Springtime Reading

Flowering slopes with Mt. Rainier

 

Proofs of God: Classical Arguments from Tertullian to Barth by Matthew Levering. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016. Reviewed by Matthew K. Minerd, Ph.L.

Speaking from Within: Biblical Approaches for Effective Preaching by Kieran O’Mahony. Veritas Publications, 2016; 96 pages, $18.00. Reviewed by Justin Rowan.

Marian Maximalism by Dr. Jonathan Fleischmann (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate Catholic Books, 2016) 244 pages; ISBN 10: 1601140746. Reviewed by Fr. Edward Looney.

How to Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a Saint by Peter Kreeft. Ignatius Press, 170 pages. Reviewed by Fr. Thomas Hoisington.

The Rhetoric of the Pulpit: A Preachers Guide to Effective Sermons by Jon Meyer EricsonWipf & Stock Publishing, 2016, Eugene, OR. $37.00. Reviewed by Tim Theriault.

The Seven Last Words from the Cross by Robert Bellarmine, S.J. .introduction by Christian Washburn (Cluny Media, 2016) 320 pages. Reviewed by Mr. Timothy Kieras, S.J.

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Proofs of God: Classical Arguments from Tertullian to Barth by Matthew Levering. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016. Reviewed by Matthew K. Minerd, Ph.L.

In his Proofs of God, Matthew Levering brings together an excellent historical overview of major proofs for the existence of God. Every such collection must be selective, and Levering’s work is no exception to this rule. It would be churlish to judge the text negatively because of this fact. Levering discusses authors from the Patristic era onward, thus considering only thinkers who are post-Christian. In his introduction, he addresses this decision, and does provide a brief synopsis of pre-Christian thinkers (especially Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics).

Levering’s summaries of Patristic and Medieval proofs for God’s existence provide a helpful compendium of thinkers who are likely familiar to many readers. Arguably, Tertullian’s rather simple arguments from order (terminating, as they do at a quasi-material Godhead) provide, at best, anecdotal evidence concerning the simple form of early Christian attempts at philosophical explication. However, Levering’s account of Gregory of Nazianzan’s arguments from order and motion show how, by the fourth century, a much more robust account of philosophical proofs of God’s existence are being developed in a Christian context. The arguments presented are philosophical, though the close connections to the exigencies of Christian faith are quite obvious. This same contextual point remains quite operative, as is well known, in Augustine and Anselm, whose thought Levering presents with brevity and clarity. He draws on Augstine’s Confessions, City of God, and briefly on The First Catechetical Instruction, and from Anselm, he presents not only the famed arguments in the Proslogion (and Anselm’s later debate with Gaunilo), but also several of his earlier proofs in the Monologion, all marked by a Platonic/Neo-Platonic ascent through grades of perfection.

In a more Aristotelian tone, Levering presents John of Damascus’s arguments for God’s existence made in the third part of The Fount of Knowledge, providing demonstrations from the perspective of movement and contingency, as well as the harmony, preservation, and governance of creation. Likewise, he briefly discusses John’s treatment of the Divine attributes. Levering’s account of Aquinas is clear, and requires little commentary. He draws on proofs made in the De Ente et Essentia, Summa Contra Gentiles, and the Summa theologiae’s five ways, noting also several other texts in brief. Finally, Levering closes this section with a discussion of Ockham’s significant reductions regarding the possibility of proving God’s existence. Drawing mainly on texts that are easily available in Hackett’s selected texts, Venerabilis Inceptor, this chapter helps to introduce the reader to the significant limitations that Ockham imposes upon unaided reason’s abilities to prove God’s existence, unity, and efficient causality of created realities.

In his section on modernity, Levering’s figures divide into two camps (as will also be the case in his third section): namely, those who believe some demonstration is possible, and those who do not hold God’s existence to be demonstrable. He presents the figures in historical order, which is helpful in this chapter, particularly due to the important thematic relations between David Hume’s skepticism, and Immanuel Kant’s limited claims regarding our knowledge of God’s existence.

The first positive response comes from John Calvin, who holds that man has an innate sense of the Deity, though one that is obscured by human idolatry. Likewise, Levering presents Calvin’s account of a proof by way of the order of the universe, and presents an insightful summary of Calvin’s commentary on Romans 1:19-20. After this, he presents Montaigne’s religious skepticism, followed by the far more rigorous accounts offered by Suárez, who strikes a kind of middle ground between Ockham and Aquinas. The details of both these authors are left to the reader. Levering’s account of René Descartes’s Discourse and Meditations, provides a clear overview that is perhaps familiar to some readers, but will be appreciated by neophytes in modern philosophy. Finally, Blaise Pascal is presented as an explicit response to Montaigne and Descartes. In the brief course of eight pages, Levering outlines Pascal’s claims regarding the affective manner by which the “heart,” faced with the exigencies of our contingent existence, can lead us to know of God’s existence. Likewise, he presents Pascal’s famed wager as a response to Montaigne. He closes his presentation of Pascal by discussing his similarly well-known “night of fire” that revealed to him the contrast between the revealed God, and the God of the philosophers.

In the section on Hume, Levering explains the skeptic’s concerns regarding causality, providing a very fair reading of Hume’s deeply skeptical claims regarding causality in general, as well as its utter impossibility of leading us to the notion of a transcendent cause. In addition, Levering provides excellent footnote references that connect the reader with other pertinent texts in Hume, whose thought has been quite influential on Anglophonic skepticism to this day. Following this, Levering presents a well-documented and clear summary of Kant’s accounts regarding our knowledge of God’s existence, helpfully linking Kant’s own writings to the challenges raised by Hume (a well-known connection, of course). This section provides an excellent summary of Kant’s claims regarding the limits of speculative reason for proving God’s existence, and the role of God’s existence as a postulate of pure practical reason. Levering presents the nature of such postulated practical knowledge with great clarity. His accounts of the relevant texts from the Critique of Pure Reason, and the Critique of Practical Reason, provide a good outline from which the reader can approach Kant’s own texts in detail.

The final section of the text takes up figures from the nineteenth and twentieth century. One might wish that he had provided discussions of authors, like Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga, (and perhaps some of the “classic” atheists of early Analytic thought such as Bertrand Russell and A.J. Ayer), but one book can select only so many texts! Levering’s choice of Catholic thinkers—such as Newman, Blondel, Rousellot, and Garrigou-Lagrange—is understandable, given his own background. However, it would have been helpful for him to connect, a bit more explicitly, post-Kantian thought with the 19th century, by taking up, perhaps, a few thinkers—such as Fichte, Hegel, Nietzsche, and possibly, what can be taken from Schleiermacher (especially given Levering’s discussion of Barth). Nonetheless, we must say again: one text can only cover so much!

The Catholic authors discussed could be considered in pairs. For Bl. John Henry Newman and Maurice Blondel, the sure paths to knowledge of God were found in reflecting on the exigencies of man’s moral life. Levering draws on Newman’s Grammar of Assent, outlining his argument for awareness of God’s existence through our sense of moral obligation, as well as the broad outlines of Newman’s observations regarding the nature of human assent. Levering’s presentation of Blondel is quite fair, and even stirring, emphasizing the dynamic aspect of Blondel’s analysis of human action’s exigencies. Though Levering does not draw attention to the fact, one senses the general Kantianism in the background of Blondel’s focus on practical certitude of God’s existence (though Blondel makes claims that Kant would not make). Likewise, as Levering closes his summary, he cites several passages that show the important ambiguities in Blondel’s treatment of the natural and supernatural orders.

Similar ambiguities are arguably present in the work of Pierre Rousselot, S.J., who together with Blondel, exercised influence on figures such as Joseph Maréchal, Henri de Lubac, and Karl Rahner. Levering draws upon Rousselot’s “Thomist Metaphysics and Critique of Knolwedge” and his Eyes of Faith (taken from what was originally a series of scholarly articles). In the former, Rousselot argues (while claiming to avoid a priori-ism) that the very dynamism of our intellect presupposes that God exists. The judgment “being exists,” which he claims is implicit in all of our cognition, presupposes the synthesis of essence and existence (and, hence, God’s existence). From the latter, Levering draws primarily from Rousselot’s claims regarding the intellect’s inclination to the First Truth, and how love opens the eyes of knowledge in both the natural and supernatural orders.

Although Levering then discusses Wittgenstein, a better pairing for Rousselot is Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., whom Levering treats after Wittgenstein. Levering primarily draws upon Garrigou-Lagrange’s The One God, a commentary on the treatise De Deo Uno of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae. This section provides a good recapitulation of the traditional Thomistic positions, addressing some of the modern concerns regarding causal explanations of God’s existence, and the nature of man’s analogical knowledge of God. The relatively brief account of Garrigou-Lagrange could have been supplemented by important remarks that he makes in numerous works, including God: His Existence and His Nature, De Revelatione, and Le sens commun. While the topics covered therein would have been burdensome for the non-experts to whom Levering’s text is addressed, a brief account of these works would have given much “flesh” to this chapter’s account of the great Dominican’s writings on natural theology.

In this final section, Levering also summarizes a trio of dissenters, namely Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and Karl Barth. The early Wittgenstein is presented as leaving some space for the possibility of mysteries outside of what we can speak. However, the later Wittgentein of the Philosophical Investigations, as Levering presents him, offers even more restricted possibilities for realities that exist outside of the very forms of life structured by our language games. The details of Levering’s presentation of Heidegger are best left to the text itself, in which he presents Heidegger’s difficult thought with admirable clarity, providing accounts based on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Introduction to Metaphysics, and Identity and Difference. Also, he provides an excellent bibliography of texts to help the reader to enter into the dense world of Heideggerian philosophy. Finally, he presents Karl Barth’s theistic claims regarding the inability of human reason to know anything more than an idol if it attempts to know God outside of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Particularly striking is Levering’s summary of Barth’s reading of Anselm, whom Barth reads in a manner wholly congenial to his own presuppositions regarding the relationship of faith and reason (though not without doing violence to Anselm’s own expressed words and intent).

The entire text is “book-ended” with excellent synthetic discussions that help to fill in some details that are not congenial to the summary format of the book’s main chapters. The introduction and conclusion (as well as his closing discussions of contemporary authors) allow Levering to discuss the topics in a more reflective manner. These “bookends” are absolutely necessary for readers to contextualize the topics discussed in the body of the text. Levering was well aware that a mere set of summaries would not adequately address the important contemporary debates surrounding matters of proving God’s existence. Hence, these chapters help to round out the discussions, and bring them into direct contact with debates directly pertinent to the reader’s immediate intellectual milieu.

Writing as a philosopher, I feel it necessary to register a cautionary remark regarding this excellent text. The work provides a resource that is at once excellent and general. It provides readers with the contours of some important philosophical and theological minds regarding the possibility (or, impossibility) of proving the existence of God. For any detailed investigation into these proofs (and the many philosophical issues surrounding them), a separate, systematic study is necessary. Levering explicitly limited himself to brief textual summaries. It is up to the reader to use his detailed bibliographical offerings in order to encounter these thinkers in greater detail. A word to the wise—natural theology is never easy! It is the highest natural accomplishment of speculative intellection.

I highly recommend the text to interested laymen, pastors looking to review natural theology (which they may or may not have been taught well in seminary), and professors looking for an overview text as part of a course focusing primarily on matters pertaining to natural theology. We should be quite thankful to Dr. Levering for his clear summaries, excellent synthetic overviews, and detailed bibliographical resources!

Matthew K. Minerd, Ph.L. is a Ph.D. Candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America, as well as an Adjunct instructor of philosophy, Mount St. Mary’s University. 

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Speaking from Within: Biblical Approaches for Effective Preaching
by Kieran O’Mahony. Veritas Publications, 2016; 96 pages, $18.00. Reviewed by Justin Rowan.

Kieran O’Mahony’s Speaking from Within: Biblical Approaches for Effective Preaching offers an approach to homiletics situated firmly within the tradition of lectio divina, as well as the legacy of Vatican II. Noting that this is “not another handbook or manual” on the subject, he explains that he intends more to promote “both prayerful and critical reflection on the faith” since “all preaching is a form of theology.” The framework for his text is the writings and addresses of Pope Francis, particularly The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii gaudium), which is quoted liberally throughout. His primary audience is explicitly intended as preaching clergy, but he adds that “those who hand on the faith in any way” are invited too to ponder his points; one can well imagine those in lay ecclesial ministry profiting from his advice for the talks they give in other contexts.

 Speaking from Within consists of seven short chapters, four concerned with homiletic background and methodology, and the other three serving as examples thereof. “The Word as Place of Encounter” is an excursus in lectio divina, asserting that what the Word of God evokes in the homilist, as a reader and disciple, is the basis for an authentic homily. “Writing the Homily” emphasizes encounter, preparation, refining one’s communication objective with respect to context, and the basic structure of a homily; noteworthy is O’Mahony’s exhortation to repeatedly pray a text throughout the week to “harvest” gradual unfolding insights not apparent in the first few readings. “The Worshipping Community and the Lectionary” is a rather extensive—indeed, excessively so—retrospective of the revision to the Lectionary in the 20th century. Its general point—that the People of God are more likely to be conversant with scripture in our age than in previous ones—could have been expressed as simply that. By comparison, “A Personal Biblical Culture” is half that length, and while offering a few thoughts on making the scriptures one’s own, is primarily a catalogue of biblical study resources.

The last three chapters illustrate the principles that O’Mahony lays out, using passages from the Gospel of Luke. “Jesus in Nazareth,” “The Prodigal Son,” and “The Road to Emmaus” are all written with the understanding that “[a]s we pray and enter into any passage from the Bible, our hope is that this scripture will indeed be fulfilled in our hearing.” Each concludes with a series of reflection questions on the text just discussed, as well as a prayer, and are intended to foster the kind of “prayerful and critical” spirit spoken of earlier.

One thing for readers to be aware of is that O’Mahony’s frame of reference in this book is largely the situation of the Catholic Church in Ireland. While there is some overlap with the rest of the English-speaking world—for example, where the publications of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy are concerned—readers outside the Emerald Isle will sometimes need to sift applicable material from that which is more localized, especially when O’Mahony discusses what he sees as the flaws of Irish Christianity in the Foreword.

An element that confused this reader was his seesawing assessments of the state of the Catholic Church. In one chapter, he speaks quite abruptly and dourly about “the current darkness of the Church,” while in another, he joyfully extols the uptick in biblical literacy, and practice of lectio divina among the laity since Vatican II, as being a truly unprecedented reality and opportunity. More consistent messaging about his outlook might have improved the text, as the reader is left uncertain as to what kind of general situation they are facing in their preaching task.

Most heartening to read is O’Mahony’s contention that “people these days are ready for something substantial,” and his encouragement to go beyond platitudes, and well-worn exegesis, to a more personal, dynamic witness to Christ. “[Y]our teaching rises from within yourself, and from within the Word itself,” he reminds us—certainly a goal that invites an ongoing walk of personal effort and divine grace.
Justin Rowan is a seminarian at Christ the King Seminary in Buffalo, NY.

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Marian Maximalism by Dr. Jonathan Fleischmann (New Bedford, MA: Academy of the Immaculate Catholic Books, 2016) 244 pages; ISBN 10: 1601140746. Reviewed by Fr. Edward Looney.

Jonathan Fleischmann makes a unique contribution to the discipline of Mariology with his book Marian Maximalism. It could be said Fleishmann is a newcomer to the discipline of Mariology, given that his academic degrees focus on engineering, and he teaches in that discipline at Marquette University. He has published several articles on Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and he also contributes to Missio Immaculata. The book arises out of his own personal re-discovery of the Blessed Virgin Mary during a time when he was seeking spiritual renewal. Texts on Mariology renewed his spirits, allowing him to fall deeper in love with the Madonna. Fleischmann began publishing in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and in Missio Immaculata, interweaving his engineering background (that is, empirical science) within a Mariological framework (see pp. 2-3 for method of argumentation) and also prevalent in chapter eighteen, (pp. 177-183).

The basic thesis of the book uses the phrase “de Marian numquam satis,” that is, “of Mary never enough” as the foundational Maximalist principle, and other principles are later identified as well, such as borrowing St. Anselm’s axiom, and making it Marian: “Mary has a glory greater than which none can be imagined, except for God’s” (p. 56). Another interesting argument Fleischmann makes is that very rarely does a person become a Marian heretic.

When I read Fleischmann’s work, one question that arose within me was “who is his intended audience?” At times, the text was quite dense, perhaps much deeper than your average Catholic could engage in their limited theological training. It makes an excellent read for scholars, especially those interested in Mariology. The topic of the book being “Marian Maximalism” makes the text controversial, depending on the theologian’s Mariological bent. The book would also make a good study for priests, whose training in Mariology might be limited, by helping them delve deeper into various themes and topics, and explore what the saints have said, as Fleischmann uses saints as witnesses to support his maximalist positions.

One shortfall, for those not familiar with the wealth of Mariological texts, would be that the book argues for Marian Maximalism, which is only one side of an argument. While the author does present the opposing position, a newcomer would immediately be immersed in the tradition of maximalism. Given my experience in Mariological circles, I would contend many Mariologists would not align with Marian Maximalism, and tend more towards a moderate opinion. For a person to agree with the conclusions Fleishmann reaches, the reader must be open to receive his argument, and be inclined to accept it. Marian Maximalism argues difficult principles which many people may not be in a place to consider, or even accept it, and instead raise an eyebrow and wonder if we are promoting “Mariolatry.”

At times, the flow of the book became distracting, with overused phrases, and the plethora of quotes. “In the words of Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner,” “St. So-and-So said,” giving way to a large block quote from the cited person. Fleischmann relies heavily on the theological writings of Fr. Peter Damian Fehlner and Ruggero Rosini. If you do not know who these figures are, you most definitely will know them by the end of the book. If you want to read their theology, then Marian Maximalism is for you. Fleischmann also quotes extensively from St. Maximilian Kolbe, and Bl. Duns Scotus, whose Mariology has been perceived both in positive and negative ways. Fleishmann’s text serves as a rehabilitation of St. Maximilian Kolbe with an appeal to the saints, and further expounding and support from Fehlner. Another downfall of the text would be the chapter endings which consist of some sort of quote, leaving me wanting something more, like a summation of the chapter, or a conclusion to the argument presented.

I have tried to render an honest review of Marian Maximalism in order to point out what I see as its strengths and shortfalls. These are strictly my opinions. I would be remiss not to acknowledge the praise and endorsements the book has received from Raymond Cardinal Burke and Fr. Peter Damien Fehlner, who authored the Forward and Afterward respectively. I am sure Marian Maxmialism will continue to draw the praise of many who already identify with the positions presented, but also may raise a few eyebrows for those who question such “high” Mariology. Each reader must read the book for themselves in order to identify where they may lie on the “Mariological spectrum.”

Fr. Edward Looney was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin on June 6, 2015, and is a member of the Mariological Society of America. He publishes regularly on Marian topics.

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How to Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a Saint
by Peter Kreeft. Ignatius Press, 170 pages. Reviewed by Fr. Thomas Hoisington.

In the first chapter of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes puts Dr. Watson in his place. Holmes backhandedly compliments the good doctor: “It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light. Some people, without possessing genius, have a remarkable power of stimulating it.”

In the first chapter of How to Be Holy, Dr. Peter Kreeft puts himself in Dr. Watson’s place. He insists that “the cover of this book is a joke” given that he—rather than Mother Teresa or St. John Paul II—is the one writing about how to be holy. Reading this book, he explains, is “like reading How to Be Honest by Pinocchio.” In fact, the first chapter of How to Be Holy is titled “Ten Reasons to Read This Book,” and all ten are variations on the theme of humility, rationales not only for a sinner like Kreeft to write this book, but also for a sinner like the reader to pursue holiness.

Kreeft is well-known as the author of more than 75 books. Many would claim him a genius of apologetics, philosophy, and spirituality. Yet, many of his books are introductions to the thinking of greater thinkers, in which he conducts the light of others. For example, in a book published last year, Kreeft unpacks St. Augustine’s Confessions, and in a 2014 book, Kreeft offers 358 forms of spiritual direction from St. Thomas Aquinas. He’s written a series of books in which Socrates cross-examines modern philosophers, such as Descartes, Hume, and Marx. He’s composed a logic text using the Socratic method, Platonic questions, and Aristotelian principles. Such examples illustrate how Kreeft brilliantly brings to light the truth, and the errors, of history’s great thinkers.

But Dr. Kreeft also considers the little guys. In the history of Catholic doctrine and spirituality, luminaries like Augustine and Aquinas easily outshine lesser mortals. Yet, in Prayer for Beginners, Kreeft explores the principles of Brother Lawrence’s little classic: The Practice of the Presence of God. In How to Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a Saint, our spiritual Watson conducts us through Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence. How to Be Holy is certainly not an inter-linear commentary upon Abandonment to Divine Providence. But Kreeft alerts us to the book’s tenor in what might be called its “sub-subtitle”: “A Festooning of Abandonment to Divine Providence.” This festive image connotes the brief, informal approach of Kreeft’s book. Regarding its brevity, How to Be Holy is 170 pages long. Of the book’s 35 chapters, 28 chapters are less than five pages long, and 15 are less than three pages long.

In his 2016 book on the Confessions, Kreeft repeatedly quotes Augustine at length, and then comments directly upon each passage. But in How to Be Holy, direct quotes from Abandonment to Divine Providence are often only a sentence long each, and after one quote in the first chapter, the next quote doesn’t appear until Chapter 8. The book is more festoons than the book festooned, but for fans of Dr. Kreeft, this won’t matter much. To use a musical metaphor, this book is akin to one of Bach’s arrangements of Vivaldi: a master’s take on another master.

Kreeft focuses much of How to Be Holy upon a single verse from Scripture. He introduces this verse in the second chapter, titled “A Radically Life-Changing Idea.” The idea in question is the mystery St. Paul proclaims in Romans 8:28: “For those who love God, all things work together for good.” This verse sums up the content of Abandonment to Divine Providence, since abandonment is how one is to love God, and since divine Providence is all things working together for good.

Still, this verse isn’t woven through the whole of Kreeft’s book. It’s directly referenced in only 11 of the book’s 35 chapters: the author treats the verse in chapters 2-8, and then doesn’t mention it again until the second half of the book, referring to it in chapters 20 and 22-24. Nonetheless, the scriptural and theological themes raised by this verse are indirectly woven throughout the whole of the book, and form its heart. Among its many themes, humility emerges as the basis for one’s abandonment to divine Providence.

While it’s a truism that “A man is known by the company he keeps,” fans of Dr. Kreeft will be happy to see that in How to Be Holy he weaves his commentary upon de Caussade’s book with insights from many of his favorite thinkers. A philosopher by training and profession, Kreeft naturally turns to giants, such as Plato, Kierkegaard, and even Camus, to illuminate the paths and pitfalls of the pursuit of holiness. He also turns to those better known for their literature, such as Dostoevsky, T. S. Eliot, and C. S. Lewis. Bringing the reader closer to the book’s focus are those the Church has canonized for living the book’s message, including St. John of the Cross, the Little Flower, St. Faustina, and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Kreeft quotes from his favorite thinkers almost as often as he quotes from Abandonment to Divine Providence. In fact, many quotes from these thinkers are significantly longer than the quotes from the book being festooned. The longest quote in How to Be Holy is from St. Anselm’s Proslogion, running to two and a half pages. There’s no doubt that the saint’s insights here about detachment are powerful, but one might wonder why quotes of similar length aren’t offered from Abandonment to Divine Providence.

In the end, humility helps each of us accept his place, in the world and before God. This lesson is key to abandoning oneself to divine Providence. Dr. Peter Kreeft is not a French Jesuit of the 18th century, and his book doesn’t attempt to imitate the style of de Caussade’s spirituality. Kreeft’s insights into Abandonment to Divine Providence are Kreeft’s, and they’re expressed in his own inimitable style. His books have long brought delight to readers, and readers to God. This book surely will also do so, and that’s no small thing.

Fr. Thomas Hoisington was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Wichita in 1995. He earned a Licentiate in Sacred Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 2001, specializing in Dogmatic Theology. He serves the parishes of St. Mary’s and St. Anthony’s in Garden Plain, Kansas, and is Chaplain to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Wichita. He posts scriptural reflections at: ReflectionsOnTheSacredLiturgy.com

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The Rhetoric of the Pulpit: A Preachers Guide to Effective Sermons by Jon Meyer EricsonWipf & Stock Publishing, 2016, Eugene, OR. $37.00. Reviewed
by Tim Theriault.

Public discourse today is based largely on emotion. The classical style of rhetoric, which relied upon logic and a good argumentation of one’s premises, has been abandoned for a new style of rhetoric that now relies upon an appeal to emotions, and that which one feels is right. This shift in rhetorical style is the consequence of much development (or diminution) in philosophy, though this is neither the concern of this review, nor of the book reviewed. However, it is an important phenomenon that the contemporary preacher must keep in mind. All of this explains why Jon Meyer Ericson’s The Rhetoric of the Pulpit is a timely and worthwhile read. Ericson’s task is to wed the classical art of rhetoric, timeless even if abandoned, to the task of homily preparation. This is a unique and fitting response to the monumental task of preaching the Gospel to a society awash in a competing secular message which itself employs as a convincing style of rhetoric.

Ericson does not regard the homily as primarily a rhetorical tool that the preacher uses to persuade people to adhere to the Gospel message, even if that is his ultimate goal. Rather, he recognizes, within the art of rhetoric, a valuable approach to the important evangelical task of homily preparation. This comes across clearly in the structure of his text, which he bases around the five rhetorical elements: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. When dealing with each of these elements, he begins with an overview of the classical approach, and the contemporary communication method; he then unpacks the different features that go into each element, and applies them to the preparation of the homily. But wait, didn’t we say at the beginning of this review that public discourse today was based largely on emotion? Does this mean then that Ericson’s project amounts to an attempt to fit the square peg of classical rhetoric into the round hole of preaching to a contemporary society filled with people emoting? This was the obvious danger I saw in Ericson’s project, and one that I was cognizant of when reading his text. It seems that Ericson himself was aware of this danger as he demonstrates a deft ability to bring classical rhetorical style into dialogue with contemporary modes of communication. This is seen early on in the text in his treatment of the invention stage of homily preparation. Here he discusses the need for proofs to support the main message the preacher is trying to convey. He highlights three types of proof drawn from classical rhetoric: logical (an appeal to reason), ethical (an appeal based on the preachers good reputation), and pathetic (an appeal to emotion). Ericson, almost casually, begins his discussion with the pathetic proof since he says it is the “appeal most directly relevant to the sermon.” As a seminarian well-trained in the Catholic traditions of philosophy and theology, this struck me as odd at first; but then I thought about how the people in the pews are typically influenced outside of the church. The answer is through an appeal to their emotions, but not limited to their emotions but rather through their emotions as they relate to the human condition. This small factor in Ericson’s approach is significant because it shows his awareness of how best to reach the people in the pews—by employing sound rhetorical techniques. This is just one example out of many sprinkled throughout the text of Ericson’s command of classical rhetorical technique, combined with insights from a seasoned pastor and preacher.

Though it is clear that Ericson is coming from a Protestant tradition, with his strong emphasis on the Word and the sermon as the pinnacle of the Sunday service, The Rhetoric of the Pulpit has a broad appeal to all preachers of the Gospel. Approaching the text from a Catholic perspective, I found myself pleasantly surprised to find various references throughout the text to the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. To me this shows Ericson’s ability to draw from a wide array of resources to improve homily preparation.

My first encounter with the art of rhetoric was in my Aristotelean Logic class in minor seminary. That class ushered in a paradigm shift in the way I thought about faith, reason, and the world. Reading the Socratic dialogues of Plato, and the works of Aristotle, opened my mind to the importance of using reason to examine the arguments of the Christian faith, alongside what society proffers as reality. As I look forward to priestly ministry in this growing secular age, I often find myself pining for the reason-filled environment of logic class. Yet, the call of preaching the Gospel never ceases. Now more than ever, perhaps, the preacher must have within his arsenal the tools that will equip him to preach Jesus Christ to a relativistic society that finds itself in chaos. Ericson’s The Rhetoric of the Pulpit is one such tool. In its appeal to the intellectual tradition available to Christians, it offers a fresh, yet timeless, approach to preaching that can assist the preacher in his evangelical task.

Tim Theriault is a Seminarian of the Diocese of Hamilton studying at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, NY

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The Seven Last Words from the Cross by Robert Bellarmine, S.J. .introduction by Christian Washburn (Cluny Media, 2016) 320 pages. Reviewed by Mr. Timothy Kieras, S.J.

Whilst then I was reflecting as to what would be the most eligible subject both to prepare me to die well, and to assist others to live well, the Death of our Lord occurred to me, together with the last sermon which the Redeemer of the world preached from the Cross, as from an elevated pulpit, to the human race. (xxv).

When St. Robert Bellarmine grew old, he began making a thirty day retreat every year. Few, if any of us have such an opportunity, but thankfully this saint has shared with us the fruits of his contemplation. Originally published in 1618, Bellarmine’s Seven Last Words became immediately popular. More recently, Cluny Media has done us the service of republishing Bellarmine’s work with a helpful introduction and new indices by Christian D. Washburn.

Bellarmine’s Seven Last Words is a rich source for anyone looking to delve prayerfully into classical Catholic spirituality. Each of the Seven Last Words receives a “literal explanation” that sketches out the basic meaning of what our Lord said. Then Bellarmine offers anywhere from two to six fruits to be gained by reflecting on the Word. This is a work written in prayer and for prayer, but in classic Jesuit fashion, it is eminently practical and oriented toward the reform of our lives.

Coming from the Society of Jesus, Bellarmine is an exemplar of Jesuit spirituality. His meditations on the Last Words are clearly influenced by St. Ignatius’ recommendation to apply our five senses to whatever we are considering in prayer. Thus Bellarmine begins by having us consider the physical dimensions of the cross on which Christ was crucified, “the pulpit of the Preacher” (xxvii). Similarly, as he undertakes a “literal” commentary on each Word, he seeks to uncover what happened and why. For example, he asks why Christ was thirsty, and describes the horrible thirst of a man suffering from severe blood loss. This attention to historical and physical reality leaves Bellarmine open to criticism—was it really this way, or do “we know today” that it was otherwise? Yet, Christianity is a religion that depends on historical events, and not mere abstract ideas, and God has not revealed himself to humanity only for his Word to be obscured by history. The Gospels and the Fathers of the Church will always be reliable sources for our encounter with the Lord, and Bellarmine’s reflections are based on nothing except these traditional sources.

A saint engaged in preparing himself for death is not going to mince words. Bellarmine urges his readers to cast aside sin, often employing vivid images, and not avoiding the reminder that sin and grace have eternal consequences. Bellarmine is nowhere gloomy or sad, but rather full of hope in the promises that God has made to those who respond to his call. Whatever difficulties there are in the Christian life, the rewards, even here and now, are incomparably greater. Bellarmine advances a spiritual realism: the cross comes to us all, so trying to avoid it through sin is folly. He writes, “the cross of a saint lasts for a short time, is light and fruitful, whilst that of a sinner is eternal, heavy, and sterile” (55).

Bellarmine’s imagination reaches out to a wide variety of readers: clergy and religious, as well as laity, those bound by grave sin, as well as those going from a good way of life to an even better one. Everyone can benefit from his examples and exhortations. Of particular note is a wonderful section on patience, where Bellarmine urges us to imitate Christ’s patience in our ordinary, daily lives. Whether it is praying the Divine Office, or experiencing inclement weather, we are always faced with opportunities to practice patience for the love of God. Even when experiencing great evil and confusion at the hands of “bad men and evil spirits,” we should take heart: “Still God, without whom they can do nothing, would not allow any storm to break upon us, unless he judged it to be useful” (159). This message of trust in Divine Providence has lost none of its relevance today.

Bellarmine’s work is solid and traditional, yet we should not overlook its unique stature. A famous churchman, unusually learned scholar, Doctor of the Church, and Saint has left us a record of his deeply considered reflections on the Last Words of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. If we are looking for wisdom, here it is.

Mr. Timothy Kieras, S.J., is a Jesuit scholastic studying theology in preparation for priestly ordination at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

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