The Priesthood of Christ and the New Covenant in Martin Luther’s Lectures on Hebrews

During the portentous year of 1517, when a certain young professor and Augustinian friar at Wittenberg was drafting his “Ninety-five Theses,” the same Martin Luther was also engaged in teaching a very popular series of lectures on the Epistle to the Hebrews. The timing is more than coincidental. In fact, Luther’s commentary on this epistle, which has among its major themes the priesthood, sacrifice, and atonement of Christ, contains at least in seed form almost all the major theological concerns of the Protestant Reformers. In particular, Luther’s early interpretation of Christ’s priesthood advanced therein anticipates the later Reformers’ reconception of the ministerial priesthood of the New Covenant and of Christian worship generally. 

Luther’s commentary takes the form of a gloss on the text which closely follows the structure of the epistle. His comments of relevance to Christ’s priesthood begin, then, with Hebrews 5:1, in which the Apostle enumerates the characteristics of Jesus the High Priest: like “every high priest,” Christ was “chosen from among men” and “appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”1 These three characteristics likewise form the backbone of Luther’s portrait of the priesthood of Christ. Sharing our human nature, Luther’s Christ stands in stark contradistinction to God the Father, a Mediator standing in the breach between fearful, sinful humanity and a wrathful God. “No other refuge is left,” he writes, “than that one sanctuary which is Christ, our Priest, in whose humanity alone we are protected and saved from judgment.”2 For Luther, the priesthood of Christ is principally to be understood in terms of this mediation, by which God’s wrath toward us due to our sins is satisfied:

As priest, Christ through his mediations between God and us … ‘protects us from all sins and the wrath of God, intercedes for us, and sacrifices himself in order to reconcile us to God.’ Luther expressly adds, ‘Now he makes us so secure in our relationship to God and gives peace to our conscience that God is no longer against us.’ … Everything depends on the fact that God has been reconciled.3

Christ in his humanity thus stands as mediator between mankind and “God the Father as a celestial child abuser … who unleashes violent fury on his Son for sins of which his Son is innocent.”4 This theology of the angry Father-God would be picked up and amplified by the later Reformers, particularly Calvin, and even find its way back into Catholic theology via Jansenism.

With regard to the final characteristic of Christ the high priest identified by the Apostle, that he is appointed “to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins,” however, Luther does not choose to emphasize Christ’s bloody sacrifice of his own flesh in atonement for the sins of mankind, as one might expect. Instead, he interprets Hebrews 5:7 f., “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications,” as referring to a bloodless, spiritual sacrifice of praise in contradistinction to the bloody sacrifices of the Old Law. “This text elucidates beautifully the mystery of the old sacrifices,” he writes, “for against the gifts and sacrifices which ‘the priests chosen from among men’ offered, Paul here sets the ‘prayers and supplications’ which Christ, who was mystically prefigured among them, offered … For Christ made the justification of the new law so easy that we can accomplish with the mouth what they could scarcely obtain with everything they had.”5

This is not inconsistent with Luther’s overall theology. Though he holds fast to a theology of atonement in which the wrath of the Father against us is expended on the innocent victim of His Son, Luther likewise holds to a dialectic of law and grace, Old and New, works and faith—one might even say flesh and spirit—between which there must be an “absolute distinction.”6 Of greater significance in Luther’s overall theology than the bloody offering of Christ’s body, then, is the spiritual offering of his “godly fear” (Heb 5:7), manifested in his prayers and supplications. One need not strain to detect here the germ of the doctrine of sola fide. Indeed, Luther states elsewhere that “the priesthood of Christ consists in taking on the evils of our own nature” and the punishment which is their due “and sharing with us the good proper to his own nature (his faithfulness).”7

What might be the role of the ministerial priesthood in the New Covenant, given these preliminary conclusions on Christ’s priesthood as our mediator and source of faith? This question hinges in large part on “the question of the mediation of the grace and knowledge of God … whether Christ alone is Mediator or whether Christ mediates along with the Church in its authoritative tradition, priesthood, and sacraments.”8 The Catholic tradition holds the latter, understanding the ministerial priesthood as partaking in the one priesthood of Christ; the Reformation may be seen in broad outline as a violent affirmation of the contrary position. Luther’s close contemporary, John Calvin, for example, who wrote his own commentary on Hebrews some thirty years later, is not shy in concluding that “[Jesus] is the mediator of the new testament” and therefore “there is no further need for another priest … When this office was attached to Christ, all other mediators were repudiated.”9 

The Luther of the 1517 lectures was not quite so direct. He writes of “the office of the new priest,” which is certainly not to offer sacrifices, as the priests of the old law did, but to stir up faith by preaching and teaching and “to point out the grace of Jesus Christ, which is the fulfillment of the Law.”10 Within three years, however, the implications of Luther’s Christological conclusions on the priesthood have for him reached their logical conclusion: “A priest should be nothing in Christendom but a functionary.”11 Likewise, Christian worship is to be a “sacrifice of praise,” understood not as a Christian θυσία αἰνέσεως, the fulfillment of the todah offering under the Old Law by our liturgical participation in Christ’s once and for all sacrifice of atonement, but as “prayers and praises … with the mouth.”12 The Christological conclusions reached by Luther in these early Lectures on Hebrews thus foreshadow the major concerns of the Protestant Reformation which would follow: salvation by faith alone, Christ as the sole mediator between God and man, and the absolute superiority of the New Covenant of faith over the Old Law of works, manifested in spiritual, vocal worship rather than vain “repetition of the same liturgical acts,”13 and leading ultimately to the abolition of the ministerial priesthood and the sacraments. 


  1. The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament: Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010).
  2. Martin Luther, Lectures on Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews, vol. 29 in Luther’s Works, trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 167.
  3. Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, trans. Robert C. Schultz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 222. Emphases mine.
  4. Margaret M. Turek, “Atonement: Soundings in Biblical, Trinitarian, and Spiritual Theology” (unpublished manuscript, November 21, 2019), 3.
  5. Luther, Lectures, 175-176.
  6. Mickey L. Mattox, “Christology in Martin Luther’s Lectures on Hebrews,” in Christology, Hermeneutics and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation, vol. 423 in Library of New Testament Studies, ed. John C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 107.
  7. Luther, Lectures, 142.
  8. Stephen Edmondson, Calvin’s Christology (London: Cambridge UP, 2004), 28.
  9. John Calvin, Calvin: Commentaries, vol. 23 in The Library of Christian Classics, trans. and ed. Joseph Haroutunian (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1958), 151.
  10. Luther, Lectures, 194.
  11. Luther, “Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate,” trans. C. A. Buchheim, at Internet Modern History Sourcebook, 1998.
  12. Luther, Lectures, 176.
  13. R. Michael Allen, “The Perfect Priest: Calvin on the Christ of Hebrews,” in Christology, Hermeneutics and Hebrews: Profiles from the History of Interpretation, vol. 423 in Library of New Testament Studies, ed. John C. Laansma and Daniel J. Treier (London: T&T Clark, 2012), 124.

“Be Subject to One Another Out of Reverence for Christ”: Unity, Charity and Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5:21-33


Few passages in the Pauline corpus are more controversial for modern readers than the “household code” of Ephesians 5:21-6:9. In three sequential pericopes, St. Paul first offends modern notions of equality by exhorting wives to “be subject to your husbands as to the Lord” (5:22 RSV),1 justified by the assertion that “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church” (5:23); he likewise insists that “children … obey [their] parents in the Lord” (6:1), perhaps the least controversial of his commands, which however is offset at once by a suggestion entirely outrageous to modern sensibilities, that “slaves … be obedient to those who are [their] earthly masters, with fear and trembling” (6:5)! There is an unambiguous hierarchy in the Pauline household: those who hold places of less power—wives, children, slaves—are to submit to those with more, and St. Paul’s exhortations to husbands to “love your wives” (5:25), fathers to “not provoke your children to anger” (6:4), and masters to “forbear threatening” (6:9) hardly seem to balance out the radical inequality of these relationships.

Modern scholars tend to approach this text from a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” likely due to the problem of satisfactorily interpreting it without scandalizing present-day sensibilities. One trend in modern scholarship has been to focus on apparent contradictions within the text and certain unusual features of the text compared with the rest of the Pauline corpus, leading to the conclusion that the text is not of genuine Pauline authorship. For example, some scholars point out, St. Paul appears to contradict the exhortation with which he opens the pericope, “be subject to one another” (5:21), with the highly traditional household code which follows it: “While the household code is introduced by a plea for mutual submissiveness, the submissiveness enjoined in the code itself is not mutual.”2

Household codes such as this, typically known in modern scholarship by their German name, Haustafeln, were common in the ancient world. Therefore, Paul is supposed to have adopted an extant Haustafel of Jewish or Hellenistic origin, or at least the common features and language of one, and woven it into his letter to the Ephesians with a light Christian gloss.3 Scholars such as Raymond Brown also point out apparent theological differences between Ephesians and the undisputed Pauline letters, such as that the author of Ephesians uniquely refers to Christ as “head” of the body (cf. Eph. 1:22; 5:23). The analogy between the relationship of husband and wife with that of Christ and the Church is likewise new in Ephesians (cf. 5:23-32), as well as the presentation of “the whole Church (rather than individuals or the elect) as the object of God’s saving action in Christ (1:22-23; 5:25-27).”4 For these reasons, some scholars, Brown foremost among them, dispute the Pauline authorship of Ephesians altogether.5 Whether St. Paul is the author of some, all, or none of the letter, the thrust of this argument is that “in this Haustafel Christ or some Christian formulae are placed in the service of a marriage concept inherited or recast by Paul [or another pseudonymous author] from the views and customs of his environment,”6 and therefore “the change of time and culture permits or requires present-day Christians to reject the injunctions”7 of Ephesians 5:21-6:9.


In this paper, I will argue against the practitioners of a “hermeneutic of suspicion” that the “household code” of Ephesians 5-6 is not a mere cultural artifact which might or ought to be disregarded to avoid giving offense to modern Christians; rather, it is a thoroughly Christian and Pauline text, which is part of the apostolic deposit of faith and need only be correctly interpreted for modern readers. Indeed, interpreting this passage rightly is an urgent need in a culture such as ours, which is currently experiencing the total breakdown of marriage and family life.

I will begin with a sociolinguistic study of two key words, ὑποτάσσω (v. 21)and χεφαλή (v. 23), arguing that by choosing these words St. Paul is deliberately subverting the traditional language and pattern of a household code. These words are critical to understanding the analogy of the unity of the body, which is the foundation of Paul’s exhortation to mutual submission. I will therefore go on to briefly examine St Paul’s analogy of the Church as Christ’s body and bride in the letter to the Ephesians, since the Christ-Church relationship is the model Paul gives for the relationship of husband and wife.

Finally, I will examine the two commands with which Paul concludes his advice to married couples: the husband is to “love his wife as himself,” while the wife is to “respect her husband” (v. 33). I will argue that this twofold command in fact particularizes the exhortation to mutual submission of v. 21. The role of the husband is first to love the wife and give himself up for her in total self-gift; the role of the wife in the first place is to be loved and then to make a reciprocal self-gift, which includes her respect and obedience to her spouse. I will thus argue that St. Paul really means what he says when he calls for the mutual submission of husbands and wives, as modeled on and motivated by the reciprocal self-gift of Christ and the Church, first of the Bridegroom to the Bride and then of the Bride to her Bridegroom. I will conclude that, far from adopting a conventional text of his culture and giving it a Christian flavor, St. Paul has “colonized” a preexisting cultural form and used it as a vehicle to transmit the Gospel of Jesus Christ, ever ancient and ever new.

Against a “Hermeneutic of Suspicion”

If the content of the household code were merely a cultural artifact, a bit of historical detritus left over in the Pauline corpus, then Christians would indeed be free to reject it. The declaration Inter insigniores by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified this question concerning St. Paul’s instruction to women on wearing veils in 1 Corinthians 11:6. The Congregation teaches that Paul’s counsel was “probably inspired by the custom of the period … concern[ing] scarcely more than disciplinary practices of minor importance” and therefore that “such requirements no longer have a normative value.”8 However, the Sacred Congregation contrasts this minor disciplinary precept with another controversial Pauline instruction to women, 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, in which the Apostle requires them to remain silent in the churches. This instruction “is of a different nature” and, indeed, “is bound up with the divine plan of creation (1 Cor 11:7; Gen 2:18-24).”9 For this reason, the Congregation concludes, “it would be difficult to see in it the expression of a cultural fact.”10 Rather, it is an authentic and perennial Christian teaching, part of the apostolic deposit of faith, which it is the duty of exegetes and biblical theologians to interpret in our own cultural context. 

The same criteria of interpretation would seem to apply a fortiori to Ephesians 5:21-32, in which the mutual submission of husbands and wives is explicitly related by Paul to the divine plan of creation: “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body … Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies … for no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church … ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (Eph 5:23, 28-29, 31; cf. also Gen. 2:24). Indeed, Christ is present in every line of this instruction to husbands and wives: both are to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v. 21), wives in obedience to their husbands “as to the Lord” (v. 22), and husbands in love to their wives “as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25). This is no minor, culture-bound matter of household discipline; rather, it springs from the very heart of how Christians are to live out their faith in relation to one another as “imitators of God” (5:1).

The Significance of Ὑποτάσσω and Χεφαλή

Nevertheless, there are interpretative questions which must be addressed. The objection raised by Bruce, that “the submissiveness enjoined in the code itself is not mutual,”11 seems a good one. How are we to understand the command to husbands to love their wives as an expression of “mutual submission” when the wives are commanded far more strongly to “be subject in everything to their husbands” (v. 24)? The beginnings of an answer may be found in a closer inspection of St. Paul’s use of the words ὑποτάσσω in v. 21 and χεφαλή in v. 23. The first is a compound of the preposition ὑπο, “under,” and the verb τάσσω, “to arrange.” A slavishly literal translation of the verb would thus be something like “to arrange under” or “to place beneath,” namely, one person, idea or object below another.12 In v. 21, the verb is used in the middle/passive voice, ὑποτασσόμενοι, which “describes a voluntary act of submission to another person,” specifically a “permissive action” by which “one complies with the wishes of another.”13 This accords with the typical English reading of the verse. However, it is significant that St. Paul has chosen ὑποτάσσω here instead of ἄρχω (“to rule or govern”), the latter of “which is more prevalent in contemporary Greco-Roman Haustafeln.14

St. Paul’s reference to the husband as “head” (χεφαλή) of the wife is also unusual in this context. A reader familiar with other classical Haustafeln would more likely expect ἄρχων (“one who rules”). Aristotle, for example, uses the passive participle τῶν ἀρχομένων (“those who are ruled”) to describe the children and wife in relation to their husband and father,the ἄρχων (“ruler”).15 Other typical texts of the time refer to the husband and father of the household as δεσπότης or κύριος (roughly “master,” as of slaves, or “lord”).16 To be sure, χεφαλή may also convey the meaning of “one entrusted with superior rank, authority, or power,”17 as for example the book of Judges refers to Jephthah as “the man who would be the Israelites’ head (χεφαλὴν) and captain” (Jdg 11:11) or as David confesses to the Lord, “You have preserved me as the head (χεφαλὴν) of the nations” (2 Sam 22:4). Yet St. Paul has chosen to describe the husband here not as the lord of a little fiefdom, to whom those who are ruled must submit, but as the head of a body, in which reciprocal, voluntary submission must be the rule. That χεφαλή has been more commonly interpreted to mean unilateral headship, as if it were a synonym of ἄρχων, unfortunately ignores “how metaphor plays a vital, interpretive role in this passage”:18

We need to also factor in the author’s choice of χεφαλή (‘head’, v. 23) in relation to σῶμα (‘body’, v. 28) and σάρξ (‘flesh’, v. 29). This relational metaphor strongly implies that χεφαλή and σῶμα are symbiotic. The instruction is that the husbands should ‘love their wives’ (ἀγαπᾶν τὰς ἑαυτῶν γυναῖκας) ‘as their own bodies’ (ὡς τὰ ἑαυτῶν σώματα, v. 28). With respect to the husband and wife metaphor, the connection between body and head (with the implication that neither can function without the other) is further cemented by the reference to Gen. 2.24 where husband and wife become ‘one flesh’ (σάρxα μίαν).19

Two other features of the verb ὑποτάσσω support this reading. First, the “subject-affectedness” of the middle voice in Greek, coupled with the use in v. 21 of the pronoun ἀλλήλοις (to one another), “evinces an unfolding, ongoing, reciprocal activity between subjects.”20 This verb thus belongs to a semantic category known as the “reciprocal middle,” which particularly emphasizes the mutual interactivity of the subjects.21 Furthermore, though it expresses a command, this verb is not in the imperative mood; rather, it is the last of five successive participles attached to a prior imperative, “Be filled with the Spirit” (πληροῦσθε ἐν πνεύματι), found in v. 18b. Although it can also be understood as an independent participial imperative, as the RSV and most translations render it, this participle belongs grammatically to the preceding verses and might thus be translated differently: “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father, being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (vv. 18-21). All Christians are to be filled with the Spirit and, in consequence of this, to be subject to one another.

Rather than the unambiguous categories of “ruler” and “ruled” found in contemporaneous texts such as Aristotle’s, St. Paul is presenting an image of a family so closely united in the Spirit as to be one body. To be sure, the husband is the head of the body, but “the body does not consist of one member but of many … The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’ … but God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another (ἀλλήλων)” (1 Corinthians 12:14, 21, 24-25). Indeed, “in using the metaphor of head and body, Paul is not accenting the notion of authority but rather of profound union and mutual belonging.”22 This union between husband and wife is precisely the same “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” realized on an interpersonal, individual level, which St. Paul exhorts the Ephesians to maintain in 4:3; it is the selfsame unity which unites all the members of the Church to one another and the whole Church to Christ. The means of realizing and maintaining that unity is to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love” (4:1-2) and therefore “being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21).

The Church, Body and Bride of Christ

Christ’s own headship of the Church is the model and archetype of the husband’s headship of his wife, as St. Paul writes in v. 23: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” In the first place, it is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3) who establishes Christ as head over the Church: “He has put all things under (ὑπέταξεν) his feet and has made him the head (χεφαλή) over all things for the Church, which is his body (σῶμα)” (Eph 1:22-23). This assertion comes at the conclusion of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, that they might know “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (1:19). What was the event in which God’s great might was revealed? The Paschal mystery, “which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places” (1:20). It is in the context of Christ’s self-sacrifice and especially His resurrection, then, that the Father has subjected all things under his feet and made him head over his body, the Church. Christ’s headship of the Church is inseparable from his self-gift: “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (5:25-27).

The beautiful and detailed imagery of these verses portrays the Church as a maiden for whom Christ laid down his life. “The goal, mentioned twice,” comments Mary Healy, “is that the Church be ‘holy,’ that is, set apart from what is profane, and presented to Christ as a resplendent bride. With the ‘washing of water’ Paul alludes to the sacrament of baptism, envisioning it as a prenuptial bath—only in this case the Bridegroom shows his humility by himself bathing the bride, rather than female servants or family members as was customary.”23 The washing of baptism, of course, is the participation of each of the members of the Church in Christ’s sacrifice, for “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … buried therefore with him … so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:3-4). Christ’s self-gift on the Cross for the sake of his beloved, then, is the very act by which he “washes” and prepares the Church for their wedding; his resurrection consummates forever the nuptial union of Bridegroom and Bride, constituting Christ as the Church’s one head and savior (cf. Eph 5:23).

The inseparability of headship and self-gift reveals the true meaning of χεφαλή in Ephesians. It is not primarily about the unilateral authority of the head over the body but rather “precedence in the giving and receiving of love:the ‘husband is above all the one who loves and the wife, by contrast, is the one who is loved. One might even venture the idea that the wife’s ‘submission’ to the husband, understood in the context of the whole of Eph 5:22-23, means above all ‘the experiencing of love.’”24

“Husbands, Love Your Wives”

Given that the husband has precedence in the order of giving and receiving love, it is not surprising that “the part of Paul’s instruction addressed to husbands (5:25-30) is far more extensive, and perhaps more challenging, than that addressed to wives, as it has absolutely no precedent in Greco-Roman or rabbinic literature.”25 The husband is to love his wife with Christ-like agape-love, which includes giving himself up for her: “As Christ demonstrated his limitless, unconditional love by dying for us on the cross, so husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives by seeking their good, regardless of the cost to themselves (cf. 1 Cor 10:24; 13:5; Phil 2:4). Paul could not have set a more demanding standard.”26 Indeed, it is an impossible standard, as Mary Healy admits, “except by experiencing Christ’s paschal mystery as a power at work in one’s own life. A person is able to imitate Christ only by participating through grace in the act of love in which he died for us.”27 This bespeaks the vital necessity for the husband to first receive Christ’s initiatory, self-sacrificial love, for “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3). If “head” bespeaks precedence in giving love, the man must first receive this love from Christ and then “go and do likewise,” corresponding to Christ’s self-gift in his own gift of self to his wife.

It is precisely this union with one another in Christ which St. Paul emphasizes in vv. 28-32. At the beginning of the pericope, his exhortation was to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ)” (v.21), or more literally, “in the fear of Christ,” a “spherical use” of the pronoun ἐν which suggests “a ‘corporate mystical union between the believer and Christ’ [such that] ‘one is in the sphere of Christ’s control’.”28 Husband and wife are only able to fulfill the radical demands of agape-love “because we are members of his body” (v. 30). St. Paul is outside the realm of analogy now:  “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (v. 28) because “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (v. 31), as indeed Christ is “one body and one Spirit” (4:4) with His Church (5:32). Here the analogical language of body and head earlier in the pericope is revealed to be more than a rhetorical device: it is “a great mystery” (v. 32), a sacrament of union. Being filled with the Holy Spirit (cf. v. 18), the husband is to love his wife and “nourish and cherish [her], as Christ does the Church” (5:29), and indeed with the very same love with which Christ loves and cares for the Church. 

The final verse of this pericope serves as a summary of St. Paul’s advice to husbands and wives: “Let each one of you love his wife as himself (ἀγαπάτω ὡς ἑαυτόν), and let the wife see that she respects her husband (ἡ δὲ γυνὴ ἵνα φοβῆται τὸν ἄνδρα)” (v. 33). The typical English translation of this verse is a bit misleading, however, in that it portrays the two commands as if they are on an even plane. Admittedly it is difficult to render the nuance in translation, but “whereas ἀγαπάω is in the imperative, φοβέομαι is a subjunctive”29 which is part of a ἵνα clause. The typical function of a ἵνα clause is to denote purpose: let A be done in order that (ἵνα) B might be done. Hence, Armstrong argues, 

It seems that ἵνα is expressing an ‘ideal’ state of the relationship between the subjects (husband and wife) … The more specific command is for the husband to love his wife (as himself), and the wife (ἡ δὲ γυνὴ), so that she might respect her husband (ἵνα φοβῆται τὸν ἄνδρα). There is a reciprocity and dependency between subjects here—if the husband fails with his task, she just might not respect her husband.30

These are Paul’s final words on the form that mutual submission is to take in a Christian marriage. It is the husband’s initiatory self-gift, laying down his own life in love for his beloved, which makes possible and calls out from her a reciprocal self-gift in the form of obedience and respect. Both husband and wife are called to a radical kind of loving sacrifice which is made possible only by union with and in Christ Jesus, “who has made us both one” (2:14).


In this paper, I have argued that, “although the source of the New Testament Haustafeln has its roots in Greco-Roman writers, especially Aristotle, the Ephesian code is unequivocally different.”31 In the first place, St. Paul’s choice of the words ὑποτάσσω (v. 21)and χεφαλή (v. 23), instead of more common and more unambiguously authoritative language such as ἄρχω, seems deliberately to subvert the traditional language and pattern of a household code. Rather than conceiving of the family as a tiny kingdom over which the husband and father is the undisputed ruler, St. Paul describes it as a body of which the husband is the head. His headship, however, is modeled on Christ’s headship of the Church, which is characterized and constituted by Christ’s initiatory act of love on the Cross, a total self-sacrifice without remainder for the sake of his beloved. The husband is called to give of himself to his wife with the very same love, which will in turn enable his wife, receiving his self-gift, to entrust herself to him in obedience and respect. Just as the husband’s initiatory act of self-sacrifice love “makes room” for his wife’s reciprocal response, it is Christ’s act of love first of all which enables the husband (and indeed the whole Church) to love likewise. All Christians are members of Christ’s body; likewise, the husband and wife are “one flesh,” and thus become “an earthly image of, and in some way participate in, the ineffable mystery of Christ’s love for his people.”32 

Above all, I hope this argument has shown that Ephesians 5:21-33 is a thoroughly Christian text, “premised on the fact that the Gospel has power to radically transform the dynamics of family relationships and the social structures marred by sin.”33 Though the form of the Haustafel and the social structure of the household it presupposes belong to Paul’s cultural and historical context, the content of this Haustafel is the pure Gospel of Christ. Its call for mutual submission, its radical demands for the husband to love his wife as himself and to sacrifice himself for her and its insistence that both spouses are united in one flesh, with the consequences of truly reciprocal love which that entails—these would have been quite as shocking to readers in Paul’s day as the text’s purported sexism is in ours. Now more than ever, in our age of skyrocketing divorce rates and an epidemic of broken families, it is essential that we read and preach this text rightly, with conviction and without fear, to remind men and women of the dignity of their vocation. They are called to love one another not out of pragmatic self-interest, but to make visible and tangible, to one another and to the world, the very love of Christ.


  1. Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).
  2. F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1984), 383.
  3. For a representative survey of scholars who hold variations on this perspective, cf. Markus Barth, Ephesians: Translation and Commentary on Chapters 4-6, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), 551, fn. 249. Cf. also Barth, Bibliography 19, “Ethical Catalogues and Haustafeln,” in Ephesians: 4-6, 824-825. 
  4. Peter S. Williamson, “Who Wrote Ephesians? An Online Postscript,” 4, at Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture,
  5. Raymond E. Brown, Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 627–30. Brown claims on pg. 629 that “70 to 80 percent of critical scholarship” rejects Pauline authorship, although Williamson corrects this claim with a later study, which indicates that by the 1990s, authors publishing works on Ephesians were evenly divided between accepting and rejecting Pauline authenticity.
  6. Barth, Ephesians, 655.
  7. Barth, Ephesians, 652.
  8. Paul VI, Inter insigniores [Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood] (15 October 1976), §4. 
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Bruce, Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 383.
  12. David Michael Park, “The Structure of Authority in Marriage: An Examination of Hupotasso and Kephale in Ephesians 5:21-33,” The Evangelical Quarterly 59, no. 2 (1987): 118.
  13. Karl L. Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō in Ephesians 5.21-33: A Linguistic Approach,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 13 (2017): 158.
  14. Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 154.
  15. Aristotle, Politics, 3.1278b.38-1279a1, translated by Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 2nd ed., 72. Qtd. in Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 168.
  16. Kelvin F. Mutter, “Ephesians 5:21-33 as Christian Alternative Discourse,” Trinity Journal 39 (2018), 1-29 (16), qtd. in Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 158, fn. 23.
  17. Cf. Park, “Structure of Authority,” 118-119.
  18. Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 158.
  19. Ibid, 159.
  20. Ibid, 165. Emphasis added.
  21. Ibid, 163.
  22. Mary Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 111, no. 8 (2011): 13.
  23. Ibid, 14.
  24. Ibid, 13. Inner quote is from St. John Paul II, General Audience (September 1, 1982), in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 485.
  25. Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 748.
  26. Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” 14.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd. ed.(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994),pp. 157, 159, qtd. in Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 169-170. 
  29. Armstrong, “The Meaning of Hypotassō,” 159.
  30. Ibid, 159-160.
  31. Ibid, 167.
  32. Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” 15.
  33. Ibid.

The Triple Analogy: Reciprocal Divine Love as the Source and Model of Interpersonal Complementarity

Introduction: The Fatherlessness of Modern Man

From as early as the fifteenth century to the present day, modern man has suffered under a tremendously disordered view of God the Father. To be sure, one could trace man’s false vision of God much further back in history, as far as the Garden and the serpent’s first lie to Eve: “God knows that when you eat of [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5, RSVCE).1  In this key verse, comments St. John Paul II, one encounters “the mystery of man … who turns his back on the ‘Father’ (even if we do not find this name of God in the account). By casting doubt in his heart on the deepest meaning of the gift, that is, on love as the specific motive of creation … he in some sense casts him from his heart.”2 The “whole business” of man after Eden has ever been “to heal the eyes of the heart whereby God may be seen”3 rightly and thus, by faith in and union with Christ Jesus, to turn back to the Father, repudiating our first parents’ faithlessness in turning away from Him. A right vision of the God who is love is necessary if we are to entrust ourselves to Him in faith.

It would seem, however, that the ‘spiritual astigmatisms’ from which the eyes of the heart must be healed will differ in every age according to the unique distortions of God which are widely accepted and taught at the time. Truth may be distorted in countless ways and, as the famous phrase of Chesterton has it, the saint “will generally be found restoring the word to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects, which is by no means always the same element in every age.”4 Our specifically modern distortion, underlying the present-day crisis of faith in God’s fatherhood, may be traced back to the problematic of divine omnipotence and human freedom as conceived by Martin Luther in the fifteenth century. According to Luther, 

God’s omnipotence rules out the possibility that God could allow his almighty will to be ‘dependent’ on anything else—certainly not on a creature’s freedom of will vis-à-vis Himself … Luther denies human freedom a cooperative role in its encounter with divine freedom. Human freedom is not unfailingly persuaded to actively cooperate (which is Augustine’s view), but remains purely passive in relation to the overpowering force of the divine will. For Luther, the proper counterpart of omnipotence can only be impotence.5

In the words of Henri de Lubac, then, God the Father “began to seem [to modern man] like the enemy of his dignity.”6 It is no wonder that society would reject such a Father, in relation to whom mere human beings must always stand in the position of impotent children, utterly subject to the whims of an infinitely superior power.  “In rejecting God,” de Lubac concludes, modern man “is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom.”7  

Without confusing correlation for causation, it is worthwhile also to note that “there is a father absence crisis in America,” with more than one in four children in the United States living without a father in the home in 2017.8 Between forty to fifty percent of marriages in the Untied States end in divorce.9 It would seem that the “freedom” man has gained from rejecting God has had catastrophic consequences for society, much like the deadly fruit of man’s first rejection of the Father. What is urgently needed, then, is a recovery of the true vision of the Fatherhood of God as one whose divine omnipotence is best expressed as “all-powerful powerlessness,” a loving Father who gives Himself without remainder and without compulsion to his beloved, holding nothing of Himself back, and thereby makes room for the beloved’s free response. The supreme image of this self-sacrificial divine love is Christ giving himself up on the Cross for his bride, the Church, the definitive act by which he “made the two one” (Eph 2:14) and reunited fallen humanity with the Father. Following the pattern of his perfect and redemptive self-offering, the union of man and woman in marriage becomes a sacrament, a “great mystery,” which reveals the hidden drama of loving self-gift in the very heart of God and in His relationship with humanity. A recovery of the true vision of divine fatherhood, then, will lead man and woman to entrust themselves, not only to God, but to one another in reciprocal love and self-donation, mirroring and making present the mystery of divine love in the world.

The Divine Image: The Love of the Father and the Son

All our knowledge of the inner life of the Trinity comes from what is revealed by the Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, in His earthly existence.10 Therefore, it is fitting to begin with the Lord’s own words about his filial relationship to the Father: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). This cannot be taken to mean a strict identification between Father and Son, as if the two were interchangeable modes of divine being or one single hypostasis. Rather, these words of Jesus point to the unity in action of the Father and the Son. The Son so closely mirrors the Father’s activity that, in seeing Jesus living and acting in the world, one sees the “shape” of the Father’s own being and activity. A fitting analogy might be a dance in which one of the two partners is invisible; by watching the movements of the visible partner, one can “see” the movements of the invisible dancer.

Furthermore, as Jesus says in the following verse, “it is the Father, living in me, who is accomplishing his work” (Jn 14:10). Hans Urs von Balthasar discerns from this Biblical data a “twofoldness” in the identity of Jesus vis-à-vis his Father: “Jesus is at once the expression of the Father and his own active imitation of the way his Father is God.”11 The Father is truly at work at every moment in the activity of his Son, while the Son is also truly at work at every moment by corresponding volitionally to the initiatory activity of his Father. The Father acts first; he “beget[s] the Son as man to be his definitive image and revealer.”12 The Son, who does “nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing” (John 5:19), conforms himself to the Father’s activity: he “let[s] the Father produce in his humanity the perfect, unparalleled likeness” to Himself.13 Yet the Father remains at work even in the Son’s act of correspondence, as Jesus says: “He who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him” (Jn 8:29), and again, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn 5:17). At every moment, the Father is fathering his own perfect likeness in the Son, an act to which the Son is at every moment saying “an entirely grateful Yes.”14

This sketch of the interpersonal dynamic of Father and Son in the economy of salvation reveals something of the Father’s proper pattern of acting, and it looks nothing like the Lutheran model of divine fatherhood. In no way is Jesus a puppet or slave of the Father, compelled by the Father’s omnipotence to obey his will, but neither is he an “island,” a “free agent” sent by the Father into the world, with whom the Father no longer maintains any involvement. Rather,

In calling Jesus to willingly collaborate with his paternal work, the Father delivers himself over to Jesus’ free decision. And conversely … Jesus, on his side, realizes his freedom by reciprocally “making space” for the Father’s work in him (thus in filial fashion entrusting himself to another) … [in] active imitation of the Father’s form of freedom. Indeed if Jesus learns obedience through what he suffers (cf. Heb. 5:8), his obedience is elicited by reason of his seeing in his Father a love which, in bestowing freedom, is willing to “suffer” the beloved’s exercise of freedom without revoking the gift.15

It is the gift of the Father not only in begetting his Son as man but in leaving him free to correspond with his begetting which “makes space” for the Son’s free correspondence to the gift. This “self-determined dependency” or “all-powerful powerlessness” of the Father vis-à-vis the Son, however, is not a way of holding himself “at a purely passive and impotent distance over against Jesus’ freedom.”16 Rather, the Father’s “self-surrender” to the Son in leaving him free is precisely what makes room for and evokes from the Son a mirroring self-surrender in obedience. “Whatever [the Father] does,” says Jesus, “that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing” (Jn 5:19-20). The Father’s love truly “has the power to evoke from the beloved the answer of love which it seeks. Indeed the Father’s ‘defenselessness’ proves omnipotent, since in delivering himself over to the disposal of the One Sent, the Father engenders in Jesus an entirely grateful Yes to his paternal self-donation.”17 

Making an inference from the economic activity of Father and Son to the inner divine reality of the immanent Trinity, von Balthasar finds the same pattern of God’s paternal self-surrender in the eternal generation of the Son. The begetting of the Son as man and his historical mission is a “temporal translation”18 of his generation in eternity; thus Balthasar argues that the Father “leaves-free the Begotten”19 in eternity as He does in time, and that the perfect and eternal self-gift without remainder by which the Father generates the Son “includes, as intrinsic to it, a modality of letting-be that begets in turn its mirroring counterpart in the Son.”20 The Father not only generates the Son, giving over his own divinity in an act of absolute, self-surrending love; in so doing, He “lets the Son be,” leaving him free to answer the Father’s love with filial love. The Son’s eternal assent to being begotten and his utter and reciprocal self-gift to the Father takes place in an “eternal interplay of divine freedom, since this filial disposition is the infinitely free response of love engendered by love.”21 

What is most remarkable about this theology of divine fatherhood is that the Father’s omnipotence can no longer be defined as his capacity to do whatever he wills or to impose his will on another. What act of God could be greater than the generation of the Son, “not another God,” as von Balthasar notes, “but another in God?”22 No other divine act can surpass this, which takes place precisely in an eternal “event of absolute, self-surrending love.”23 Therefore, the almightiness of the Father must be defined as his capacity to “give without limit,”24 to make himself “powerless,” a loving surrender by which he fathers a corresponding movement of love and self-surrender in his coequally divine Beloved. 

The True and Living Icon: The Love of Christ and the Church

This pattern of loving self-surrender in the inner divine life of the Trinity is played out on the historical stage in the Son’s mission for the salvation of the world. Jesus does perfectly as man what he has done for all eternity as the Son: He mirrors the Father’s eternal act of self-donation. In the first chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul narrates this mission of the Son in the context of a beautiful prayer for his readers, that they might know “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe, according to the working of his great might” (1:19).   What was the event in which God’s great might, his “all-powerful powerlessness” which, as we have seen, is defined as his capacity to give without limit, was revealed above all? It is the Paschal mystery, the Son’s total self-donation on the Cross, by which “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27). 

The beautiful and detailed imagery of these verses portrays the Church as a virgin bride for whom Christ laid down his life. “The goal, mentioned twice,” comments Mary Healy, “is that the Church be ‘holy,’ that is, set apart from what is profane, and presented to Christ as a resplendent bride.”25 Of course, Christ is acting in accord with the divine pattern of “self-determined dependency” which he sees first in his Father. He will not defeat sin and render his Church holy by divine fiat. Rather, it is his sacrificial self-donation by which Christ at once sanctifies the Church, atoning for the sin of mankind, and by which he evokes in her a corresponding response of obedient and reverential love. As natural marriage on the human plane is effected by the exchange of consent of the bride and groom, Christ’s Paschal mystery may analogously be called the moment at which the marriage covenant is sealed between Christ and his Church: He gives himself up for her utterly, a total and irrevocable ‘yes’ spoken with the language of his whole being and life, both to the Father’s plan “to unite all things in him” and to the bride. His initiatory act of self-surrender “makes room” for his bride’s reciprocal self-gift in love. Just as the Son’s reciprocal self-gift to the Father takes the form of correspondence to the Father’s will, so the reciprocal self-gift of the Church to Christ will take the form of obedience and self-entrustment, handing herself over to him as he handed himself over for her.  

“Let Us Make Man in Our Image”: Man and Woman Made for Communion

Before exploring in depth the mystery of human marriage as an icon of divine love, it will be worthwhile to spend a few moments on the nature of man.Man and woman are created by God as an imago Trinitatis, in the image of the divine communion of love which is the Blessed Trinity. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” says YHWH in Genesis 1:26. Commenting on this verse, St. John Paul II writes, “Before creating man, the Creator withdraws as it were into himself, in order to seek the pattern and inspiration in the mystery of his Being, which is already here disclosed as the divine ‘We’.”26 The pattern of God’s own inner Trinitarian life, of loving self-surrender, thus becomes “the eternal pattern of the human ‘we’, especially of that ‘we’ formed by the man and the woman created in the divine image and likeness.”27 It is precisely together that man and woman, the fullness of humanity, constitute an image of the Trinitarian communion of God. 

The complementarity between male and female is written into human nature from the beginning. The creation of woman from the side of man (Gen 2:21-22) is an expression on the human plane of that “letting-be” which is intrinsic to divine love: the one who comes forth from the man is coequal to him in every way, but irreducibly and non-interchangeably other. As the Father’s generation of the Son includes an “intrinsic modality of letting-be,”28 by which the Father surrenders his own paternity to the Son’s judgment and voluntarily renders himself “dependent” on the Son’s response, so the creation of the woman from man necessitates that the man let the woman be other than himself. The man’s exclamation, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” reveals a love mirroring the pattern of the the Father’s which is willing to let the other be other. Though springing from a common origin, she is irreducibly different, and for that reason “a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18) and cause of his rejoicing. 

Bearing in mind that there is always an infinitely greater unlikeness than likeness in analogies between creation and God, we may with caution draw a line connecting the Father (in eternity), Christ (in the economy of salvation) and man (on the natural plane), and a parallel line connecting the Son (eternal), the Church (economic) and woman (natural). In each of these three relationships, one (the Father; Christ; man) primarily initiates love and the other (the Son; the  Church; woman) primarily receives love. Thus John Paul II writes that “the understanding of the fundamental meanings contained in the very mystery of creation, such as the spousal meaning of the body … is important and indispensable for knowing who man is and who he ought to be, and therefore how he should shape his own activity.”29 The spousal meaning of the body refers to these primordial roles of love which are written into the very created natures of man and woman: they are made for communion.

“A Great Mystery”: The Love of Husband and Wife

In the fifth chapter of Ephesians, St. Paul reveals that “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph 5:23). It is essential to note here that the husband is not presented as a unilaterally superior authority over the wife, but as the head of a body. The accent is not on headship as domination but rather on the unity of the body and reciprocal self-surrender, to which Paul indeed exhorts all his readers in the verse which begins the pericope: “Be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph 5:21). The latter part of this verse suggests the “corporate mystical union between the believer and Christ,”30 effected by Christ’s initiatory act of self-surrender on the Cross and by the free correspondence of the believer in reciprocal self-gift; the term “fear” here bespeaks that voluntary response.

The husband is head of his wife in an analogous way to Christ’s headship of the Church; before he is head of his wife, however, husband and wife alike are first members of Christ’s body. Christ’s headship of the Church is thus the model and archetype of the husband’s headship of his wife. Furthermore, it is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:3) who in turn establishes Christ as head over the Church: “He has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church, which is his body” (Eph 1:22-23). The Father exalted Christ to this headship at the completion of his earthly mission and the consummation of his self-gift on the Cross, “when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:20). Thus we see the hierarchy of headship, which Paul gives explicitly in another letter: “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God [the Father]” (1 Cor 11:3).

It should be clear by now that headship is inseparable from, and indeed defined by, self-sacrificial love, as indeed the almightiness of the Father, “from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 2:15), is defined by his capacity to give without limit and surrender himself to his beloved. The Pauline notion of headship, St. John Paul II argues, primarily expresses “precedence in the giving and receiving of love:the ‘husband is above all the one who loves and the wife, by contrast, is the one who is loved. One might even venture the idea that the wife’s ‘submission’ to the husband, understood in the context of the whole of Eph 5:22-23, means above all ‘the experiencing of love.’”31

The husband is to love his wife with Christ-like agape-love, which includes giving himself up for her: “As Christ demonstrated his limitless, unconditional love by dying for us on the cross, so husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives by seeking their good, regardless of the cost to themselves (cf. 1 Cor 10:24; 13:5; Phil 2:4). Paul could not have set a more demanding standard.”32 Indeed, it is an impossible standard, as Mary Healy admits, “except by experiencing Christ’s paschal mystery as a power at work in one’s own life.”33 This bespeaks the vital necessity for the husband to first receive Christ’s initiatory, self-sacrificial love as a member of his body, the receiving of which “makes room” for him to correspond. His reciprocal self-surrender to Christ in the form of obedience and “fear” is what enables him to “go and do likewise” in his own gift of self to his wife. Likewise, it is the husband’s initiatory self-gift, laying down his own life in love for his beloved, which will make room for and evoke from her a freely given, reciprocal self-gift. Thus St. Paul ends his paraenesis to husbands and wives with the following exhortation: “Let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Eph 5:33). In the Greek text, the command to the husband to love is an imperative (ἀγαπάτω ὡς ἑαυτόν), while the command to the wife to respect her husband is a conditional subjunctive (ἡ δὲ γυνὴ ἵνα φοβῆται τὸν ἄνδρα). This is a fitting summary of Paul’s teaching on headship. The responsibility lies first with the husband to love his wife with truly Christ-like, self-sacrificial love, that she might respect him and entrust him with her whole self in turn.

Husband and wife are only able to fulfill these radical demands of mutual submission “because we are members of his body” (Eph 5:30). St. Paul is outside the realm of analogy now:  “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (5:28) because “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (v5:31), as indeed Christ is “one body and one Spirit” (4:4) with His Church (5:32). Here the analogical language of body and head earlier in the pericope is revealed to be more than a rhetorical device: it is “a great mystery” (5:32), a sacrament of union. Being filled with the Holy Spirit (cf. 5:18), the husband is to love his wife and “nourish and cherish [her], as Christ does the Church” (5:29), and indeed with the very same self-sacrificial love with which Christ loves and cares for the Church. 


At the beginning of this paper, I argued that what is needed above all to combat our culture’s crisis of fatherlessness is a recovery of the true vision of the Fatherhood of God as one whose divine omnipotence is defined not over and against human freedom, but as “all-powerful powerlessness,” a loving Father who first surrenders Himself in an act of love to his beloved, even to the point of making himself dependent on the beloved’s free response. This is not a God who coerces or compels, but who leaves room for human freedom, and indeed who, by going before us on the way of self-donation, evokes from us a reciprocal self-gift in love. This Father has shown his love for us in sending us his Son (cf. John 3:16), the true and living icon of God’s Fatherhood, who faithfully mirrored the Father’s love “unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). This absolute and definitive act of self-donation to his bride, the Church, effectively reunited fallen humanity with the Father. 

Furthermore, God created humanity “in the beginning” as an imago Trinitatis, in order to live in communion with one another and with Himself. The law of self-gift is therefore written into the very human body. Man is called to give himself over to his wife in absolute, irrevocable self-donation, making room for her to give herself back to him in trusting obedience and reverential self-surrender; thus do the two become “one flesh” (cf. Gen. 2:24). Following the pattern of the Father’s all-powerful powerlessness and Christ’s perfect and redemptive self-offering, the union of man and woman becomes a sacrament, a “great mystery,” which reveals the hidden drama of loving self-gift in the very heart of God and in His relationship with humanity.

In conclusion, those in our day who reject the fatherhood of God for the sake of the illusory freedom of self-determination are truly selling their birthright as human beings for a mess of pottage. Man was created for a much higher good than independence or mere autonomy; he is created to be a gift, to lay down his life for others (cf. John 15:13) as an “imitator of God” (cf. Eph 5:1). His likeness to God “reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”34 May the eyes of our hearts be healed to see God as he is and so to give ourselves to him and one another in freedom and love.


  1. Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006).
  2. John Paul II, TOB 26:4, in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 237.
  3. Augustine, Sermons on the New Testament, 38.5, trans. R.G. MacMullen, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 6, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, at
  4. G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1933), 7.
  5. Margaret Turek, SD-5211: The Trinity – Course Reader with Commentary & Notes (Menlo Park: St. Patrick’s Seminary & University, 2019), 129.
  6. Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheistic Humanism (London: Sheed & Ward, 1949), 6, qtd. in Turek, Course Reader, 129, fn. 191.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Father Absence Statistics,” at National Fatherhood Initiative (2016), at Data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2017.
  9. “Marriage and divorce,” at American Psychological Association, Adapted from the Encyclopedia of Psychology.
  10. Cf. International Theological Commission, “Theology, Christology, Anthropology,” in International Theological Commission: Texts and Documents, 1969-1985, ed. Rev. Michael Sharkey (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 211-212.
  11. Turek, Course Reader, 130.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Turek, Course Reader, 131.
  15. Turek, Course Reader, 130.
  16. Turek, Course Reader, 131.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Turek, Course Reader, 132.
  19. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama II: Dramatis Personae: Man in God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 257, qtd. in Turek, Course Reader, 132.
  20. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama V: The Last Act (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 77-78, qtd. in Turek, Course Reader, 133.
  21. Turek, Course Reader, 133.
  22. Turek, Course Reader, 134.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Turek, Course Reader, 133.
  25. Mary Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review 111, no. 8 (2011): 14.
  26. John Paul II, Gratissimam Sane [Letter to Families] (2 February 1994), §6.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Turek, Course Reader, 133.
  29. John Paul II, TOB 18:4, in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 200.
  30. Stanley E. Porter, Idioms of the Greek New Testament, 2nd. ed.(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 157.
  31. Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” 13. Inner quote is from St. John Paul II, General Audience of September 1, 1982, in Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael Waldstein (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2006), 485.
  32. Healy, “St. Paul, Ephesians 5 and Same-Sex Marriage,” 14.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Paul VI, Gaudium et spes [Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World] (7 December 1965), §24.

Divine Justice and Final Impenitence: Christ and Judas in Psalm 109

The prayer of the Church, the mystical body of Christ, is first and foremost the prayer of Christ, her head, to the Father. Abbot Jeremy Driscoll of Mount Angel Abbey writes, “Christian interpretation of the Psalms must begin with the question, ‘What would this psalm have meant prayed in the earthly life of Jesus?’”1 It is fitting, then, to take the New Testament as our point of departure in approaching Psalm 109, a text so challenging for Christians to pray that it was excluded from the revised Liturgy of the Hours!2 In the first chapter of Acts, St. Peter addresses the Twelve about the betrayal of Judas Iscariot and the need to elect another to take his place. He quotes Psalm 109: “Let their habitation become desolate, and let there be none to dwell therein. And his bishopric let another take” (Acts 1:20; cf. Ps 109:8). 

Peter interprets this psalm as a prophecy of Christ; the subject of the litany of curses in vv. 6-20 is Judas, the traitor. The fathers of the Church have largely followed his interpretation. St. Athanasius of Alexandria writes, “Psalms 2 and 108 [109] … signal both the plotting and wickedness of the Jews and the betrayal by Judas Iscariot.”3 Likewise Augustine comments that “what is here written, ‘let his days be few, and let another take his office,’ is prophesied of Judas, the betrayer of Christ … So Judas does represent those Jews who were enemies of Christ.”4 In the person of Judas, then, is summed up the whole faithless people of Israel, who “repaid [Christ] evil for good, and hated for [his] love” (v. 6); indeed, all the wicked and impenitent down to our own day are implicated in him, for Judas, who hanged himself rather than seek forgiveness, is the very archetype of the unrepentant sinner. 

It is Christ, therefore, speaking in this psalm, who in his lifetime was “attacked without cause” (v. 3) and “in return for [his] love … slandered” by the wicked (v. 4a), who now confesses to the Father: “But I prayed” [ego autem orabam] (v. 4b). “He said not indeed what he prayed,” comments Augustine, “but what can we better understand than [that he prayed] for them [sic] themselves? While they in the depth of their malignity were rendering evil for good, He in the height of His goodness was rendering good for evil.”5 Indeed, even unto his last breath on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). Only those who persist in impenitence and hardness of heart to the very end, repaying evil for good and hatred for love (cf. v. 5), will be condemned by these words: “Let the accuser stand at his right hand. When he is judged, let him go forth condemned” (vv. 6-7).

Even these ominous words cannot be understood as the expression of a divine desire for revenge, as if the Lord’s patience has finally worn out! Christ the Divine Judge “when he punishes does not return evil for evil, since he returns justice to the unjust; and what is just, is surely good. He therefore punishes not from delight in another’s misery, which is evil for evil; but from love of justice, which is good for evil.”7 The love of God is immutable, but the one who persists in wickedness will experience it as punishment. As the psalmist says, “He loved cursing; may it come upon him; he took no delight in blessing; may it be far from him” (v. 18). In the end, each one will receive in eternity what he has chosen by his actions in life. Fr. Pius Parsch puts the same point more succinctly: “Whoever puts off the God of mercy will come to know God the just judge.”8

It is one thing for Christ to pray these terrible words as a “solemn sentence of divine justice upon unwillingness to repent,”9 but how can an individual Christian be justified in doing the same? St. Thomas distinguishes three modes of praying these ‘imprecatory psalms’:

First, by way of prediction, not by way of wish, so that the sense is: May the wicked be, that is, The wicked shall be, turned into hell. Second, by way of wish, yet so that the desire of the wisher is not referred to the man’s punishment, but to the justice of the punisher, according to Ps. 57:11: The just shall rejoice when he shall see the revenge, since, according to Wis. 1:13, not even God hath pleasure in the destruction of the wicked when He punishes them, but He rejoices in His justice, according to Ps. 10:8: The Lord is just and hath loved justice. Third, so that this desire is referred to the removal of the sin, and not to the punishment itself, to the effect, namely, that the sin be destroyed, but that the man may live.10

Psalm 109 is prayed in the first sense by Christ and his body, the Church, “with tears in her eyes … just as Jesus once declaimed His eightfold ‘Woe to you…’ against the Pharisees.”11 But it may also be legitimately prayed in the second sense by an individual Christian, as a cry of the heart against the powers of darkness in moments of suffering and persecution.12 It is eminently fitting to pray for God’s justice to be done, which will take the form of punishment in the end on the “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil 3:18). In the third sense, “that the sin be destroyed [and] the man may live,” the imprecations may be leveled against the Devil and all the principalities and powers which oppose us (cf. Eph 6:12): “May this be the recompense from the Lord upon my accusers!” (v. 20).

Finally, it is worth noting that this psalm was traditionally prayed by the Church on Saturdays at None, the very last hour of the weekly cycle, as “a lighthouse to guide us safely into the harbor of eternity. There is a hell, she informs us. All week long, like an anxious mother, she has been admonishing, warning, complaining, weeping over us; and now she sounds the final and most ominous note.”13 The Christian who dares to pray these words in union with Christ the Head must do so not as the Pharisee prayed in the Temple, saying to himself, “Thank God that I am not like other men” (Lk 18:11). He must cast an eye to the state of his own soul and beat his breast, crying out, “Kyrie, eleison!


  1. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, “The Psalms in Christian Tradition,” Religious Life Review 50, no. 266 (2011), 9. 
  2. “Three psalms (58, 83, and 109) have been omitted from the psalter cycle because of their curses … The reason for the omission is a certain psychological difficulty.” Cf. General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours,§131, translated by the Hierarchies of Australia, England and Wales, and Ireland, 1974, at
  3. Athanasius, Letter to Marcellinus, 26, in Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 123.
  4. Augustine, “Exposition on Psalm 109,” 1, trans. J.E. Tweed, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 8, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, at
  5. Augustine, “Exposition,” 5, at
  6. St. Augustine understands ‘accuser’ here as Satan: Diabolo subditus sit, qui Christo subditus esse noluit: “Let him be subject to the devil, who refused to be subject to Christ” (“Exposition,” 8).
  7. Augustine, “Exposition,” 7, at
  8. The Hours of the Divine Office in English and Latin (Collegeville, MI: Order of St. Benedict, Inc., 1964), vol. 3, 637.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 25, a. 6, ad. 3, in Summa Theologiae: Secunda Secundae, 1-91, vol. 17 of Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP (Green Bay, WI: Aquinas Institute, 2018), 245.
  11. Divine Office, 637.
  12. The testimony of one bishop from Eastern Europe present at the Second Vatican Council is interesting here. In the discussion on whether to eliminate the imprecatory psalms from the Psalter, he is quoted anonymously as having said, “Our special circumstances require that the entire Psalter be used. Afflicted as we are by a very difficult external situation, we need expressions suitable for use contra diabolum.” Cf. Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948-1975 (Collegeville, MI: Liturgical Press, 1990), trans. Matthew J. O’Connell, 494, fn. 10. 
  13. Divine Office, 636-637. 

Exorcisms in the Roman Rite of Baptism

According to the concise definition of St. Thomas Aquinas, every sacrament is a “sign of a holy thing so far as it makes men holy.”1 This short expression incorporates the two essential realities of the sacraments of the Church, namely, that they are both signs and causes of grace. They are signs insofar as they represent, by visible figures and audible words, the divine effect to which each sacrament is instituted by Christ; they are causes insofar as the rites really “effect what they signify,”2 namely, the sanctification and salvation of men. Indeed, concludes St. Thomas, “the sacraments cause by signifying.”3 There is thus a close correspondence between the visible sacramental signification and the invisible effect. 

This visible signification of each of the sacraments is made up of two distinct elements known as “matter” and “form,” after the two principles of Thomas’ hylomorphic metaphysics which cohere in any material substance. A bronze statue, for example, is a single substance; its matter is bronze, which is formed into the shape desired by the artist to constitute the statue. Until it is so formed, the bronze matter is in potency to becoming a number of different things: a sword, a set of plates, a pile of coins. Only in the interaction of matter and form does the bronze statue emerge as a single substance. Likewise, in the case of the sacraments, “matter” refers to the material, visible element, while “form” refers to the words spoken by the minister which determine the polyvalent matter to a single sacramental signification.

In the sacrament of baptism, for instance, the mere act of washing with water is “in potency” to many possible significations: it can imply cleaning, cooling, playing, and so on. The words of the baptismal rite, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,”4 are therefore needed to determine the matter to the particular signification of baptism. Together, the washing with water and the words come together both to signify and to cause a supernatural effect: spiritual rebirth unto new life in Christ; the death of the old man and the rising of the new; the remission of original sin and the guilt of punishment, and the imprint of an indelible baptismal character on the soul. 

The signification constituted by these two principles of matter and form is essential to the sacrament of baptism. If either principle should be missing or changed, such that the signification is qualitatively different, the sacrament is not conferred. So long as the essential signification is intact, however, the sacrament is validly celebrated; St. Thomas holds that baptism with salt water is valid, for example, because it carries the same “sign value” of water generally, although fresh water remains preferable.5 What is necessary for the efficacy and validity of the sacrament, then, is a clear and unambiguous signification, not deviating in a qualitative way from the signs and words instituted by Christ Jesus and handed on to the apostles.

What, however, of the many other ceremonies surrounding this essential signification, such as exorcisms, blessings of water and salt, lighting of candles and so on, which the Church commands in the solemn celebration of her sacraments, but which were not explicitly commanded by the Lord and do not properly belong to the matter and form of the sacramental signification? Clearly they do not pertain immediately to the signification by which the sacramental effect itself is conferred. Are these ceremonies necessary? What do they add? Is anything lost if they should be omitted? On this point, St. Thomas draws an important distinction between what is essential and what is fitting: 

In the sacrament of Baptism something is done which is essential to the sacrament, and something which belongs to a certain solemnity of the sacrament. Essential indeed, to the sacrament are both the form which designates the principal cause of the sacrament; and the minister who is the instrumental cause; and the use of the matter, namely, washing with water, which designates the principal sacramental effect. But all the other things which the Church observes in the baptismal rite, belong rather to a certain solemnity of the sacrament.6

Although inessential, strictly speaking, to the valid and efficacious celebration of the sacrament, something important is lost if these ceremonies are not celebrated. St. Thomas teaches that they serve three distinct purposes: in the first place, “to arouse the devotion of the faithful, and their reverence for the sacrament,” which would be greatly lessened if the ceremonies were stripped down to the essential rite; secondly, “for the instruction of the faithful,” who are urged by the beauty and mystery of these ancient ceremonies “to seek the signification of such like sensible signs”; third, and finally, “because the power of the devil is restrained by prayers, blessings, and the like, from hindering the sacramental effect.”7 For these reasons, “although those things that belong to the solemnity of a sacrament are not essential to it, yet they are not superfluous, since they pertain to the sacrament’s well-being.”8

The Latin phrase here translated as “well-being” (bene esse sacramenti) is instructive. These other ceremonies are not essential in that they do not pertain to the sacrament’s very being; if they are omitted, as in a case of emergency, the sacrament is still validly conferred. Nevertheless, they pertain to the sacrament’s well-being in that the sacrament is better celebrated if these ceremonies be observed. “Because [the sacraments] are signs they also instruct,” though this is not their primary end, as the Decree on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council notes: “It is, therefore, of the greatest importance that the faithful should easily understand the sacramental signs, and should eagerly frequent those sacraments which were instituted to nourish the Christian life.”9 Therefore, in order that the faithful might better understand the sacraments, the post-Conciliar Church extensively revised these ceremonies. Her pastoral concern was primarily that the first two ends of the ceremonies be better achieved.

The third end of the solemn ceremonies is of particular interest for this paper, however. Besides arousing devotion and providing instruction for the gathered community of the Christian faithful, St. Thomas comments that certain of these additional prayers and blessings are actually efficacious in restraining demonic powers from impeding the effect of baptism (“cohibetur Daemonis ab impedimento sacramentalis effectus”). To be sure, the sacraments confer grace by the very fact of carrying out the rite (“ex opere operato”), as definitively decreed by the Council of Trent.10 If one is baptized according to the rite of the Church, presuming sincere faith on the part of the one receiving the sacrament and right intention on the part of the minister, then “by the performance of the rite itself”11 one receives the gift of new life in Christ, the remission of original sin, and the indelible imprint of baptismal character marking one forever as a child of God by grace.12 It would seem, then, that these effects are not susceptible of impediment by demonic powers. What, then, could possibly be impeded? As between the essential rite and the accidental (though not therefore superfluous) ceremonies, St. Thomas here makes a helpful distinction between the essential and the accidental effects of baptism:

The essential effect of Baptism is that for which Baptism was instituted, namely, the begetting of men unto spiritual life … But the accidental effect of Baptism is that to which Baptism is not ordained, but which the Divine power produces miraculously in Baptism: thus on Rom. 6:6, that we may serve sin no longer, a gloss says: this is not bestowed in Baptism, save by an ineffable miracle of the Creator, so that the law of sin, which is in our members, be absolutely destroyed. And such like effects are not equally received by all the baptized, even if they approach with equal devotion: but they are bestowed according to the ordering of Divine providence.13

The accidental effect of Baptism, then, has to do with diminishing the power of concupiscence in the newly baptized, “the law of sin, that is in [our] members” (Romans 7:23 DRA),14 which is evidently accomplished by God in some more than in others. St. Thomas here attributes this difference in effect to the providence of God, which, one must remember, contains not only that which is positively willed by God, but also that which is permitted by Him. “One who provides universally allows some little defect to remain,” the Doctor comments in his article on divine providence, “lest the good of the whole should be hindered … Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent.”15

Even the demons are allowed to work only according to the permissive ordering of divine providence for the good of the whole, as for example in the case of blessed Job, of whom the Lord said that “there is none like him in the earth, a simple and upright man” (Job 1:8), while nonetheless allowing Satan to test his faith: “Behold, he is in thy hand, but yet save his life” (Job 2:6). It would seem, therefore, that the Lord might speak likewise to the demons regarding a newly baptized catechumen, commanding that they “save his life,” namely, the new life of grace which is the essential effect of baptism, yet placing him in their hands as regards the accidental effect, which they might be allowed to diminish or impede.

The role of the exorcisms which the Church has historically commanded to be prayed before the essential rite of baptism now comes into sharper focus. St. Thomas himself answers the question “whether exorcism should precede baptism?” unambiguously in the affirmative. Though these traditional prayers of exorcism belong to the ceremonies which are not strictly essential to the sacrament, he argues,

Whoever purposes to do a work wisely, first removes the obstacles to his work … Now the devil is the enemy of man’s salvation, which man acquires by Baptism; and he has a certain power over man from the very fact that the latter is subject to original, or even actual, sin. Consequently it is fitting that before Baptism the demons should be cast out by exorcisms, lest they impede man’s salvation.16

Notably, he quotes the authority of Pope Celestine, who wrote that catechumens “should not come to the font of life before the unclean spirit has been expelled from them by the exorcisms and breathings of the clerics.”17 Thomas likewise concludes that these exorcisms “are not to be omitted save in a case of necessity. And then, if the danger pass, they should be supplied … Nor are they supplied to no purpose after Baptism: because, just as the effect of Baptism may be hindered before it is received, so can it be hindered after it has been received.”18 

In the last editio typica of the Roman Ritual promulgated before the Second Vatican Council, the rite of baptism is divided into seven stages, the first six of which each include an explicit prayer of exorcism. In the first stage, the candidate for baptism is received by the priest at the door of the church, at which time “the priest thrice blows softly in their face” and prays, “Depart from them, unclean spirit, and give place to the Holy Spirit, the Advocate.”19 Before entering the church, the priest lays his hands on the candidate’s head and recites a prayer which includes the petition, “Sever all snares of Satan which heretofore bound them.”20

In the second stage, which takes place in the vestibule of the church, the priest places a pinch of blessed salt on their tongue, the blessing of which begins with an exorcism of its own: “God’s creature, salt, I cast out the demon from you … I purify you by the living God … to be a preservative for mankind.”21 The third, fourth, and fifth stages are a series of exorcisms of increasing vehemence, culminating in the final and definitive exorcism, which begins with the words, “I cast you out, unclean spirit.”22 Only after these rites had been completed is the candidate taken into the baptistery for the sixth and seventh stages, at the gates of which, indeed, a final prayer of exorcism is recited: “Surely it is no secret to you, Satan, that punishment is your lot, that the day of judgment threatens you, that day of never ending torture, the day that shall be like a flaming furnace … Therefore, accursed one, deservedly doomed, pay homage to the living and true God … Begone and stay far away!”23

The solemn liturgy culminates in the seventh stage, when the essential rite of baptism is celebrated at last and the candidate is clothed in the white garment and given the blessed candle. Notably, all these ceremonies were to be supplied, omitting only the essential rite of baptism itself, in the case of a child baptized in an emergency or an adult convert who had already been baptized, just as St. Thomas argues above.24

These six exorcisms, conspicuously absent from the post-conciliar rite of baptism, seem to have fallen under the Council’s category of “useless repetitions”25 in the liturgy to be eliminated and, furthermore, of “features” which “have crept into the rites of the sacraments and … have rendered their nature and purpose far from clear to the people of today,” which the Concilium ordered to be revised in order “to adapt them to present-day needs.”26 Indeed, the revised rite of baptism says “almost nothing about the devil or original sin. The one reference is narrative and not unambiguously applied to the child at hand.”27 This reference occurs in a single prayer before baptism invoking the Son of God, who was sent “into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil.”28 This prayer, however, does not include an explicit formula of exorcism such as “I cast you out.” Rather, after narrating the historical mission of the Son, it concludes with the words, “We pray for these children: set them free from original sin, make them temples of your glory, and send your Holy Spirit to dwell within them.”29 

Certainly, as St. Thomas reminds us, “the Church is ruled by the Holy Spirit, Who does nothing inordinate.”30 Nevertheless, there is a certain uncomfortable incongruity in the fact that, “for decades now, Catholics have been listening to (and informed by) a baptismal rite that has almost nothing in common with the way baptismal liturgies had been conducted for twenty centuries in East and West — with the exception of the formula of baptism itself, which remains intact.”31 Though the manifest and laudable intention of the Council Fathers in revising the rites was to further the edification and devotion of the faithful—the first two purposes of these inessential ceremonies noted by St. Thomas Aquinas—one wonders whether they may have inadvertently neglected the third, namely, restraining the devil from hindering the sacramental effects.

It would seem also that the Christian instruction of the faithful is not assisted, but handicapped, by the removal of references to the Devil and to original sin from the rite, since the primary and essential end of baptism is to free and deliver the newborn Christian from these hostile powers. Finally, one wonders whether there may be a connection between the excision of exorcisms and the astronomical percentage of “sacramentalized but non-evangelized” Catholics in our day, who, despite having received the essential effects of Baptism, seem not to have reaped the fruit of grace and the infused virtues.

The example of St. Paul, who, upon arriving in a new territory, first cast out the demon of that place before preaching the Gospel to the people, ought to be instructive for us.32 One might surmise that he knew from experience the power of the Devil to hinder the faith from taking root among his subjects. As the Church marks fifty years since the promulgation of her revised rites, and with the exhortation of Pope Benedict XVI that “the two Forms of the usage of the Roman Rite can be mutually enriching”33 still echoing in her ears, may she enrich the well-being of her rite of Baptism by restoring thereto the ancient prayers of exorcism, that the Devil might be restrained by her prayers from impeding her most vulnerable newborn children from receiving the fullness of the effects of the sacrament of faith.


  1. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, q. 60, a. 2, in Summa Theologiae: Tertia Pars 60-90, vol. 20 of Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP (Lander, WY: Aquinas Institute, 2012), 3.
  2. ST, III, q. 62, a. 1, ad. 1, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 22.
  3. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones Disputatae de Veritate, q. 27, a. 4, ad. 13, trans. Robert W. Schmidt, S.J. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1954), at Emphasis mine.
  4. Cf. Matthew 28:19.
  5. Cf. ST, III, q. 66, a. 4.
  6. ST, III, q. 66, a. 10, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 87-89.
  7. Ibid, 88.
  8.  Ibid, ad. 4, 89.
  9. Paul VI, Sacrosanctum Concilium [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy] (4 December 1963), §59.
  10. Council of Trent, Session 13, March 3, 1547, Decretum de Sacramentis, can. 8, in Heinrich Denzinger, Compendium of Creeds, Definitions, and Declarations on Matters of Faith and Morals: Latin/English, ed. Peter Hünermann, Robert Fastiggi, and Anne Englund Nash, 43rd ed. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), DS 1608.
  11. Ibid.
  12. ST, III, q. 66, a. 9, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 85-87.
  13. ST, III, q. 69, a. 8, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 136.
  14. The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate with Annotations, References, and an Historical and Chronological Table (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950).
  15. ST, I, q. 22, a. 2, ad. 2, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros., 1947), at
  16. ST, III, q. 71, a. 2, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 150-151.
  17. Ibid, sed contra, 150.
  18. ST, III, q. 71, a. 3, ad. 3, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 151.
  19. The Roman Ritual, trans. Philip T. Weller, S.T.D. (Milwaukee, WI: Bruce Publishing Co., 1964), 85.
  20. Ibid, 89.
  21. Ibid, 90.
  22. Ibid, 100.
  23. Ibid, 104.
  24. Ibid, 110. However, the instruction of the Sacred Congregation of Rites Inter oecumenici, dated 26 September 1964, ordered that these prayers of exorcism be omitted when supplying the ceremonies of baptism, thereby changing the historical practice of the Roman Church. This instruction preceded the promulgation of the revised rite of baptism in 1969.
  25. Paul VI, Sacrosanctum Concilium, §34.
  26. Ibid, §62.
  27. Peter Kwasniewski, “The Excision of Exorcisms as a Prelude to Devil-Denial,” at One Peter Five (19 June 2017), at
  28. Rite of Baptism for Children, ed. and trans. International Commission on English in the Liturgy (Ottawa, Canada: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1989), 47.
  29. Ibid.
  30. ST, III, q. 66, a. 10, sed contra, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 87.
  31. Peter Kwasniewski, “The Excision of Exorcisms as a Prelude to Devil-Denial,” at One Peter Five.
  32. Cf. Acts 16:11-18. This is the moment of Paul’s arrival in Macedonia, his first foray into Western Europe, having been prevented by the Holy Spirit from going into Asia. Paul and his companions had gone down to “the river side, where it seemed that there was prayer” (v. 13), namely, a place holy to the local peoples where they worshipped their gods. The “pythonical spirit” referenced in v. 16 is the spirit of the Oracle of Delphi, the idol par excellence of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Cf. also Ps 95:5: “omnes dii gentium daemonia.” St. Paul neither needed nor wanted the testimony of demons to support his preaching. Once he had cast out this spirit of divination, he was free to preach the Gospel to those people on its own merits.
  33. Benedict XVI, “Letter of His Holiness to the Bishops on the Occasion of the Publication of the Apostolic Letter ‘Motu Proprio Data’ Summorum Pontificum [On the Use of the Roman Liturgy Prior to the Reform of 1970],” 7 July 2007.

“We Believe Because We Love”: Voluntary Faith and the New Evangelization

At the heart of the Church’s contemporary call for a new evangelization, expressed by Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis alike, is the ardent desire both for a renewal of faith among the baptized and for the awakening of that faith among those who do not yet profess it. These latter reside not only in “the missions,” places where Jesus Christ has never yet been widely or effectively proclaimed, but in historically Christian societies like our own, which have in fact “known him, accepted him and then rejected him, while continuing to live in a culture which in large part has absorbed gospel principles and values.”1 The new evangelization, thus conceived, has a threefold end: on the one hand, it must stir up the faith of the baptized to be more convinced and effective witnesses to the one in whom they believe; on the other, it must convincingly propose faith in the Crucified and Risen One anew to that “immense portion of humanity,” both in our heavily secularized post-Christian cultures and abroad, “which is loved by the Father and for whom he sent his Son,” yet “who do not know Christ and do not belong to the Church.”2

Though it may seem an obvious point, “it is only in faith that the Church’s mission can be understood and only in faith that it finds its basis.”3 The end of evangelization is faith: its increase in those who have it already, and its first beginning in those who have not. But how can the Christian faithful, even once inflamed with “new ardor,” be effective witnesses to inspire the beginning of faith in another? In order to better understand the mission to which Holy Mother Church so urgently calls us, it is fitting first to define faith more precisely and examine the causes of faith in greater detail.

According to the perennial teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, the common doctor of the Church, “faith is a habit of the mind, whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent.”4 This compact definition implies two further conclusions about faith. First, faith is rightly called a virtue according to Thomas’ simple definition, “an operative habit … productive of good works,” since it is a habit productive of good action, namely, the mind’s assent to non-apparent truths, by which eternal life—the ultimate good!—has its beginning in us. Furthermore, since this definition indicates that faith is that habit by which the intellect assents to non-apparent truth, it is clear that the subject of faith is not the mind simply (i.e. man’s entire rational nature), but the intellective faculty.

According to the scholastic dictum, “habits are known by their acts, and acts by their objects,” then “faith, being a habit, should be defined by its proper act in relation to its proper object.”5 The proper act of faith, which Thomas describes above as “assent to what is non-apparent,” is simply the act of belief. This act is distinct from all other acts of the intellect by its two unique properties: one, the firm assent given; two, that the truth assented to is non-apparent.

The definition given in the Epistle to the Hebrews, that faith is “the evidence of things that appear not” (Heb 11:1, DRA), may be of help in clarifying this distinction. What is known or understood by the intellect, namely, first principles (such as the law of non-contradiction) or conclusions of science, is firmly assented to either because the truth is self-evident, or else the evidence of the truth is clearly seen. When it is sufficiently explained to someone that nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same manner, or that the square of a hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, the intellect gives its firm assent, as it were, “automatically.”

Acts of knowledge and understanding thus produce firm assent, as belief does, but it is because the truth is apparent; the intellect is not free to withhold its assent once the terms of the proposition are grasped. On the other hand, that which is only suspected, doubted, or opined by the intellect is not firmly assented to precisely because the truth is non-apparent. One may suspect such and such to be the case, or doubt that it is in fact the case, or else opine that it may be the case, but the intellect does not give firm assent so long as the truth of the proposition is not clearly seen. Belief, then, is unique in that it “has something in common with science and understanding”—namely, the firm assent given—“yet its knowledge does not attain the perfection of clear sight, wherein it agrees with doubt, suspicion, and opinion.”6 

At this point in our examination of faith, one tends to encounter a stumbling block, which Josef Pieper sums up as follows: “How is it meaningfully possible for someone to say unconditionally: ‘It is thus and not different’? How can this be justified when the believer admittedly does not know the subject to which he thus assents … either directly, by his own perceptions, or indirectly, on the basis of conclusive arguments?”7 In other words, it is precisely the firm assent generated by the act of belief that seems to be unjustified, given the obscurity of the truth to which the assent is given. It is surely this objection which leads some to wrongly identify faith with mere opinion, thereby negating the certainty which is so scandalously characteristic of the act of this virtue. The same objection may lead others, with the best of intentions, to attempt to rationally prove articles of faith such as the Trinity which can never be proved; indeed, “faith has no merit where human reason supplies proof,”8 writes St. Gregory.

The objection is answered succinctly by St. Thomas: “Ad fidem pertinet aliquid et alicui credere,” that is, “it belongs to faith to believe something and in somebody.9 Whatever is believed is believed on the testimony of one who knows. This distinguishes even our ordinary human acts of belief, not directed by the virtue of faith, from mere suspicion or opinion. I may suspect, on the basis of various motives, that an acquaintance of mine has a dark secret, but I cannot rationally claim with certainty that he does. If, however, another person who knows the acquaintance well and whom I trust tells me the secret, I may make an act of belief. This belief has a twofold object: it is belief that the secret he has told me about our mutual acquaintance is true (i.e. firm assent), but it is also belief in the friend. His trustworthiness is the justification for my act of belief in a truth which I have not seen personally, but to which he has testified as one who knows. This, incidentally, is the evidence given by St. John for the truthfulness of his account of the life of Jesus: “This is that disciple who giveth testimony of these things, and hath written these things; and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24). 

The act of belief which comes from the virtue of faith differs from merely human acts of belief in that it has God as its object, both as the aliquod, the actual content of what is believed, and the alicui in whom and by whose testimony one believes—for, as St. Thomas explains, “the faith of which we are speaking, does not assent to anything, except because it is revealed by God … If, however, we consider materially the things to which faith assents, they include not only God, but also many other things, which, nevertheless, do not come under the assent of faith, except as bearing some relation to God.”10 God is the one who reveals truths to men, principally truths about Himself, or else which bear some relation to Him and to man’s salvation. The motive of credibility is that it is God Himself, supremely trustworthy and true, who is speaking. He is not susceptible of error or falsehood, as can be known merely by natural reasoning; a God who could be mistaken about something or who could lie would be no God at all! If, then, on the merely human level, one is justified in believing a friend who one knowns to be trustworthy and true, how much more is one justified in believing God Himself when He reveals truths to men!

There is one more key aspect of faith which must be clearly stated, as its implications for evangelization are profound. One may run the risk of supposing that, if a man simply has a right understanding of God as First Truth and is then presented with the content of divine revelation, he will believe, as surely as one who only grasps the terms of the Pythagorean theorem must give his assent. On the contrary, the act of belief can never be “automatic,” as Josef Pieper notes: 

Man can be compelled to do a good many things. There are a good many other things he can do in a halfhearted fashion, as it were, against his will. But belief can never be halfhearted. One can believe only if one wishes to. Perhaps the credibility of a given person will be revealed to me so persuasively that I cannot help but think: It is wrong not to believe him; I “must” believe him. But this last step can be taken only in complete freedom, and that means that it can also not be taken. There may be plenty of compelling arguments for a man’s credibility; but no argument can force us to believe him.11

All intellectual acts, in principle, are commanded by the will, but the contrast between belief and understanding or knowledge here comes into sharper focus. The will may command the intellect to consider the Pythagorean theorem, but once the matter at hand is sufficiently grasped, the intellect gives its assent at once as a conclusion from the premises. In the case of belief, however, the will not only commands the intellect to consider the matter and reach its own conclusions, as it were; Thomas writes that belief “is an act of the intellect inasmuch as the will moves it to assent. And this act proceeds from the will and the intellect, both of which have a natural aptitude to be perfected in this way.”12  Thus, although belief “is immediately an act of the intellect, because the object of the act is the ‘true,’ which pertains properly to the intellect,”13 and it is indeed the intellect which must assent to the truth proposed, Pieper goes so far as to call it “a free assent of will,” and concludes that “belief rests upon volition.”14

Let us briefly summarize what we have learned so far about faith and its causes before considering the implications for evangelization. Faith is a virtue of the intellect by which we firmly believe divine truths, which, being of a higher order than human reason, are neither self-evident nor apparent to us. The act of faith, namely, belief, is distinct from all other acts of the mind. Unlike the acts of understanding and knowledge, its assent is not caused by seeing the truth; rather, the believer freely chooses to give his assent on the testimony of another, who has seen or knows the truth and whose testimony is received as trustworthy. Further, unlike such acts as suspicion, opinion, or doubt, this truth is not merely held by the believer in a conditional or tentative way, but with firm assent. The acts of belief which proceed from the virtue of divine faith are especially firm, in that the one who testifies to the truth believed is God Himself.

However, even when divine revelation is concerned and the trustworthiness of the witness is certain, the assent of belief is never given as the inevitable result of a logical process. The nature of belief is inviolably voluntary: “nemo credit nisi volens,” in the terse phrase of St. Augustine. “No one believes unless he wills it.”15 In the end, no matter how compelling the motives of credibility, no matter how trustworthy the witness or how magnificent the truth proposed for belief, the intellect must be commanded by the will to assent. “It is not the truth, then,” Pieper comments, “that compels [the believer] to accept the subject matter. Rather, he is motivated by the insight that it is good to regard the subject matter as true and real on the strength of someone else’s testimony … We believe, not because we see, perceive, deduce something true, but because we desire something good.”16

What is the good of faith which inspires the will to command the intellect to believe? It is obvious, given all that has been discussed so far about faith, that this will be the crucial point for evangelization. Is it enough to awaken in one’s interlocutor a desire for eternal life and beatitude? Josef Pieper maintains that this is not enough, for although “the believer’s mind is directed toward that which he hopes for and loves,” and “in the act of belief, therefore, the will may very well be engaged with the subject of belief … as something that really concerns him, as an object of hope, longing, and love,” this is not the primary cause of giving one’s assent. One can see the potential problem if it it were. Belief then would be reduced to an instrument of arbitrary wish fulfillment, the mind’s attempt to resolve the tension between what is and what it desires. This is not far from the Marxist’s conception of heaven as a dreamy unreality devised by the powerful to placate the existential longings of the poor, believed in by the desperate and the foolish.

But there is a more primary object of love and therefore volition which “is bound up with neither the act nor the content of belief.”17 In the first place, the believer does not simply will himself to believe for the sake of believing, nor does he will to believe because he desires that the object of his belief be true. Rather, Pieper argues, “the will of the believer is directed toward the person of the witness, toward the warrantor,” namely, toward God:

Assent of the intellect to the witnessed truth, [sic] takes place only to the extent that the will … seeks and wishes to bring about consent or agreement with the judgment of the speaker, participation in and communion with this insight or, in other words, a spiritual union with him; the will seeks this union as a good and thus motivates the intellect to accept the insight of the witness as if it were its own—so that the believer stands in exactly the same relationship to that which the other knows, and which he does not know, as it does to that which he knows himself. That is to say, the ‘good’ toward which the will of the believer is directed is communion with the eyewitness or knower who says ‘it is so’; this communion comes to life and reality in that the believer, repeating this ‘it is so’, accepts what the other says as truth—and accepts it because he says it.18

Thus the primary role of the evangelist (and indeed, all of the Christian faithful, insofar as we are all called to the New Evangelization) comes into sharp focus. Intellectual arguments are of course indispensable, in particular to remove prejudices and obstacles to faith and to establish the so-called preambulae fidei, but these alone will never be sufficient to bring an unbeliever to faith. Attempts to stir up in him a desire for heaven or to see the objective benefits of believing will likewise fall short. Nothing less than the figure of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God and living icon of the Father, will suffice to captivate the human heart, to inspire love, a desire for union, and therefore the act of assent. Indeed, anything less than this, than believing the revelation of God precisely because He has said it, is not faith. One may recognize the beauty or the fittingness of the Christian faith, and even hold to articles of the faith, yet not believe by divine faith. In the end, as St. John Henry Newman has it, “we believe because we love.”19

The matter of urgency for Christians engaged in the New Evangelization is, as Pope Benedict XVI has said, to show “not only … [that] there [is] such a thing as objective meaning but that this meaning knows me and loves me, that I can entrust myself to it like the child who knows that everything he may be wondering about is safe in the ‘you’ of his mother.”20 Intellectual disputations must come in second place to “the discovery of God in the countenance of the man Jesus of Nazareth,”21 who is alive, who is speaking, who is calling men to Himself. This is the crucial point to which people must be awakened. In a sense, the evangelist is called to be a “match-maker” between Jesus Christ and His people. Once the match has been made, once the heart of a man has been awakened to the reality of the living God in the countenance of Jesus, then doctrines may be proposed for belief, for only then is the man really capable of making the act of faith.


  1. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio [The Mission of the Redeemer] (7 December 1990), §37a.
  2. Ibid, §3.
  3. Ibid, §4.
  4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, II-II, q. 4, a. 1, in Summa Theologiae: Secunda Secundae, 1-91, vol. 17 of Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP (Green Bay, WI: Aquinas Institute, 2018), 47.
  5. Ibid, 46.
  6. ST, II-II, q. 1, a. 1, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 4.
  7. Josef Pieper, “On Faith,” in Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), ch. 1, Kindle edition.
  8. St. Gregory the Great, “Homily for Easter,” 8, qtd. in Thomas Aquinas, On Boethius’ De Trinitate, q. 2, a. 1, obj. 5, trans. Rose E. Brennan, S.H.N. (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1946), at
  9. ST, II-II, q. 129, a. 6, at New Advent, Emphasis mine.
  10. ST, II-II, q. 1, a. 1, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 4.
  11. Pieper, “On Faith,” ch. 3.
  12. ST, II-II, q. 4, a. 2, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP, 5.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Pieper, “On Faith,” ch. 3. Emphasis mine.
  15. Augustine, In Johannis evangelium tract. 26, 3. PL 3.5:1607, qtd. in Pieper, “On Faith,” ch. 3.
  16. Pieper, “On Faith,” ch. 3.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid. Emphasis mine.
  19.  St. John Henry Newman, “Love the Safeguard of Faith against Superstition,” in Oxford University Sermons (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1880), 236.
  20. Joseph Ratzinger, trans. J. R. Foster and Michael J. Miller, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 80.
  21. Ibid.

Wisdom and the Problem of Evil in Ecclesiastes and Job

According to Aristotle, “wisdom is the knowledge of certain principles and causes.”1 Therefore, St. Thomas Aquinas concludes that “he who knows the cause that is simply the highest, which is God, is said to be wise simply, because he is able to judge and set in order all things according to divine rules.”2 To paraphrase St. Paul, the wise man “judgeth all things” (1 Corinthians 2:15 DRA)3 according to the divine order which God has written into creation. The Biblical wisdom literature is concerned primarily with discerning this divine order inherent in creation and living in accordance with it, thus achieving “harmony in life.”4 The problem of evil, particularly the suffering of the innocent, however, remains a perennial stumbling block in the way of wisdom which calls into question the very existence of such a divine order.

It would seem that the wise and good must thrive, while the wicked, who spurn wisdom, never prosper. This is the basic theology presented by Job’s eldest friend Eliphaz:

Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished being innocent?
Or when were the just destroyed?
On the contrary I have seen those who work iniquity,
and sow sorrows, and reap the same,
Perishing by the blast of God,
and consumed by the spirit of his wrath.

(Job 4:7-9)

For Eliphaz, “it is a proven fact that the good are rewarded and the evil are punished. If for a time this principle appears to be suspended, it is either only an apparent suspension or a temporary one.”5 There is no room in this theology for the suffering of a truly innocent man.

The whole testimony of Job, however, is a challenge to the very idea of “retributive justice.” The reader knows from the first verses of the book that Job is an exemplary man, “simple and upright … fearing God, and avoiding evil” (Job 1:1); God Himself confesses that “there is none like him in the earth” (1:8). Yet God permits the Adversary to test Job to the point of death! The book of Job thus introduces from the outset two important nuances to this theology: first, it reveals that “in some cases, suffering and death are caused by the malevolent actions of evil spirits like Satan,”6 not the direct action of God, while nevertheless being mysteriously permitted by Him; secondly, it suggests that God may make use of suffering “to test the faith of human beings, strengthen their holiness, and lead them to a love that is selfless.”7 This is the position taken by St. Gregory the Great as the overall skopos or hypothesisof the Book of Job: “Pain, indeed, is the test of the true love of any peaceful person. The enemy asked for Job so that he might trip him up; his petition was granted, but only so that he might make further progress.”8 

While an important development of the theological tradition exemplified by Eliphaz, innocent suffering understood as a divine test offers little consolation when one is face to face with its magnitude and brutality. Like Job, who at the height of his sufferings “opened his mouth, and cursed his day” (2:1), Ecclesiastes’ words at the sight of innocent suffering rise to our lips:

I saw the oppressions that are done under the sun, and the tears of the innocent, and they had no comforter … and I praised the dead rather than the living: and I judged him happier than them both, that is not yet born, nor hath seen the evils that are done under the sun.

(Eccl. 4:1-3)

The book of Ecclesiastes begins with the ringing denunciation of all things as vanity (Eccl. 1:2), including wisdom itself (Eccl 2:15 ff.). As one commentator notes, “the sages are powerless to overturn the evil experienced in this world,”9 for “there is no order to be discovered, no means by which a wise person can influence the outcome of his own life.”10 It is surprising, then, that Ecclesiastes ends with this final exhortation: “Let us all hear together the conclusion of the discourse. Fear God, and keep his commandments” (Eccl. 12:13). 

Some commentators hold that the position taken by these final verses is so dramatically different from what has come before that it must have been a later addition by a different author. On the contrary, both the prior chapters of Ecclesiastes and this epilogue “are critical of the wisdom movement in their own ways. The fundamental difference between them is that [in prior chapters] Qoheleth admits knowledge of no alternative to the way of wisdom … once wisdom has shown itself inadequate for determining value in life.”11 The epilogue suggests one viable alternative. If human wisdom stumbles and collapses in the face of innocent suffering and death, then “sense can only be found in fearing God and keeping his commandments.”12

Job exemplifies this last counsel of Ecclesiastes, but he does not arrive there by rejecting wisdom. In his final chapter, he confesses to God, “I know that thou canst do all things, and no thought is hid from thee … Therefore I have spoken unwisely … I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2-3, 6). This confession, however, springs from the immediate glimpse given him by God of the divine order which underlies and directs all things: Job has “seen God” (42:5). At last, he understands that, while “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God,” as illustrated by his theologically inept friends, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men” (1 Corinthians 3:19; 1:25). This is no rejection of wisdom; it is its apogee!

Both the books of Job and Ecclesiastes leave the problem of evil, in some sense, unanswered. For Ecclesiastes, it is unanswerable in principle. All wisdom is folly; the best man can do is to follow the commandments. For Job, on the other hand, it is simply beyond us. Human wisdom is true but incomplete knowledge of the divine order; it must fall silent in the face of the mystery of innocent suffering. Nevertheless, Job gives the greatest expression of human wisdom in his humility and trust, even in immense tribulation, knowing that all things are contained within the providential ordering of divine wisdom. The ultimate answer to this problem is found only in the person of Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:24), who in His innocence takes upon Himself all the suffering due to human sin in order to restore man’s innocence before God. In this way, Job, who “in all these things did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10), becomes a type and a prefiguration of the suffering Christ, who “opened not his mouth … led as a sheep to the slaughter … lay[ing] down his life for sin” (Isaias 53:7, 10).


  1. Aristotle, Metaphysics, I, 1, trans. W. D. Ross, at the Internet Classics Archive,
  2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 45, a. 1, respondeo, in Summa Theologiae: Secunda Secundae, 1-91, vol. 17 of Latin/English Edition of the Works of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP (Green Bay, WI: Aquinas Institute, 2018), 430.
  3. The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate with Annotations, References, and an Historical and Chronological Table (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950).
  4. Dianne Bergant, C.S.A., Job, Ecclesiastes, vol. 18 in Old Testament Message: A Biblical-Theological Commentary, ed. Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., and Martin McNamara, M.S.C. (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1982), 17.
  5. Bergant, Job, Ecclesiastes, 55.
  6. John Bergsma and Brant Pitre, The Old Testament, vol. 1 of A Catholic Introduction to the Bible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018), 550.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Gregory the Great, Moral Reflections on the Book of Job, Preface, III, 7, vol. 1, trans. Brian Kerns, OCSO (Collegeville, MI: Liturgical Press, 2014), 62.
  9. Martin A. Shields, The End of Wisdom: A Reappraisal of the Historical and Canonical Function of Ecclesiastes (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2006),150
  10. Shields, The End of Wisdom, 107.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Shields, The End of Wisdom, 109.

Mariological and Christological Interpretations of Ecclesiasticus 24 in the Traditional and Revised Roman Liturgy

“From the beginning, and before the world, was I created,” sings Divine Wisdom in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, “and unto the world to come I shall not cease to be, and in the holy dwelling place I have ministered before him” (Ecclus. 24:14 DRA).1 This verse is familiar to all who pray the Divine Office or the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary according to the pre-Conciliar liturgical books of the Roman Rite. There, in the Common of Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, these words rings out at Lauds, at Terce, at Vespers. Like the Angelus bell tolling at morning, noon, and evening, the voice of the Church at prayer proclaims this verse three times on her feasts in honor of the thrice-admirable Mother of God. The liturgy’s implicit identification of Wisdom with Mary continues with her proclamation of vv. 15-162 at Sext, which verses are also prescribed as the lesson of the Mass for “Saturdays of Our Lady,” Salve, sancta parens. The beautiful vv. 19-20,3 a distant echo of the Song of Songs, are read at None. Finally, vv. 23-31 are read as the lesson at Votive Masses of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary; though too long to quote here in full, this passage identifies Wisdom as the vine which has brought forth a pleasant odor and flowers, “the fruit of honor and riches.” She is “the mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope,” exhorting all who desire her to “come over to me … and be filled with my fruits” and “have life everlasting” (Ecclus. 24:23-24, 26, 31).

To say that the traditional Roman liturgy exhibits a strong preference for interpreting these verses in a Mariological way would be an understatement. Everywhere that Ecclesiasticus 24 appears in the pre-Conciliar Divine Office or the Mass, it is in the context of a Marian feast or devotion. Fr. Pius Parsch, a leading scholar of the Liturgical Movement, writes that “the liturgy is a master at representing our beloved Mother to us by means of certain figures,” and identifies the figure of Wisdom as one of three, along with the figure of the Spouse and that of the city of Jerusalem, which “recur most frequently and so deserve special consideration.”4 Why? It is worthwhile to quote Fr. Parsch in full on the range of Scriptural senses of the word “wisdom”:

By this ‘wisdom’ the sacred authors mean, first of all, the divine attribute, the wisdom itself of almighty God, whereby He created and ordered all things in the universe. Then, in addition they mean the divine, eternal ideas which in varying degrees of perfection God realized in creatures. The Fathers of the Church saw in this personified wisdom, the Son of God Himself “through whom God created the world.” Lastly, Sacred Scripture has in mind also a created “wisdom,” the virtue of wisdom which God imparted to the Jewish peoples through the revealed religion … It designates a sort of spiritual common sense, holiness and virtue in general, as contrasted with folly and wickedness.5

In the Scriptures, then, “wisdom” is a polyvalent term with a range of related, analogous meanings, first predicated of God’s own eternal, uncreated wisdom, then of His eternal and only-begotten Son, who is called the “Wisdom” of God,6 and then of God’s divine ideas, which are realized in creation.7 The eternal wisdom of God is personified in His Son and expressed, to a greater or lesser degree, in His works. Finally, God’s people are called wise insofar as they conform themselves to God’s own wisdom, as revealed to them in His works and words.

These Scriptural senses of wisdom are clear enough to understand, but it remains to be seen how the first three, at least, relate to Mary. If anything, the person of Wisdom speaking in Ecclesiasticus 24 would seem to be a figure of Christ, and indeed, the revised lectionary of the Novus Ordo Missae presents this text in a more or less exclusively Christological light. The most prominent appearance of this chapter in the new lectionary is the reading of vv. 1-4 and 12-16 every year at the Second Sunday after Christmas. These verses include the passage quoted above which describes Wisdom as uncreated and eternal, taking root in Sion; the liturgy recognizes herein “Jesus Christ as God’s wisdom who has taken flesh and taken root within Israel, growing up into a Tree of Life for all the nations.”8 Likewise, Ecclus. 24:1-22 is read in the revised Liturgy of the Hours at the Office of Readings on Wednesday of the First Week in Ordinary Time. It is paired with a selection from the treatise Against Heresies by Saint Irenaeus, bishop, on the self-revelation of the Son, giving the reading a clear Christological interpretation. Although the post-Conciliar Roman Missal does allow the reading of Ecclus. 24:1, 3-4, 8-12, and 19-21 as an option in the Common of Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in continuity with the more ancient tradition, this reading conspicuously omits vv. 13-18, which describe Wisdom’s creation “before the world.” On the other hand, this reading emphasizes the Mariological character of verse 12, “he that made me rested in my tabernacle,” which is strangely absent from the traditional Office or Masses of the Virgin.

What is going on here? Is the traditional liturgy naïve, or simply wrong, in applying a key verse to Mary which implies that she preexisted creation? By no means. As a creature, Mary has a historical beginning in time. The divine idea of Mary as the spotless Theotokos, however, is eternal, and “arrayed thus in all her perfections, Mary took her place before God’s face from all eternity.”9 Furthermore, this divine idea (a term which is convertible with divine wisdom, as we have seen) is more perfectly expressed in Mary than any other divine idea is expressed in all of creation, save the uncreated Logos in the created humanity of Jesus Christ. “As the most perfect image of God in creatures,” argues Dr. Parsch, “Mary is, so to speak, divine wisdom itself.”10 Finally, Mary is the example par excellence of created wisdom, insofar as she conformed herself perfectly to the will of God in her earthly life. Thus the figure of Wisdom is fittingly applied to Mary as well as to Christ. He, the eternal and only-begotten Son of God, is Wisdom incarnate, but “in the liturgy this [title] is applied to the Blessed Virgin because of her constant and intimate association” with her Son.11


  1. The Holy Bible: Translated from the Latin Vulgate with Annotations, References, and an Historical and Chronological Table (New York: P.J. Kennedy & Sons, 1950).
  2. “I was established in Sion, and in the holy city likewise I rested, and my power was in Jerusalem. And I took root in an honorable people, and in the portion of my God his inheritance, and my abode is in the full assembly of the saints.”
  3. “In the streets I gave a sweet smell like cinnamon and fragrant balm; I yielded a sweet odor like the best myrrh.” 
  4. Pius Parsch, The Breviary Explained, trans. William Nayde, C.Ss.R., and Carl Hoegerl, C.Ss.R. (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1952), 438-439.
  5. Parsch, The Breviary Explained, 440.
  6. Cf. 1 Corinthians 1:24: “Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God.
  7. Cf. Psalm 104:24: “O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all.”
  8. John Bergsma and Brant Pitre, The Old Testament, vol. 1 of A Catholic Introduction to the Bible (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018), 713.
  9. Parsch, The Breviary Explained, 441.
  10. Ibid, 440.
  11. The Catholic Study Bible (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990), 845.

Salvation by Faith in Jesus the Messiah: A Canonical Exegesis of Mark 5:25-34 in Context


The fifth chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel is a collection of three apparently unrelated miracle stories occurring back to back. The chapter opens with Jesus and the disciples arriving by boat at the far side of the Sea of Galilee, just after Jesus has calmed the storm upon the sea at the end of chapter four. When they disembark, they are met immediately by a demoniac of that country, a man who has been dwelling among the tombs, “crying out night and day … and beating himself with stones” (Mk 5:4-5).[1] Jesus exorcises the unclean spirits from the man and drives them into a herd of swine, which immediately throw themselves off a cliff and into the sea. The man’s countrymen then entreat Jesus and the disciples to leave, and they cross over again to Galilee. On this shore, too, they have a welcoming party: among the large crowd which has gathered to see Jesus, they are met by Jairus, the leader of the local synagogue, who implores the Master to come and heal his dying daughter. Before he can do so, however, another woman approaches Jesus from the back of the crowd. She has been afflicted for twelve years with a serious malady which has caused her to bleed continuously, and despite spending all her money on the treatments of many physicians, she has only gotten worse. However, Mark tells us that she had heard about Jesus, and thought to herself, “If I touch even his garment, I will be saved” (Mk 5:28). Doing so, she is indeed healed immediately (5:29). 

Jesus then begins to ask the crowd who has touched him. The woman is afraid, but she throws herself down before him and tells him the whole truth. Jesus sends her on her way, calling her “daughter” and confirming that her faith has saved her (5:34). Following this exchange, messengers arrive from Jairus’ household, carrying the unfortunate news that the man’s daughter has died. Jesus, however, reassures Jairus, telling him not to be afraid, but to have faith. He then takes Peter, James, and John and goes to the man’s house, where he rebukes the mourners and drives them out, telling them that the girl is only sleeping (5:39). Jesus takes her by the hand and tells her, “Arise!” Immediately, she gets up and begins to walk about. 

The story of the bleeding woman (Mk 5:25-34), which is the particular subject of this exegesis, constitutes the center of a “Markan sandwich,” a distinctive literary technique of St. Mark’s Gospel in which one story takes place in the midst of another, interrupting the surrounding narrative and apparently occurring independently of it. In this case, the healing of the woman interrupts the healing of the daughter of Jairus, which begins with vv. 21-24 and concludes in vv. 35-43. Syntactical differences between vv. 25-34 and the surrounding text indicate that St. Mark borrowed the story of the woman’s healing from another source and inserted it at this point in the overall progression of the narrative. This alone would be sufficient reason to attempt a reading of the surrounding stories in the light of the insertion, at least if one accepts James R. Edwards’ supposition that “Mark sandwiches one passage into the middle of another with an intentional and discernible theological purpose,” and thus that “the insertion interprets the flanking halves.”[2] However, there are also a number of common motifs between the two healing stories, as well as certain commonalities with the exorcism story which precedes them both, that suggest a definite meta-narrative behind all three.


 Most commentators have suggested that these stories, taken together, are meant to indicate Jesus’ total subversion of Jewish purity laws:[3] in quick succession, he interacts with a pagan man, possessed and dwelling among the dead (thus triply unclean), with a ritually impure woman, and with a corpse! Jesus, however, is not rendered unclean in any of these cases; rather, contact with His person purifies the impure, like His baptism made the waters of the earth clean[4] and the tree which Moses cast into the bitter waters of Marah made them sweet (Ex 15:22-25). On this reading, faith is given primacy over and against the ritual purity prescribed by the law as the sine qua non of salvation.  

Though I agree that this theme is present, I will argue that there is a still more important narrative at play in this chapter. St. Mark, after all, does not choose to emphasize the purity/impurity aspect of any of these stories; the Gospel text makes no mention of it, the volumes of commentaries written on the subject notwithstanding. However, Mark is careful to introduce textual parallels in each of these stories with Isaiah’s prophecies of the new exodus and the restoration of Zion, which would announce at once to any reader familiar with the Law and the Prophets that those very prophecies are being fulfilled in the saving ministry of Jesus Christ. Furthermore if, as Edwards argues, the story of the bleeding woman – the insertion – is the key to interpreting the meta-narrative, then it is clear that both stories are indeed unified by the one central theme of salvation by faith. This faith in Jesus does surpass the ritual prescriptions of the old law, as the majority of commentators attest, but only because of this deeper reality, namely, the beginning of the new exodus and the reconstitution of Israel by her Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

After presenting a critical translation of the central pericope in the following section, I will proceed with a formal, textual and contextual analysis of this pericope. The formal analysis will investigate the Markan sandwich technique in greater detail, as well as the parallel structures between the inner story of the bleeding woman and the outer story of the daughter of Jairus. In the textual and contextual analyses, I will focus in particular on the themes of purity/impurity and faith and on Mark’s Isaian parallels, arguing that the former themes depend for their intelligibility on the latter literary context. Finally, I will present a theological exegesis of this pericope on the basis of those parallels, drawing in the outlines of the portrait of Jesus as depicted in this chapter: namely, the Messiah, whose every word and deed advances the new exodus and the long-promised restoration of Israel.  

Critical Translation

25 καὶ γυνὴ οὖσα ἐν ῥύσει αἵματος δώδεκα ἔτη25 And a woman, being in a flow of blood[5] (for) twelve years,
26 καὶ πολλὰ παθοῦσα ὑπὸ πολλῶν ἰατρῶν καὶ δαπανήσασα τὰ παρ’ αὐτῆς πάντα καὶ μηδὲν ὠφεληθεῖσα ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον εἰς τὸ χεῖρον ἐλθοῦσα, 26 and having suffered much under many physicians, and having spent everything of hers, and not having benefited at all, but rather having become worse, 
27ἀκούσασα περὶ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ, ἐλθοῦσα ἐν τῷ ὄχ-λῳ ὄπισθεν ἥψατο τοῦ ἱματίου αὐτοῦ: 27 having heard about Jesus, having come in the crowd from behind, took hold of[6] his garment:
28 ἔλεγεν γὰρ ὅτι Ἐὰν ἅψωμαι κἂν τῶν ἱματίων αὐτοῦ σωθήσομαι. 28 for she said that, “If I touch even his garment, I will be saved.”[7]
29 καὶ εὐθὺς ἐξηράνθη ἡ πηγὴ τοῦ αἵματος αὐτῆς, καὶ ἔγνω τῷ σώματι ὅτι ἴαται ἀπὸ τῆς μάστιγος. 29 And immediately her fountain of blood was dried up, and she knew in the body that she had been healed from the scourge.[8]
30 καὶ εὐθὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐπιγνοὺς ἐν ἑαυτῷ τὴν ἐξ αὐτοῦ δύναμιν ἐξελθοῦσαν ἐπιστραφεὶς ἐν τῷ ὄχλῳ ἔλεγεν, Τίς μου ἥψατο τῶν ἱματίων; 30 And immediately Jesus, knowing in himself that the power was going out from him, turning to the crowd, said, “Who touched my garment?”
31 καὶ ἔλεγον αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ, Βλέπεις τὸν ὄχλον συνθλίβοντά σε, καὶ λέγεις, Τίς μου ἥψατο;31 And his disciples were saying to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you, and you say, ‘Who touched me?’”
32 καὶ περιεβλέπετο ἰδεῖν τὴν τοῦτο ποιήσασαν. 32 And (yet) he was looking around to see the one who had done this.
33 ἡ δὲ γυνὴ φοβηθεῖσα καὶ τρέμουσα, εἰδυῖα ὃ γέγονεν αὐτῇ, ἦλθεν καὶ προσέπεσεν αὐτῷ καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ πᾶσαν τὴν ἀλήθειαν.33 But the woman, being afraid and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and prostrated (herself) before him and told him the whole truth.
34 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτῇ, Θυγάτηρ, ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε: ὕπαγε εἰς εἰρήνην, καὶ ἴσθι ὑγιὴς ἀπὸ τῆς μάστιγός σου.34 But he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has saved you: Go in peace, and be healed from your scourge.”

Formal Analysis

The Significance of the Markan Sandwich Technique

The usual formal understanding of St. Mark’s Gospel by scholars of the form-critical school, at least prior to the mid- to late twentieth century, was that “the Second Gospel is not a literary work but a conglomerate of anonymous, popular and collective Jesus tradition.”[9] To use J. R. Edwards’ memorable image, the evangelist was seen as little more than a “witless water boy … schlepping water from the spring (a creative oral tradition) to thirsty hordes (the readers).”[10] Operating under such an understanding, the fact that the stories of the healing of Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman are intercalated (“sandwiched”) in Mk 5:21-43 bears no special literary significance. It is probable that the events simply happened the way Mark describes them,[11] or at least, that the stories were told to Mark in this order and dutifully copied down in the same way. 

 Against this supposition, however, stand the vast stylistic differences between vv. 25-34 and the surrounding text. The story of Jairus’ daughter is written mostly in the historical present tense and uses a succession of short, simple sentences, typical of Mark’s Gospel; the story of the bleeding woman is written mostly in the aorist tense with much longer sentences and complex participle constructions, particularly in vv. 25-27. These differences suggest that a combination of two separate sources has taken place, either by Mark himself or an earlier redactor from whom he borrowed, with the story of the bleeding woman copied from one source and inserted into the larger narrative containing the exorcism of the demoniac and the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus from another. 

The majority of the form-critical exegetes, naturally, would presume that this insertion was the result of a pre-Markan oral tradition. Bultmann may be taken as representative of the scholarly consensus of his time: “Mark is not sufficiently master of his material to be able to venture on a systematic construction himself.”[12] However, more recent scholarship has been more inclined to take seriously the ancient testimony of Papias, as handed down by Eusebius of Caesarea, that Mark “wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered … not, however, in exact order.”[13] He had “no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings,” but rather, according to Papias, he “accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers],” and “made no mistake in thus writing.”[14] This Mark, far from the witless water-boy of the historical-critical imagination, carefully arranged the apostolic accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus with a distinct theological purpose in mind. One concludes that the stories in Mk 5:21-43 were purposefully intercalated by the inspired author, leaving the reader to ask: to what end?

Some argue that “Mark employs his sandwich technique to heighten suspense or allow for the passage of time”[15] in the surrounding narrative; that is, to achieve a purely literary effect. In this pericope, the interruptive episode of the bleeding woman does indeed seem to allow time for the messengers of Jairus’ household to arrive with the news of his daughter’s death. However, from a literary point of view, it is not necessary. The time Jesus spent looking for the woman in the crowd was not so long that he might otherwise have made it to Jairus’ house before the girl died; the messengers must have already been on the road some time before, and could just as well have shown up as soon as Jairus made his request. Furthermore, if the intention of this intercalation were to build suspense by delaying the resolution of the Jairus story, Edwards notes that “it would be necessary to address the question why Mark, who uses the word ‘immediately’ some 40 times, and who narrates his Gospel in an otherwise rapid-fire fashion, would need to create the illusion of a passage of time at [this] particular point.”[16] If the Markan sandwiches have only this literary purpose, one is left to wonder why Mark has sandwiched these two stories at all.

Edwards, however, argues that while the Markan sandwich “is, to be sure, a literary technique … its purpose is theological; that is, the sandwiches emphasize the major motifs of the Gospel.”[17] They are not primarily used for the sake of furthering the story but to convey theological meaning. The inserted story provides the key to interpret the surrounding narrative in the theological light which Mark intends. In this case, then, “the woman’s faith forms the center of the sandwich and is the key to its interpretation.”[18] She is to be contrasted with Jairus, a respectable man with a prominent social and religious position who has come to seek Jesus’ help face to face, while she, a nameless social outcast, furtively reaches out to touch his garment from behind. However, in a beautiful inversion, her reaching out in faith results immediately in her salvation, whereas Jairus’ faith fails him when the messengers arrive with the news of his daughter’s death. Jesus commends the woman for her boundless confidence and gently rebukes Jairus for his lack thereof: “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk 5:36 RSV). Edwards elaborates:

What kind of belief must Jairus have in a situation in which all human hopes are exhausted? The answer is given in Jesus’ command to believe (pisteuein, v 36): Jairus must have the kind of faith (pistis, v 34) the woman had! Faith knows no limits, not even the raising of a dead child, as Jesus goes on to demonstrate.[19]

The intercalation of these two stories is thus a deliberate literary technique used by the evangelist to illuminate the theological necessity of faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.

Chiastic Structure

As noted above, Jairus and the bleeding woman may be read as mirror images of one another. He is prestigious, respectable, and has a name for himself in St. Mark’s account, while she is nameless, impoverished, outcast from society. Their one point of contact is that they have both found themselves in desperate circumstances which have led them to Jesus. However, their respective stories from that point on may also be read as mirroring one another in a kind of chiastic structure if considered under the aspect of the publicity or privacy of the scenesJairus approaches Jesus in a very public setting, surrounded by the crowd on the lake-shore; the healing of his daughter takes place in a very private setting, with Jesus alone in the house with the girl, her parents, and his three most intimate disciples. Conversely, the healing of the bleeding woman, which interrupts the Jairus narrative, progresses from her private, secret act of touching the Lord’s garment to her public confession of “the whole truth” in front of the whole crowd. 

The chiasmus may be visualized as follows:

A. Public scene: Jesus meets the synagogue official (5:21-24)  

            B’. Private scene: The woman touches his cloak (5:25-29)

            A’. Public scene: The woman’s public confession (5:30-34)

B. Private scene: Jesus heals the daughter of Jairus (5:37-43)                                            

Collins notes that the “narrowing of the audience [in the Jairus narrative] has the effect of highlighting the mysterious and miraculous character” of his daughter’s rising from the dead.[20] However, the exterior movement from a public scene to a private scene may also reflect something of Jairus’ subjective, interior transition. At the beginning of the story, he had faith enough to throw himself publicly at Jesus’ feet and entreat him earnestly to heal his daughter (cf. Mk 5:22-23), but not enough to “trouble the teacher any longer” after the news of her death, when it seemed all hope was now in vain. He had human faith in a miracle-worker, but not yet the boundless interior confidence shown by the bleeding woman, which respected no obstacle in seeking its fulfillment. Jesus, however, exhorts Jairus to have such faith, founded not on what seems possible to human understanding, but on sheer confidence in Him. His public faith, expressed in his words and deeds, must be joined to a steadfast interior faith in God.

St. Jerome comments that the opposite exterior movement in the story of the woman likewise reflects her subjective change from impurity to cleanliness: “Note the separate stages; mark the progress. As long as she was hemorrhaging, she could not come into [Jesus’] presence. She was healed by faith and then came before him.”[21] Her faith had saved her from the involuntary privacy of social exile and allowed her to move once again into the public realm of relationship and communion. Understood in this way, the parallel structures of the two stories likewise highlight the central motif of salvation by faith.

Textual Analysis

The Markan sandwich of Mk 5:21-43 also contains numerous textual parallels between the bleeding woman and the daughter of Jairus. The woman has been afflicted for twelve years (v. 25), while the girl was twelve years old when she died (v. 42). Collins supposes “it is unlikely that this number is symbolic,” but rather that it is meant to emphasize, in the woman’s case, the extreme length of her suffering and the concomitant difficulty of her healing.[22] However, one is hard-pressed to read the number twelve in the New Testament without hearing in it an echo of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve disciples who are their antitype and fulfillment. As Rikki Watts notes, “that Mark nowhere else records how long individuals suffered or their age suggests that he sees herein some significance.”[23] At the very least, it serves to establish a parallel between the woman and the girl, which is further cemented by the fact that both are called “daughter” (cf. vv. 23, 34). Both, too, are at the very nadir of their suffering – the girl is at the point of death; the woman’s long suffering and ostracism from society constituted for her a kind of prolonged death – and both will be “saved” (σῴζειν) by the healing touch of Jesus (cf. vv. 23, 28, 34).

 There is also a kind of inverted parallel between the disciples and the woman along the axis of faith in vv. 31-33. “Unlike the disciples,” Collins notes, “who were unable to calm the storm because of their lack of trust or faith (4:40), this woman was able to heal herself by … her faith.”[24] Their rather brusque response to Jesus’ question in v. 31 seems to indicate that they have not yet learned their lesson; having seen that the wind, the sea, and the unclean spirits obey Him, they still seem to lack faith even that Jesus will be able to ascertain who has touched Him in the crowd! Certainly they do not know the miracle which has just taken place under their very noses. The woman and Jesus alone know “what had been done to her” (v. 33; cf. v. 30). 

Furthermore, Stein sees a point of contact between the woman and the Gerasene demoniac of the preceding pericope in the fact that she has only “become worse” (v. 26) after all her expensive treatments, while the demoniac could not be bound by anyone any longer, “even with a chain,” for “no one had the strength to subdue him” (vv. 3-4). In both cases, “human help was of no avail; human help actually harmed.”[25] Finally, there are both textual and formal inverted parallels between the woman and Jairus, which have been sufficiently explained above.

There is an exact textual correspondence between the woman’s response to her salvation in v. 33, “being afraid and trembling” (φοβηθεῖσα καὶ τρέμουσα), and the “fear and trembling” (φόβου καὶ τρόμου) with which St. Paul urges Christians to “work out” their salvation (Phil 2:12). Her reaction is similar to that of the disciples at the end of the previous chapter, who were “afraid with a great fear” (ἐφοβήθησαν φόβον μέγαν) after the Lord calmed the storm (Mk 4:41), and the Gerasenes in the preceding parable, who “were afraid” (ἐφοβήθησαν) when they saw the former demoniac sitting clothed and in his right mind (Mk 5:15). The woman’s reaction is therefore typical in St. Mark’s Gospel of one who has been saved from death or has witnessed the Lord’s salvation. The various other proposed explanations for her reaction, such as “that she was ashamed or embarrassed to reveal the nature of her ailment in public; she feared because she had stolen power without permission … she feared that Jesus would be angry and would undo the healing,” and so on, are absolutely unsupported by the textual evidence. That her reaction is one of awe or reverence at what had been done for her and of a filial fear of the Lord may be seen clearly in the light of her very next act: to prostrate herself (προσπίπτειν) before Jesus and tell him the whole truth. 

Jesus’ words to her then constitute a fourfold response of encouragement. (1) Jesus addresses her as “daughter” (Θυγάτηρ), a respectful and affectionate greeting of the time period to women of any age or relationship to the speaker,[26] which nevertheless carries with it a distant echo of the Isaian formulation, “daughter Zion” – a point to which we will return in the following section – as well as introducing a parallel with the daughter of Jairus. (2) His statement that her “‘faith has made her well [saved her]’ … carries the weight of the entire story [and] brings the dialogue to its climax.”[27]The same word (σᾠζειν) is used here by Jesus as was used by the woman to express her hope before she touched his garment. Jesus is thus not reinterpreting the means of her healing or correcting a misunderstanding; rather, he “sets what happened in the perspective of her faith.”[28] (3) He blesses her with a common Jewish farewell, “Go in peace,” which “involves less a wish for ‘peace of mind’ than a wish for divine peace that is a foretaste of eschatological salvation.”[29]The word of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, is invariably effective: the peace He wishes for her is the very peace He alone can give, in the eschatological salvation which He is even then in the process of bringing to fulfillment. (4) His final command, “be healed from your suffering,” reiterates what has in fact taken place, giving his personal sanction to the healing she has already received as a result of her faith: “The word ratifies what has already happened.”[30]

Contextual Analysis

A close reading of this pericope would be incomplete without an investigation of the woman’s ῥύσις αἵματος, her “flow of blood,” and the attendant question of purity. As noted above in footnote 5, Collins argues that “the ‘flow of blood’ mentioned in v.25 is no doubt a gynecological ailment,”[31] citing other uses of this phrase in medical texts of antiquity; for example, Aristotle writes in the Historia Animalium with regard to “menstrual flows” (καταμήνια) that “this blood, if it has become diseased, is known as flux” (ούς).[32] Thus understood, this woman’s twelve-year flow of blood would certainly have rendered her unclean, as Leviticus unequivocally states: “At the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean” (Lev 12:2b), and “if a woman has a discharge of blood for many days … all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness” (Lev 15:25).

Furthermore, the “fountain of blood” which is dried up in Mk 5:29 (ἡ πηγὴ τοῦ αἵματος αὐτῆς) corresponds verbatim to the Septuagint text of Lev 12:7, which describes the priest’s offering in atonement for the woman after her period of menstruation: “Then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood” (τῆς πηγῆς τοῦ αἵματος αὐτῆς). Guelich suggests that this wordplay might “subtly address the underlying purity question of how Jesus could be touched by a defiled person without personal consequence … His power to remove the defilement makes the issue moot.”[33] It should be noted, however, that this indirect allusion “could not have taken place in the setting of Jesus, since the present description in [Mk] 5:29 is editorial in nature and the alleged allusion is based on the Greek text of Lev 12:7 found in the LXX. It is not based on Aramaic (or Hebrew).”[34] Nevertheless, the textual evidence seems to establish beyond doubt that the woman’s μάστιξ rendered her impure and “defiled anything and anyone she touched.”[35] For this reason, Guelich argues, she is depicted by Mark as “coming from the rear of the crowd, the appropriate place for the defiled”; in so doing, she “risked defiling others by approaching and deliberately touching Jesus’ clothes.”[36]

Jesus is also to be found in compromising situations with regard to the laws of ritual purity before and after this encounter with the bleeding woman. Immediately before, he was in contact with a Gentile possessed by an unclean spirit, living among tombs in a pagan country. The ritual impurity of the whole situation in Mk 5:1-20 is illustrated above all by the presence of the herd of swine (Mk 5:11).[37] Immediately after this pericope, meanwhile, Jesus goes to the home of the recently deceased daughter of Jairus and takes hold of her hand (Mk 5:41), in contradiction of Numbers 19:11: “He who touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean.” Therefore, Guelich contends that when the bleeding woman is first introduced in Mk 5:25, “the purity question [present in all three stories] comes immediately to the surface.”[38]Other commentators, however, take a more nuanced view: Collins admits that “ritual impurity is not an explicit theme in the story,”[39] and Stein concludes, “Thus it plays no role in what [Mark] wants to share with his gentile readers … As a result, if we want to understand what he sought to convey to his readers through these accounts, we should concentrate on what the text tells us.”[40]

Isaian Parallels

In this section, I am entirely indebted to the scholarship of Rikki Watts, who argues convincingly that, “while attention is rightly given to key terms and motifs within the intercalation (e.g. ‘faith’, ‘fear’, ritual impurity and status)” by many commentators, “the integrity of the larger unit (4:35-5:43) … and the Old Testament background should not be ignored.”[41] With regard to this latter point, Watts situates the entirety of Mark’s Gospel within an “Isaianic new exodus horizon.”[42] The first verses of this Gospel quote Isaiah’s “voice crying out in the wilderness” (Mk 1:2-3; cf. Isa 40:3), explicitly setting the “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” within the Messianic context of Isaiah’s prophecy, and further textual and formal parallels abound between the Second Gospel and the Book of Isaiah. 

In the final chapters of III Isaiah, the prophet pleads with the Lord to “tear the heavens and come down” (Isa 64:1), sending His Messiah at last to lead Israel on the way of her new and definitive exodus. The key textual parallels with Mk 5:25-34 are found in Isa 64:6-9:

We have all become like one who is unclean,
            and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (lit., menstrual napkin).
We all wither away like leaves,
            and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one that calls upon your name,
            that bestirs himself to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
            and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father …
            Behold, consider, we are all your people.”

Like the people of God in Isaiah’s vivid analogy, the bleeding woman introduced in Mk 5:25 is unclean because of her menstrual flux. Lest this merely ritual impurity seem to be a less than perfect parallel with the sins of the people, Watts points out that “first-century popular theology apparently assumed that suffering implied sin and the LXX’s use of μάστιξ,” the ‘scourge’ described in Mk 5:29 and 34, “likewise implies divine chastening.”[43] Thus there is a clear parallel between the woman’s flow of blood and the iniquities of the people which carry them away: “It seems likely that the onlookers would have assumed the woman’s guilt with her healing implying forgiveness of her sins.”[44] She certainly may be described as one “withering away” from her interminable blood loss, as well as the loss of all that she had, spent on useless medical treatments. Jesus’ face is indeed hidden from her, as the Lord’s is hidden from Israel; she approaches him furtively from behind to touch the hem of his cloak.

Therein lies the key point of divergence between Isaiah’s lament and Mark’s miracle story: “This unclean woman, unlike Isaiah’s Israel, reaches out to this true son of the Father.”[45] She bestirs herself with confident faith to take hold of the Lord, and is rewarded with salvation. Furthermore, St. Mark describes the woman, upon realizing that she has been healed, as “being afraid and trembling” (cf. Mk 5:33). This language corresponds to the Lord’s promise in Isaiah 66:2: “This is the one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.” Indeed, Jesus looks to the woman, prostrate and trembling at his feet, and calls her “daughter” (Θυγάτηρ), a name commonly used in Isaiah to refer to Zion, the chosen people of God. Jesus then definitively pronounces her healed and blesses her with peace, as the Lord promised to heal daughter Zion and bless her with peace in the new exodus: “Peace, peace, to the far and near, says the LORD; and I will heal them” (Isa. 57:19). Thus, writes Watts, “while not taking anything away from the personal liberation of the woman, the Isaianic parallels suggest that Mark also sees the woman as a symbol of exiled Israel” restored to communion with God.[46]

Likewise, the surrounding narrative of the daughter of Jairus finds its parallel in the eschatological prophecies of Isaiah 65:19-20: “No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in [the new Jerusalem], or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days.” Upon entering the home of Jairus, Jesus first sends out the mourners, putting to rest the sound of weeping and wailing (Mk 5: 39-40), and then raises the child from her premature death (v. 41). He asks that she be given something to eat (v. 43); this, too, has an Isaianic parallel, for in the immediately following verse, the Lord promises that the people of the new Jerusalem “shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit” (Isa 65:21).


In this paper, I have argued that the intercalated stories of the bleeding woman and the daughter of Jairus found in Mark 5 are arranged in this way by the evangelist to express a key theological principle. The distinctive Markan sandwich technique, of which Mk 5:25-34 is a case in point, is a literary technique employed by the evangelist to give a theologicalinterpretive key to the surrounding narrative. The inner story unlocks the meaning of the outer story. In this case, the faith of the bleeding woman is the key to understand Mark’s purpose in the surrounding story of Jairus’ daughter. The woman and Jairus are set up by the evangelist as foils to one another by the use of both textual and formal inverted parallels. In particular, the inner and outer stories form a chiasmus in which the outer narrative moves from a public scene to a private scene, symbolizing Jairus’ subjective movement from public confession to a real, interior faith in Jesus, while the inner narrative moves from a private scene to a public scene, signifying the woman’s restoration to public life by her act of faith. 

I have further argued that the motif of ritual purity, while certainly implicit in these two pericopes as well as in the preceding story of the Gerasene demoniac, is not a key theme in this chapter of Mark. The surpassing of these ritual restrictions is present in the text only as a corollary to Mark’s plain emphasis, namely, that salvation is procured by faith in Jesus Christ, not necessarily by strict observance of the law. One runs the risk of missing the “forest” of salvation for the “trees” of purity laws. Furthermore, this theme of salvation by faith is to be understood here in the wider literary context of St. Mark’s Gospel, the “Isaian new exodus horizon” identified by Watts. By means of clear textual and formal parallels, too many to be written off as coincidental, Mark portrays Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah who will lead daughter Zion on the way of her new exodus, out of sin and death and into lasting peace, healing, and communion with the Father. The bleeding woman and the daughter of Jairus, whom Mark links by the motifs of the number twelve and the title “daughter,” may both be taken to represent Israel, suffering and near death on account of her sins, whom God wishes to raise to a new and definitive life in Himself. Israel must only turn to her Messiah, Jesus, the true Son of the Father, in faith if she is to be healed and saved from her sins. Then the words of Jesus addressed to the afflicted woman will ring out at last to God’s whole chosen people: “Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace, and be healed of your affliction” (Mk 5:35).


[1] Translated by Adela Yarbro Collins in Mark: A Commentary (Hermeneia; Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press, 2007). 

[2] James R. Edwards, “Markan Sandwiches: The Significance of Interpolations in Markan Narratives,” Novum Testamentum 31, no. 3 (1989), 196.

[3] “Of the commentators who have given special attention to the linking of these accounts, most agree that the primary point is the importance of faith over against special concerns for ritual purity.” Rikki Watts, “Jesus and the New Exodus Restoration of Daughter Zion: Mark 5:21-43 in Context,” in The New Testament in Its First Century Setting: Essays on Context and Background in Honour of B. W. Winter on His 65thBirthday, ed. P.J. Williams et. al. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 14.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, III, q. 39, a. 1, respondeo, at New Advent,

[5] The noun ύσις refers to a “flowing, flow” (cf. Bauer, 738). In the case of this woman’s ῥύσις αἵματος, it may be translated generally as a “flow of blood” or perhaps “hemorrhage.” Guelich attests that, “though unspecified, her problem has been associated by implication with a ritually defiling bleeding” (296). Stein adds that this flow of blood would certainly have rendered her ritually impure, “especially if the hemorrhaging involved her menstruation” (267). Likewise, Collins argues that “the ‘flow of blood’ mentioned in v.25 is no doubt a gynecological ailment,” citing other uses of this phrase in medical texts of antiquity by Aristotle and the Hippocratic physicians (280). 

[6] This verb in antiquity frequently has the connotation “of touching as a means of conveying a blessing (divine working by a touch of the hand) … esp. to bring about a healing” and even, “of those who are ill, touching the healer … also of touching the clothes of the healer” (cf. Bauer, 103). 

[7] There is a happy ambiguity in this verb, σῴζω, which can mean to “save from death,” i.e. to save someone’s life from mortal danger or disease, as well as to “save or preserve from eternal death,” the ultimate salvation which comes from God alone (cf. Bauer, 798).

[8] This noun, μάστιξ, literally refers to a whip or lash, though it may be used figuratively, as here, to refer to any torment or suffering (cf. Bauer, 495). Collins notes that the same word is used for those tormented by unclean spirits in Mk 3:10, although in the case of this woman, the “wielder of the whip” is left unspecified (82).

[9] Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM Press, 1985), 47.

[10] Edwards, “Markan Sandwiches,” 194.

[11] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, ed. Harold W. Attridge (Hermeneia; Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press, 2007), 276.

[12] Rudolph Bultmann, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, revised edition, trans. J. Marsh (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1968), qtd. in Edwards, “Markan Sandwiches,” 194. 

[13] “Fragments of Papias,” VI, translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, edited by Alexander Roberts et al. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), at New Advent,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Edwards, “Markan Sandwiches,” 195.

[16] Edwards, fn. 13.

[17] Edwards, 196.

[18] Edwards, 205.

[19] Edwards, “Markan Sandwiches,” 204.

[20] Collins, Mark: A Commentary, 276.

[21] Jerome, Homily 77, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 57, ed. R. J. Deferrari (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1947-), 148.

[22] Collins, 280.

[23] Watts, “Jesus and the New Exodus Restoration of Daughter Zion,” 22-23.

[24] Collins, Mark: A Commentary, 284.

[25] Stein, Mark, 268.

[26] Stein, Mark, 270.

[27] Guelich, Mark, 299.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Stein, 271.

[30] Guelich, Mark, 299.

[31] Collins, Mark: A Commentary, 280.

[32] Arthur L. Peck, Aristotle: Historia Animalium, vol. 1 (LCL; London: Heinemann, 1965), 220-23; cited by Collins, Mark, 280.

[33] Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26 (Word Biblical Commentary, v. 34A; Waco, TX: Word Books, 1989), 297.

[34] Robert H. Stein, Mark (Baker Exegetical Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 269.

[35] Guelich, Mark, 296.

[36] Ibid, 297.

[37] Ibid, 277.

[38] Ibid, 296.

[39] Collins, Mark: A Commentary, 283.

[40] Stein, Mark, 268.

[41] Watts, “Jesus and the New Exodus Restoration of Daughter Zion,” 18.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Watts, “Jesus and the New Exodus Restoration of Daughter Zion,” 20.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid, 19.

[46] Watts, “Jesus and the New Exodus Restoration of Daughter Zion,” 20.