How Both New Testament “Presbyters” and Old Testament “Cohenim” Became “Priests” in English

Marc Chagall. Aaron and the Seven-Branched Candlestick from Exodus (1966).

Marc Chagall, Aaron and the Seven-Branched Candlestick from Exodus (1966).

A recent commenter complained, as Protestants often do, that there is “no biblical basis” for the New Testament priesthood. My immediate response: Of course there is. There is ample demonstration throughout the New Testament of ministers — deacons, presbyters, and bishops — who are called to serve the Lord and the Church in a special way and appointed to that purpose. The Greek word presbyter (πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros]), even, is the root of our English word priest. Even saying it, though, it struck me as odd: If the New Testament Greek word presbyteros is the origin of the English word “priest,” why is it that the Old Testament priesthood is translated with that word in English today, and not the New Testament?

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

If fact, the word priest is the word applied in English to any religious minister in any religion, especially to one who makes sacrifices. But the word for those ministers in each of the various source languages is not priest or anything related to it. So what happened? How did a Christian minister come to be called a “priest” at all? How did this word that originally referred to the New Testament Christian minister come also to be applied to a Jewish minister of the Old Covenant, and in fact to any religious minister? And how is it that, in English today, this word “priest” no longer refers strictly to Christian ministers at all, such that modern Bible translations use the word in the Old Testament (in which it has no historical or etymological root) but not the New Testament (from which it actually derives) — and Protestant Christians are left to question why the New Testament ministry is even called a “priesthood”?

In answering these questions, I embarked on a fascinating journey through language, etymology, and Bible translation, uncovering surprising accidents of translation, usage, and reaction.

Catholic priest

The complaint of some Protestants that the “priesthood” of the Catholic Church has no biblical basis has two separate fronts: a linguistic one, opposed to the use of the word “priest,” and a theological one, opposed to the idea that the New Covenant of Christ has any need of a “priesthood” akin to that of the Old Covenant. Regarding the first point, I will show that the use of the word “priest” in English to describe the ministers of the Christian New Covenant is entirely appropriate, and the use of that same word to also describe ministers of the Jewish Old Covenant is mostly the result of a linguistic accident. I will address the second point in another post.

I. The Words of Scripture

A. “Presbyters”

Eugene and Macarius, presbyters and martyrs

From an icon of Eugene and Macarius, presbyters and martyrs at Antioch (Wikimedia).

As any student of the New Testament knows, St. Paul instructs us in Scripture, according to most modern Bible translations in English, about the ministry of elders and overseers. There is no mention at all in many recent translations of “priests” or “bishops” — leading Protestant readers especially to presume that the Catholic priesthood has no basis in Scripture, and stems only from “traditions of men.” In this case, though, the titles used in English in the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches are primarily an etymological tradition (handed down by language and words) that does have a very firm basis in Scripture.

Modern Bible translations are correct in their translations of the original meanings of the Greek words used in the New Testament. The Greek word translated “elder” is πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], and in Classical Greek, it literally refers to an elder or older man. Likewise, the word translated “overseer” is ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos], meaning literally one who sees (skopos = Latin scopus) over (epi) others. These two offices were apparently more or less equivalent in practical biblical usage (cf. e.g. Titus 1:3, 5).

St. Timothy.

St. Timothy.

But almost immediately upon their introduction, these terms came to have meanings apart from their literal senses and apart from the literal interpretation of Scripture, referring specifically to the offices which they named in the developing Christian Church. Timothy, the recipient of Paul’s epistles, by all appearances was an elder or overseer, exercising the duties appointed to those offices (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:11-16, 4:17) and having the authority to appoint both (1 Timothy 3) — and yet Timothy was not an “older man” at all, but one to whom Paul exhorted, “Let no one despise you because of your youth” (1 Timothy 4:12). Ignatius of Antioch, writing in circa A.D. 107, commended an overseer who was likewise not an “older man” (Epistle to the Magnesians III). The office of presbyter, then, was not exclusively limited to “older men,” and came to mean more than the literal meaning of the Greek; and that word continued to be used, even when a younger man held the office.

The fact that the Christian office took on a different meaning than its literal Greek etymology is also evident in the fact that when the New Testament was translated into Latin, and when early Christian writers of the West wrote of Christian ministers, the Greek word πρεσβύτεροι [presbyteroi] was transliterated, copied directly into the Latin as presbyter, and not translated: “older men” in Latin would have been seniores (the word used in other locations of the New Testament where an older man is clearly meant, e.g. Matthew 27:1).

B. “Cohenim,” “Hiereis,” and “Sacerdotes”

cohen

We now turn to those Jewish religious officials in the Bible who are today generally translated into English as “priests.” The Old Testament Hebrew word for the ministers of the Old Covenant is כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [kō·hēn·īm or cohenim], singular כֹּהֵן [kō·hēn or cohen]. Despite the fact that the word “priest” originates from the New Testament presbyter, and that that word has no immediate, etymological connection to the ministry of the Old Covenant — these Hebrew ministers came to be called “priests” in English, and in fact there is no other word in English that can adequately be applied to them or what they did.

The same Hebrew word cohenim was used to describe Egyptian religious ministers (Genesis 41:45) and ministers of Baal (2 Kings 10:19), Chemosh (Jeremiah 48:7), and others. So it appears that even in Hebrew the word was a generic term for what a minister did, his role and relationship to a divine cult, and not anything specific to the Hebrew God or covenant. It is fitting, then, that when the Hebrew ministers were described in other languages, they were likewise described with those languages’ words for a sacrificing religious minister.

James Tissot, The Chief Priests Take Counsel Together

James Tissot, The Chief Priests Take Counsel Together (c. 1890) (Wikimedia).

In the Greek New Testament, when the Jewish religious officials are described in the Gospels, or when Jesus is called our “high priest,” the Greek word used is ἱερεύς [hiereus], plural ἱερεῖς [hiereis], from ἱερός [hieros], hallowed or holy [cf. English hieroglyphics, “holy symbols”]: meaning a minister in the cult of a god, especially a minister who makes sacrifices. It is the same word used in Greek for the ministers of the pagan Greek religion. In the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, the cohenim of the Old Covenant were likewise translated as hiereis.

Likewise, when the Christian Bible was translated into Latin, and when the Old Testament was described by the Latin Fathers of the Church, the ministers of the Old Covenant (Hebrew cohenim or Greek hiereis) were translated as sacerdotes [singular sacerdos], literally those who make holy gifts [sacer (holy or sacred) + dos (gift)]. It is the word used in Latin for the ministers of the Roman religion as well as the Greek religion and other similar religious officials.

So in the earliest writings of the Hebrews, the ministers of the Old Covenant did not have a distinct, unique word applied to them. The Hebrew word כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] was a generic word for a sacrificing religious minister to any god. Accordingly, this word was translated into Greek and Latin with those languages’ words for sacrificing religious ministers, ἱερεῖς [hiereis] in Greek and sacerdotes in Latin. These words cohenim, hiereis, and sacerdotes have no essential connection to the Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], originally denoting an older man but in Christian usage coming to refer to the office of presbyter, a presiding elder at a local church.

II. Words in Time

A. “Priests”

The Venerable Bede translating John

The Venerable Bede translating John. Bede was contemporary with these linguistic developments in English.

How, then, did presbyters come to be known as “priests” in English? It is important to note that the English language first developed (as Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons) in the Christian era, only after the Anglo-Saxons had been Christianized in the seventh century A.D. That being the case, our historical evidence of the English language has no surviving indigenous terms (that I’ve been able to discover) for religious ministers.

Thus from the very beginning in English, Christian ministers — the presbyters of the New Testament — became known as prēostas (priests) — the term simply being adopted from Latin biblical and ecclesiastical language. The term bisceop (bishop) was likewise simply adopted from the Latin episcopus (Greek ἐπίσκοπος). On the other hand, Old English adopted the word sacerd (plural sacerdas), from Latin sacerdos, to refer to the priests of the Old Covenant, and in fact as a generic word for any priest (as sacerdos is in Latin). Jewish and pagan ministers were also sometimes called bisceopas (bishops) in Old English. Only Christian ministers were thus originally known as priests in English, and Jewish and other ministers called something different. From the very earliest English manuscripts, there was some overlap in the use of the word bishop.

By the Middle English period (post-Norman conquest), however, the word sacerd had fallen into disuse, and prēost became the generic term for any religious minister. This is the term that came to be used to describe Christian ministers, pre-Christian pagan ministers, Jewish ministers, and Greek and Roman ministers, and any other religious office. Because ministers in their adopted Christian religion were called “presbyters,” it is from this term that the Anglo-Saxon people eventually adopted the word for all religious ministers. Historical linguists are uncertain how exactly the Greek and Latin word presbyter phonologically evolved into the Anglo-Saxon prēost. Perhaps, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, a late Latin form of presbyter was prebester, leading to prēost and similar developments in other Germanic languages. It is also uncertain why the generic term sacerd was lost.

So rather than the Catholic Church “inventing” the idea that New Testament Christian ministers were priests in analogue to the Old Testament priesthood, quite the opposite happened: The English language, developing around the Christian religion, called Christian ministers priests first. The cohenim, the priests of the Old Covenant, came also to be called priests only after the Christian ministers, because they were seen to be analogous to Christian priests, not the other way around.

So we find, for example, that when John Wycliffe made the first complete translation of the whole Bible into English, in the late 14th century, he translated the ministers of both the New Testament and the Old Testament as priests:

For cause of this thing Y lefte thee at Crete, that thou amende tho thingis that failen, and ordeyne preestis bi citees, as also Y disposide to thee. (Titus 1:5)

And the preest schal brenne tho on the auter, in to the fedyng of fier, and of the offryng to the Lord. (Leviticus 3:11)

John Wycliffe

John Wycliffe.

Even Wycliffe, a proto-Protestant, understood the ministers of the New Testament to be rightly called priests, and the Latin word presbyter he was translating to be the root of the English word priest. Wycliffe, too, translated the ministers of the Old Testament — sacerdotes in the Latin — as priests in English. As tempting as it is to pin this coincidence on Wycliffe, it is unclear how much influence Wycliffe’s translation had on later translators. His translation choices probably reflected the common usage of his day: the ministers of both the Old and New Testaments were called priests. (Wycliffe also retained the traditional English translation of bishop for episcopus.)

The original meaning of the Greek πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] as “elder” had thus been lost in translation: but then again, the identity of the Christian presbyter as an “older man” had ceased to be essential to the office almost as soon as it originated (see I.A.3 above). Early English speakers, and the earliest translators of Scripture into English, likewise saw the office of “priest” as distinct from its etymology.

B. “Elders”

With the coming of the Renaissance and eventually the Protestant Reformation, there was a renewed interest in the original texts and languages of the Scriptures. In the early sixteenth century, the first polyglot editions of the Scriptures, including the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts, were printed. This paved the way for the work of William Tyndale and other Englishmen who translated the Scriptures directly from their original languages into English.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale.

Tyndale, translating the New Testament into English from the original Greek, translated πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] according to the literal meaning of the Greek: he translated it elder. But not even Tyndale objected to calling these Christian officers priests. Tyndale, in fact, makes an essential connection between the elders of the Old Covenant and the elders (presbyters) of the New Covenant:

In the Old Testament the temporal heads and rulers of the Jews which had the governance over the lay or common people are called elders, as ye may see in the four evangelists. Out of which custom Paul in his pistel and also Peter, call the prelates and spiritual governors which are bishops and priests, elders. Now whether ye call them elders or priests, it is to me all one: so that ye understand that they be officers and servants of the word of God, unto the which all men both high and low that will not rebel against Christ, must obey as long as they preach and rule truly and no longer. (“W.T. unto the Reader,” preface to 1534 edition of New Testament)

The fact that ministers in the Anglican Church continued to be called priests indicates that English-speakers at the time of the English Reformation saw no disconnect between the words presbyter and priest — in fact probably recognizing their essential and etymological connection.

In the Old Testament, Tyndale likewise translated the word כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] as priest. By the 1530s, there was simply no other word in English to capture the meaning. As the English language developed, priest had become the word for any religious minister, especially one who sacrifices, thus becoming synonymous with the Latin sacerdos.

(Tyndale, on the other hand, retained the traditional English translation of bishop for ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos], as does the King James Bible — leading to a generally greater acceptance of that term among Protestants.)

The heirs to Tyndale’s translation, including the King James Bible and every major English translation since (including most Catholic ones) have translated the word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] as elder. There is certainly a element of reaction and even rebellion in some Protestant translations, particularly in more recent ones: a conscious rejection of the idea of a New Testament ministerial priesthood. It is worth noting that they translate the words πρεσβύτερος and ἐπίσκοπος [episkopos] according to their literal, primitive meanings as elder and overseer, but not the word διάκονος [diaokonos], which is rendered not by its literal meaning of servant but by the traditional deacon in most English translations. This acknowledges that the word diakonos here has taken on an additional and traditional meaning, referring to the Christian office, more than its literal meaning of servant. Why not, then, leave the other offices to their traditional renderings as priest and bishop — which likewise have taken on additional, traditional meanings more than elder and overseer? The reaction seems particularly pronounced for the word priest, given that the same word is now applied to the Old Testament priesthood, and there is an understandable effort to make a distinction between the two.

Over time, as the English language continued to evolve, the etymological connection between presbyter and priest was lost and forgotten — such that I was taken aback to learn of it as I was becoming Catholic, just as many others are.

Conclusion

Pope Francis at Mass

Pope Francis at Mass.

The premise — which I myself held once — that to call the Christian ministers of the New Testament “priests” is an innovation not supported by Scripture — is false on its face. Stemming directly from the word in the original Greek, πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] or presbyter, the word “priest” was the original term for Christian ministers in English and a perfectly appropriate one. The ministers of the Old Testament — כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] in Hebrew — were originally called sacerdas (after Latin sacerdos) in Old English, and only in time, as an analogy to Christian priests, came to be called priests in English also.

It should be noted, too, that equating the priests of the Old and New Covenants with a single word is not endemic to Catholicism but only to English and other Germanic languages (though French, with Germanic influence, seems to do the same). In several of the Romance languages (Spanish and Italian notably), the words for priest used in Catholic teaching are still more obvious cognates to presbyter (presbítero and presbitero respectively) — while those languages still refer to priests of the Old Covenant as sacerdotes and sacerdoti. In those languages, Christian priests can also be called sacerdotes in analogue to priests of the Old Covenant.

This reflects another development that took place long before even the development of the English language, that no doubt contributed to the ministers of both the Old and New Covenants being called priests in English: Even in Greek and Latin, Christian ministers came sometimes to be referred to as ἱερεῖς [hiereis] or sacerdotes. This appellation, which can be found in some of the very earliest Christian writers such as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Cyril, was primarily by analogy: Christian priests were like the cohenim of the Old Testament in their ministry toward God and His people, adminstering Jesus’s work as our high priest (ἀρχιερεύς [archiereus]) to the Christian flock. In this sense, priests became synonymous with sacerdotes first in Greek and Latin — paving the way for them to become synonymous in English.

And this begs the question, and the second point of the Protestant charge: Is there any analogue between the priests of the New Covenant and the cohenim of the Old Covenant? Is the priesthood of the Church a sacrificing priesthood, as the Old Testament priesthood certainly was and as the Greek term ἱερεῖς [hiereis] and Latin term sacerdotes understand? Were the Church Fathers correct in applying this analogy, and is there any merit to referring to the priests of the Old and New Covenants by the same term, as we do in English? Or were the Protestants correct to stress the distinction between the two orders? How did the early presbyteri of the Church themselves understand their role? I will strive to address these questions in my next post, so don’t go away!

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Epistemology of Sola Scriptura

Van Gogh, Still Life with Bible (c.1885)

Still Life with Bible (c.1885), by Vincent van Gogh (WikiArt.org).

Protestants argue that Scripture itself is sufficient to support the doctrine of sola scripturabut a more important question to ask is if one, not having held such a doctrine before, could come to a doctrine of sola scriptura by Scripture alone.

The “Great Apostasy” thesis presumes, first of all, that “true” Christianity originated as something other than Catholic Christianity, but that Roman authorities designed to introduce “pagan” elements into the faith. (Or, in a more moderate form of the claim, gullible and lukewarm Christians — apparently, early Christians were less committed to the truth and orthodoxy of their faith, as well as less intelligent, than modern Protestants? — passively allowed pagan accretions to gradually creep into their doctrine.) Some of the usual suspects for these allegedly “pagan” doctrines include the “worship” of images and statues (“idolatry”); the “worship” of the Virgin Mary and the saints; the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (often less correctly attacked as “transubstantiation”); the understanding of the Lord’s Supper as the sacrifice of the Mass; the subjection of correct adherence to Scripture alone to “traditions of men”; and the injection of “works’ righteousness” into the true faith in justification by faith alone. In short, the presumption is that “true” Christianity was essentially Protestant, and that any other doctrine particular to the Catholic Church must have been a “pagan” corruption. But is this thesis itself sound?

I argue that this whole “Great Apostasy” claim proceeds from Protestant assumptions about Scripture, doctrine, and the Church — namely, that the Early Church held to the same understanding of sola scriptura (“Scripture alone” as a rule of faith) that later Protestants formulated; that early Christians would have interpreted the Bible in exactly the same way as later Protestants (i.e. that the Protestant interpretation is the correct one); that “true” Christians would have rejected any doctrine not defined explicitly in Scripture, according to that interpretation; and that therefore a Church that believed anything different must, by definition, be “apostate.” It proceeds from a very specific conception of “the Church” and Christian practice, defined by Protestant practice, such that, if the Church does not resemble that conception, then it must have fallen away from the truth. To accept that the Catholic Church is “apostate,” one must first accept these Protestant assumptions. The result is that this “Great Apostasy” thesis rests on circular logic: The Church was “apostate” if it did not resemble a Protestant one; in order for the Church to be “true,” it must be Protestant.

Where does sola scriptura come from? A begged question

Calvin with books

Is there any way to verify the initial assumptions of this begged question? Can we know whether the Early Church was Protestant in belief and practice? Yes, we can, by turning to the very earliest written documents of the Church outside the New Testament, composed within years or decades of the writing of the New Testament itself, if not within that very time period — though many proponents of the “Great Apostasy” would extend their assumptions to say that, if these documents do not verify their Protestant assumptions, then the Church must have apostatized even before then — before the canon of the New Testament was even closed. This stretches the credibility of our belief in a Lord who proclaimed that His Church would stand against the powers of death and that His Holy Spirit would guide His followers into all truth.

But to put a boot into this circular reasoning, I hope, let me ask: How did we, as Christians, come to our understandings of the Protestant church? Where do our understandings of these Protestant assumptions — sola scriptura and all the rest — come from? The Protestant Reformers dictated these doctrines, and professed that they were held by the earliest, “true” Christians — but how did they know they were held by early Christians, if not even the earliest extrascriptural texts can verify this claim? How did they know what they claimed to know, if no one knew it before? It is a basic epistemological as well as an historical question: since this knowledge could not have come from nowhere.

Protestants claim, of course, that their understanding of these doctrines came from reading Scripture alone — but if Scripture had been being read laboriously by exegetes and theologians for 1,500 years, and none prior to them had come to such an understanding — could they truly have come to this understanding by Scripture alone? Is this doctrine of sola scriptura so plainly written on the face of Scripture that all prior exegetes must have willfully ignored it? This is in fact what a claim of “perspicuity” entails. Or, if this understanding depends on a new interpretation, where did this new interpretation come from? If it came from any source outside Scripture alone — even, as Protestants might argue, from a special revelation of the Holy Spirit — then it contradicts the very notion of sola scriptura as Protestants defined it: stating that all doctrine is perspicuously written in Scripture, or else implied by it by necessary consequence.

Perspicuously taught?

Scripture illuminated

Scripture was illuminated a long time before Protestants came along.

If the doctrine of sola scriptura does not itself rest on circular reasoning, then it must be plainly stated or necessarily implied by Scripture. And what is it that, according to the definitions of Protestants themselves, Scripture alone must plainly, or by necessary consequence, teach? Turning to one of the most widely acknowledged statements of Protestant belief, the Westminster Confession of Faith, we find that the authority of Scripture is thus understood:

  1. All things necessary for man’s salvation, faith, and life are either expressly stated in Scripture, or implied by necessary consequence. (WCF I.6)
  2. No doctrine may be added to this at any time, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or “traditions of men.” (WCF I.6)
  3. Scripture is to be the final appeal of the Church in all controversies of religion. (WCF I.8,10)

There is more, but that’s enough for starters. It is these points in particular that give rise to Protestant prejudice against the Catholic tradition, and support conclusions about the “apostasy” of the Church. How is it that Protestants draw these tenets from Scripture? Where is this perspicuously written?

Even when so confronted, there are only a few verses of Scripture that Protestant exegetes are able to produce in support of sola scriptura. But what do these verses actually, perspicuously dictate?

“Do not go beyond what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6)

Paul writes, in his first epistle to the Corinthian Church:

I have applied all this to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brethren, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. (1 Corinthians 4:6)

Ripped from its context, this verse appears to be sure support for the argument that the Church is not to go beyond what is written — that is, surely, Scripture — in anything she does. As a corollary, it is assumed, the Church should remain within the parameters of the doctrine taught in Scripture.

But even a closer examination of this single verse calls into question this interpretation. Why is it that Paul’s recipients should not go beyond what it is written? Is it to preserve the Church in doctrinal purity, to exclude error or accretion of unscriptural tradition, to maintain orthodoxy — as the Protestant understanding of sola scriptura would lead us to believe? No, it is that [ἵνα (hina), in order that, marking a purpose clause] none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. What, then, is Paul talking about? What is written that he is referring to? Apparently whatever is written is meant to address this matter of prideful self-aggrandizement. Has Paul previously referred to such a passage?

Sure enough, he has, earlier in the same letter — making his references explicit by similarly noting what is written:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.” (1 Corinthians 1:18–19)

He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:30–31)

For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” So let no one boast of men. (1 Corinthians 3:19–21)

These references to what is written plainly refer to prideful boasting — being “puffed up.” This is the specific context of Scripture beyond which Paul admonishes his readers not to go beyond — to learn from his humility, clearly the context of 1 Corinthians 4 and surrounding chapters. This single phrase, not to go beyond what is written, separated from this context, cannot be taken as any sort of far-reaching doctrinal dictate or prohibition. This verse fails to offer the support for sola scriptura — let alone the plain, perspicuous pronouncement — that Protestants seek from it.

The matter of the Bereans (Acts 17:10–12): “Examining the Scriptures to see if these things were so”

Luke writes, in the Acts of the Apostles:

The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Beroea; and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with all eagerness, examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. (Acts 17:10–12)

Paul to the Bereans

The Bereans are so often held up as the picture of sola scriptura in practice, praiseworthy in their commitment to Scripture. And it is certain that they were faithful to God’s Word. But is this really the same thing as what Protestants practice? What Scriptures did the Bereans examine, and what is it that they sought in them? The word they received was the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of his coming, Death, and Resurrection. The Scriptures they read were the only ones available to them, the Old Testament (most likely in the Greek Septuagint), since the New Testament had not yet been written. And in the Old Testament, they verified the fulfillment of prophecy that Jesus brought, the thrust of the gospel that Paul and Silas taught, which is what would have been convincing to faithful Jews. So it demands the question: Does the practice of the Bereans resemble the Protestant practice of sola scriptura? Does this Scripture passage offer the perspicuous support that doctrine demands?

It is plain that it does not. Does it demonstrate that “all things necessary for man’s salvation, faith, and life are plainly stated or necessarily implied by Scripture”? No, it does not: While the Bereans were able to verify Christ’s fulfillment of prophecy by Scripture, they could not have come to knowledge of Him without the preaching and illumination of Paul. Does it demonstrate that “no doctrine can be added to Scripture”? No, it does not: The message of Jesus taught by Paul, His life and mission and way of salvation, were all “new doctrine” not plainly stated or even necessarily implied by the Scripture of the Old Testament; and if the Bereans had held to a Protestant understanding of Scripture, not accepting any doctrine that went beyond it, they would have rejected Paul and the gospel of Christ. Does this passage demonstrate that Scripture must be the final appeal of the Church in matters of controversy? No, it does not address this at all. Plainly, then, this passage does not offer the support for sola scriptura that is necessary for Protestants. It does not teach this doctrine perspicuously, nor could it have led anyone to hold it who did not hold it before.

Parting Exhortations (2 Timothy 3:14–17): “Equipped for every good work”

Among Paul’s final words to Timothy were this exhortation:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14–17)

Paul ordaining Timothy

Paul ordaining Timothy bishop of Ephesus.

This is by far the Scripture most commonly cited by Protestants in support of sola scriptura. I have written at greater length about it before. Supposedly, according to the argument I often hear, this offers proof that Scripture alone is profitable for these good purposes, that Scripture alone can instruct us for salvation, that Scripture alone can complete a man to be equipped for every good work; and that, therefore, if Scripture does not equip us for it, it is not a good work. This, presumably, is meant to exclude any doctrinal element not plainly found in Scripture — since, the man of God, already “complete,” has no need of anything else.

But that reading fits neither this Scripture passage nor its context. Paul, again, is not advising the Church in doctrinal matters; he is exhorting Timothy to persevere in good works. In this, does he mean to limit the good works to which Timothy is called, or forbid him from any practice or activity? No, clearly not: he is extolling the inspiration of Scripture, all its merits and applications, and all the good works for which it can equip the believer. There is nothing prohibitory about Paul’s statement here. Does he mean to be exclusive, as if to say that Scripture alone is profitable for good works, or Scripture alone can instruct one for salvation? There is nothing about his words that imply this.

Even taken at its most literalistic, this passage does not offer the perspicuous support for sola scriptura that the doctrine demands. Does it clearly teach that Scripture teaches all things necessary for salvation and life? No, it merely shows that Scripture is instructive (it can make one wise) for salvation. Does it teach that no doctrine may be added to the plain teachings of Scripture, or that no doctrine outside such plain teachings may be believed? No, it does not speak to anything outside Scripture at all. Nor is Scripture as a means for resolving doctrinal controversy (let alone the sole means) included among Scripture’s worthy applications. This passage, like the other passages, fails to teach plainly or necessarily the doctrines and claims that Protestants make about scriptural authority.

True Scriptural Authority

The Council of Trent

The Magisterium of Church, assembled at the Council of Trent.

To many Protestants, a notion of church authority rooted in sola scriptura appears to be common sense. Scripture is Holy Writ, the very written Word of God — why wouldn’t it be the Church’s ultimate authority? The suggestion of any qualification to this authority appears to be abject heresy, the placing of human authority above that of Scripture. But in fact, the Catholic view presents completely the opposite.

It is the Protestant view, paradoxically, that ultimately compromises the authority of Scripture, by subjecting it to private human interpretation. For Scripture is effectively of no authority at all to the person whose private interpretation disagrees with the one being asserted; that is, any given interpretation of Scripture is only as authoritative as the person giving it, or as the hearer himself accepts it to be. Where is the absolute, infallible authority of Scripture in this? The Westminster Confession declares that Scripture is to be the final authority of the authoritative Church; but who interprets Scripture if not the Church? Protestants themselves deny the possibility of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, being an infallible interpreter of Scripture; therefore, any interpretation given by the Church is by definition fallible and questionable. Any Christian who disagrees, who has his own divergent, private opinion, is free to dismiss whatever authority the Church claims to have, citing, ironically, the divine and infallible authority of Scripture: when in truth he appeals to nothing more than his own private opinion.

The traditional, Catholic view — the view held in all the ages of the Church up until the schism of the Reformation — is not the opposite of this; it is not a subjection of the authority of Scripture at all, but rather its affirmation. In order for His Word to continue with an authoritative voice, He appointed His Apostles to teach in His name (Luke 10:16), and this teaching mission continued to the bishops and presbyters they appointed (1 Timothy 3:2, 4:13, 5:17, 2 Timothy 2:2, Titus 2:1, etc.). Not just anyone had the authority to teach and interpret Scripture, but only those duly called by God and ordained by the Church (1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11, 1 Timothy 3). And He gave the Church the Holy Spirit, that He might guide her into all truth (John 16:13). For the Catholic Church too, Sacred Scripture is the highest authority, together with Sacred Tradition — the ultimate recourse in matters of doctrine and faith — but as the chaos of Protestant division demonstrates, Scripture cannot speak for itself. It is only through the authoritative voice of the Church’s whole magisterium, in accord with Scripture itself, that the Word of God can authoritatively speak.

Sola scriptura is self-refuting

Martyrdom of Ignatius

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch

Sola scriptura is ultimately self-refuting. The doctrine of sola scriptura demands that Scripture teach all doctrine plainly and perspicuously, or else by necessary consequence — and it does not teach itself. No reader of Scripture could have arrived at the specific requirements and conclusions of sola scriptura as defined without presuming them to begin with: the doctrine rests on circular reasoning. Moreover, to even be able to define “Scripture” — to possess a canon of inspired, authoritative, scriptural books to which to appeal — one cannot stand from Scripture alone, but must refer to the traditional agreement and resolution of Christians in the Church. And thus, to begin one’s reasoning about the Church and Christian history from a position of sola scriptura from the outset is an unjustified and prejudicial assumption. To hold the Early Church, or the Church in any age, to a Protestant, sola scriptura standard, is to place limitations upon Christians that they neither observed nor understood themselves.

The proof of this is in the history of the Church itself: Early Christians, generations upon generations of whom paid for their faith in their own blood, were certainly no less committed to the truth and purity and orthodoxy of Christian doctrine than modern Protestants; in fact, it was precisely for the cause of orthodoxy that many of them suffered persecution and even death (see especially the matter of the Arian heresy). These Christians — who held no less to a closed deposit of faith in the revelation of Scripture and Tradition than Protestants — did not accept, at any point, new and novel doctrines never before taught, let alone the corruption of their faith by visibly pagan and syncretistic doctrines injected from pagan or secular society. And yet these same Christians did not feel themselves bound by a rigid restriction to Scripture alone — which was certainly never taught by Jesus, the Apostles, or their disciples — but accepted Scripture for what it is: the divine, infallible Word of God; the continuing voice of their Lord to His Church, to teach, correct, exhort, encourage, and guide — not to shackle or condemn the rest of the Sacred Tradition of the Apostles, but to affirm it, support it, and verify it. They did not close their minds or their hearts to the development of Christian doctrine, to the flowering of the seeds planted by their Lord and His Apostles, as the Church grew in understanding and pondered upon the truth having once been revealed.

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The “Great Apostasy” Narrative

Duccio, The Last Supper (c. 1311)

The Last Supper (c. 1311), by Duccio (WikiArt.org).

Recently I’ve been writing about assumptions and presumptions that Protestants make in reading the early history of the Church: particularly the presumption that if the Church they observe in early documents does not resemble their Protestant one, then it must have apostatized from the true, apostolic faith of Christ that they read in Scripture. Scripture speaks with enough generality that they can project their Protestant interpretation upon it; but the image of the subapostolic Church, becoming clearer with even the earliest Church Fathers, allows no such reading.

This notion of an apostate Church is more than just my idle speculation: it forms the centerpiece of one of the most prevalent Protestant interpretive frameworks for understanding the history of the Church. The so-called “Great Apostasy” narrative is ubiquitous in Protestant literature, appearing in some form even in the writings of Luther and Calvin (who identified the papacy with the Antichrist), but is most pronounced in the thought of Christians of the nineteenth-century Restorationist movement, including the Churches of Christ and Seventh-Day Adventists. The Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, sects which originated as part of the same movement, base their doctrines in similar claims.

St. Clement of Rome

St. Clement of Rome.

The most troubling thing about this thesis, to me as a Catholic and especially as an historian, is that it is almost completely impervious to fact. Even when presented with the very earliest of the Church Fathers — say, the authors of the Didache (c. A.D. 70s), who suggest Baptism by effusion (pouring) as a valid alternative to immersion; Clement of Rome (c. A.D. 70s?), who argues for authority by apostolic succession; or Ignatius of Antioch (c. A.D. 107), who clearly states his belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and unequivocally places local authority in the hands of a single, pastoral bishop — proponents of this “Great Apostasy” theory reject such writings, arguing that, since these doctrines do not fit with their own biblical interpretations, it demonstrates that the Church had already fallen away from “biblical truth,” even within the lifetimes and memories of the Apostles and within the era of New Testament authorship. When presented with documented fact, even from primary sources or eyewitness testimony, they maintain that the “apostate” Catholic Church altered documents and falsified historical evidence to support its own version of events. When proponents of a belief reject even the most basic laws of evidence and authority, in favor of claims based in nothing more than unfounded self-assertion, an irrational invincibility results that borders on delusion.

Codex Sinaiticus

A leaf from Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest known Greek uncial manuscript (c. A.D. 330–360).

These claims do not stand up to logic. If the Church had “apostatized” from “biblical truth” so soon, and over the centuries conspired to falsify historical evidence to support its false doctrines — why did she not also alter the biblical texts to support such doctrines? Why not insert explicit teachings about hierarchical papal authority, Marian veneration, the use of images in worship? Proponents’ answer, of course, is that the Holy Spirit miraculously preserved the biblical texts from error, even as the Church corrupted every other document and erased from history the teachings of “true Christians” — but if this were true, why could not the Holy Spirit, whom the Lord promised would guide His people into all truth (John 16:13), have also preserved the Church? — the hearts and minds of His people, and the shepherds of His flock? These are very often the same opponents who argue that the Catholic Church corrupted the text of Scripture in such early biblical manuscripts as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus (they accepting arbitrarily the later, far more meddled-with Byzantine manuscripts) — thus allowing that the Church could corrupt the biblical text — and yet even in these “corrupt” manuscripts, apparently left unguarded by the Holy Spirit, there does not appear to have been any deliberate effort to falsify or deceive. These opponents have a substantial burden of proof to even allege such motives, given the observable nature of the textual variants.

Major claims of this “Great Apostasy” thesis include:

    The Council of Nicaea

    Icon depicting the Council of Nicaea. The emperor Constantine and the bishops of the Church hold the Nicene Creed.

  1. Catholic Christianity is a late invention (usually fourth century or later), the result of an amalgamation of Christian truth and elements of pagan philosophy and worship, an effort by the Roman government to adopt Christianity and make it more palatable to pagan Roman citizens. The compromise and “watering down” of the faith was readily accepted by Romans, at the expense of the truth of the gospel.

  2. The Roman emperor Constantine was the essential culprit of this enterprise, an enthusiastic and devout pagan sun worshipper who embraced Christianity merely as a political ploy and never truly converted to the faith. He declared himself head of the Roman Church and exercised autocratic authority to alter the doctrine of Christianity and introduce pagan elements.

  3. Idol worship?

    A favorite image of Catholic opponents — but is this “idol worship”?

  4. The worship of images — both icons and statues — was introduced as a substitute for pagan idolatry, to Romans who were accustomed to having statues and images to worship. The mere existence of such images was in direct contradiction to the Ten Commandments, and the Catholic Church accordingly removed the commandment concerning “graven images” to hoodwink the Christian people.

  5. The Catholic Church moved Christian worship to Sunday from the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) to unite it with pagan sun worship, of which Constantine was a devotee. True Christians kept only the Sabbath. The new pagan regime of the Church instituted persecution of Jewish Christians and purged all Jewish elements from the Christian Church.

  6. Cybele

    Cybele enthroned, with lion, cornucopia and Mural crown. Roman marble, c. 50 CE. Getty Museum (Wikipedia).

  7. The worship of the Virgin Mary was introduced as a substitute for pagan goddess worship, particularly for popular mother deities like Isis or Cybele. Proponents of this idea point to the prophet Jeremiah’s polemics against the “queen of heaven” (e.g. Jeremiah 7:18) as evidence of Catholic apostasy, or to pagan deities of whom perpetual virginity (e.g. Athena, Artemis), heavenly queenship (e.g. Hera, Juno), or virgin motherhood were claimed.

  8. The Mass, the Catholic understanding of the Lord’s Supper, was a repackaged pagan ritual, an adaptation of Christ’s ordinance to animal sacrifice and consumption, with distinct and un-Christian connotations of cannibalism. The repetition of the Mass is in mirror of the need to repeat pagan sacrifices, and is a denial of the completeness of Christ’s work on the cross.

  9. The highest indication of the Church’s apostasy is the office of the papacy, which united elements of the Roman emperorship and the pagan high priesthood, and presents itself as a “replacement” for Jesus on earth as head of the Church and “Vicar of Christ,” with quasi-divine elements such as supremacy and infallibility. The pope is identified with the Antichrist and the “son of perdition” of 2 Thessalonians 2:3.

  10. Spanish Inquisition

    The Spanish Inquisition is the subject of elaborate Protestant and anti-Catholic exaggeration and invention, resulting in a mythos with almost no basis in fact.

  11. The Catholic Church committed mass murder in Europe, wiping out thousands, even millions of people (as many as 50 million) who voiced opposition to Catholic doctrine, through such devices as the Crusades and the Inquisition — ostensibly Protestants and proto-Protestants, as the Church sought to quell the inevitable rebellion of true Christians who would refute its falsehoods and rediscover the faith of Christ.

  12. But there have always been “true” Christians existing as an underground, persecuted minority — sects outside the Catholic Church who secretly read the Bible and adhered to true biblical doctrine, all the while being sought, oppressed, and murdered by Roman operatives. These sects have been maligned by history as “heretics,” and the Catholic Church suppressed their true teachings and obliterated their writings, erasing any trace of their truth from history.

  13. Chained Bible

    It’s true, the Bible was often chained — to prevent vagrants from walking off with it (Wikimedia).

  14. The Catholic Church prohibited the reading of the Bible by laypeople, and kept Scripture “locked up” in incomprehensible languages and away from the people for centuries. Christians were persecuted, arrested, even executed, for merely possessing copies of Scripture, let alone reading or attempting to translate it.

Many Protestants — even those who deny such a broad claim as that “the Catholic Church was completely apostate from the truth of Christ” — readily accept many of these suggestions or their implications. In future posts, I will examine each of these claims and indicate their logical fallacy and lack of historical foundation.

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Early Church, Apostolic or Apostate?

Duccio, Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (1311)

Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (fragment) (1311), by Duccio. (WikiPaintings.org)

I suppose there are only two or three ways for the Protestant reader of Church history to understand the Early Church (by which I mean the subapostolic Church, the Church of the first several generations of Christians after the Apostles). The inherent thesis of the Protestant Reformation is that the changes brought about by the Reformers in the sixteenth century were a reformation of the Church, a return to the true faith and doctrine of Christ that had been lost. So then, in reading the history of the Early Church, the Protestant can either view it as apostolic in nature: as the true, original Church, essentially as it had been received from Christ and the Apostles only years before, alive and vibrant in freshness and purity of belief, practice, and doctrine. Or, if the Protestant reads this Church and finds that it does not resemble his own church at all — that it is not the Church to which the Reformers believed they were reformingthen he must assume that the Early Church had already fallen away from the Truth; she must have already lost the true faith.

An Un-Protestant Church

El Greco, St. Paul and St. Peter

St. Paul and St. Peter (c. 1595), by El Greco.

The problem with this latter proposition is that even the earliest documents of the Church present a very un-Protestant Church. The very earliest Christian writers after the Apostles express faith in a sacramental economy, in the necessity and efficacy of baptism, in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They appeal to authority not in Scripture alone, but in an apostolic succession of bishops and a faith having been received by tradition. They evince trust from the very beginning in the intercession of saints, the primacy of the bishop of Rome, the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary. So if the Protestant cannot discover a time when the Church did not clearly hold these doctrines the later Reformers considered “corruptions” — what does this mean for the belief that the Reformation was a return to a lost “purity” of faith?

The Protestant, not finding Protestant doctrine in the Early Church, must then ask: Did the Early Church fall away from apostolic truth immediately? — before even the earliest extrascriptural Christian writings? To assume this begins to stretch the limits of historical credulity. If not a single extrascriptural writing clearly supports one’s interpretation of Scripture, and one must conclude that the Church apostasized even before this time — then the Protestant is forced to denounce the earliest Christians, and every Christian since, as unfaithful to the teachings of our Lord: so unfaithful, in fact, as to have turned aside from the plain teachings of their apostolic teachers before even the death of the last Apostle. (The Apostle John is believed to have lived until around the turn of the second century, while the earliest extrascriptural documents can be dated to the A.D. 70s.) In this extreme case, is it not more feasible to consider that one’s interpretation of Scripture might be mistaken?

Looking for Proto-Protestants

Saint Augustine in His Study, by Botticelli.

Saint Augustine, a favorite candidate for being a proto-Protestant.

I do not think many Protestants come to these conclusions — that is, and remain Protestant. The far more common tack is to equivocate: to avoid reading very deeply into the Church Fathers, and when one does, to gloss over the differences; to evade the necessity of declaring either that the Fathers were explicitly Protestant (which they clearly were not) or that they they were distinctly un-Protestant. Instead, the Protestant looks for seeds of Protestant belief: if the Church Fathers were not full-blown Protestants, then they must have at least been proto-Protestants, holding nascent doctrines that would someday flower into the Reformation — in a way suspiciously similar to the Catholic conception of the development of doctrine which the Protestant would otherwise reject. Protestant apologists have collected an arsenal of quotations, taken out of context, that appear superficially to support such doctrines as sola scriptura and sola fide — and this is an easy matter to do, since both doctrines take genuine truths that were always present in the Church and carry them to unwarranted extremes. Certainly Sacred Scripture is the very, infallible, inerrant Word of God, and the Church has always held it as the highest authority; but she never held it to be an authority to stand alone. Certainly justification is by faith, and no human work can merit our salvation or even bring us closer to God apart from His grace; but no Church Father ever held that we could be justified by faith alone, with no works accompanying. Since the Fathers often emphasize both the authority of Scripture and the power of saving faith, it is an easy matter to find isolated quotations and read these errors back upon them. But no one could ever come to the conclusions of these doctrines by reading the Fathers in their full context.

A Gradual Decay

St. Vincent de Paul

St. Vincent de Paul (1581–1660), a great Catholic saint of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

A more moderate understanding of the Church’s corruption is similarly equivocal: the reader imagines that the corruptions of doctrine that brought about the Reformation were gradual, subtle, and evolving — a view that is supportable, since, it’s true, doctrine did develop. This allows the Protestant to admire and keep the many great Christians of the ages, all the martyrs and theologians and Church Fathers — finding in them many virtues and qualities of true faith, even if, and despite, their doctrine being gradually corrupted. The problem, then, becomes one of demarcation: When, if ever, did the Church become so corrupt as to be no longer viable as Christian — as to warrant a radical schism? Was it after the second, or third, or fourth ecumenical council? Was it after Saint Augustine, the doctor of grace? Or after Saint Bernard, the last of the great Church Fathers? At whatever point the Protestant draws the line, he must reject all else that follows. The earlier he draws the line, seeing less and less Protestant sentiment and more and more corruption — just as the Protestant who decides the Church was apostate from the very beginning — the more praiseworthy Fathers, teachings, and events he must cast away. The later he draws the line, the more and more development he must accept as validly Christian, the closer he brings this corruption of the Church to the time of the Reformation, and the more he must wonder why such a Reformation was justified at all. If, mere centuries or decades prior to Luther, the Church was still bearing good fruit in holy men and women, bringing them in faith to sanctification and glory, thriving in good works, even if only at the branches — what could justify uprooting and rending the entire tree? Once again, most Protestants who take this view equivocate: since they are unable to draw the line at all, they mentally place it sometime “after the last great Catholic Christian” and “before Luther.” Realizing that there continued to be great Catholic Christians complicates the Protestant’s justifications even further.

Ultimately, the Protestant is forced back to the initial question: was the Early Church apostolic or apostate? If, embracing the many great Church Fathers, he accepts that the Early Church was apostolic, then eventually he is forced to admit that the doctrines of the Reformation, to which the Reformers claimed to be returning the Church, were never apostolic at all — in which case, to what did the Reformers turn her, if not to innovation?

The Work of Christ, an Abject Failure

Christ on the Cross (1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Christ on the Cross (1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (WikiPaintings)

If, on the other hand, the Protestant believes that the Church was apostate from the very beginning, he is forced to question the fundamental nature of the faith he has received: If this Jesus is God Incarnate, how could His Church — against which He promised the gates of Hell would not prevail (Matthew 16:18); which He promised His Spirit would guide into all truth (John 16:13) — have fallen away so completely and immediately from the faith having been delivered to the saints (Jude 3)? If we are to believe that Jesus the God-Man took on human flesh to live, die, and be resurrected for the salvation of all humanity, and returning to the Father, charged His Apostles to make disciples of all nations — only for those Apostles and their disciples to immediately abandon His saving messagewe must, in all honesty, call our Lord’s salvific mission — foreordained from the beginning of the world; the culmination of ages of preparation and prophecy — a complete and utter failure. And how can we ascribe such an abject failure to God Himself?

I have heard many a Protestant claim that even though the Church of God fell into apostasy, God always preserved His true and untarnished Word in Scripture. But that begs the question: through whom did God preserve Scripture? How can the Protestant in good faith believe that the Christian Church faithfully preserved and transmitted the Scriptures, free from error and corruption, for 1,500 years, if she could not even faithfully keep the purity and sanctity of Christ’s doctrine of salvation? And if God could miraculously preserve the truth and indefectibility of Scripture for all that time, even in the hands of such a corrupt institution — why could He not also have preserved the Church?

Reading Church History as a Protestant: The Catholic Church, Dead in “Religion”

Clio, muse of heroic poetry and history, by Pierre Mignard, 17th century.

Clio, muse of heroic poetry and history, by Pierre Mignard, 17th century.

Cardinal Newman famously stated, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” If any single sentence could sum up the reasons for my conversion, that would be it. Yet there are many, many well-educated and thoughtful Protestants, who seem thoroughly versed in the facts of the history of the Church, for whom that hasn’t been true. I’ve been thinking on this a lot lately, how and why that could be, but have up till now refrained from writing, fearful that I might stray into polemic. I pray now that God give me the graces to consider it fairly.

Learning History

My first inclination is to say that as a history major in college, I had a fairly secular and unbiased education — but I’m not sure that’s true. I did attend a public, state university, and at least in the beginning, was prescribed standard textbooks of Western Civilization, which presented a fairly balanced account of Church history. But as I progressed, most of my tutelage came under Dr. G, a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran and a medievalist, with a flair for the great men of history, who simultaneously held as heroes Luther, Erasmus, Bernard, Abelard, Peter Lombard, Gregory the Great, and Augustine. That is the stump from which my developing view of the Christian Church sprang, and if there was any self-contradiction in it, I didn’t realize it then. Dr. G also loved the great historians, and looking back, many of the ones he had us read were anything but favorable toward the Catholic Church: Gibbon, Burkhardt, Huizinga. But we also read the Catholic Friedrich Heer, and Arnold Toynbee, who probably better than anybody represents where I eventually found myself: loving and admiring whatever was great in all Christianity and every religion. (And recounting all of this makes me want to dust off my old history books.)

Martin Luther

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

I grew up a Protestant, so naturally I viewed the Protestant Reformers as heroes, as having accomplished something good; and in Dr. G’s accounts of Luther, he confirmed me in that. But the more I studied the early and medieval Church, the more I fell in love with the Church Fathers. And the more I read of the Church Fathers, the more I longed for the order and consistency of the Early Church, the sure orthodoxy each of these men affirmed and upheld, and the coherency and unity with which they viewed themselves and the whole Christian world as “the Universal Church.” Those things were clearly lacking from the churches I knew in my day. Where had they gone? I presumed, as a Protestant, that they had been lost somewhere over the ages, along with the true faith that Luther and the Reformers later sought to recover; I believed that they had been destroyed and were irrecoverable. I knew nothing of the modern Catholic Church then; I was only vaguely aware of it, that there were Catholic churches and there was a pope. I presumed, as a Protestant, who in my own upbringing had been taught a distaste for “dead religion” — that is, the regimented and ritualistic and institutional; anything that would impede a “relationship” with Christ — that “dead religion” is all that was left of the Catholic Church; that all the spiritual life had been choked out by dogma and rote and rituals and rules; by scholastic definitions and speculation.

St. Augustine

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

I wonder if this isn’t the view that many Protestant historians of the Church have: even if they have an admiration for the Early Church, their understanding of what the Catholic Church became being rooted in assumptions and prejudices and ignorances. Of course, it is my own assumption that an historian, having studied the Early Church and the Church Fathers, must admire it! I suppose there are two understandings the Protestant historian could take of the Early Church: either as something bright and new and pure and glorious, the thing that the Church today should long for and strive to recapture; or as something gradually corrupted and misled and fallen and apostate, the thing they presume had departed from the pure (and Protestant) teaching of the Apostles.

There is a lot more coming from this vein, and hopefully soon! This one’s really gushing (I wrote this all straight through in one sitting)! Stay tuned!

Indulgences: Gift of the martyrs

Caravaggio, Penitent Magdalene

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

Part 2 of a series on Indulgences. Part 1.

So last time, I showed you the basic idea of indulgences: First, that sin has temporal consequences, apart from the guilt which Jesus forgives by His grace — the misery that our sin causes for us and others, called the temporal punishment, which we still must suffer even after our sins are forgiven (cf. Psalm 51). By the power of “binding and loosing” given to the Apostles (Matthew 18:18, John 20:22–23) the priests of the Church have the authority to impose penance on us — not a punishment, but a remedy designed to help us work through through that temporal punishment, to aid in the healing of our souls and our growth in grace. And because the Church imposed the penance, the Church has the power to remit it (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:6–11). And this is an indulgence at its most basic definition: the remission of a temporal penance caused by a sin whose guilt has already been forgiven.

Protestant critics suggest that Indulgences are a “medieval” doctrine, but in fact, the roots of the doctrine go back to the very dawn of the Church. And the doctrine, rather than being a late development, was formed in the crucible of the suffering and persecuted Church of the first centuries. We know that the sorrow of sin brings repentance, and repentance leads to salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10) — and the sufferings of a certain group of sinners came to be borne by the whole Church (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:24–26) — especially by those believers who gave their all, their very lives.

Order of penitents

The order of penitents, pleading for prayer.

In the earliest centuries of the Church, the Church imposed especially harsh canonical penances for grave sins — not your common lusting with the eyes, arguing with a brother, or drinking intemperately, but major, public offenses against the moral law and against the community, like murder, adultery — or especially apostasy, which was increasingly a problem in the age of persecution. Many believers would renounce Christ when faced with arrest or bodily harm, only to repent later: these were the lapsi, those having lapsed. So the Church instituted an order of public penitents: believers who, even though the guilt of their sins had been forgiven, still had a penance to pay. These people would put on sackcloth and ashes and stand outside the church begging for the prayers of the faithful, often for a matter of years, before their debt to the community had been paid and they were allowed to return to the full communion of the Church.

(And if you think that is harsh, this is actually the compromise position. There was a schism in the Church for a time over the fate of the lapsi, with many believers following Novatian, who argued that the lapsi couldn’t be restored to the communion of the Church at all.)

The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer

The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer (1883), by Jean-Léon Gérôme, my favorite Orientalist painter. It truly captures the drama and the agony of the first Christian persecutions, and yet the peace before God.

And from the Church’s crisis, these many lapsi longing desperately to return to the Lord’s communion, and the flowing blood of the many confessors and martyrs, a curious thing arose: The lapsi began visiting the condemned witnesses in prison before their impending martyrdoms, and obtaining from them letters or certificates pleading on their behalf — called the desideria or libelli of the martyrs — promising to offer up their sufferings on their behalf, and to intercede for them before God for their restoration when they reached heaven. And such assurance gave great comfort and grace to the fallen — and brought the bishops of the Church to credit such intercession to the cases of the lapsed.

We learn from the letter of the Churches of Vienna and Lugdunum (Lyons), dated ca. A.D. 177, possibly written by St. Irenaeus himself:

“[The witnesses] did not boast over the fallen, but helped them in their need with those things in which they themselves abounded, having the compassion of a mother, and shedding many tears on their account before the Father. They asked for life, and He gave it to them, and they shared it with their neighbors. Victorious over everything, they departed to God. Having always loved peace, and having commended peace to us, they went in peace to God, leaving no sorrow to their mother, nor division or strife to the brethren, but joy and peace and concord and love.” (quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History V.5.6–7)

St. Cyprian of Carthage

St. Cyprian of Carthage

St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, was at the very center of this crisis in the Church. His letters record an ongoing exchange about this matter: to what degree to reckon the intercession of the martyrs to the accounts of the lapsi, and if, and when, to restore them to communion. Regarding lapsi who were at risk of death, and had one last chance for Communion before their departure, and had received the testament of a martyr:

“They who have received a certificate from the martyrs, and can be assisted by their help with the Lord in respect of their sins, if they begin to be oppressed with any sickness or risk; when they have made confession, and have received the imposition of hands on them by you in acknowledgment of their penitence, should be remitted to the Lord with the peace promised to them by the martyrs.” (Cyprian, Epistle XIII [ANF ed.; XIX in Oxford ed.], A.D. 250)

Regarding the efficacy of such heavenly help, Cyprian wrote:

“[God] can show mercy; He can turn back His judgment. He can mercifully pardon the repenting, the labouring, the beseeching sinner. He can regard as effectual whatever either martyrs have besought or priests have done on behalf of such as these.” (Cyprian, De lapsis [On the lapsed] 36, A.D. 251)

We recognize these certificates or libelli as the first written indulgences. The intercession of the martyrs — now saints in heaven — brought remission to the punishments of the lapsi; and these documents were the proof of their aid. And herein we see the truth of what Indulgences are really all about: the communion of saints — our common life as the Body of Christ.

Next time: I’ll delve deeper into the theology of Indulgences — one of the most beautiful and powerful things I’ve encountered. Many folks argue that Indulgences are an “archaic” practice that should be dismissed; but I think rather they need to be taught more and better understood.

The Authority and Reliability of Paul: More historical thoughts on Early Christianity

Ribera, Saint Paul (1637)

Saint Paul (1637), by Jusepe de Ribera.

[Continuing my thoughts from last night, about the historical reliability of early Christian testimonies, in particular the biblical texts, and the argument that the “orthodoxy” we see today only stemmed from this faction being the victor among many competing early sects. This is Part 2, and it nearly doubled in size from what I started with tonight.]

My friend challenges that the New Testament texts themselves reveal fault lines and factions within early Christianity. Does this argument have merit?

It is true that Paul describes his conflicts with the Judaizers, early Christians who insisted that Jewish Christians should continue to observe the Mosaic Law, in effect, according to Paul, nullifying Christ’s atoning sacrifice by the argument that salvation was only possible through the works of the Law. (See especially Galatians and Romans.) 1 John 4:2–3 seems to reject the doctrines of the Docetists, who argued that Jesus never truly came in the flesh but was instead a kind of divine phantasm. 1 Timothy 6:20 may mark an rejection of early Gnostic thought, which argued that some secret and esoteric knowledge (γνῶσις or gnosis) was necessary for salvation. So yes, there is evidence of some early disagreement; this is not a great surprise, given human free will.

But what was the nature of these disagreements? How widespread were they, and what following did these alternate viewpoints have? We don’t have that information, since these mentions in the New Testament itself are the only sources we have even attesting to their existence at this early date, just as the New Testament documents are the only testimonies we have to the first-century Christian Church.

The Apostle John is traditionally held to have been really old when he died, around the turn of the second century.

The Apostle John is traditionally held to have been really old when he died, around the turn of the second century.

Even more important: how early were these disputes? The first epistle of John (1 John) is believed to be one of the latest documents of the New Testament, written as late as the final decade of the first century. By that time, those who had personal experiences of Jesus had nearly all passed away. Paul’s first epistle to Timothy (1 Timothy) is generally believed to have been written toward the end of Paul’s ministry and life, between A.D. 62 and 67, also nearly a generation after Christ. A setting in which the firsthand witnesses to Jesus’s life and ministry were passing from the scene would have been ripe for the rise of new interpretations and viewpoints.

But of course, the rigorous skeptic would ask, how do we know which is the original viewpoint, and which are the alternative ones? In addition to examining the dating of the extant documents — the oldest texts, especially those written mere decades after Christ’s ministry, having at least the greatest authoritative claim — we should examine the authors of these texts, and question their claims to authority. In a similar way, in judging the reliability of ancient historians, we consider who they were and how they would have obtained their information. Thucydides, for example, is generally accepted as a reliable authority on his subject, he being a contemporary and firsthand participant in the Peloponnesian War.

Valentin, Paul Writing

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (ca. 17th century), by Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632).

To begin, let us consider Paul, the largest target, he being the author of the greater part of the New Testament. It is reasonable to accept that there was in fact a Christian leader named Paul who wrote a series of letters in the first century. It is also reasonable to accept that at least some of the letters we ascribe to Paul were in fact written by Paul. If this weren’t the case, we would have to ask why this Paul character had such authority if he never wrote anything authoritative. It is reasonable to accept, from the fact that his letters were accepted as authoritative, that Paul’s teaching and influence covered a fairly wide geographic area for the time, with Pauline letters being addressed to Christians in places as diverse as Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. We have no reason to question that Paul actually visited these places and taught those Christians in person: otherwise, no one would have accepted his letters as authoritative. These letters, if authentic, can be reasonably dated to the A.D. 50s and 60s, based on internal evidence.

Shakespeare

Or, Shakespeare could have written St. Paul.

Of course, it is conceivable that “Paul” himself could have been an elaborate hoax perpetrated by someone writing in the second or third century, planting and disseminating Pauline letters around the Christian world (by that time vast). Perhaps Paul never existed at all, let alone visited any of the places he is supposed to have visited, and the supposed recipients of his letters never received them at all. ― But this line of reasoning presses “rigorous skepticism” to the point of the ridiculous.

Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch

We know with reasonable certainty that Paul did exist; we know that his letters were disseminated among Christian communities fairly rapidly. Nearly all of the canonical Pauline letters were in circulation and were accepted by Christians by the end of the first century — by the testimony of Ignatius of Antioch, who quoted most of them explicitly in the letters he wrote to Christian communities around Syria and Asia Minor and to Rome. We can draw from Ignatius’s quotations both that he had access to the many New Testament documents he quotes — and probably knew them by memory, since it seems unlikely he would be traveling to his death carrying a full library — and also that the communities to which he was writing would have understood his allusions and their context also, having access to the same documents themselves. Also tellingly, he did not quote or allude to any other documents that were later rejected from the New Testament canon.

So it seems reasonable to conclude that Paul was widely accorded authority by at least some Christians as early as the A.D. 50s and 60s. These Christians were spread over a wide area, to nearly every corner of the world that the Christian message had then advanced — since, at least according to “orthodox” accounts, Paul was the one advancing it. The fact that he was accepted by Christian groups in many places and not by isolated sects is an argument in favor of his authority and reliability as an historical source. Organized, dissenting sects would have had identifiable leaders — just as we know the names of the major proponents of nearly all of the later “heresies.” Here there is no evidence at all of such organized sects during Paul’s lifetime — neither through literature of their own, nor through rigorous opposition that would have been evident in the surviving “orthodox” documents.

[There’s more where that came from! Stay tuned!]

“Rigorously skeptical”: Historical thoughts on the Christian faith

Hans Memling, Christ Giving His Blessing (1481)

Christ Giving His Blessing (1481), by Hans Memling.

[This is a post that ballooned into about three posts when I sat down to write it. So I split it up, rather than giving you far more than anyone wants to read.]

Once again, my plans for what I was going to write about today have been disrupted. I had a heated discussion with a dear friend today that has set me to thinking. My friend is a self-proclaimed atheist, but a former Christian who has been deeply wounded. He is a thinker, a philosopher, and his mind works in ways that mine cannot. But I wanted to do my best to address his questions in a more thoughtful way, not in the heat of a moment.

To preface, I will say that though I’ve had some academic training, I am not an academic. I have not read deeply of the academic historiography of the early Church. I am a man of faith, and my faith informs everything I do. But my friend challenged that the historical claims of the Christian Church do not stand up to a “rigorously skeptical” examination; that they cannot be accepted without presuming that the claims of the Church are true, resulting in a circular argument. I disagree.

Darius the Great

Darius the Great of Persia.

First, what is reasonable to expect in holding historical claims to a “rigorously skeptical” standard? Aren’t there many things in history that we accept as fact based on little and imperfect evidence? My friend has a background in ancient history, and though I’ve dabbled in that some, that has never been my bag; so I admit I am arguing from something I don’t know much about. But don’t we generally accept the narrative of the Persian Wars of Greece given by Herodotus and Xenophon, though neither was a contemporary, or Livy’s account of the early Roman republic, though he only saw the end of it? In the absence of any other testimony, it seems, historians treat theirs with reasonable skepticism, but nonetheless accept them as the best sources we have. Early Christianity and the historical testimonies to it should be held to the same standard.

So let’s take a look at early Christianity. My friend argues, as is widely accepted by secular academics, that there was no Christian orthodoxy in the beginning, and that what we today accept as “orthodoxy” is only the victor of a battle for supremacy among many competing Christian sects. All of my arguments, he challenges, rest on the assumption that the “orthodox” account of early Christian history today is true. He challenges that there are contradictions and inconsistencies in the New Testament that evince this early factiousness.

Codex Vaticanus

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

I accept, with every reasonable textual scholar, that there are certain problems and inconsistencies in the text of the New Testament; but these, I argue, are minor, involving only details and chronologies, and do not affect the substance of any Christian doctrine they teach. These inconsistencies show only that the New Testament documents were written by different people at different times in different places, and that the authors weren’t all in constant communication with each other, to compare their notes and get their facts straight. To me, these inconsistencies are an argument in favor of the historical reliability of the New Testament rather than against it: we have several different people telling a story that is substantially the same.

Doctrinally, the documents of the New Testament demonstrate an even more telling consistency. Despite differences in emphases, each of the half-dozen or so writers of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, James, Jude — even more if one argues that John the Evangelist and John the Presbyter and John the Revelator were different people) expresses the same basic doctrines about Christ: that he was the Jewish Messiah, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies; that he was the divine Son of God, to be identified with God Himself; that he died, was resurrected, and would come again in glory.

[It feels so unsatisfying to cut it off there. But that just gives you something to look forward to tomorrow.]

Work out your own salvation: The Apostle Paul, William Tyndale, and the leaven of a phrase

El Greco, Apostle St. Paul

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

One of the most iconic phrases of the English New Testament, one of the Apostle Paul’s great quotes that has always echoed in my ears growing up, is to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). But what does that even mean?

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Codex Sinaiticus

A leaf from Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest known Greek uncial manuscript of the entire Bible (c. A.D. 330–360).

As a Protestant, I admit I never thought much about it. I guess I had a vague sense of “working something out” with God, the way one negotiates an agreement or a solution — through a process of trial and error, learning and growing as a Christian, to reach a situation that “worked.” If the verse meant anything to me, it was as an encouraging exhortation: Keep on obeying God, and you and God will “work it out.”

As I’ve been growing as a Catholic, this verse has been an indication that there might be some “work” involved in salvation in Paul’s view, as opposed to the sola fide (by faith alone) interpretation that the Protestant Reformers so ardently expressed. It’s been a handy crutch in presenting the Catholic position. “But, Paul said ‘work out your own salvation’!”

But what did Paul really mean? Recently I decided to delve into the Greek in order to explore this. What I found was a little startling.

Here is the Greek (only the bolded portion from above; Greek text from NA27):

. . . μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου τὴν ἑαυτῶν σωτηρίαν κατεργάζεσθε· θεὸς γάρ ἐστιν ὁ ἐνεργῶν ἐν ὑμῖν καὶ τὸ θέλειν καὶ τὸ ἐνεργεῖν ὑπὲρ τῆς εὐδοκίας.

Transliterated into Roman characters, for your benefit:

. . . meta phobou kai tromou tēn heautōn sōtērian katergazesthe, theos gar estin ho energōn en humin kai to thelein kai to energein huper tēs eudokias.

And now broken down:

. . . μετὰ [preposition, with, in the midst of] φόβου [fear] καὶ [and] τρόμου [trembling] τὴν [definite article, accusative singular: goes with σωτηρίαν] ἑαυτῶν [3rd person reflexive pronoun, genitive plural: your own] σωτηρίαν [accusative singular (the direct object, being acted upon): salvation] κατεργάζεσθε [present middle deponent, 2nd person plural imperative: (you) “work out”] · θεὸς [God] γάρ [postpositive particle, for] ἐστιν [3rd person active indicative, impersonal, (it) is] ὁ ἐνεργῶν [present active participle, nominative singular: acting, operating, working, being efficacious] ἐν [preposition, in] ὑμῖν [second person plural personal pronoun, you] καὶ [and (together with other καὶ, both . . . and)] τὸ θέλειν [present active infinitive: to be willing, wish] καὶ [and] τὸ ἐνεργεῖν [present active infinitive, same verb as above: to act, operate, work, be efficacious, effect, execute] ὑπὲρ [preposition, for] τῆς εὐδοκίας [genitive singular, (his) good will].

What startled me is that to “work out” is all contained in the verb κατεργάζομαι. “Work out” is a single action, and “salvation” is the direct object — the object on which the action is performed. But salvation isn’t supposed to be something we act on at all, is it?

The BDAG, the most authoritative lexicon of New Testament Greek, gives four definitions for κατεργάζομαι:

  1. to bring about a result by doing something, achieve, accomplish, do.
    • Romans 7:15-20: For what I do, I do not understand; for I do not practice what I prefer, but I do that thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not prefer, I agree with the Law, that it is good.
    • 1 Corinthians 5:3: . . .  I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.
  2. to cause a state or condition, bring about, produce, create.
    • Romans 4:15: For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
    • Romans 5:3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance  . . .
  3. to cause to be well prepared, prepare someone.
  4. to be successful in the face of obstacles, overpower, subdue, conquer.
    • Ephesians 6:13: Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done [proving victorious over] all, to stand firm.

Of these definitions, the BDAG suggests that the second one, to bring about, produce, create, is the appropriate one for our verse, Philippians 2:12.

The Friberg Analytical Lexicon agrees with the definitions of the BDAG. Similarly, the Louw-Nida Lexicon Based on Semantic Domains suggests that the use of κατεργάζομαι in Philippians 2:12 implies a change of state: “to cause to be, to make to be, to make, to result in, to bring upon, to bring about.” Joseph Henry Thayer's Lexicon (1886; revised 1889), which I still rather like, obsolete though it may be, suggests the Latin efficere for the usage of the word in this verse: “to work out, i.e. to do that from which something results.” St. Jerome's Vulgate translates the word operor, which Lewis and Short defines “To work, produce by working, cause.”

So what does all this mean? It means that “work out” in Philippians 2:12 has a much more active meaning than I formerly supposed. There is agreement between all the lexica I consulted: κατεργάζομαι implies a very strong sense of bringing about, producing a state or condition. The result is that the correct understanding of this verse is that with fear and trembling, we are to bring about, produce, effect our own salvation. This seems startlingly un-Pauline, at least according to the Protestant understanding of Paul’s theology.

William Tyndale

William Tyndale, first translator of the Bible from its original languages into English.

But I should remind my Protestant readers that despite how Luther wanted to read Paul, Paul never once says by faith alone. Paul stresses justification by faith in opposition to the Judaizers, who stressed their works and denied that faith had any role, insisting that salvation in Christ came only by the works of the Jewish Law — that being circumcized would in itself bring salvation. Paul denies that works bring salvation; it is faith, the gift of God, that saves us, not the result of our own works. But Paul never denies that works are also important. He in fact writes of the importance of good works: we are “created for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10). God “will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7). The people of God are to devote themselves to good works (Titus 3:8,14).

And now, by obeying Christ, we are to bring about our own salvation — a command, a strong imperative statement in the Greek. And through our working, it is not our own doing or merits that brings this about, but God who works in us by His grace, both to will (wish, want, prefer) to do good, and to work (to be active, effectual, able to bring about). Though at first it appears unlike Paul for him to say that we produce our own salvation, he is here consistent in reminding us that it is not our works that bring about our salvation, but God working in us. This interpretation is consistent in every way with Roman Catholic doctrine.

But in the English — to work out our own salvation — where does this come from? Given this clear, active meaning of κατεργάζομαι, with so strong a sense of working, producing, effecting, why has nearly every major English Bible translation since the sixteenth century — including Catholic ones — translated this phrase “work out your own salvation”?

Tyndale New Testament title page

The title page to Tyndale’s 1534 edition of the New Testament.

I suspected immediately that this was a Tyndalism — a translation first promulgated by William Tyndale in his 1534 English New Testament, that has such a sonorous ring to it, and that, by way of being assumed into the 1611 King James Version (of which Tyndale’s work makes up about 80%), has become so ubiquitous in the English language that no translator dare change it. Examples of the many other Tyndalisms include “Let there be light,” “gave up the ghost,” “my brother’s keeper,” “it came to pass,” and the nearly universal translation of the Our Father or Lord’s Prayer, which even Roman Catholics pronounce according to the King James translation (“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”). Tyndale also coined many words that have enriched the English language, including “scapegoat,” “Passover,” and “Jehovah.”

A little bit of research confirmed that I was correct. Stepping through the history of English Bible translation:

Wycliffe Bible (1380s): worche ye with drede and trembling youre heelthe
Tyndale Bible (1534): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblynge
Coverdale Bible (1535): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblynge
Matthew Bible (1537): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and trembling
Great Bible (1539): worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblyng
Geneva Bible (1560): make an end of youre owne saluation with feare and trembling
Bishop’s Bible (1568): worke out your owne saluation with feare and tremblyng
King James Version (1611): worke out your owne saluation with feare and trembling
KJV Cambridge Edition (1769): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
Young’s Literal Trans. (1862): with fear and trembling your own salvation work out
Revised Version (1885): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
American Std. Version (1901): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
Revised Standard Version (1946): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
New American Standard (1963): work out your salvation with fear and trembling
New Intl. Version (1978): continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling
New Revised Standard (1989): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
Holman Christian Std. (1999): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling
English Standard Version (2001): work out your own salvation with fear and trembling

Now that’s staying power. With only one slight exception — the overly Calvinistic Geneva Bible, which changed “work out” to “make an end of” — every English Bible translation since Tyndale’s own has left Tyndale’s wording and phrasing of this verse intact.

I have intentionally not included Roman Catholic translations in the list above, to demonstrate Tyndale’s overpowering influence:

Rheims New Testament (1582): with feare and trembling worke your saluation
Challoner Revision (1752): with fear and trembling work out your salvation
New Jerusalem Bible (1985): work out your salvation in fear and trembling
New American Bible (1970–2011): work out your salvation with fear and trembling

Even into the Catholic mind, Tyndale’s leaven worked through the whole batch. Despite the Rheims translators’ initial attempt to escape Tyndale’s shadow — self-consciously avoiding translations that would appear to support Reformation theology, and replacing work out with work, though retaining Tyndale’s feare and trembling — Bishop Challoner reverted the whole thing to Tyndale’s wording. It has stuck ever since.

So why “work out” — a phrase with such an ambiguous meaning? Was Tyndale trying to obscure a phrase that seemed to cast doubt on Protestant theological suppositions? No, apparently not. Rather, “work out” has an archaic usage that is no longer current in today’s English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

work out. II. 6. To bring about, effect, produce, or procure (a result) by labour or effort; to carry out, accomplish (a plan or purpose).

In fact, this is the very meaning of the Greek word. And according to the OED citations, Tyndale’s is the first use of the phrase in this sense on record:

1534 Bible (Tyndale rev. Joye) Phil. ii. 12 Worke out youre awne saluacion with feare and tremblynge.
1600 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 2 i. i. 181 We..Knew that we ventured on such dangerous seas, That if we wrought out life, twas ten to one.
1805 Wordsworth Waggoner iv. 118 When the malicious Fates are bent On working out an ill intent.
1847 Tennyson Princess ii. 75 O lift your natures up:..work out your freedom.

The last noted use of the phrase by this usage is 1874.

Why did Tyndale choose “work out”? There’s no clear answer. Since κατεργάζομαι is a compound of the prefix κατά and the verb ἐργάζομαι (to work, labor), Tyndale may have added the “out” to reflect the prefix; though he did not translate κατεργάζομαι that way anywhere else. He may have been thinking in Latin: recognizing the meaning of the Greek to approximate the action “to effect,” he may have rendered it first efficere (ex + ficere, to work out) and followed accordingly with the English. Or, he may have just liked the way it sounded. He seems to have had a knack for that.

The Tyndalian wording of this verse, as beautiful and iconic as it is, is now archaic, and tends to obscure the meaning of Paul’s words. Paul clearly was saying that through working — though the praise for our works belongs to God alone, by His grace — we effect our salvation.

I have always admired William Tyndale, first when I was a Protestant and still now that I am a Catholic. Not only was he bold and fearless in his determination to bring the Scriptures into the English language — he ultimately gave his life for that cause — but he was brilliant both as a translator and as a wordsmith. As the first translator of the Bible into English from its original languages, Tyndale has no doubt had more impact on the English Bible than any other single person, and has had an impact on the English language itself to rival that of Shakespeare.

Charles Carroll, Catholic Founder

Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Charles Carroll of Carrollton.

Happy Fourth of July! I know I have a good few readers from other places, but here in the United States, the Fourth of July is our Independence Day, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, only one was a Roman Catholic: Charles Carroll of Carrollton, of the colony of Maryland.

Maryland was founded in 1634 by the Lords Baltimore as a safe haven for Catholics during the time of the European wars of religion. Maryland was a leading early proponent of religious toleration, passing the Maryland Toleration Act in 1649, which mandated freedom of worship and prohibited hate speech toward any Christian, the first document in the world to do so — though it only applied to orthodox, Trinitarian Christians, and prosecuted denials of the Christian faith. Religious strife soon spread even to Maryland, though, when only a year later in 1650, Puritans, having overthrown and executed King Charles I in the English Civil War, seized the colony of Maryland, repealed the act, and established a new government prohibiting both Catholicism and Anglicanism (you’ve gotta love the Calvinists). Lord Baltimore regained control of the colony in 1658, and reenacted the Toleration Act.

Thirty years later, the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, in which the Catholic king of England, James II, was deposed by the Protestant William and Mary, was not so glorious for Catholics in Maryland. Puritans, by then a majority in the colony, again seized the opportunity to overcome the Catholic government, in what became known as the “Protestant Revolution” of Maryland. They again revoked the Toleration Act and barred Catholics from worshipping publicly. Over the next decades, the new government gradually stripped Catholics of their civil rights, including the rights to hold public office, vote, or inherit property.

This is the culture in which Charles Carroll (1737–1832) was born and raised. Descending from an old Irish Catholic family, Carroll was known, and signed his name, as “Charles Carroll of Carrollton,” to distinguish himself from his father and grandfather of the same name. Carroll was born illegitimate, as at the time of his birth, his parents were not legally married, in an effort to protect the family estates from the Protestant government’s restrictions on inheritance (they married twenty years later). Carroll was educated in Jesuit schools, first at a secret school in Maryland and then in France. At the behest of his father, he remained in Europe, where he had far greater opportunities as a Catholic, until he was twenty-eight in 1765. He received a thorough classical education, and returned one of the most educated men in America. Carroll’s father granted to him Carrollton, a vast, 17,000-acre estate in Frederick County, Maryland. He became one of the wealthiest planters in Maryland, if not in all the colonies.

Declaration of Independence

Declaration of Independence, by John Trumbull.

Though barred from actively participating in politics, Carroll became increasingly concerned as tensions with Britain mounted in the 1770s. In 1772 he engaged in an anonymous debate against Loyalist Daniel Dulany in the Maryland Gazette, over rising taxes and fees to state officials and Protestant clergy. After his identity became known, Carroll became more and more involved in opposition to British rule. In 1774 he was elected to Maryland’s committee of correspondence, and from then on represented Maryland on both the colonial level and to the other colonies. In 1776 he was elected to the Continental Congress, and though he did not arrive in time for the debate on the Declaration of Independence, he did sign the official document.

Following independence from Britain and the formation of the United States, Carroll served as Maryland’s first United States senator, from 1789 to 1792, when he resigned, preferring to remain in the Maryland State Senate, in which he served until 1800. He was the longest-lived and last living Signer of the Declaration of Independence, passing away in 1832 at the age of 95. His funeral was at the Baltimore Cathedral, the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States, now known as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (or the Baltimore Basilica).

Catholics have a long history of getting the short end of the stick as far as religious liberty is concerned. As a Catholic, Charles Carroll was a leading proponent for liberty and toleration for all. Maryland’s Toleration Act marked an important precedent upon which the religious provisions of the First Amendment were founded. I am thankful today for the sacrifices and labors of our Founding Fathers, especially men like Charles Carroll, who saw religious freedom to be a universal human right.

Our bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom, observed for the past two weeks, has recalled our religious freedoms to my mind ever more vividly, especially as we Catholics again face encroachment upon our freedom to practice our religion. In Father Joe’s homily on Sunday, he pointed out an important distinction that many non-religious people fail to realize: Our freedom to worship, to conduct our liturgy in our private space, is only one part of religious liberty. Our freedom to practice our religion — our freedom to live our lives according to the precepts of our faith — is another matter, every bit as valuable and every bit as essential. It is this freedom that the government is now seeking to abridge.