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

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

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

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

Priests making sacrifice

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

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

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

A. Sacrifice in the New Testament

1. A Sacrifice of Praise

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

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

And Peter calls:

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

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

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

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

2. Jesus’s Sacrifice

Grunewald, Crucifixion, Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zurbaran, Agnus Dei

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. The Eucharist as Sacrifice

1. The Connection between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugolino di Nerio, The Last Supper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moses concludes his covenant

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

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

Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

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

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

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

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

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

2. “Do This In Memory of Me”

Tintoretto, The Last Supper  (1592-1594)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Testimony from Tradition

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

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

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

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

Opposition from Hebrews?

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

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

C. Ministers of the New Covenant

1. Office and Authority

Pope John Paul II New Orleans 1987

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Apostolic Succession

Paul ordaining Timothy.

Paul ordaining Timothy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clement of Rome

Clement of Rome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

Priests, Westminster

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

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

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

Were the churches of the New Testament independent of one another?

The beginning of a series: “How do I know the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded?”

It is a commonplace of Catholic apologetics that we claim that “the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded.” On the other hand, opponents charge that the Catholic Church was in fact founded at some later date, often said to be the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine is a usual suspect for some charge of “invention” or another, or some other arbitrary date. Both these claims are empty without evidence. What is the evidence for the Catholic claim and how can we evaluate it?

Many Churches

Paul Preaching in the Areopagus, Sir James Thornhill

Sir James Thornhill (1675–1734), Paul Preaching in the Areopagus (BBC).

In a world with so many churches, how can we know which is the one Jesus actually founded? Can we even know? Is it even a valid claim at all to say that Jesus founded one Church?

Examining Scripture, Protestants tend to emphasize the apparent independence of the churches in the New Testament: The various apostles fanning out across the world founded churches, not one Church, they say:

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

And [Paul] went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. … So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily. (Acts 15:41, 16:5)

But is it truly good ecclesiology to claim that each individual church was independent of one another? Is this assumption consistent with the rest of the New Testament — or are there assumptions being overlooked by this very premise? I would argue that the very fact of the collective plural — the churches referred to as a group — betrays a unity that countermands this whole argument.

Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you. (Romans 16:16)

All the churches greet the church of Rome with one voice — and one man, Paul, has the authority to speak for them.

Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. (1 Corinthians 7:17)

Likewise, Paul has the same, singular, recognized authority over all the churches. Does their unitary submission to the same leaders not contradict any notion of “independence”?

One Mind

Anthony Van Dyck, The Crucifixion (c. 1622)

Anthony Van Dyck, The Crucifixion (c. 1622) (WikiArt).

Does anything at all in the New Testament really suggest that these individual churches were truly independent of one another? On the contrary, the very fact that we have a unified collection of Christian documents known as the New Testament attests that all the churches were, in the beginning and for some time thence, unified in the same mind and purpose.

In fact, that is exactly what St. Paul admonishes again and again:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Philippians 2:1–2)

I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. (1 Corinthians 1:10)

Being of one mind, in full accord, of the same judgment and same love: this requires a constant, conscious, and active agreement, both within churches and without: a guiding of one church to another, a submission of one’s independence and a commitment to communion.

Next time: “One Body in Christ”

“He taught them as one having authority”

Hi, I’m back in school now and still trying to organize my time. I haven’t had much of a chance to sit down and write, especially not about any large subjects; but in today’s Mass readings, an idea hit me forcefully that I think I might be able to comment on quickly. This will be an exercise in brevity, both of length and time.

Jesus teaching in the synagogue

I’ve always been struck by today’s Gospel reading (Mark 1:21–28): “The people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority.” Jesus was something completely different, something no one had ever seen before. Not since Moses himself, the codifier of the Law, had anyone spoken with such authority on the Law and the mind of God toward human behavior.

He stood in vivid contrast to the so-called authorities of the day, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the scribes and scholars of the Law. The only authority they ever offered was their own, as they disputed endlessly on the interpretation and application of the Law. They had sola scriptura: Scripture alone, the divine and authoritative Word of God, in the Law and the Prophets — and yet they did not have authority. For all their scholastic eminence and merits, they could offer only disagreement and division. Jesus did not come to give God’s people more of the same: another holy book or another teacher or even another prophet. He came to give them something radically new and different.

Jesus spoke with authority, such that there was no question, dispute, or ambiguity about what He meant. And he gave that same authority to His Apostles (Matthew 10:1, 40; Luke 10:16), to speak and to teach with His voice. And the Apostles gave their successors, the bishops, that same authority to teach (1 Timothy 4:11, etc.). And this is the same authority with which the Magisterium of the Church teaches today.

By contrast, see the state of teaching in the Protestant churches. When a preacher stands up to teach, he may speak with self-assurance; he may speak from the divine, authoritative Word of God; but he gives an interpretation; he does not speak with authority. In the Protestant world, there are only endless disputes concerning doctrine and interpretation. Sola scriptura — “Scripture alone” — without prophets, without a Christ — is all the Jewish people had before Jesus came. And He came to deliver us from that chaos and confusion, as surely as He came to deliver us from sin and death. The Protestant proposition seeks to return the Church to that: to deny and reject the very authority that made Jesus Christ’s revelation so radical and so powerful a revolution.

The Sunday Obligation: “Missing Mass is a Mortal Sin”?

Van Gent, Institution of the Eucharist (c. 1474)

Justus van Gent, Institution of the Eucharist (c. 1474)

A common charge against the Catholic Church that I’ve heard from a number of opponents is against the fact that the Church obligates her children to attend Mass each Sunday and on other declared holy days of obligation, and especially against the fact that “it’s a mortal sin to miss Mass.” Supposedly this is an example of the flagrant and tyrannical legalism of the Church, that she would dare to assert authority over how Christians spend their weekends and even dare to declare, arbitrarily, what is sin and what is not.

I’ve always had a simple answer to this challenge, but never had any particular scriptural support to cite. But today in my private Bible study I happened upon it: a clear statement of the mind of God on the matter, and what has always been the mind of the Church. But first, addressing the objections is in order.

Not Dictating Sin, but Labeling Sin

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Batoni

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

First, it’s important to realize that the Church does not have the authority to dictate what is and isn’t sin, beyond what God Himself holds. The Church’s authority and duty is to teach the truth she has received from Scripture and Tradition. When the Church teaches that something is a sin, it is not arbitrary: it’s because something about that act or behavior objectively places one in opposition to God and His order and plan for us.

It is that opposition, not anything arbitrary, that makes an act a mortal sin. The Church teaches that in order to be a mortal sin, an act must be of a grave matter, objectively opposed to God’s order, and done with full knowledge and deliberate consent (CCC 1857). A sin is a sin because it is those things, not because the Church declares it sinful; and yes, there are certainly cases, when an act is done in ignorance or against one’s will, that it is not a sin after all. The moral teachings of Scripture and of the Church are there to guide and to guard, to direct God’s people to a safe path; it is only God who judges. The Church declares something a sin not to condemn the sinner, but to warn him, to correct him, to save him.

Those who object to the idea of mortal sin in the first place ought to read my recent series on grace and justification and “falling from grace.” Does mortal sin — and does missing Mass — cause a Christian to “lose his salvation”? No — not in the terms that Protestants understand such things. Mortal sin, for a Christian, is more akin to stumbling into mud and hurting oneself than being cast out from the Lord’s kingdom.

“Missing Mass is a Mortal Sin”?

Jesus and the Eucharist

So, “missing Mass is a mortal sin.” Well — it’s not quite that simple. Yes, I know any one of you can dig up quotations from popes, teachers, catechisms, that state in plain terms, “missing Mass is a mortal sin” — when taken out of context. But I am here to say, as anything more than a topical reading would reveal, that there is more to the matter than such a flat declaration. Is simply missing Mass, not going to church on a Sunday, for whatever reason, “grave matter”? Many in today’s western (largely Protestant) world — where church attendance has become casual and inconsequential — would say no, of course not; it is an optional and personal decision. But the more important question to ask is, why did you miss Mass? Was it intentional and deliberate? Could it have been avoided? Did you know better?

There are plenty of cases — more than I could possibly name — when missing Mass would not be a sin. Were you elderly and homebound, or even simply sick in bed? Did you have to work, and there was no possible way around it? Were you traveling and not in a place or situation where you could reasonably find a Mass to attend? Were you caring for a new baby or a sick loved one? Did you have other, important family or social obligations that could not be missed or rescheduled? Or did you simply choose, deliberately and intentionally, not to go to Mass? Did you decide that there was something else, a football game or holiday party, that you would rather go to instead? Did you simply not feel like it, out of anger or spite or even apathy? Any priest would tell you that in the former cases, and many more, you were not at fault; the latter are a different situation entirely.

Missing the Lord’s Banquet

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Alterpiece: Adoration of the Lamb

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Alterpiece: The Adoration of the Lamb (c. 1432).

Jesus gave several parables in His preaching to the kingdom of God being a great banquet or feast (Matthew 22:1–14, Luke 14:7–24, cf. Revelation 19:6–9). Throughout His ministry, He invited the lost to dine with Him (e.g. Luke 15:2). The Mass, the Eucharist, is the Lord’s Supper — the great feast He has prepared for us, at great cost to Himself, and invited each of us to come and dine with Him (John 6:35; cf. Revelation 3:20), promising to feed us richly with the bread of life, to reward us with the great bounty that awaits, eternal life, and to share with us the most intimate fellowship and communion with Him (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16). Missing Mass is more than simply “deciding not to go to church today”; to deliberately choose not to go to Mass is to refuse the Lord’s invitation, to say to Him that there are more important things to you. This is the mortal sin: not merely “missing Mass” — which, by itself, might not be a sin at all — but the deliberate rejection of the Lord.

And there’s more, a striking biblical support for this teaching, that I was stunned to discover today.

Offering the Lord’s Offering at the Appointed Time

Marc Chagall, "The Israelites are eating the Passover Lamb" (1931)

Marc Chagall, Les Israélites mangent l’Agneau de la Pâque (“The Israelites are eating the Passover Lamb”), 1931 (WikiArt).

Of course, as everyone knows, we are to “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8) — and, barring the objections of “Seventh-Day” Christians and some “Hebrew Roots” proponents (which I will address another time), most Christians generally accept the traditional teaching of the Church, that from apostolic times Christians have transferred the Old Testament Sabbath obligation to Sunday in honor of our Lord’s Resurrection. But today I found an even more explicit statement of the Church’s teaching on the Sunday obligation, in the ordinances of the Israelites concerning the Passover:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Let the people of Israel keep the Passover at its appointed time. On the fourteenth day of this month, in the evening, you shall keep it at its appointed time; according to all its statutes and all its ordinances you shall keep it.” …

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, If any man of you or of your descendants is unclean through touching a dead body, or is afar off on a journey, he shall still keep the Passover to the Lord. … But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, yet refrains from keeping the Passover, that person shall be cut off from his people, because he did not offer the Lord’s offering at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin. (Numbers 9:1–3, 9–10, 13)

Not only is Sunday the fulfillment of the commandment to “remember the Sabbath,” but the Mass is the fulfillment of the Passover, “for Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). To the degree that the Israelites kept the Passover, which marked their liberation from human bondage — that much, and more, should Christians venerate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, which sets us free from darkness unto life!

Similar to the Church’s teaching, it is only the man who, despite being perfectly well and able, deliberately refrains from keeping the Passover who is to be cut off. But if failing to keep the Passover was such a grave matter for the Israelites, is it not understandable that refusing to honor the Passover of the Lord, refusing to offer the Lord’s offering — ourselves — at the appointed time, is a grave matter for the Church? And yet the Lord, and the Church, is merciful: for this and every other sin, there is forgiveness and healing and a welcoming back to the banquet.

The Prior Authority of Tradition

This originated as an off-the-cuff reply this morning, in this thread. I thought it came out rather well.

James Tissot, The Lord's Prayer, 1896

The Lord’s Prayer (1896), by James Tissot (WikiArt.org).

I think you’re overlooking the very crux of the matter. “Sola scriptura” is more than just a claim that Scripture is an infallible standard: it’s a claim that it is the only infallible standard. And if we stand back at A.D. 50 — there is then no New Testament to hold as any sort of infallible standard. What is this “Scripture” and what is this “Tradition” we are referring to? “Scripture,” to the earliest Christians, was the Old Testament. And the message of Christ was entirely oral. And Christians accepted this message as infallible — because it was the Word of God — the word of the Word Made Flesh Himself.

So from the very beginning, Christians accepted a message and teaching in addition to Scripture. And this is “Tradition” — what was handed down by Christ to His Apostles and by the Apostles to their disciples — and it was infallible, and it preceded the New Testament. Why were the writings of the Apostles and their disciples enshrined as “Scripture” in the first place? Because they preserved in writing the word and teachings of Christ and His Apostles, the literal Word of God, that had been preserved and passed down orally for several decades. Why were the letters of Paul considered infallible and held as Scripture? Because the teachings of Paul himself, orally and in person, were first considered infallible. The very authority of the New Testament depends on the prior authority of the word of Jesus and the Apostles, and on this authority continuing as that word was communicated to the next generations of Christians orally — otherwise why should the Gospels of Mark and of Luke — who are believed to have been disciples of the Apostles who did not witness the earthly life and ministry of Christ firsthand, but who recorded their accounts from the teachings of their teachers — be held as authoritative?

James Tissot, The Sermon on the Mount, 1896

The Sermon on the Mount (1896), by James Tissot (WikiArt.org).

So the claim that “there was no infallible ‘Tradition’ for the Early Church” fails on its face: there was, and must be. Yes, we believe the New Testament was “God-breathed” by the authority of the Holy Spirit, much as God spoke through the Old Testament prophets. But if we believe that Jesus Christ was God Incarnate, that He, the Word of God, walked among us and gave His Word to men, and that the authors of the New Testament were firsthand and secondhand witnesses to this Word — then we must believe that that Word itself, spoken by God Himself, was authoritative and infallible, and that it did not cease to be authoritative and infallible when it was the Apostles and their disciples repeating it and setting it to writing. The alternative is absurd: Did the Word of Jesus carry no authority until decades later, when it was “God-breathed” by the Holy Spirit to men who did not even know Him? Did Paul, and Peter, and John, and James, not teach by the authority of the Holy Spirit in their oral teachings, but only have His authority when they set those teachings to writing?

Fra Angelico, St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark

St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark, by Fra Angelico (c. 1433) (Wikipedia)

So the Protestant claim of “sola scriptura” is not merely a claim that “Scripture is an infallible standard”: it must somehow explain how Scripture became the only infallible standard; how the Word of God spoken by Jesus and passed down by the Apostles ceased to be the Word of God except in the parts of it that were put to writing. We have in the New Testament Church an advantage that the Old Testament people of God never had: where the Old Testament prophets spoke and wrote only by the revelation of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and writers of the New Testament spoke and wrote from their personal encounters of the Word of God Made Flesh. To limit the Word of God to only what is written is to call into question the essentially public witness of the Church: to say that only those writers, in their writings, could speak with the authority of God, who experienced a private revelation of words “God-breathed” by the Holy Spirit.

Le Sueur, The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus

The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus (1649), by Eustache Le Sueur.

So no, once again, the onus is on Protestants to demonstrate why anyone in the Early Church would have reverted to “Scripture alone” as an infallible standard, after the Word of God Made Flesh had lived among them and taught them, and after His Apostles and their disciples continued to pass on those teachings. We see no note of “Tradition” in the earliest of the Church Fathers because they took such teachings for granted: what we see instead is the personal testimony that “Peter and Paul gave their witness among us and “I sat at the feet of the blessed Polycarp as he recalled hearing John share stories of Our Lord”. This, though it was not called by that name until late in the second century, is “Tradition”; and it is up to Protestants to demonstrate why the Early Church should no longer have held it as authoritative (for it is plain that they did).

Baptism with the Holy Spirit or Fire?

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

Titian, Pentecost

Pentecost (c. 1545), by Titian.

In my last post on Baptism, a commenter raised an important question that I had overlooked: When John prophesied that the Messiah would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire,” did he refer to an efficacious Sacrament of Baptism in water, by which believers would be immersed in the Holy Spirit and filled with His fire; or was this merely a figure for the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, with no implications for the Christian Sacrament? In short: Is Water Baptism the “Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” prophesied by John?

I conclude that “Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” refers to an efficacious Water Baptism — but the fire of Pentecost itself is also an image of this. These events are essentially connected. It was the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, manifested in tongues of fire and miraculous signs, that most visibly marks the greater miracle that coincided that day spiritually: The spiritual regeneration the Spirit wrought in the waters of Baptism; the washing away of sins, and the burial of the sinful man in Christ’s Death and Resurrection in His new life. Certainly it is this redemption and rebirth, the greatest work of Christ, to which John referred in his prophecy. The charisms of the Holy Spirit in tongues and wonders are only a visible effusion of the fire within.*

* This is reminiscent of the Pentecostal doctrine I grew up with. In fact, it is a plank of the “fundamental truths” of the Assemblies of God that the charism of speaking in tongues is the initial physical evidence that a believer has been fully immersed in the Holy Spirit (“baptized in the Holy Spirit”).

There are several key verses that point to this interpretation, that necessarily connect John’s prophecy to Christian Baptism. Prior to His Ascension, the Lord told the Apostles:

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

Baptism of Christ (c. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4–5)

Certainly this is — and the Apostles understood it as — a promise of the descent and outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They thus entered the Upper Room to pray, and then:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1–4)

And it followed that all those who came to believe were commanded to repent and be baptized in water (Acts 2:38).

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

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

But the prophecy of John and of the Lord were not limited to this. For after the Holy Spirit came to Cornelius and the Gentiles, Peter reported to the other Apostles and brethren:

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:15–18)

Peter specifically relates the falling of the Holy Spirit on these Gentiles to His falling on them at Pentecost — which was prophesied by Our Lord’s prophecy, and before that, John’s. The gift He gave to [the Apostles] was the Holy Spirit; and He has here given it also to the Gentiles. But note the key here: In this passage, the gift of the Holy Spirit promised in the prophecy is definitively connected with repentance unto life — that is, with salvation. And in the initial narration of the story, that repentance unto life was marked by Baptism:

While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:44–48)

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore (WikiPaintings).

Repentance unto life: John preached a Baptism of repentance, but Christ’s Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire — also marked by repentance and a washing away of sins (Acts 2:38, 22:16) — brought new life (John 3:3–5). It is with this same language of immersion into life that St. Paul described Baptism:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. (Romans 6:3–8)

“Sola Scriptura” is in the Bible? Thoughts on the Canon and Interpretation of Scripture

The following is a response to John Bugay’s review of Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books by Michael J. Kruger, in which John announces, “Attention Roman Catholics: ‘Sola Scriptura’ is in the Bible.” It proved too long for his comment box, so I thought I would put it in full here.

Hi again, John. Thank you for pointing out this review. I haven’t read this book yet, but thanks to a recent Amazon giftcard from my brother (also named John), I intend to give it top priority.

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

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

Catholics are “helpless” to interpret Scripture without the Church?

I’d like to respond first to this paragraph above that stuck out to me like a sore thumb:

To be sure, some Roman Catholics pay some lip service to Scripture. It’s “in there”, among the legs of the stool. But in practice, for Roman Catholics, the Bible has no intrinsic authority as the Word of God. That is, even though God may speak, still God’s very Word is helpless to communicate its message without the “interpretation” of the Roman Catholic Church. …

Speaking of “caricatures”: This is a rather crude one, and flatly contradictory to the Church’s own teachings on Scripture. I’d encourage you to read the whole of Chapter III from Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation; but for here, a few quotes:

“Since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words. …

“In Sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous “condescension” of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, “that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adapting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature.” For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.” (Excerpted from Dei Verbum 12, 13)

Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council, assembled in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Does giving guidance and direction to “interpreters” in how to “see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us,” “expressed in human language … like human discourse,” really suggest the idea to you that to a Catholic, “God’s very word is helpless to communicate its message”? Surely you are aware that the magisterium of the Church has actually given authoritative interpretations of a relatively minuscule portion of the whole corpus of Scripture. Do Catholics, then, consider the rest of God’s Word in Scripture, where the Church has not spoken, “helpless” to communicate to them? Are Catholics “helpless” to read and interpret Scripture for themselves? Like so many Protestants — and like I did myself, when I too was a Protestant — you seem to mistake the role of the Church’s magisterium for that of a dictator rather than a teacher. It is a poor teacher who dictates every rote fact to her student but never teaches him to think or function for himself, and it is a poor student who never learns anything more than to parrot his teacher’s answers! The Church’s role and mission is to guide and raise up healthy disciples of Christ, not blind, mindless, and helpless sheep. Like a good teacher, the magisterium teaches not only divinely-revealed truths, but approved principles, methods, and guidelines: and within those guidelines, the Catholic exegete is equipped and encouraged to listen to and interpret God’s Word for himself. The Church has spoken authoritatively to teach the truth of the Gospel as Jesus charged, particularly in scriptural matters where uncertainty has arisen; but the Catholic believer is free and entitled to his own opinion in any matter on which the Church has not given an interpretation.

John Calvin, by Titian

John Calvin, by Titian (This blog). I am thrilled to find this! I had no idea Titian painted Calvin! I love it when my favorite people cross paths!

Protestants are “helpless” to have any certainty in interpreting Scripture

I would submit, actually — speaking from my own experience — that the Protestant exegete is absolutely helpless to arrive at any meaningful certainty or confidence regarding the interpretation of Scripture. For all the talk of “due use of ordinary means” — the man out to sea with a boat-full of “ordinary means” is nonetheless out to sea. “Ordinary means” (e.g. lexica, grammars, commentaries) are nonetheless human means; and my “sufficient understanding” is nonetheless a human understanding. If, by my fully-informed, “sufficient understanding,” I disagree with the “sufficient understanding” of someone else whose faculties and authorities I respect — which is bound to happen, and obviously has — how can I have any confidence at all that I have the correct and proper understanding? It is arrogance and hubris — an exaltation of of my own human understanding and that of others — to assert, as I’ve seen so many Protestants, particularly in the Reformed camp, assert, that my human understanding is the only one that “anyone in his proper mind” could come to. On what is such certainty based, other than prideful self-aggrandizement and self-assurance?

As an academic, and a human one, I must accept that other reasonable people can disagree with me and arrive at different, and reasonable, conclusions than mine. And regardless of how convinced I may be of mine, I must always accept that because my reasoning and interpretation are human and uncertain, so is my conclusion. This is not the character of the Christian teaching I witness in Scripture: which was taught authoritatively by divinely-appointed Apostles and teachers, and accepted as the direct Word of God Himself. There is no indication in Scripture of this Word being submitted to “interpretation” or “deduction” or “ordinary means” or “sufficient understanding”: if there were any doctrinal question, the resort was to the judgment of these authoritative teachers, not to common, human interpretation of the message’s meaning. And when these teachers spoke, their voice was clear, authoritative, and certain: and this is a certainty I do not find today in the Protestant paradigm, nor can I find it in any degree of smug self-assurance of my own reasoning.

Codex Sinaiticus

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

Is “Sola Scriptura” in Scripture?

What I also do not find in Scripture, despite your assurance that it is there, is the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Now, it is entirely possible that I am one of those who caricature that position, and if that is the case, I humbly ask you to correct me. But by the Protestant teaching of sola scriptura itself, as I find it presented in the Westminster Confession, “all things necessary for [God’s] own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture”; and, “nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men” — in other words (and if I am in possession of a caricature, it surely must be in this understanding): all doctrine to be believed by the Church is either plainly stated in Scripture, or implied by necessary consequence; and no doctrine can be added from any source to what is plainly stated or necessarily implied in Scripture. The problem is, I cannot for the life of me find these doctrines either “expressly set down [or] by necessary consequence [implied]” in Scripture. How, then, can sola scriptura be said to be in Scripture? And how can it not be self-refuting if, as a “necessary” doctrine taught by Protestants, it can’t be found in Scripture? I wrote a recent post on these questions. I would appreciate it if you read it and gave it an honest critique.

Gutenberg Bible

The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible. (Wikipedia)

The canon of Scripture: “Self-authenticating”?

Regarding the canon: As I said in my other comment, you pounced on my one throwaway comment out of context and ignored the rest of my statements. For the sake of reference, let me paste a little of what I said there:

As Catholic apologists often present, Protestants cannot appeal to the authority of Scripture alone without first accepting the canon of Scripture as declared by the Church — and this is true. But is it that declaration of the canon that makes those texts scriptural, for a Catholic? Before any formal declaration of the canon of the Scripture, were Christians unable to appeal to Scripture? No, of course not — because such declaration defined the canon; it did not bestow some “divinely inspired” status on texts otherwise presumed to be human.

(For that matter, the Church for the most part declared a truth that had already been accepted sensu fidei fidelium for centuries: the canon was only defined for the sake of a few books whose scriptural authority was disputed. The canonicity of the majority of books was a self-evident truth to most Christians. This does not mean that the canon as a whole was “self-authenticating” — it certainly wasn’t.)

As I made clear there, I completely agree that with regard to most of the books of the scriptural canon, the books’ divine inspiration, apostolic origin, and scriptural nature were readily, at an early date, and universally accepted. But this idea of unanimous consensus and immediate acceptance certainly can’t be applied to all the now-canonical books of Scripture, nor to the conception of a unified, universal “canon.” Consider, for example, 2 Peter, which by all appearances, nobody prior to Origen and Eusebius in the third century had ever heard of, and they considered its authenticity and inspiration doubtful. Or, books such as 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, or the Epistle of Barnabas, which some included among their early compilations of Scripture, such as Codex Sinaiticus, and other Church Fathers quoted from as scriptural authority. Or, consider that no sooner than Protestant sentiments were breathed, the so-called “self-authenticating” canon of Scripture was open again to question: Luther himself designed to dismiss the Epistle of James, as well as Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. Did those books not “self-authenticate” to him? Or was his judgment not in accord with those “of proper mind”? And of course, Luther succeeded in excising seven books of the Old Testament that had previously been declared canonical. And Protestant scholars ever since have considered the canon “fallible” and seen it fit to question the authenticity and canonicity of various books. And yet you insist that the canon is “self-authenticating” and rests on something more authoritative than fallible human reason and judgment? The very facts of Protestant history contradict this statement.

The fact that Protestant apologists so easily gloss over with regard to the canon is the plain fact that, regardless of any “self-authentication,” the traditional canon declared by the Catholic Church is the starting point, and (with the exception of the Old Testament deuterocanon) usually the ending point, even for Protestants today. It’s easy to declare that one knows the answer when it was declared by someone else centuries ago. Whether they like it or not, Protestants do inevitably depend on the Church’s declared canon, epistemologically: One can’t very well un-know what is already known and accepted; and any argument about whether or not one could have known it otherwise is a moot quibble. And yet, given the fact that Christians questioned and doubted a number of scriptural books both before the Church’s declaration of a universal canon and after Protestants denied the Church, I tend to doubt that anyone ever really had certainty as to a complete and closed canon without the Church’s declaration — or would have any today. I observe that putting five Protestants in a room usually results in six or seven opinions, on any given matter: so I very much doubt that, if the canon hadn’t already been declared as a starting point, Protestants could have reached any meaningful agreement at all concerning it. Likewise for Christology, the Trinity, and every other doctrine hammered out by the toil and tears of centuries of early Christians whose heritage Protestants take for granted.

It seems to me that so much of Protestant rhetoric is aimed at dismissing Catholic claims of the Catholic Church being an authoritative interepreter and guide to Scripture with one hand, while with the other advancing the thesis that the individual, fallible believer has access to some other, concrete, authoritative and infallible interpretation of Scripture — one that, apparently, is self-evident and “self-authenticating” from Scripture itself and Scripture alone, to “anyone of proper mind.” But one can’t hold both at once. Scripture does not interpret itself, and submitting it to fallible human reason by necessity yields a fallible and uncertain human interpretation.

God bless you for your thought on this matter, and may His peace be with you!

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.

Was Peter the First Pope? A Comprehensive Response

St. Peter

Friends, here’s a very detailed post I’ve been working on, answering as comprehensively as I could, from Scripture and history, a question often asked by Protestants: Was Peter really the first pope? I’ve been working hard on this for a couple of weeks, so I hope you enjoy it. If anyone has any further questions or objections, please feel free to throw them at me.

The Faith of Abraham

The post I meant to make before I was distracted by Luther.

Rembrandt. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1635.

Rembrandt. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1635.

This Lent I’ve been re-reading the Pentateuch, since the last time I read it was before I was Catholic and before I had the benefit of Catholic Bible commentaries or an elementary knowledge of the Hebrew language. In reading the story of Abraham in Genesis, I got to thinking about the nature of Abraham’s faith:

“And [Abraham] believed the Lord; and [the Lord] reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)

Justified by Faith

The Apostle Paul prominently appeals to this verse in his discourses on the doctrine of justification in his epistles to the Galatians and Romans (Galatians 3:6, Romans 4:3). It is an especially important verse to the Protestant concept of imputation, the idea that when a sinner comes to faith in Christ, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the sinful believer, “covering” his sins like a cloak rather than actually transforming him; that the righteousness of Christ is credited to his account by a forensic, legal declaration only, such that he is considered “righteous” by God’s juridical reckoning on account of Christ’s righteousness, despite God still seeing the sin that fills his life. Per Luther’s argument, even “a little spark of faith,” a “weak” or “imperfect” faith, the “firstfruits” of believing in Christ, was sufficient to bring about this imputation, counting a sinner righteous once and for all.

Marc Chagall. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1966.

Marc Chagall. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1966.

In Paul’s context, he argues that Abraham was counted righteous before God not because of any works he performed, but because of his faith in God’s promises. And, it’s true, both in the Hebrew of Genesis and the Greek of Paul’s letters, the verb translated “reckoned” is one of reckoning or perception: Abraham’s faith was counted as righteousness.

But then, it begs the question: if Abraham’s faith was imputed to him as righteousness, and this imputation is analogous to a believer’s justification by faith in Christ, what kind of faith did Abraham have? Was it a “weak” or “imperfect” faith? Did the imputation to Abraham of righteousness that followed his faith belie and cover an otherwise sinful state in the man? And, once this faith was imputed to Abraham as righteousness, was he then “counted as righteous” from then on, he being unalienably in God’s favor from that point forward? If the faith of Abraham and its imputation to him as righteousness is an analogy to the justification of a Christian believer, then we should expect both the faith and the imputation to be similar.

A Total Commitment

It’s clear, however, that the faith of Abraham that was counted as righteousness was not an weak or imperfect, not an initial and insecure belief in God’s promises, as Luther would present, but instead a total commitment of his life and his destiny to God’s plan. The reference to Abraham’s faith being reckoned as righteousness occurred only after he had obeyed God and left his home far behind for a distant land. And his position before God was not that of a lost and abject sinner, but of a man who had dedicated himself in faith to total obedience to God’s commands. If his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness, then surely it was because wholly committing himself in faith to God’s promise was a righteous thing to do.

Josef Molnar. Abraham's Journey. 1850.

Josef Molnar. Abraham’s Journey. 1850.

An Active Faith

And was Abraham’s reputation as righteous then permanent and irrevocable, because of his singular act of faith? Was he then forevermore in God’s favor, to be considered blameless even if he should fall away and reject God’s promises? In fact, God made a covenant with Abraham, binding Abraham to a set obligations.

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:9–10).

By the nature of a covenant, God’s promises to Abraham were contingent on Abraham’s remaining faithful to it. Abraham continued to be counted as righteous because he continued to keep his faith with God. In fact, we find very clearly, elsewhere in Scripture, that Abraham’s faith was considered righteous because it was an active faith:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:21–24).

Caravaggio. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1603.

Caravaggio. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1603.

The Works of Torah

What, then, was Paul talking about when he said that Abraham was justified “by faith … apart from works”? What “works” was Paul rejecting, “that none should boast”? It’s clear from Paul’s context that he refers very specifically to the works of the Law — νόμος (nomos), which in a Jewish context, referred almost exclusively to the Torah (the word θεσμός [thesmos] being the more common word in Greek for human laws, rules, rites, or precepts):

The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the Law but through the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:13).

In particular, the work of Torah with which Paul is most concerned is circumcision, which in the case of Abraham, had not even been commanded yet, when “he believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” In Paul’s context, circumcision was being preached by the Judaizers as a necessity for salvation in Christ. In other words, Christ was the Messiah of the Jews, and to become a follower of Christ, per their argument, one must first become a Jew. Not so, said Paul:

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith (Romans 3:28–30).

With a Faith Like Abraham

What Paul is saying, then, is that to inherit the covenant promises of God, one does not have or be a descendant of Abraham according to the flesh, either by blood or by circumcision (Romans 9:8). Rather, it is the children of the promise, who follow in the faith of Abraham — with a faith like Abraham — who inherit: a total commitment of one’s life and destiny; a placing of all one’s faith and hope in God’s promises; a faith active in love (Galatians 5:6).