Saturday, December 10, 2016

Christian Caring for the Poor: Lectionary Disregard for Biblical Foundations

The Gleaners
Jean-François Millet, 1857
Paris, Musée d'Orsay
With bounteous stacks of harvest in the background,
the three peasant women scratch for stray stalks.

Recently I was invited to lead a group from my congregation, St. James Episcopal Church of Greenville SC, in a sequence of Sunday morning sessions on biblical teachings about caring for the poor. Our group's explorations led to an unexpected realization about The Revised Common Lectionary—the guide to biblical readings that is used throughout more than twenty Christian denominations to structure Sunday worship

Our group began its explorations with the Pentateuch, the Bible's opening books known traditionally as the "Five Books of Moses." We found that the poor were to be granted interest-free loans sufficient to meet their needs. We learned that owners of olive groves, vineyards, and fields of grain were to leave behind an adequate harvest for poor gleaners. We read that in every third year a tithe of the full harvest was to be set aside to provide for orphans, widows, and resident aliens.

In every seventh (sabbath) year all debts that for honest reasons remained unpaid were to be erased, and indentured servants were to be set free, with provisions sufficient for beginning their independent lives. During each fiftieth (Jubilee) year, land holders who had purchased agricultural property were to return that property to the families who had been the original owners.

We found these Mosaic directives embedded—sometimes buried—within eight chapters of the Pentateuch: Exodus 22; Leviticus 19, 23, and 25; and Deuteronomy 14–15 and 23–24.

Further survey of the Hebrew Bible disclosed that these Mosaic chapters are the foundation for numerous subsequent passages about caring for the poor. The prohibition of interest on loans to the poor reappears in Nehemiah 5, Psalm 15, Proverbs 28, and Ezekiel 18 and 22. Gleaning rights reappear in Judges 8 and Ruth 2. Sabbath-year obligations reappear in 2 Chronicles 36 and Jeremiah 34. Jubilee language reappears in Numbers 36 and Isaiah 61.

When we came to the Gospels of the New Testament we recognized that Jesus's teachings concerning the poor rest upon these Hebrew Bible foundations. In the inaugural event of his public ministry, for example, Jesus uses Jubilee-year language:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:18-19, echoing Isaiah 61:1–2)
Jesus also broadens the foundations. For instance, Jesus's words about lending are not limited to collecting no interest. His teaching is more radical: "Lend expecting nothing in return." (Luke 6:35)

A member of our group wondered aloud where the foundational Mosaic passages about caring for the poor occur amid The Revised Common Lectionary's three-year repeating cycle of biblical readings. Acting on little more than a whim, we perused the Lectionary's index to locate readings from Exodus 22, Leviticus 19, 23, and 25, and Deuteronomy 14–15 and 23–24.

We were startled to find that the Lectionary includes only one reading from these eight chapters, Leviticus 19:9–10:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19 appears in the Lectionary twice, in fact, but its second listing omits these verses concerning gleaning. The Lectionary includes none of the other foundational readings concerning social justice.

Of the dozen or so subsequent Hebrew Bible passages (listed above) that echo Mosaic teachings on caring for the poor, the Lectionary lists only one, Psalm 15, commending those "who do not lend money at interest."

Our inquiry no longer seemed whimsical. We realized that worshippers in thousands of Christian congregations are being largely deprived of exposure to the disarming details of fundamental Bible passages concerning care for the poor.

One of our group exclaimed, "This must have been deliberate!" Discussion led us to admit that we had no way of knowing whether the exclusion was deliberate or not. We realized that in truth we knew nothing about the guiding principles of the Consultation on Common Texts—the interdenominational committee that compiled the Lectionary. As our group's convener, I was asked to look into the issue.

Letters of inquiry to two liturgical officers of my Episcopal denomination brought no reply. I addressed a similar letter to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, asking whether someone on her staff might be able to shed some light.

We received a reply from our Presiding Bishop—prompt, substantive, and pastoral. She thanked us for our letter, expressing regret that we had received no earlier response. She recognized our chagrin about the absence of particular passages from the Lectionary. She noted that Lectionary readings give significant attention to Jesus's concern for the poor, and thanked us for sharing that concern. She wrote that not being herself a historian of the Lectionary, she was referring our inquiry to officers of the current Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music of the Episcopal Church in the hope that they will take our concerns under advisement.

Our group agreed that this response was more than we had expected and the most we might have hoped for. Now our hope is that the Episcopal Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music, together with the interdenominational Consultation on Common Texts, will in fact take this issue under advisement.

By covering the full range of Mosaic teachings—interest-free loans to the poor; the rights of gleaners; the third-year harvest tithe for orphans, widows and resident aliens; the seventh-year erasure of indebtedness and setting free of indentured servants; and the fiftieth-year redistribution of land—a revised Lectionary could reclaim these disregarded foundations of social ministry, to the spiritual edification of Christian congregations around the world.


For further reading:  Scott N. Callaham, "Old Testament Preaching from the Lectionary: Challenge, Case Study, and Reflection," The Expository Times, 124:12 (2013), 582–89.  William H. Willimon, "Assessing the Gains and Losses in a Homiletical Revolution'" Theology Today, 58 (2001), 333-341.  David G. Buttrick, "Preaching the Lectionary: Two Cheers and Some Questions," Reformed Liturgy and Music, 28 (1994), 77-81.  Justo L. González and Catherine G. González, Liberation Preaching: The Pulpit and the Oppressed (Abingdon, 1980), esp. 40-42.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Pistis: Faith as Believing, Faith as Trusting

Jesus Heals a Leper
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669)
Pen and ink drawing
Amsterdam: Rijskprentenkabinet

And to the man from Shomron he said, "Get up, you may go; your trust has saved you."
Luke 17:19 (Complete Jewish Bible)

Three young counselors from a non-profit agency were visiting my church to speak about their summer camp for children who lack the opportunity to attend camp otherwise. The first speaker began with these words: "Our purpose at Camp Bob is to help children grow in trust and hope and love." Yes, I thought: lovely phrasing.

Christian churches are more accustomed to the phrase "faith and hope and love." But among most churches I know, "faith" has come to mean "belief"—accepting religious doctrines, believing theological assertions. "Trust," in contrast, suggests an inward sense of acceptance and confidence, reliance and fidelity. As I listened to the counselors, my thought was that our children will be aided in their spiritual growth more by experiencing trust than by learning articles of belief. I think that Christian adults also do well to seek a prudent balancing of believing and trusting.

Here I want to explore some biblical roots of the widespread equation of faith with belief, and to suggest how a complementary appreciation of faith as trust can be supported by discerning translation of biblical texts.

I shall limit attention to the four Gospels of the New Testament, first considering the Gospel of John, then contrasting John with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These latter three are known as the Synoptic Gospels, as they "see together" or share a common orientation, whereas the orientation of John is fundamentally different. I shall take examples of English translation from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), with a few references to other translations.

The Greek word translated into English as "faith," "belief," or "trust" is pistis. Pistis occurs in many grammatical forms, both nominative and verbal. In the Gospel of John the word appears 89 times, always in verbal forms, and always translated in the NRSV as "believe," "believed," "believes," or "believing." This continues a tradition of translating that has roots as deep as the King James Version of 1611 and is almost universal among today's standard translations, such as the New International Version and the
New English Translation.

Frequently in John pistis means believing theological propositions: believing, for example, that Jesus is the only Son of God (3:18); that Jesus is the Savior of the world (4:42); that Jesus is the one who alone is God (5:44); that Jesus is the bread of life (6:35–36); that Jesus is the Son of Man (9:35); that Jesus is the Messiah (11:25–27); and numerous other constructions of the form "believe" + theological proposition.

In a dozen or so passages of the Gospel of John, Jesus scolds his followers because they do not believe theological assertions about himself. For example:
And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent. (John 5:37–38)

John's summation states clearly that the book's overall purpose is to instill belief in theological propositions:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)

I think that it would be difficult to overstate the influence among Christian churches of this equation of faith with belief in doctrines. The influence of the Apostle Paul's writings is equally strong,* but here I shall keep to the Gospels.

The Synoptic Gospels are in striking contrast. John's signature construction—"believe" + theological proposition—appears nowhere. In one passage where the Synoptics use pistis in a theological context, Jesus explicitly warns his disciples not to believe theological propositions:

Then if anyone says to you, "Look! Here is the Messiah!" or "There he is!"—do not believe it [ pisteúsete]. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. (Matthew 24:23–24; cf. Mark 13:21–23)

Translators of the Synoptic Gospels most frequently render pistis as "faith"—a word they never use in translating the Gospel of John. This differentiating of the Synoptics from John is useful. But should pistis be translated only as "believe" in John? And is "faith" the best word for translating pistis in the Synoptics? I think not.

"Faith" differs grammatically from pistis. We have seen that pistis has both verbal and nominative forms. Not so with "faith," which has no verbal forms. We cannot say that someone faiths something, or has faithed something, or is required to faith something.

Translating pistis with "faith" hobbles the Greek word. The noun "faith" objectifies and makes static the dynamic spirit of pistis that is active among Jesus and his followers in the Synoptics—challenging, guiding, liberating, healing, sustaining. Pistis in the Synoptics regularly suggests a living quality of persons who come to Jesus in an atmosphere of openness and expectation, fidelity and persistence, mercy and compassion.

For these reasons I think that "trust" is frequently a better translation of pistis than "faith." Like pistis, but unlike "faith," "trust" has both verbal and nominative forms. "Trust" suggests active relying on personal qualities such as character, ability, honesty, fidelity.

For reasons that I do not understand, translators of the Synoptics rarely translate pistis as "trust." Again this is true of the King James Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, and the New English Translation.

I am therefore glad to report my recent discovery of the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB), translated by David H. Stern. In each of the Gospels, including John, Stern uses four words to render pistis—"faith," "believe," "trust," and "honest." He bases his word choices upon discerning consideration of the word's context.

This chart summarizes the translation of pistis in the NRSV and the CJB.

We see that in John the NRSV translates pistis exclusively as "believe," and that in the Synoptics the NRSV favors "faith" and rarely uses "trust." The CJB, in contrast, minimizes the use of "faith" in all the Gospels, generously—perhaps too generously—using "trust" instead.

Stern writes that he "generally uses the word 'trust' instead of 'faith' to translate pistis because 'trust' more clearly signifies to English-speakers the confident reliance on God that generates holy deeds, as opposed to mere mental acknowledgement of facts and ideas." (Jewish New Testament Commentary, 1992, p.229)

I find Stern's translation of the four Gospels a stimulating and heartening development, deserving of widespread recognition and consideration.

Stern's use of "trust" has had a transformative effect on my own reading of the Gospels. This is particularly true in the Gospel of John, where "trust" humanizes the excessive rationalism that is suggested by exclusive repetition of "believe." Compare the NRSV summation of John's Gospel (John 20:30–31), already quoted above, with the JCB's translation of the same passage:
NRSV: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
CJB: In the presence of the talmidim Yeshua performed many other miracles which have not been recorded in this book. But these which have been recorded are here so that you may trust that Yeshua is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by this trust you may have life because of who he is.

(As is obvious here, Stern's translation preserves many names in the forms that were common in first-century Judaism.) 

Here are a few more parallel quotations from the NRSV and the CJB. My hope is that readers might be prompted to make their own comparisons. The websites and are of inestimable help in this kind of study. The Complete Jewish Bible is online at

Matthew 9:22 
NRSV: "For she said to herself, 'If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.' Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, 'Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.'"
CJB: "For she said to herself, 'If I can only touch his robe, I will be healed.' Yeshua turned, saw her and said, 'Courage, daughter! Your trust has healed you.'"

Mark 4:40
NRSV: "Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, 'Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?'"
CJB: "The wind subsided, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, 'Why are you afraid? Have you no trust even now?'"

Luke 16:10
NRSV: "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much...."
CJB: "Someone who is trustworthy in a small matter is also trustworthy in large ones...."

John 1:7
NRSV: "He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him."
CJB: "He came to be a testimony, to bear witness concerning the light; so that through him, everyone might put his trust in God and be faithful."

In this final verse I especially appreciate Stern's translation of pistis that brings together "trust" and "faithful."

For me pistis is believing—that is, understanding, testing, selecting, and accepting doctrines of my Christian tradition with thoughtful discernment. Pistis is also trusting—that is, dedicating life to the challenging, correcting, sustaining, and healing ways of Jesus. And pistis is faith—resolve, persistence, steadfastness, and patience in the lifework of believing and trusting.

As a name for this spiritual lifework I might suggest "faithing," were the word less clumsy.


*See "Facets of faith/trust in Pauline thought" by J. Lyle Story, American Theological Inquiry (Online), 5 no 1 Jan 15 2012. Also Two Types of Faith by Martin Buber, Syracuse University Press, 2003.


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Three Chorales from Bach's St. Matthew Passion: Cheap Grace, Costly Grace

St. Peter's Denial

Rembrandt (1606–1669)

Peter's left hand suggests dismissal of the charge, "This man is one of them," made by a servant girl (Matthew 26:71), who illumines Peter's face with a candle. Guards sit in the foreground. Barely discernible in the background, Jesus, his hands chained behind him, looks over his shoulder at Peter (Luke 22:61).


In German protestant tradition a chorale is a religious text set to a traditional tune, often sung in unison by worshiping congregations. Over his career Bach composed more than four hundred harmonizations for chorale tunes. His matchless St. Matthew Passion includes twelve chorales harmonized for a chorus of soprano, alto, tenor and bass singers, accompanied only by low strings doubling the bass line. The Passion's chorales were not intended to be sung by the congregation but rather to represent the congregation's responses to the unfolding gospel story.

Here I want to share an observation about three separate appearances of one chorale tune in which Bach communicates, by musical means, a contrast between naive faith and mature faith.

Bach uses this harmonized chorale tune five different times in the Passion. The tune is best known in English as "Oh Sacred Head Now Wounded," after a Latin text of ten verses translated into German by Paul Gerhardt as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden. In each of the chorale's instances Bach sets a different verse of Gerhardt's translation. Bach composed four different harmonizations for these five occurrences, the first two instances being harmonically identical. 

We shall consider the 1st, 2nd, and 5th of these occurrences of the O Haupt tune, first examining the three texts and their contexts within the Passion, then turning to Bach's expressive harmonic settings.

The Texts

With a solo Evangelist as narrator, Bach's oratorio presents the passion story as told in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 26–27. The movements immediately preceding the first occurrence of O Haupt present the story of Jesus's last supper with his twelve apostles. The narrative includes several disturbing sentences: "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me"; "Woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed"; "You will all become deserters because of me this night."

Then comes the chorale's first occurrence (Movement 21 of the Passion). The text represents a worshipper pleading for Christ's acceptance and acknowledging Christ's spiritual blessings:

        Erkenne mich, mein Hüter,
        Mein Hirte, nimm mich an;
        Von dir, Quell aller Güter,
        Ist mir viel Gut's getan.
        Dein Mund hat mich gelabert
        Mit Milch und süßer Kost;
        Dein Geist hat mich begabet
        Mit mancher Himmelslust.
        Acknowledge me, my Guardian
        My Shepherd, accept me.
        From Thee, Source of all goodness,
        Great good hath come to me.
        Thy mouth hath nourished me
        With milk and sweet sustenance;
        Thy Spirit hath favored me
        With many a heavenly joy.

In the succeeding movement the Evangelist particularizes the passion story by focusing on the apostle Peter:
Peter said to him, "Though all become deserters because of you, I will not desert you." Jesus said to him, "Truly I tell you, this very night, three times before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." Peter said to him, "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you." And so said all the disciples.

At this point we hear the second occurrence of O Haupt (Movement 23), this time representing Peter's response, with which the congregation may also identify. Peter pleads for Jesus not to scorn him, and pledges to remain with Jesus even unto death:

        Ich will hier bei dir stehen:
        Verachte mich doch nicht.
        Von dir will ich nicht gehen
        Wenn dir dein Herze bricht.
        Wenn dein Haupt wird erblaßen
        Im letzten Todesstoß,
        Alsdann will ich dich faßen
        In meinen Arm und Schoß.

        I will stay here with thee:
        Oh do not scorn me.
        I will not leave thee
        Though thine own heart is breaking.
        If thy face should grow pale
        In the final shock of death,
        Even then shall I embrace thee
        within my arm and breast.

In the 3rd and 4th occurrences of O Haupt the texts relate to specific subjects distinct from these pleas for Christ's acceptance, so let us move on to the chorale's 5th and final occurrence (Movement 72) where the theme of pleading recurs.

In the intervening forty-nine movements of the Passion, Jesus is arrested, and his disciples have now "deserted him and fled." Peter alone remains close by.

Peter is recognized by two different servant girls and then by other bystanders, all of whom declare his association with Jesus. Twice Peter denies this. Upon the third accusation "he began to curse, and he swore an oath, 'I do not know the man!'" Then Peter remembers Jesus's earlier words to him: "Truly I tell you, this very night, three times before the cock crows, you will deny me three times."  The Evangelist concludes: "And he went out and wept bitterly."

Jesus now suffers mockery and physical abuse. He is crucified between two bandits, and hangs exposed for hours. The Evangelist sings: "And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice...'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' ...Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last."

Bach places the final occurrence of O Haupt at this intense moment. The text is a fervent plea for Christ not to be absent in the hour of the worshipper's own death:

        Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden,
        So scheide nichts von mir.
        Wenn ich den Tod soll leiden,
        So tritt du dann hierfür.
        Wenn mir am allerbängsten
        Wird um das Herze sein,
        So reiß mich aus den Ängsten
        Kraft deiner Angst und Pein.

        When some day I must must depart,
        Do not then depart from me.
        When I must suffer death,
        Then come to me.
        When the greatest anxiety
        Will agitate my heart,
        Then wrest me from my fears
        By virtue of thine agony and pain.

The Harmonizations

This review of the three chorale texts brings us to Bach's musical arrangements. As we have noted, the harmonic settings of the first two occurrences of the chorale are identical, except that the first is in the key of E major and the second is in the key of E-flat major.

The first occurrence:

A performance of Movement 21 may be found here.

The second occurrence:

A performance of Movement 23 may be found here.

This is Bach, and so we may expect the four-part arrangement shared by these two movements to be perfect. And indeed it is. Each vocal line proceeds smoothly. Moving parts—that is, single syllables that are assigned two notes—steer a placid course between sounding too spare and becoming too complex, and each of the four parts gets its fair share of melodic movement. Moments of harmonic tension are mild and promptly resolved. It is the kind of arrangement found today in most protestant hymnals. I played this setting for a friend who was not well acquainted with chorales and he exclaimed "beautiful!"

Bach's arrangement of the chorale's fifth and final occurrence bears the key signature of C, which has no governing sharps or flats:

In the chorale's first two occurrences Bach began on a major chord. Here he opens with a minor chord. In measure 2, on the word scheiden ("depart"), the bass line drops downward, not by the comfortable interval of a 5th as in the earlier settings, but to a 5th that is diminished by a half-step. This is the interval of a tritone—two notes separated by three whole tones—and the tritone is historically regarded as the most discordant of intervals. 

That downward stride to F-sharp gives the bass line the lowest note to be found among O Haupt's five settings. Indeed, it is the lowest note in all of the Passion's twelve chorales. Also the movement's key of C is lower than the tonality of any other chorale in the Passion, giving this version a darker hue overall. 

In measure 3 Bach has the sopranos sing the word scheide ("separate", "depart") not with the expected single note or two-note slur but with a nervous figure involving 16th notes—a musical gesture that twice in other Passion chorals Bach chooses to set the word Missetaten ("sins," "misdeeds").

After the double bar line, with the words Wenn mir am allerbängsten wird um das Herze sein ("When it befalls my heart to become most fearful"), the bass line again drops a tritone and then follows a tense melodic course of five successive 2nds—2nds being intervals discordant enough to evoke a need for resolution. In the chorale's final four measures, on the words so reiß much aus den Ängsten ("then pluck me from my fears"), Bach assigns to the tenors the 16th-note shiver sung earlier by the sopranos, and on Ängsten ("fears") he has the basses sing yet another downward tritone.

In the final phrase of the chorale, kraft deiner Angst und Pein ("by virtue of thy agony and pain"), seven of the eight intervals sung by the basses are 2nds; for the tenors all of the five concluding intervals are 2nds. This tense and serpentine chromaticism requires Bach to notate five accidentals—that is, flats or sharps added to notes in order to indicate departures from the basic tonality. In contrast, the first and second versions of the chorale conclude easily, requiring no accidentals to set their comforting closing words "with many a heavenly joy" and "within my arm and lap."

Accidentals can in fact serve as a gauge for the contrast between the two earlier choral settings and this final one. Each of the earlier settings involves 7 accidentals overall; this last setting requires 25. I think that Bach got the proportion about right. I suspect that having made vows in times of relative tranquility many of us find it at least three or four times more difficult to carry through when a moment of testing arrives. 

Movements 21 and 23 come early in the Passion, at a narrative distance from Jesus's suffering and death. From that distance the chorus finds it relatively easy to vow fidelity, come what may. In contrast, Movement 72 sounds in the immediate presence of Jesus's suffering—his cry of despair, his agonizing death—and the chorus expresses the congregation's existential dread regarding their own denials, their own broken vows, their own deaths.

The chorale of Movement 72—despite its dissonances and tensions, indeed because of them—is fully as beautiful as the chorales of Movements 21 and 23. On first hearing it might not strike us as particularly distinctive. The Passion's chorales are not dramatic music, but they impart musical drama. Like all masterpieces, they reward repeated exposure with new disclosure.

In the music of Movement 72 I hear struggle with suffering, despair, and death. In retrospect I recall Movements 21 and 23 as all too smooth, all too placid, all too mild. Borrowing language from The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was arrested and executed by the Nazis, I hear in Bach's three chorales a distinction between "cheap grace" and "costly grace." Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer writes, is "grace without cost." Costly grace
is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Boethius on Happiness and Blessedness: A Problem of Misleading Translations

Boethius: De arithmetica, De musica. Early 12th century.
Cambridge University Library, MS li.3.12, fol. 61v.
In his lap is a monochord.
Boethius (480–524) is, after Plotinus, the greatest author of the seminal period [c205–c533], and his De Consolatione Philosophiae was for centuries one of the most influential books ever written in Latin. It was translated into Old High German, Italian, Spanish, and Greek; into French by Jean de Meung; into English by Alfred, Chaucer, Elizabeth I, and others. Until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it. To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalized in the Middle Ages.
                               ...C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, introducing his discussion of Boethius

The Consolation of Philosophy resides on my shelf of admired works, with the Enchiridion of Epictetus and Confessions of Augustine on one side, and Spinoza's Ethics on the other. Together these books have provided a foundation and stimulus in my searching for a worthy life.

The Consolation is in five divisions. Books 1–3 contrast two distinct modes of living: a life that is ruled by fortune, whether good fortune or misfortune, and a life that is steered by moral character. Books 4–5 discuss the nature of evil and tensions between ideas of divine providence and human freedom. Our concern here will be Books 1–3, where an ill-advised convention among modern English translations obscures Boethius's essential distinction between happiness (felicitas) and blessedness (beatitudo)—a distinction that he makes as carefully and consistently as St. Augustine had done a century-and-a-quarter earlierA most welcome exception to this ill-advised convention is a recent translation, to which we shall come at the end of this posting

The author's full name, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, reflects his Roman heritage of aristocratic status and privilege. In his early 40s he had risen to the position of intimate advisor to Emperor Theodoric. Then he suddenly found himself accused of treason. He was imprisoned, tortured, and executed.

Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy during his imprisonment. He describes himself as "pressed down by the heavy weight of my sorrow." 
Silent and alone, I was thinking about these things and began to record my tearful complaint, when it seemed to me that a woman appeared, standing over my head. She had a holy look, and her eyes showed fire and pierced with a more-than-human penetration. (Book 1, Section 1)
Though Boethius does not immediately recognize his imposing visitor, she is Philosophy, to whose service he had early dedicated his life.

At first Philosophy is severe with him:
Did I not give you all the weapons you needed, ones that would have kept your mind safe from harm? At least they would have, if you hadn't thrown them away. Do you recognize me? Why don't you say anything?
Then she relents somewhat and softens her tone:
When she saw that I was not just silent but totally speechless and completely unable to talk, she gently laid her hand upon my breast and spoke. "There's no real danger here. He's simply dazed, as one would expect of a man suffering under delusion. He's forgotten who he is for a moment." ...Saying this, she folded her gown, and with it wiped my tear-filled eyes. (1.2)
Boethius now recognizes his visitor and addresses her as "Queen of all Virtues" (omnium magistra virtutum). What Philosophy calls Boethius's "delusion" is that he has allowed his life's previous good fortune to define "who he is." Now amidst extreme misfortune, he finds himself "drowned in darkness."

Philosophy resolves that the time has come "for remedies instead of tears," and she sets Boethius upon a remedial course. She begins by encouraging him to tell his sad story: "You can't expect the benefits of treatment if you won't uncover your wound." (1.4) This Boethius is more than eager to do, filling half-a-dozen pages with his complaints and lamentations:
So then I collected my strength of mind and replied, "Do I still need to explain my bitter sorrow? Isn't it clear enough how Fortune has raged against me? ...Was this the way I used to look? ...Is this the reward I get for following you? (1.4)
Philosophy seizes upon Boethius's central complaint:
You suppose it's the changes of Fortune that have overthrown your soul. ...You believe that Fortune has changed towards you: you are wrong. These have always been her ways and nature. She's retained her character in her very fickleness towards you. She was just the same when she fawned on you and tricked you with the promises of a counterfeit happiness. ...Now you've given yourself to the rule of Fortune; you must conform yourself to her ways. Would you try to hold back the force of a wheel in motion? O most foolish of men! If Fortune began to be permanent, she would cease to be Fortune. (2.1)
Here, in the image that is probably the Consolation's most influential contribution to western intellectual tradition, Philosophy observes that Fortune spins her wheel, inevitably and arbitrarily, and the felicitas of those at the top has but one way to go.

Philosophy makes it clear that she is not "waging an inexorable war against Fortune." Happiness that comes from Fortune should be enjoyed, provided only that beneficiaries do not become so greatly dependent on good fortune for their sense of well being that they forget who they are as moral creatures.

This brings the narrative of Books 1–3 to its focal point. Happiness that is dependent on good fortune, says Philosophy, all too easily becomes false happiness (falsa felicitasthat cannot be trusted.  What then is the alternative? The alternative is the true and perfect happiness (vera et summa felicitas) of "blessedness" (beatitudo). Blessedness is "the highest good for a being living by reason," a quality that "Fortune can't take away from you." Blessedness, says the Queen of All Virtues, accompanies a life guided by true virtue, a life steered by God's "helm and rudder" (3.12) .

In a crucial passage Philosophy exclaims:
O mortals, why do you seek outside yourselves for the happiness that has been placed within you? Ignorance and error seem to overwhelm you. I'll show you briefly the foundation of the greatest happiness. (2.4)
The Latin word translated here as "foundation" is a form of cardo: "a hinge" or "a  point about which something turns." The Loeb Classical Library edition translates Philosophy's words nicely: "Let me briefly show you on what the greatest happiness really turns."

Philosophy's argument literally hinges on this sentence from Book 2, Section 4, where attention turns from felicitas to beatitudo.  Section 2.4 is four pages in length. In the three pages that precede this hinge sentence, felicitas occurs ten times and beatitudo three times. In the section's one subsequent page, beatitudo occurs seven times and felicitas three times, and this prevalence of beatitudo continues throughout the remainder of the Consolation.

How unfortunate that English translations of the Consolation almost uniformly ignore this crucial turning point in vocabulary. Most translations, without so much as a footnote, simply continue using "happiness" to translate both felicitas and beatitudo. For readers of Boethius in English, the point on which Philosophy's argument turns is simply lost.

Boethius's discussion of beatitudo climaxes in Book 3, Section 10, where Philosophy comprehensively develops her theme that "the greatest good is blessedness." How can English readers possibly follow Philosophy's lesson when they are reading that the greatest good is "happiness"?

Instead of being equipped for exploring Boethius's conviction that blessedness is "the highest good for a being living by reason," English readers are presented with what Boethius would regard as something worse than nonsense: "the highest good is happiness"; "it must be confessed that happiness is itself God"; "happiness is itself divinity"; "we have shown that God and true happiness are one and the same."

One edition, in a footnote to 3.10, offers a labored rationale for rendering the beatitudo of God as God's "happiness":
That God is happiness seems an odd claim since we do not attribute states like happiness to God. Perhaps Boethius is thinking that because God lacks nothing and unhappiness is a result of some lack, God is not unhappy and thus happy.
An accurate understanding, and a far simpler, is that Boethius never says that God is happiness. The claim he does make, that God is blessedness, is not odd at all. It accords with Boethius's perennial tradition, as in the words of the Psalmist:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting, and to everlasting.
O Lord of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee.
In the paragraph that opens this posting, C. S. Lewis mentions translations of De Consolatione by Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth I. Both of these pioneering translators are true to Boethius's distinction between felicitas and beatitudo. Their word choices vary somewhat, and their spelling variants are an outright entertainment. But in general Chaucer translates felicitas with some form of wilefulnesse, and beatitudo with some form of blissfulness. Elizabeth's two basic words are felicity and blissednes. 

In contrast, English translations over the past century have obliterated Boethius's distinction. This tabulation of word usage in in the climactic Section 10 of Book 3 reflects the overall pattern:

How are we to account for this ostracizing of "blessed"? One factor is certainly the dominant influence of the Loeb Classical Library translation of 1918, revised in 1973. Most modern translators have relied on Loeb's Latin text, and Loeb's English translation appears on each facing page. 

The Latin text is clear, and I believe that a translator's duty is to render it accurately so that English readers may do their own struggling with the text, their own deciding about its meaning and value, about happiness and blessedness.

One Boethius commentator writes in a footnote:
I have tried to use 'felicity' to render felicitas...leaving 'happiness' for beatitudo. 'Happiness' might be thought a little weak for beatitudo. But words like 'bliss' or 'blessedness', which are sometimes used for it, have too many overtones of the afterlife.
I find it strange that a translator should be spooked by "overtones of the afterlife" in the Consolation. Catholic tradition considers Boethius a martyr and has canonized him under the name St. Severinus. In this work, however, Boethius nowhere evokes his Christian faith as a source of consolation. The consolation of philosophy is his theme, consolation that can enable him to continue a worthy life on earth, despite his having been upended by Fortune.

When Philosophy speaks of blessedness as eternal she is not referring to duration in an afterlife. Her definition of "eternity" is densely philosophical: "Eternity is total and perfect possession at one time of unlimited life." By this definition, "God is eternal but the world is only perpetual" (5.6).

Philosophy's consolation is that mortals, though immersed in the perpetual passage of time, are able to "participate" (participare) in the eternal blessedness of God. They do this by freeing themselves from felicitas that depends on the spin of Fortune's wheel, by devoting themselves instead to lives that swivel on god-given virtue, particularly on the virtues known as "cardinal" (again, from cardo, "hinge"): prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance. These hinge virtues and their ancillaries are their own reward. The reward is beatitudo: "worthiness inherent in virtue" (dignities propria virtuti). "So virtue itself becomes the reward of the virtuous...." (4.3).

Boethius himself embodies that worthiness. With immense fortitude he transcended the heavy weight of his sorrow to create an artistic work of ethical wisdom that his biographer Henry Chadwick has called a "dazzling masterpiece."

I am grateful that I can end this posting on a positive note. In 2012 Ignatius Press published an exemplary version of The Consolation of Philosophy that is faithful to Boethius's distinction between happiness and blessedness. The volume is edited and and translated by Scott Goins and Barbara H. Wyman. They write:
Here we translate felicitas as "happiness": we will translate beatitudo as "blessedness." ...It is useful to remember that the English word "happiness" literally refers to luck or "hap"—that is, Fortuna—while "beatitude" refers to the ultimate joy given by God. ...Blessedness, beatitudo, Boethius sees as the result of seeking God, the highest Good (summum bonus)....

Happy the day that Ignatius Press blessed us with this remedial edition (from which I have taken most of the passages quoted above).