Oxford

Part of my ongoing conversion story.

The Lyceum, the University of Mississippi

The Lyceum at the University of Mississippi.

By the spring of 2010, I had narrowed my graduate search to three institutions, who each had accepted me to their history programs and offered me assistantships. I was not at all impressed with Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi; the less said about that the better. I was very pleasantly surprised by the faculty and department at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. But at the University of Misissippi in Oxford, Mississippi, I was immediately charmed and captured — by the town, by the campus, by the department, and by the people.

The Grove

The Grove.

I was especially swayed by the fact that, while at the other schools, I got the feeling that they were doing me a favor by extending their substantial assistantship packages to me and inviting me as a student; while at Mississippi, my impression was that they genuinely wanted me, that I would be doing them a favor by coming there. Even despite the generous offers of the other schools, the whole search and application process with them felt as if I were courting them, while at Mississippi, I felt that they were genuinely courting me. The graduate coordinator and the department chair both called me personally to invite me and offer their assistance. In meeting with the department chair, when I told him honestly that I loved what I saw, but that their assistantship was the lowest offer, he doubled the offer on the spot. A small cadre of friendly graduate students greeted me warmly, answered my questions, and generally made me feel welcome. I have no doubt that they had been requested to stay as a welcome party, but they stayed late into their afternoon to meet me, on Good Friday, when they didn’t have to; and as I later got to know them, I found them each to be genuinely friendly people.

Exploring the campus that day, I stepped into the library archives — since archives are among my favorite places in the world. I chatted up the archivist at the desk, who gladly answered my questions and told me how great the campus and town were. And then he told me that there was a history Ph.D. student working in the archives that day, and asked if I would like to meet her. He brought her back in a moment; and even more than anybody else I met that day, she was overflowing with passion and exuberance for history and for Oxford. She dropped what she was doing and for half an hour, poured out tips and advice that made this university and town a vivid prospect. And that was Audrey.

Audrey's Cup of Soul

I often think back and try to recollect how I became friends with someone; and often, it is simply inexplicable, other than to say that in that moment, something clicked. Perhaps, with Audrey, it was that we both shared interests in antebellum southern history, notably with the people, with farmers and planters. But neither of us is very outgoing, and Audrey, as an A.B.D. (“all but dissertation”) Ph.D. candidate, had largely withdrawn from interacting with new students. But from that bizarre moment, that chance meeting, that rare stroke of lightning, we were fast friends. I very much believe that this is something God designed: Audrey became one of my dearest friends, an encourager and fellow pilgrim.

That was Good Friday. When I got home, I added Audrey and the other students I had met on Facebook. And immediately I noticed the congratulations: Audrey had been received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil that Saturday night, and it was one of the other students I’d met, also Catholic, who was congratulating her! I felt a vague and somehat disquieting sinking in my stomach. Had I happened upon some sort of Catholic enclave? Even before I’d made a definite decision for Oxford, the thought occurred to me, with some misgiving: This is probably going to end up with me becoming Catholic.

Towards the Truth

It’s been brought to my attention that I’ve left you all hanging for a while for the next chapter of my conversion story. Sorry about that.

Journey of the Magi (c. 1894), by James Tissot

Journey of the Magi (c. 1894), by James Tissot (WikiArt.org).

Deep in history

The year I taught at Veritas brought great progress in what, I’d finally realized, was my search for the Church — or at least, I thought then, for a church. I had graduated with my bachelor’s degree, moved out of my own, gotten a job, and was instructing young people in history, Latin, Greek, and English grammar and vocabulary. Last time I wrote about how my teaching of the Latin and Greek languages became a guiding light to me. Even more than that, history paved my path.

When I studied history in college, I fell in love with the Church Fathers, the good and faithful and virtuous forbears of our faith. I acknowledged and understood that their Church, in its unity, orthodoxy, order, and charity, was the true Church of Christ. I had concluded that that purity and truth had been lost, that the Catholic Church had fallen and necessitated the Protestant renewal. As a budding historian then, I believe I was beginning to understand — though I had not even acknowledged it to myself — that there was nothing Protestant about the Early Church or any of the Church Fathers. I still took for granted, out of ignorance, the Protestant precepts of sola scriptura and sola fide and the rest — but my commitment was to Christ and His truth, never to the Protestant Reformation as a thing in itself.

St. Gregory the Great

St. Gregory the Great, a Christian of the sixth century.

When I taught, I brought these same understandings and commitments to the classroom, and was forced for the first time to follow them to their logical ends. My task for the upper class at Veritas was to teach the history of Europe from the Late Antique period to the Protestant Reformation — a period that was, essentially, the age of the Church. Teaching at a Christian school, I felt, gave me the prerogative and mandate to approach that history from a perspective of faith. And so I immersed myself in the history of the Church more completely than I ever had before. Perhaps someone should have warned me about being deep in history.

I longed to introduce my students to the heroes of the Church who had so captured me: Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory. Benedict, Bernard, Bede. At the beginning of class each day I listed important figures on the board, popes and bishops and theologians and saints. I peppered every lecture with Greek and Latin etymologies of familiar Christian concepts — understanding many of them for the first time myself: what it meant to be a bishop (“overseer”), a deacon (“servant”), a monk (“alone”). a pope (“papa”). I was beginning to realize, nascently, just how deeply the doctrines of the Catholic Church — from the episcopate, to the papacy, to confession — were rooted in Scripture.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Climax: The Reformation

The climax of my course to the students was the Protestant Reformation. Recognizing the diversity of my flock (a Reformed majority, but also Evangelical Protestants and several Catholics) and the potential for disagreement, I made an appeal to ecumenism from the very first day: Despite our divisions, we were all brothers and sisters in the Lord. I brought the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds to class one day for us all to read together. My students seemed to accept my appeal; at least, no one disputed it. I was very pleased, and more than a little fascinated, by the picture of Christian unity my class presented. Was there hope yet for my finding a safe port?

I had the idea in my head that, to facilitate a focused class study of the Reformation, the students could write their research papers on various Reformation figures — each student a different one — and present a report to the class. To most people, even Protestants, I thought, the only Reformers with whom they were familiar were Luther and Calvin, or if one really knew a lot, Zwingli or Melanchthon or Beza. So I proceeded to make a list of possible topics — and I was stunned. I knew there were more than a few — but I found that there were actually dozens of Reformers and Reform movements going on at the same time. I had been under the impression, somehow, that there was some rational, intentional sense of order and orthodoxy to the Protestant Reformation, an effort to restore something that had been lost — but it began to dawn on me that it was in fact exactly the opposite: it marked the breakdown of all order and orthodoxy. Rather than an ordered and deliberate revision and restoration, the Reformation became a chaotic free-for-all with every “Reformer” clamoring for “reform” according to his own grievance. The doctrinal confusion and uncertainty I’d been feeling were nothing new: it had been part of the very fabric of Protestantism from the beginning. (I gave up on assigning my students Reformation topics.)

Abraham's Servant Meeteth Rebecca, by James Tissot (c. 1902)

Abraham’s Servant Meeteth Rebecca, by James Tissot (c. 1902) (WikiArt.org).

The church I was looking for

During this time I felt increasingly alienated, again, from my parents’ church, the church I grew up in, which I was again attending (a church of the Assemblies of God in the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions, in case you are new). It no longer “fit” me, I thought, if it ever did. I felt intellectually and spiritually unchallenged, if not completely unwelcome as an academic. I found no real fellowship or support, and little opportunity within the church for me to grow or improve. I prayed and reflected and read the Scriptures, and began to see more clearly than ever before the direction in which I thought God was leading me.

I wrote a lot in those days about searching for a new church, seeking to understand the nature of the church and where I fit in it. Why do Christians go to church at all? What’s to be gained from worshipping communally that can’t be attained worshipping privately? The most important purpose of the church, I concluded, was community — having something in common with fellow believers; sharing fellowship with one another and supporting one another, whether spiritually, emotionally, or materially. That being so, I decided, it was important that a church have a community of people I had things in common with: people of my own age and state in life, to whom I could relate. Second, I decided, preaching and teaching were an important purpose: to raise up and educate believers as disciples of Christ, and nourish them in their Christian walks. And teaching should be rooted in Scripture, challenging both intellectually and spiritually: educational and not just inspirational, motivational, or evangelical. I wanted to learn, to mature as a Christian, to grow in understanding and faith. Finally, I resolved, the purpose of the church was service — to carry out the mission of Christ to the world: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, and seek the lost.

I began to see, I thought, the kind of church I was looking for. But how could I find it? I visited a number of churches during that time. And I confess, though I said previously that I had shut the door on Calvinism, I continued to be drawn to the intellectual rigor of the Reformed tradition: I actually visited several Presbyterian (P.C.A.) churches and found them appealing.

Several times I visited the Presbyterian church where Veritas met. I appreciated it a lot and was drawn to a number of the things they were doing: a liturgy of worship, including singing the Psalms, kneeling at appropriate moments (rather awkwardly, given the absence of kneelers), recitation of the Nicene Creed, and weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I knew nothing of Catholic liturgical practice at the time, but looking back I see a definite appeal to more traditional forms. I do not know if any of this is common in other Presbyterian churches, or if this palatable flavor was distinct — but the taste, I now see, was distinctly Catholic. Some there were aware of it, too: in the liturgical booklets the church produced, they were especially careful to note in the creed that “catholic” meant “universal” and did not refer to the “Roman Catholic Church.”

I might have stayed at that church, if not for a certain feeling of alienation: I was the only single adult in the congregation, made up largely of couples with young children. So I decided to visit another Presbyterian church, a large P.C.A. church in Huntsville at which I knew some people. I only attended one or two Sundays — but I liked it a lot. They had a vibrant young adult Sunday school class to which I was particularly drawn. I was drawn to the community and to the worship — I gave little thought at this time to theology — but I do not know what path I might have taken, had not the calendar intervened: I soon was involved in visiting, choosing, and moving away to graduate school.

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez.

Into sacred spaces

In my private devotion too, this time brought great spiritual renewal and growth. It was during that year that I discovered early sacred music. Entirely by accident, via Last.fm, I happened upon musical settings of the Mass — especially those of Dufay, Josquin, Ockeghem, Byrd, Palestrina, Victoria, and Lassus — and fell in love with them, these angelic voices, these echoes of the heavenly liturgy. This, probably more than any other single happenstance, paved the final stretch between me and the Church: Unexpectedly and unintentionally, I was receiving the holy words of the Mass into my soul. And I felt holy: I remember commenting that I “felt monastic,” by which I guess I meant that I felt a single-minded devotion, cut off from the worldly affairs around me. I was entering into a sacred space, set apart from my workaday life and mundane home, and drawing closer and closer to the Lord in prayer and study. I felt my heart burning within me. I felt a deep longing, more sharply than I’d ever felt it, for a faraway home. What was happening to me?

More and more — in everything I did — I found myself drawn to the ancient faith of the Church — which I still did not yet identify with the modern Catholic Church. In a quest for greater spiritual discipline and rigor, I sought out and read the Rule of Saint Benedict. To delve deeper into the wonderful music I was hearing, I looked up the Latin Mass and read along. I had always been fascinated by the saints, by the great Christians of ages past, and it occurred to me that a convenient way to learn about them would be to follow the traditional calendar of saints — so I incorporated it into my own calendar. From there, seeking an orderly way to study the Bible, I discovered the lectionary of the Catholic Church, which arranged Scripture readings throughout the calendar. I found an app for my new Android phone which brought them to me daily. I even began to read and enjoy the daily meditations on Scripture that were featured in that app.

So the summer of 2010, as I was poised to move off to graduate school, I presented a ridiculous picture: I was listening to and reading Catholic liturgy; reading traditional Catholic, monastic texts; observing the Catholic calendar of saints; and following the Catholic lectionary in my personal Scripture study and devotion, and reading Catholic meditations, using a popular Catholic phone app. And yet if you’d asked me, I would have vehemently denied that I was becoming Catholic. I wasn’t the least bit interested in it. I could readily rattle off a long list of reasons why the Catholic Church wasn’t for me: they dictate the proper interpretation of Scripture; they dogmatize and define away every mystery of the faith; they limit the believer’s personal relationship with Christ by the imposition of a priest; the very heart and fire of faith had been subjected by scholastic reasoning and dead works. I felt fully assured of where I was heading spiritually, and the Catholic Church wasn’t it. But the truth is, I was completely oblivious to where the Lord was leading me. I wouldn’t realize where I was going until I was already there.

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.

John’s Baptism as Prophecy

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

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

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

In my study of Baptism so far, I’ve taken for granted that the baptism of John the Baptist was somehow irrelevant to Christian Baptism, since all Christians agree that it was merely a foreshadowing of Christ’s. I now think my omission was a mistake. All combined, the accounts of John give us the most voluminous treatment of Baptism in the New Testament. All four Evangelists found John’s Baptism to be of central importance to their Gospel narratives, and necessary to understanding the person of Jesus and His work. That John is known to Christian tradition as “The Baptist” places a special emphasis on his role in connection with Baptism. To grasp a full understanding of what Baptism is and what it does, then, we should turn first to John.

Giotto, The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305)

The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305), by Giotto. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

“To give knowledge of salvation to His people”

The Evangelists understood John (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4), as John understood himself (John 1:23), to be the immediate forerunner of the Christ, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the LORD,’” in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah (Isaiah 40:3). In what way was John supposed to prepare Christ’s way? John’s father Zechariah prophesied in his Benedictus:

You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
through the tender mercy of our God… (Luke 1:76–77)

So we see that John’s mission is to give knowledge of salvation to [the LORD’s] people in the forgiveness of their sins. John gave knowledge of salvation — an understanding of how people could be saved — in the forgiveness of their sins. What in John’s message would have given that understanding?

From John’s first appearance, he preached a simple message: a baptism of repentance. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry” (Matthew 3:11). It is implied, then, that if John’s message was to convey “knowledge of salvation,” that knowledge had an intrinsic connection to his baptism and to repentance.

Baptism of Christ, from Mariawald Abbey

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

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”

John is also plain in his message that his baptism was only a precursor of a greater Baptism that was to come: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11, Luke 3:16). Certainly the key aspect of this Baptism was to be “with the Holy Spirit” (cf. Mark 1:8), since Mark refers to only Christ’s Baptism “with the Holy Spirit,” while both Matthew and Luke refer to the same Baptism as being “with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

Now, I have heard some Protestants, particularly from my own Charismatic tradition, suppose that this refers to two different baptisms, “with the Holy Spirit” and “with fire.” But what is John actually saying here? It’s evident in the original texts that the two terms refer to the same object: although many English translations include “with” twice, there is only one preposition here in the Greek: ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ καὶ πυρί [en pneumati hagiō kai puri], with the Holy Spirit and fire. This is a literary device called hendiadys (Greek for “one by means of two”), by which two words connected by a conjunction are used to express a single idea, where an adjective and a substantive might otherwise be used. Christ’s “baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” is one and the same: baptism with the fiery Holy Spirit. In the words of the great Jesuit commentator Cornelius à Lapide, far more eloquent than my own:

By the Holy Ghost and fire is meant the Holy, Fiery, and Inflaming Spirit, who is fire—that is, like fire—and, as fire, burns, and kindles. It is a hendiadys. The Holy Ghost, as it were fire, purges the faithful from their sins, kindles and illuminates them, raises them towards heaven and strengthens them, unites them closely to Himself, and, like fire, transforms them into Himself. (The Great Commentary of Cornelius à Lapide, Volume 1: S. Matthew’s Gospel, trans. T.W. Mossman [London: John Hodges, 1887], 122)

Conclusion

So what is the upshot of all this? John declares plainly that his baptism is merely with water, a symbolic washing away of sins from repentant sinners. So Jesus’s Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire is clearly something more. John himself associates Christ’s Baptism with the work of the Holy Spirit. So the logic seems to me:

  1. John baptized with water.
  2. John said the Christ would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” — not “with water,” leading to a possible symbolic interpretation.
  3. But Jesus also baptized with water (cf. John 4:1), and water baptism became a Christian sacrament.
  4. No other movement of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is referred to as “baptism.”
  5. It appears, then, that the Baptism John prophesied would be “with the Holy Spirit and fire” was the only Baptism Jesus is known to have administered, in water.

By the testimony of John, Christian Baptism was to be something much more than merely “with water.” Baptism itself was to be a movement of the Holy Spirit.

Baptism in the Early Church: Proof of Extrascriptural Tradition

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore

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

[Part of a series on Baptism in Depth]

One of the clearest evidences to me of the existence of Sacred Tradition — of the idea that the Divine Revelation of Christ is not contained wholly and exclusively in Sacred Scripture, and that essential elements of Jesus’s teachings were not written down explicitly by the Apostles but continued to be passed down by their own oral teaching — is this: Despite only a few, arguably ambiguous statements from Jesus regarding Baptism in the canonical gospels — despite no recorded teaching of Christ stating clearly what Baptism is and how and why Christians should practice it — on the Day of Pentecost, upon the first proclamation of the Christian Gospel to the multitude, Peter knew just exactly what to do: “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

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

The conclusion that Peter knows something we don’t know is inescapable: He knows that (1) Baptism is an imperative that should be carried out immediately, now rather than later, upon believing in Christ; it is the answer to the question “what must be do?” to become a follower of Jesus; (2) Baptism in Jesus’s name is “for the forgiveness of your sins,” rather than merely “for repentance” as John the Baptist’s baptism was (cf. Matthew 3:11, Acts 19:4); (3) after Baptism, believers will receive the Holy Spirit. Not only does Peter seem to have a fuller understanding of what is happening in Baptism than the gospels indicate, but neither is a detailed explanation of this forthcoming in the remainder of the New Testament. The reader is left to infer Baptism’s meaning from context. In fact, the New Testament’s apparent lack of perspicuity on this matter is manifest enough that various Protestant sects proceeding from a basic reading of Scripture alone, shorn from Christian tradition, have come to widely differing and contradictory understandings of the doctrine — a doctrine of primary enough importance to the Gospel as to mentioned more than twice as often as “justification” (some 170 instances in 75 verses of “baptism” or “baptize”, as compared to only about 80 instances in 40 verses of “justification” or “justify”).

On the other hand, where Scripture is less than clear, Tradition, from the earliest times, evinces the same, full understanding of Baptism and its importance that the Apostles displayed in Scripture. There are no theological or exegetical debates or contradictory claims regarding Baptism found among the orthodox writers of the early Church. As a received doctrine, instructed and passed down by the Apostles themselves to their own disciples, and thence to each succeeding generation of Christians, the meaning and urgency of Baptism were completely understood:

Let us further inquire whether the Lord took any care to foreshadow the water [of baptism] and the cross. Concerning the water, indeed, it is written, in reference to the Israelites, that they will not receive that baptism which leads to the remission of sins, but will procure another for themselves. … [The words of another prophet] imply, Blessed are they who, placing their trust in the cross, have gone down into the water; for, says He, they shall receive their reward in due time. … Further, what says He? “And there was a river flowing on the right, and from it arose beautiful trees; and whosoever shall eat of them shall live for ever” (Ezekiel 47:12). This meaneth, that we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit. “And whosoever shall eat of these shall live for ever.” This meaneth: Whosoever, He declares, shall hear thee speaking, and believe, shall live for ever. [Epistle of Barnabas XI (ca. A.D. 120)]

Then [the catechumens] are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5). … And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. …[In order that we] may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe… [Justin Martyr, First Apology LX (ca. A.D. 155)]

On the fifth day the living creatures which proceed from the waters were produced, through which also is revealed the manifold wisdom of God in these things; for who could count their multitude and very various kinds? Moreover, the things proceeding from the waters were blessed by God, that this also might be a sign of men’s being destined to receive repentance and remission of sins, through the water and laver of regeneration,—as many as come to the truth, and are born again, and receive blessing from God. [Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus II.16 (ca. A.D. 170)]

Baptism, which is regeneration to God, was instituted by Jesus for the remission of sins. [Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies I.21 (ca. A.D. 180)]

Giving to the disciples the power of regeneration into God, He said to them, “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. [Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies III.17 (ca. A.D. 180)]

The sins committed before faith are accordingly forgiven by the Lord, not that they may be undone, but as if they had not been done. … It ought to be known, then, that those who fall into sin after baptism are those who are subjected to discipline; for the deeds done before are remitted, and those done after are purged. [Clement of Alexandria, Stromata IV.24 (ca. A.D. 200)]

Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life! [Tertullian, On Baptism I (ca. A.D. 200)]

From the very fact, that with so great simplicity, without pomp, without any considerable novelty of preparation, finally, without expense, a man is dipped in water, and amid the utterance of some few words, is sprinkled, and then rises again, not much (or not at all) the cleaner, the consequent attainment of eternity is esteemed the more incredible. … What then? Is it not wonderful, too, that death should be washed away by bathing? [Tertullian, On Baptism II (ca. A.D. 200)]

Resolutions

Reni, St. Peter Penitent

St. Peter Penitent (c. 1600), by Guido Reni. (WikiPaintings.org)

Hi. No, I haven’t forgotten about blogging. I’ve been pondering it every day, wondering what I should say next. I’ve written posts several times and then decided not to post them. It’s been an intense time of growth and healing and change, being broken and rebuilt. And I’ve come to a few resolutions for this new year.

I’ve been increasingly convicted about the polemic tone my blog has taken. I set out to show the world the reasons for my faith, how the Lord had guided me to the truth, and all the beautiful and glorious things about the fullness found only in the Catholic Church. But especially in the past six months or so, I’ve taken more to attacking what others believe, particularly Protestants, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I do believe that in some respects they’re wrong — but the right of Christ’s love, which we share, outweighs by worlds the wrong of their sometimes errors in doctrine. And I am put here to show that love, to love, above all, my own brother and sister, that the world may know that we are Christ’s and that He is sent by God.

So from now on I will strive to emphasize what is good and true and right about Catholicism. That will sometimes entail demonstrating what is wrong with opposing views, but I will always strive to do so in love, and to present what can build up rather than merely tear down.

Oh, and my thesis is done and approved. I defended it now about a month ago. New things are coming in my life. And it’s time to return to blogging. This morning as I was lying in bed, the Lord gave me several posts to start brewing — likely to be series, given my penchant for words. I want to pick up the Sacraments with a post on the sacrifice of the Mass. There’s still more to talk about with Baptism, and then I want to talk about Confession and Anointing of the Sick and Holy Orders. And I have the next post in my conversion story brewing. Stay tuned!

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”?

Why I am a Catholic: the Short Version

This came out of the blue, off the cuff, just as you read it, when a friend on Facebook asked me to sum up in one point why I converted to Catholicism. This is probably the most succinct account you’ll ever read from me.

It’s hard to narrow down to just one. But I’ll give you three: The authority of the teachings, the catholicity and universality of the Church, and the historical continuity with all ages.

St. Gregory the Great

St. Gregory the Great.

The first point, authority: Protestants believe in sola scriptura, that one’s doctrine and authority come from Scripture alone. But that means that ultimately understanding God’s Word is dependent on the individual conscience. It’s up to you to read it and decide what it means. Which left me constantly in the place of feeling lost and unworthy to come to any conclusion. Who was I to say one denomination was right and another wrong, when so many wise and intelligent people had been arguing over it for centuries? How could I have any certainty at all, about anything?

And I really don’t think Jesus would have left us in that pickle. There’s nothing in Scripture to suggest that anyone ever intended that. All through the Old Testament, God anointed priests and prophets and judges and kings to lead and instruct and guide His people. The prophets promised that He would send us shepherds after His own heart. And then, God Incarnate Himself comes! To reveal to us the fullness of divine Truth! And then — we’re left with a book? That we have to muddle through ourselves? It has no continuity with the rest of revelation. It seems completely out of character with God and anti-climactic to the history of salvation.

St. Paul

But from the very first century, even suggested in Scripture, the Church has believed in apostolic succession — the idea that Christian teachings, and the authority to teach them, were passed down from the Apostles to the bishops and down through the ages. That seems entirely more in character, after the succession of Aaronic priests and the Davidic line of kings. Christ told the Apostles that when they spoke, their word would be as His, with all the same authority. And the whole foundation of Catholic teaching is that that authority never went away. There’s still an authoritative Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, with the authority to teach us.

And the second one, the universality: “Catholic” means “universal.” And in Scripture Paul talks repeatedly about us being the Body of Christ, one through our Baptism and through the sharing of the One Bread. And the Catholic Church is spread worldwide, and in any place I could go, it would be the same liturgy, the same belief, the same doctrine — the same One Bread. And there would be brothers and sisters who would welcome me and embrace me. And it’s not just universal around the world — it’s universal through the ages. With all the believers who’ve ever lived. United by that One Bread.

And the Protestant churches have no concept at all of that. There are 40,000+ Protestant denominations, and that’s not even counting “nondenominational” churches. It’s hip not to be affiliated with anybody, just to be a splinter with no attachments to anything bigger and no accountability to any authority.

The Four Doctors of the Western Church

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

And the third one, you get: Historical continuity. Both in terms of events and in terms of doctrine. Everything the first century Church believed, we believe today. Everything we believe today, the first century Church had at least some notion of. And all the events, all the developments, all the heroes and saints and brothers and sisters, are connected. Whereas for most Protestants, history began from nothing in 1517. They can’t explain where their faith came from, other than point to the Bible. But how did the Bible come to them?

I was thinking yesterday: Protestantism is the ultimate reboot. Like with Batman or Superman or Star Trek, they decided they didn’t like how the story was going, so they took the original source material and started over, re-reading it all in a new light and re-inventing it how they wanted it. With no connection at all to anything that had happened before.

St. Ambrose on the Baptism of Desire

St. Ambrose, by Matthias Stom (c.1600–c.1652)

St. Ambrose, by Matthias Stom (c.1600–c.1652) (WikiPaintings).

Here’s something I just transcribed for the sake of linking to it in a discussion. The Catholic Church has consistently taught that God in His mercy can save those who desired to be baptized but were unable, or who would have desired to be baptized had they been aware of its necessity (CCC 1257–1261). This holds particularly true for catechumens, whose explicit desire for Baptism, repentance from sins, and growth in charity and faith, have already joined them to the Church (CCC 1247–1249, 1259). The following is an excerpt from St. Ambrose of Milan’s funeral oration on the death of the emperor Valentinian II (371–392), who fell victim to the common practice of deferring Baptism until late in life or even to one’s deathbed. At the time of his death, he had requested for Ambrose himself to baptize him — but before the bishop could arrive or the emperor could travel to Italy, Valentinian was murdered. In Ambrose’s consolation, he declares the hope of Valentinian’s salvation despite his failure to be baptized, and God’s mercy upon him because of his desire for the Sacrament. This demonstrates both the Church’s firm belief in baptismal regeneration and its necessity, and in God’s mercy upon those who failed to be baptized.

Valentinian II

Valentinian II (Wikipedia).

(51) But I hear that you grieve because he did not receive the sacrament of baptism. Tell me: What else is in your power other than the desire, the request?* But he even had this desire for a long time, that, when he should come into Italy, he would be initiated, and recently he signified his desire to be baptized by me, and for this reason above all others he thought that I ought to be summoned. Has he not, then, the grace which he desired; has he not the grace which he requested? And because he asked, he received, and therefore it is said: ‘By whatsoever death the just man shall be overtaken, his soul shall be at rest’ (Wisdom 4:7).

(52) Grant, therefore, O holy Father, to Thy servant the gift which Moses received, because he saw in spirit; the gift which David merited, because he knew from revelation. Grant, I pray, to Thy servant Valentinian the gift which he longed for, the gift which he requested while in health, vigor, and security. If, stricken with sickness, he had deferred it, he would not be entirely without Thy mercy who has been cheated by the swiftness of time, not by his own wish. Grant, therefore, to Thy servant the gift of Thy grace which he never rejected … He who had Thy Spirit, how has he not received Thy grace?

(53) Or if the fact disturbs you that the mysteries have not been solemnly celebrated, then you should realize that not even martyrs are crowned if they are catechumens, for they are not crowned if they are not initiated. But if they are washed in their own blood, his piety and his desire have washed him, also.

Baptism of Constantine (1520–1524), by the school of Raphael

Baptism of Constantine (1520–1524), by the school of Raphael (Wikipedia). In the Vatican Museums.

(54) Do not, I beseech, O Lord, separate him from his brother, do not break the yoke of this pious relationship. Now Gratian, already Thine, and vindicated by Thy judgment, is in further peril, if he be separated from his brother, if he deserve not to be with him through whom he has deserved to be vindicated. … (55) Your father also is present [Valentinian I], who under Julian spurned imperial service and the honors of the tribunate out of his love for the faith. Give to the father his son, to the brother his brother, both of whom he imitated, the one by his faith, the other equally by his devotion and piety …

(56) Offer the holy mysteries with your hands, with devoted love let us ask for his repose. Offer the heavenly sacraments, let us accompany the soul of our son with our oblations. ‘Lift up with me, O people, your hands to the holy place’ (Psalm 133(134):2), so that at least through this service we may repay him for his deserts. Not with flowers shall I sprinkle his grave, but I shall bedew his spirit with the odor of Christ. Let others scatter lilies in basketfuls. Christ is our lily, and with this lily I shall bless his remains, with this I shall recommend for his favor.

Source: Roy J. Deferrari, translator. “Consolation on the Death of Emperor Valerian.” Funeral Orations by Saint Gregory Nazianzen and Saint Ambrose. The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1953. 261–299, at 287–289. Retrieved from the Internet Archive, 23 September 2013.

* Pardon my interruption: But I wanted to point this out. Baptism is not a human “work” as Protestants charge; it is a work of grace by the hands of Christ (cf. Colossians 2:11), and, as Ambrose says, our desire for it is the only thing within our own power (cf. “an appeal (or request) to God for a clean conscience,” 1 Peter 3:21). Does this sound like “works’ righteousness”? —JTR

Why I am not a “Roman” Catholic

St. Peter's Basilica at Night

St. Peter’s Basilica (Wikimedia). I love her, but she’s not my home church.

This is something that’s been eating at me for a while, in my conversations with Protestants: I am not a Roman Catholic.

I’m not even Roman! To the best of my knowledge, I haven’t a bit of Roman heritage within at least the past millennium. I come from good, British stock — mostly English, Scottish, and Scotch-Irish.

But when I’m talking to Protestants, they invariably refer to me as “Roman Catholic,” and my Church as the “Roman Catholic Church.” And I realize these terms are technically correct, according to popular nomenclature; but in my view, they are inappropriate, and here’s why.

I am, first and foremost, a Christian. By nativity, residence, and heritage, I am an Alabamian and a Southerner and an American; by education, I am an historian; by avocation, a blogger and would-be theologian and apologist. This is how I identify myself. I don’t generally think any clarification to my Christian identity is immediately necessary, but when it becomes relevant to conversation, I give it: I am a Catholic Christian of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis. He is my universal pastor, and I love him, and I am faithful to him — but I’m not a member of his diocese.

So why do people feel the need to label me as a “Roman” Catholic? There is almost always a note of unpleasantness in their tone when they say this: Dismissiveness? Incredulity? They speak as if there were more than one Catholic Church, and the “Roman” one is only one among many; or as if the “Roman” Catholic Church is only a pretender to the title “Catholic.” There is a sense in which my Church and my Christian heritage is indeed Roman, but that is seldom if ever the sense in which anyone uses the term. And so I reject the label. I am not a “Roman” Catholic.

The particular Church of which I am a member, the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, is a member of the Latin Rite of Christianity. Latin, the ancient language of Rome, is our primary liturgical language, even if in practice we speak more English these days. My bishop, the Most. Rev. Robert Baker, is in communion with the bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. But I am not a member of the Church of Rome.

Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council, assembled in St. Peter’s Basilica. That’s a lot of bishops!

There are more than 2,000 bishops and dioceses (Latin dioceses, Greek διοίκησες, “administrations”) worldwide who, like mine, are in communion with the bishop of Rome. Collectively, these dioceses are often referred to as the Roman Catholic Church, it’s true — but the fact is, only one of those dioceses is actually Roman, the Diocese of Rome, of which Pope Francis is the ordinary. The fact is that these dioceses are distributed among every country and nation on earth, speak nearly every vernacular language, and are made up of Christians of every ethnicity and heritage and background. Only a minuscule fraction of these Christians are Roman in any way. Each diocese is a particular Church of its own. These Churches are not all part of the Latin Rite: there are twenty-three different rites represented by these Churches in communion with the bishop of Rome, some of them having little resemblance or relation to the Roman one: the Byzantine, the Melkite and Maronite, the Syro-Malabar, the Coptic and Ethiopian Catholics, just to name a few. Christians of these Churches would no doubt be offended to be called “Roman” Catholic. But when I say that I am Catholic, I mean that I am in communion — in a Christian unity — with all of these people.

Duccio, Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (1311)

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

The four marks of the true Church of Christ put forward by the Nicene Creed are that she is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. There are other Christian communities in the world that claim themselves to be “catholic” — universal — but there is only One to whom the term truly applies. Speaking practically, no other Church has as many members worldwide — over 1.2 billion — in as many places, among as many groups of people. No other Church is united in oneness by such universal bonds of communion: even the next largest Christian groups, the various Orthodox Churches, and those of the Anglican Communion, are united more by association than communion; the vast majority of other Christian communities have been hopelessly splintered by schism and disunion, to the degree of some 40,000 Protestant denominations today (and that figure is not even to mention “non-denominational” Christians). No other Church manifests more fully the Apostolic faith represented by the New Testament and witnessed forward through the ages by the Church Fathers. And in an age increasingly rocked by moral disintegration, only One Church continues to consistently stand apart in holiness against the evils of abortion, euthanasia, contraception, and immoral sexuality. Only the true, historic, Catholic Church embodies the Oneness, Holiness, Catholicity, and Apostolicity of the Church founded by Jesus 2,000 years ago, which He promised would forever stand against the powers of death. And this is what I mean when I say that I am Catholic.