it can be interpreted is by considering it as an etiology that aims to answer the question of “How did we get here?” for the Israelite people. The story could have been crafted using the known genealogy and theological tradition available to the group at the time. It could have even contained a precise historical record of actual known conflict and conquest, with what would be now considered modern scientific and geographical inaccuracies. Understanding that this is a theological text, a large portion of the causation assigned to Israel’s existence would be attributed to God, but to say that “God loved Israel, and has maintained them in existence up until now” is an altogether different theological statement than “God ordered Israel to kill the Canaanites, and carried out the annihilation of Cana for them.”

However, I think we could also consider the cultural milieu of the world of the time for yet another approach towards these passages. If there is any ethnographic information we can derive from the books of Joshua and Judges, it is that these people were a warring people, in a time and place where differences were settled by brute force and little diplomacy. For a people who lived such an unstable and immediate existence, to have the emotional assurance of a God who guided the paths of their swords would be psychologically rewarding. This is very much different than the peace of Christ, but this attitude would provide a sort of peace at night and when at arms nonetheless. Likewise, the champion types of Joshua and Judges, would provide  a model for moral behavior with the assurance of divine aid. These  types are found in many other examples of ancient literature as well, such as David and Samson in other Old Testament texts, and Achilles and Hercules in Greek literature. These archetypes could hold a base significance to the ancient human experience at large.

The Biblical and Theological Consequences of the Literal Interpretation:

While we have discussed the theological consequences of assuming that God did infact order the execution the Canaanite people, there are also  exegetical consequences of assuming that He did not. If God did not order this genocide, how much trust can we put in the claims of other Old Testament utterances from Him? Does this render every word of God as suspect, including the Covenant with Israel, including  Mount Sinai, and including God’s promise of a coming Messiah? Where our theological sensibilities say ‘no’ to the diegetic accuracies of a text, where do we draw the line, and where do we find basis for saying ‘yes’ in holding these sensibilities themselves? To transcend this stall in literal interpretation,  we must draw from a  revelation that transcends the individual books of the Bible; one that considers the wider data field of the Scriptural canon; and one that even beholds a spectrum of revelation outside of the Scriptural texts themselves.


And so we turn to the allegorical/canonical school of Alexandria, and the spiritual significance of the books of the Old Testament when considered as part of a whole. The Pontifical Biblical Commission defines this spiritual sense as “the meaning expressed by the texts when read, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, in the context of the paschal mystery of Christ and of the new life that flows from it.”[2]  This does not suggest that we embark on a symbolic reading of the Scripture that assigns meaning arbitrarily and at will, but rather requires the absorption of the objective content held in the entire canon of Scripture, as revealed by the Holy Spirit Himself, Whose principal revelation is that of Jesus Christ  in His passion, death, and resurrection. Here, we as Church can see the Old Testament revealed in the New, and the New revealed in the Old. Whereby assuming this Christocentric hermeneutic the passages at hand take on a greater meaning; one that lifts us up from the Levant and places us at a heavenly vantage where we witness the expanse of the human experience in relation to divine realities. It is important for us to consider from this vantage the limits of our humanity, though, and to employ the council of others in the Catholic Tradition to assure that any possible errors in our discernment do not lead to dangerous conclusions. This is why Dei Verbum states, that the fullest sense of revelation entails that  “Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture together form a single deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church.”[3]  By drawing from both of these deposit veins, we can conclude that both our original assertion that God did not order this genocide is correct, and at the same time can affirm that in fact God did order a genocide of sorts that does not contradict His nature.

The Purpose

First and foremost within this interpretive method, as we have said, the entire canon of Scripture is seen as a revelation of Christ and His Paschal Mystery. This is its purpose, and the sum total of the Christian claim. This expansive view of Scripture can be maintained  from within its individual books that reveal a consistent relationship between the Old and the New Testaments; where a fuller sense of truth is revealed in the prefigurements of the Old as enlightened by the New. For example, the Tree of Life placed in the center of the Garden of Eden in Gen 2:9, which God implored Adam to eat from,  is understood to be Christ as later described in the Gospel of John, being the true vine and true body that He Himself again implores all to partake in. (Jn 1:4,13:1-23,15:5).

The Biblical Metanarrative

The cannon can also reveal an understanding of ourselves, however, where God reveals to us the arch of our human experience within  spiritual realities. Here we can see that in the beginning God creates each one of us good, but with the inheritance of original sin as a fallen nature. The accounts of the Old Testament can be read as an exodus from this sin, that while departing from it, is unable to achieve true freedom from its defilement.  This struggle is eclipsed by the Incarnation of Christ, who frees us from this paradigm as we cross the waters of baptism and arrive in the mystical Body of His Promised Land. But the imperfection of the world, and our own free will, makes it possible for us to defile ourselves again, as Israel did repeatedly after its establishment as a nation, and as the early churches did to the threat of heresy and sin. The New Testament prophets ring out the same warning of the Old, and urge us to stay faithful to this Heavenly state, where outside the sin that scattered the nation of Israel is still a real threat that can draw us too into exile, and away from our joy. So like Israel, and the Church, we again faithfully wait for the coming Messiah to free us from corruption forever- in our worldly struggles, as we travel to God through death to receive our perfection, and when He returns to us in Glory to gather all willing kin and creation to Himself at the Parousia.


From these two perspectives that reveal to us both Christ and our own grand journey towards Him, exegetes have garnered instruction from these passages to how we should live our lives in light of both of these caveats.  St Augustine of Hippo proclaims a military attitude towards evil, that echos the story of Jericho, ”God taught me how to be clever in fighting against the adversaries (the demons), who intended to create a wall between the kingdom of heaven and me.” (On Ps 17(18))  And St. Evagrius of Pontus offers  further instruction in how we should approach the spiritual ‘nations’ of evil in our own lives:

When you pray against your suffering (your evil lusts), and the demons that attack you, remember that man saying: “I have pursued my enemies and overtaken them, neither did I turn back again till they are destroyed. I have wounded them, so that they were not able to rise; they have fallen under my feet” (Psalm 18:37, 38). Say this at the right moment, as you arm yourself against your adversary, with humility. (Chapters on Prayer, 135)[4]

Drawing from passages that allude to the bans of the Deuteronomistic History, both of these saints suggest that we should understand the genocides of these texts as our military agenda when approaching sin in our daily lives.  Fr. Robert Barron offers that most of us tend to deal with sin halfway, we quarantine little private areas of rebel forces for ourselves, when these are in fact the very things that stand to thwart God’s purposes.  But he asks the question, insted, “How should we fight them?” He answers with the same militaristic answer that both Sts. Augustine, Evagrius and God Himself propose in these passages…”We should fight them all the way down.”[5]


So with this multivalent understanding that includes the spiritual and literal sense of Scripture, weighed together with the continuity of revelation collected and alive in the Catholic Tradition,  we can indeed hold the absolute goodness of God in our theological understanding when approaching these text. Whereby we can reject the assertion that God commanded the genocide of the people of Canna directly, in that it contradicts His unchanging loving nature, but still then affirm  that God commands the genocide of sin and evil among us that prevents us from fully participating in His Kingdom established within ourselves and His Body, the Church. The former literal rejection can be held by understanding the genre of these texts, the typology of the characters involved, and the etiologies crafted by the ancient Israelites. The latter affirmation of God’s perpetual ban on the  corruption of sin  is gained from the complete revelation in Christ, that professes the still extant spiritual struggle and our proper approach of merciless vigilance towards evil until His return. Until then we, as Israel, are prone to defilement despite our most valiant efforts, but with Christ as our hero, where Joshua once led, we now have already crossed the Jordan and look forward to our complete establishment within His Beatific Promised Land.


[6] Works Referenced

[1] “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church”. Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission. to Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993

[2] “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” Presented by the Pontifical Biblical Commission to Pope John Paul II on April 23, 1993

[3]  Dei Verbum: “De Divina Revelatione: the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican Council, Promulgated by Pope Paul VI, November 18, 1965.”

[4]  Father Tadros Yacoub Malaty. A Patristic Commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy. OrthodoxEbooks

[5] Fr. Robert Barron. “Violence in the Bible”. Word on Fire Ministries. Lecture. Video/Web. 2013

[6] Daniel J., S.J. Harrington. “How Do Catholics Read the Bible?”. The Come & See Series.Sheed & Ward 2012

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