God-given Rights

“All men are made in the image of God. All men are bothers. All men are created equal. Every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth. Every man has rights that are neither conferred by, nor derived from the State–they are God-given. Out of one blood, God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. What a marvelous foundation for any home! What a glorious and healthy place to inhabit. But America’s strayed away, and this unnatural excursion has brought only confusion and bewilderment. It has left hearts aching with guilt and minds distorted with irrationality.” Martin Luther King, Jr., “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam.” April 30, 1967, Riverside Church, New York. [Emphasis added]   Source: MLK’s Sermon On Vietnam War     To listen to this sermon: Audio of MLK’s Sermon

In this significant sermon, Dr. King explained why he opposed the American intervention in Vietnam.  This section demonstrates that his ideas rested on his specific religious beliefs.  Immediately preceding this quote, King explained the link between racism and militarism and exhorted Americans to return to  “our Judeo-Christian heritage.”  King understood the war in Vietnam to be contrary to that heritage.  I have written how Dr. King followed the Christian tradition when he resisted unjust laws:  MLK on Divine Law

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The Exercise of the Mind

“I think to myself how many men exercise their bodies, and how few their intellects; what a great gathering there is to see an unreliable show put on in play, and what a great isolation around the noble arts; how weak in mind are the fellows whose arms and muscles we admire.  And I am brooding in particular over the question: if the body can be led on by exercise to such endurance that it will bear the fists and kicks of more than one opponent, endurance in which a man spends the day suffering the most burning sun in scorching dust and soaked in his own blood.  How much more easily the mind could be strengthened to take the blows of Fortune unbeaten, to rise when cast down and trampled on.  For the body needs many things to be strong, whereas the mind grows from itself, feeds itself, and exercises itself.  They need great quantities of food and drink and great quantities of oil and finally prolonged effort.  Virtue will come to you and without equipment or expense.  Whatever can make you a good man is there in you.” Seneca, Letter 80 in Seneca: Selected Letters, trans. Elaine Fantham (Oxford 2010), p. 142. [Emphasis added]

In this letter Seneca compares and contrasts the exercise of the body for the physical exercise of boxing-match with the exercise of the mind through study of the arts.  While the former prepares one to physically defeat an opponent, the latter trains the soul toward virtue.  If an athlete can train his body to perform in physical contests under difficult circumstances, the intellectual may exercise her mind through the noble arts to overcome Fortune’s blows.  For Seneca, in this manner, the anyone could attain true freedom thought virtue.

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Who Can Marvel Enough?

“An angel announces, power overshadows, and the Spirit startles; the Virgin believes, by faith the Virgin conceives, the Virgin gives birth, the Virgin remains a virgin: who would not marvel? Then is the Son of the Most High born, God, begotten of God before all ages.  The Word is born as a baby: who can marvel enough?” Bernard of Clairvaux, “On the Proclamation of the Lord’s Birth,” in Sermons for Advent and the Christmas Season, trans. Irene Edmonds, Wendy Mary Becket, Conrad Greenia; ed. John Leinenweber (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 2007), pp. 44-45.           

In this beautiful sermon for Christmas Eve, Bernard of Clairvaux praises the miraculous manner of Christ’s conception and birth as the Word made flesh.  However, the great abbot does not simply praise the miracle but explains its significance for his hearers (or readers):

“Jesus is born: let them rejoice, all those whose consciousness of sins used to judge them liable to perpetual damnation! The loving-kindness of Jesus far outweighs the extent and number of offenses.  Christ is born! Let them be glad, those assailed by long-ingrained vices! In the presence of Christ’s anointing not one single disease of the soul, however deep-seated, can hold its ground.  The Son of God is born! Let them exult, those wont to desire great things, because a great benefactor has come.” Ibid., 46.

The image to the right is Stammheim Missal at the Getty Museum, Ms. 64, fol. 92.






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Luther on Becoming a Theologian

“If anybody wishes to become a theologian, he has a great advantage, first of all, in having the Bible.  This is now so clear that he can read it without any trouble.  Afterward he should read Philip’s Loci Communes.  This he should read diligently and well, until he has its contents fixed in his head.  If he has these two he is a theologian, and neither the devil nor a heretic can shake him.  The whole of theology is open to him, and afterward he can read whatever he wishes for edification.  If he wishes, he can read, in addition, Melanchthon’s Romans and my Galatians and Deuteronomy. These will give him the art of speaking and a copious vocabulary.” Martin Luther, “Table Talk no. 5511,” Luther’s Works, volume 54, pp. 439-440.   

In this record of his table discussion in 1542-43, Dr. Martin Luther set forth the books needed to study theology.  First, he advised the theology student to read the Bible, which one could read in various languages, including Luther’s own German translation.  Second, Luther wanted students to read the first major textbook of Lutheran theology: Philip Melanchthon’s Loci Communes, often translated as Theological Commonplaces.  First published in 1521, Melanchthon published later editions, particularly in 1543.  Luther praised this text in the following manner:

“There’s no book under the sun in which the whole of theology is so compactly presented as in the Loci Communes.  If you read all the fathers and the sententiaries you have nothing.  No better book has been written after the Holy Scripture than Philip’s.  He expresses himself more concisely than I do when he argues and instructs.  I’m garrulous and more rhetorical.” Ibid., 440.

When Luther mentions the fathers he usually means the early Christian theologians to the early 6th century.  While the “sententiaries” refers to the many late medieval commentators on Peter Lombard’s Sentences, the text upon which all Western theological rested from the late 12th century to the early 16th centuries.  Luther’s theology of justification by faith in Christ alone began as rejection of these late medieval scholastics’ theology of salvation.


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Students of Wisdom

“Some of us are enslaved to glory, others to money.  But there are also a few people who devote themselves wholly to the study of the universe, believing everything else to be trivial in comparison.  These call themselves students of wisdom, in other words philosophers; and just as a festival attracts individuals of the finest type who just watch the proceedings without a thought of getting anything for themselves, so too, in life generally, the contemplation and study of nature are far superior to the whole range of other human activities.” Marcus Tullius Cicero, Discussions at Tusculum (V) 3. 8-9, in Cicero: The Good Life, trans. Michael Grant (London 1971), p. 56-57. [Emphasis added]


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Indulgences and the Gospel


“Works of piety and love are infinitely better than indulgences; and yet [the indulgence preachers] do not preach them with an equally big display and effort.  What is even worse, [the preachers] are silent about them because they have to preach the sale of indulgences.  The first and only duty of the bishops, however, is to see that the people learn the gospel and love of ChristFor on no occasion has Christ ordered the indulgences be preached, but he forcefully commanded the gospel to be preached.  What a horror, what a danger for a bishop to permit the loud noise of indulgences among his people, while the gospel is silenced, and to be more concerned with the sale of indulgences than with the gospel!  Will not Christ say to [such bishops], ‘You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.’ ” Martin Luther, “Letter to Cardinal Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz” in Luther’s Works, vol. 48, p. 47. [Emphasis Added]

On October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther addressed a letter to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz in which he attacked the preaching and distribution of indulgences to Christians.  This quote from that letter demonstrates his dogged resolve based in his newly-discovered theology of grace and faith based on his reading of the Bible and Augustine of Hippo’s writings.  Notice, Luther’s criticism of indulgences rested on his faith in the good news of Christ.  As he wrote in the Thesis 62 of the Ninety-Five Theses:

“The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.” LW 31: 31.

In the explanation of this thesis a few months later he wrote:

“…the gospel is a preaching of the incarnate Son of God, given to us without any merit on our part for salvation and peace.  It is a word of salvation, a word of grace, a word of comfort, a word of joy, a voice of the bridegroom and the bride, a good word, a word of peace.” LW 31: 231.



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The Final Judgment of Michelangelo

A Sonnet by Michelangelo

The course of my life has already reached,                                                                                          Across a stormy sea in a fragile ship,                                                                                                    The common port, where we must give                                                                                                An account of our every evil act or good deed

The impassioned fantasy, which made                                                                                                Art an idol and idol over me,                                                                                                                  Was, I now realize, full of error,                                                                                                         Like all else that men desire against their will.


What will become of my amorous thoughts, once so vain and gay,                                              Now that I draw near to my double death?                                                                                        Of one death I am certain, and the other threatens me.

There is no painting nor sculpture now which quiets                                                                  The soul turned toward that divine love                                                                                          Which on the cross opened to take us in Its arms.

Source: The Italian Renaissance Reader, Eds. Conaway Bondella & Mark Musa (New York 1987), p. 379.

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The Interrogation of Mercy

Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) teaches on John 1:16  “And of his fullness have all we received, and grace for grace.”

“What grace did we, in the first instance, receive?  Faith: walking in faith, we walk in grace.  How have we merited this? by what previous merits of ours?  Let not each one flatter himself, but let him return into his conscience, seek out the secret places of his own thoughts, recall the series of his deeds; let him not consider what he is if now he is something, but what he was that he might be something: he will find that he was not worthy of anything save punishment.  If, then, thou wast worthy of punishment, and He came not to punish sins, but to forgive sins, grace was given to thee, and not reward rendered.  Wherefore is it called grace? Because it is bestowed gratuitously.  For thou didst not, by previous merits, purchase that which thou didst receive.  This first grace, then, the sinner received, that his sins were forgiven.  What did he deserve? Let him interrogate justice, he finds punishment; let him interrogate mercy, he finds grace.  But God promised this also through the prophets; therefore, when He came to give what He had promised, He not only gave grace, but also truth.  How was truth exhibited? Because that was done which had been promised.” Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on John. III. 8.  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, volume 7, p. 21. [Emphasis added]


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“And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” Matthew 23:12 (Douay-Rheims)

In my last post we saw how Augustine asserted that pride began as a perverse exaltation of the self above all else.  This vice characterized the sinful community of human beings (city of Man) Pride Goes Before Destruction.  Augustine pointed toward humility (given by the grace of God) as the foundation of virtue.  This idea became the basis of medieval religious belief and practice.  As pride actually abased those who exalt themselves through sin, humility exalts those who abase themselves through true humility.  Augustine explained:

“Thus, in a surprising way, there is something in humility to exalt the mind, and something in exaltation to abase it.  It certainly appears somewhat paradoxical that exaltation abases and humility exalts.  But devout humility makes the mind subject to what is superior.  Nothing is superior to God; and that is why humility exalts the mind by making it subject to God.” [Augustine, City of God 14. 13. trans. Henry Bettenson (London 1984), 572]

For this reason Augustine states that humility marks those who belong to the City of God and Christ, the ruler of that City.  In order to remedy the human sin of pride, Augustine explains that God abased himself through mercy and demonstrated grace through taking on human nature. [Augustine, On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins 26. 17.]

Medieval monastic theologians focused on humility as the foundation of faith and virtue.  In his Rule, St Benedict depicted the monastic life as a ladder of humility with twelve steps: “Now the ladder erected is our life on earth, and if we humble our hearts the Lord will raise it to heaven.”  The monastic life revolved around self-abasement of body and soul in absolute obedience to another’s will.  [Rule of St Benedict chap. 7.]

As we saw in the previous post on pride, Bernard of Clairvaux (d.1153) adopted Benedict’s ladder imagery to examine the vices of pride and the virtues of humility.  In opposition to pride, he defined humility as the virtue of having a low opinion of one’s self based on self-knowledge and the contempt of one’s own excellence. [Bernard, The Steps of Humility and Pride 1. 2; 4. 14, trans. M. Ambrose Conway OCSO. Kalamazoo 1989, 30, 42]

Munich, BSB Clm 14519, 5r

Genuine humility rests in the truth, results in mercy, and it leads to love (caritas).  All of these virtues come from the incarnate Christ through faith and are practiced by monks through imitation.  This is the manner by which monks (or Christians) may fulfill the commandment to love their neighbors as themselves.  As Bernard wrote:

“You will never have real mercy for the failings of another until you know and realize that you have the same failings in your soul.  Our Savior has given us the example.  He willed to suffer so that he might know compassion; to learn mercy he shared our misery.” [Steps 3. 6, p. 35]

The depiction to the right reads: “the pride of the devil is conquered by the humility of the cross of Christ.”  If you would like to see the original go here: BSB Clm 14159





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Pride Goes Before Destruction

“Pride goeth before destruction and the spirit is lifted up before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18 (Douay-Rheims)

Pride (superbia) was the foundation of all sin in medieval piety and theology.  A concept well-established on the Bible and the Church Fathers, pride was the devil’s original sin. Augustine of Hippo explained that pride was the original sin of human beings and led to The Fall and its horrible consequences. Citing Ecclesiasticus 10:14-15  to demonstrate this theological teaching, he asserted that pride led the devil to tempt humanity out of envy. He appealed to humanity’s pride through the lie that they would be like gods. [Augustine, On Nature and Grace 33.29. Idem, City of God 12. 6.]

Augustine defined pride as the evil will from which the rebellious action against God’s commandment arose.  Pride, defined as the love of one’s own excellence, began as a voluntary choice to move away from the changeless Good (i.e., God) and to perversely exalt the self.   Augustine identified this self-centered exaltation as the main character trait of the community of sinful human beings.   [Augustine City of God 14. 13. Idem, De Genesi ad litteram 11. 14. 18]

Twelfth-century monastic theologians particularly focused on pride as the source of the soul’s demise.(See John of Salisbury’s Description of Pride)  In fact, as we read in the Rule of St Benedict the entire monastic way of life rested on self-denial as the means to humble one’s sinful pride.  Bernard of Clairvaux integrated the Augustinian theological tradition with Benedict’s practice.  His first published work was a devotional exposition of Benedict’s description of the monastic life as a ladder of humility.  In this work, Bernard explained the twelve steps of humility and pride.  He followed Augustine’s definition of pride as the love of one’s own excellence. According to Bernard, pride reaches its culmination in the habit of sinning driven by cupidity (cupiditas) [Bernard of Clairvaux, The Steps of Humility and Pride 4. 14, 21. 51, trans. M. Ambrose Conway OCSO. Kalamazoo 1989, 42, 77-78.]

My next post will discuss humility (humilitas).



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