We’ve moved! My new WordPress site

Marc Chagall. Joseph, A Shepherd. 1931.

Marc Chagall. Joseph, A Shepherd. 1931.

How now, Brown Cow?

Sorry I’ve been silent for a few weeks. I’m still around. And one of the major projects I’ve been working on has been transferring my blog from WordPress.com to its new home on its very own shiny new site. Behold, the new LonelyPilgrim.com!

If you’re reading by subscription, via RSS or email, then you ought not to see any difference at all from your end. If you continue receiving my posts as before, then all is well. If you don’t — then you probably won’t receive this one. But if you happen to notice any interruptions or problems, please let me know.

I’d like to draw your attention to my shiny new gizmo, the primary reason why I finally decided to move to a self-hosted WordPress installation: a plugin that generates Scripture tooltips upon hovering over Scripture references. One of the most tedious aspects of my blogging was having to manually link every Scripture reference to some Bible site or another. From my end (and from your end, too, as commenters!), all I have to do is refer to a Scripture — for example, Matthew 16:18 or John 3:5 — and the plugin dynamically tags the reference. From your end as readers, if you are reading on LonelyPilgrim.com, all you have to do is hover over the tagged Scripture reference, and the text will appear! Try it out! I call it Sacred WordPress, and after a little more tweaking, I hope to be able to share it with other WordPress users.

My only regret is leaving the close-knit WordPress.com community. The WordPress.com Reader has been the source of many interesting random encounters, and I’m going to miss those. But new readers can still follow me, and read my posts in the Reader! And I will continue following all the wonderful blogfriends I made on WordPress.com.

I hope to resume my regular blogging soon. May God bless you all, and His peace be with you!

Assurance for Today: God works through the Sacraments

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure about this post. It comes across as more critical than I meant it to be. I do not mean to “bash” anyone’s faith; only to point out what I see to be honest, practical difficulties in particularly Evangelical Protestantism, as I’ve witnessed and I myself experienced. As usual, if I miss the mark on something, please call me on it.

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Batoni

Return of the Prodigal Son (1773), by Pompeo Batoni.

Reading back over my recent posts, there is a point I wanted to touch on but didn’t quite hit in my post on “Catholicism and Assurance of Salvation.”

It is this: Unlike the Evangelical, who might struggle with uncertainty and doubt as to whether he is “really saved,” seeking a “confirmation” of the “assurance” of his salvation — the Catholic can be assured from the very beginning, from the moment of his Baptism, in the promises of Christ, that God’s grace has done what Scripture promises it will do: that his every sin has been washed away (Acts 22:16); that he has been born again in Christ (John 3:3,5; Romans 6:3–6; Titus 3:5); that he has received God’s Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 19:5–6). From the moment he receives absolution in the Sacrament of Confession, he can be sure that God has forgiven his sins (1 John 1:9), that he has been healed and restored in grace (James 5:15), because this is what Scripture promises. From the moment he receives the Lord in the Holy Eucharist, he can be sure that he has encountered Christ, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity (1 Corinthians 10:16), and that His grace and eternal life have flooded his soul (John 6:54) — because this is what Jesus Himself promised.

Hillsong Church, Sydney, Australia

Hillsong Church, Sydney, Australia.

From a practical standpoint, speaking as someone tending to approach situations from the perspective of feeling (I am a textbook INFP) — and, as the other night, having witnessed this in my friends — the Evangelical approach tends to place much emphasis on feelings and emotions: “I have assurance that I am saved because I feel assured.” And vice versa: “I wonder if I am really saved, because I don’t feel it.” Salvation, in this tradition, seems to depend also on our human understanding: I have heard many times, “I thought I was saved; I went to church, was baptized, worked in outreaches, sang in the choir — but then I realized that I didn’t really ‘get it,’ and wasn’t really saved at all.” “Getting it” often depends not only on an intellectual comprehension, but an emotional appreciation. I have heard from so many people — and I can testify to this myself — that “I went down [to the altar call] every week, prayed the ‘sinner’s prayer’ again and again — but I just didn’t feel saved.” “Feeling saved” does not necessarily mean that one is, nor does “not feeling” mean that one is not, but the experience of these feelings certainly has a lot of bearing on one’s assurance and security. The idea of “assurance of salvation” depends on the apprehension of something subjective; something one feels one has or not; something that can be thrown into doubt by sin or scrupulosity.

I suspect this phenomenon is particular to the Evangelical Protestant tradition, possibly only to certain sectors of it, and may have more to do with one’s own scrupulosity and insecurity than anything inherent to the tradition; but that door is very often left open, and I don’t see an easy remedy. Was not Luther’s initial concern his scrupulosity, his not feeling justified? Other forms of Protestantism may or may not suffer from this same problem, or at least not to the same degree. But this emotionalism, this subjectivity, is the extreme end, it seems to me, of one of the basic theological differences between Catholic theology and Protestant theology: differing understandings of the mode of grace working through the Sacraments.

The Workings of Grace

Rembrandt , The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626), by Rembrandt.

One of the fundamental disagreements of the Protestant Reformation concerns the mode of the working of the Sacraments: how it is that the grace of the Sacraments is accomplished; in what mode the Sacraments are efficacious. According to the Catholic understanding, first formulated by the medieval scholastic theologians, the Sacraments work ex opere operato, “from the work having been worked”: the efficacy of the Sacrament comes from the very fact that the work was done (by God). The opposing Protestant view can be summed up as ex opere operantis, “from the work of the one working”: that is, the efficacy of the Sacrament depends upon the spiritual disposition of the one receiving it, namely, upon his faith.

The Catholic view understands the Sacraments to be instruments of God through which He immediately acts upon the believer, conferring His grace — one of the gifts of which is saving faith. One of the major concerns of this doctrine, dating from the earliest centuries of the Church, is that the efficacy of the Sacrament does not depend at all on the holiness of the minister — since God can work through even the instrumentality of a sinful priest. The requirements of the Sacrament are only that it be carried out in the correct matter and form, by a minister with the power and the intention to perform it. The graces of the Sacrament flow from the working of the Sacrament itself. In order for the recipient to receive these graces, he must be properly disposed — e.g. having faith in Christ, sincere repentance, the intention to receive the Sacrament, with no obstacle or impediment to it. But whether he receives the graces or not, they are present, ex opere operato. Thus, the recipient of the Sacrament has the positive expectation that the Sacrament has done what it was supposed to do, what God promised: it does not depend subjectively on either the minister or the recipient, apart from the requirement that they have the necessary disposition — which is more often formulated as a negative: the Sacrament can be presumed to have been valid unless there existed some impediment.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

On the other hand, the Protestant view understands the Sacraments to be aids to the mind, which enable it, by faith, to approach God and receive grace. The efficacy of the Sacrament depends solely on the believer’s disposition — that is, on faith alone. Faith is the instrument by which the soul reaches out to apprehend the redemptive work of Christ and procure the grace of justification from God.

Both positions agree that grace comes from God alone. The difference is this: Does God actively and immediately administer grace to the believer through the Sacraments, this grace being efficaciously applied so long as the believer has the proper disposition? Or does the believer, through the Sacraments, reach out to God to obtain His grace by faith? To abstract a step further: Is the immediately active role in justification played directly by God Himself, or by the faith of the believer (which is given by God)? Are we actually justified by faith alone, apprehending salvation, or are we justified by God alone, faith being a necessary disposition, and saving faith itself a work of God? Does God’s grace depend subjectively on the faith of the believer, whether it apprehends the saving work of Christ, or objectively on God’s working alone?

In the case of the Evangelicals with whom this discussion began — they generally have no belief in “Sacraments” at all. Baptism and the Eucharist are merely symbolic acts of faith which convey no grace in and of themselves. But the Protestant principle nonetheless formed a foundation for the Evangelical understanding: Rather than the faith of the believer reaching out to God by means of the Sacraments as aids, his faith reaches out to God with no aid but faith itself. The uncertainty and insecurity of whether faith has apprehended anything at all is thus understandable — like shooting for the moon with only dead reckoning as a guide.

Works’ Righteousness?

Pietro Longhi (1701-1785), The Confession

Pietro Longhi (1701-1785), The Confession (WikiArt.org).

The doctrine of grace being received from the Sacraments ex opere operato is another target for the common anti-Catholic charge that Catholics believe in “works’ righteousness.” The idea that a believer can be baptized, confirmed, partake of the Eucharist, be absolved in Confession — and out of those works themselves, receive grace — seems to all but confirm the accusation. The believer performs a work in exchange for grace.

But this is a misunderstanding. While it is true that the Sacraments are active in working, it is in fact God alone who works in the Sacraments — the believer only passively receiving His grace. Ironically, it is the Protestant position in which grace depends on the work of the believer (ex opere operantis) — on his faith actively apprehending the grace of Christ’s saving work. It is true that faith is not a human work, but a gift of God — so the charge of “works’ righteousness” does not properly apply to the Protestant view any more than it does to the Catholic. But whether one is “saved,” in the Protestant view, depends on whether the believer has apprehended, by faith, the truths of the Gospel. How the understanding of saving faith is framed can vary widely across traditions, but it seems to be inherently subjective. As seen in the Evangelical experience, being “really saved” can be understood to depend on “really getting it,” that is, truly grasping the message of the Gospel, by the head and by the heart.

This at once presents difficulties: If being “saved” depends on the believer’s understanding — and this view seems to be wider than the Evangelical tradition — for example, I frequently hear charges, particularly from the Reformed, that “Catholics cannot be saved unless they have faith in Christ alone,” to the exclusion of the Sacraments, “works,” etc. — i.e. In this view, salvation depends upon the intellectual understanding of a particular doctrine, and any other understanding can nullify faith in Christ — then how can small children be saved? What about the mentally disabled? What if a person can never apprehend the Gospel by faith at all? I have heard Protestant leaders (notably several prominent Reformed ones) say, flat-out, that children cannot be saved. I do not suppose that all Protestants, or even all Reformed, feel this way — but an understanding of salvation that makes grace dependent on the subjective faith of the believer as an intellectual understanding and emotional appreciation naturally runs into such questions.

Assurance for today

Sacred Heart

Pompeo Batoni. Il Sacro Cuore (The Sacred Heart) (1740).

So, to return to the initial, practical concern: The faithful Catholic who participates in the sacramental life of grace has assurance that he is indeed receiving the grace of the Sacraments — for this is what Jesus promised. Despite any charges of “works’ righteousness,” the state of grace in a Catholic depends not on his own working, but objectively on the working of God in the Sacraments, by the saving work of Christ; in contrast to the Protestant, whose assurance is subjective, dependent on whether he has grasped the truths of God by faith. The Catholic’s assurance is not an eternal assurance: he cannot know the future, whether he will have the grace of final perseverance or not; but he has assurance for today, in the daily bread that Jesus provides.

A comment aside: It is really difficult to find artwork to illustrate Protestant theological concepts!

Falling from Grace, and God’s Mercy and Forgiveness

The conclusion of what I originally wrote concerning grace and justification and “Falling from Grace,” in preparation for a discussion of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There’s a lot more where this came from! [Part one. Part two. An aside. Part three.]

Baptism: Initial Justification

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

The Baptism of Cornelius (1709), by Francesco Trevisani (Wikipedia).

Our Baptism is the moment of our initial justification, the beginning of our road of salvation; and this is wholly a gift of grace, through our faith, not because of any work or action or merit on our part; there is nothing we could have done to deserve such grace. Even the preparation for that moment, our having been called and drawn to the baptismal font, is entirely a work of God’s prevenient (that is, coming before) grace. At that time we are regenerated, born anew in Christ, and we receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). We are also sanctified, washed clean and made whiter than snow (Psalm 51:7, Isaiah 1:18, Ephesians 5:26), as innocent as newborn babes. Regeneration, being made a new creation in Christ, is a grace that cannot be undone; one can never “fall” from being “born again.” In Baptism, our every sin, both the stain of original sin (in fact, our damaged human nature) and every actual sin committed in one’s past, is washed away by the Blood of the Lamb. We receive sanctifying grace, filling up our heart: we are therefore not only cleared of all sin in God’s heavenly court, but we are actually made righteous in His sight.

What, then, of future sins? We have been washed clean, clothed in a robe as white as snow in Baptism. But our sins still very much affect our soul — as anyone who has struggled with sin surely knows. The Protestant view, preoccupied with God’s judicial aspect toward us, finds complacency in the idea that our sins are covered and will never be counted against us; but it fails to take into account the very real spiritual damage that sin can inflict, even upon the believer. When we sin — when we choose consciously and deliberately to reject God and betray His grace to us — we make a decision not to walk by the Spirit; we choose not to love and not to abide in Him. God’s grace, His love, cannot and will not live in a heart that chooses not to love: and so in serious, willful sin, we damage that love, perhaps even choke it out.

Falling from Grace

Caravaggio, Penitent Magdalene

Penitent Magdalene (c. 1597), by Caravaggio (WikiPaintings.org.

And this is what it means to “fall from grace”: to be in a state of grace — the righteous, sanctified state we are in following Baptism, filled with God’s love and grace — and to lose that sanctifying grace through deliberate, grave sin. What are we really losing when we lose grace? Are we “losing our salvation,” as Protestants suggest? Salvation, again, is not something we have ever fully received, and won’t fully receive until the end of life. The graces we received in Baptism — our spiritual rebirth — cannot be taken away. Our spiritual growth and progress, the degree to which we’ve been conformed to Christ, is not erased — we don’t have to start over from zero — though we could certainly compromise that progress through repeated and prolonged sin. So what have we really lost? If sanctifying grace is a clean, white robe in which God has wrapped us, falling from that state of grace is like tripping and falling in the mud. Stumbling does not change who we are: We are still the new creations God has made us to be, and His handiwork in our lives, molding and changing us, is still there. We have only fallen and sullied our robe. We are still God’s children, even if we have squandered our inheritance in a pig pen far from home.

Protestant critics who allege that “falling from grace” is equated with “losing our salvation” are operating from a mistaken, Protestant understanding of grace to begin with. They presume that falling into sin after justification entails that God, who has declared us righteous, imputing the righteousness of Christ to us, now somehow takes that away, goes back on His word, and revokes his promises. If He has promised us an eternal inheritance in “saving” us, he must then, they say, be taking that inheritance away when we sin — only to give it back when we are reconciled, then take it away again, and so forth — but this is not the Catholic view of grace, sin, or forgiveness. The idea that God is watching us with an ever wrathful, judgmental eye at all times, prepared to condemn us, take away our eternal reward, plunge us into the pit of hell, the moment we make a mistake, is strictly unbiblical, and does not describe the Catholic understanding of God at all. Scripture says repeatedly that God will judge us on the Last Day (Matthew 10:36; Acts 17:31; Romans 2:16; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Peter 4:5; Revelation 20) or when we die (Hebrews 9:27). And if we are indeed predestined to our eternal reward (Romans 8:29), chosen before the world began (Ephesians 1:4), then God foreknows whether we will receive that reward in the end not; it is only a narrow, temporal view that would presume that God, Who is outside time, would alter our eternal destiny based on every positive and negative action we commit in our own, earthly present.

El Greco. Penitent Magdalene. c. 1590.

El Greco, Penitent Magdalene, c. 1590 (WikiArt.org).

But for the important, eternal question: Can a believer in Christ who has been regenerated in Baptism, but who has fallen into sin, be condemned to hell, should he die in that state? In light of the scriptural warnings against falling away (e.g. Matthew 24:10; Mark 14:27; Luke 8:13; John 16:1) and living unrighteously (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10:12; Galatians 5:21; 1 Timothy 3:6, 6:9–10; Hebrews 10:29; James 5:12; 2 Peter 1:10), the Catholic Church believes that he can. Christ Himself warned that those who were in Him, who did not abide in Him, would be cast away into the fire. Is this not, then, “losing one’s salvation”? Is “salvation,” in the scriptural sense, something that is ever fully realized before the end of life? Protestants, particularly the Reformed and those in their tradition, who espouse a belief in the “perseverance of the saints” or “eternal security,” appeal to such verses as John 6:37–40 and 10:27–30, 1 Peter 1:4–5, and 1 John 4:16–18 to demonstrate the irresistibility of grace, the immutability of divine election, and the finality of the gifts already given; but these conclusions depend, in many cases, on presupposing a Reformed view of God’s sovereignty that limits or eliminates human freedom. Yes, God has willed that all those He gives to Christ shall not die but be saved; but does God not allow men the free will to choose life or death (Deuteronomy 30:19, Sirach 15:17)? Who is it who has really been given or elected? The Reformed themselves allow uncertainty about an individual believer’s election — such that if a believer should fall away from Christ, the conclusion is that he never really had saving faith in the first place. They allow that the body of the visible church contains many who are not elect, who appear to be regenerate but are not. In the Catholic position, the uncertainty is not regarding whether a believer has been regenerated, whether he has received God’s grace in his life — which is evident by his works; the uncertainty is regarding whether he will abide in that grace and love and allow it to save him (John 15); whether he will persevere to the end (e.g. Matthew 10:22). Christ Himself warned that those who were in Him, who did not abide in Him, would be cast away into the fire (John 15:6). Ultimately, there is uncertainty, as with the Reformed, whether a believer is elected to final perseverance — for not all who are elected to be regenerated are elected to persevere, a distinction that the Reformed do not make.

Finally, what does it say about the love of God, that He would allow his son or daughter to perish? Does it evince a failure of God’s sovereign will — or a condescension of that will, to allow His beloved creations the freedom to choose? Scripture testifies that He does not take pleasure in the death of a sinner, but desires that he turn from his way and live (Ezekiel 33:11, cf. 2 Peter 3:9): if only God’s will were at issue, than all would be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). It is a mark of God’s love, rather than a neglect or abandonment of that love, that He allows us the freedom to accept or reject His grace. If any man should perish, it is ultimately by his own willful choice to reject God.

God’s Mercy and Forgiveness

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1665), by Rembrandt.

The correct view of the grace and forgiveness of God is the one presented in Scripture again and again: that of absolute, unfailing mercy, rather than perpetual wrath. Jesus presents it in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), in which the father sadly but freely allows his son to pursue a life of profligacy, but runs to meet him in the road and pours out his grace unsparingly as soon as his son repents and returns. The wayward son had been raised in the favor of his father, but ungraciously cast it away. Sin had destroyed his life, and so long as he remained in the far-off land, he was without recourse; he would have died a pauper. But the father’s love was unending and his mercy boundless. There is no note here that the son, who had cast away grace, was from then on forever in his father’s graces, irrespective of his future conduct; but certainly, whatever he should do in the future, the father’s mercy and love would ever meet him in the road. It is exhibited in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the face of God which He revealed to us. It is the same view presented by the prophets of God’s mercy toward wayward Israel — for a most vivid example, in the Book of Hosea. Even despite Israel’s repeated infidelity — even though she make herself a harlot — even despite God’s righteous judgment — the Lord, again and again, receives her back, cleans her, clothes her in clean robes, and again pours his mercy and favor and love upon her. “I will heal their faithlessness; / I will love them freely, / for my anger has turned from them” (Hosea 14:4).

Reconciliation

And that brings us, at last, to Reconciliation, the Sacrament of God’s forgiveness and mercy, by which the Lord receives those believers who have fallen, picks them up, heals them, and restores them to the flock. From this point we will begin our discussion.

The Catholic View of Grace and Justification

Part three of a longer thought on grace and justification and “Falling from Grace.” [Part one. Part two. An aside.]

Murillo, Christ on the Cross (1665)

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Christ on the Cross (1665) (WikiArt.org).

So, then, is justification merely a forensic declaration acquitting the sinner of sins, as the Protestants say? Or is it, as the Catholic Church teaches, an actual infusion of grace that cleanses and purifies the soul, obliterating sin and making the sinner not sinful? To ask an even more basic question: Is grace an actual thing, an objective gift that is actually given by God and received by the sinner — “God gives grace to the sinner”? Or is it an abstract concept, like favor, merely describing God’s disposition toward the sinner — “God is gracious to the sinner”? Is the sinner justified because God changed the sinner, making him acceptable, or because God changed His attitude toward the sinner, who has not objectively changed?

In the latter, Protestant view, man is justified because God assumes an objectively different disposition to the sinner. He no longer sees a sinner at all, but sees only the righteousness of Christ; and future sin cannot affect or alter this new disposition. Given this understanding, the idea of a Christian confessing future sins (1 John 1:9) seems almost superfluous. A standard Protestant view seems to be that even though his sin is covered by the Blood of Christ, a Christian is nonetheless obligated to obey God and to seek His forgiveness when one fails. I have even read some Protestant commentary seeking to draw a distinction between God’s divine judgment upon the unjustified sinner and His paternal chastisement upon a wayward Christian.

Sacred Heart

Pompeo Batoni. Il Sacro Cuore (The Sacred Heart) (1740).

In the Catholic view, on the other hand, grace is an actual thing that is given by God to the sinner, in the form of love poured into His heart and the gift of the Holy Spirit, such that it fills him, cleanses him, and transforms him. The concepts of regeneration, justification, and sanctification are difficult to separate in the Catholic understanding: though they describe different effects of grace, they are all effected by the same grace poured into the soul, often worked at the same time. This grace is called sanctifying grace, because in addition to the forensic aspect of being made right in God’s sight, this grace actually makes us holy, turns our hearts toward Christ, and begins the process of transforming us in His image (2 Corinthians 3:18) — that we might become the righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The response to sin

Diego Velazquez, The Crucifixion (1632)

Diego Velazquez, The Crucifixion (1632).

In the end, these distinctions profoundly affect the way a Christian views sin and grace. The Catholic response to serious sin is to repent and confess the sin and seek God’s mercy and forgiveness — which is always freely given, without limitation, a gift of His mercy and grace and a work of His healing. He picks us up, mends our wounds, and sets us back on the road. Protestants may or may not even see the need for the confession of sins: since in many views, the grace of God’s justification has already been given in full, there is, in a practical sense, no more comfort to be offered; only the assurance (false assurance, the Catholic might say) that all one’s sins are already forgiven.

I will leave much more to say here for our discussion of the Sacrament of Confession, but let me briefly say this: Only God forgives sins. Catholics do believe that a sinner can be forgiven his sins without the benefit of sacramental Confession, if he is truly repentant and contrite for his sins. Confessing sins, as Scripture teaches, whether to a minister, before the church, one to another, or even privately to God, places one in a much better position toward one’s sin than not, since it expresses that contrition.

Both the Catholic and Protestant views can be defended scripturally (the Catholic view, in my judgment, being more consistent with the whole of Scripture, not to mention Tradition). Is one “more Christian” than the other? Protestants today, in my experience, are much more likely to charge that Catholics have a mistaken understanding of grace than vice versa. But any view that understands God’s love and mercy as abundant and freely flowing, and His redemption and salvation as a free gift of grace by the Cross of Christ, cannot miss the mark entirely.

Next up: Falling from Grace, and God’s Mercy and Forgiveness

The Assumption of Mary: The Redemption of the Flesh

The Assumption (Murillo)

The Assumption of the Virgin (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Today is the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Early in my journey as a Catholic seeker and convert, I didn’t know quite what to make of this belief and this observance; but as the years go by, and I continue to reflect on it, it is coming to have deeper meaning for me — as it makes deeper meaning of what happened to me today eight years ago.

I didn’t discover until years later that it was on the feast of the Assumption that I had nearly died. When I first discovered, it didn’t mean anything to me; just an odd coincidence of dates. As I began my journey into the Catholic Church, and began to become aware of the Blessed Mother’s intercession for me, I thought, Perhaps someone special was looking out for me that day. But why then, of all days? What did it mean?

He would not let his holy one see corruption

Guido Reni, Assumption of the Virgin (1580)

Assumption of the Virgin (1580), by Guido Reni.

Protestants are bothered by the idea of the Assumption because (and I know, because I felt this way, too) it seems to exalt Mary to a divine level, even to the level of Jesus. I thought that, in Catholic thinking, Mary “ascended” into Heaven, the same as Jesus. But no: the Assumption is a statement that can be applied to every one of us: Mary passed away. She died, as one day every one of us will. And as one day He will appear for every one of us, Jesus came and called to her: as “through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).

It is written deep within our human nature that one of the most traumatic experiences imaginable is the decay of the body. Since the earliest gasps of human prehistory, man has sought to prepare the bodies of his departed loved ones to rest in death as they would have lived in life, perhaps equipping them as for a journey, clothing them and arraying them with the articles and comforts they would have needed in bodily life. Even today, the idea of seeing our formerly vibrant loved one in a state of decomposition is horrific to the senses: so we chemically treat the corpse to delay the process; we doll it up like a mannequin to give every appearance, to maintain the pretense, that the deceased is still alive, just for a little longer.

For Jesus, no less than for anyone endowed with a human nature, he did not want the beloved flesh of His Mother to see the corruption of the grave. And He alone, having conquered Death, Hell, and the Grave, having won for us Resurrection and Eternal Life, having promised every one of us that “in her flesh, she shall see God” (Job 19:26) — He alone had the power to secure for His Blessed Mother the firstfruits of His Redemption of the human body.

The body is worth saving

Assumption of the Virgin, by Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758-1823)

Assumption of the Virgin, by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon (1758-1823) (WikiPaintings)

There is a tendency in Christianity, especially in Protestantism, to reject our human flesh as thoroughly depraved or corrupted, the things of this world as fallen, and — if we’re not careful — to fall into a kind of dualism, resigning the earthly body and bodily things to the dominion of the Devil, against, in contrast, the spirit and spiritual things that are of God. A sometimes lopsided emphasis on the theology of St. Paul, with his frequent juxtaposition of the desires of the spirit with the carnal desires of the flesh doesn’t really help this (e.g. Galatians 5:18–26). I once fell into this trap, too. But even for Paul, the flesh (σάρξ) is not equated with the body. As St. John Chrysostom comments, “By the flesh …, he does not mean the body, or the essence of the body, but that life which is fleshly and worldly, and uses self-indulgence and extravagance to the full.” (Homily XIII on Romans, 8:8).

But the truth is, body and soul, we are created in the image of God. We are whole beings composed of bodies and spirits, not merely spirits wearing corruptible “skins” of flesh. Since the earliest times, the Church of Christ has condemned such dualistic beliefs that matter or the human body were evil, hallmarks of such heresies as Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and Catharism. The idea that flesh is inherently evil is contrary to Christian truth: Jesus came in human flesh to sanctify it, to save us and redeem us from the death of the body wrought by Adam’s sin. Our bodies are worth saving. Jesus was crucified, died, and was resurrected, not as a disembodied spirit, but in a glorified, perfected body, one that lived and breathed and ate: and the same is promised for every one of us. And the Assumption of Mary is the assurance of this; the earnest of the reward that awaits us all. If human flesh were sinful and hopelessly irredeemable, then He would abandon our bodies to the corruption of the grave, but instead He will raise us all to a new life in the body.

Living by the Spirit

The Assumption of the Virgin (1650), by Nicolas Poussin

The Assumption of the Virgin (1650), by Nicolas Poussin (WikiPaintings).

This bears significance for the present life, too: if our bodies, our flesh, were evil, then the sins of the flesh would be excusable. We would simply write off sin and say, “It’s not me that sins; it’s just my sinful flesh, and someday I will shed that.” Paul writes something that does sound vaguely similar: “It is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:17-18). But does he leave it at this? No! “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). For

“there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:1–4)

So often these verses are read in such a way as to suppose that “there is now no condemnation” for sins committed by those who are in Christ Jesus; as if even though we continue to sin, that sin will not be condemned. But that is not what Paul says here at all. Jesus came to condemn sin in the flesh — not that we could go on sinning (cf. Romans 6:1-10) or be exempt from keeping God’s commandments (cf. Romans 3:31; Matthew 19:17; John 15:10; 1 Corinthians 7:19; 1 John 3:22,24; Revelation 14:12), but that we might overcome the flesh, that we can, that we have the power and the grace to keep His commandments“that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us — not in the law-keeping of Christ, which is imputed to us, but in us“who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” This is the way Mary lived her life, and the way every one of us who are in Christ can live our lives. Blessed be God!

And this is the meaning of the Assumption to me: the message Jesus sent especially for me by marking so significant an epoch in my life on this day, by very literally saving my flesh from the corruption of the grave before my time. At a time when I was lost in sin, when I had completely resigned myself to sin’s flames, excusing it as my sinful human nature which could not be overcome, he stopped me in my path and showed me this: that my body was worth saving, in more than one way; that I could, by His grace, rise above my sinful flesh; that I could be freed from those shackles and set free to live by His Spirit. Glory to God in the highest!

Catholicism and Assurance of Salvation

My next post in the current series is already queued up and scheduled; but I think I’m going to delay it for a timely reflection that turns out to be quite apropos. [Part one. Part two.]

Baptism in Kansas (1928), by John Steuart Curry

Baptism in Kansas (1928), by John Steuart Curry (WikiPaintings).

Last night I gave my testimony to a room full of Baptists. On Wednesday nights I attend a home care group at the home of my dear friends Josh and Wendy, ardent Christians and faithful Baptists. I grew up, and my faith was formed, among Baptists, and even now as a Catholic, I have a great and growing love for the Baptist tradition. And last night, we went around the circle as each member of the group shared his or her Christian testimony. As I closed mine, apologetically thanking my friends for their love and acceptance of me, “even though I’m a Catholic now, in a room full of Baptists,” one man spoke up and noted that we were a room full of Christians.

First Baptist Church, Lincolnton, N.C.

There’s one note that was a refrain through many of the testimonies of my Baptist friends, and I don’t wish to speak critically of it, but it made me thoughtful, and I thought I would comment on it from my own testimony: the quest for “assurance of salvation.” Baptists believe one can have assurance of one’s eternal destiny, “eternal security,” a faith that one’s eternal salvation is certain and cannot be taken away. But it seemed that for several of my friends, the search for this assurance was a struggle with uncertainty and doubt, until finally each received a confirmation. Several of them were raised in Christian homes and in church, and grew up knowing of the gospel; several of them had journeys of faith, even serving in the church, only to drift away or fall into sin, or later otherwise realize that they were “lost.” They then had dramatic moments at which they were “saved.”

Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul (1600)

Conversion of Saint Paul (1600), by Caravaggio.

But I know well, from my own life, the inconstancy of human flesh. I too was raised in a godly home, by godly parents, in a godly church; I knew the Lord from an early age; I grew up walking with Him; as a young man I was “on fire” for Him; and though I was immature and there was much I didn’t understand, I can say with fair certainty that I did know the Lord, that I trusted in Him and followed Him, and in the manner of speaking of Evangelicals, was “saved.” And yet I did fall away; I fell into serious sin; I walked away from God for a number of years. Was what I had before, then, as a young man, not real? Later on God called me back, and I did have dramatic conversion experiences, more than one of them; and yet that wasn’t the end of the road for me, either. I still struggled with sin, even fell in deeper than I ever had before, until I had an even further and deeper conversion to the Lord: not a single moment, but a highway landmarked with monuments of faith.

The road to Rome

So it presents a number of questions: When was I “saved”? Did I “lose my salvation” those times I fell away? Did I never have “assurance” to begin with? My friends’ stories were each framed around the premise that there was a single moment at which they were saved, at which they received assurance; and yet I heard evidence that these people were following and serving the Lord even before those moments. And I seriously wonder that if any of them were to fall again into serious sin — a danger that I am sure they would admit — if they should “backslide” or fall away from the Lord — that they wouldn’t then have further and later moments, and that they wouldn’t then frame their testimonies around them, supposing that that time is when they were truly “saved,” or “recommitted” their lives to Him. Even the language and narrative of Evangelicals seem to admit that “salvation” is a journey, an ongoing conversion, even despite their conventions and focus on single moments.

Despite any assurance of salvation that one might hold at any given moment, it is possible that that person might backslide or fall away — and if he were then to die, at that point there would be uncertainty among those who knew him: Was he truly saved? Did he ever really have a saving faith? One camp, the Reformed, would say that his falling away was evidence that he didn’t; and whatever assurance he had at one time would seem to count for very little. Others, more Evangelical-minded, might say that because he did have assurance of a saving faith at one time, he must have been saved in the end. And yet that saving faith was not saving him toward the end of his life or bearing fruit.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Smith Catholic Art

Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Smith Catholic Art (prints available).

The standard Evangelical evangelistic question is, “If you died tonight, are you absolutely certain that you would go to heaven and be with Jesus?” I am glad that nobody asked me that question last night, because as a Catholic, they wouldn’t have liked my answer. No, I don’t have absolute assurance; but I stand in good company, and answer with the words of Paul: “I do not even judge myself; it is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:3–4). I trust in the promises of my Lord: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). “He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54). I know Him and trust in Him and have faith that “He who has begun a good work in [me] will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). I have assurance that my Lord “will never leave [me] nor forsake [me]” (Hebrews 13:5, etc.); if there is any doubt, it is not in the Lord, but in my own fragile humanity. He gives us the grace in Him to stand and to abide; but He also gives us the free will to stand with Him or to walk away, to choose sin and death or His eternal life (Deuteronomy 30:19, Sirach 15:17).

Much ink has been spilled over the centuries over the question of whether we can be certain that we are in a state of grace, that we are justified and forgiven of our sins; and this doubt coincides with the doubts of “assurance” that I heard from my friends last night. But faith is from the Lord (Ephesians 2:8–10), and He does give assurance and confirmation in that faith that we are in Him. In that faith, I know that it is never God who will let go of me; and I can say with abiding faith that I will not let go of Him between now and the moment of my death, especially were that to come tonight. Now, then, and always, I can only throw myself upon His boundless grace: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Catholicism and Being “Born Again”

Part two of a longer piece on “Falling from Grace.” [Part one.]

Catholics: Salvation is a Journey

Baptism of Christ, from Mariawald Abbey

The Baptism of Christ, stained glass from Mariawald Abbey, by Gerhard Rhemish, The Master of St. Severin, Germany (Victoria and Albert Museum)

So then, Catholics view salvation not as a single, momentary event, but as a road, a journey, a pilgrimage, a race (Hebrews 12:1). We have not yet arrived at our destination, the heavenly Jerusalem. There is certainly, in the Catholic mind, a sense in which we have been saved: at our Baptism, we are born again in Christ (John 3:3,5). We are buried with Him in death and raised to newness of life in His Resurrection (Romans 6:3–6); the old has passed away, and we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Catholics do not often speak of being “saved” in the present tense or of “getting saved” as a momentary event, as especially Evangelical Protestants do — for this we are often criticized. “Catholics don’t believe in being ‘saved’! They say they will not know if they are ‘saved’ until the end of their lives!” That isn’t quite true. We know that we have been saved from our former life and given a new life in Christ; whether we will be saved in the end is something that not even Paul could state with certainty (1 Corinthians 4:3–5).

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ (The Kiss of Judas), c. 1306

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ (The Kiss of Judas), c. 1306 (WikiArt.org).

Why could Paul not, and why can’t we, know our final salvation for certain? Paul himself tells us that although he knows of nothing against himself, it will ultimately be God Who judges him, “[when] the Lord comes” — and that he is, in his belief of his own innocence, not thereby acquitted — οὐκ δεδικαίωμαι [ouk dedikaiōmai], from δικαιόω [dikaioō], the same verb that is more commonly translated justified. Protestant apologists readily stress that δικαιόω, “justify,” has a primarily forensic meaning, of acquittal — which it does — but they are quick to gloss over instances such as this that do not fit their interpretation of a “once and for all” event. Paul, then, understands that his present and future sins can still be held against him, even the sins of his heart (v. 5); and he knows the danger of falling away — of which Jesus often warned (e.g. Matthew 24:10; Mark 14:27; Luke 8:13; John 16:1). Frequent, too, are the warnings, even from Paul, against falling into sin (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10:12; Galatians 5:21; 1 Timothy 3:6, 6:9–10; Hebrews 10:29; James 5:12; 2 Peter 1:10).

Being “Born Again”: Renegeration and Conversion

Painting of infant baptism from the Catacombs

A painting of the baptism of a child from the Catacombs of Rome.

Many Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, object to the Catholic identification of Jesus’s call to be “born again” with Baptism — despite the fact that this was historically the universal understanding of the Church in interpreting John 3:3,5, even in Protestant traditions, dating from the earliest times (see especially Justin Martyr, First Apology LX, quoted in this post). The objection that this “new birth” refers to a spiritual rebirth and renewal, not only to a physical washing, reflects a misunderstanding of the concept of sacramentality. A sacrament is an outward and visible manifestation that both represents and actually accomplishes an inward and spiritual grace: so in Baptism, the outward washing and covering with water both represents an inward spiritual cleansing (Ephesians 5:25–27, Hebrews 10:19–22) and a burial and resurrection with Christ (Romans 6:3–10, Colossians 2:11–15), but also actually accomplishes the grace of the washing away of sins (Acts 22:16) and spiritual regeneration (Titus 3:3–5).

Benjamin West, St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost

St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost, by Benjamin West (1738–1820) (Wikimedia).

But it is indeed a truth that there must be a genuine, inward conversion to Christ, a renewal in faith and turning toward Him, in the believer’s life. Catholics, in affirming the efficacy of Baptism in regeneration, in no way detract from this necessity. Especially in adult believers, regeneration in Baptism generally coincides with a faithful conversion to Christ — but it is not necessarily the same thing. The most strident objections come from Baptists and other opponents of “Paedobaptism” (the Baptism of infants), who argue that infants have no faith and cannot truly convert to Christ, and therefore cannot be regenerated: but it is not our faith alone that justifies us or regenerates us, but the working of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit; and He can work no less ably in the life of a child than in anyone else’s. For children, this regeneration in Baptism must be followed by growth in faith and conversion; and the good faith of the child’s family, his or her parents and the Church, in pledging to raise the child as a Christian, is a surety in this.

We must be born again. This is as true for our rebirth and regeneration in Baptism as it is for our sincere and faithful conversion to Christ. Catholics believe this as surely and certainly as do Evangelicals or any Protestants. We may not always have stories of sudden, life-changing “conversion experiences” — though very many do. Consider St. Augustine, St. Francis, or St. Ignatius of Loyola! For my part, my conversion to Christ has been a lifelong and ongoing journey. I can say that, being raised by godly parents in a godly church, God has always embraced me; and over the years, as I’ve learned and matured, I’ve grown in faith, and never converted to Him so wholeheartedly or passionately as I have as a Catholic.

Next up: The Catholic View of Grace and Justification.

Justification Is Not the End of the Road

Part one of a series on “Falling from Grace.”

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1665), by Rembrandt.

Lately the Lord has been putting it on my heart to begin a series on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as Confession. But first there are a few prickly issues which, approaching the subject from a Protestant perspective, I felt I needed to address beforehand. Of most importance are significant differences in the Catholic and Protestant modes of thinking about sin and grace, which stem from fundamentally different understandings of the justification of sinners. The question in focus: Can a Christian fall from grace through sin?

This has been an exceedingly difficult post to write. In making a sincere effort to be fair to the diverse Protestant points of view, I’ve started this post over from the beginning several times. Trying to synthesize a single, coherent presentation of “the Protestant understanding” of justification is a lot like trying to eat an elephant whole. If I still miss the mark, please call me on it.

(This also proved to be quite long. So I think I will give it to you in three or four pieces.)

Justification: A Moment or a Process?

Perhaps the most basic, practical difference between the Catholic and Protestant modes of thinking about justification — the work of God’s grace by which we are exonerated of our sins and made to be righteous in His sight — is that in the Catholic way of thinking, justification is generally understood to be an ongoing, continuous process, while it seems to be a hallmark of Protestant theology that justification is a moment — a single, instantaneous, and total action.

This is the fruit — and the end — of two fundamentally different understandings of the mode of justification. The traditional, Augustinian, Catholic understanding is that justification is an infusion of God’s grace into the sinner’s soul, a pouring of God’s love into his heart (Romans 5:5) that obliterates sin and not only makes him right before God, but actually sanctifies him and makes him righteous. The Protestant view, beginning with the teachings of Luther and other early Protestant Reformers, conceives of justification as a purely forensic declaration by God as judge, declaring the sinner righteous in God’s court by an imputation of his sins to the sinless Christ and an imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness to the sinner — not actually, in this act, affecting the sinfulness of the believer, but merely covering his sins.

The Protestant view of Justification

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

Because, in the Protestant view, God declares the sinner righteous in this once-and-for-all, forensic, judicial declaration, he is then held “not guilty,” in God’s judgment, of all his sins — in most conceptions, all the sins he has committed in his past life and even all he ever will commit in the future. In this idea of imputation, a “swap” or substitution is accomplished, an exchange of accounts: the sinner’s hopelessly bankrupt debt is cancelled, and Christ’s perfect and infinite righteousness is credited to him. Because of this credit, all the sinner’s eternal debts are paid: even if he sins in the future, no sin of his could compare or counter the payment Christ gave on the cross for the sins of all humanity. The sinner’s every sin, from then on, is covered by the blood of Christ.

So in the Protestant conception, the idea of “falling from grace” is nonsensical. For one thing, the notion of a “state of grace” — let alone falling from it — is not generally in the Protestant vocabulary. For another, because justification is understood as a once-and-for-all event, “justification” is often effectively equated with “salvation” — with the result that “falling from grace” sounds to Protestant ears as “losing one’s salvation.” This is not how Catholics understand it.

“Lumping” and “splitting”

What appears at first to be a stark contrast between the Catholic and Protestant views is ameliorated when one takes a broader view of the situation. I’ve written before about “lumpers and splitters” — Catholics having a tendency to lump concepts and terminology together and Protestants tending to split them. Here is another case of that. Even in the Protestant view, justification is only one step in a larger process, one of the initial steps. They split into a separate action the process of sanctification — by which God’s grace makes one actually holy. On the other hand, in the Catholic understanding, justification and sanctification are so closely related as to be part of the same action.

This is the source of much confusion. Many of the Protestant charges that Catholics believe in “justification by works,” I believe, stem from the fact that when Catholics speak of works being involved in justification, they usually are referring to what Protestants would call sanctification, the process of growing in grace and being made holy — which even many Protestants will admit does involve works of charity. Likewise, many Catholic apologists caricature the Protestant position on justification by claiming that it merely casts a cloak over a man’s wretched, festering, sinful state, and doesn’t actually effect a change in his soul or his holiness; but they often overlook that sanctification is a closely bound concept even for Protestants that follows necessarily upon a sincere conversion to Christ, and regeneration is another important event that does accomplish a real change in the soul through God’s grace.

Justification is not the end of the road

El Greco, Apostle St. Paul

Apostle St. Paul (c. 1612), by El Greco.

But what about “falling from grace”? How can one, in the Protestant view, conceive of such a thing? Well, it is important for the Protestant to realize that Catholics take a much broader view of salvation than many Protestants do. While in the minds of many Protestants, “salvation” is the moment when one accepts and converts to Christ — accomplishing (and this is a flattening or lumping) regeneration, justification, and conversion all at once — that is not the end of the road, even for Protestants. “Salvation” implies being saved from something; and while this initial regeneration and justification may have saved the sinner from his sins — even, in the Protestant conception, from the eternal consequences of them — there is still much to be saved from before the end: many sins, dangers, and temptations, and from death itself. The believer still must live the life ahead of him, yielding good fruit (Philippians 1:11, Colossians 1:10) and being sanctified (1 Thessalonians 4:1–8, Romans 6:22). Even Paul in the Scriptures speaks of having been saved not only in the past tense (e.g. Ephesians 2:8–10), but also in the present tense, how we are being saved even now (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:18, 2 Corinthians 2:15), and we shall be saved, future tense, on the Day of Jesus Christ (e.g. Romans 5:9–10, 1 Corinthians 5:5, cf. 1 Peter 2:12); and this future tense is by far the most common mode of speaking of salvation in the Gospels (e.g. Matthew 24:13, Mark 13:13, Luke 13:23, John 6:54): “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13, etc.).

Next time: the Catholic view of Salvation as a Journey.

Some Early Testimonies to the Authority of Apostolic Tradition

Part of an ongoing discussion at Reformation500.

The Sermon on the Mount (1877), by Carl Heinrich Bloch

The Sermon on the Mount (1877), by Carl Heinrich Bloch (Wikimedia).

As I’ve been arguing, I think Protestants, in thinking about “Tradition,” fail to see the forest for the trees. You (and I presume these historians) are looking for “traditions,” “hidden doctrines,” something concretely novel or different from the Word of God in Scripture — but given that, according to the proposition, this “Tradition” came from the very same source and same revelation as Scripture, that isn’t something we should expect to see. You are looking for some separate, concrete body of knowledge which the Early Church hailed as authoritative — some esoteric, “secret” store of privileged revelation — which frankly reeks of Gnosticism. But that isn’t the sort of thing I am talking about at all.

Christ Preaching (1652), by Rembrandt.

Christ Preaching (1652), by Rembrandt.

What I’m talking about is simply the whole teaching of Christ to His Apostles, and of the Apostles to their disciples, and henceforth. In the main, this would have been no different than the content of the New Testament; and yes, we can have faith that God caused the most important points to be written down. But no document of the New Testament purports to be a catechism or compendium of Christian doctrine. In the teaching of the faith, from Jesus to the Apostles, from the Apostles to their disciples, and with each successive generation, even to today, Christian teachers do not simply hand the Bible to new converts and expect them to learn from it alone; Christian discipleship is accompanied by instruction in how to understand Christian Scripture and doctrine and how to live the Christian life; how to do the things Christians do. By nature of what it is, this teaching carries content not found in Scripture. And the Apostles would have passed on as fully as they could the teaching they received from the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:23), and instructed their own disciples to do likewise (1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 2 Timothy 2:2). Thus, this body of “Tradition” (παράδοσις [paradosis], lit. teaching that was handed over) was immediately apostolic in origin, if not from the very mouth of God Himself.

Baptism, Catacomb of St. Callixtus

A third-century representation of Baptism from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome.

I’ve been pointing out a few visible examples of this. Arguably, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacramental efficacy of baptism — i.e. baptismal regeneration; the understanding that the water of baptism washes away sins and gives rebirth in Christ — are clear enough from Scripture itself; but the fact that many Protestants have disputed these doctrines demonstrates either Scripture’s lack of perspicuity or the necessity of Apostolic Tradition: because from the earliest times, as witnessed by diverse Church Fathers, these understandings were universal and unambiguous throughout all the Church, evidently from the teaching that all the churches had received. Likewise, from the earliest times, universally, even in most Protestant traditions, the Church has transferred the Old Testament Sabbath observance to Sunday, the Lord’s Day, in honor of His Resurrection; and the annual commemoration of the Resurrection has been kept in conjunction with the Passover — but neither is taught by Scripture. The outlines of the liturgical celebrations of baptism and the Eucharist in all churches everywhere appear to stem from the same apostolic tradition. Likewise the testimony to a successive, singular episcopal office is universal. These things complement and guide the practice of the Church, and inform and fill out her doctrine, confirming and supporting the Word of God in Scripture, not contradicting it.

The Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

I could cite numerous testimonies to this παράδοσις of the Apostles from the Church Fathers, but I will pick out only a few of the earliest. I hope these examples will indicate the kind of doctrines and practices which the Church has always held by Tradition. Some of the earliest unambiguous references, appropriately enough, appear in the context of combatting the teachings of heretics, who twist the Scriptures to their own interpretations, arguing that they had received an esoteric tradition of secret knowledge (γνῶσις) — a charge not unlike Protestant caricatures against Catholic teachings about Apostolic Tradition. These people, Irenaeus argues, reject Scripture:

Irenaeus

Irenaeus of Lyon (ca. A.D. 120–200).

When, however, [the heretics] are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world” (1 Corinthians 2:6). And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing … (Against Heresies III.2.1)

On the other hand, Irenaeus says, the same heretics also reject apostolic tradition:

But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the Apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the Apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. … (Against Heresies III.2.2).

The key for Irenaeus, therefore — the only sure means by which the heretics can be refuted — is not by Scripture alone, but by Scripture informed by Tradition, verified by Apostolic Succession:

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the Apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the Apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. (Against Heresies III.3.1).

This tradition is demonstrated clearly, he continues, by the continuous testimony of all the churches of the world in agreement with one another (Against Heretics III.3.2). And as a personal testimony of this tradition, Irenaeus shares:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by Apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by Apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departing this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the Apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,—a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics (Against Heretics III.3.4).

Tertullian

Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160 – c. 225).

Tertullian actually speaks to the impotence of Scripture alone in refuting heresies:

But with respect to the man for whose sake you enter on the discussion of the Scriptures, with the view of strengthening him when afflicted with doubts, (let me ask) will it be to the truth, or rather to heretical opinions that he will lean? Influenced by the very fact that he sees you have made no progress, whilst the other side is on an equal footing (with yourself) in denying and in defence, or at any rate on a like standing he will go away confirmed in his uncertainty by the discussion, not knowing which side to adjudge heretical. For, no doubt, they too are able to retort these things on us. It is indeed a necessary consequence that they should go so far as to say that adulterations of the Scriptures, and false expositions thereof, are rather introduced by ourselves, inasmuch as they, no less than we maintain that truth is on their side. (The Prescription against Heretics I.18)

Rather, one should ask, “With whom lies the very faith to which the Scriptures belong?” And how is this rule of faith known?

Our appeal, therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough. But even if a discussion from the Scriptures should not turn out in such a way as to place both sides on a par, (yet) the natural order of things would require that this point should be first proposed, which is now the only one which we must discuss: “With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong. From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule, by which men become Christians?” For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions. (ibid, I.19)

It is this tradition, Tertullian argues, that distinguishes the true Apostolic Churches:

[The Apostles] founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches. … Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive church, (founded) by the Apostles, from which they all (spring). In this way all are primitive, and all are apostolic, whilst they are all proved to be one, in (unbroken) unity, by their peaceful communion, and title of brotherhood, and bond of hospitality,—privileges which no other rule directs than the one tradition of the selfsame mystery. (ibid, I.20)

Tertullian again speaks, presciently, to the situation so often separating Catholic and Protestant churches: Why should anyone accept practices not found explicitly in Scripture?

And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down? Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent. To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. (De Corona 3)

I gave the same example above before I’d even discovered this passage. He elucidates:

When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then … we are taken up (as new-born children)… (ibid.)

This description very much resembles the rite of baptism in Catholic, Orthodox, and even Protestant churches, to this very day — thus is the authority and staying power of Tradition. And yet the details of this rite are not described in Scripture. Tertullian goes on to enumerate a number of other traditions, several of which are still very familiar in the Catholic Church, including the Sign of the Cross. Regarding these practices, Tertullian continues:

If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer. That reason will support tradition, and custom, and faith, you will either yourself perceive, or learn from some one who has. … If I nowhere find a law, it follows that tradition has given the [practice] in question to custom, to find subsequently (its authorization in) the apostle’s sanction, from the true interpretation of reason. (Ibid. 4)

Origen

Origen (184–254).

Origen, to add the voice of Alexandria to those of Gaul and Asia Minor (Irenaeus) and Africa and Rome (Tertullian), concurs:

Since many, however, of those who profess to believe in Christ differ from each other, not only in small and trifling matters, but also on subjects of the highest importance, as, e.g., regarding God, or the Lord Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit, … it seems on that account necessary first of all to fix a definite limit and to lay down an unmistakable rule regarding each one of these, and then to pass to the investigation of other points. … So, seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. (De Principiis, Preface, 2).

A few more brief quotes from later Fathers, in both the East and the West:

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330 – c. 395).

Let no one interrupt me, by saying that what we confess should also be confirmed by constructive reasoning: for it is enough for proof of our statement, that the tradition has come down to us from our fathers, handled on, like some inheritance, by succession from the apostles and the saints who came after them. (Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius IV.6)



Basil of Caesarea

Basil of Caesarea (329–379).

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the Apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay;—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? (Basil of Caesarea, On the Spirit 66)

Basil proceeds to name, like Tertullian, a great list of authoritative traditions held by the whole Church.

John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom (c. 347–407).

Hence it is manifest, that [the Apostles] did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther. (John Chrysostom, In 2 Thess. hom. IV.14, commenting on 2 Thess. 2:15)

[The Scriptures] need examination, and the perception to understand the force of each proposition. But Tradition must be used too, for not everything is available from the Sacred Scripture. thus the holy Apostles handed some things down in Scriptures but some in traditions. (Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion LXI.6.4)

Saint Augustine in His Study, by Botticelli.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430).

[I believe that this custom (i.e. of not requiring the rebaptism of heretics)] comes from apostolical tradition, like many other things which are held to have been handed down under their actual sanction, because they are preserved throughout the whole Church, though they are not found either in their letters, or in the Councils of their successors. (Augustine of Hippo, Contra Bapt. Donat. II.7.12)

So I’ve shown that the Church did possess an Apostolic Tradition, “passed down and preserved by all the churches” — and it is their agreement that makes it manifest. But of what authority was this tradition? Was it “infallible”? As John [Bugay] rightly pointed out — “infallibility” is not a concept or category that anybody in this age of the Church would have understood or thought about, and I’m not sure it’s helpful for this conversation. Certainty Christians considered Scripture of the highest authority — there’s no disputing that. But if a doctrine came from the very same source as Scripture, from the mouths of Jesus and the Apostles, would they have accepted it with any less authority, simply because one was written down and the other wasn’t? No less than Paul himself suggests that this distinction wasn’t so important as Protestants have sought to make it (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Why, within living memory of Paul, would anyone have drawn a distinction between what Paul taught by word of mouth or by letter? It is plain that the Early Church did not. Certainly Tradition is not Scripture, which is the very, written Word of God; but with legitimate evidence of its apostolic origin and belief throughout the ages, in all the churches, we can see by the testimony of these Fathers that the Church accepted it as authoritative. Several of them even declare that Tradition is held as of equal weight as Scripture. The fact that with regard to so many of these traditions, the Church everywhere has maintained them to this day, testifies to the authority in which they have been held.