A Pentecostal Discovers the True Working of the Holy Spirit

[I outlined this post a few Saturdays ago but got busy and didn’t finish it. It refers to the day’s prayers at Mass. For the record, they are from Saturday, March 18.]

worship concert

Growing up as a Pentecostal youth, pretty much the sum of my Christian experience was in waiting for, proclaiming, or savoring the presence and working of the Holy Spirit. High-powered, emotional worship services were all about experiencing the Holy Spirit through ecstatic detachment, “getting lost” in Jesus. I’ve written before about how this emotional experience of God was difficult to maintain, especially for a teen who struggled with depression and anxiety, and how ultimately it lacked a lot of substance in terms of real commitment or intellectual depth. It was about momentary excitement and stimulation, but after the emotion was passed, this didn’t always amount to a real change.

Whether it lasted or not, core to my faith in God was the belief that Holy Spirit is immanent in the Church and in our lives; that He works in us and through us daily; that He moves in us powerfully, inspires us, changes us, heals us. I believed in miracles, both in wondrous physical healing and in changed lives through spiritual transformation.

Holy Spirit

None of this faith was lost when I became Catholic. Though it’s true I’ve grown more skeptical of the sensational and the ecstatic, I still believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in us and in the Church, and that He has the power to change us and to heal us. I’ve often heard the complaint that the liturgical approach to experiencing God feels regimented, constricted, and limiting; that it “quenches the Holy Spirit” and does not allow Him to work; that unless we are free to “get lost” in worship, we are not giving God the freedom to move in us.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Though at times it may seem, as it did to me early in my journey to Catholicism, that Catholic practice marginalizes the Holy Spirit or downplays His work (I once suggested here that Catholicism made the Holy Spirit a “tag-along”), in fact the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to everything the Church does and Christians do, to all our prayer and all our liturgy, to every work of God’s grace that we do and that God does in us, most of all to the Sacraments.

Come, Holy Spirit

Antiphon Veni Sancte Spiritus

A key difference that I observe between the Catholic approach to the Holy Spirit and the Pentecostal or Charismatic one is that the Catholic approach to the Holy Spirit is introspective, focused on the work of the Holy Spirit in us, while the Charismatic approach tends to focus on outward signs and manifestations. This is evident in the very ways in which we invoke the Holy Spirit. Charismatics very often speak of the Holy Spirit “filling this place” like an atmosphere, or “feeling the Holy Spirit here” as something external, as “the presence of God.” A popular song implores:

Holy Spirit, You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for
To be overcome by Your presence, Lord

The presence of the Holy Spirit, for the Charismatic, is about “God showing up and showing out” — as I often heard. It is something that manifests itself most of all in a show of power and wondrous signs; something that overpowers the senses and overcomes the person.

The differences in the Catholic view can be seen in our own hymn, Veni, Sancte Spiritus (“Come, Holy Spirit”):

Veni, Sancte Spiritus,
et emitte caelitus
lucis tuae radium.
Come, Holy Spirit,
send forth the heavenly
radiance of your light.
O lux beatissima,
reple cordis intima
tuorum fidelium.
O most blessed light,
fill the inmost heart
of your faithful.
Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod est aridum,
sana quod est saucium.
Cleanse that which is unclean,
water that which is dry,
heal that which is wounded.
Flecte quod est rigidum,
fove quod est frigidum,
rege quod est devium.
Bend that which is inflexible,
fire that which is chilled,
correct what goes astray.
Da tuis fidelibus,
in te confidentibus,
sacrum septenarium.
Give to your faithful,
those who trust in you,
the sevenfold gifts.

For the Catholic, the coming of the Holy Spirit is not so much about “filling this place” as about “filling our hearts“; not about outward displays or manifestations so much as about inward sanctification, healing, and transformation.

The Holy Spirit in the Sacraments

Holy Spirit EucharistThe essential ground of the Holy Spirit is the Sacraments. When I was first becoming Catholic, I was so accustomed to looking for the Holy Spirit in outward signs and wonders that I mistook that He was missing or absent from Catholic life altogether. Far from being absent, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God on the earth, and is present in the Church, in everything we do, and most of all in us. In each of the Sacraments, God works in our lives and communicates His grace to us through the Holy Spirit.

In Baptism, we are “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5-7); we are washed, regenerated, and renewed (Titus 3:5) — and the agent is the Holy Spirit. In the sacrament of Confession, it is the Holy Spirit Himself who forgives our sins and accomplishes the same cleansing (1 John 1:9). And most powerfully and intimately in the Eucharist, it is the Holy Spirit who makes present the reality of Christ’s Body and Blood in His Paschal mystery. I was struck today by how the Mass’s prayer after Communion highlights the work of the Holy Spirit in us:

May your divine Sacrament, O Lord, which we have received,
fill the inner depths of our heart
and, by its working mightily within us,
make us partakers of its grace.
Through Christ our Lord.

In a real way, both physically and spiritually, the Sacrament fills us — but it is the Holy Spirit Who through it, fills the innermost depths of our heart and works mightily within us. I don’t think I had made this connection before, between the reality of the Lord’s Presence in the Eucharist and the presence of the Holy Spirit as worker. But certainly I had always felt this innately.

From the very first time I received the Lord in the Eucharist — and every time since — I have felt this powerfully and viscerally: the Lord Himself working powerfully in my heart, more intimately than I had ever experienced before — an overpowering sense of being touched, inhabited, seized from within. This working is transformative: Coming to the Sacrament from the greatest places of darkness and despair, it has never failed to bring light to my heart; from the deepest hurt, it has brought healing and restoration; from the brink of the greatest temptation, it has brought strength and respite; even from moments or boredom, disinterest, and not wanting to be there, it has brought, unexpected and unlooked for, a renewed focus and friendship with the Lord. In the truest sense, I am overcome by the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist, in my encounter with Him.

The Bread of LifeJesus worked His miracles through physical touch, visiting His people in the flesh and impacting their lives by direct and physical interaction. He gave us the Eucharist using the same physical language of encounter: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51) As He invited sinners throughout his earthly ministry, He invites us to sup with Him and share a meal with Him (Revelation 3:20). After He ascended bodily to Heaven, and sent His Holy Spirit to be our Paraclete, He nonetheless left us with the possibility, in that meal and through the Spirit, of such an intimate encounter with Him. As He touched us physically during His earthly ministry, through His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, he continues to touch us physically in the most intimate communion, and through that touch to work powerfully in our hearts and spirits. The Sacraments are the means by which the Holy Spirit enters, is poured into our lives. He literally fills us and transforms us.

Key to Protestant misunderstandings

Hudrych Zwingli (1484 - 1531).

Hudrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531).

It occurs to me that understanding of the Holy Spirit’s central role in the Sacraments is the key to several Protestant misunderstandings. Of the Eucharist in particular, it is easy for the mind to trip over the physical claims about the real presence of the Lord, when the truth is not one of material at all but of encounter and indwelling, concepts Protestants readily understand in speaking of the Holy Spirit.

Even more important, Protestants routinely charge that Catholic claims about receiving grace through the Sacraments amounts to a system of “works’ righteousness,” that somehow we are subjecting the reception of grace to what we do or to human working. It is only in the understanding that each of the Sacraments is solely the work of the Holy Spirit, given to us in grace, that this myth can be dispelled. Where is the “human work”? In requiring that we do something? Humans need only be there, to receive the grace. In placing the Sacraments at the hands of a priest? The priest is only a servant, a vessel, a tool; it is only the Holy Spirit who accomplishes the work. Is it in making grace about something more than “faith alone”? It is only the most radical misreading of Paul that presumes even the Sacraments of the Church to be “works done by us in righteousness” (Titus 3:5, which is one of the most explicit references in Scripture to the efficacy of Baptism as “the bath of regeneration” by the Holy Spirit). In neither the views of Jesus or of Paul does “faith” exclude action: Jesus asks His listeners to step out in faith in order to receive their healing (e.g. Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 17:11-19; John 9:1-7); Paul, as above, holds forth sacramental means of grace (et. e.g. Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3-6; Galatians 3:27) rather than a bare “faith alone” — which threatens, as much as any charge against Catholics of “works’ righteousness” to make grace subject to the action of the person (having faith) rather than the working of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the glue of our faith: In a Trinitarian sense, neither the Father nor the Son, but the Spirit of God that proceeds from both. He is the medium of grace, the means, the actor and worker in our lives and in the Church, by which we are filled, renewed, healed, and transformed. It is in the Holy Spirit that we are bound to God and to each other in communion. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God on earth, the person through whom we encounter God and Christ — and that encounter, the place of our God entering our lives and working in our hearts, is most viscerally and tangibly in the Sacraments.

Justification, unity, and papacy: A blind spot

Catechism of the Catholic ChurchOne of the most frequent charges I hear, when I point out the inherent chaos and disunity of Protestantism, is that “there is a lot of disagreement in the Catholic Church, too” — that somehow disagreements within the Catholic Church are equivalent to, or excuse, the fundamental doctrinal disagreements between diverse Protestant churches. In particular, opponents point out the large number of self-identified Catholics who practice artificial birth control or support abortion or same-sex marriage in contradiction to the teachings of the Church. My response is that there is a fundamental distinction between what the Church teaches — the one, consistent, unified and unambiguous teaching of the Church’s infallible Magisterium, as summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church — and what individual Catholics do and believe, the doings and failings of fallible people who may make mistakes and stray from the flock. Even if a large number of people should disagree, sin, or fall away from the truth, it does not change the truth that is taught or besmirch the teacher.

The leading charge of the Protestant Reformation is that the Church had fallen away from a true understanding of the doctrine of justification as taught by St. Paul — that in contrast to the claims of Protestants, that justification is “by faith alone” (sola fide), the Catholic Church taught a doctrine of “works’ righteousness,” that somehow by our own working we can deserve or earn our own salvation. I have written a lot on justification and presented frequently here that this is not what the Catholic Church actually teaches. I have attempted to make the distinction before, and I have a new post in the docket in which I want to explore the point further: Catholics do believe in justification by faith and not our own efforts; where Protestants disagree is only in proposing that no human response at all is necessary.

Antonio Rodríguez - Saint Augustine

Antonio Rodríguez, Saint Augustine (Wikimedia).

It’s clear from history that the Church has never actually taught a doctrine of “works’ righteousness,” the thesis that man, by his own effort, can in any way save himself. This is the heresy of Pelagianism, which the Catholic Church has always and consistently condemned. Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and other monuments of Catholic theology consistently maintain that justification is only by the grace of God through faith and not human effort. Alister McGrath, in his brilliant Iustitia Dei: A History of the Doctrine of Justification, demonstrates convincingly that even throughout the rigorous scholastic debates of the Middle Ages, the teachers of the Church never abandoned the orthodoxy that no effort or merit of man can save him apart from God’s grace. The teaching of the Church, then, I’ve believed, was always consistent in teaching justification by God’s grace alone: what the Protestant Reformers charged and challenged was nothing new and nothing needed.

A blind spot

Gentile da Fabriano, Thomas Aquinas, detail from Valle Romita polyptych, c. 1400 (Wikimedia).

In my recent forays into the history of the Reformation era, I’ve come to realize that in this I may have had a blind spot. Despite the Church’s consistent condemnation of Pelagianism (“works’ righteousness”); despite the clear teachings of Augustine and Thomas and other theological lights; the situation among the Catholic faithful and even many clergy in the late Middle Ages and early modern era prior to the Reformation may have been much like the situation today — with many believing something that wasn’t true, something that was contrary to the actual teachings of the Church. And this idea of the “actual teachings of the Church”: to presume the kind of monolithic unity that we have today, to be able to point at a single compendium of doctrine, the Catechism, and say, “This is the one, consistent teaching of the Catholic Church” — may be projecting an anachronism onto that era. There was no such book in the sixteenth century; there were few printed books at all, at the dawn of the age of printing, and the vast majority of the faithful were illiterate. The “one, consistent teaching of the Catholic Church” was scattered among myriad tomes, among the writings of numerous Church Fathers and the canons of numerous councils; and though it was one and consistent, it was not digestible in a form that any but the most learned academic could grasp. In practice, the actual teaching of the Catholic Church was what individual bishops and priests actually taught the faithful, and the truth is, in very many cases this was pretty shoddy.

John Calvin

John Calvin, by Titian (16th century) (Wikimedia).

For Protestants, the doctrine of justification is the very core of the Gospel, the fundamental essence of the truth, the sine qua non of salvation. This emphasis on justification may be myopic: Sacred Scripture devotes only a few words in a few passages to the idea of justification — much more pervasive ideas being the love and mercy and grace of God. Prior to Augustine in combating Pelagianism, no Christian author paid much attention to the doctrine of justification; in him, both Catholics and Protestants find the foundations of their doctrines. In Eastern Christianity, justification has never been a major focus, let alone the cornerstone of the Gospel. In the West, between the times of Augustine and the Council of Trent, the mechanics of justification were mostly a subject for scholastic exposition and debate, not “the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.” So I think Protestants too have something of a blind spot in this regard.

But I concede that a lack of emphasis on justification and grace by the teachers of the faithful in the early modern era may have led to poor understandings by many about something that is crucial: how we can have a relationship with God, and how we can be saved. When Protestant preachers arrived on the scene in the sixteenth century, in many cases the idea of justification by faith alone caught on like wildfire, to those who felt they had been striving in themselves for salvation. Even if this belief in human effort leading to salvation was an incorrect understanding of what was in fact the true and orthodox Christian doctrine, it was the failure of the Church, in her individual pastors, to teach that truth. As much as we may deplore the breakdown of Christian unity that followed in their wake, in this even Catholics owe the Protestant Reformers a debt of gratitude, in returning the focus of Christian teaching to the grace of God.

The failure of the papacy?

Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation

I recently read a review of Brad S. Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation by Reformed author Carl Trueman. In Gregory’s book, he argues that many of the foibles of modernity, in secularism and postmodernism, were the unintended fruits of the Protestant Reformation’s denial of authority, and the resulting diversity of Protestant interpretations of Scripture and inability to affirm one, unified truth. Trueman’s response is essentially, “That may be so, but what you offer is even worse.” “Perspicuity [the belief that the Scriptures themselves teach a single, clear truth] was, after all,” Trueman writes, “a response to a position that had proved to be a failure: the Papacy.”

Alexander VI

Alexander VI (Cesare Borgia), one of the more notorious Renaissance popes. (Wikimedia)

I was taken aback to read this. The papacy — a failure? Honestly, in all my years, even as a Protestant, I don’t think such a thought ever crossed my mind, that the institution of the papacy was a failure. Trueman presents several respects in which he thinks the papacy was a failure: the medieval papacy was corrupt and caught up in politics and worldiness; the Western Schism of the papacy was such a mess that it took several councils just to sort out who the pope was; the early modern papacy failed to reform the Church with due speed and diligence following the Fifth Lateran Council even when many corruptions and failures were known. Yes, these things are all true. I would add my own: many popes of the medieval and early modern papacy failed to make the pastoral care of souls their chief concern; failed to make teaching the doctrines of the faith the heart of their work; failed to appoint bishops who would do the same. There was a breakdown, and yes, reform was desperately needed. But was the breakdown, the failure, in the office of the papacy, or in the men who held it, who allowed the world to pull their focus from what it should be?

Perhaps the most central concern is whether the papacy is a failure for what we maintain Christ intended it to be: as a guarantor of the truth and unity and orthodoxy of the faith. Yes, some men who held the office of the papacy were failures in some respects: they failed to be “good Christians,” perhaps even good pastors; they failed to keep the heart of the gospel, the salvation of souls, at the center of their concerns. Perhaps they even failed as teachers, in that they could have taught the truth, and overseen the teaching of the bishops, with much better clarity and focus and consistency. But we look to the papacy as the final safeguard between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, the one to whom all other bishops must guide in teaching the truth, to ensure that error is not taught. In this respect, the only way that the institution of the papacy could be a failure is if the pope in fact taught error with regard to doctrine or morals. As near as I can figure, this has never happened. In contrast to the to multiplicity of contradictory interpretations from “perspicuous” Scripture alone, the papacy has taught a single course of doctrine.

The triumph of the papacy

The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent.

So some men of the papacy failed, for a time, even for centuries. Perhaps if popes had done better at keeping the Church on the right course, if they had been reforming the Church all along, then the violent upheavals of the Protestant Reformation might never have occurred. But I maintain that in its essential purpose, the papacy never failed at all — not the way dependence on the “perspicuity” of Scripture has failed. And even the men of the papacy did not fail forever. I would argue that the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation, the way that, by God’s grace, the Catholic Church reformed itself, reaffirmed her doctrines, and has driven forward into modernity with a renewed heart and focus, is the greatest triumph of the papacy. I would argue that many modern popes — for example, Pius V, Pius X, and even the popes of recent memory, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, do present to the world the gospel of Christ the way a pastor and successor of Saint Peter should. Having divested itself of political and temporal encumbrances, and gained the publicity of mass communications media, the papacy of today, rather than being a “failure,” is succeeding in its mission of maintaining the unity of the faith and guiding the Church toward the gospel and salvation of Christ, perhaps better than it has in many centuries.

On life, apologetics, and Reformation

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted, so I wanted to give you an update.

Hamster

Finally free from the wheel!

I graduated in December with my latest degree, in computer science. I’ve gone to work as a research scientist in information technology for a research center at my university. For the first time in my life, I consider myself gainfully employed, and it’s a good feeling. Work keeps me busy, not in the same, 24/7, constant-crisis mode of being in school, but in a consistent, rewarding manner that brings new challenges and opportunities to research and learn every day. I really love my job. I’m engaged to be married. Life is moving forward, after years of feeling like I was running in a hamster wheel.

The Great Courses: The History of Christianity

As part of my daily commute, I started listening to audiobooks a year or so ago. I listened to Stephen King’s epic The Stand three times in a row — it being the only book I had at the time and an enthralling one. Then I subscribed to Audible.com, where I can get new books every month. After a couple of abortive forays into other fiction, I began listening to audio courses in history through Audible and The Great Courses. I listened to an outstanding history of Christianity by Professor Luke Timothy Johnson; now I’m about halfway through another great history of Christianity in the Reformation Era by Professor Brad S. Gregory. What I have learned is inspiring and challenging.

The Great Courses: The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era

The truth is, even with my history degrees, I’ve felt my foundation in the history of the whole of Christianity was weak, especially in the Reformation era. I took one survey course in the history of Christianity years ago with Dr. G, and it was life-changing, but it stopped short of the Reformation. I took several other courses in medieval European history, but never took Dr. G’s Renaissance and Reformation course, which I’ve always regretted. I had one graduate course in early modern European historiography which touched on some Reformation topics. Beyond that, my only contact with Reformation history as a whole was in the broad European survey courses I took as an undergraduate and helped teach as a graduate.

St. Augustine, Lateran fresco

The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome. (Wikimedia)

I’ve written here how history guided me to the Catholic Church. It’s true, what I learned of the Catholic Church in especially Dr. G’s surveys, and of the great Church Fathers, bishops, popes, and theologians, was something to fall in love with. As I approached the Church later, what guided me most was my own study of the Church Fathers — realizing that the faith and Church of the Fathers did not at all resemble anything in the Protestant world, but rather instead gave the foundations and antecedents of the Catholic Church. This was enough to convince me that this course is right, but it gave a rather lopsided view, especially coupled with my immersion in Catholic apologetics.

My reengagement with history has been sobering. Rather than the triumphalism of apologetics, I am coming to see that the Church has had many faults and foibles. Christians have done wrong, committed sins, or otherwise fallen short of the glory and calling of the Gospel of Christ. Doctrines and traditions have accreted, built up and calcified in not a glorious way, but at times a constrictive way, impeding people from coming to Christ rather than bringing them to Him more ably. I see that reform was desperately needed — as it is always needed. Just as in our individual lives, we must constantly reform ourselves and turn again toward Christ, so as a Church we must constantly be reformed and refreshed and renewed. There were glories of the medieval Church, but there were also failures. Semper reformanda.

Protestant iconoclasm

Protestant iconoclasm.

That is not to say that I’m a fan of the Protestant Reformation, either. From chapter to chapter, my emotions have ranged from disgust and revulsion, to horror, to deep depression at the extreme actions and reactions of Protestants. Yes, reform was needed; yes, the institutional Church was slow to embrace it; but no, not only Protestant theology, but especially the way in which Protestant reforms were carried out, was deeply wrong and destructive. Daily I struggle to understand how so many Christians raised up in the traditions of the Church, even those educated as ministers, could so vehemently, viciously, and hatefully turn against her and reject her.

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

Matthias Burglechner, The Council of Trent, 16th century (Wikimedia Commons).

More than anything, I am seeing how it is only by the grace of God that we have a Church at all; how He holds us up, even in our weakness and failures. Triumphalism in apologetics bothers me almost as much as falsehood. It is misleading to present that the Church was always right and that Christians have never made mistakes, or that the way things are now is the exact same way they have always been. I have struggled for a long time to understand Protestant arguments, to understand how, presented with the same Catholic arguments that I have found so convincing, others do not. I’m convinced now that a good apologist must acknowledge faults, but present how even despite them, God has used the Church. The strongest argument of all to me, now, is that despite all the ways humans have screwed it up, despite the “idolatry” and “apostasy” the Protestants who abandoned her charged, God did reform the Catholic Church and continues to use her, even more ably than before, as a vessel of salvation. It’s a testimony, too, that the Protestant enterprise was not wholly corrupt, but that Protestants and Protestant churches have continued to be used for God’s glory, and that they too can change, be tempered, and be reformed. The greatest truth, I’m convinced, lies somewhere in our reconciliation and reunion.

May we all be reformed and renewed in this journey of Lent toward the Resurrection. I hope to write more about these reflections soon.

[Oh, by the way, my site (and my whole hosting account) was recently hacked. I believe it’s fixed now, but please let me know if you see anything suspicious.]

Grappling with Sola Fide, Part 1

St. John Lateran, interior

Basilica of St. John Lateran, Rome, interior. (Wikimedia).

So as I journeyed to the Catholic Church, sola scriptura didn’t put up much of a fight. I don’t remember ever even considering, at the earliest stages, whether a particular doctrine could be found in Scripture: if it could be found among the teachings of the early Church Fathers, that was good enough for me. I felt that I was rediscovering the lost treasures of the faith, those that my Protestant brethren had cast away.

I had begun reading books and reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For some six months, I attended weekly and daily Mass at St. John’s, falling in love more and more deeply with the Mass and longing to receive my Lord in the Eucharist. I went up every time for the pastor’s blessing. He praised my diligence and dedication in attending, even though I couldn’t receive. Catholic friends elsewhere asked why I put up with it for so long, why I attended like that for over a year, some fifteen months, when I probably could have asked to enter the Church some other time. For me, it felt like an important part of the journey: traveling with the Lord and learning more of His Church’s ways, as I longed to be with Him in more and deeper ways.

It is probably a good thing that I took the long road. Though the going seemed to go easily at first, I did come to rough terrain — Catholic doctrines that I really struggled with — and when they came, they came on fiercely.

Salvation

Conversion experience

As an Evangelical Protestant, naturally, my conception of salvation consisted almost entirely of the conversion experience: Of an emotional coming to Jesus moment, an altar call, a “sinner’s prayer,” asking Jesus to be Lord of my life.

It occurs to me that it’s possible I might have Catholic readers who might not be familiar with the dynamics of all this, so perhaps I should give a brief explanation. This is not going to be any sort of comprehensive summary of how Evangelicals understand salvation, but rather how I myself did. — And so begins, I now say after writing everything below, my next not-so-brief series.

Bernhard Plockhurst, Jesus Blessing the Children

Bernhard Plockhorst (1825–1907), Jesus Blessing the Children (Wikimedia).

I still remember vividly the images on the transparency: of Jesus knocking on the door of my heart, and of the Holy Spirit, a dove, coming to live in me. This is what I understood, at the age of three, when a team of young evangelists came to our small nondenominational church. I remember the smiling young man very well who asked me if I wanted to ask Jesus to come into my heart, and who prayed with me when I said yes.

I had no appreciation of theology or soteriology or probably even sin then. All I understood was love, and I felt it. I do think this was a genuine experience, a true encounter with God. In the terms I was taught then and understood as an Evangelical, I was then saved.

This is how Evangelicals understand salvation: typically in terms of a conversion experience, of turning from one’s sins and confessing Jesus is Lord, usually in a dramatic or emotional moment. This moment is supposed to be a landmark, the end of one’s old life and the beginning of a new life: the moment of being “born again.” After this moment, the believer in Jesus is saved, from that point forward.

Sin and Repentance

Gerard Seghers, Repentance of St. Peter

Gerard Seghers, Repentance of St. Peter (c.1625-1629) (Wikimedia).

Growing up, of course, I did eventually come to a full knowledge of right and wrong and understood doing wrong to be sin. I remember feeling remorse, and the need to ask God for the forgiveness of my sins continually. I don’t think this is something that was ever taught to me, just something I intuited.

As an adolescent, I remember having changing feelings and attitudes. I remember struggling with depression. I remember one day, in the car in front of my cousins’ house, a long conversation with my mom, and she asking me if I thought I was saved. I said I wasn’t sure. I cried and we prayed the prayer again together. It was the second of many times.

I remember, as a teenager struggling with the sins of youth, a constant tension between the idea that Jesus had paid the price for all my sins and they were all covered, and the message of preaching that I needed to get right with God — the implication of this being that when I sinned, I wasn’t right with God. This is, I guess, not very good Evangelical theology — but to this day, I don’t really know how to understand or deal with this situation as an Evangelical: If all our sins are already covered, what are the consequences of continuing to sin? In classical Protestant theology, in which God overlooks all our sins and sees only the righteousness of Christ, is it even possible to “not be right with God”? If not — what incentive is there to repentance or holiness? And if a believer persists in sin, even to the point of falling away, are there still no consequences? I have only ever heard vague and unsatisfying answers to these questions from Evangelicals; especially the unsatisfying answer, especially from those of the Reformed (Calvinist) persuasion, that the believer who falls away was never “saved” to begin with.

Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Luther as an Augustinian Monk (after 1546) (Wikimedia).

This answer completely undermines and dismisses the reality of a believer’s struggle with sin. Scripture is very clear that even Christian believers do still struggle with sin (Romans 7:15-20, 1 John 1:8-10) — and Protestant theology acknowleges this, as in Luther’s famous dictum of simul justus et peccator (“at the same time righteous and a sinner”). And it is true that God gives the believer grace to resist temptation and overcome sin (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:13, Romans 5:14). But to conclude that a believer who struggles for years with sin and grace, repentance and reconcilation, only to at last lose hope, give up the fight, and fall into defeat was never “saved” to begin with, is presumptuous, arrogant, and uncompassionate — the very image of the church who shoots its own wounded — the subjection of the reality of human suffering to a theological ideal.

Struggling

Repentance, altar call

So yes, I struggled with sin as a youth. I suffered, with depression, anxiety, and obsessive and compulsive behavior. In the Arminian theology of my church (which I did not understand then, but only years later), it was possible to “backslide,” to fall away from the Christian life, which we certainly understood to endanger the soul. So I found myself, almost weekly, answering altar calls, declaring myself a wretched sinner in need of grace, asking Jesus to forgive me and come into my heart anew every time. And I did find comfort in this, for the moment. But days, even hours later, I would again be on my knees.

agonizing

Baptists and their ilk stress the assurance of salvation, the idea that a believer can be sure he is saved, despite any struggle or vicissitude; my church never taught this. This notion seems to be based in Reformed (Calvinist) principles, even for those Evangelicals not generally of that persuasion. Would such a teaching have helped me, given me some consistent comfort? It’s possible. But I think it far more likely that I would have concluded — in keeping with the common Reformed conclusion about those who fall away — that I wasn’t saved at all. I would have given up the fight completely. As it stood, I eventually fell into complacency, essentially giving up in the opposite direction: accepting the premise that Jesus had covered all my sins and drawing from this that He understood my struggle, He understood that I was just a sinner, and that even though I was making no efforts toward holiness, I was saved anyway.

This was the wilderness period of my life, and it persisted into my early twenties. I had become a thoroughly defeated Christian, and though I never formally renounced my faith, I had all but fallen away: not attending church, nor praying, not striving.

When I started this article, I wasn’t sure I had much to say about grappling with sola fide. I thought I would give just a few words about the Evangelical view toward salvation. But now that this post has turned in this unexpected direction, I think it’s safe to say that like sola scriptura, I had been grappling with sola fide for a long time before I ever approached the Catholic Church.

Reformation Day: Reflections on the Heritage of the Protestant Reformation

Ferdinand Pauwels, Luther Posting the 95 Theses (1872)

Ferdinand Pauwels, Luther Posting the 95 Theses (1872).

Today, October 31, is the 499th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, the day Martin Luther is said to have nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church door, the beginning of the “protest” — celebrated as, in Lutheran and Reformed churches, Reformation Day. Yesterday was known in those churches as Reformation Sunday. I, for one, celebrated Reformation Sunday by welcoming a Protestant brother into full communion with the Catholic Church. And today I am reflecting on the troubling celebration of “Reformation Day,” on the heritage of the Protestant Reformation, and on my own Protestant heritage.

Confirmed in Faith

Joseph Richardson, Jason Parker, Bishop Baker

(Left to right) Joseph Richardson, Jason Parker, Bishop Robert Baker.

Yesterday my friend Jason Parker was confirmed in the Catholic Church by our bishop, the Most Rev. Robert J. Baker of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Huntsville. Jason was raised Southern Baptist, but as I was, had been being drawn for a long time to the history and liturgy of Catholic Church. I met him about a year ago, working at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where he has been my officemate. I can’t take much credit for converting him: he was already very far along his journey when I met him, and only had some nagging questions I was able to help him through.

Jason’s Baptist family, by all appearances, was remarkably supportive of his decision. About half a dozen of them turned out for the Confirmation Mass — a Tridentine High Mass, at that — including parents and grandparents. It testifies to me, and rightly so, that faith in Christ is the highest treasure, whatever form that faith might take. My own family and friends have also been very supportive of me. On my own road to the Catholic Church, the friend whose opinion I was most concerned about was my good Baptist friend Josh’s — but when I confessed my inclinations to him, he most graciously told me that wherever God was leading me, he would support me.

Protestant Heritage

There were some moments, during my own journey, when I felt real concern for what my ancestors must think of me. As someone very close to my roots who has been involved in researching my genealogy for the past twenty years, I often feel I know my ancestors personally, and it is easy to think of them looking down on me. And it is a certain fact that especially in generations past, Protestants viewed Catholicism with even more suspicion and mistrust than they do now, if not outright judgment.

Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Mobile, Alabama

Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Mobile, Alabama (Wikimedia).

What would they think of me, these men and women who lived their whole lives believing in Protestant churches? Was I betraying my heritage? Was Protestantism in my blood, a part of who I was, the religion of my people and region and culture? Growing up in the Southern United States, I thought, and there is still the perception to some, that Catholicism is a “Yankee” phenomenon. And it is true, thanks largely to Irish immigration in the nineteenth century, that there tends to be a higher concentration of Catholics in the northern states. But the truth is, some of the earliest beachheads of Christianity in America were Catholic and in the Southern U.S., at New Orleans and Natchez and Mobile and Pensacola and St. Augustine. Catholics are much more of a minority in the upland South from which I hail, but even in my own backyard, German immigrants established a Catholic stronghold in North Alabama at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman; and Mother Angelica built a global fortress at EWTN in Irondale. Catholics have been making inroads here: in every parish of which I’ve been a part, we have seen a bumper crop of new converts in RCIA. And it so happened that I stumbled into perhaps one of the most proudly Southern Catholic parishes around: St. John the Evangelist in Oxford, Mississippi, home of “Ole Miss,” the University of Mississippi, and Southern Fried Catholicism.

Rev. William Warren Aldridge (1861-1958)

Rev. William Warren Aldridge (1861-1958), my great-great-grandfather, a Methodist minister.

I have some half a dozen Protestant ministers in my ancestry — four Methodist and one Baptist that I can think of, off the top of my head. They seem to have been good men full of faith. One of them, through a weird trick of God’s Providence, is buried in the cemetery of my Catholic parish today. That fact, more than any other, confirms me in the conviction I eventually came to: that if it is true, as I believe, that the Catholic Church teaches the fullest, clearest, most faithful presentation of the truth of Christ, then my loved ones in heaven, my faithful ancestors, surely now understand the truth. Coming to perfect knowledge in death, believers are surely undivided in Christ in heaven.


Gloating in Division

Georg Heinrich Sieveking, Execution of Louis XVI (1793)

Georg Heinrich Sieveking, Execution of Louis XVI (1793) (Wikimedia).

One of the things that bothers me most about “Reformation Day” celebrations is the triumphalism: the proclamation, even in this day, that the Reformation was about “the rediscovery of the Gospel from the darkness of man-centered righteousness!,” to quote a friend’s Facebook post. This is the popular narrative, seemingly immutable, in some Protestant churches, especially those of the Reformed variety. It amounts, in my view, to dismissing the Catholic Church as a dead and lifeless corpse, gloating in our division of the Body of Christ, and laughing mockingly on the gallows of our matricide.

I strive to point out, to anyone who will listen, that the idea of the Catholic Church as having “lost” the gospel or of teaching a “man-centered righteousness” is mostly an historical and theological myth, rooted almost solely in the polemical writings of the Reformers and in the continued distortion and misunderstanding of Catholic theology. The Catholic Church does not teach, and has never taught, that our righteousness or our salvation is based on our own works.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine (c. 1645-1650), Philippe de Champaigne.

The suggestion that the Catholic Church had “lost” the gospel is deeply troubling, and it is bandied around without appreciation of its implications. Did Christ really allow His Church to fall into apostasy? The gates of hell to prevail against her? The light of truth to depart from the world? Did He really allow generations of believers to believe in vain and to be condemned? These charges of a “lost gospel” are usually not fleshed out. What is it, precisely, about Catholic teaching that allows the gospel to be “lost”? For how many centuries was the earth without the gospel? It is a polemical, divisive, and ultimately unjustifiable point.

Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Luther as an Augustinian Monk (after 1546) (Wikimedia).

Of course, in Protestant mythology, the idea is that the Catholic Church was never the One Church of Christ at all, that it was merely a human institution and usurper to the name “Church,” that the true Church exists as an “invisible” body in the hearts of true believers, and that there have always been “true believers” apart from the Catholic Church. Thinking thus, the idea that the “Roman Catholic” Church could “lose” the gospel is not so profane a thought. Such thinking invariably requires believing facts not supported by the historical record, or else ignoring the historical record altogether.

The schism of the Reformation happened. I don’t believe it was God’s will (although God has made the most of it, despite our human failures). We allowed petty human disagreements and politics to rend the Body of Christ, when Christ prayed “that we might all be one, as He and the Father are One” (John 17:21). Yes, there were some corruptions in some sectors of the Catholic Church — as there almost always are, where sinful people are involved. Yes, the Church is always in need of spiritual renewal and revival. But the tactics of various Reformers, a wanton disregard for Christian unity or reconcilation, did much more harm than they possibly could have done good. Reform was possible without schism. Regardless of Protestant insistence that Luther and other Reformers were seeking reform within the Church and did not seek to found their own churches, Luther made little if any conciliatory effort toward the established order of the Church: If he was seeking reform on his own terms, then schism is what he actually sought, and schism is what he got.

The Heritage of the Reformation

I do become angry and indignant at such arrogant assertions as these. But as I’ve said many times before, I’m very thankful for my Protestant upbringing and for my Protestant heritage. There have been positive fruits of many of the various Protestant traditions. I would like to briefly recall a few.

Scripture Study

Codex Vaticanus

A leaf from Codex Vaticanus, one of the earliest extant manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.

It is true, I believe, that the Protestant Reformation brought about a much-needed renewal. Its emphasis on the written Word of Scripture — combined with, and fueled by, the recent invention of movable type — certainly put the Bible in the hands of many believers who previously could not read it for themselves, and in the vernacular languages known to them. There is a lot of Protestant mythology, too, about the Catholic Church striving to keep the Bible from the hands of believers, which simply isn’t true. But the wide availability of Scripture in vernacular languages, and the ability for believers to draw closer to God through Scripture study, is certainly in part a fruit of the Protestant Reformation.

Reform of Corruption

Sale of indulgences

The sale of indulgences.

Some of the charges of the Protestant Reformers, about corruption in the Catholic Church, were on target. I do not believe, and the historical record does not support, that such corruption was as pervasive or widespread as the polemics of the Reformers would have us believe. But it is true that many pastors and even bishops were ignorant or uneducated and not equipped to faithfully teach the truth of salvation to their flock. The true teaching of the grace of Christ, then, may indeed have been neglected from the popular piety of many. There was certainly political corruption, especially in the leadership of the Church, in simony, the buying or selling of ecclesiastical offices or benefices; pluralism, the holding of more than one church office, and not doing any of them very effectively; and absenteeism, the holding of a church office, but not living in or being involved with its ministry. There were indeed abuses of indulgences, that had been known for a long time but little had been done to correct them. These and other matters were certainly reflective of a need for reform.

Renewal

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

Matthias Burglechner, The Council of Trent, 16th century (Wikimedia Commons).

Perhaps it is true that the Church was slow to reform herself — but these and other matters of concern raised by the Protestant Reformers were dealt with at the Council of Trent and implemented by the Catholic Reformation. The Protestant Reformation did eventually spur this reform — but the way it was carried out put the Church into an immediate crisis mode and probably delayed meaningful reform by a generation. A more graceful and patient reformer, I believe, could have worked within the Church to bring about this reform without schism.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897)

St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897): “Everything is grace.”

I also suspect, having come from the Protestant camp, that Catholic doctrine, worship, and practice has benefited a lot from its interplay with Protestantism. Prior to the Reformation, Catholic theology certainly held that salvation was by grace, through faith. Luther “discovered” nothing, except a novel and unprecedented interpretation of Pauline theology. But in the Catholic teaching of grace, its immediacy and intimacy may have been obscured by endless, scholastic, theological inquiry and speculation. I don’t know much about what would have been taught to lay believers in parishes at this time: but I am sure that the concerns of the Protestants did bring about a renewed focus and a reemphasis on grace.

I am glad, personally, for the emphases in my faith that my Protestant upbringing taught me. I am glad for the emphasis on an intimate relationship with Christ (though this is certainly not unique to Protestantism); I am glad for the emphasis on personal Bible study. I am glad for the faith of my parents and grandparents that brought me to know the Lord. But I pray every day that divided Christians can draw closer together, come to better understandings of one another and forgive each other, and take steps toward working together for the gospel of Christ, and ultimately toward the restoration of the united Body of Christ. “Reformation Day” can be useful to celebrate the heritage of the Protestant tradition, but as a celebration of disunity I find it only harmful.

Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 3: An Authoritative Church

The third and last part of my reflections on grappling with sola scriptura as a Protestant journeying to the Catholic Church. Part 1. Part 2. Part of my ongoing conversion story. This part proved to be really long, but the pieces were so dependent on each other that I wanted to post the rest of it whole; please bear with me.

An authoritative Church

Rome from the dome of St. Peter's.

Rome from the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The idea that the scriptural interpretations of the Church could have inherent authority was an epiphany to me. It was the catalyst that started the chain reaction, the push that started the dominoes falling, that would ultimately bring down the last vestiges of my faith in sola scriptura. But it was perhaps not the biggest hurdle. Recognizing that the Church Fathers are authorities in interpreting Scripture does not translate to accepting that the Catholic Church is the authority in interpreting Scripture.

Yes, an interpretation that is constructed from and founded on a sack full of authorities is generally going to be more authoritative than one based solely on one’s own unaided reasoning. A student who makes an argument from his own interpretation of a single primary source stands on shaky ground, while one who stands on the authority of learned men who have written on the matter in the past has a reasonable claim to credibility. As I have written before, this by itself gave me compelling reason to put stock in the claims and interpretations of the Catholic Church. Following those claims and the arguments made for them, I generally found the Church’s witness to be credible.

But accepting that the Church’s scriptural interpretations are authoritative and credible — a factual claim — is a far cry from accepting that the Catholic Church has the exclusive authority to interpret Scripture authentically — a doctrinal claim. My visceral inclination as a Protestant was to balk at such extravagance. But my willingness to consider and credit the scriptural, interpretive claims of the Church brought me, at least, to examine this one more closely.

What does it mean for the Church to claim “exclusive authority in interpreting Scripture“? What did the Church actually claim? And what was my objection? I had already admitted that the Church could authentically interpret Scripture. What I balked at, I realized, was the thesis that the Church could have authority at all — over believers, over me.

St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán

St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1627) (Wikimedia)

The truth is, I had never even encountered such an argument, that a church could have authority. It may be a commonplace for Protestants of more traditional denominations, but for me, steeped in such a free, independent, individualistic tradition, it seemed entirely foreign. The church, in my mind as a Protestant, was a voluntary social association. Our pastor was the man who preached every week at church, who had little or no personal involvement in our lives or faiths. Our deacons were little more than a board of directors for the corporation. The district council of our denomination, if we ever heard about it, seemed to exist mainly for cooperating in missions and youth activities. I don’t remember ever hearing of a national body (there actually is one). None of these bodies had any authority over our church; and I didn’t consider the church, or even the pastor, to have authority over me.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, claims to have authority. This was a novel and fairly stunning concept, one that had never even occurred to me. Was the Church something more than just the people? Were its leaders something more than just public speakers, something more than business administrators? The Catholic Church claims to have some authority over its faithful. In what way was I supposed to understand this? On the surface, once again, I balked, imagining a tyrant, standing over believers, telling them what they could believe and do.

The Magisterium

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.

When I first encountered the idea of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, I envisioned something like a formal council of robed and hoary bishops meeting weekly or daily, to which every interpretation of Scripture, every homily and every teaching, had to be submitted for approval. The magisterium, after all, claimed “exclusive authority of interpreting Scripture.” I supposed Catholics were forbidden from reading and interpreting Scripture on their own. Naturally, this conception was something to balk at.

But this isn’t, I soon discovered, what the Church was claiming at all. The magisterium of the Church refers to the Church’s teaching authority — her role as a teacher. The magisterium is not literally a formal body of men at all (although it can be said that the pope and the bishops in communion with him make it up); it does not meet (aside from the couple of dozen times over the whole history of the Church that all the bishops of the Church have met in ecumenical council); it does not stand over the scriptural interpretation of the faithful as any sort of regulatory authority. So what actually is being claimed?

The Good Shepherd, Bernhard Plockhorst

The Good Shepherd, by Bernhard Plockhorst (19th century) (Wikimedia)

Scripture presents that God Himself appoints preachers and teachers (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, 2 Timothy 1:11) in the person of the bishops (1 Timothy 3:2, 5:17, Titus 2:24), men charged with passing on the truth of the faith (2 Timothy 2:2, 4:2) and keeping watch over the souls of the faithful (Hebrews 13:17). A pastor is a shepherd, one with authority over God’s flock (1 Peter 5:1-5). If we accept these teachings of Scripture, that God gave pastors and bishops the authority to teach and to guide His flock, then the notion that the magisterium of the Church, made up of all the bishops, should have the authority to teach the truth is not so far fetched.

With just a little reading, I soon came to see that what the Church really means when she claims that the magisterium of the Church has the authority to give the authentic interpretation of Scripture is mostly this: that the whole body of bishops, giving the very interpretations over all the ages that I had already come to hold as authoritative, does in fact have the authority to give that interpretation. The Church is a teacher, not a tyrant. Like a teacher, the Church offers teaching, the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, for the benefit, edification, and guidance of the people of God.

Not a Tyrant

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus Caesar as Pontifex Maximus (Wikimedia).

One point I alluded to before is the misconception and fear I had that the Church could dictate whatever interpretations she pleased, no matter how contradictory they actually were to Scripture: that she could teach believers to believe Scripture meant something completely other than what it actually says. Well, the first thing that was clear to me, as I began to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the documents of the Second Vatican Council, even the Council of Trent, is that this hasn’t actually happened. When the Church speaks as a teacher, she bases her teachings on Scripture and on the interpretations on the past: each of these documents is rife with scriptural quotations and citations, quotations and citations from the Church Fathers, from prior councils and documents; a modern edition has footnotes. Each reflects the didactic method of a teacher and not the bald pronouncements of a dictator.

Jesus said that “the [leader of the faithful] must be as one who serves” (Luke 22:26). Peter taught that a pastor must shepherd the flock not by constraint but willingly, leading not by force but by example (1 Peter 5:2-3). This is the kind of authority that the Church offers as a teacher. In the very same statement as the one that I once took to be so troubling — the claim that the Church has “exclusive authority to interpret Scripture authentically” — she also says this:

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office [magisterium] of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office [magisterium] is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed. (Second Vatican Council, Dei Verbum [Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation] 10).

The Church cannot teach something that has not been handed down as truth. The Church does not “invent” teachings; she passes them on. It is plain for any student to see the truth of this, to see the support offered for every teaching, the foundations and precedents in traditional and time-honored interpretations of Scripture and in the teachings of the past. These teachings, these traditions, everything that makes up the deposit of faith — none of it is hidden, secret, or unknown, but all of it is available to be studied by the faithful.

Too Many Teachers

Martin Luther

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

And why is the Church’s authority exclusive? Does this imply that individual believers are not authorized to interpret Scripture for themselves? Or that no one other than a bishop is capable of interpreting the meaning of the Scriptures truthfully? Not at all. It means only that God gave His teaching authority to the office that came (by the end of the first century) to reside in the bishop alone. And why? As someone who has spent most of my life involved in education, I can attest that when everybody thinks they are the teacher, nobody learns anything. Scripture is very clear that God appointed shepherds over us with the authority to teach.

The Church with authority over scriptural interpretation and doctrine is evidenced again and again in history. In Acts 15, when the controversy of the Judaizers arose, it was not individual believers, interpreting Scripture on their own, that decided the matter, but a council of Apostles and bishops. When the great heresies such as Arianism arose, the matter was not left to the consciences and private interpretations of individual believers, but the orthodox way was ultimately defined by a council of all the bishops through interpreting Scripture.

Sola scriptura presents the problem of “too many teachers” writ large. If every person’s interpretation is considered authoritative, if an individual believer’s opinion has just as much value as the whole teaching tradition of the Church, then we see in the history of Protestantism exactly what we should expect to see: thousands of separate churches. Everyone having authority ultimately means that no one has authority at all. And this is what I felt as a Protestant; this was the source of my paralysis.

And yes, it’s true, that Protestants insist that sola scriptura is not the giving of interpretive and doctrinal authority to every individual believer. They insist that the Church still has doctrinal authority, and to greater or lesser extents, some Protestants churches actually implement that. Some churches, such as the P.C.A., do enforce the orthodoxy of their confessions, and bring censure or even excommunication to those who depart from it. But then, if anyone disagrees with the confessions of the P.C.A., he is free to depart and start his own church, and feels the moral and doctrinal mandate to do so. Church authority is of no authority at all if the individual believer has the authority to challenge it. The church really does become a voluntary association. Sola scriptura, I argue, does necessarily result in the implication that every believer is his own teacher: even the most submissive Protestant can pick and choose what teachers he submits to; he can embrace the one whose teachings agree with his own private interpretation, and reject the one whose don’t. I think it is very telling, in comparing the history of the Catholic and Protestant churches, how comparatively rare real and substantial doctrinal schism — the actual breaking away of a significant number of believers to form their own churches, on account of some doctrinal dispute — is in the Catholic tradition, versus how commonplace splits of the local church or of whole denominations are in the Protestant world.

“Other Things”

Infant baptism by immersion

Baptism.

Several times in the course of this series, I’ve alluded to my acceptance of other authorities, other sources such as historical documents, as instrumental in my eventual rejection of sola scriptura. I opened the series, provocatively, with the statement that “Protestants hold as authoritative the Bible alone, while Catholics deny this and add other things.” This was my understanding as a Protestant. It is not a very accurate statement of what Catholics believe.

First, do Catholics deny that Scripture is authoritative? That it is the Word of God? Absolutely not. For Catholics, just as well as for Protestants, Scripture is the highest, most eminent authority, the very and absolute Word of God in written form. Scripture cannot be denied, dismissed, or contradicted, by the magisterium of the Church, by the pope, or by anyone else. I very often hear the charges that “the Catholic Church makes her teachings equal with Scripture,” or places herself “above Scripture”: this is not true. The Church teaches about Scripture, from Scripture; she is not and cannot be above Scripture. Scripture is part of the deposit of faith and truth from which she teaches; she cannot add to, take away from, or alter that deposit.

What else is part of this deposit of faith? What “other things”? The other component of the deposit of faith is Sacred Tradition. No, this does not mean that the “traditions” of the Catholic Church are held to be authoritative, on the same level of Scripture. What does the Church mean by “Sacred Tradition”? Sacred Tradition is a technical term: it does not refer to “traditions” or to just any tradition in the Catholic Church, but very specifically to only one thing: to the oral teachings of Christ and the Apostles that have been handed down [traditae sunt] in the Church. If Christ spoke it, then it is the Word of God.

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena, c. A.D. 1562 (Wikipedia).

Protestants complain that this idea of “Sacred Tradition” is inherently amorphous and undefined, that at any point the Church can declare some novel doctrine on the basis that it is part of this unseen body of “Sacred Tradition.” Because it is not written down, it can be abused, or even invented whole cloth. But the “traditional” aspect of it is essential: every part of this “Sacred Tradition” has been handed down in the Church, and is visible, and practically, has been written down by the Church Fathers. The Church applies the same standard for Tradition that the most ancient Church applied: we know it is part of the deposit of faith, handed down from the Apostles, because it was taught in all the Churches (cf. Irenaeus, etc.).

So in the end, the statement that the Catholic Church adds “other things” to Scripture, that she believes “other things” in addition to the Word of God, is misleading. No, the Catholic Church does not indiscriminately hold “traditions” or “other things” to be divinely authoritative in addition to Scripture. Nothing the Church believes can contradict Scripture. Once I began to understand the truth of what the Church actually holds and teaches about Scripture and revelation, it seemed entirely reasonable and consistent with what I was was already coming to believe — and I readily let go of the notion of sola scriptura.

I have heard many Protestants, too, complain about the “tripod” of the Church’s teaching, with its three legs being Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the magisterium — which seems to imply that the Church considers all three to be equal. This is an analogy, it’s true, that some Catholics have used, and Vatican II itself stated that “sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the magisterium … are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others,” implying this image of the tripod. But the Church does not consider the three equal. The statement is only that “one [of the three] cannot stand without the others”; the illustration of the tripod, if it be drawn, is only meant to convey this interdependence, not the three components’ equality or even their relative positions. Neither Scripture nor Tradition interprets itself: a teacher is also necessary, but is a servant to the deposit of faith, not above it.

Conclusion

John Calvin, by Titian (16th century) (Wikimedia).

John Calvin, by Titian (16th century) (Wikimedia).

I had struggled for many years to arrive at some authoritative interpretation of Scripture. I believed, as a Protestant, that finding such an authoritative interpretation was my initiative; I was told that Scripture “perspicuous,” and such an authoritative interpretation should be plain, and that it was “self-interpreting,” that it ought to be findable without depending on my own understanding. Such plainly did not happen: The more I studied Scripture, the more paralyzed I became in coming to any sort of authoritative interpretation.

This was where I stood when I stumbled into the antechamber of the Catholic Church. I did not fully understand my problem — I could not have articulated what my paralysis was or what it stemmed from — and I had not even an inkling that the solution to it lay ahead. How could I move past my logjam? I needed a teacher. Protestants who espouse developed theology and doctrines point to “Scripture alone” as the origin of their teaching, but in truth they too are relying on an interpretive tradition, the fruit of teachers — the pastors, theologians, and Reformers who developed the doctrines that they hold. It is easy to point to a collection of doctrines already held and already exposited and claim they are clear on the face of Scripture, that Scripture can interpret itself, but in truth this is not historically and intellectually honest. Were these doctrines “perspicuous” and “self-interpreting” for the fifteen centuries before the Protestant Reformers developed and espoused them?

I had no teacher. I came from a background mostly bereft of concrete doctrine or theology or meaningful exegesis. I had not the benefit of an already exposed system of doctrine. I had the tools to exposit Scripture, but not the guidance. Thus, it gradually became clear to me over the years that the claims of sola scriptura were false: Scripture was not “perspicuous” in any meaningful way, apart from the barest outlines of the gospel. Scripture was not “self-interpreting.”

Scripture is a collection of texts. They do not “self-interpret.” Interpretation is the activity of a person, and Scripture is not a person. The Holy Spirit is a person, who can and does aid us in understanding the truth of Scripture — but His guidance is necessarily filtered through our own human perceptions; Scripture is necessarily understood through our own human interpretations. Over the years, developing in my consciousness as a Christian and as an academic, I had come to realize these things, more or less concretely, by the time I encountered the Church.

I needed a teacher; and where Protestants, especially the ones I was familiar with, tended to limit their interpretation of Scripture to their own understanding, or to teachers in the past who had done the same, the Catholic Church that I discovered strove to base her interpretation of Scripture on the whole context of Scripture and the whole body of received, authoritative tradition. I accepted this authority at first academically, but was troubled by the Church’s theological claims to have exclusive authority to interpret Scripture, perceiving them to be extravagant and somehow tyrannical. Over time, though, I came to see the truth: In interpreting Scripture, the Church is a teacher, not a tyrant. And I, at long last, had found my teacher.

Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 2: Sources of Authority

The second part of my account of how I, as an Evangelical Protestant journeying to the Catholic Church, grappled with sola scriptura. I decided to split the post into three, so there is still more to come! Part of my ongoing conversion story.

Santa Maria Maggiore, interior

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Roma (Wikimedia)

So this idea of authority — which I had never really thought much of as a Protestant — proved to be a critical one. Who has the authority to interpret Scripture? If anyone had asked me that as a Protestant, I would have answered that I did. I don’t think this is the right answer, understanding what I do now about about Protestant theology: “Scripture interprets itself” seems to be the appropriate response. Only it didn’t for me. As I read and studied Scripture on my own, praying for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, I strove to find my way to a correct understanding of biblical doctrine and theology — only I never made much headway. When faced with competing claims to truth from different denominational camps, based on different, apparently valid interpretations of the same scriptural passages, I struggled to come to any confident conclusion.

As a Protestant, I still very much felt that Scripture was the only authoritative source of divine truth — the only place we could go to find divine revelation. It is the Word of God. But as an academic, I was coming to understand the idea of authority in perhaps a different way than many of my Evangelical brethren.

An argument from history

Douay-Rheims New Testament (1582)

Douay-Rheims New Testament (1582) (Wikimedia)

As I studied history in school, I came to think more about sources of authority. Obviously, in terms of the Christian faith, Scripture, the Holy Bible, was the primary source, the authoritative Word of God. But — at least in the Evangelical Protestant camps I grew up in — it was common to treat it as the only source: as if, if something is not detailed explicitly in Scripture, it cannot possibly be true. This was applied not only to matters pertaining to Christianity and the Church, but to all matters. It was, of course, applied unevenly, and used more as a cudgel to reject facts and evidence the believer happened not to care for than for any universal standard of truth.

As a budding historian, I was aggravated by this logic. Just as in history, there were secondary sources, of a different degree of authority but nonetheless valuable, there were numerous other sources — historical sources, the writings of the earliest Christians after the New Testament or even of secular authors; scientific sources, evidence scientists had observed and that we ourselves could observe from nature — that could add to our knowledge about our world and even about our faith. The Bible being the authoritative Word of God did not demand that it be the only source of truth.

The Bible was God’s Word to us; but it was also an historical document. The Bible could shed light on Christian history; but other, historical sources could also shed light on Christian history. The Bible, in terms of history, only gave a brief glimpse at the origins of Christianity; other sources could certainly tell the story of what happened next, where the Bible could not. When I journeyed to Rome as a student, I was fascinated by the claims that the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul were there. The truth of these claims could be supported from history and archaeology. But I encountered Christians who were prepared to reject such claims out of hand, on the simple grounds that “it wasn’t in the Bible.”

sky-earth-galaxy-universe

So already, years before I even approached Catholicism, I was discontent with the way some Evangelicals applied sola scriptura — in an unintellectual opposition to observable fact. I was similarly disgruntled with the literalistic reading of Scripture espoused by many Evangelicals, who sought to read the words of Scripture as statements of bald fact and not the literary forms — poetry, liturgy, allegory — that they certainly contain. I witnessed so many nasty and fruitless arguments quibbling over young-earth Creationism, the biblical Flood, points of historical or narrative accuracy — when none of these things had any bearing at all on the spiritual truths contained in Scripture. They only detracted from our understanding rather than adding to it, divided Christians rather than united them, and falsely pitted Christianity against science in a way that made people of faith a laughingstock to the secular world. There was no reason to use “sola scriptura” as a denial of the observable facts of history or science, of truth we could glean from other sources. God gave us Scripture to reveal His truth, not to blind our eyes to it.

Sources of authority

Clio, Mignard (Muse of History)

Pierre Mignard, The Muse Clio (1689) (Wikimedia)

The thing that still bothered me deeply about Catholic claims was the claim that the Church was the sole authentic interpreter of the Word of God — in other words, the Church could tell believers the right way to understand Scripture! As a Protestant, I felt a closely-held prerogative to interpret Scripture for myself. Looking back, I felt a liberty to read, interpret, and define the meaning of Scripture for myself that seems to contradict what Protestants actually teach about the perspicuity of Scripture — supposing that Scripture has one meaning that ought to become clear with effective study — but in truth seems to reflect the way many Protestants actually read Scripture — with the ultimate authority being one’s own individual interpretation.

Chained Bible

How dare the Church insist on interpreting Scripture for me! Didn’t Luther’s focus on “Scripture alone” originate to combat the tyranny of the Church, and its imposition of “unbiblical” doctrines? What was to keep the Church today from dictating to believers that Scripture said something entirely different than what it actually said? This, coming from my Protestant formation, is exactly what I presumed she did. This, up until the time I discovered the Church for myself, was my foremost, most easily vocalized objection to the Catholic Church.

It was the single point I raised the fateful day I ran into my friend Audrey at the library. Her response was simple, clear, and disarming. She was perhaps the only person in my life who could have addressed this particular issue in this particular way — the way that made perfect sense to me and cut through all my defenses. It was the answer all the years of my journey had been preparing me for.

“I see it like authority for a historian,” she said. “We base our arguments on the authority of those who have written in the past. The closer a witness is to the event, the more valuable it is in understanding how that event was understood by contemporaries. And each generation builds on the authority of those who have written before, and as they reflect on those interpretations, they gain a deeper understanding of the truth. The Catholic Church has 2,000 years of authority behind her interpretations of Scripture — of trusted, respected, and authoritative voices who have spoken on the matter.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine (c. 1645-1650), Philippe de Champaigne.

And there it was. Of course the Catholic Church has an authoritative interpretation: By relying on the ancient witnesses of the past, according to a scholarly, historical method, the Church’s interpretations of Scripture become by default more authoritative than my personal, unaided interpretation alone. I know some Greek and a little Hebrew, but those are not languages that I understand natively. I was not personally acquainted with the Apostles or with their disciples or with the historical and theological context of the Early Church and the faith they received. The Church Fathers — whom I had respected for so long — were. It was on they that the authority of the Catholic Church’s interpretation of Scripture was, at least in part, based.

It is true that some Protestants do consult the Church Fathers when interpreting Scripture — but I had never encountered this as an Evangelical. In general, most Protestants I have read consider the Fathers to be merely another consulting opinion, of no more inherent value than their own private interpretation. They dismiss the idea that anyone other than themselves has inherent authority in interpreting Scripture. If the Fathers seem to agree with their foregone conclusions, they cite them — piecemeal and without context — for support. If the Fathers do not, they are quick to dismiss them as wrong or mistaken (but usually not as apostates or heretics). It is true, of course, that the Church Fathers can be wrong; but they certainly deserve a degree of respect and deference beyond what most Evangelicals give them, both on account of being closer to the original sources and of the high regard in which they have been held, both in their own times and over the centuries.

There is still more to come!

Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 1: Paralysis

In this post, I relate how, as a Protestant journeying to the Catholic Church, I came to terms with the doctrine of sola scriptura. I have been trying to write this post for months, and have started over from scratch several times — mostly because it rambled at too great length, or strayed into trite polemic. Catholic apologists tend to repeat and rehash the same complaints — “sola scriptura” isn’t scriptural! The Early Church functioned just fine for a period of decades before the New Testament was written and compiled! No Christian held to such a constraint prior to the Protestant Reformation! — and though I do think these arguments are persuasive now, I was not even aware of them then, and they played no role in my own convictions.

This post proved to be really long, so I split in into two. I will post the second half soon.

Part of my ongoing conversion story.

Approaching the Church

Pannini, Nave of St. Peter's Basilica (1731)

Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Nave of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome (1731). (Wikimedia)

At last, I had stumbled my way into the Mass, and found in it something glorious and transcendent and compelling. I began to attend Sunday Mass on a weekly basis. All the fragments that had been circling around me my whole life seemed to be falling into place. I felt peace. But this is still not yet the end of the story. I had some final hurdles to overcome, confronting Catholic doctrine head-on as it came to bear on what I held as a Protestant.

I hadn’t been attending Mass very long at all, perhaps only about a month, before one day I happened to speak to Father Joe. I had not sought him out; Audrey and I had been standing there outside the church chatting, and he asked me what I thought so far. I blurted out that I liked it and was thinking about joining the RCIA class. I was alarmed to hear myself say it; I don’t think I had even articulated the thought before that. I understood that this didn’t mean I was making a commitment; that there was still plenty of time to learn and change my mind; but as I had at so many moments before, I felt a sinking feeling that I was approaching a point of no return.

This was still early in the year, about March. The next RCIA class would not begin until September. So over the next six months, I committed myself to reading and learning as much as I could, and to experiencing as much of the Mass and of the Church as I could. I began attending daily Mass also at every opportunity I could. At St. John’s they offered Mass every weekday, and being just on the edge of campus, I could run over almost anytime. My reading took on a new focus. Up to this point, I had still not read any “Catholic” book. I had not read any of the Catechism or any apologetic work. I had not read any of the great body of conversion literature, the writings of other Protestants like me who had made their way to the Catholic Church. Rather than the end of my journey, I was really only beginning my approach in earnest. I was just beginning to consider the Catholic Church with an open and discerning mind. I did not jump in head first. As it should have, my exploration of the Catholic Church soon came into confrontation with my convictions as a Protestant.

Sola Scriptura

(Source: peachknee on Pixabay)

(Source: peachknee on Pixabay)

I was no dummy. I understood that to embrace Catholic doctrine entailed a renunciation of what was has been called “the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation”: sola scriptura, the thesis that Scripture alone is to be the sole source of divine truth for the Church and for Christians. I knew well, as all Protestants know, that this is one of the fundamental disagreements between Catholics and Protestants: that Protestants hold as authoritative the Bible alone, while Catholics deny this and add other things.

But looking back, I don’t recall ever having much of a serious struggle with sola scriptura. On the contrary, it seems to have folded quite readily and early on in my final approach to the Church. Why? Could it be true, as some have charged, that I never had a firm commitment to Protestant principles in the first place? Or were there other forces at work in my life, under the surface and behind the scenes, preparing the way before me and making it straight to the Church? The truth is, whether I openly acknowledged it or not, that I had been struggling with sola scriptura for years. I can think of several factors underpinning the idea of sola scriptura that I had already been dealing with, and that had already weakened that foundation, long before this point.

A Flimsy Default

Open Bible with coffee

(Source: mnplatypus on Pixabay)

If I had ever been asked about the source of my Christian doctrine as a Protestant, I would simply have pointed to Scripture. Because what else was there? This was the default position, what Protestants did, the only thing I knew. Where else would one possibly look? But if I had been asked to explain why, I would have been a little dumbfounded. Because it’s the Word of God, God’s message to mankind? Obviously, when one is looking for source material about God and Christianity, the Bible is your source. This seemed to be a reasonable proposition at the time.

But why did I believe that? Why Scripture alone? How did I know? I would have been hard-pressed to defend it. The only thing I knew, the only thing I recall ever hearing, was that Martin Luther proclaimed sola scriptura in opposition to the “unscriptural doctrines” of the Catholic Church. Did the doctrine really only exist as a negative? Was there no positive reason for it to stand on its own? It is possible that some Protestant apologetics might have shored up the position for me, but generally I have found Protestant apologetics on this matter unsatisfactory. Every Protestant argument I have read in support of sola scriptura inevitably begins with or returns to the point that “the Catholic Church believes unscriptural doctrines.”

“Unscriptural doctrines”

Juan de Juanes, Christ and the Eucharist (16th century)

Juan de Juanes, Christ and the Eucharist (16th century) (Wikimedia)

The rote line of Protestant lore, what I recall hearing all my life, is that Martin Luther proclaimed sola scriptura in opposition to the “unscriptural doctrines” in the Catholic Church. It was often told, even in my mostly ahistorical corner of Protestantism, how Luther discovered the truth of God’s grace and salvation by faith alone by reading Scripture — the implication being that Catholics did not read Scripture, that the Catholic Church had entirely thrown the Bible out the window. I believed this because I knew nothing else.

But by the time I was in my thirties, having spent all my life as a Protestant, and for several years having exerted a lot of effort trying to attain a more academic grasp of Christian theology, starting from scratch, I had become inured to this charge of “unscriptural doctrines” — since the sad truth is, many Protestant sects accuse each other of believing “unscriptural doctrines,” even those who proclaim sola scriptura — the fact of the matter being not that these believers didn’t read Scripture, but that they read and interpreted Scripture differently. I had struggled mightily for years to sort out the truth among many such competing interpretations, ultimately concluding that in most cases, these couldn’t be called “unscriptural doctrines” at all, but the result of ambiguities in Scripture and good-faith differences of opinion.

And I came to realize that Catholicism was probably the same way. I knew, from studying the history of Christianity in school, that Catholics believed that the bread and wine in Communion actually became the Body and Blood of Christ — and reading Scripture for myself, I could see how that could be a defensible reading: Jesus did say, “This is my Body,” and it is only by assuming premises not in Scripture, that He was speaking symbolically or metaphorically, that one concludes otherwise. I came to expect that the same might be true for other supposedly “unscriptural” Catholic doctrines: what if they were only as “unscriptural” as what Protestants accused each other of? And if that was the case — what was the cry of “sola scriptura” really all about?

Paralysis

Protestant church divisions

Protestant church divisions

Perhaps the strongest argument against sola scriptura, the reason that led to the doctrine’s downfall in my mind more than any other, was my growing conviction that sola scriptura just doesn’t work. I probably would not have put it in those terms as an Evangelical — such would have seemed heresy — but the fact of my experience is that I found myself completely unable to discern between the claims of competing denominational camps to have the exclusive, correct interpretation of Scripture. Sola scriptura — relying on Scripture alone — proved unable to bring me to any conviction of the truth, so far as any certainty or precision of doctrine or theology was concerned. Historically, it had proved unable either to unite the Protestant cause or to preserve any degree of unity at all in the Church. If anything, the doctrine of sola scriptura itself is the single most culpable culprit for the continued fragmentation and division of Protestant churches, both historically and contemporarily — since any believer with his own divergent interpretation of Scripture feels entitled to break away and found his own sect.

The Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Pentecostals, all came to different, sometimes radically different, interpretations of the very same passages of Scripture. And I found myself completely unable, in many cases, to choose one over another, to declare one right and another one wrong. And this was not on account of any ignorance or lack of preparation on my part (though a lack of indoctrination into a particular interpretive tradition, I suppose, could be credited): I had studied the original languages and trained in translating ancient texts; I had studied history and the historical contexts of the Early Church and the ancient cultures in which it dwelled. If anything, it was on account of that preparation that I had less confidence than some of my peers, who were able to affirm their churches’ particular interpretations with conviction. Such people and churches could make strong, valid arguments for their positions — but so could all the others.

I was forced to conclude that in many cases, Scripture was not “perspicuous” at all, but that in many locations the text was ambiguous enough to allow more than one valid interpretation. To weigh between multiple, valid interpretations of the words requires something more than the words themselves: it requires a consideration of the wider textual context, both in the same text and in other texts. It requires a consideration of the historical and cultural contexts, and an understanding of the way the text was received by its earliest recipients. And ultimately, it required having an opinion, and being willing to draw conclusions based on it — and though I did have opinions, they were neither strong enough nor certain enough for me to stake my eternal life or death on them with anything like security. I realized that scriptural exegesis is not an exact science, and the “right” interpretation is often not clear from the text at all, as the popular view of sola scriptura would lead me to believe: it ultimately, and inevitably, involved making my own understanding the final authority in interpreting Scripture.

There is a lot more to come! You can expect the next post in a day or two.

The Church, Lost and Found: My First Concise, Complete Conversion Narrative

Introduction

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Oxford, Mississippi, where I entered the Church.

Four years ago, I entered the Catholic Church, after more than thirty years as an Evangelical Protestant. I do not think of my story in terms of “leaving Protestantism.” I never thought that I was leaving or abandoning the faith I grew up with; in my mind, I was a coming to a fuller and more complete understanding of the truth. I would not say that there was anything fundamentally deficient in my faith as a Protestant that would cause me to abandon it; instead it was incomplete, immature, and unfulfilled. If my journey must be put it in the terms of leaving Protestantism, it is true that I did have to let go of some particular doctrinal formulations; but nothing I believe now is a contradiction or renunciation of anything I believed before. I feel that I now see the fuller picture, and have a fuller, more fulfilling relationship with God.

Growing Up

The story of my journey truthfully begins years and years ago, in my earliest childhood and earliest experiences as a Christian. I can see a thousand signposts all along the way that ultimately led me here, small realizations and inclinations and longings that didn’t find fulfillment until years later.

Pentecostes, El Greco_1597

El Greco, Pentecostés (1597).

I grew up mostly in a Pentecostal, Charismatic sort of Christianity; for most of my growing-up years I was a member of a vibrant Assemblies of God church in Decatur, Alabama. I had spent my earliest childhood in a small nondenominational church, then several years in the United Methodist church, visiting various Baptist churches along the way. I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” when I was three years old, was baptized when I was twelve, and had a committed and sincere but pretty superficial faith for most of my childhood. I never had much formal Bible study or instruction in doctrine. The few times I encountered any form of deep study, I lapped it up voraciously.

In high school I had a very dynamic youth pastor, who inspired me to be “on fire” for God and to strive to win my school for Christ. It was a very fervent and emotional faith. Being emotionally volatile like many teenagers, however, this also made it a volatile faith, and not a very firm foundation for a relationship with God. By the end of high school, I ended up feeling very hurt and abandoned by my church, and I fell away from church involvement, though I always prayed and claimed to be a Christian. I entered a long period of spiritual wandering.

The Church That Was Lost

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

In college I was drawn eventually to the study of history. My first important mentor in history, Dr. G, was an old-school medievalist and classicist with a burning love for the great men of history. He taught me Latin, which opened my eyes to a whole new world of learning and sources; and he taught me the history of Christianity. Some of the most important classes he taught me were the History of the Christian Church, from the beginning up through the Reformation, and Medieval Latin, in which we read firsthand, in their original languages, the writings of Augustine, Gregory, Anselm, Bede, and a dozen or so other Church Fathers and medieval Christian thinkers. Dr. G was the son of a long line of renowned Lutheran ministers. When he taught Church history, his lectures came alive with love and admiration for the Church Fathers—Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Benedict, Gregory, Bernard, and many more—and with equal love and admiration for the Protestant Reformers. He presented this dichotomy without conflict or cognitive dissonance. It laid the foundation for the intellectual development of my faith.

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.

Through all of that study I came to a great love of the Church Fathers, too. Reading them, I found a purer, realer faith than anything I had ever known in church, something immediate and profound that seemed unclouded by the doubt and uncertainty I had always felt growing up. I never associated the Church Fathers with the modern Catholic Church. In my mind, the modern Catholic Church was something of “dead religion,” caught up in empty ritual and cold theology and devoid of any sense of a real relationship with Christ. When I read the Church Fathers, I had the sense that their Church and their faith was lost and irrecoverable, and I lamented its loss.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls.

The Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, Rome.

At the culmination of that study, I went with Dr. G and a group from school to Rome, the Eternal City. Over a two-week course, we traversed the 3,000-year history of Rome, having lectures in the morning and then going out in the afternoon to tour the sites that pertained to that day’s era of history. I was especially—and unexpectedly—moved by the churches. Standing at the tomb of St. Paul at the Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls, I was overcome with emotion, as all Paul’s words in Scripture that had meant so much to me flooded back, and I knelt tearfully at the altar, thanking God for His servant. That trip became a pilgrimage for me. It was the first time in years I had really felt drawn powerfully to God and to prayer. I admired the beauty and art and history of the Catholic churches I visited, but it didn’t make me seriously consider being Catholic—this was still seven years before I would.

Striving

"Lord, Give Me Eyes to See." (Taken by me, June 29, 2009.)

“Lord, Give Me Eyes to See.” (Taken by me, June 29, 2009.)

But my pilgrimage did awaken in me a desire to get back in church and have a renewed relationship with God. I felt very wary of my childhood faith and church—of placing so much emphasis on emotion and experience—so I read and studied and tried to come to an intellectual understanding of various systems of doctrine and reason out for myself what I believed and what church I belonged in. It was a daunting task, not having any firm foundation in theology, and I became frustrated. I eventually resigned myself to the conclusion that each of the various camps had strong arguments for their positions, that Scripture wasn’t clear enough for me to discern, and that I would study and admire the different schools equally and hope God could sort it out. During this time, I visited a lot of different churches, especially Baptist churches and Presbyterian churches.

Accident report: Damage area diagram

My car (may she rest in pieces) versus the dump truck.

After a year of this endeavor of striving in myself to find where I belonged in God, I again grew frustrated. I felt hurt, and rather than running toward God, I again found myself running away. I had once commented, after my years of wandering, that if God really wanted to get my attention, He should stop me in the road like he did Paul. I wished for his lot: I should have been careful what I wished for. While I was on a road trip, just north of Columbus, Ohio, my car was struck on the driver’s side door by a concrete-laden dump truck. I was medflighted to Ohio State University Medical Center, where I was found completely unresponsive, with tests indicating a deep coma or brain death.

It very well might have been the end of the road for me. I was diagnosed with a severe traumatic brain injury, the likes of which most patients do not survive, or if they do, most face serious disabilities for the rest of their lives. The doctors offered no prognosis. But my family, my friends, even many people I did not know, surrounded me with their prayers. Against the odds, I recovered. Not only did I recover, but I recovered completely, without lingering deficits, and I recovered remarkably quickly. A mere three weeks after the accident, with broken bones, I returned home to hobble through the semester of school I’d very nearly missed for good.

This near-death experience, though it took some time and some humiliation to realize it, reaffirmed my faith that God had His hand on my life and a plan for me. Swallowing my pride, I returned to church, to the church of my parents I had left so many years before. There God began a period of spiritual recovery, of rebuilding walls that I had torn down. My home church was a safe harbor and sanctuary, for a time. But I felt that it was only a waypoint, that God still was leading me onward to a fuller knowledge of the faith. I continued to visit churches and read about theology. I felt especially drawn to the intellectually rigorous Reformed theological tradition (Calvinism), and even bought myself a handsome leather-bound ESV Study Bible for my thirtieth birthday.

Veritas

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

After I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in history, I went to work teaching at Veritas Classical School, a homeschool co-op. Suddenly, I was brought face to face with Calvinism in a way I hadn’t ever been before. Most of the teachers in that school system were strongly Reformed, and in my teacher training I was encouraged to teach history from that doctrinal commitment. I was fascinated by the intellectual rigor of the Reformed tradition; I enjoyed attending Presbyterian churches and loved the Reformed friends I made; but faced with apprehending and accepting some of the specific tenets of Calvinism—especially belief in an absolute sovereignty of God such that God ordains all things, even evil, and an unconditional election such that some people were created to be damned and had no hope whatsoever for redemption, by God’s sovereign decree—I blanched. Over the long weekend of that training, I was plunged into a deep despair; I resolved that either God was a monster and I had no wish to serve him or that the Calvinist understanding of God must be mistaken. I backed away from that and never seriously considered Calvinism again.

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

Matthias Burglechner, The Council of Trent, 16th century (Wikimedia Commons).

But while I was at Veritas, I was tasked with teaching medieval history, Christian Latin, and Koine Greek. They were the very things that had brought me so much love for the Early Church and the Church Fathers and the Medieval Catholic Church in the first place, and I filled my lectures with all the sentiment and longing I had ever felt for those things. I affectionately introduced my students to great popes, bishops, abbots, monks; to Church Fathers and theologians and councils; to the rich etymologies of the terms of early and medieval Christianity, and their scriptural foundations; and in teaching all this, I had to study it even more deeply than I had before, and I realized more fully than ever what a firm foundation it all was. At the beginning of the year, I had my students all read the Nicene Creed and affirm the common faith of us all—since among my students were Protestants of all stripes and even a few Catholics.

Anton von Werner, Luther at the Diet of Worms (1877)

Anton von Werner, Luther at the Diet of Worms (1877)

The semester culminated in the Protestant Reformation, which in my view going into teaching it, was a flowering of Christian thought and a reaffirmation of Christian principles. I tried to bring the same glowing passion to the Reformation’s characters as Dr. G had; but in the process of preparing my lessons, I was stunned to discover that the reality of the Reformation was anything but the majesty I had imagined. In addition to the heroic Luther and Calvin, I found numerous other scattered and disparate movements and sects; wide, fundamental disagreement even from the start; and the beginnings of the general factiousness that had been my experience of Christianity all my life. I realized for the first time the stark contrast of this with the glorious Church I had been proclaiming the rest of the year. Dr. G could apparently pull off the duality of presenting both without cognitive dissonance; I could not.

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez, master of Renaissance polyphony.

While I was immersed in the medieval Church over the course of that year, I discovered Gregorian chant and early Renaissance polyphony, which struck me as something heavenly and transcendent that guided me to a deeper life of prayer and Bible study. I read through the Rule of St. Benedict and the Order of the Mass. I began observing the calendar of saints as a way of remembering great Christians of the past. I even downloaded a Catholic app on my phone and began following the Catholic lectionary as a handy method for organizing my Scripture readings—since, I reasoned, somebody else had already done the work of distributing the Bible throughout the calendar. Through all of this, I denied vehemently that I was becoming Catholic or even interested in becoming Catholic. When the question was raised, and it was, I rattled off rehearsed reasons why the Catholic Church was fallen and apostate, et cetera; why I disagreed with Catholic doctrine; why I wouldn’t have any of it.

The Church That Was Found

St. John the Evangelist, Oxford, nave

The nave of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford, Mississippi. (Source)

When I went to graduate school the next year, I had no intention at all of becoming Catholic. I made a list of churches to visit in my new town, and the Catholic Church wasn’t one of them. And yet completely by accident I had made a Catholic friend when I visited the campus. When she invited me to Mass, I decided to go. To my amazement, rather than the dryness and empty ritual I had expected, I found a rich, moving spiritual experience that brought me the sense that I was kneeling in communion with Christians of all ages past—and with the Lord. The next week, hungry for more, I went back.

Young Catholic adults

Young Catholic adults, incidentally at St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis. (Source)

After all my years running away from experience as a criterion of faith, it was ultimately my experience of Catholicism that brought me over the threshold. Those weeks of witnessing the Mass, as I exulted in the presence of the Lord, something was happening intellectually that I hardly even realized at the time. All of those reasons I had been reciting against Catholicism were collapsing, as I saw that everything I had ever believed about Catholics was wrong: Catholics do have a very close, a very committed, a very real relationship with Christ; the theology I had dismissed as cold was living and vibrant; the ritual and liturgy was not empty, but every bit of it meaningful and worshipful.

The Mass

It didn’t take me long to realize that the faith and the Church I had always admired so much in the Church Fathers was still there and still alive in the Catholic Church; that the Church still embraced, upheld, stood upon, and celebrated that heritage and foundation. The truths of the faith held by the Fathers, the ancient doctrines they affirmed, were still there and still held true. And I found that so much of what I had always been longing for and searching for was there, even the longings I had never known how to articulate. After a few months of attending Mass weekly, I began attending daily. I admitted at last that I was onto something, and decided to begin the RCIA class when it resumed in the fall.

This is not the end of the story. I had been brought into the antechamber of the Church, but there was still a process of catechesis and formation, dialogue and the occasional dispute, and studying and working through Catholic doctrine, coming to terms with what it meant in light of my experience so far. But it is the end of the beginning, the turning point of my faith journey. Now, four years after entering the Church, I feel a fuller, firmer, and more committed faith, and a deeper understanding, than I ever had before. I don’t look back on my days growing up Protestant with any disdain at all, but with a lot of love and appreciation for the firm foundation it laid, and the road it paved that led me the fullness I have found.

Re-presenting the Sacrifice of Christ: The Fundamental Doctrines of the Eucharist and the Presbyterate in Scripture

The Sacrifices of Melchizedek, Abel, and Abraham. Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

The Sacrifices of Melchizedek, Abel, and Abraham. Mosaic from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna.

We have examined how the word “priest” in English is actually a translation of the New Testament Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] (“elder”), etymologically distinct from the concept of a ἱερεύς [hiereus] or sacerdos, the sacrificing minister of the Old Testament; and thus “priest” is an appropriate title for the office of Christian ministry. We have shown how Jesus, in instituting a New Covenant, appointed the Apostles ministers of His New Covenant, and they in turn ordained bishops, priests, and deacons to continue in their ministry. We have examined how these early ministers understood themselves to be ministers of the New Covenant in some sense analogous to the priests (sacerdotes) of the Old Covenant, and how even the Old Testament prophets foretold that the coming New Covenant of the Messiah would be served by priests.

Priests making sacrifice

But another, crucial aspect of the term priest (Latin sacerdos or Greek ἱερεύς [hiereus] or Hebrew כֹּהֵן [cohen]), essential to the understanding of that office in both Judaism and in every other ancient culture to which the term was applied, is that a priest makes sacrifices. In the tradition of the Church, some early authors came eventually to refer to presbyters synonymously as sacerdotes or ἱερεῖς [hiereis].* In asking whether it is appropriate to call Christian ministers priests, it is thus important to ask whether they make sacrifices, and whether the earliest Christians understood their office as such.

* I’m still working on this research, which is complicated by the fact that I don’t have very easy access to the source languages, and that at a certain point in even the Protestant-edited Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Schaff and Wace), the words presbyter, sacerdos, and ἱερεύς all begin being translated as “priest” without qualification. So far I’ve found that Tertullian makes reference to the Christian ministry as sacerdotalia munera (“priestly services”) (De praescriptione hereticorum XLI, c. A.D. 200). Cyprian very frequently refers to Christian ministers as sacerdotes (c. A.D. 250) who make sacrifices. Augustine casually refers to a sacerdotem tuum, quendam episcopum nutritum in ecclesia, “a priest [of God], a certain bishop brought up in the Church” (Confessions 3.12). In the East, Basil the Great calls the Christian minister a ἱερεύς, to be distinguished from a layman (λαϊκὸς) (Letter XLIV, c. A.D. 370). I will continue to work on this.

But an important preliminary to this question is whether the idea of sacrifice is even present in the New Testament.. The answer will hopefully seem obvious to most Christians: The idea of sacrifice, and sacrificial language, in fact pervades the New Testament.

A. Sacrifice in the New Testament

1. A Sacrifice of Praise

As our critics have thus far noted in response to previous posts, the New Testament presents that all the Christian faithful, the whole people of God, are called to make spiritual sacrifices. Thus Paul urges:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)

And Peter calls:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … [For] you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:4–5,9)

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews likewise presents Christian worship and even the Christian life as sacrifice to God:

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:15–16, cf. Hebrews 12:28-29)

The language of offering and sacrifice in fact does pervade the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul (e.g. Philippians 2:17, 4:18, Romans 15:16. This is understandable and fitting given the Jewish foundations of the Christian faith, its roots in the Old Testament, and the Pharisaical education of Paul. Most of all, it is fitting given the example of the Author and Perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ.

2. Jesus’s Sacrifice

Grunewald, Crucifixion, Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece

Matthias Grunewald, Crucifixion, from Grunewald, Crucifixion, from Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece, c. A.D. 1524.

The New Testament is also clear in presenting the death of Jesus on the Cross as a sacrifice for our redemption, the gift of Himself out of love for us.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:2)

The Epistle to the Hebrews elaborates on this understanding throughout the letter:

[Jesus] has no need, like those high priests [of the Old Covenant], to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself. (Hebrews 7:27)

Paul in particular explicitly presents Christ as our paschal lamb, the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover, a new sacrifice to institute a new covenant:

Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:7)

Zurbaran, Agnus Dei

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei (A.D. 1635-40).

And the Evangelists — especially John — shared this understanding. John presents John the Baptist’s exclamation at Jesus’s approach:

The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

Peter shares this understanding (1 Peter 1:19) as does John the Revelator (Revelation 5:6, etc.). It appears that the Synoptic Gospels might also allude to it:

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the passover for us, that we may eat it.” (Luke 22:7–8, cf. Mark 14:12)

The mention of the lamb and eating it is curious: for the lamb is not mentioned again. And in fact this was the day on which Jesus, the Passover lamb, had to be sacrificed.

B. The Eucharist as Sacrifice

1. The Connection between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena, c. A.D. 1562 (Wikipedia).

Many tomes have been written on the theology of the Eucharist; I cannot but begin to nick the surface here. But this seems to be the very burning heart of the disagreement between traditional Christians and Protestants regarding the priesthood: All seem to agree that Jesus gave Himself up as a sacrifice for us; but what is the relationship of His sacrifice on the Cross to His presentation of the Lord’s Supper? What is the meaning of His commandment to do this in memory of Him? What is the role of Christian ministers in this ritual?

Scripture itself presents that there is an essential connection between the Lord’s offering of bread and wine at supper that night and His Crucifixion the next day. It is clear, first of all, that the Lord’s Last Supper was the Passover meal (Matthew 26:17-19, Mark 14:12-16, Luke 22:7-13, John 13:1-2ff.). Jesus alluded, more clearly than He had up to that point, to His impending death (Matthew 26:2, etc.). At supper, he called out the one who was to betray him (Luke 22:21–22, etc.). After the meal, the drama of His Passion played out in His agony in the garden (Matthew 26:30–46). All of this, it might be argued, is simply foreshadowing, allusion to what is about to happen. But the meat of the matter — the subject of so much disagreement and debate and controversy — are His words and actions at the meal itself:

And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:22–25)

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26–29)

And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:14–20)

Ugolino di Nerio, The Last Supper

Ugolino di Nerio, The Last Supper (A.D. 1324) (Wikimedia).

Discussions about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist tend to hinge, often fruitlessly, on the word is: “This is my body.” But I would like to draw attention to the tense of this verb, and to the tenses of His surrounding statements: He declares that the bread which He presents is His body, present tense, which is given, present tense, for us. Regardless of disagreements about what the bread and wine are — whether they are His Body and Blood as he said, or mere symbols or representations — His words indicate that what He was giving was being given in that instant. This was not “My Body, which I will give for you when I suffer,” or “My Blood, which will be poured out for you this day”: For Jesus, speaking at the Last Supper, the moment of His suffering had come. Even as most Passion plays present it, the events of the Cenacle to the Cross to the Tomb can be understood as one continuous movement.

Protestant opponents to the traditional understanding of the Eucharist (as our commenter) tend to get hung up on temporal and chronological aspects — calling it “science fiction” to suggest that Jesus could give His body up for us “before going to Calvary.” But this view seems to ignore the plainly sacrificial language of what Jesus was doing. Jesus did, Scripture insists, offer Himself up as a sacrifice for us. And in His own words at the Last Supper, he then and there gave Himself for us: “This is my body which is given for you.”

Jesus’s words consciously echo the words of institution of the Mosaic covenant:

And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant (διαθήκη) in my blood.” (Luke 22:20)

And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant (Septuagint διαθήκη) which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:8)

Even the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews explicitly acknowledges and relates this essential connection between the Lord’s sacrifice and His words of institution at the Last Supper:

When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. … Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant (διαθήκη), so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant (διαθήκη). For where a will (διαθήκη) is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will (διαθήκη) takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Hence even the first covenant (διαθήκη) was not ratified without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant (διαθήκη) which God commanded you.” (Hebrews 9:11–12,15-20)

Our commenter attempted to make an argument that Christ’s words of institution at the Last Supper must have been only symbolic and not essentially connected to the Crucifixion at all, since His words are here presented as a will or testament, and no death had yet occurred at the Last Supper, etc. But this is clearly wrongheaded, for the passage itself declares that the New Covenant is in effect, since a death has occurred which redeems us.

Moses concludes his covenant

The author of Hebrews thus presents Christ’s words of institution (His own declaration that His blood was a New Covenant) and His sacrificial death as essentially the same act: the declaration of the covenant and its ratification by blood. Just so, Moses’s institution of the Old Covenant in Exodus involved separate elements of the same act of institution: offering blood, words of institution (Exodus 24:8), and a meal between the parties of the covenant (Exodus 24:11). Such is the protocol of covenant in the ancient world: and it was played out again by Jesus in the Last Supper and the Crucifixion as a single act.

The chronology of these acts is thus irrelevant: Jesus’s institution of the covenant at the Last Supper was the presentation of His death as a sacrifice, using explicitly sacrificial and covenantal language. Jesus Himself told us that in the death of His body, He was offering Himself as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins; that in His blood, He was instituting a New Covenant for us. He offered the sacrifice of His body at the Passover supper, and gave it to his disciples to eat as the new Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). The very idea that Jesus was our paschal lamb as Paul expresses depends on the understanding that Jesus was sacrificed and presented in place of the lamb at the Passover meal. Scripture is thus clear in this understanding.

Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

Dr. Brant Pitre’s study of the Jewish roots and context of the Eucharist casts a brilliant light on this reality. A valuable outline is available online: “The Fourth Cup and the New Passover.” Even more fruitful is his book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. A quote in summary from the outline:

1. By vowing not to drink the final cup of the Last Supper (Luke 22:18), Jesus extended his last Passover meal to include his own suffering and death.

2. By praying three times in Gethsemane for the “cup” to be taken from him (Matthew 26:36-46), Jesus revealed that he understood his own death in terms of the Passover sacrifice.

3. Jesus also transformed the Passover sacrifice. In the old Passover, the sacrifice of the lamb would come first, and then the eating of its flesh. But in this case, because Jesus had to institute the new Passover before his death, he pre-enacted it, as both host of the meal and sacrifice.

4. Most important of all, by waiting to drink the fourth cup of the Passover until the very moment of his death (John 19:28-29), Jesus united the Last Supper to his death on the cross. By refusing to drink of the fruit of the vine until he gave up his final breath, he joined the offering of himself under the form of bread and wine to the offering of himself on Calvary. Both actions said the same thing: “This is my body, given for you” (Luke 22:19). In short, by means of the Last Supper, Jesus transformed the Cross into a Passover, and by means of the Cross, he transformed the Last Supper into a sacrifice.

2. “Do This In Memory of Me”

Tintoretto, The Last Supper  (1592-1594)

Tintoretto, The Last Supper, A.D. 1592-1594 (Wikipedia).

So Scripture is clear that at the Last Supper, Jesus presented His Body and Blood as a sacrifice. But what did He mean when He commanded His Apostles to “Do this in remembrance of me”? Do what, exactly? To whom was this command addressed? And if Jesus’s presentation was a sacrifice, what would be the character of others’ doing it in His memory?

Doing this was important enough to St. Paul to quote in full the words of institution and give specific instruction about what was to be done and why:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23–26)

Thus it is clear that the Apostles understood Jesus meant specifically to do this: to reenact the offering of Himself at the Last Supper, and to give the Christian faithful this food to eat (John 6:34). If the Lord’s presentation of Himself at the Last Supper was a sacrifice, then the re-presentation — which He commanded His Apostles to do — is the re-presentation of a sacrifice.

That Paul understood the re-presentation of the Eucharist to also be a sacrifice is also evident — for he explicitly compares the Eucharistic table to an altar of sacrifice, and opposes the food of the Eucharistic table to food offered in sacrifice to idols:

Therefore, my beloved, shun the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:14–21)

Paul thus implies that if pagans offer their sacrifices to demons and not to God, and in eating of the sacrifices become partners with demons, Christians do make their sacrifices to God, and in eating of them, have participation (Greek κοινωνία [koinōnia], literally “communion”) in the Body and Blood of Christ.

3. Testimony from Tradition

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Scripture is thus clear in understanding the re-presentation of the Eucharist as a sacrifice in some sense: a re-presentation of Christ’s own sacrifice. That this is the correct interpretation of Scripture can be verified in the earliest understandings of the Church after Scripture. Our commenter accuses that we must “go outside Scripture” to support the view that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, but on the contrary, all the support that is necessary is already evident in Scripture; looking beyond Scripture only further confirms the truth we find in Scripture. We read in the Didache, which many scholars reasonably date to circa A.D. 70, within the Apostolic age itself:

And on the Lord’s day of the Lord assemble yourselves together and break bread (Revelation 1:10); and give thanks (Greek εὐχαριστήσατε [eucharistēsate]) after having confessed also your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let not any man that is at variance with his fellow come together with you until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice be not polluted. For this [sacrifice] is that which was spoken of by the Lord: In every place and time offer unto me a pure sacrifice (Malachi 1:11), for I am a great King, saith the Lord; and My Name is wonderful among the Gentiles. (Didache XIV, from G. C. Allen, trans., The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles [London: The Astolat Press, 1903])

The value of this testimony is not that our understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrifice depends on it (in fact, I wasn’t even aware of these passages before I wrote the above sections of the article), but that it demonstrates that the earliest Christians, taught by the Apostles themselves, shared the same understanding we now derive from Scripture. It also directly refutes the arguments our commenter has already advanced, that the Council of Trent innovated the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist as sacrifice, that “no Christian in the 1,600 years prior to Trent” held such an understanding. Not only is the understanding of the Eucharist as sacrifice expressed in Scripture, but the earliest Christians, taught by the oral teaching of the Apostles, held and expressed this same understanding.

Opposition from Hebrews?

As clear as Christ’s command to re-present His sacrifice, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes just as clear that Christ’s sacrifice was made once for all; that Christ, our High Priest, has no need to offer repeated sacrifices; that He does not suffer repeatedly (Hebrews 7:27, 9:26). We know that Scripture cannot contradict itself. Thus it is clear that the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice which He commanded cannot be a repetition of His sacrifice, or a re-sacrificing of Christ; rather it must be a presenting again of the same once and for all sacrifice.

Rather than an argument against the Eucharist, as Protestant opponents insist to read it, Hebrews thus becomes a treatise on the Eucharist, an explanation to especially Jews that Jesus’s one sacrifice, and the sacrifices which Christians make in memory of Him, were not the kind of repeated and inefficacious sacrifices presented again and again in the Old Testament, but indeed one final, once and for all sacrifice for our redemption and salvation. Nothing about the argument of Hebrews nullifies or eliminates Christ’s command to do this in memory of Him; rather, it is only with His command in mind, and the understanding that this was practiced regularly as the central element of Christian worship (Acts 2:42,46), that the Book of Hebrews can be read with benefit in its proper context.

C. Ministers of the New Covenant

1. Office and Authority

Pope John Paul II New Orleans 1987

St. John Paul II celebrating Mass, New Orleans, 1987. (CatholicVote.org).

So, then, as Scripture teaches, Jesus, through the sacrifice of His Body and Blood on Calvary, presented at the Last Supper, Jesus instituted a new covenant. The Book of Hebrews especially elaborates on this idea of the new covenant. Paul too understands this idea, identifying himself and his associates in ministry as “ministers of the New Covenant” (2 Corinthians 3:4–6).

Scripture is not explicit in declaring that the ministers of the New Covenant make sacrifices, and it intentionally shies away from calling them ἱερεῖς [hiereis] or sacerdotes. But the implications of Scripture are clear: Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice for us, becoming our High Priest (ἀρχιερεύς [archiereus]); he presented this sacrifice through the signs of bread and wine at the Last Supper; he commanded His Apostles to “do this in memory of me” — to re-present the sacrifice He had presented. What would they then be presenting, if not a sacrifice?

Indeed, as shown above, and as is evident throughout the literature of the Early Church, the earliest Christians did understand the presentation of the Eucharist to be a sacrifice. Once again, this testimony is offered in verification of the truths already revealed in Scripture:

Being vehemently inflamed by the word of His calling, we are the true high priestly race of God, as even God Himself bears witness, saying that in every place among the Gentiles sacrifices are presented to Him well-pleasing and pure (Malachi 1:11). Now God receives sacrifices from no one, except through His priests. Accordingly, God, anticipating all the sacrifices which we offer through this name, and which Jesus the Christ enjoined us to offer, i.e., in the Eucharist of the bread and the cup, and which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world, bears witness that they are well-pleasing to Him. (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 116–117, c. A.D. 160)

Justin here makes reference to God’s priests, especially in juxtaposition to the Jewish priests of the Old Covenant, whom he says God now rejects. Justin thus seems to understand that even though all Christians are the “high priestly race of God,” there are nonetheless some who offer the sacrifices.

Who is it, then, who offers the sacrifices? To whom was Jesus giving the commandment when he said to “Do this in memory of Him”? As an Evangelical, I would have answered “to all Christians,” and this seems to be a common response (as there is a tendency in especially Evangelicalism to read all Scripture as if every statement were a direct address to the individual Christian). But most obvious to me now, the closed group to whom Jesus was actually speaking was His Twelve Apostles.

There are practical reasons to think that Jesus was offering a charge to His ministers and not to all Christians, as are played out in even Protestant churches. Just as Jesus presided over the Last Supper, the re-presentation of such must also be presided over: there must be someone to speak and offer the sacrifice, someone to operate in the place of Christ. By their very position, this role usually falls to pastors.

But in traditional Christianity, the charges of Jesus to His Apostles, not only in the ministry of the Eucharist but in the very roles of teaching and pastoring, are understood not just in terms of practicality but of office and authority. As we have already discussed, Jesus did appoint His Apostles to an office of ministry. In His charges to speak in His name and carry His message throughout the world — and to do “Do this in memory of Him” — He authorized them to carry out this ministry; to be His representatives (Matthew 10:40, Luke 10:16), His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20).

2. Apostolic Succession

Paul ordaining Timothy.

Paul ordaining Timothy.

As we have discussed, Jesus appointed the Apostles to an ordained office of ministry, with specific duties and authorities (Mark 3:13-18, Matthew 10, Luke 9:1-6, John 20:19-23, etc.). The Apostles then appointed presbyters and bishops to continue in their ministry after them:

And when they had appointed presbyters for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed. (Acts 14:23)

This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint presbyters in every town as I directed you. (Titus 1:5)

That this office and charge was only committed to another by the Apostles themselves or others in the order of presbyters is also evident:

Command and teach these things. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of presbyters (πρεσβυτέριον [presbyterion]) laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:11–16)

Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands. (2 Timothy 1:6)

Likewise Paul warned Timothy to take care with whom he ordained to the ministry:

Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man’s sins; keep yourself pure. (1 Timothy 5:22)

But nonetheless Timothy was charged to ordain others to continue in his own ministry:

What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2)

Clement of Rome

Clement of Rome.

Thus Scripture presents the fundamental idea of apostolic succession: that the Apostles appointed ministers to continue after them, who likewise should appoint ministers to continue after them. And thus it was understood by the Early Church, as the earliest testimony of those who came after the Apostles bears:

[The Apostles] preached from district to district, and from city to city, and they appointed their first converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of the future believers. … Our Apostles also knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the title of bishop. For this cause, therefore, since they had received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have been already mentioned, and afterwards added the codicil that if they should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. We consider therefore that it is not just to remove from their ministry those who were appointed by them, or later on by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and have ministered to the flock of Christ without blame, humbly, peaceably, and disinterestedly, and for many years have received a universally favourable testimony. For our sin is not small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily offered its sacrifices. (Clement of Rome, 1 Clement XLII, XLIV, c. A.D. 70s; from The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Kirsopp Lake, vol. 1, The Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge MA; London: Harvard University Press, 1912–1913])

Clement thus testifies to the earliest Church’s understanding of apostolic succession — and also, to add to our discussion here, confirms that offering sacrifices was part of the office of the episcopate (i.e. the office of bishop).

Ignatius of Antioch likewise confers, clarifying that offering the Eucharist was the express authority of the bishop and of presbyters he might appoint:

See that you all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as if it were the Apostles. And reverence the deacons as the command of God. Let no one do any of the things appertaining to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful either to baptise or to hold an “agapé” without the bishop; but whatever he approve, this is also pleasing to God, that everything which you do may be secure and valid. (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans VIII, c. A.D. 107; from The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Lake)

Thus if we accept that specific duties of ministry were the charge of the offices of ministry to which Jesus appointed the Apostles and to which they appointed other faithful men, then it follows that offering the sacrifice of the Eucharist — which Scripture presents as a central element of Christian ministry and worship — would have been a key component of those offices, and not a casual celebration which any believer could conjure at his whim. The earliest testimony of the Apostolic Fathers confirms that this was the case, as it has been understood throughout Christian history and tradition.

Conclusion

Priests, Westminster

This is the outline of the doctrine presented by Scripture: Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice to God for our redemption (Ephesians 5:2, etc.); He presented this sacrifice at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19, etc.) and perfected it on the Cross (John 19:30, etc.). He commanded His Apostles to “Do this in memory of Him” (Luke 22:19) — that is, to re-present the sacrifice which He had presented. This office was carried forth by those Apostles and by others whom they appointed to their ministry. That these were the doctrines which Christ taught, which the Apostles communicated, and which they committed to Scripture, is confirmed by the fact that this is the way the earliest Christians received and understood such teaching.

Thus we have an order of ministers, called by God and ordained to an office, to serve the New Covenant of God (2 Corinthians 3:4–6). Thus even the Apostle Paul saw this ministry to be analogous to the priesthood of the Old Covenant (Romans 15:16). The prophets of the Old Testament foresaw that God would call a new order of priests in service of His New Covenant, to offer sacrifices forever (Isaiah 61:6, 66:18, 20–21; Jeremiah 33:17–18, 22). Jesus commanded His ministers to re-present His sacrifice — and in so doing what they presented was a sacrifice. The order of Christian ministers in service of Christ’s New Covenant thus do make sacrifices, in some mysterious sense that does not call into question the oneness or finality of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice. Christian ministers can thus rightly be called sacerdotes — priests — in the service of Christ.

Over the generations to come, through prayerful reflection and close study of the Scriptures, the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist, the Sacraments, and the priesthood deepened and expanded. Priests, teachers, and theologians would explore the mystery of faith, the sacrifice of the Eucharist, to attempt to understand and explain its beauty, majesty, and truth. Church Fathers such as Cyril, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine offered forth elaborate theological treatises, practical instructions, and glorious panegyrics in praise of the Eucharist — but these were only the flowering forth of the core truths of the faith, which had been present, in Scripture and Tradition, from the beginning. Our recent commenters here have raged against the “nonsense” they can cite from the Council of Trent and other late promulgations of doctrine, arguing that such elaborations of doctrine were nowhere found in Scripture — but attacking a mere flourish is as ineffective in refuting the core truths of traditional Christianity as plucking leaves from a tree. The outline, the seed, is here, presented in Scripture and verified by the testimony to Tradition.