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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does sola scriptura come from? A begged question

Calvin with books

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

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

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

Perspicuously taught?

Scripture illuminated

Scripture was illuminated a long time before Protestants came along.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke writes, in the Acts of the Apostles:

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

Paul to the Bereans

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

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

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

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

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

Paul ordaining Timothy

Paul ordaining Timothy bishop of Ephesus.

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

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

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

True Scriptural Authority

The Council of Trent

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

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

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

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

Sola scriptura is self-refuting

Martyrdom of Ignatius

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch

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

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

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

Duccio, The Last Supper (c. 1311)

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

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

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

St. Clement of Rome

St. Clement of Rome.

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

Codex Sinaiticus

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

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

Major claims of this “Great Apostasy” thesis include:

    The Council of Nicaea

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

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

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

  3. Idol worship?

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

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

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

  6. Cybele

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

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

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

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

  10. Spanish Inquisition

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

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

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

  13. Chained Bible

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

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

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

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.

On the so-called “Jerusalem Tomb of St. Peter”

James Tissot, Jesus Wept

Jesus Wept, by James Tissot (1836–1902).

The past few days, since Pope Francis put some of the relics of St. Peter on display, my blog hits have spiked again. A number of news outlets picked up images from my posts on the Tomb of St. Peter in Rome and linked back here. And this topic continues to fascinate the public as it always has (those posts are by far my most popular) — because, I reckon, the public is just fascinated by bones. Especially long-buried bones. Especially mysterious, even controversial bones. And about that controversy: Coming from the camp of the very same anti-Catholics who seek to argue that St. Peter was never in Rome, there is a claim floating around of a supposed tomb of St. Peter discovered in Jerusalem in 1953 which, if known, would undermine the whole foundation of the Catholic Church and expose the Vatican as a fraud, etc.

F. Paul Peterson, author of this tract.

F. Paul Peterson (center), author of this tract.

There’s one problem, though: the claim itself is a fabrication. The linked article is taken from the pages of a 1971 anti-Catholic tract, self-published by one F. Paul Peterson of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and sold from his home. It is poorly written and rife with factual errors (e.g. the Saracens “never made it to Rome”), unfounded accusations, and unsubstantiated claims. In a tract which purports to provide solid evidence of the burial of the Apostle Peter in Jerusalem, the author actually provides little real evidence other than his own testimony that various people, including a number of well known archaeologists and even Pope Pius XII, agree with him regarding his remarkable discovery and its implications. This is little more than a baseless screed like so much of the anti-Catholic literature out there, akin to Chick tracts and even making similar claims. I normally would not waste my time in responding, but for my concern that this web page is among the top hits on Google for the “tomb of St. Peter.” Anti-Catholics will believe anything — but for anyone out there who is honestly seeking answers, I do not want them to be misled.

For anyone who wants to critically examine this claim of a supposed tomb of Peter in Jerusalem, and the claims of the Catholic Church, here are a few points to consider — just a few of the major problems with this article:

  1. The author claims repeatedly that there is “no evidence in either Scripture or history” that Peter was ever in Rome — but clearly either he has not read much history, or he is willfully distorting the truth. I have repeatedly provided evidence, from both Scripture and history. And if one finds Scripture less than explicit, the historical testimony is well documented and compelling.

    In fact, there is a unanimous historical tradition that Peter died and was buried in Rome (from Latin trado, trans + do, “to hand over” or “hand down”) — meaning not something vague and “fickle” as Peterson alleges, but attested fact handed down by generation after generation of writers, dating with certainty to the early second century, in all likelihood to within a few years of Peter’s death — and not by “Roman” writers, but by partisans of the Churches of Antioch (e.g. Ignatius), Alexandria (e.g. Clement), Carthage (e.g. Tertullian), and many other scattered places, who would have had no reason to fabricate facts in Rome’s favor. Meanwhile there is no tradition, no testimony, absolutely none, that Peter remained in Jerusalem following the events of the New Testament and died there; no record or attestation or claim that Peter’s tomb ever existed in Jerusalem until this supposed “discovery” came out of nowhere (and in fact never really went anywhere: Peterson’s tract has no doubt had thousands more readers on the Internet than it ever had in his lifetime). While Christians the world over celebrated the tombs and relics of martyrs scattered all over the Mediterranean world and beyond — in some cases no doubt inventing them — no one ever claimed that Peter was in Jerusalem.

    Peterson makes repeated statements that are manifestly false, but after reading the piece in depth, I do believe the man is genuine — genuinely ignorant and misled. It being the days before the Internet, I can forgive him for not having ready access to facts; but even today, facts do not get in the way of anti-Catholic delusions.

  2. Herein, lies the greatest proof that Peter never was a Pope, and never was in Rome, for if he had been, it would have certainly been proclaimed in the New Testament. History, likewise, would not have been silent on the subject, as they were not silent in the case of the Apostle Paul. Even the Catholic history would have claimed the above as a fact and not as a fickle tradition.1 To omit Peter as being Pope and in Rome (and the Papacy) would be like omitting the Law of Moses or the Prophets or the Acts of the Apostles from the Bible.

    1 N.B. History is not silent and we do claim this as fact. —JTR
  3. He alleges throughout the piece that there has been a conspiracy to “[put] a smoke screen around the truth” that St. Peter is in fact buried in Jerusalem, reaching to the highest levels of the Catholic hierarchy, to Pope Pius XII; that there are “secrets” in the Vatican that somehow only he is privy to. He envisions himself as the hero who will bring the “truth” to the world:

    Having succeeded for so long in keeping ‘this thing quiet,’ … they [Catholics] were off guard when a fellow at that time came along who appeared harmless but persistent. Little did they know that this fellow would publish the news everywhere. Their position in the world is shaky enough without this discovery becoming generally known.

  4. Peterson at sepulcher

    Peterson again (right), at the Dominus Flevit necropolis.

  5. He purports to have visited “various renowned archaeologists” to discuss this subject, several of whom he names, and who were indeed renowned archaeologists — William F. Albright (of whom he did not give the full name, only referring to “Dr. Albright of John Hopkins [sic] University”), Nelson Glueck, Józef Milik, Bellarmino Bagatti — each of whom supported and agreed with his unquestionable evidence — and yet none of these renowned archaeologists, in all their well-read and respected works, thought this earth-shattering revelation was worthy of wide publication. Somehow F. Paul Peterson remains the only one who can reveal this news. (He suggests that “Dr. Gluek, being Jewish, is not fully aware … that such a discovery is very embarrassing since it undermines the very foundation of the Roman Catholic Church.”)

  6. Usually a Catholic, either because he is brainwashed or stubbornly doesn’t want to see anything against what he has been taught, will not allow himself to believe anything against his religion, much less admit it to others. But there is a growing, healthy attitude among many Catholics, to ‘prove all things, hold fast to that which is good’ as the Master admonished us all.

  7. The latter two archaeologists, Bagatti and Milik, in fact did publish on this matter, Peterson claims. He claims they published a book in Italian, Gli Scavi del Dominus Flevit, which reveals the truth of the tomb of Peter in Jerusalem. But somehow this academic work published by two renowned archaeologists has escaped the notice of not only the archaeological community, but of the entire world, until it was discovered by one F. Paul Peterson of Fort Wayne, Indiana. And this suppressed, forgotten archaeological publication, in which these archaeologists, according to the author, state unequivocally that St. Peter is buried in Jerusalem, not Rome, is so obscure that several thousand books in the Google Books catalog cite it. And yet somehow everyone who reads and cites this work overlooks this astounding revelation.

    He also cites numerous unnamed priests and archaeologists who agreed with his evidence: a “highly educated priest,” “a brilliant American priest in Rome,” etc.

  8. The secrecy surrounding this case is amazing, yet understandable, since Catholics largely base their faith on the assumption that Peter was their first pope and that he was martyred and buried there.

  9. The claim is that this supposed Jerusalem tomb of Peter was discovered during the excavations of Bagatti and Milik of the ancient Christian necropolis under the Church of Dominus Flevit (“The Lord wept”) on the Mount of Olives (this is the subject of the above mentioned book, per the title). And yet this is now a well-known tourist attraction and site of pilgrimage, and everyone neglects to mention the irrefutable evidence that the Apostle Peter was buried there.

  10. People who lived in Jerusalem all their lives and official guides who are supposed to know every inch of the city, however, knew nothing of this discovery, so well was it withheld from the public.

    Barzillai inscription

    “Clearly and beautifully written.”

  11. The only “solid evidence” which Peterson provides — which “a person who has seen … could never doubt that this truly is the burial place of St. Peter” — is solely that the inscription on an ossuary appeared to read in Aramaic, “Simon bar-Jona.” Yet the names “Simon” (שמעון) and “Jona” (יוֹנָה) or “John” (יוֹחָנָן) are all among the most common Jewish names. Finding a tomb marked “Simon son of Jona” in Jerusalem is no more significant than finding a grave in London marked “John Smith.” That it is an early Christian grave is certainly interesting — because it’s an early Christian grave, not because it is that of Simon Peter.

  12. These figures go along perfectly, as does everything else in the case, with the remains found in the Christian burial ground on the Mount of Olives and in the ossuary on which was ‘clearly and beautifully written,’ Simon Bar Jona in Aramaic.

    Page 83 of Gli Scavi del Dominus Flavit

    Page 83 of Gli Scavi del Dominus Flavit, purportedly describing this ossuary as that of the Apostle Peter (translation below).

  13. In fact, Fr. Bagatti did publish regarding the tomb in question — not in Gli Scavi del Dominus Flevit, but in an academic journal, Liber Annuus — and it did briefly cause some concern. But rather than shaking the Vatican to its knees, nothing came of the matter. The evidence was considered ambiguous and inconclusive, and not worthy of public attention; certainly it was not “suppressed” or “hidden.” When Milik completed the publication of Gli Scavi del Dominus Flevit, he in fact equivocated on the reading. Nothing in the book makes the bold claim that this was the tomb of the Apostle Peter.

    The author of this webpage, not the same anti-Catholic who wrote the article, has posted some scans of pages from Gli Scavi del Dominus Flevit which supposedly prove the claims. But the text says nothing of the sort. In the page purportedly describing the inscription, Milik wrote:

    11. locus 79, ossuary 19. In the upper corner on the long side, confidently sketched using charcoal with very fine features; name (length. cm. 9,5; letters 11 – 0,8 – 1,5), fot. 81 and fig. 22,1):

    . . . שמעון בר [Simeon bar …]

    The reading of the patronym, as luck would have it, is uncertain. The reading proposed in Liber Annuus III, p. 162 (יונה [Jonah]) [this is Bagatti’s article] remains possible, but other possibilities for it can equally be proposed, such as זינה [zinh] correspondent to Ζηνα [Greek Zēna] of n. 21. The two cases of a supposed [Hebrew letter] nun are both a little unusual and the [Hebrew letter] he is rather abnormal although it has an affinity to “Palmyrene”. Alternatively, these last two letters can be considered as a single one, that is, a he with a bifurcated left leg, that would have been inexpertly executed with a piece of charcoal; notice the double feature in the charcoal tracings in fig. 22,7 and 6; fot. 80; LA VII, p. 247, fig. 16. In this case it would have to be read זיה [zih], זוה [zoh], etc.

    The writing is cursive. The [Hebrew Letter] shin was made with charcoal by a single stroke; Another unique feature is the curves of the [Hebrew letter] mem and of [Hebrew Letter] 'ain, like a cross formed from two oblique features; [Hebrew letters] beth + resh is a ligature.

    On the frequency of this name Simeon, see n. 5.

  14. This reading itself has been disputed. A fascinating article by Dr. Stephen Pfann of the University of the Holy Land is available online: “Has St. Peter returned to Jerusalem? The final resting place of Simon Peter and the family of Barzillai.” F. Paul Peterson, it seems, is not the only one to have dredged up such a concoction of this charge. It was also featured in the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, in which a hack archaeologist similarly discovered a tomb in Jerusalem marked with the names of Yeshua, Yosef, Miriam (Jesus, Joseph, Mary) — and made the claim we have all heard by now, despite these three names likewise being among the most common Jewish names. Pfann convincingly argues that the ossuary at Dominus Flevit reads “Simeon bar Zilla” — denoting the family of Barzillai, a “Jerusalem family [with] deep roots within Biblical history.”

If there remained any doubt that this supposed “Jerusalem tomb of Peter” is not the “indisputable proof” that the Catholic Church is a fraud, or that it is what anti-Catholics have claimed it is, I hope I have dispelled it.

Quickly, before I let you go, I wanted to share a few more priceless claims from Peterson’s article:

  1. “Eusebius, one of the most learned men of his time, wrote the Church history up to the year 325 A.D. He said that Peter never was in Rome.1 This Church history was translated by Jerome from the original Greek, but in his translation he added a fantastic story of Peter’s residence in Rome.2 This was a common practice in trying to create credence in their doctrines, using false statements, false letters and falsified history. This is another reason why we cannot rely on tradition, but only on the infallible Word of God.”

    1 N.B. Eusebius states numerous times that Peter was in Rome. —JTR
    2 N.B. The original Greek of Eusebius states that Peter was in Rome. —JTR
  2. “Mark you, all the priests agree that the Vatican and St. Peter’s were built over a pagan cemetery.1 This was a very appropriate place for them to build since, as even Cardinal Newman admitted, there are many pagan practices in the Roman Catholic Church. You realize surely, that Christians would never bury their dead in a pagan cemetery, and you may be very sure that pagans would never allow a Christian to be buried in their cemetery.”

    1 N.B. All cemeteries were pagan cemeteries in first-century Rome, until Christians began to bury in the catacombs in the second or third century. There’s every indication that Peter’s burial in this cemetery, as well as the veneration of the tomb over the cemeteries, was secret and surreptitious. By the time of the cemetery’s destruction and the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica, the cemetery had increasing numbers of Christian burials. —JTR
  3. “Strange it was, for since beginning to build the church in 1450 (finished in 1626)1 they erected, St. Peter’s Tomb (?) under the large dome and Bernini’s serpentine columns. Since then multiplied millions were thereby deceived into believing that the remains of St. Peter were there, which the hierarchy had all along known was not true, as is proven by the late Pope’s [Pius XII’s] declaration.”

    1 N.B. The original St. Peter’s Basilica was begun between 326 and 331. The Church did not suddenly claim in 1450 that Peter was buried on the Vatican under a newly-constructed church. —JTR

I feel rather sorry for Mr. Peterson. Reading his article, I get the sense that he was a good and honest man who sincerely believed (most of) what he was writing. Without a doubt, though, he was stretching the facts quite far in his claims of archaeologists and popes affirming him in his evidence. I sincerely hope this wasn’t him (the only F. Paul Peterson I could find in Indiana).

Biblical Testimony to St. Peter’s Ministry and Death in Rome

(This is a matter I’ve written about before, but not all in one place. And it’s come up in a conversation, so I thought I would put it all together here.)

Reni, St. Peter Penitent

St. Peter Penitent (c. 1600), by Guido Reni. (Wikat least viiPaintings.org)

Anti-Catholics often claim that there is no evidence in Scripture that the Apostle Peter died in Rome or even ever went there. After all, wasn’t Peter the Apostle to the Jews, and Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles? What would Peter have been doing in Rome? Nevermind that early first century Rome had a Jewish population of over 7,000, perhaps many more; or that Peter was the first to preach to Gentiles, just as Paul ministered to Jews everywhere he went. And as a matter of fact, there is strong biblical evidence to place Peter in Rome by the close of the events of the New Testament.

She who is at Babylon

First, and most clearly: Peter tells us himself. In the closing of St. Peter’s first epistle, he writes:

By Silvanus, a faithful brother as I regard him, I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God; stand fast in it. She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark. Greet one another with the kiss of love. Peace to all of you that are in Christ (1 Peter 5:12–14)

She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings. Who is Peter talking about? Who is she? And how can someone who is in Babylon be sending greetings through Peter? Does that mean Peter is in Babylon? Let’s take this apart.

First of all, the Greek here — as well as an astute reading of the English — gives us a strong hint who she is. “She who is in Babylon, who is likewise chosen” is ἡ ἐν Βαβυλῶνι συνεκλεκτὴ [hē en Babylōni syneklektē]. What does he mean, likewise chosen? Who else is chosen? For the answer, we return to the opening of the letter:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those chosen sojourning of the Diaspora in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace, may it be multiplied. (1 Peter 1:1–2, my translation)

I gave my own translation, more literal than any published one (so literal as to sound a little awkward, probably), to preserve the order and emphasis of Peter’s words: Peter’s address is to those chosen. The Greek word here is ἐκλεκτόι [eklektoi] — and this mirrors the word from 5:13, συνεκλεκτόι [syneklektoi = syn + eklektoi], also chosen. This word, ἐκλεκτός [eklektos], from ἐκ + λέγω [ek + legō] — it most literally means to choose out. It is the root of our English words elect and eclectic.

Masaccio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter

The Crucufixion of St. Peter (1426), by Masaccio (WikiPaintings).

We have here what is called an inclusio, a literary envelope by which the opening and closing of the letter bracket the contents. Peter wants to emphasize the fact of being chosen. The people to whom Peter is writing are those chosen by God, and she who is at Babylon is also chosen or elect. Elsewhere in the New Testament the “elect” refers to all Christians (cf. Luke 18:7, Romans 8:33, 2 Timothy 2:10). And in another place, we find a reference to an unnamed “elect lady”: John the Presbyter writes “to the elect lady and her children” (2 John 1) — and sends greetings from “the children of your elect sister” (2 John 13). Who are these elect ladies, if not the Church, sisters in different places?

But the elect lady at Babylon? If Peter is by her side, then he must be in Babylon, too, must he? Ah-ha! say the anti-Catholics. See! It says Peter was in Babylon, not Rome! But was he really in Babylon, the ancient city in Mesopotamia? Probably not. Alexander the Great conquered Babylonia, and the city of Babylon, in 333 B.C. (and died there). Following Alexander’s death, his vast conquests were divided between his leading generals. Seleucus took Babylonia, and founded the Seleucid Empire, with its capital at the newly-founded city of Seleucia. From that time on, the city of Babylon was in decline, until by the first century A.D. it was mere ruins. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (ca. 50 B.C.) attests:

But all these [temple treasures] were later carried off as spoil by the kings of the Persians, while as for the palaces and the other buildings, time has either entirely effaced them or left them in ruins; and in fact of Babylon itself but a small part is inhabited at this time, and most of the area within its walls is given over to agriculture. (The Library of History 2.9.9, ed. by C.H. Oldfather)

Peter would have no reason to be in the literal Babylon. Further, Peter writes as someone under the authority of the emperor (cf. 1 Peter 2:13–17), and as one experiencing the thick of Christian persecution (cf. 1 Peter 4:12, “the fiery trial”), when the first major Christian persecutions began in the city of Rome under Nero — and Mesopotamia was not yet under Roman rule in the first century. But if not the literal Babylon in Mesopotamia, where else might “Babylon” be?

The Beast seated on seven mountains

The Revelation of John refers to Babylon:

And I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations.” And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her I marveled greatly. But the angel said to me, “Why marvel? I will tell you the mystery of the woman, and of the beast with seven heads and ten horns that carries her. … This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated; they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while (Revelation 17:3–5, 7, 9–10).

Map of ancient Rome, ca. A.D. 100

Map of Ancient Rome, showing the Seven Hills.

In this, John tells us quite clearly where, at least in his symbolism, Babylon is: A city arrayed in purple and scarlet, bedecked with gold and jewels, the mother of earth’s abominations, drunk the blood of the martyrs and saints of Jesus — and seated on seven mountains. One of the traditional marks of the city of Rome is that it was founded on Seven Hills (called in Latin montes, “mountains” — of which, for what it’s worth, the Vatican is not one; the Vatican was outside the walls of ancient Rome). And no other city in the time of the Apostles would have been such a visible image of decadence and extravagance, the capital of a great empire, the seat of fornication and abomination. As the Roman historian Tacitus remarked, it is in Rome “where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue” (referring, ironically, to Christianity). No other city in Peter’s day would have been more “drunk with the blood of martyrs and saints” — the author of the first great persecutions under the emperors Nero (which Tacitus wrote to describe).

But what of the “seven kings”? Can this also be understood to refer to Rome? Quite easily. It even supports an earlier dating of the Revelation than some have supposed, perhaps around the time of Peter’s martyrdom. First-century Rome was ruled by emperors, of whom the most aggressive enemy of Christians was Nero. This post is already too long, but I will allow the good Jimmy Akin to present for you compelling evidence identifying these seven kings and the Beast of Revelation: [Part 1] [Part 2]

It will suffice to say for now that there is very good reason for identifying the “Babylon” of Revelation with Rome — as even anti-Catholics do when they suppose that Catholic Church is the “whore.” If this was the attitude toward Rome in the first century, it would have been one with which Peter was well acquainted. Indeed, no other first-century city could have so aptly resembled the ancient Babylon: the capital of the civilized world, and of a great and mighty empire; the center of decadence and extravagance and idolatry. Peter has just informed us, without a doubt, that he is in Rome.

As does my son Mark

Guido Reni, Saint Mark (1621)

Saint Mark (1621), by Guido Reni WikiPaintings).

And so does my son Mark. In Peter’s closing, he also identifies for us two of his companions who are by his side in “Babylon.” Can this shed any light on Peter’s whereabouts?

Scripture mentions this Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, in a number of other places. When Peter was freed from the prison of Herod:

Peter came to himself, and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying (Acts 12:11–12).

So we see an association between Peter and Mark from the earliest days of the Church, attested to in Scripture.

Later in the same chapter, we find Mark accompanying Paul and Barnabas on Paul’s second missionary journey:

The word of God grew and multiplied. And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had fulfilled their mission, bringing with them John whose other name was Mark (Acts 12:24–25).

But as they set out for their next journey, Paul and Barnabas had a disagreement over Mark:

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Come, let us return and visit the brethren in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” And Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. And there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of the Lord (Acts 15:36–40).

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

St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St. Mark (c. 1433) (WikiPaintings).

Now this is important: Barnabas and Mark leave the scene, and Paul takes on a new companion, Silas — also known as Silvanus (cf. Acts 17:15, 18:5; 2 Corinthians 1:19; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1).

Paul and Mark later reconciled. We next find Mark as a companion of Paul at the time of his writing the epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon:

Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, receive him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me (Colossians 4:10–11)

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. (Philemon 23–24)

We find in these letters that Paul is a prisoner. This is his first captivity — in Rome (cf. Acts 28:16).

Scholars date Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome, and the authorship of these letters, to the spring of A.D. 61 through the spring of A.D. 63 — which also happens to be the range of dates commonly ascribed to the authorship of the first epistle of Peter. So we have, direct from Paul in Scripture, testimony to the fact that Mark was in Rome. And if Mark was in Rome during that time, and was with Peter when he wrote his letter, then it is reasonable to conclude that Peter was also in Rome.

But what of Silvanus? Scripture makes no mention of him following Paul’s third missionary journey (Acts 18:5) — until we find him by Peter’s side in 1 Peter. But as Silvanus was a constant companion of Paul, it would be reasonable to assume that he at least visited Paul in Rome, if not moved the base of his apostolic operations there. The presence of Silvanus by Peter’s side, too, supports the conclusion that Peter was in Rome.

You will stretch our your hands

Caravaggio, The Crucifixion of St. Peter

The Crucifixion of St. Peter (1600), by Caravaggio (Wikipedia).

We have one parting testimony to the end of Peter’s life — in the Gospel of John, widely held to have been one of the last-written books of the New Testament — certainly after the death of Peter:

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18–19)

You will stretch out your hands. In the ancient world — particularly in the Christian tradition — “to stretch out one’s hands” was an almost explicit reference to crucifixion. Indeed, to John the author, this language is meant to be clear to the reader: “This he said to show by what death [Peter] was the glorify God.” Certainly by the time of the writing of John’s Gospel, Peter’s martyrdom had already occurred — so if this were not a true description of Peter’s death (the details of which his readers would have known well), he would not have included it. Further, for Peter’s death to have been by crucifixion, he would have to have been living under Roman rule, since crucifixion was the Roman method of execution: this would not have been the case had he been living in Mesopotamia.

Indeed, the whole tradition of the Church affirms that this was the manner of Peter’s death:

Come now, you who would indulge a better curiosity, if you would apply it to the business of your salvation, run over the Apostolic churches, in which the very thrones of the Apostles are still pre-eminent in their places, in which their own authentic writings are read, uttering the voice and representing the face of each of them severally. . . . Since, moreover, you are close upon Italy, you have Rome, from which there comes even into our own hands the very authority [of Apostles themselves]. How happy is its church, on which Apostles poured forth all their doctrine along with their blood! Where Peter endures a passion like his Lord’s! Where Paul wins his crown in a death like John [the Baptist]’s [and] where the Apostle John was first plunged, unhurt, into boiling oil, and thence remitted to his island-exile! (Tertullian, Prescription against Heretics 36, ca. A.D. 180-200)

Thus publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, [Nero] was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero. This account of Peter and Paul is substantiated by the fact that their names are preserved in the cemeteries of that place even to the present day. (Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History II.25.5, ca. A.D. 290)

So we see that Scripture is plain in testifying to the ministry and death of Peter in Rome. Even those of a sola scriptura mindset should be satisfied. There is no sense in denying that Peter lived and died in Rome — to which the unanimous voice of the Church Fathers and other early writers of the Church testifies, dating to before the close of the first century, and which findings of archaeology confirm. If anyone would deny the truth of the Catholic Church, they must do so on other grounds than the historical.

Protestantism as a Negative: No Reason for Being in Itself?

The more I read of Protestant apologetics, the more I am convinced that Protestantism exists only as a rejection of the Catholic Church. It is wholly a negative; it has nothing substantive or positive to say in support of itself. When it comes down to the issues that define the Protestant tradition, the venerated “five solas,” Protestantism was born as a polemic against Catholicism, and even today, 500 years later, has no reason for being in itself apart from that polemic.

Sola Scriptura, now a major motion picture!

That’s why Protestant apologists appear to rail so desperately against Catholic claims. I have yet to read a work of Protestant apologetics that can stand for itself, apart from its opposition to Catholic claims. This book, Sola Scriptura, is a case in point. I have not read more than a paragraph or two that sought to support the doctrine by anything more than a negative reference to Catholic doctrine. “Protestantism is true because Catholics say this and this is not true.” Solaalone — the very notion implies a rejection, “and not something else.”

Catholic apologetics, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal. It is by definition positive, and even in reference to Protestant claims, it presents a positive case from Scripture and Tradition why Catholicism is true. It can support itself in most cases without even referencing the Protestant claim: “Catholicism is true because Scripture teaches this and the Church has always held this to be true.” With regard to sola scriptura, it is not incumbent upon the Catholic apologist to prove that Scripture is not an authority, since it most certainly is the highest authority! (in contrast to the Protestant apologist, who seeks to prove that Tradition is not an authority). All one must show is that Scripture is not the only authority, and one can do that simply by pointing out the many reasons why Tradition is authoritative.

Titian, Pentecost

Pentecost (c. 1545), by Titian.

I am often critical of Protestant doctrine, it’s true, but in that criticism, I offer something better; I don’t outright declare Protestantism false, since in most cases, it contains something of the truth. A cursory search of my blog turns up fewer than thirty posts in which I’ve even used the word “false,” out of some 230. Sola scriptura is not a bad doctrine in itself: holding Scripture as a high authority is a wonderful thing! It is only wrong-headed it that it limits God and redacts His revelation.

Where Protestants and Catholics agree, in the great positive that is Christ Jesus, we have no meaningful dispute at all. Jesus saves! It is by His grace alone, not by anything we must do, that we are saved! Our sins are forgiven, and the bonds of sin and death are broken! We have eternal life in Him, by His grace and overwhelming love and mercy! It is only where Protestants seek to stir up dispute — that salvation is by faith alone (in rejection of something or another Catholics supposedly believe, or do not in fact believe) that we have dispute.

It often seems to me, in reading Protestant apologetics, that these people are scared out of their minds. They see the mass defections from Protestantism and fear down to their marrow that they have no reason for being at all: that especially at this generation, as more and more people are finding the truth of the Catholic Church, their longstanding polemic is finding fewer and fewer footholds. I am frequently flabbergasted by the extent to which these Protestant apologists — invariably, and I mean no offense, old men, in contrast to the many, many, young and vibrant Catholic apologists — spew thorough and apparently willful misunderstandings and wanton misrepresentations of Catholic positions, statements so fundamentally wrong that I can only think they have been told otherwise hundreds of times and yet stubbornly cling to their flawed understandings.

sinking ship

I have recently come across a prominent anti-Catholic Protestant apologist (I will not name him, lest I steer more traffic his way) who prints flat-out lies and fabrications about the Catholic Church, factual errors that are so demonstrably false that the quickest google could disprove them — and he does so willfully; when confronted with his errors (and I have confronted him), he refuses to correct them. I think, in this digital age, it’s above all the easy access to the truth that is responsible for so many crossing the Tiber: the oft-repeated falsehoods about the Catholic Church can no longer stand up to simple scrutiny, and yet the old Protestant apologists continue to hurl them, railing desperately from their sinking ships.

The Mercy of Purgatory

The Day of the Dead (1859), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

The Day of the Dead (1859), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

(Today is All Souls’ Day, the commemoration of the holy souls in purgatory. As it happens, I had this post half-brewed already after a recent e-mail conversation with an anti-Catholic.)

One of the most frequent charges I hear from anti-Catholics against the doctrine of purgatory is that it “nullifies the finished work of Christ on the cross” — that somehow, the idea of purgatory implies that Jesus’s atonement was “not enough”; that sinners still have to expiate their own sins. This charge reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what purgatory is.

In fact, as Scripture itself teaches, it is the ultimate mercy:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation [i.e. you whom I planted, cf. vv. 5–8], and another man is building upon it [i.e. each of us, fellow workers of the Lord, cf. v. 9]. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10–15)

If any man’s work is burned up — even by the fire of judgment — he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Even if a man’s works are merely wood, hay, straw — materials that will not last — if he has squandered his time on this earth, and not stored up treasures in heaven (cf. Matthew 6:20) — then there is still a chance for him to be saved. How merciful is our Lord!

(At this point, I got off track and examined the passage more closely than I intended to, to reject a common Protestant counterargument — after I said I wasn’t going to. If you would like to read that, I will post it separately tomorrow(?).)

Flames

This purging fire is not a limitation of Christ’s atonement — it is an even further and deeper extension of it. Christ’s work on the cross was so overpowering, so uncontainable, that it bursts every bond of death, hell, and the grave — that it can reach to us even beyond the grave. Anti-Catholics suppose that purgatory is the application of some other power than the grace of Christ to the soul — usually, they think it is our own works or purchased indulgences or some other such? But that final purification is accomplished by none other than the same grace, the same blood, the same redemption that redeems us in life.

So why, they ask, weren’t we redeemed in life? Doesn’t this idea suppose that His redemption wasn’t enough to save us while we were alive? Here is where Protestants misunderstand. In especially the Evangelical Protestant mind, “salvation” is a one-time event, a one-time regeneration by faith, which imputes to us the righteousness of Christ, such that there is no other work to be done so far as our salvation — we are then “saved.” This tends to conflate a lot of ideas together, even from classical Protestant theology, and lose some in the shuffle. Our terminology and vocabulary is a stumbling block at this point, especially to Catholic–Protestant dialogue.

Catholics agree that in a sense, salvation is a once-and-for-all event: the irrevocable moment of our Baptism in which we are washed with the blood of Christ, our every sin cleansed, and our former self is buried with Christ, and we are raised to new life in Him. Catholics even agree that in a sense, that initial justification is by faith alone — not a “faith” of mere intellectual assent, but of faith on fire with love and raised by hope. And nothing can take away that grace; it is imprinted on our souls. But that isn’t the end of the journey. We then have a road to walk (cf. Matthew 7:13–14), a cross to bear (Luke 9:23). We have to abide in Christ (John 15:1–17) and endure to the end (Matthew 24:13, Luke 21:19). And on that journey, if we abide in His love, we will be sanctified — gradually purified and made holy.

Friendship Sunrise

Sunrise at Friendship, where four generations of my family lie buried.

Sanctification: This is a term that I think many Evangelicals have lost sight of; and many Reformed understand, but have separated it so far from justification that they fail to associate it with salvation. Catholics do not make a clean distinction between the two as Protestants have: because they are both the works of Christ’s grace, and they are both integral parts of the same process of cleansing us from sin and making us holy. But put in Protestant terms: yes, there is an initial justification in which we are saved from our sins and incorporated into Christ. And purgatory has little to do with that. As Paul himself said, one’s perishable works can be burned away and we can be saved through fire — but only if his foundation is Christ. Purgatory is only for those who die in Christ: the holy souls in purgatory are already “saved,” and they will go to heaven, without exception. Put simply, purgatory is the completion of the process of sanctification if we didn’t complete it in life.

There is a difference between the eternal guilt of one’s sins, which is wholly obliterated by Christ’s forgiveness, and the temporal effects of one’s sins, which must be purified by sanctification, that comes into play here. But this post is already too long. The difference in Protestant theology between justification and sanctification is illustrative here: even if we are wholly justified by Christ, the guilt of our sins forgiven, we still must be sanctified — for nothing impure can enter heaven and stand before God (Revelation 21:27).

Evangelical Protestants especially, but Reformed too, make a sharp, ruthless, and binary distinction between those who are saved and those who are unsaved — cleanly defined by that one-time moment of salvation. So often they lament the deaths of those who, in their judgment, were not saved, who had not experienced that salvation. But this leaves no room for the overflowing mercy of our God. It is true that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 6:44). But only God can judge our hearts; only He can know the foundation He lays. And purgatory, rather than a limitation of God’s grace, is its ultimate outpouring in our lives — bringing that final, purifying grace to those of us whose works built on that foundation were imperfect.

Defending Sola Scriptura: A Challenge

(I’m going to attempt to write the post I tried to write yesterday before I lost it to a tangent.)

Recently I’ve been talking to Protestants, especially those who present themselves as being of an apologetic bent, and asking them to defend the principles of the Reformation. St. Peter exhorts us to “always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you … with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15). I make every effort to ready myself to defend the beliefs I hold dear, both the Christian faith as a whole and Catholic doctrines in particular — so I figured Reformed believers ought to be willing to do the same for their own fundamental principles. So I ask them, as gently and reverently as I can, to defend the solassola scriptura in particular, which has by far been the most destructive.

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

But what I’ve gotten is silence. Nine times out of ten, when I ask someone to defend sola scriptura, they shut down whatever discussion we are having and give no reply. I grant that many people may be wary of getting wrapped up in a fruitless and unpleasant debate, but these same people generally do not hesitate to criticize Catholic positions, or to outright denounce the Catholic Church as “apostate” or “un-Christian.”

I have yet to hear what I consider an adequate defense of sola scriptura. By “adequate,” I don’t mean “convincing,” since I think that would be an awfully high standard to set; but what I mean is thorough — covering all the bases; answering the particular questions I have posed that I think must be answered in order for sola scriptura to be a valid doctrinal position. One person has tried, and I do appreciate the patience he has shown me, but I am still waiting for an answer to my questions. Sola scriptura appears increasingly like The Emperor’s New Clothes — the doctrine that all Protestants give lip service to, but no one dares to look at very closely or question, lest anyone realize that they are in fact parading around naked.

Sola Scriptura, now a major motion picture!

Per the advice of a new friend, I picked up what was supposed to be a thorough defense of the doctrine of sola scriptura, by the foremost Reformed minds and scholars and apologists: Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, which boasts contributions from R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, James White, W. Robert Godfrey, and more. Finally, I thought, I’m going to get that adequate defense I’ve been looking for, to demonstrate that sola scriptura is not just an empty fallacy but a respectable and defensible position. I don’t know why I got my hopes up. I guess I expected better of these people. I haven’t been so let down by a book in years.

Someone in the know, is there actual, academic material written on this subject? Can you point me in its direction? Because this book is not what it purports to be. Rather than a positive defense of sola scriptura — which, I’ll grant, it does attempt to give in some measure — it is mostly an anti-Catholic polemic, spending as much time presenting why Rome is wrong and why you don’t want to go there as it spends presenting an actual case for sola scriptura. I expected higher especially of Robert Godfrey, who purports himself to be a professor of church history. Here is someone, surely, I thought, who knows the truth of the history of the Church and will not be prone to such utter nonsense and misunderstanding of Catholic history and doctrine as is so typical among Reformed people. But if anyone could have woven a whole fabric of all the many, various, uneducated misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Roman doctrines and positions — he says that we worship statues! that we re-sacrifice Christ at every Mass! — that is what he presents in the first chapter of the book alone.

This, too, is turning into a rambling screed, and that is not what I intended it to be. Without further ado, I want to present the following challenge.

The Challenge

Bible

I would like someone — anyone — you can even collaborate — to present answers to the following questions. It is simple enough to cull together a few Scriptures that supposedly support sola scriptura, and call that a defense — but no Scripture actually says what proponents of sola scriptura teach. I am looking for more practical answers. If sola scriptura is true, then the following questions will have answers:

  1. When was the doctrine of sola scriptura taught in the Early Church, and by whom? Did Jesus teach it? Did the Apostles? Is it something Christians were supposed to have figured out for themselves by Scripture alone? If the doctrine was part of the teachings of Christ and the Apostles, how would it have been presented? “After we are gone, your only authority and rule of faith is to be Scripture”? “You are not to accept any doctrine not found in Scripture”? If that is to be our rule of faith, why isn’t it in Scripture?

  2. How did the historical transition come about, from the situation during the lifetimes of the Apostles, in which believers were to accept both the oral teaching of the Apostles and their written word (2 Thessalonians 2:15), to the purported situation Protestants maintain existed, in which Scripture alone was to be the authority? As per 1, is this something believers were taught to expect? Was there a perceived difference between doctrine that was written by the Apostles and doctrine that was received orally from the Apostles? And what about the content of that oral teaching that was not contained in Scripture? Protestants will argue that anything not contained in Scripture was not necessary for salvation — but even that being so, did early Christians see a distinction between apostolic teachings that were necessary and teachings that were unnecessary? Were some teachings of the Apostles understood to be extraneous and no longer worthy of being passed on or believed? When are Christians supposed to have learned to reject teachings not found in Scripture?

  3. Robert Godfrey complains in the first chapter of the book (page 7) about Catholic doctrines that “contradict Scripture” — naming first and foremost that Catholic tradition teaches that bishop and presbyter are two separate offices, in plain contradiction to Titus 1:5–7. But this charge in itself undermines his whole argument, or else denounces as unfaithful the earliest generations of Christians. If the earliest Christians were supposed to have held firmly to the word of Scripture and accepted no doctrine that contradicted it — if they understood Scripture to be an infallible and immutable rule of faith — then why, from only the second generation of Christians (Ignatius of Antioch, ca. A.D. 107), do we find firm declarations of this very “unscriptural” doctrine? Were early Christians so quick to deviate from the faith handed to them by the Apostles themselves, to which they were exhorted to hold fast and for which they saw their teachers go to their deaths? Were they so willing to go to their own deaths for a faith they felt they could alter as it fit them? Are such really the kind of people you propose our Christian faith is built upon?

  4. St. John Chrysostom

    St. John Chrysostom (c. 347–407).

  5. James White devotes an impressive chapter to culling many quotations from the Church Fathers that appear to endorse a doctrine of sola scriptura. But an appeal to these Church Fathers and a claim that they themselves held sola scriptura runs into an immediate and insurmountable problem: If the Church Fathers held a doctrine of sola scriptura, why did they, every one of them, accept and teach the myriad “unscriptural” doctrines from tradition that Protestants today want to reject? Why did every one of these faithful Christians — or even a single one of them — not immediately, vociferously, and unceasingly denounce these accretions of tradition, these “unscriptural” and un-Christian “inventions,” until they were rooted from the Church? The men we acclaim as Church Fathers were most of them bishops who held and taught apostolic succession, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, baptismal regeneration, the necessity of good works for salvation, a sacerdotal priesthood, the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary — and that’s just the beginning of the list. Could these men have held sola scriptura if they also held these “unscriptural” doctrines?

I had more, but that’s enough for starters.

St. Augustine on How to Divide the Ten Commandments: Did Catholics “Change” the Ten Commandments?

Saint Augustine in His Study, by Botticelli.

Saint Augustine in His Study (1480), by Botticelli (Wikipedia).

Here’s a little something that I shouldn’t spend a lot of time on by way of introduction (I’m presently nearly at the honest-to-goodness final attack of my thesis) — but it is nonetheless an important apologetic topic: Did Catholics change the Ten Commandments? The presentation of the Ten Commandments (or Decalogue) used by Catholics is in fact different from the one used by many Protestants. The “Catholic Ten Commandments” seems, very suspiciously, to omit the commandment that forbids the making of “graven images” — which, to the minds of anti-Catholics, seems to confirm their every accusation: “Catholics worship idols, and not only do they know it, but they changed the Ten Commandments so their gullible followers would never even know it was wrong!”

… No. The Catholic Church condemns idolatry explicitly, both the worship of images and the exaltation of any thing above God. Why, then, did Catholics “leave out” that commandment? Here are several things the critic should realize:

  1. The Ten Commandments are not numbered in Scripture. The original texts of the Bible did not even have verse numbers — the system of verse numbers we have today is a product of the Protestant printer Stephanus.

  2. The listings of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 do not even state that there are ten of them; it is only elsewhere (cf. Exodus 34:28) that they are called the Ten Commandments. Taken by themselves, there are actually about fourteen imperative commands given by the Lord to Moses on Mount Sinai.

  3. Ten Commandments

    St. Augustine was really Moses? Or Charlton Heston was really St. Augustine?

  4. When the Church Fathers received this unnumbered, undivided lump of fourteen-ish commandments, it was up to them to formulate them into a list of “Ten,” grouping some commands with others to which they seemed to be related. And different Fathers arrived at different lists.

  5. The Catholic Church follows the tradition of numbering established by St. Augustine — and has been since long before anybody numbered the verses. The Lutheran churches follow the same tradition. The Reformed, I suspect just to be contrary and anti-Catholic, were the ones who “changed” the Ten Commandments, adopting the numbering established by Eastern Christianity.

  6. Rather than dividing “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself any graven image” into two separate commandments, as do the Reformed and Evangelicals, Augustine saw that “making for oneself an idol and bowing before it” (Exodus 20:4) was but an elaboration of having other gods before God, and grouped the two into one commandment. In Catholic catechetical formulae, the “graven images” part is often omitted — not because we are abridging Scripture, but because it is easier for kids to memorize that way, and the part about “graven images” is pretty much redundant. Augustine instead divided “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” into two commandments.

  7. Ten Commandments

  8. Evangelical Protestants (at least, speaking from my experience) tend to overlook any further grouping of the Ten, and take for granted that five would be placed on either tablet. But Augustine rightly saw an internal division: the first three commandments pertain to man’s obligations to God, and the last seven pertain to man’s obligations to his fellow man. The three pertaining to God, fittingly, form a Trinity.

  9. It is worth noting that the commandment against “making a graven image and bowing to it” is not a prohibition against making any image or statue ever. God directly commands the Israelites to fashion images or statues on at least several occasions: the cherubim on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:17–22, 37:7–9) and woven into the fabric of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:1, 31, 36:8, 35), the bronze serpent in the desert (Numbers 21:4–9), and the elaborate carvings and adornments of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6–7). This commandment is specifically against idolatry, creating and worshipping images as gods. It is also worth noting that Catholics don’t worship statues.

St. Augustine

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

When I read in the Catechism about Augustine’s numbering of the Decalogue, I thought that would be a valuable text to have for refuting anti-Catholic arguments, and I set out to find it. I mostly found only other people similarly looking for it, but did find a reference: Question 71 in Augustine’s Questions in Exodus (Quaestio LXXI, Quaestiones in Exodum). At last I found the Latin text, with no English translation — and thought I would do everyone else a service and here give a translation. I am not an expert on this stuff, so if anyone out there is, please feel free to critique my work and help improve it.

Below is St. Augustine’s reasoning regarding why he chose to divide the Decalogue the way that he did, the way that the Catholic Church continues to observe. There was a bit more to the question following this about divisions between the other commandments, the ones regarding which everyone tends to agree — but this was the part relevant to the commandment against idolatry, and the common anti-Catholic charge.

(If anybody is interested in the rest of it, let me know and I can finish the translation. Also, I did this translation months ago! It is not distracting me from my thesis right now other than this introduction I’m giving — which, as usual, has proven more formidable than I intended.)

St. Augustine on How the Ten Commandments are to Be Divided

Quaestiones in Exodum, Question 71

It is asked, in what way the Ten Commandments of the Law are to be divided: whether there are four up to the commandment concerning the Sabbath, which pertain to God Himself, and six that remain, of which the first is, “Honor thy father and mother,”1 which pertain to man; or whether it is more fitting that the former be three, and the latter seven. Indeed those who say the former to be four, separate the commandment, “You shall have have no other gods before me,” that it might be a separate commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol,”2 whereby the worshipping of images is prohibited. However those same wish to combine into one, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; you shall not covet your neighbor’s house,”3 and all the rest up to the end. Certainly those who say the first group to be three, and the second group seven, wish to combine into one whatever is commanded concerning worshipping God, that nothing before God is worshipped. These on the other hand divide the last one into two, that “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” might be a separate commandment. In neither case is there any doubt that there are Ten Commandments, since Scripture itself testifies to this.

Still it seems to me more fitting that the first group be accepted as three, and the other as seven, because those three which pertain to God seem to make known the Trinity to those diligently contemplating. And truly the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” is itself explicated more completely by the prohibition of worshipping images that follows. Further on, coveting another’s wife, and coveting another’s house, differ as much in the sins as in the commandments themselves. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” might also be joined to other things Scripture says, “Nor his field, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything of your neighbor’s.”4 Moreover coveting the wife of another seems to be separate from coveting anything else of another, since both begin thus, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; You shall not covet your neighbor’s house”: both commandments begin with the statement “You shall not covet,” but it is only to the latter that it fastens the other things, saying nor his house, nor his field, nor his servant, and the rest. These all appear to have been joined together and seem to be contained by one commandment, and are separate from that commandment where the wife has been named. The commandment which says, “You shall have no other gods before me,” appears more devoted to the carrying out of those things which have been placed under it. To what indeed does this pertain, “You shall not make an idol, nor any likeness of anything which is in heaven on high, or anything on earth below, or anything in the sea beneath the earth; you shall not worship them or serve them,”5 unless to the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me”?

An Exposition of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in John 6, and a Common Protestant Rejoinder

Giotto, The Last Supper

The Last Supper (1306), by Giotto. Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua.

[The fruit of another discussion somewhere.]

The Real Presence of Christ does not appear in Scripture? You must be stretching really hard not to see it. 😉 As I said above, Jesus makes painfully clear his literal intentions in John 6:

“I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

“I am the bread of life. … This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.” (John 6:48–50)

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)

When the Jews hear this, naturally, they are alarmed and confused — is this man suggesting we become cannibals? “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52). Obviously, they are misunderstanding Him, right? Surely He didn’t mean for them to take this literally, right? So you would think He would correct them.

But He doesn’t. He does just the opposite.

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Consequently [Greek οὖν, so, therefore, consequently, accordingly] Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:52–53)

Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1594)

The Last Supper (1594), by Tintoretto.

A lot rests on that οὖν: It connects Jesus’s repeated admonition that the people must eat His flesh and drink His blood as a direct response and consequence of the crowd’s supposed “misunderstanding”: Rather than saying, “No, you’ve got it wrong; I’m only being ‘spiritual,'” he tells them, “Yes, I’m bloody serious.”

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54)

“For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:55) (The word here translated “true,” ἀληθής, can alternately be translated real, genuine, actual, not imaginary.)

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56) (He even uses a different, much more visceral, if not vulgar, word for “eat” here: τρώγω, the word for animals feeding or munching.)

“As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” (John 6:57)

Fra Angelio, Institution of the Eucharist (1442)

Institution of the Eucharist (1442), by Fra Angelio.

Jesus says, not once, not twice, but some dozen times altogether, not only that “He is the bread of life,” but that “this bread is actually My flesh” and “this drink is actually My blood” and “you must eat Me and drink Me” to have eternal life. He uses explicit words that cannot be mistaken for “spiritual” terms, even using several different words in the discourse to make Himself clear. When the crowd questions, in disgust, whether He is serious, He makes no effort to correct them, but instead affirms using even stronger language that what He is saying is the literal truth. And in the end, as a direct result of this discourse, “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66), muttering that “this is a hard saying” (John 6:60), because they did take His words literally. And yet Jesus made no attempt to clarify Himself if they were mistaken, but instead reaffirmed again and again his literal meaning. He could not have been more explicit if He tried — for in fact He did try.

And then, as if this weren’t enough — but he then gives His Apostles the actual occasion to eat His flesh and drink His blood:

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.” (Matthew 26:26)

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.” (Mark 14:22)

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.” (Luke 22:19)

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.” (1 Corinthians 11:24)

If any one of these four authors had meant to imply that this giving of His Body and Blood were meant to be mere symbols, one would think they would have used less explicit and more figurative language.

Not a Gate, or a Vine, or a Light?

vineyard

Regarding your rejoinder that Jesus also said He “is the Door,” “the Vine,” the “Way,” etc. [and that these cases are not to be taken literally, so why should we take John 6 literally?] — yes, this is the common Protestant response. But allow me to point out a couple of things:

1. When Jesus expresses these metaphors, they are directly related to the verbs he applies to them, which are to be taken literally:

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” (John 10:9)

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25)

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6)

I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

We are literally supposed to follow Jesus, enter into eternal life by Him, believe in Him, come to the Father by Him, and abide in Him. This rhetorical device applies in every case in which Jesus says I AM something.

2. But in John 6, Jesus says, using several different verbs:

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54)

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56)

Et cetera. So, for these times, following the other times Jesus said I AM something, are we not also supposed to literally eat and drink Him? In all these cases, though Jesus is speaking metaphorically, He is also speaking quite literally — and this case is no different.

What is more, your position supposes that every Christian from the Apostles to the sixteenth century — who certainly read Jesus’s discourse literally and believed Jesus was really and substantially present in the Eucharist — was mistaken in their interpretation and “silly.” Even John Calvin believed fully that Jesus was really present in the elements in a spiritual sense, and read John 6 literally.