Matthew Levering

Interview with Matthew Levering

Dr. Matthew Levering received a B.A. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1993, a M.T.S. from Duke Divinity School in 1996, and a Ph.D. from Boston College in 2000. He has taught at Ave Maria College, Ave Maria University, and the University of Dayton, and is currently James and Mary Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake. He is co-editor of the English edition of Nova et Vetera and of the International Journal of Systematic Theology. He is also a member of the Academy of Catholic Theology and Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Baker Academic published his Engaging the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: Love and Gift in the Trinity and the Church in July, and he graciously agreed to do an interview on his book. His other recent books include Mary’s Bodily Assumption, The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works, and Proofs of God: Classical Arguments from Tertullian to Barth.


Dr. Levering, you have written over sixteen books, co-authored a few more in addition, co-edited almost as many books, and written numerous journal articles as well and you are also a co-editor for Nova et Vetera. I imagine having a strong faith life (and discipline!) enables you to write so much. Please describe your Faith journey; what nourishes your own Faith? Would you say that you have a more “Dominican” spirituality?

I grew up in a Quaker family, with a strong sense that religious commitment involves a radical commitment of life.  I look back on this with the sense that I was thereby given a great gift.  In the Quaker meetings I attended, belief in a living, personal, transcendent God was rare among the members of the meetings.  Scripture and Jesus were not a significant part of the Quaker meetings I attended, but they increasingly were part of my mother’s life during my teenage years.  I sought for God especially during college, and by my last year of college I considered myself a Christian.  (I got married to my beloved wife Joy in the middle of our senior year in college—we were studying at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.)  After graduating, I decided to take one year to try to become a novelist.  This led me within a few weeks to ask whether God or Jesus were real, and I realized I couldn’t rely on Dostoevsky or Walker Percy to tell me whether or not God or Jesus were real.  I went through three days of atheism that gave me a deep interior experience of the heart of atheism: the people and buildings seemed beautiful facades hiding everlasting destruction and annihilation.  We were living then by Duke University’s campus where my wife was attending Public Policy School.  I went to Duke Divinity School’s library and started reading anything I could find about God or Jesus.  I ended up reading very widely that year, but a number of the books I read were the short books of Hans Urs von Balthasar, which made a great impression on me—as did books by others such as G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, John Paul II, and so forth.  My wife and I soon entered RCIA, and I decided to attend Duke Divinity School.

In terms of my faith and spirituality, it is based upon Mass, rosary, Scripture, night prayer, confession.  I am still inspired by Balthasar’s emphasis on mission and on self-surrender; I want to give my whole life to God.  Also, having a strong, wonderful wife has been such a grace for me.  Physical suffering has always been a part of my life, and it makes me feel deeply dependent on God.  Perhaps also it infuses an energy, a desire to struggle against obstacles (even while recognizing that my strength is woefully insufficient).  

Lay theologians such as myself must not think of theology as a career.  Theological reflection and teaching must be a quest for God from the heart, and it must be rooted in love.  Having Dominican mentors has been crucial for me.  I think that lay theologians need priests to mentor us, and we need to know that we are not free agents.  Theology requires an ecclesial life.  

Spiritually, my background in liberal Quakerism means that I have seen the place to which religious liberalism leads, and I found it deeply inadequate because of the absence of constitutive elements of the gospel.  When a few years ago I taught theology in a liberal Catholic department that was moving leftward, I found that the meager content taught to undergraduates was almost physically painful to me, and I had great difficulty functioning in that context.  It was difficult for me to function charitably, and the whole thing was stressful.  I am grateful for the atmosphere of faith and prayer at Mundelein Seminary.    

To Balthasar’s emphasis on mission and self-surrender, the Dominicans add contemplative wisdom and intellectual serenity.  Aquinas’s theology is serene and filled with generous engagement with a dazzling array of sources and differing viewpoints, largely scriptural and patristic sources, along with Greco-Roman philosophy.  I owe Dominicans an ongoing and deeply personal debt for mentoring and befriending me.  But I would be remiss if I failed to mention the impact of diocesan priests upon all aspects of my life and work.

A complaint that might be familiar to you is that academic theology is rather dry and maybe even irrelevant to the lives of Catholic students. Why should Catholic undergraduates be required to take theology classes as a part of a core curriculum, rather than something in spirituality? What is your advice to theology students, or college students in general, for re-integrating theology into their spiritual lives?

I am concerned about the division between theology and spirituality.  Undergraduate students in theology need to be reading John Climacus, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Gertrude the Great, Francis de Sales, Jean-Claude de Caussade, and others in the same vein.  These are truly great theologians.  Perhaps the most important theological work for undergraduates to read is Augustine’s Confessions.  Undergraduates also need to acquire a strong sense of the meaning of Scripture.  Let undergraduates receive a deep instruction in the vast resources of holy Scripture.  Theological problems and discussions arise from Scripture, as the early Church proclaimed and interpreted it.  It is by reading Scripture with real questions that the integration of theology and spiritual life becomes apparent.  

What was your introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas like? What struck you upon your first reading of Aquinas?

Learning to read Aquinas is like learning a language.  One has to become familiar with Aquinas’s style and terms before one can understand much, and patience is needed.  The process can be sped up by great teachers, and fortunately I had a truly great teacher who had the ability to make Aquinas’s theology come alive.

With Reinhard Hütter, you co-edited a collection of essays in honor of Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P. entitled Ressourcement Thomism: Sacred Doctrine, the Sacraments, and the Moral Life. And your name is often mentioned in connection with Ressourcement Thomism. Could you explain what Ressourcement Thomism is and what its goals are, and how it might be contrasted with neo-Thomism or neo-Scholasticism? How is Ressourcement Thomism related to the 20th century Ressourcement movement and the renewal of Patristics studies?

Different Thomists have different answers to this, but my own answer—indebted to the Dominicans Servais Pinckaers and Jean-Pierre Torrell—is that what is needed is the combination of the strong points of Thomism with the strong points of the 20th century Ressourcement movement.  The assimilative power of Aquinas’s thought requires that Thomists learn how to answer the historical problems raised in the modern period and addressed by the Ressourcement movement.  Leonine Thomism was philosophically rich, which means that it has much to teach us now, but it was not adapted to addressing questions about the truthfulness of Scripture or about the truthfulness of the Church’s mediation of the gospel from the patristic period onward; it took these points for granted, and focused its pastoral attention elsewhere.  Aquinas himself, of course, is informed by deep veins of scriptural and patristic teaching, and these veins need to be mined by Thomists.  Thomists should welcome the Ressourcement movement’s deep retrieval of Scripture and the Fathers, and Thomists should assimilate this retrieval into Thomism.  I am struck by the fact that the secunda pars alone (of his Summa theologiae), Aquinas quotes from half of the chapters of the entire Old Testament and from 53 of the 56 books of the Old Testament!  

In the wake of the Renaissance, historical problems were raised by the Reformers (regarding the Church) and by Enlightenment scholars (regarding Scripture).  John Henry Newman and other nineteenth-century theologians addressed these historical problems and showed that they do not require falling into liberal Christianity or modernism.  In the twentieth century, this was the motivation of Yves Congar OP’s work: he sought a less repressive ecclesiastical response to modernism that would nonetheless answer the problems modernism raised, and would do so in an ecumenical fashion.  Joseph Ratzinger made important contributions along similar historical, exegetical, and ecumenical lines.  Thomists can take up these insights, which are obviously not antithetical to the metaphysical richness of Thomism but in fact complement it.  The richness of the documents of Vatican II exemplifies the fruitfulness of what I call Ressourcement Thomism.  Unfortunately, after the Council, scholastic theology (Aquinas) was rejected, due partly to overly sharp criticisms of neo-scholastic theology by the great figures of Ressourcement.  The result was an imbalance that assisted the dominance in the late 1960s and 1970s of liberal-Christian Catholic theology, which was scripturally and metaphysically desiccated.  Liberal Catholic theology has proven to be deadly to faith wherever it takes root, because it replaces the radical gospel of Christ with an accommodation with contemporary culture that may look radical at the beginning but has no substance; instead it simply ends up tracking the Zeitgeist.  Ressourcement Thomism is, in my view, the answer to liberal Catholic theology.  

Besides yourself, Reinhard Hütter, and Fr. Cessario, who are some of the other theologians and scholars associated with Ressourcement Thomism?

Besides the persons whom you name, it is clear that Thomas Joseph White OP is an engine of theological renewal today.  He is a tremendously powerful metaphysical thinker, whose historical abilities are equally striking.  He has a masterful knowledge of the great theologians of the twentieth century.  Many other theologians could be mentioned as well, such as Gilles Emery OP, Bruce Marshall, Michael Sherwin OP, Guy Mansini OSB, Richard Schenk OP, Simon Gaine OP, Piotr Roszak, Gilles Mongeau SJ, Patrick Clark, Jeremy Wilkins, Roger Nutt, Dominic Legge OP, Dominic Langevin OP, Andrew Hofer OP, and many others—including very many philosophers whose names would fill a long list!  Also, although they may not see themselves as allied with Ressourcement Thomism, I have noticed that many important contributors to the American edition of Communio are studying Aristotle in depth, thanks to the distinctive genius of David L. Schindler.  Michael Hanby, Nicholas Healy, and Michael Waldstein, among others, have written highly important work in the doctrine of creation and moral theology.  Their work, like the work of Francesca Murphy and John Betz, shows the potential of a Ressourcement Thomism, since they draw heavily upon Thomistic philosophy and theology.  It will be important to ensure that the use of Aquinas by theologians is not limited to his philosophical insights.  This would be to replicate the situation to which the Ressourcement movement responded.  Also, doctoral students in dogmatic theology need to undertake intensive reading of Aquinas and patristic sources—real reading, not merely a course here or there in historical theology.  Overall, my hope is that dogmatic theologians, historical theologians, and biblical theologians will increasingly combine forces against liberal theology (and against the temptation to train doctoral students by having them read only the great thinkers of the past century).  I see Ressourcement Thomism as a major path for stimulating this increased collaboration, given Aquinas’s extraordinary biblical and patristic insight in addition to his brilliant philosophical insight.  Ressourcement Thomism should be allied with the groundbreaking work of biblical and patristic scholars such as Brant Pitre, Gary Anderson, Khaled Anatolios, Brian Daley, Lewis Ayres, Gerald Boersma, John Behr, and many others.  Such scholars obviously do not need to be Aquinas experts in order to make great contributions to dogmatic theology.

Next year will be the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s writing of the 95 theses, and Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Sweden to commemorate the beginning of the Protestant Reformation with Lutheran leaders. What help can Catholic theologians provide in bringing about full communion among all Christians?

I admire the ecumenical work being done by Catholic theologians such as Thomas Joseph White, Michael Root, and Robert Louis Wilken.  In October 2017, Mundelein Seminary will be hosting an international ecumenical conference on “Joseph Ratzinger and the Healing of the Reformation-Era Divisions.”  Also, I have written a short book that is scheduled to be published by Zondervan in 2017.  It has the title Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine Is Not Unbiblical.  A major purpose of the book is to raise the question of what modes of biblical reasoning are warranted by Scripture.  I note that when Catholic doctrines—the ones that divide Catholics and Protestants—are deemed unbiblical and unacceptable, this often happens because Catholic modes of biblical reasoning have first been rejected.  My suggestion is that in fact, these Catholic modes of biblical reasoning are biblically warranted and should be accepted today.  Also, I think that Catholic theologians should be reading Protestant theologians and biblical scholars, many of whom are doing brilliant work—Richard B. Hays, N. T. Wright, Kavin Rowe, Kevin Vanhoozer, Peter Leithart, Katherine Sonderegger, Ephraim Radner… the list goes on and on.    

Your book, Engaging the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, was just published in July by Baker Publishing Group, an evangelical Christian publisher. (I note that Fortress Press, which I believe is Lutheran, has also published books on Thomism recently.) Is there a growing openness among Protestants to the theology of St. Thomas? What do you think  are the reasons for this?

Contemporary Reformed theology is rediscovering Aquinas.  The tradition of Reformed Scholasticism is being rediscovered by brilliant young theologians such as Steve Duby, Michael Allen, Scott Swain, James Dolezal, and many others.  Part of the reason is the need to respond to the Reformed analytic theology and philosophy being done by William Hasker and the generation of scholars influenced by Alvin Plantinga.  Steve Duby’s book on divine simplicity is absolutely extraordinary, and Allen and Swain show the possibility of doing biblical theology in a richly Thomistic key.  Thomism will never be out of style for long, because Aquinas addresses major questions that arise from Scripture, and he helps us to understand the patristic dogmatic heritage.  These questions will arise one way or another, and so theologians will have recourse to Aquinas.  Since I mention analytic theology and philosophy, I should note that many analytic theologians and philosophers draw heavily and fruitfully upon Aquinas—here Bruce Marshall, Eleonore Stump, Timothy Pawl and others come to mind.

The book is described as a companion book to Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel through Church and Scripture, as the Holy Spirit is involved in the transmission of Divine Revelation through the Church. In this new book you seek to defend naming the Holy Spirit “Love” and “Gift,” which originates in the Latin tradition with St. Augustine and is developed by Aquinas in his own theology. Why should we go beyond scriptural data to attribute to the Holy Spirit these names? Why is such speculative theology regarding the Holy Spirit needed?

The first chapter of Engaging the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit addresses the approach of Augustine—specifically his effort to show that the names “Love” and “Gift” have a strong biblical foundation.  I think that Augustine is right.  Thus, speculative theology of the Holy Spirit as “Love” and “Gift” is biblically necessary.  But I do think that we need to be cautious in our use of these names.  The second chapter of the book agrees in significant part with Eastern efforts not to say too much.

The first three chapters are focused on the Divine Person of the Holy Spirit, the third chapter examines the controversial question of the Filioque, “and the Son,” which was inserted by the West into the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and has been a sticking point for the Orthodox. Most of the controversy seems to be due to the non-equivalence of certain terms in ecclesial/theological Greek and Latin, but it seems now that the more significant stumbling block is in ecclesiology, namely, the papacy. Nonetheless, you review Aquinas’s discussion of the Divine Persons being distinguished by origin and by relation in connection with the Filioque. This seems to be a clear example of Aristotelian metaphysics being used in the theology of the Trinity. You write that Orthodox theologians have not accepted this explanation of the distinction between the Divine Persons because they find this sort of theology too rationalistic. What would you say about the nature of theology in response to this criticism? (Or the use of philosophy in explaining Scripture?)

My argument in this chapter of Engaging the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit is that Aquinas argues for the Filioque primarily on the grounds of biblical revelation and also on the grounds of the Church’s ability to hand on the faith through ongoing magisterial teaching.  The recognition of relational distinctions in the order of origin is not “Aristotelian” in a negative sense, since such a recognition is called for by Scripture itself, as the biblical scholar Wesley Hill has shown in his brilliant book.  The terms “origin” and “relation” are present in the Cappadocian Fathers and belong to the patristic heritage of East and West.  I think that my viewpoint in this regard is quite close to that of David Bentley Hart.  My purpose in the chapter is not to insist upon the place of the Filioque in the Creed.  I am urging, however, that the charge of rationalism not be made against Aquinas on this point.

The last four chapters deal with the Holy Spirit as Love and Gift in the economy of salvation. Thomists traditionally have claimed that when we talk about the work of the Holy Spirit in reference to us, we are making use of appropriations (cf. Summa Theologiae I, 39, 7 and 8). According to the old Catholic Encyclopedia, appropriation is the attribution of certain names, qualities, or operations to one of the Divine Persons, not to the exclusion of the others but in preference to the others. The names and qualities belong essentially to all the Divine Persons but in light of our understanding of revelation, we consider some of these as belonging more to one Person rather than to another, or as characterizing more clearly one Person rather than another. However, there was some debate about appropriations in 20th century western theology, especially in connection with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Where do Thomists currently stand in this debate on appropriations—has there been a development in Thomistic theology here?

The doctrine of appropriation does not mean, of course, that the appropriation is a mere metaphor.  It means that there is indeed something in the Divine Person that is illumined by the appropriated effect.  The effect of grace does indeed give us an experiential connection to the Divine Person of the Spirit.  The fact that we are united to one Divine Person does not deny that we are all united to the other two.  Where one Divine Person is, there the other two are as well.  The action of God toward us is the action of the Trinity.  In the twentieth century, there was an attempt by some (including Karl Rahner and David Coffey) to argue in favor of the view that the Holy Spirit relates to us in a quasi-formal manner, in a way that distinguishes the Spirit fundamentally from the other two Persons.  I do not agree with this position, and instead I follow the work on appropriations done by Gilles Emery and Bruce Marshall.

In the fourth chapter, you discuss the Holy Spirit’s missions to Christ as man, which seems to me to be something that is little discussed in homilies today. Talk about the Annunciation is limited to His miraculous conception without a human father, and the presence of the Holy Spirit at His Baptism in the Jordan is quickly passed over. Some might think that the assumption of a human nature by the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, the Son, would be sufficient to explain the holiness of Christ as man – why are the missions of the Holy Spirit to Christ important? (Conversely, has the view that Christ was merely a man who was elevated to a Divine mission through the power of God, called “Spirit,” become more prevalent in Catholic circles?)

To imagine that the incarnate Word could lack the Spirit would be very odd indeed, and unbiblical.  From the outset of the incarnation, the humanity of the Word was filled with the Holy Spirit.  I argue that this emphasis on the Spirit’s presence and power helps to make sense of the biblical data to Christ and to his exalted self-understanding and power.  In liberal Catholic circles, Jesus is often seen as an exemplar of liberative praxis, which is understood to be liberative insofar as it challenges and/or overcomes oppressive social structures.  Jesus is noteworthy on this view because his Cross is the perfect exemplification of liberative praxis vis-à-vis violent oppressors.  I think that this view reduces the human predicament to lack of economic and political power.  This view thereby neglects the power of sin and death.  In Scripture, Christ overcomes sin and death, and only the incarnate Son can do this.   

Is there a correspondence between the Holy Spirit’s missions to Christ and the Holy Spirit’s missions to the Church? That is, is it because the Holy Spirit has missions to Christ as man, making Him holy as man, there is an analogous mission to us to make us holy, through our incorporation into Christ’s Body and our becoming adopted sons of God in Christ? It seems that the connection between Christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology is especially relevant in discussions with Protestants.

My final four chapters in Engaging the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit do indeed take up issues that pertain to differences between Catholic and Protestant soteriologies and ecclesiologies.  In my view, the key issue is whether the Holy Spirit truly accomplishes the ecclesial participation in Christ that Scripture itself promises.  Although the answer to your question is too long to be written down here, you are quite right that the Spirit’s mission to Christ’s human nature is for his whole Body.  Pentecost enables us to share in Christ through his Spirit as members of his Body.  

Some have claimed that the Holy Spirit has been forgotten or neglected in Western Christianity (and only recently has there been such a recovery in the Charismatic renewal, which you do not address in the book). Recent ecclesial movements (which are also not discussed in the book) are also taken as signs of the Holy Spirit at work, while the Holy Spirit feels absent in the local Church. Do you think this historical narrative of the Holy Spirit having become obscured in Western Christianity is accurate? How can the average Catholic become more cognizant of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work? (Do you have any thoughts on the sacrament of Confirmation and restoring the traditional order of the sacraments of initiation?)

I should have addressed the Charismatic renewal and Pentecostalism more than I do in the book.  That is a task for another book!  But I hoped to show in the final four chapters that Aquinas himself is quite “charismatic” and “pentecostal” in his view of the Church and of the moral life.  

The historical narrative of the Holy Spirit being obscured in Western Christianity strikes me as highly doubtful.  I think that it is a polemical claim that can be shown to be false.  In our co-edited Oxford Handbook of Trinitarian Theology, Gilles Emery and I invited scholars who poked a number of historical holes in this claim.  

Regarding the traditional order of the sacraments of initiation, I have not thought enough about this.  I need to think and read more before wading into the theological and pastoral dimensions of this problem.  Insofar as the Western practice causes ecumenical offense, I would be eager to resolve this offense.

The 50th anniversary of the closing of the second Vatican Council was at the end of last year.  In what ways can the council (and its documents, such as Lumen Gentium or Sacrosanctum Concilium) be seen as a call to recover a better appreciation of the Holy Spirit?

The present ecclesial moment calls for renewed trust in the Holy Spirit.  Catholic movements that tend toward schism, on the left and the right, make the claim that the Church’s mediation of the saving gospel of Christ truly cannot be trusted not to fall into dire errors and ruptures that obscure for hundreds of years the saving gospel.  Certainly the documents of the Second Vatican Council attempt to pay deep attention to the Spirit, even while they also attempt to reach out to the Christocentrism of Karl Barth and others.  Let me take the opportunity to recommend a forthcoming volume that Fr. Matthew L. Lamb and I have co-edited, which will be published in 2017 by Oxford University Press with the title The Reception of Vatican II.  I have written an introductory book about Vatican II that will also be published in 2017.  Its main theme is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the center of the Council’s teachings and should be the center of contemporary reception of the Council.  I am greatly indebted here to the work of Fr. Robert Imbelli.

Thank you very much, Dr. Levering! I hope we will have a chance to discuss these books on Vatican II after they are published!