During one of the presidential debates between John Kerry and George W. Bush in the fall of 2004, Mr. Bush said that freedom is God's gift to humanity and therefore we Americans have a duty to bring democracy and freedom to countries like Iraq. Earlier in 2004 a TV documentary interviewed members of a Bible study and prayer group that meets in Midland, TX, and that occasionally has included President Bush. Group members said they were studying Paul's letter to the Romans. Is it possible that President Bush's freedom concept is based on St. Paul's teaching in his epistle to the Romans?
Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. in his reissued, Spiritual Exercises, Based on Paul's Epistle to the Romans, addresses "freedom" in three of twenty-four chapter headings which cover Romans 5:12-7:6: "11. Christian Life Brings Freedom from Sin and Death (5:12-21), 12. Freedom from Sin and Self through Baptism (6:1-23), 13. Freedom from the Law by the Death of Christ (7:1-6)" (italics mine). Is it possible that Mr. Bush's Midland, TX, Bible study group has read Joseph Fitzmyer on Romans? The 2004 Eerdmans' reprint of the 1995 Paulist Press edition makes the possibility more plausible.
The Spiritual Exercises in the title of Fitzmyer's book comes from the work by that title composed by St. Ignatius of Loyola in the early 16th century. The courtly Spanish Basque hidalgo, after a disastrous end to his military career, developed a series of meditations and contemplations which challenge a Christian to follow Christ by a close encounter with the Gospel accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Fitzmyer has joined a reflective commentary to his translation of Romans for two reasons, to fill a missing element in "modern treatments of Christian spirituality", and to organize Paul's reflections on "the human condition and a Christian's relationship to God" into meditations for people who make annual eight or three day retreats for the purpose of "renewal and revitalization".
The Spiritual Exercises Fitzmyer has in mind are distinct from those patterned by Ignatius of Loyola. He does not force Paul into the "Procrustean bed" of Ignatius. Anyone who reads and studies the Pauline epistles today realizes what a gold mine they are for personal spiritual growth. In particular Paul's Epistle to the Romans, if read critically yet meditatively, is a tremendous source for prayer and reflection on the human condition and about a Christian's relationship to God. Almost all the issues that surface in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises as components or problems of that human condition are treated in Paul's writings, and most of them in the Epistle to the Romans. One may have to substitute Pauline modes of abstract expression for Ignatian contemplations or meditations on concrete incidents in the Gospel stories of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and one will not find passages in the Pauline letters corresponding to the "contemplations" or "mysteries" of the Second, Third, and Fourth Weeks of the Ignatian Exercises. The thrust of the Epistle to the Romans, however, is such that one can follow it and find in the epistle the Pauline way of putting many of the things that preoccupy Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises, for there is a striking affinity in both writings.
For at least the first half of the book, relevant quotations from Ignatius's little book appear at strategic moments. Because of "the role Romans has played in the history of Christianity," Fitzmyer said in his commentary on Romans "it is the most important of the Pauline writings, if not of the entire NT" (1993 xiii).
The sixteen chapters of the Epistle to the Romans are sequenced into twenty-four chapters, called "exercises" with evocative titles. The "bite size" portions of Paul's letter are followed by numbered paragraphs of critical reflections. Each chapter ends with a series of personal questions, then a colloquy, a term Ignatius uses to conclude many of his meditations, usually a psalm, although one may substitute other questions and colloquies as Fitzmyer does. Chapters 2-24 end with suggestions for further reading in Fitzmyer's Anchor Bible commentary on Romans (Doubleday, 1993). Fitzmyer recommends the exercitant read "Pauline Teaching in Romans" found in the commentary as an introduction to these "spiritual" exercises. That summary of "Pauline Teaching in Romans" is divided into five parts and many subtopics: A. Theology proper...God's love, uprightness (Fitzmyer's term for KJV "righteousness"), wrath, plan of salvation, Old Testament, Gospel; B. Christology...Christ Jesus, his role in God's salvation, God, soteriology, effects of the Christ-event; C. Pneumatology...the Holy Spirit; D. Anthropology...human beings without and with the influence of the Gospel, body, flesh, soul, spirit, mind, heart, conscience, humanity, gentiles, Jews, the law, sin, humanity in Christ, faith, love/charity, hope, baptism, body of Christ, church; E. Christian Conduct...the call of humanity to Spirit-guided existence, in Christ, prayer, Christian conduct, attitude about civil authorities. This essay is a short introduction to a systematic theology of Pauline theology.
Fitzmyer has some wonderful insights in his Exercises, sometimes condensed from his commentary. Exercise 8, "Abraham Was Justified by Faith, not by Deeds (4:1-25)" is an excellent starting point for Christian dialogue with Jews and Muslims. How many Christians actually pray to Abraham? Exercise 16, "Through the Spirit the Christian Becomes a Child of God, Destined for Glory (8:1-17)" is the beginning of three mediations devoted to Paul's teaching concerning the influence of the Holy Spirit in Christian life freed by divine grace from sin. Paul mentions the Spirit 19 times in chapter 8 of Romans. Fitzmyer notes how Paul differs from Ignatius on the Holy Spirit. Fitzmyer writes "...one has to note by contrast that Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises gives relatively little scope to such a factor, apart from his treatment in the discernment of spirits (which we tend today to read in terms of the holy Spirit). This is perhaps surprising, but then his treatment of this factor of Christian spiritual life is a relic of the kind of medieval spirituality that he inherited in his day." For Paul the Spirit expresses "the dynamic influence of God's presence to justified Christians...God's love...the vivifying power of the risen Christ himself...a sign of the new aeon inaugurated with the coming of Jesus of Nazareth...God's love is now poured out...". Jesuits who lead the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius today, say that Ignatius understood the Holy Spirit as the director of souls.
Another remarkable feature of Fitzmyer's presentation is the way he portrays Paul as a theological dramatist. Fitzmyer interprets Romans 7 as a play with four actors who are in mortal combat on the stage of history. The Soul, Self, Ego, at other times represented by Adam, is presented with three actors who struggle to seduce and master you, Sin, Death, and the Law. Paul presents these actors as having been on stage throughout the ups and downs of biblical narrative plying their deceits in a life and death struggle for the human spirit.
Fitzmyer frequently refers to Paul's ideas and his way of thinking. One of those ways is "protological thinking" which contrasts with eschatological thinking. Fitzmyer says protological thinking is an Old Testament inheritance. It "(...denotes a logical explanation of something given in a primitive form of thinking.) In the Old Testament God is often considered responsible for all that happens to his people or his creation, whether good or evil." Fitzmyer cites examples from Is. 45:7 and Amos 3:6 and adds, "The theological distinction between God's absolute will and his permissive will had not yet entered the history of ideas; it would have to wait until the time of Augustine"(33-4).
One meditates on Pagans, Gentiles, and Jews called by God, through Christ, with Paul's special focus on the eight gifts given to Israel in Romans 9-11. On Romans 13:1-7 which begins, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God...". Fitzmyer comments that this "is a strange instruction" regarding proper respect to civil governments, "more like a philosophical paragraph than anything specifically Christian; it makes no mention of Christ Jesus or of the God of Israel, and derives all its motivation from 'God' alone. In no other of his letters does Paul treat this topic.... The supposition in vv. 1-7 is that civil authorities are good and promoting the common good of society; Paul does not envisage the possibility of a totalitarian or tyrannical government or one that fails to cope with the just rights of individual citizens or minority groups." And so the exercitant is led to pray with, behind, ahead, over, under and into the mysteries of inspired texts.
Spirituality is a popular topic in religious literature, but there is something startling about Fitzmyer composing Spiritual Exercises out of Paul's letter to the Romans. Behind these Exercises is an entire history of the interpretation of the Bible. In his commentary on the text of the Biblical Commission's Document, "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church" 1995, Joseph Fitzmyer made some observations regarding spiritual reading of the Bible. For many centuries Catholics held a "spiritual" explanation of the Bible separated from historical-critical knowledge of the texts, due, in the 20th century, to the cloud of suspicion called "Modernism." Belief in a spiritual sense of the inspired scriptures goes back to the patristic and medieval distinction between the literal and spiritual meaning of texts. The spiritual sense included the other figurative "senses of scripture", namely the allegorical, moral, and eschatological or future sense. Subjective spiritual readings and personal inspirations replaced the Bible which speaks the Word of God using human languages. Scholars began gradually to penetrate the human and divine character of biblical texts to provide a spiritual understanding of the variety of human expressions that were written to nourish the people of God.
Modern literary and historical exegesis tries to understand what has been expressed and was intended by the author because that is what is inspired and carries the charism of inspiration. The literal sense is not literalist; it may include metaphors, figurative, symbolic, fictive, and other "imaginative modes of expression common to all human language." The literal sense of a text may have a dynamic aspect that allows it to be read in view of new contexts and future directions. The "spiritual sense" of the Bible, sometimes called an "accommodated sense" of scripture, can be an "alien meaning imposed on a biblical text" (125). With Origen a traditional spiritual sense denoted "the meaning given to an Old Testament text by the paschal mystery, the death and resurrection of Jesus," and by the light of the Holy Spirit. The "great Tradition" of patristic exegesis using Rabbinic midrashic methods and Hellenistic allegorical insights drew "from the totality of Scripture the basic orientations which shaped the doctrinal tradition of the Church, and provided a rich theological teaching for the instruction and spiritual sustenance of the faithful"(147). The literal sense "can also be its 'spiritual' sense because the literal sense is the meaning intended by God and the inspired human author to feed the religious lives of God's people" (127). "Does not the literal sense of the Old Testament apart from its relation to the paschal mystery or any anticipating relationship, bear a spiritual meaning in itself? For the literal sense of the Old Testament was also 'intended and ordained by God'...The literal sense of all Scripture, is, indeed, a genuine spiritual sense"(128). For a Christian, a spiritual interpretation of scripture holds together three dimensions of truth: the biblical text as divinely inspired, the paschal mystery, and the present circumstances of life in the Spirit. Joseph Fitzmyer's Spiritual Exercises intends the reader to get in touch with the mind and spirit of the inspired writer, Paul of Tarsus, whose image of God is revealed through his letter to the Romans.