May 2014

The Power of Four: Keys to the Hidden Treasures of the Gospels.  By Eduardo P. Olaguer Jr. Angelico Press. 126 pages. $12.95.

“All divine Scripture is one book,” wrote the medieval theologian Hugh of St. Victor, “and this one book is Christ, speaks of Christ and finds its fulfillment in Christ.” Pope Benedict XVI, in his apostolic exhortation Verbum Domini, warned that for exegetes to neglect this truth, and to view the Scriptures as a collection of merely human writings bound to historical periods, creates “a secularized hermeneutic…based on the conviction that the Divine does not intervene in human history.” In an age when this “secularized hermeneutic” often dominates biblical commentary, Eduardo Olaguer’s The Power of Four is a refreshing and intriguing read. Olaguer reveals a wealth of patterns and parallels “hidden in plain sight” within the four Gospels. These patterns unlock the Gospels’ spiritual meaning, link them with one another and with the rest of Scripture, and show how Scripture as a whole constitutes a divinely planned unity.

Olaguer argues that the structure and content of each of the Gospels may be explained in terms of four interpretive principles or “keys.” The “keys” may be summarized as follows:

First, the four Gospels portray Jesus as embodying the spiritual meanings of the four creatures described in the books of Ezekiel and the Apocalypse. These creatures — the Man (representing Adam), the Ox (a symbol of sacrifice), the Lion (symbolizing strength and royalty), and the Eagle (representing mystical profundity) — were used as symbols for the Gospels even in the early Church, though two distinct traditions arose as to which Gospel should be paired with which creature. Olaguer accepts both traditions and combines them, associating Matthew with the Man and the Lion, Mark with the Ox and the Lion, Luke with the Man and the Ox, and John with the Eagle.

Second, each Gospel presents the life of Christ as recapitulating and unveiling a different set of Old Testament books. Matthew presents the life and teachings of Jesus as the new Torah. Mark presents Jesus as the new Joshua, the new Elijah, and the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. Luke presents Jesus’ life as recapitulating the history of Israel, from the monarchy through the exile and up to Israel’s restoration. John presents the life of Christ in light of the Genesis creation stories and the Wisdom books.

Third, each Gospel is structured according to a different rhetorical device. Matthew employs chiasmus, arranging parallel literary segments in reverse order to form an ABCBA construction. Mark uses inclusion, framing individual stories or passages by sandwiching them between repetitions of the same or similar words. Luke juxtaposes similar or contrasting stories or characters to form literary segments called diptychs. John employs parataxis, using repetition to stress simple words or phrases.

Fourth, each Gospel is organized around a set of seven events or ideas. In Matthew, Jesus visits seven mountains, each corresponding to an important aspect of His message and to one of the seven Mosaic festivals. Mark’s Gospel emphasizes the seven key points of St. Peter’s kerygma, or proclamation of the Gospel, which correspond to the seven memorials the Israelites built as they conquered the Promised Land. Luke’s Gospel is organized around seven visits to the Temple that recall key events in the Old Testament historical books. John’s Gospel is organized around seven signs performed by Jesus, corresponding to seven utterances of God’s name, “I AM,” and to the seven days of creation.

The Power of Four is full of fascinating insights. Olaguer points out, for example, that Matthew divides his Gospel into five sections that correspond to, and follow the same order as, the five books of the Torah; that the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel recalls Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan and the circumcision of the Israelites (Jos. 3:1-5:9); and that when the numerical values corresponding to the Greek letters of Jesus’ name are added together, the resulting number is 888, where the number eight symbolizes the resurrection and the new creation.

The book, however, is not without its problems. Olaguer’s theological commentary on biblical themes may at times strike the reader as confused or far-fetched. A more serious problem is his failure to offer adequate scriptural support for many of his claims. His assertions that certain texts parallel or correspond to one another often seem ad hoc, motivated more by a desire to force Scripture into a preconceived organizational scheme than by careful, evidence-based exegesis. Readers will do well to evaluate Olaguer’s theses in light of their own study of Scripture before accepting them. The Power of Four is best viewed as an introduction to the hidden structure and meaning of the Gospels — an invitation to come and see.

- Christian T. Herring



The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment.  Edited by Ronald J. Sider. Baker Academic. 216 pages. $27.99.

The editor of this collection, Ronald J. Sider, is an Anabaptist whose focus is on the teaching of the early Church up to the fourth century, when Constantine ended the persecution of Christians. No one reading these testimonies can doubt that the Ante-Nicene Church considered abortion to be an abomination. At the end of the first century, the Didache, the earliest post-biblical manual of Christian instruction, warned, “You shall not murder a child by abortion nor commit infanticide.” Yes, abortion was regarded then as murder and parricide. In the second century, Athenagoras expressed the same Christian belief: “Those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder.” Moreover, Clement of Alexandria — a first-century saint who taught that the soul of the embryo was introduced at conception “by one of the angels who preside over generation” — called abortion a “perverse art” and warned that “these women who, in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings.”

In the late second century, Tertullian likewise taught that not only “life” but “the soul also begins from conception,” and he declared that “murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb.” This was the reason he gave: “To hinder a birth is merely a speedier killing of a human being; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a human being which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed.”

In the third century, the Didascalia Apostolorum, another early teaching document, condemned abortion and infanticide in the same breath. Origen, too, declared that “God would have us to bring up all our children, and not to destroy any of the offspring given us by His providence.” Later that century, Lactantius wrote that those “parricides” who claimed they were too poor to bring up any more children ought to “abstain from intercourse” rather than wickedly “mar the work of God.” Of course, Lactantius was writing long before the Darwinists and Freudians convinced people that there is no such thing as free will or rational self-control.

Of all the warnings against abortion from the early Church, the scariest undoubtedly is that found in the second-century Apocalypse of Peter, a vision of the horrifying tortures awaiting those condemned to Hell, including unrepentant men and women who “procured abortions.” In one of these tortures, “the milk of the mothers flows from their breasts and congeals and smells foul, and from it come forth beasts that devour flesh, which turn and torture them forever with their husbands, because they forsook the commandment of God and killed their children.”

Sider cites numerous passages in which early Christian spokesmen expressed a detestation of killing not only in abortion and infanticide but also in gladiator fights and in the service of the Roman army, where soldiers had to carry out “capital punishments” and go to war. At the end of the third century, Lactantius wrote with delicious irony about how pagans deified those who had slaughtered vast numbers of their fellow man: “If anyone has slain a single person, he is regarded as contaminated and wicked…[b]ut he who has slaughtered countless thousands of people, has inundated plains with blood, and infected rivers, is not only admitted into the temple, but even into heaven.” These lines have an application today when far too many are mesmerized by the histories of mass murderers like Alexander, Napoleon, and Hitler.

Most of this book is devoted to arguing, a bit repetitiously, that, according to the few texts that survive, the early Church stood against the participation of Christians in war, even in a “just war.” Sider admits, however, that other scholars have examined the same texts and found them “ambiguous,” something he denies vigorously. After providing several fascinating accounts of Christian soldier-martyrs of the third century (Marinus, Maximilian, Marcellus, and Julius the Veteran), he concedes that there was “an obvious disconnect between the unanimous teaching of all extant Christian writers” of the early Church and “the clear evidence that more and more Christians were in the army” by the third century.

- Anne Barbeau Gardiner



Religious Freedom: Did Vatican II Contradict Traditional Catholic Doctrine?: A Debate.  By Arnold T. Guminski and Brian W. Harrison, O.S. St. Augustine’s Press. 288 pages. $35.

Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae proclaimed the rights of the person and communities to social and civil freedom in matters religious, as well as the Church’s “freedom for herself in her character as a spiritual authority.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his famous “hermeneutic of continuity” speech, singled out the issue of religious liberty as one of the three questions that had formed by the time Vatican II was convened. Benedict stated that “the Decree on Religious Freedom has recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church,” and that the teaching therein “has reviewed or even corrected certain historical decisions, but in this apparent discontinuity it has actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity.”

Dignitatis Humanae (DH) is a hot-button issue for traditionalist Catholics, recently in play when Benedict sought to reconcile the breakaway Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) with the Church. Whereas Benedict has favored the hermeneutic of continuity, arguing that Vatican II did not change fundamental Church teaching but proposed new articulations that take into account changing historical circumstances, the SSPX and its sympathizers argue that DH contradicts Catholic teaching. The SSPX stated in its reply to the Vatican’s theological “Preamble” about Vatican II: “On at least four points, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council are obviously in logical contradiction to the pronouncements of the previous traditional Magisterium,” specifically, “the doctrine on religious liberty, as it is expressed in no. 2 of the Declaration Dignitatis humanae, contradicts the teachings of Gregory XVI in Mirari vos and of Pius IX in Quanta cura as well as those of Pope Leo XIII in Immortale Dei and those of Pope Pius XI in Quas primas.”

Religious Freedom: Did Vatican II Contradict Traditional Catholic Doctrine? is a debate between Fr. Brian W. Harrison, O.S, a Catholic theologian, and Arnold T. Guminski, an ex-Catholic atheist attorney, with a preface by Notre Dame professor Gerard V. Bradley and several weighty book-cover endorsements to boot. The book is not easy to follow — there is much back and forth — and the subject matter is complex. It will interest only those who already have a firm grasp of the issues at hand. The title of the book is imprecise: the subject is more specifically whether DH alone, rather than the documents of Vatican II, contradicts traditional Catholic doctrine.

Fr. Harrison argues that DH is, doctrinally speaking, compatible with the teachings expounded prior to Vatican II. He cites numerous distinguished theologians, including Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., and prelates, including Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Alfons Stickler, in support of his position. He says that this compatibility is due in part to the broad brush strokes the Church has made in this area; the Church has exercised prudential judgments on how the teaching is applied in a world very different from the Christendom of old.

Guminski holds that the teaching of DH is incompatible with prior teachings because “the precondition for this doctrine is to prescind from presupposing the truth of the Catholic religion and from other supernatural considerations.” Guminski, however, does not hold that prior teaching was infallible and definitive; he argues that DH supersedes prior teaching.

The authors touch on at least two points that other scholars deny or do not give attention to: DH teaches that civil authorities may, without injustice, recognize the Catholic faith as uniquely true so long as everyone’s right to religious freedom is respected; and that Jesuit John Courtney Murray’s interpretation of the declaration has had too strong an influence on previous studies. (Fr. Murray, an American theologian known for his efforts to reconcile Catholicism and religious pluralism, was instrumental in the formulation of Gaudium et Spes and DH.)

Guminski and Harrison also address the Church’s inherent coercive powers pertaining to the religious activities of her members, including those who are officials of the civil state. This section is found in Appendix A, yet it is arguably one of the more important sections of the book. Coercive powers do not mean those that a civil state might exercise. Rather, the authors have in mind penalties like excommunications, suspensions, the holding of trials, privation of ecclesiastical office, denial of ecclesiastical funeral, and denial of reception of Holy Communion. The authors note that these are not only spiritual; they involve a certain amount of corporal/temporal punishment, but not the kind proper to a civil state authority. On the same theme, Guminski and Harrison hold that DH teaches that schismatics and heretics are free from coercion, but at the same time they maintain that the Church has authority over all the baptized, including apostates, in matters sacramental and disciplinary.

- Daniel Blackman





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