Reprinting old books

Finding myself unusually pressed for time lately, I haven’t been able to keep on top of the one-post-per-weekday blogging schedule that I initially set for myself. What I have had time to do, which takes not much time at all, is put back into print (via CreateSpace, Amazon’s cheapo independent publishing platform) a couple good books that, unjustly neglected, have gotten too expensive and too hard to find. So far I have:

  • Ernst Kantorowicz’s biography of Frederick the Second. Written in 1927 and translated in 1956, this fascinating early work from the man who would later write The King’s Two Bodies has long been out of print.
  • Twenty-five sermons of Jeremy Taylor, the euphonious Anglican divine.
  • The History of Herodotus (first three books only), as translated in sonorous Gibbonian English by the 18th-century classicist John Lemprière.

Two others are still pending approval, but will soon be available (in the next day or two):

  • Also a 19th-century translation of Bossuet’s Universal History;
  • And an affordable reprint of Fr. Adrian Fortescue’s The Orthodox Eastern Church.

If you have any suggestions for out-of-print books that ought to be put back into print, and if you think there are clean, reprintable PDFs available thereof, I’d be happy to give them a go. I am pricing these at-cost, so I don’t make any money on them, and will be more than happy if just a few people are gratified to seem them made available once again.

Marshner on Scriptural Interpretation

The following articles are reprinted from Triumph magazine, Vol. V Nos. 4-5, April-May 1970.

No Christian can object to increasing the knowledge or the influence of Sacred Scripture. Yet the wide diversity of benefits that are expected to flow from the current “progress” in biblical studies suggests anything but unanimity as to how the subject ought to be approached. On the one hand, it is said that the biblical “revival” will lead to greater scriptural piety among the faithful; or to the development of a stronger bulwark against the attenuation of the Faith wrought by secularism—to fortifying the Magisterium; or to the improvement of the vernacular texts and a proper exegesis of difficult passages. But we also hear much talk of liberating scholars from the “narrow” or “cautious” norms set by the Church, of rediscovering “theological options” ignored or suppressed by traditional exegesis, of enabling the laity to receive Magisterial teachings “critically,” of improving “ecumenical relations.”

Clearly, there are some severely conflicting interests at work here, and it would seem to be of the highest importance to find out what the Catholic interest is. Probably the best way of proceeding is to get at the question negatively — to see first what is wrong with the entire modern approach to the study of Scripture.

That approach germinated with the presumptuous philology of the Renaissance, but the leaf was not seen until the Reformation took a bold step: the proclamation of the sola scriptura doctrine. Though formally in the province of the dogmatic theologian, the doctrine had its real impact in the domain of the biblical exegete. Throughout the patristic and medieval periods, the exegete had gone at his text with the support of a vast body of para-biblical literature and tradition. The movement of the mind from the more certain to the less certain had been a movement from those things sanctioned by immemorial tradition or hierarchical action — the liturgy, sacraments, the preaching of the Fathers, conciliar decisions — to the enigmatic or ambiguous pages of canonical Scripture. Now the movement was to be reversed. By the light of Scripture, all other things which had shaped Christian existence up till then were to be tested. The means by which the task could be carried out— by which the Bible could suddenly cease to be problem and become, by fiat, solution — were the principle of self-interpretation and the science of philology.

It was argued that the reason Scripture seemed obscure was that the Catholic interpreters had asked the wrong questions. Moreover, what besides compounded confusion could result from the attempt to reconcile Scripture with accumulated superstition and scholastic mumbo-jumbo? So ask first what the Bible itself says, speaking with its own voice. Let the more difficult passages be compared to the clear, let the secondary teachings be duly subordinated to the primary (such as justification by faith or the divine sovereignty), and without fail there would emerge a perspicuous whole, self-interpreting and adequate to the solution of every question which truly pertains to our salvation.

But if self-interpretability depended upon the perspicuity of at least the more important passages, how assure perspicuity? This would be guaranteed by an exact and historical understanding of the biblical languages, by philology.

Philological Hang-up

Now philology, unfortunately, is a science. I say unfortunately because, as a science, it could not be invoked forever without being practiced; and once practiced, it imposed conclusions dictated by the relentless internal logic proper to a science. Philology is the science that seeks to discover that meaning which emerges most naturally from the historical investigation of words and their syntax. From this principle it follows that, in the absence of contrary indication, a text has one meaning and only one. Thence springs the incompatibility between philological method and allegorical interpretation. Inevitably, therefore, the churches of the Reformation repudiated the allegorical senses, and with them the homilies and commentaries of the Fathers.

Nevertheless, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, Protestants sought to exploit the youthful estate of the linguistic and historical sciences in the interests of Reformation theology. Whatever success they achieved survives in our day as the essence of conservative, fundamentalist Protestantism. The Reformation theologians had a serious problem. On the one hand, they were committed to uncovering the grammatical or literal sense of the text, also called the “plain” sense. This sense was supposed to be identical to the one intended by the ancient author when he penned the passage in question. Thus there was room for investigation of the historical context of each book, the situation in which the author found himself, the concrete problems which he sought to address, etc. On the other hand, they were committed to the belief that every canonical text is ultimately authored by God, and thus that any “supernatural” data (miracles, healings, prophecies) must be taken at full value.

The difficulty here is that theological data cannot be imposed upon the philologian simply as a matter of faith — as the resurrection, for example, is imposed upon the Christian biologist. Rather, the historical-philological exegete must incorporate these data into the very principles of his science. And the biblical conservatism of the Protestant world stands or falls by this shotgun marriage of heterogeneous principles.

The point bears elaboration. Every science has as its object being (or some portion of being) viewed under some specific aspect. The biologist, for example, studies living beings qua living beings, and the scope of the statements which he can make qua biologist is limited strictly to the laws of those beings as such. When he is confronted, let us say, with data suggesting that all species now living have as ancestors simpler species, he attempts to discover the biological laws by which the indicated transformations could have taken place. If he can do so, his science will have explained the data under the aspect within which it is competent to explain them. If he cannot, he is no more at liberty to fetch in God as a hypothesis of biological science than he is to engage in science fiction. He must say simply that the data are not explicable by the laws governing those phenomena with which his science deals. Mutatis mutandis, the same limitation ought to hold for the philologian. The proper object of his science is confined to the text viewed under a specific aspect.

Yet the Protestant exegete has consistently ignored this quite obvious limitation. If, for example, his linguistic and historical data suggest that Moses could not have been the author of the five books ascribed to him, he will reply calmly that it is also a fact that God’s Word cannot lie and that it says plainly that Moses wrote. Thus, since theological data are intrinsically more certain than the results of empirical science, any conflicting linguistic and historical data are known a priori to lack all force, even if one cannot explain them away at the present time a posteriori. What the fundamentalist does not pause to notice is that if a theological conclusion may set at naught philological data on one occasion, there is nothing to prevent its doing so on every occasion. In order to be consistent, therefore, he must be prepared to defend all sorts of theses — for example, that the apparent tenor of Scripture cannot be called into question by any source external to itself; or that the authentic rules of grammar and syntax of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek biblical texts can be known only from the Bible; or that despite all pretended discoveries, the oldest extant text of the New Testament must be the original and inerrant text: any other assumption calls into question either the inerrancy of Scripture or the ability of the Divine Providence to preserve the sacred original.

In short, the confessional Protestant exegete, if he troubles to be consistent, ceases to be a philologian in any reputable sense of the term and becomes a prisoner of an all-inclusive aprioristic system. In practice , of course, he does not trouble but rather survives as an opportunist, “holding the line” wherever his mixed bag of principles will yield conclusions not too noticeably out of line with reality and prudently retreating elsewhere.

Theology Dumped

The retreat eventually led to the next phase of the doleful history of modern exegesis which found the vast majority of Protestants flinging themselves on the opposite horn of the dilemma mentioned above, and into which today the Catholic Church appears to be moving headlong in anxious pursuit of its “biblical revival.” If fundamentalism sought to resolve the internal contradictions of the traditional Protestant position by short-circuiting philological rigor, contemporary biblical criticism has, in turn, excluded theology. The philologian has declared himself free to work on the biblical text without check or hindrance in accordance with the principles of his discipline. Where once the sacraments and creeds of Christendom rendered assistance, one has come to find Ugaritic epics, cuneiform law, Dead Sea Scrolls, and Kenoboskion Fragments.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, descriptive grammar, lexicography, epigraphy, textual criticism, literary criticism, and ancient historiography had attained solidly scientific credentials, while archeology and form-criticism were not far in the future. As the twentieth century began, the once full warehouse of Divine Revelation yawned emptily, its stores having been relabeled and deposited elsewhere. Genesis had been handed over to Near Eastern mythology and tribal lore; the law of Moses had been caught owing more to Hammurabi than to the storm god or the volcanic divinity at Sinai; the historical books were political apologia for the favorites of the Jerusalem clergy; the prophets had written a mere fraction of the books bearing their names; Daniel, a contemporary of the Maccabees, had witnessed the events he pretended to prophesy and had slipped up badly in his depiction of the exilic period; synoptic research had left precious little of the historical Jesus (who was either a liberal or a maniac); John’s gospel had disappeared down the sinkhole of Gnosticism, and Hellenistic mystery cults took possession of the theology of Paul. It was small wonder that the theologians attempting to make do with the sweepings that remained died of a starvation called Modernism.

The Post-Heroic Age

To be sure, in 1970 every competent scholar recognizes that many of the above conclusions, the work of criticism’s Heroic Age, were tendentious, overblown, or sometimes wholly false; but few are prepared to acknowledge the real reasons for this embarrassment. At one level the trouble could be accounted for by errors of fact and hasty surmises from insufficient evidence. But at a second level the “religion” of Modernism played a role. The expulsion of inspiration, inerrancy, prophecy and miracles from the philologians tool-kit did not mean really that the science had achieved a mature self-awareness of its own limitations. It meant that scientism and progressivism had replaced the Gospel as the framework of interpretation, posing anew the menace of apriorism.

There remains a third level. Most profoundly, the trouble lies in the nature of criticism itself, as a philological-historical method. As to the philological component, the whole content of the science consists of linguistic facts manipulated in accordance with the laws of linguistic causality and probability. Therefore, divine causality as such is outside the limits of the scientific discipline and the linguistic effects of divine causality (e.g. an inspired text, a prophecy) cannot be ordered by the science. The science either will be unable to explain the data at all (passing them on to the theologian as mystery); or, misled by certain linguistic accidents, will order the effects falsely to a natural cause within its scope. Needless to say, even a philologian of the purest intentions and most ardent faith is likely to err in the latter respect.

For the historical component, the argument is analogous in every respect. As a science of human actions and experiences under a particular (rather difficult to define) aspect, it too is unable to rise to the divine causality. An event like the call of Abraham would be an effect of God in the historical order. If the historian is compelled by his evidence to admit that the effect occurred, he too either will leave it unexplained; or, misled by accidentals, assign a false cause proper to his science. Most often, however, guided by the principles of historical probability, he will dismiss the evidence itself. Thus it is doubly unlikely that the historian as such will practice his science authentically in the presence of a divine effect.

In a word, since neither the philological nor historical discipline is capable of dealing with divine things, any particular meaning which the critical method may discover in the Bible can only be the meaning of an ancient Near Eastern book no different in kind from any other ancient Near Eastern book. So viewed, the Bible is not the Holy Scripture of Christians and Jews but a collection of arcana of interest only to the small club of specialized orientalists.

A Non-Biblical God

How, then, fares exegesis today? After World War I, with the waning of scientific liberalism, scholars became more willing to let theologians be theologians. But two things could not change. The critical method of exegesis could not change its own nature, and Protestantism could not change its commitment to the literal sense. Hence, it makes very little difference that the critic of today, disciplined by the rigorous problematic of Traditionsgeschichte, rarely attempts to invent rationalistic explanations for biblical events. It matters little that he admits that those events belong ultimately to an order outside his competence. For even though the philologian confines himself to the literary materials and putative oral traditions occasioned by the events, and though the historian benevolently concedes that he can get no closer to the events than the texts will bring him, nevertheless a curious situation arises. It is this: when everyone is sticking to his business and not grinding axes for volcanoes, bug secretions, and psychosomatic diseases, the theologian still has a province; but the province is precisely not in Scripture but outside it in the God who acts. Whence, then, the theologian will secure any information about this God is a very nice question.

Doctrinal Chaos

In any case the curtain has come down at last on Protestantism in its formal aspect. With Scripture securely in the hands of those who tolerate God precisely because He is none of their business, the very foundation of Protestant theology has been dug out from under it. Far from guaranteeing a theologically useful perspicuity, philology has made the study of Scripture a fiendishly difficult operation, requiring the mastery of a dozen languages and years of specialized training, all of which produce, of themselves, no theologically useful meaning whatsoever. Far from using the Bible to measure and test the validity of all things, the exegetes have subjected the Book to cross-examination from every antique text and potsherd. If Protestant theologians still have a doctrine, they have it from the Reformers, or Kierkegaard, or Rauschenbusch, or, indeed, from the Church itself, but not from Scripture.

Of course this situation is intolerable for Protestants, and if Catholics continue to follow the same path, they will soon be in the same cul de sac. Unless there is some alternative — some approach to Sacred Scripture which is both rigorous and non-philological — the grounds for any Catholic interest in biblical revival will disappear faster than Presbyterian tenets under Eugene Carson Blake.

The Bible is not a voice from Heaven but a document. No matter what its content, a document can be interpreted properly only when certain things are known about it. Let the reader suppose that a document not previously known to him has come into his hands. In almost every case, he will be able to assign it at once to its appropriate genre. He will see that it is a business letter, an epic, a biography, a shopping list, a doctoral dissertation, a novel, whatever. As soon as he recognizes the genre, he will know the document’s raison d’être, and therefore the sort of norms that are applicable to it. To take an obvious case, suppose he has before him a biography: he already knows why people write biographies and what sort of content such things have; he is therefore able to evaluate it according to generally recognized criteria. He is in considerably greater difficulty, on the other hand, if he does not know whether he has before him a biography or a Bildungsroman. Similarly, a military censor in the midst of a war, happening upon a poem in the style of E. E. Cummings in the outbound mail, might suspect that it is a dangerous coded message. Lyric or spy note? Whether the unfortunate author is court-martialed or not will depend upon his superiors’ ability to recognize the genre.

Now, does the Bible itself, taken as a whole, belong to a genre? What is its raison d’être? By what norms is it to be interpreted?

The question can be answered, at one level, theologically. The Catholic Church teaches that canonical Scripture is a unified revelation, whose ultimate author is God disclosing His nature and will to His Church, and that therefore the entire content of Scripture must conform to the work of the Holy Spirit within the Church. Moreover, Scripture is in part identical with the “deposit of faith” given to the apostles and to their successors, a deposit that has been identified and protected by an infallible magisterium, which is itself the fulfillment of biblical promise.

The principle of sola scriptura, on the other hand, affirms that the text itself, empirically examined, reveals what it is and what authority it possesses. The Bible’s divine inspiration is thus proved from the Bible. The flaw in the principle is obvious. Divine authorship cannot be demonstrated simply by pointing to a verse asserting it since there is nothing to prevent any book from claiming to be of divine origin; consider the Koran and the book of Mormon. Nor can the “signs” of divine inspiration usually proposed as evidence (nobility of content, prophetic accuracy, an otherwise unaccountable coherence) provide any assurance — not only because critical researchers have invalidated them (the researches can he questioned only by assuming the very inspiration one is seeking to prove); but also because in the last analysis such evidence is intrinsically unpersuasive: philological investigation cannot order effects to divine causality. The fact, then, is that sola scriptura is pure assumption; it presupposes divine inspiration.

(It may be asserted that the Holy Spirit communicates directly to each believer what the Bible teaches concerning the way of salvation. But after we have given up wondering how we came to know that there is a Holy Spirit, we still want to know, to paraphrase Chesterton, when Mr. Jones is telling us what the Holy Spirit placed in his innermost thoughts and when he is telling us what he put there all by himself. Surely Jones would like to know too.)

The conclusion is unavoidable. Apart from some independent source of information whose content is itself objectively knowable and theologically authoritative, there is no possible way of knowing what one has to know about the Bible if that book is to have theological significance. But no such independent source is at hand besides the apostolic tradition. That is, there is no theological alternative to the Catholic position,

The question can also be answered, however, at a natural level. One may define the Bible, phenomenologically, as a sacred book (genus), used by Catholics and in part by Protestants and Jews (differentiae). Now of course any. sacred book becomes sacred only when sanctioned as such — i.e., “canonized” — by the appropriate authorities of the believing community. The selection of matter included in the sacred book has thus been made on the basis of a pre-existing body of doctrine. The essential force of the canonization is to declare that the text shall serve as a religious guide for the whole community in perpetuity, and therefore that the text must be understood in a sense transcending the accidental limitations of its historical origin. This canonized sense comes into play most properly in liturgy and homiletics, that is, in the on-going, solemn proclamation of the text to all men. Thus the doctrine of the community precedes and conditions the existence of the sacred book, not vice-versa. Moreover the canonized sense can never be allowed to contradict itself; all perceptible differences must be read as ultimately concordant. Indeed, the maximum convergence of all passages is itself a norm of interpretation. In addition, the canonized sense cannot contain anything at variance with the teachings of the authority that canonized the text. Therefore disputes about the canonized sense can be settled only by appeal to the criteria which originally determined the canonization — that is, to orthodoxy.

The reader scarcely can have missed the remarkable convergence between these phenomenological observations and the theological tenets of the Church. The convergence is not contrived; rather, it is simply the case that the Church, in teaching as she always has, confirms and obeys an objective law of canonized texts and of what we might call the sociology of faith. (It is no mystery why this law is repugnant to some, its implications being a veritable blueprint for hierarchical power; nor why innovators are desperate to make sure that their exegetical procedure shall be the sort that puts authority in the hands of “scholars” rather than bishops.)

Observe now how the modern biblical exegete goes about interpreting a biblical book. According to differences of style and other internal evidences, he decomposes the book into its component parts, strands, layers, and so forth; and to each he assigns a distinct identity—Yahwist Narrative, Second Isaiah, Q Document. For each of these parts, he attempts to discover the original historical setting, what the author intended, what the author’s audience could have understood by the language employed. Armed with the results of these researches, the exegete then attempts to reconstruct the “theology” of the author, favoring us with a stack of monographs examining each theme of his thought and contrasting it with the ideas of earlier and later writers. At some point, he will survey the indications of how the book as a whole got into its present form, and conclude that the various components were elaborated and handed down separately by various schools or circles of tradition; whereupon they were finally put together and re-edited into a semblance of unity. The possessor of this formidable erudition is now able to service the Christian community. He will happily disclose how far-fetched are the interpretations made by the various New Testament writers when they deal with the Old, how much farther-fetched are the homilies in our breviary, how grotesque are the applications made of many biblical passages in our liturgy, how elaborately our theology has transmogrified the notions of the biblical writers — for all which contributions large segments of the Church profusely will thank him, remunerate him and abjectly reverence him as the greatest boon since St. Jerome.

Relevant to What?

Upon reflection one begins to see why this procedure makes a shambles of the whole postulate that the biblical text constitutes a unified book, having a single purpose. According to that postulate, what a given passage might have meant to its human author or to its original audience is, perhaps, interesting; but what it means is determined by its role in the totality of which it is a part. To say the same thing a bit differently: the applications, interpretations, changes, corruptions, and other vicissitudes undergone by all the various parts, strands, layers, and what have you, before they were incorporated into the unity called Scripture, are irrelevant to their meanings as parts of Scripture. (I do not speak, of course, of absolute irrelevance, since the parts in question must have borne within themselves marks which led to their inscripturation and the earlier meaning usually will have influenced the later, though often rather deviously. But I do insist that the two meanings are essentially distinct, that the interpretive processes by which they are discovered are different, and that one never needs to know the earlier in order adequately to know the later.)

A celebrated example is the Song of Songs. The modern exegete will tell us, on the basis of very good evidence, that when the various poems in this book were composed, they were intended and received as erotic verse—plain and simple. (Some interpreters refer to this understanding of the text as the “historical sense.”) On the other hand, it is well known that when the book was being considered by the rabbis for inclusion in the canon, it was being read as an allegory of God’s love for His people. In fact, the reason it is in the canon is precisely because it was interpreted in this way. The allegory, then, constitutes the “scriptural sense” of the Song of Songs, the only sense with which the Church, as the canonizing authority, is directly concerned. (Another familiar term is “literal sense”; the reader will be saved much dangerous confusion by understanding that when the Fathers of the Church speak of the literal sense, they always mean some form of the scriptural sense— never what a modern critic means by the literal sense. It was just on that ambiguity of the term “literal” that the Reformation foundered.) In short, the philogical-critical procedure is a satisfactory exegesis only so long as one denies the paramount fact that there is a unity called Scripture—a unity which is here to be studied not because of the accidents of the archeologist’s spade but because a living community collected, defined, and preserved it.

This brings us to the heart of the matter. The modern exegete is fond of asking, Is not the whole idea of a sacred book, interpreted in accordance with a “scriptural sense,” a piece of sheer mystification? The Catholic answers, Certainly not! To discover a biblical text’s historical origin, to learn what its author intended, and to understand its vocabulary cannot be the end of it. Every piece of writing is a linguistic structure, means what its words collectively denote and connote within the total context of the language as it is employed at a given time. If we have enough information (a condition which is hard to judge) we can form a pretty good idea of what such a text could or could not have meant in the period when it was written. If the text was used only in that period or is of interest to us only in that period, then one may regard its meaning as relatively fixed. But in the case of the Bible, we are dealing with texts which were used and heeded sometimes for centuries after their composition. Therefore, it is not mystifying but obvious and inevitable that the significance of the text for its readers should have undergone development both before and after its canonization, especially as the ideas which conditioned the canonization continued to be clarified. This is by no means to say that a text really comes to mean anything that anyone wants it to mean; there are criteria for distinguishing valid from invalid developments, as Newman spelled out in his great Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. These criteria guide the Church in discovering the “scriptural sense.”

The Melchizedek Story

The whole argument here can be summed up in a single example. During the Mass, at a point after the Consecration, the Roman Canon makes reference to the sacrifice of the priest Melchizedek. It is just the sort of thing to infuriate the modern “scripture expert”—which may have something to do with the fact that Melchizedek is not mentioned in any of the new canons. Today’s layman is advised (cf. The Anchor Bible, Chapter 1-4) that Melchizedek is thought to have been both a King of Jerusalem in the Middle Bronze Age and a priest of the pagan god El Elyon. He brings out offerings and invokes his god, while Abraham, no doubt in a spirit of ecumenical dialogue, gives him a tithe of everything. So the layman finds the Church praying in her most solemn rite that God would accept the sacrifice of Christ as he accepted the ministrations of a pagan hierodule, as if it were not enough to discover the Hebrew patriarch apparently recognizing the spiritual authority of such a person. Matters get worse still in the New Testament, where our layman reads in the Epistle to the Hebrews (especially chapter 7) that Christ our Lord is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek, the self-same Canaanite pagan. The mind boggles.

I have no quarrel, please note, with the distinguished editor of the Anchor Bible’s volume on Genesis, the late Dr. E. A. Speiser. He employs his critical method with great care, and I no more blame him for the questions and answers which that exegetical procedure imposes on him than I should blame a noted biologist who assures me that, according to the laws of nature, the dead do not rise. I merely note with some dismay that whereas no one imagines that biological scientists deal with the resurrection, there seem to be millions who imagine that critical scholars determine the canon of Scripture.

The reconstruction of the “historical Melchizedek” (a reconstruction whose probabilist and naturalist guiding principles the reader should bear in mind) has no direct bearing, of course, on the figure of Melchizedek presented by Holy Scripture, which figure in turn is the only Melchizedek named in our liturgy. If we wish to understand the Melchizedek of the Bible, we must begin with Psalm 109 (in some versions, 110). When this Psalm was composed, perhaps as far back as the United Monarchy, it was a solemn address to the Davidic king. (Today, to be sure, it is properly read as Messianic.) It was this king who was addressed as “a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” It is not entirely clear why the heirs of David came to bear this title; possibly, it had something to do with their residence in Jerusalem. Some sort of hoary tradition seems to have linked Abraham with Jerusalem and its ruler in his day; but it is difficult to get a clear idea of what that tradition was all about, since we possess only a small fragment of it in rather worked-over form (Genesis 14: 18-21), tucked into what was once probably another story altogether.

Why, then, did this fragment get preserved while numerous other remembrances of Abraham and the other patriarchs must have been lost? The answer lies (humanly speaking) in the importance of that royal title. It was long after the reign of David that the traditions now forming Genesis were edited into something like their present shape; therefore the royal title was already in use and required explanation. And what better explanation could there be than a tradition showing Abraham, ancestor of all Israelites, yielding the tithe to him after whom the royal line took its title of priest? Of course, when the line of David ceased to occupy the throne, all of its titles were automatically transferred to the awaited Messiah, who would not only deserve them as a son of David but also fulfill them in an exemplary way. Thus, well before our Lord was born, Psalm 109 was already being read as a Messianic prophecy; and the understanding of Genesis 14 cannot have remained uninfluenced. From there, it is a small step to the Christian exegesis.

Once Jesus is recognized as the Messiah, the title of priest after the order of Melchizedek is automatically His. That is not wonderful. What is wonderful is the sudden illumination which breaks up odd phrases of the old texts in the light of the identity of Christ. The sacrifice of Calvary makes it clear at last why the definitive “son of David” should be called a priest, just as Christ’s divinity imparts a new weight to the claim of being a priest “forever.” The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (7:3) noticed something curious about the old fragment in Genesis. The way it has been spliced into the text leaves Melchizedek in lonely splendor, unattended by the geneological pedigree, the small army of descendants and the figures on longevity which are part of the standard equipment of figures of comparable importance in the patriarchal narratives. In this state of affairs, the New Testament writer (as well as the Holy Spirit) sees an apt prefigure of the Eternal Christ, Who is not of this order. And of course, as soon as Melchizedek is seen as a type of Christ, the words of Genesis assume a startling significance when they tell us that the king-priest brought gifts of bread and wine.

It is difficult to imagine a clearer illustration of how Christian exegesis posits a scriptural sense based upon the present state of the text as a part of the entire Bible—not some “historical sense” based on reconstruction of what the text might have been taken to mean if it had been discovered yesterday engraved on a potsherd. The Church must not fail in her duty to insist upon the knowledge of this scriptural sense. For without the meaning yielded thereby, the apostolic exegesis becomes incomprehensible, and our liturgy a shambles. I speak not of a far-off danger but of something presently upon us. Every Catholic who reads the vernacular breviary or goes to vernacular Masses has been exposed already to the senseless archaizing of the Psalter (reconstruction of the historical sense), to take just one example. Introits and Graduals are replete with Yahweh this and Yahweh that. In your personal prayer, do you call God “Yahweh?” Neither has anyone else among the people of God for two and a half millennia. Today, however, you must split schizophrenically between your identity as a Christian, when you pray privately, and your brand new identity as a pre-exilic Hebrew, when you assist at Mass.

Thus do our biblical periti bring us up to date.

Macaulay’s Classical Reading

This is the title of an essay that first appeared in the December 1915 issue of The Classical Journal under the name of William Chislett, Jr., a professor at the institution commonly known as Stanford University.  Of his subject he writes:

In the matter of keeping up his classics after college he resembled FitzGerald. But FitzGerald dreamed over books. Macaulay dreamed over them, too, but oftener he battled with them. He penciled his reaction over all the margins. Trevelyan says that to separate the commentary from the text in these cases is to be unjust to Macaulay’s reputation. […] In his Essays Macaulay shows himself interested in, and often severely critical of, the classical scholarship of great statesmen and writers. He declares that more of Petrarch’s Latin works “would have placed him on a level with Vida or Buchanan.” As modern Latin poets he places Milton and Buchanan on a par, but he admits that in his prose Milton uses words “that would have made Quintilian stare and gasp.” He attacks Sir William Temple for presuming to write his Essay on Ancient and Modern Learning when he knew no Greek. He criticizes Addison for confining his attention almost entirely to Latin poetry to the neglect of Latin prose and Greek. He declares that Dr. Johnson’s Latin writings are tainted by his wide knowledge of mediaeval writers. “That Augustan delicacy of taste which is the boast of the great public schools of England, Johnson never possessed,” says he. He praises Pitt for his classical scholarship; adding, “He was not satisfied until he had mastered Lycophron’s Cassandra, the most obscure work in the whole range of ancient literature.”

The full essay, only nine pages long and well worth reading, is here.

New Books, 6/16/17

Oliver Hilmes has written a new biography of Franz Liszt.

Philip Jenkins (“one of America’s foremost scholars of religion”) has written a book in which we learn that “much of the Judeo-Christian tradition we know today was born between 250-50 BCE”.

The next book from Edward Feser, this time on natural theology, will be released this August.

Jeffrey Lee has produced the first English-language biography I know of Reynald de Chatillon, the notorious Crusader mostly remembered today (despite the heroic rehabilitative efforts of Bernard Hamilton) for his brutality and bloodlust.

Michael Massing, an investigative journalist, is writing a book about the Reformation.

I tend to like Dan Jones’s books, which so far have been medieval pop histories. His next, on the Order of Templars, looks to be no different.

Romanus Cessario and Cajetan Cuddy have written a book on the Thomistic tradition.

I hope St. Augustine’s Press keeps its deadline for this one: Fr. Ernest Fortin’s book, now in English, about Claudianus Mamertus.

Anthony Kaldellis is a very good Byzantinist, and he’s turning his eye toward a more popular audience with his new history of Byzantium till the first Crusade.

Knowing almost nothing about it except that it will be published by Ignatius, still I won’t hesitate to recommend this Catholic introduction to the Old Testament.

I have heard praises for James C. Scott from a more diverse set of people than for any other living political theorist, and now he has a new book.

Here is a new intellectual biography of Philo of Alexandria.

Mencken wrote at the start of his career a daily column called The Free Lance, six days a week, selections of which have been collected here.

I do not know who Kyle Harper is, but he has written another one of those books about Rome, and there is always the chance that it is quite good.

If you like me have a guilty fondness for David Hume the man, here is a book about his friendship with Adam Smith.

Here is a book from Richard Rex about the young (recently excommunicated) Martin Luther.

I am going to predict now that Josephine Quinn’s new book about why “the Phoenicians” didn’t exist will do for them what Le Mirage spartiate did for the Spartans.

Tim Rogan has a book to be published soon from Princeton on three 20th-century critics of capitalism: Tawney, Polanyi, and Thompson.


Tory-Marxist historiography

There are certain periods of history in which,[1] on a superficial view, the actions of men appear to have followed rules entirely different from those with which the modern world is familiar.Between the sceptical observer of the twentieth and the religious material of the seventeenth century the gulf seems at first sight so great that the common residuum of humanity appears by comparison almost negligible, and we hesitate to study characters with whom we cannot hope to sympathise. Reading of “Wars of Religion”, in which the combatants, heroically determined to establish the Kingdom of Heaven in Heaven, showed more solicitude for the posthumous condition of their neighbours’ souls than for the immediate comfort of their own or their neighbours’ bodies, we might pardonably conclude that all analogy between the past and the present is superfluous, since the rules of human behaviour have plainly been revised in the interim.

To some people, – to those sentimental persons who find in the past not a variation of the present but an escape from it, – this interpretation is perfectly satisfactory. But it cannot easily satisfy those who seek in history not romance but instruction, and who believe, as an historical axiom, that human nature does not change from generation to generation except in the forms of its expression and the instruments at its disposal. How can we hope to understand the actions of men whom we believe to have been actuated by passions from which we feel ourselves immune? To suppose that grave, learned, well-intentioned divines tortured and executed less conventional believers solely to please God, or that enthusiastic philosophers sprang to arms

To prove their doctrine orthodox
By apostolic blows and knocks,

is to people the past with fools and bigots; and although we know that fools and bigots, like saints and visionaries, did exist, yet we can be equally sure that it was not such as they who provided the material and the makers of history. Then, as now, they remained on the fringe of political movements, sometimes uplifted into brief eminence on the crest of a wave, sometimes waiting in obscurity for the leisure of later historians to discover them. It was not they, with their purely intellectual and spiritual ideas, who worked great changes: and the more we analyse the “Wars of Religion”, the less of religion, properly so called, do we find in them. Indeed, it would be as easy to believe that the nations of Europe fought for four years over the death of an inconvenient Archduke, as that they ever fought for a hundred over the attributes of an unproven God.

What then was all the fighting about? If religion be merely a doctrine about the origins of the world and the destiny of the soul, certainly it was not about religion, as neither one nor the other of these things could be altered by revolution. But if religion be the ideal expression of a particular social and political organisation as well (and observation shows us that men prefer to idealise their political ambitions for the purpose of defending them), then we can understand why men were once prepared to fight for “religion” in a way that they will not fight for it now, when most religions have shed their political implications. The Roman religion, it is true, has not thus divorced itself from politics; and it remains a dynamic force today.

Religion, in fact, was also an aspect of politics, – the outward symbol, the shibboleth, by which parties were known: and the fact that it was also believed to be absolutely true by those who regarded its political content as convenient will surprise no one who has observed human nature. “Predestination”, “No Bishops” or “A Godly Ministry” were good battle-cries, whatever they meant: and the actual requirements of those who used them so freely could not be directly expressed with such terseness. But it was not for these shibboleths that men fought and intrigued, but for the realities of which they were the superficial evidence. This point, however, should not need much labouring: for we have evidence of the same general condition on the Continent today, although the forms assumed are not now those of religious denominations. And if we wonder now how it was that men could fight so passionately over the question of bowing in church, or the position of the communion-table, our descendants will perhaps find it equally incomprehensible that among their ancestors – apparently rational creatures like themselves – the colour of a shirt, or the form of a salute, or the chalking of a symbol on a wall, should have aroused passions, led to violence, and even resulted in war. The great heresiarchs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had they legislated for the soul of man only, would have passed from the European stage as unnoticed as the great poets. But they did not legislate for the soul only, – although, like all political theorists, they began with the nature of man before proceeding to the organisation of men. “It is not wholly fanciful to say”, says Professor Tawney, “that, on a narrower stage, but with not less formidable weapons, Calvin did for the bourgeoisie of the sixteenth century what Marx did for the proletariat of the nineteenth.”

This is not, of course, to say that there was any hypocrisy in the behaviour of those who fought political campaigns under denominational colours, or that religion. is nothing more than a political programme idealised. Religion is a complex thing, in which many human instincts are sublimated and harmonised: and political ambition is only one among these, although in politics it is naturally by far the most potent. Nor would it be suggested that the men of the seventeenth century did not believe with all their heart and soul in the doctrines which they evolved with such ingenuity, held with such tenacity, and defended with such ferocity. Being themselves inside the movements, they had not the objective outlook towards them which critical analysis requires; and forms of expression, when the substance beneath them is alive, assume a vitality of their own. Only when the material basis is disturbed do they drop away, like flowers without roots, and the convictions of one generation become the joke of the next.

Once this postulate is admitted, other difficulties which might have hindered the understanding of those times rapidly become explicable. Take the principle of religious toleration. To us who have rendered religion impotent by dissociating it, at any rate temporarily, from politics, religious intolerance is merely inexplicable; and sympathetic biographers of the churchmen of old, when they come across the burning of a heretic in 1612 by the gentle Bishop Andrewes and the charitable Bishop Neile, or find that Neile, twenty-seven years later, recommended that a similar course be taken with a Dover stonemason who disapproved of episcopacy, pass it off as a sad reminder of the errors of that age, from which even its most enlightened spiritual teachers were, unhappily, not exempt. But this is surely an unwarrantable assumption of superiority in our own age, which has merely transferred its credulity to other things, attributing to pills and mixtures the miraculous properties which it denies to relics, and accepting from the advertisement hoardings dogmatic assurances which would come unheeded from the pulpit. Except by a few gentle spirits like Erasmus and Montaigne, religious toleration was considered a shocking error in the sixteenth century. The Pope officially condemned it, and did not even claim it, as a principle, for Catholic minorities. It was better, he told them, to be persecuted than tolerated: and asked whether they expected to live among thorns without being pricked. Later, even Cromwell, who avowed the principle, took care to limit its practical application to those who were either sufficiently weak or sufficiently orthodox not to threaten his government. Those who were neither were outside the pale. And even those arm-chair idealists whose principles were unmodified by the necessity of applying them, while advocating toleration, were careful to distinguish between tolerable and intolerable opinions. To us, on the other hand, religious toleration is an accepted axiom. We may even go further, and say, with Tom Paine, that toleration is not enough, for toleration implies a right not to tolerate; and that if intolerance is the Pope armed with fire and faggot, toleration is the Pope selling or granting indulgences. Must we then assume that the age of Grotius and Descartes, Hobbes and Pascal, Rubens and Harvey, was so dull and crass as not to see the obvious futility of religious persecution and the obvious necessity of toleration ? This is surely not so. Surely it was because religion was not merely a set of personal beliefs about the economy of Heaven, but the outward sign of a social and political theory, that it was enforced and persecuted by Church and State. To deny the government any control over the religious beliefs of its subjects was then equivalent to denying it any right to interfere in social and political matters. We can see well enough in our own day that governments, uncertain of their security, attempting to impose or consolidate a new social order, cannot afford to tolerate social and political heresies in their midst.

It must be added that these facts were not unrealised at the time, though subsequent writers have tended to forget them. No one then pretended that religion was the private concern of God and the individual soul, outside the jurisdiction of the government. Religion, it was generally admitted, was the propaganda of political parties, and no one supposed that it ought to withdraw to the cloister and busy itself exclusively about theological niceties. “Religion it is that keeps the subject in obedience”, declared Sir John Eliot in 1625, and the parliament of 1628-9 voted that “whosoever shall bring in innovation in religion, or . . . seek to extend or introduce Popery or Arminianism, or any other opinion disagreeing from the true and orthodox Church, shall be reputed a capital enemy to this kingdom and commonwealth”. So it was not the religious heresy of Prynne, Burton, and Bastwick that was their chief fault or the sole reason for their persecution. “These men”, Wentworth wrote to Laud, “do but begin with the Church that they might have free access to the State”, and Laud replied that it was only too true, and that he wished that more people realised it. When Lord Saye and Sele accused Laud of too seldom preaching, Laud made it clear that his Church was a political instrument. “You must not measure preaching”, he replied, “by a formal going up into the pulpit. For a bishop may preach the Gospel more publicly, and to far greater edification, in a court of judicature, or at a council table, where great men are met together to draw things to an issue, than many preachers in their several charges can.” To accuse Laud and his bishops of interfering in social and political affairs is ridiculous: for social and political affairs were their business. It was only later, after the struggles of the century were over, that the Church of England, looking back upon them, and seeing what disasters had attended her when she backed the wrong horse in politics, decided in future to prefer safety to influence, and never to back any horse in politics again. So she withdrew, like the monarchy, from the rough-and-tumble of political life, and remained an unmolested cypher, neither loved nor hated, and approached with the decent, if meaningless, reverence allowed to the dead. Churchmen sometimes looked wistfully back to her great days and, drawing a mistaken inference, said that the world had been religious then, when really it was that religion had been secular; and laymen, judging the religion of the past from that of the present, thought it incomprehensible that men could once have been driven to revolution in defence of a set of unplausible conjectures.

So much has been said by way of preface to a life of Archbishop Laud, because Laud has so often been judged from such a point of view. Extracted from the social conditions in which he lived and with which his policy was identified, he has been regarded as a theologian whose views, independent of his age, may be judged by the eternal standard of Divine Truth, and his failure ascribed either to the wrongness of his opinions or the wickedness of the world, according to the religious denomination of the judge. To Macaulay he was “a ridiculous old bigot”: to Newman, less succinctly, “a character cast in a mould of proportions that are much above our own, and of a stature akin to the elder days of the Church”; and as his biographers and commentators have generally been either high Anglican clergymen concerned to puff, or doughty dissenters determined to slang him, these two opposite judgments have been regularly, if less eloquently confirmed. Professor David Masson undoubtedly enjoyed the picture which he gave of a red-faced little bishop trotting obediently at his master’s tail: a Mr. Henry Bell, a retired Indian Civil Servant and lawyer, who is not above emending his text to serve his brief, launched a furious broadside in order to counter high Anglican propaganda: Z and Laud’s clerical biographers, since they approach him on their knees, are naturally unable to see very far. Only Gardiner, who treated him not as a churchman, but as a protagonist in English history, was able to look upon Laud in that secular spirit from which alone an impartial view can come.

We must therefore regard Laud here not as a theologian who must stand or fall by the accuracy of his theological opinions, but as a politician whose material was English society in the early seventeenth century. As for his divinity,

II n’appartient a moy, pecheur:
Aux theologiens le remetz,
Car c’est l’office de prescheur.

For our purposes, the state of English society in his time is more important than the intricacies of the Will of God.

[1] Reproduced from the Introduction to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Archbishop Laud.

The Four Hundred

For a brief period, scarcely longer than the summer of 411, the Four Hundred ruled. Who were they? Whence did they come, what did they do? Why did they fall? In making sense of the story, the reader must begin with the failure of Athens in its Sicilian expedition of 413 BC. The Athenian democracy could hold itself together when the war was going well, but at any sign of imbalance, the constitution strained; the campaign at Sicily proved to be a greater imbalance than any event theretofore, and Athens responded accordingly.

When news of the Sicilian disaster came, the immediate reaction of the Athenians was incredulity, followed by a near-frenzied resolve to, though crippled, continue the war. This resolve was not looked upon kindly by the other Greeks, who saw it rather as insanity than bravery. Though Athens was determined to remain in the arena unto the end, the Spartans by then had the undisputed favor of the audience. Among the various effects of this was a seemingly unending series of revolts: notably Euboea, Lesbos, and, of particular relevance here, Chios.

The Chians sought the aid of a nearby Persian satrap called Tissaphernes in organizing their revolt. No less eager to see Athens lose its subjects were the Spartans, who could not resist throwing their weight behind the revolts as well; Alcibiades, now a Spartan advisor, was sent to negotiate with Chios and Tissaphernes and to aid them in their revolt against Athens. The Athenians, with their newly revived determination, refused to cede their empire without a good fight and quickly arrived to contest their subjects’ hopeful aspirations to sedition; other cities in the area revolted and the two sides skirmished back and forth, each side winning and losing in turns.

Then Alcibiades defected once again (probably in hopes of eventually returning to Athens). This time allying himself with the Persians, he found his way to the ear of Tissaphernes and filled it with new ideas: perhaps it would be better, from the Persian perspective, for Athens to win; and anyway, was Persia really getting as much out of its Spartan alliance as could be gotten? Why not squeeze them for a little more – cut back their funding, stretch them out a bit more? Alcibiades then turned to the Athenians at Samos with a similar proposal: this satrap could be got as an ally, if only the Athenians would toss their petulant and unpredictable democracy and install a more reliable oligarchy. There was some opposition – would not an oligarchical revolution only further alienate their allies? – but the Athenians had already seen in their minds’ eyes the victories that would accompany their soon-to-be supportive satrap and decided to go ahead with the plan.

The “plan,” of course, was a canard. Tissaphernes would not support Athens, but the events had already been set in motion and Pisander began to agitate for oligarchy. At Athens he was met with little sympathy, but his anti-democratic invective, replete with warnings against the growing powers of Sparta and Persia, would inflame the Athenians’ fear in his absence. After going next to supplicate Tissaphernes, whose demands in the case of an alliance were calculated as to exceed the limits Athens would accept, Pisander finally arrived back at Samos, empty-handed but full of oligarchical conviction.

From there the seeds finally began to sprout. Thrasos accepted oligarchy; when Pisander arrived again at Athens, he found that the Athenian anxiety made for fertile soil and his revolution had taken root and begun to bloom. The people’s champions were quickly weeded out and the masses themselves quickly abandoned all convictions to their overwhelming fear (which was carefully tended and watered by roving gangs of pro-oligarchical agitators). An interim committee of ten was installed to see to the details of the new constitution, and finally the budding oligarchs came to power; the Four Hundred were ushered in and the oligarchy was in full flower. Some prevarications were necessary – vague and insincere gestures about the Five Thousand who would, in name, govern the city, were made, but of course the real power remained in the hands of the Four Hundred. Finally they could use it.

Use it they did. It was decided that all tax revenue would go to the war effort and to nothing else; all bureaucratic salaries were suspended. Hopes of victory were apparently forgotten and a letter was sent to Sparta seeking peace, to which the Spartan king Agis replied by inviting the Athenians to send, perhaps inauspiciously, a delegation. Ten men were sent to Samos to win favor for the new government back in Athens, where they found a party of Samian oligarchs plotting their own ascendancy. The would-be oligarchs were then discovered and their conspiracy crushed. Soon after, Chaereas, a crewmember of the Paralus, arrived at Samos with terrible, if exaggerated, tales of the events at Athens – his ship, unware of the regime change, had arrived at the city only to have its entire crew locked up by the new despots.

In a somewhat less-than-vexing decision, the Athenian armies at Samos, though originally so eager to bring the oligarchy about, took a hard look at the evidence and changed their minds. They solemnly professed their democratic faith and vowed to support democracy both at Samos and back at Athens, afterwards electing new generals whose mission, it was agreed, would be to seek the restoration of democracy. Alcibiades again reappeared at Samos; the generals, having not forgotten the traitor’s influence at the court of Tissaphernes, brought him back in hopes of using his Persian influence to their gain; he quickly joined their ranks and wandered back to Tissaphernes’ court while the other generals began to plan for their voyage to Athens. Alcibiades returned, followed quickly by emissaries from the Four Hundred who had been waiting at Delos for some of the fervor to dissipate.

It hadn’t; for some time they found it impossible to speak over the jeers. Eventually the democrats ran out of breath and the despots’ emissaries gave their speech, presenting the same fibs that had been given at Athens about the preservation of the city and the real power of the Five Thousand. Fortunately for the beleaguered envoy, Alcibiades turned coats again and came to their aid, convincing the generals in the audience not to sail against Athens. Less propitious was the arrival thereafter of a pro-democratic Argive embassy accompanied, as living evidence, by the rest of the crew of the Paralus whom the Four Hundred had treated so poorly.

Nevertheless, the relieved ambassadors returned to Athens with the news. The Four Hundred were not as receptive to Alcibiades’ optimism about the war as they could have been. Some discontent had begun to rise in certain members of the oligarchy, and a rift developed between those who then had begun to want the Five Thousand around as more than a convenient fiction and those who still did not. Another peace embassy was sent to Sparta; the Four Hundred had begun to fear their own internal opposition more than their external enemies, and believed that peace with Sparta would allow them to concentrate on placating their own malcontented countrymen. They simultaneously began to build a wall at the Pireaus under the pretense of keeping “enemies” out; in fact, the enemies they sought to exclude came not from Persia nor Sparta but from Samos. This project was met with resistance by Theramenes, who recognized the pretenses for what they were and accused the Four Hundred, quite reasonably, of preferring to maintain their own power over victory against the Spartans.

Finally the Four Hundred’s anxiety-ridden reign began to topple. First came the unsettling assassination of one of the ambassadors to Sparta, Phrynichus, as he walked through the market; his killer could not be discovered, no matter how much the Four Hundred tortured his Argive accomplice. Suspecting Theramenes of conspiracy, they arrested him. He agreed to accompany them on their rescue mission to Piraeus where, having had enough and, emboldened by the failure of the Four Hundred to prove their power in something as simple as a murder case, he instead had the hoplites tear down their beloved wall. The Four Hundred began to sense that their defeat was imminent. The Athenian people had tired of fighting a war on two fronts: against their enemies and against their own rulers. The legend of the Five Thousand was increasingly talking its way into reality. An assembly was convened between the two and negotiations began.

Just then the Four Hundred were granted a temporary reprieve: news arrived that a massive Spartan fleet was approaching the Piraeus and the Athenians scrambled aboard their ships and sailed out to meet them. The Spartans, surprised to find that their oligarchic allies had been deposed and their wall razed, simply sailed right past, choosing instead to target the island of Euboea (which housed a critical base for Athens). The Athenians couldn’t allow that, either, and frantically followed in pursuit. A battle was fought at Eretria and the Spartans triumphed; cities all over Euboea, seeing this, took the opportunity to revolt. Clearly, the Athenians saw, the installation of the oligarchs had not been all they were promised it would be.

At long last the hammer fell. The ultimate assembly was called to order at Pnyx and the Four Hundred were deposed. The Five Thousand, who promised to supply their own armor, were handed the reins of the state and Theramenes had his revenge. The frightened ex-tyrants escaped to Sparta and (could it end in any other way?) Alcibiades was summoned to Athens once again.

Thomism and private property

St. Thomas raises the question of private property in the sixty-sixth question of the Secunda Secundæ. The question under which the subsequent articles are organized purports to deal with the issues of theft and robbery. As always, Thomas recognizes that he must start right at the beginning and ask first: is it possible for people to possess things at all?

To this, Thomas answers with a resounding yes. God has what Thomas calls “sovereign dominion” over all created things according to his Will, but God has given over to man the stewardship of those things which man needs in order to pursue his good life, or, in Thomas’s rather austere words, those things which are necessary for “the sustenance of man’s body.” From this, we can say that man has what Thomas calls “natural dominion” over things (in relation to God’s sovereign dominion) and it is natural for man to possess things external to himself so that he can use them and labor over them in order to sustain his body.

It is important to remember the different meanings that Thomas acknolwedges in his understanding of natural right just a few pages prior, in II-II Q57 A3:

[T]he natural right or just is that which by its very nature is adjusted to or commensurate with another person. Now this may happen in two ways; first, according as it is considered absolutely: thus a male by its very nature is commensurate with the female to beget offspring by her, and a parent is commensurate with the offspring to nourish it. Secondly a thing is naturally commensurate with another person, not according as it is considered absolutely, but according to something resultant from it, for instance the possession of property. For if a particular piece of land be considered absolutely, it contains no reason why it should belong to one man more than to another, but if it be considered in respect of its adaptability to cultivation, and the unmolested use of the land, it has a certain commensuration to be the property of one and not of another man, as the Philosopher shows (Polit. ii, 2).

It is clear that the natural right with respect to the possession of property is meant to be understood in the second sense, as Thomas says.

Returning to II-II Q66, Thomas narrows his inquiry from the broad – whether it is natural for man in general to possess things in general – to the specific: “whether it is lawful for a man to possess a thing as his own?” Here Thomas is responding to those who would claim that because all things are God’s property, no man can really have ownership over anything. In support of this he quotes Basil and Ambrose, who condemn the rich who seize as their own things which rightfully belong as common goods to all.  First, Thomas replies that private possession of things serves both practical ends (it induces men to labor with more care over things which are their own, it prevents the confusion of ownership and responsibility that is present when all things are owned in common) and spiritual/moral ends (the possession of private property allows people to be generous and to develop the virtues of giving to those in need).

Thomas then gives what is probably his most controversial statement in the question, and what might reasonably be considered a summary of his position on the nature of private property:

Community of goods is ascribed to the natural law, not that the natural law dictates that all things should be possessed in common and that nothing should be possessed as one’s own: but because the division of possessions is not according to the natural law, but rather arose from human agreement which belongs to positive law, as stated above. Hence the ownership of possessions is not contrary to the natural law, but an addition thereto devised by human reason.

What Thomas is doing here is delineating the status of private property in relation to the laws (differentiating between the natural law and the human law), and making clear the significance of property both as a social or practical institution (which he derives from Aristotle and from several Roman jurists) and as a thing understood within the idealistic Christian-theological (which he derives from multiple Christian sources, but primarily the Gospel writers and the early Church fathers) worldview. Speaking again on the same topic, in another section of the Summa Theologica which is concerning the natural law, Thomas writes that

[W]e might say that for man to be naked is of the natural law, because nature did not give him clothes, but art invented them. In this sense, “the possession of all things in common and universal freedom” are said to be of the natural law, because, to wit, the distinction of possessions […] [was] not brought in by nature, but devised by human reason for the benefit of human life.

This helps to clarify for us what it means for Thomas for a thing to be a consequence of the natural law or to be an invention of the human law. Notice the contingent status of private property under this understanding – there is no absolute guarantee to one’s particular possessions derived from the natural law, according to Thomas, but that which is provided by the human laws. Moreover, the human laws which provide those guarantees do so “for the benefit of human life.”