Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 3: An Authoritative Church

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

An authoritative Church

Rome from the dome of St. Peter's.

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

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

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

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

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

St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán

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

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

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

The Magisterium

Four Doctors of the Western Church

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

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

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

The Good Shepherd, Bernhard Plockhorst

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

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

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

Not a Tyrant

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus Caesar as Pontifex Maximus (Wikimedia).

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

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

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

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

Too Many Teachers

Martin Luther

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

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

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

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

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

“Other Things”

Infant baptism by immersion

Baptism.

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

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

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

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 2: Sources of Authority

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

Santa Maria Maggiore, interior

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Roma (Wikimedia)

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

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

An argument from history

Douay-Rheims New Testament (1582)

Douay-Rheims New Testament (1582) (Wikimedia)

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

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

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

sky-earth-galaxy-universe

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

Sources of authority

Clio, Mignard (Muse of History)

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

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

Chained Bible

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

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

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

St. Augustine

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

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

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

There is still more to come!

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

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

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

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

Priests making sacrifice

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

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

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

A. Sacrifice in the New Testament

1. A Sacrifice of Praise

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

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

And Peter calls:

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

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

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

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

2. Jesus’s Sacrifice

Grunewald, Crucifixion, Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zurbaran, Agnus Dei

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. The Eucharist as Sacrifice

1. The Connection between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugolino di Nerio, The Last Supper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moses concludes his covenant

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

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

Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

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

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

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

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

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

2. “Do This In Memory of Me”

Tintoretto, The Last Supper  (1592-1594)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Testimony from Tradition

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

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

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

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

Opposition from Hebrews?

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

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

C. Ministers of the New Covenant

1. Office and Authority

Pope John Paul II New Orleans 1987

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Apostolic Succession

Paul ordaining Timothy.

Paul ordaining Timothy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clement of Rome

Clement of Rome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

Priests, Westminster

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

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

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

Ministers of the New Covenant: Why Christian Ministers Are Priests

Ordination of priests

Why do Catholics call their ministers priests? Is this concept of priests as ministers of the New Covenant of Christ valid and scripturally sound? In my last post, I demonstrated that the English word “priest” derives etymologically from, and was originally a translation of, the Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros]), attested in the New Testament Scriptures (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1:5,7) and translated in Latin as presbyter, and is thus an appropriate term for the Christian ministry. That the ministers of the Old Testament are also called “priests” in English is mostly the result of a linguistic accident: originally כֹּ֣הֲנִ֔ים [cohenim] in Hebrew, and translated in Greek as ἱερεῖς [hiereis] and Latin as sacerdotes, at some point in the history of transmission these terms became synonymous with Christian priests. The terms became synonymous, apparently, because Christians saw the offices to be synonymous, or at least analogous to one another.

Ministers of the New Covenant

Fr. Charles Merrill, Ash Wednesday 2014

Fr. Charles Merrill, at Ash Wednesday 2014, Annunciation of the Lord Church, Decatur, Alabama. (The Decatur Daily)

The New Testament does not refer to Christian ministers as ἱερεῖς or sacerdotes. It is evident that Jesus did not explicitly institute a formal, liturgical priesthood akin to the Aaronic priesthood: He did not command the Apostles to don ephods or breastplates or robes (or albs or chasubles or stoles, as the case may be); He did not formally anoint them as a new priesthood as Aaron and his sons were anointed (Exodus 28). Yet nonetheless, Jesus did appoint the Twelve to have special roles in His ministry, and invested them with His authority, to preach with His voice, to cast out demons, to heal the sick, to forgive sins (Mark 3:13-18, Matthew 10, Luke 9:1-6, John 20:19-23). This was more than just a casual charge to all Christians, but a formal office for which the Apostles were selected and which they saw the need to fill in replacement of Judas (Acts 1:15-26). These Apostles did appoint elders (presbyters) in every church they founded, to carry on their ministry after they departed (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). We see the outlines of this ministry in the offices of bishop, priest (presbyter), and deacon, with their roles, duties, and requirements (1 Timothy 3). Thus Scripture demonstrates that Christ did institute, and the Apostles did perpetuate, a new order of ordained Christian ministry, ministers of Christ’s New Covenant (2 Corinthians 3:6).

A “Priesthood of All Believers”

Bishop, priest, and deacon

Bishop, priest, and deacon.

To answer a common charge of Protestants, a distinction should be made between the universal priesthood in which every believer is called to participate (e.g. 1 Peter 2:5,9, Revelation 1:6), and the ministerial priesthood, the official roles and offices of Christian ministry and service to which individual believers are specially called. St. Paul is clear that not every believer is called to the same ministry, function, or role (1 Corinthians 12:27-30, Ephesians 4:11-12), but that every member in every role is essential to the working of the body and none essentially “higher” or “better” than any other (1 Corinthians 12:4-26). While the New Testament people of God are a “royal priesthood,” called to exercise Christ’s mission as priest, prophet, and king (CCC 1546-1547), this does not detract from the necessity that not all are called to serve in ministerial roles. An analogy is made to the Old Testament people of God, who were likewise called “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6), but who nonetheless had an order of men specially called to serve as priests.

Priests by Analogy

Pompeo Batoni, St. Paul (c. 1740)

Pompeo Batoni, St. Paul (c. 1741). (the-athenaeum.org)

But if the New Testament does not call Christian ministers sacerdotes (or ἱερεῖς in Greek) — in fact, it seems to make efforts not to equate them with the old order of sacerdotes — why should they come to be referred to as such? — and why should calling them thus be accepted as scripturally sound? Given the evidence that God constituted an order of priests (sacerdotes) for the Jews in service of His Old Covenant, and that Jesus appointed a new order of ministers in service of His New Covenant, it seems natural that Christians should see their ministry as being in some sense analogous to the priestly ministry of the Old Testament. In fact, St. Paul applied this analogy explicitly even within Scripture:

Because of the grace given me by God, [I am] a minister (λειτουργός, [leitourgos]) of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service (ἱερουργοῦντα [hierourgounta], literally serving as a priest, i.e. sacerdos) of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:16).

Thus, in explicit language, Paul relates his ministry as an Apostle of Christ to the ministry of a priest (sacerdos), one who aids the Gentiles in making an offering of themselves to the Lord.

That he sees himself as a member of an order of ministers is also evident:

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:4–6).

That Paul is speaking with reference to himself and his apostolic associates, and not to all believers, is also evident from the context. Writing to the Corinthian Church, he makes plain distinction between the first person “we” and the second person “you,” asking, “Do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you?” To this he answers to the Corinthians that You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2–3).

Contradictions?

Our recent commenter complained that the idea of there being a new order of “priests” in the New Testament is contradictory to Scripture, especially to the Epistle to the Hebrews. Is this true? Hebrews does argue that Jesus as our high priest supersedes the old order of Aaronic priests, and with His once and for all atoning sacrifice on Calvary, makes their repeated sacrifices obsolete and unnecessary (Hebrews 7:27, 8:6–8, 13, etc.). But is this relevant?

I have not yet approached the question of the ministerial priesthood’s role in the Christian Sacraments, especially in the Eucharist, the presentation of the Lord’s Supper. This is directly relevant to the Book of Hebrews and will have to be addressed. But this post is already long, and I will have to save the sacramental element of the priesthood for another post or posts. Suffice it to say, by way of preview, that the Eucharist is a sacrifice: not a repetition or a continuation of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice at every Mass, as Protestant critics allege, but a re-presentation of that one sacrifice, a making present for all time, just as Jesus Himself commanded his ministers to re-present it: “Do this in memory of me.”

For the aspects of the priesthood discussed here — the fact that priests are ministers of Christ’s New Covenant, appointed to carry out roles of ministry in the Church — the passages in Hebrews are not relevant at all. The Old Covenant is obsolete and passing away, superseded by a New Covenant; but nothing about this understanding would exclude the idea that the New Covenant should have its own ministers. In fact, such an understanding would contradict the scriptural passages already discussed above.

Priests by Prophecy

Prophet Isaiah (Bible card)

The Prophet Isaiah, from a Bible card, c. 1904. (Wikipedia)

Not only did the ministers of the New Covenant see their roles in ministry as analogous to the priests (sacerdotes) of the Old Covenant, but the Old Testament prophets prophesied that with the coming of the Messiah, a new order of priests would be ministers of God and shepherds of His people. The prophet Isaiah foretold that in the coming of the Messiah, an order of priests would serve him:

You shall be called the priests of the LORD,
men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God.
(Isaiah 61:6)

For I know their works and their thoughts, and I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory. … And they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the LORD, just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering in a clean vessel to the house of the LORD. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites,” says the LORD. (Isaiah 66:18, 20–21)

The prophet Jeremiah prophesied that just as the royal throne of David would never be empty, the Lord God would be perpetually served by priests making sacrifices:

For thus says the LORD: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the Levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to burn cereal offerings, and to make sacrifices for ever. … As the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will multiply the descendants of David my servant, and the Levitical priests who minister to me. (Jeremiah 33:17–18, 22)

Jeremiah also foretold that the Lord would give His people shepherds:

And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. (Jeremiah 3:15)

I will set shepherds over [my people] who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the LORD. Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. (Jeremiah 23:4–5)

Jeremiah clearly associates these shepherds with the coming of the Messiah also; and also with the former leaders of Israel who have led the Lord’s flock astray (Jeremiah 23:1-2), especially with priests and prophets (Jeremiah 23:9-11, 33, etc.). Therefore the new shepherds of the Lord’s flock will take the place of these.

It is understandable, then, that Christian exegetes reading these texts, understanding Christ and the Church to be the fulfillment of these prophecies, should understand that their ministers, ministering to the Lord and shepherding His people, were analogous to priests.

Conclusion

We have discussed how the New Testament itself presents that Christ appointed His Apostles to specific roles within His ministry, as ministers of His New Covenant, and how they ordained other ministers to carry on their ministry; and how these ministers of the New Covenant saw themselves to be in some sense analogous to the priests (sacerdotes) of the Old Covenant. We have explored how the prophets of the Old Testament perceived that God would institute a New Covenant, and employ a new order of priests and shepherds in service of that covenant and His people, and that Christ and His Church are understood to be the fulfillment of these prophecies. Now we must return to a third and perhaps most crucial aspect of whether the ministers of the New Covenant should be considered priests: Do these ministers make sacrifices? And if, in the Christian understanding, they do make sacrifices, is this not contradictory to the teachings of the scriptural Epistle to the Hebrews, which declares that Jesus, our High Priest, has made a final, once and for all sacrifice and thus made obsolete the repeated sacrifices of the Old Covenant? Next, I will examine these questions, and show how the idea of the Eucharist as a sacrifice is presented by Scripture and received by tradition.

A Tradition of Authority: Why Catholic Arguments Were Convincing to Me, and Not Merely a Cure for Exegetical Paralysis

This is a bit heavier than my usual posts here, but it answers an important question that Protestant apologists have posed to me and other Catholic converts: Was I only drawn to the Catholic Church because its claims to authority offered an “easy out” to the difficulties of weighing Scripture and doctrine for myself?

Paralysis

A Catalogue of Sects

A Catalogue of the Severall Sects and Opinions in England and other Nations: With a briefe Rehearsall of their false and dangerous Tenents. Broadsheet. 1647.

I’ve been accused before, and I readily admit that it’s true, that as a Protestant, I never had a very thoroughgoing commitment to Protestant theological principles. It was not for lack of trying: for a number of years I had studied theology, prayed, and pored over the Scriptures in an earnest attempt to arrive at some apprehension of the truth. But no Protestant theology, despite the ardent, sometimes vehement assertions of each’s adherents, had a firm enough foundation to convince me. Each was based in subjective interpretations of the Scriptures that lacked either the context or the clarity to convey everything their doctrines demanded of them. Each’s interpretation conflicted with every other, and yet was based in the very same texts; and each had no greater claim to being the correct and sole interpretation of those texts than the rest. I had not the knowledge or the faculty to sort it all out, and even if I had, any conclusion I reached would be, I realized, my own subjective conclusion, based only on my own interpretation and whosever opinion happened to sway me at that time. I realized the inherent weakness, instability, and insufficiency of this position. Though I would never have articulated it this way then, it was clear that Scripture by itself could not teach me everything I needed to know about God and His salvation.

So as a Protestant, I resigned myself to uncertainty, to never being sure exactly what Scripture was trying to teach; to never knowing, in the sea of competing and conflicting doctrines, which ones were the true ones. Since I could not discern, from Scripture, the truth or falsehood of every doctrine and theology, I was lulled into a sense of complacency, what I called a thoroughgoing ecumenism: if I could discern no school of theology to be absolutely true, then each of them must be more or less acceptable and worthy of consideration. On one hand, I am glad for this: it made me tolerant and accepting of a wide diversity of Christian brothers and sisters, and open-minded enough to listen to and consider what they have to say. It was an open-mindedness that eventually made me willing to examine the Catholic Church and finally found welcome in her walls. It troubled me, and still does, the Protestants who could assume a stance of enough certainty to condemn and judge the doctrines of other believers, based on so unsteady a foundation as I perceived theirs to be. On the other hand, this ecumenism eventually reached a point of doctrinal relativism, agnosticism, or universalism: that not only could we not know the truth of doctrine, but that it didn’t really matter and that God loved and accepted us all anyway.

A Protestant apologist recently referred to this as the “paralysis” of the Protestant mind; apparently it is common enough to have its own name. This apologist also suggested, as I have heard other Protestant apologists charge against other Catholic converts, that the Catholic Church was attractive to me simply because it offered a way to break this “logjam”: that I accepted the Church’s claims only because they asserted a singular authority, because the Church could dictate the answer rather than leave me to muddle it out on my own, and not because there was anything compelling or convincing about the claims of themselves: in short, that the singular, magisterial authority of the Catholic Church was a crutch, an escape, a deus ex machina, an easy out of the Protestant conundrum of having to reason through the Scriptures.

There are several answers I’d like to make to this charge.

I resisted until I couldn’t

no

First, I wasn’t looking for such a crutch. I was well aware of the position of the Catholic Church in claiming to be the only authoritative interpreter of Scripture for years before I ever considered Catholicism — and rather than being an attractive prospect, it horrifed me more than almost anything else I knew about the Church. It seemed the perfect setup for the many doctrinal abuses I had heard about and believed existed in Catholicism: if the Church can dictate that some thing in Scripture means something different than what it says, and that doctrines don’t even have to have a biblical basis at all, then she can teach her followers anything, no matter how contrary to reason and truth, and compel them to accept and believe it. (Of course, these are all mischaracterizations of what the Church teaches.) As an academic, I cared about and was convinced by reason and evidence, and was suspicious of claims without solid factual foundation. The Catholic teaching authority, as I understood it, was a proposition that I strongly and vehemently resisted, not one that I readily embraced as a savior.

“Authority” in a Different Sense

http://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en/bnf/lat11641/6v/0/Sequence-204

Leaf from a manuscript of Augustine at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, dated c. 7th–8th century (e-codices.unifr.ch).

Once I examined her in earnest, the Catholic Church won me over, against my expectations or inclinations, because her arguments were compelling: not merely because they claimed to be authoritative, but because they were based on actual authority, on an authentic, continuous, and documented tradition of authoritative testimony. Protestants tend to think of “authority” only in terms of divine authority, the absolute, unquestionable authority of God, which they find solely in Scripture. In this regard — even if they acknowledge that Jesus granted authority to His Apostles — they find no essential connection between that authority and the Church, and so presume that the claims of the Catholic Church to be “authoritative” are based only on bald assertion. But to me as an historian, “authority” also has another meaning: the authority of support for a claim or argument. And rather than bald assertions or empty, unsupported claims, as I had been led to believe the Catholic Church stood on, I found, for every substantive point of Catholic doctrine, well-articulated, well-defined, and well-supported arguments based in a rich, academic, scholarly tradition and founded on a continuous and consistent corpus of authoritative documents and teachings spanning twenty centuries.

The Catholic Sense of Scripture

Monk at work in scriptorium

In most everyday matters, it is precisely this latter understanding of authority that is the substance of Catholic teaching, and not the sort of dictatorial pronouncements that Protestants presume. For example, Protestants commonly understand that the Catholic Church must dictate to the believer how to interpret every jot and tittle of every passage of Scripture, such that believers cannot read and interpret Scripture for themselves. But the truth is that the Church has given authoritative teachings on only a very small portion of the whole corpus of Scripture. The sense of the Catholic understanding of Scripture subsists not only in such pronouncements, but in the exegetical tradition of Church Fathers, bishops, teachers and theologians, whose mind and understanding is faithfully passed down and preserved in the Church — whose teaching is authoritative by its own merit, because of their great learning and holiness and their nearness in history to Christ’s revelation. Though not having divine authority on its own, this is more authoritative by bounds than the subjective, substantially unsupported interpretations of Protestants.* In exactly the same way, I accept the writings of past historians as having great knowledge and insight, as being authorities into their subject matter.†

* There are some Protestants, especially the great theologians, who do seek to support their exegetical arguments with appeals to the authority of the Church Fathers; but generally, I find, they do this selectively and unevenly, accepting a Father’s argument where it suits them but ignoring him where it does not, and looking to the Fathers only as a last recourse, designed to support their own subjective interpretation, and not as a primary means to discerning the meaning of the Scriptures in the first place.

† Of course, some historians are simply wrong; and Church Fathers can also be wrong. Here the consensus of the Church, the opinions of other Fathers and teachers and theologians, is important. If the consensus of later writers is that Augustine was a great and orthodox teacher, then that is the reputation and the authority he enjoys. If the consensus is that Tertullian strayed off track in his later life and expressed some opinions that are not in agreement with the Church’s teachings, then we read those opinions of Tertullian as dissenting and sometimes heterodox arguments. Nevertheless, because of his position in time, so close to the Apostles themselves, Tertullian’s authority as an historical witness to the doctrines believed and taught in his time is absolute.

Teaching from the Deposit of Faith

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

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

This is the raw material: Scripture and the generations of holy men and women who taught, prayed, and commented on it, preserving and passing on the teachings they had received, the inheritance of the faith delivered once unto the saints, and with it the teaching of Christ and the Apostles themselves. When the Catholic Church does make official pronouncements of doctrine — whether from a council of bishops or pastorally from the pope — these teachings are not invented from nothing, but are drawn from, based on, and supported by this raw material. Especially when the meaning of Scripture and doctrine is not completely clear from the sources themselves, and when there is uncertainty or dispute, it is the role of the Church’s Magisterium, her teaching authority, to weigh the body of evidence and discern the truth from it. Even then, the conclusion is not arbitrary: the Magisterium cannot declare something contrary to the evidence, contrary to Scripture or to the orthodox teachers of the faith; she cannot declare a circle square, or dictate something that revelation has not itself revealed, or compel her faithful to believe something not already contained in the deposit of faith. The Church teaches what she has received (1 Timothy 4:11): not anything more and not anything less.

A Well-Built Building

pyramid

Catholics believe that in such teachings, the Holy Spirit guides the Church into all truth (John 16:13) — and this is a simple matter to believe, because they are evidenced by the constant and unchanging course of that guidance, and founded in reasonable and well-supported arguments from authority. For example: the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the epitome of Catholic doctrine, is not a book of empty assertions, but bases its every sentence on several thousand citations to authority in Scripture, the Church Fathers, councils and popes. Every one of these citations can be followed to find the origin and basis of the Church’s teaching, like a well-built building, every element borne up by the support of another, until it reaches the ground of absolute authority in Christ’s revelation itself. Even the declarations of the most controversial doctrines to those outside the Church, such as the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in Pope Pius XII’s 1950 Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, rest not on bald assertion or any empty claim to papal privilege or authority, but on carefully constructed and well-reasoned arguments from the tradition of received authority.

Thus, the charge that I was drawn to the Catholic Church solely because her claims to authority were a cure for my exegetical paralysis, a crutch and an escape from having to discern and decide for myself, is completely false. The Catholic Church did cure my exegetical paralysis, but I was not seeking and did not believe there could be a cure: I was taken by surprise, and thoroughly convinced, by something I was not expecting at all, something I never imagined could exist: a Christian body who based its arguments not on subjective interpretations of Scripture, not on concepts and constructs of theology with no other basis than such interpretations, not on vitriolic polemics against other sects — but on the very concepts of authority, evidence, and tradition I had been taught to embrace and accept as an academic; on a sturdy and unshakeable foundation of such authority reaching back through the ages to the Apostles themselves, evincing and confirming the origin of all authority, Christ Himself.

I went to Mass and didn’t like it: Faltering steps in my journey to the Church

The other day was the three-year anniversary of my entering the Church. And as I’ve been helping dear ones through their own conversions this year, it occurs to me that once again, I’ve left my own conversion story hanging. Here is another chapter.

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

The first week I moved to Oxford, Mississippi, for graduate school, I visited the Catholic Church. I guess I was thinking of Audrey and the other people I had met when I visited, and hoping to make some kind of social connection. I was desperately afraid that unless I quickly formed some kind of support system in this new town and university, I would not be able to cut it in grad school.

My thinking on the purpose of the church at that time was that it existed solely as a community for the support of the fellowship of believers. So that is exactly what I was looking for the first time I attended Mass at St. John’s in Oxford: for social connection; for fellowship with people like me who could support me and encourage me. And I couldn’t have been more disappointed and discouraged.

Packed pews

I went to the eleven o’clock Mass on what I later learned was one of the busiest Sundays of the year, the Sunday of move-in week, when the families of all the undergraduates were in town to get their children settled and off to a good start. The place was packed, standing room only, and I had no idea where to go or what to do. From the beginning, this worked against my social anxiety and my comfort level. I was further dismayed that no one greeted me, in the way I had come to expect as a Protestant. No one seemed to notice I was there. I narrowly squeezed into a seat in one of the back pews.

Several key things stand out in my memory from that visit. First, I thought the priest was goofy. He seemed not entirely put-together, dignified, or solemn as I expected a Catholic priest to be. Second, he was reading the liturgy! I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was deeply bothered by this: Much as many Protestants feel that composed prayers, as opposed to extemporaneous ones, are somehow less real and less genuine, I felt that this priest did not really, sincerely mean or even understand these words he was reading out of a book about God, Jesus, and salvation. Did he even have faith at all, or was this just the “dead religion” I had been fearing for so many years? How does reading prayers out of a book make them applicable to me? How does reading prayers out of a book serve me? It contradicted my whole understanding of what a church service was supposed to be.

Hands raised in worship

Emotion is what I grew up with.

Perhaps most important, I didn’t feel anything. I did not feel the presence of God. I did not hold this up as a standard — this focus on my own feelings had defined my existence as an Evangelical, whether and how I felt the presence of God, and I understood this had been a problem for me and one of the main reasons for my searching — but nonetheless it troubled me a lot. It wasn’t that I was closed-minded to any part of the experience; indeed, I had felt God’s presence profoundly when I had been in Catholic churches before. But I wondered that day if God was really there in the Catholic Church at all.

At Communion, I went forward to receive a blessing at the invitation of the priest. I was in the line of a lay extraordinary Eucharistic minister, a female, and I had no idea what I was doing, so I just stood there awkwardly crossing my arms. She seemed impatient and frustrated (I’ve since learned that laypeople really ought not to be giving blessings at all), and I felt unwelcome. I took a visitor card and filled it out, but had a difficult time finding anyone to give it to. I ended up giving it to the same extraordinary minister, who again acted (I imagined) as if she had no idea what I was doing there if I wasn’t Catholic.

I did not see Audrey or anyone else I knew. Not only did no one greet me, but no one really spoke to me at all. I left feeling singularly foreign and unwelcome, disappointed and unfulfilled, and more than a little disheartened and disturbed. What I came looking for — a social community — was nowhere to be found. I had been in denial for a while about my attraction to the Catholic Church, maintaining a ready collection of objections to Catholic doctrine. Now those objections were bolstered, and I added one more. This was a major setback: I would not consider the Catholic Church again until some six months later.

The New Testament Church: One Body in Christ

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511) (<a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adora%C3%A7%C3%A3o_da_Sant%C3%ADssima_Trindade.jpg">Wikimedia</a>)

Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511)

Last time, we examined how, in the usage of the New Testament authors, especially Paul and Luke, the churches of Christ were often referred to in the plural, not as a single body — giving rise to a common Protestant claim about the independence of the New Testament churches — yet how Paul’s frequent exhortations to be of one mind betray a certain sense of unity among all Christian believers. This is made clearest in the words of Christ Himself: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they may also be in Us” (John 17:20–23).

Many Protestants tend to read these appeals to unity as references to a vague, undefined, invisible “unity” that somehow contains all believers “in the Spirit,” regardless of the depth of their actual division and disagreement. But such notions of “unity” do not fit with or maintain the biblical call for a true oneness in mind and spirit; they are not the reality of the Church Jesus founded or Paul exhorted.

One Body

Jesus prayed that all who believed in Him would be one, just as He and the Father are one: that is, not just in a loose, spiritual affiliation, but completely, indivisibly One in Christ, of the very same substance and being. Paul tells us that we are one not only spiritually, but corporately:

I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. … Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love. (Ephesians 4:1, 3–6, 15–16)

These words go beyond exhortation: Paul describes the oneness of the Body not merely as a worthy model to strive for, but as a transcendent reality: There is One Body, One Spirit, One Lord. This oneness applies not only within each local body of believers, but across all believers, the entire, whole Body of Christ: the Epistle to the Ephesians is generally thought to have been a circular letter, circulated among a network of churches if not all churches. And lest there be any question that this Body of Christ to which Paul refers is to be understood as the Church, he tells elsewhere in the same letter:

[God] has put all things under His feet and has made Him the Head over all things for the Church, which is his Body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:22–23)

And in other letters:

He is the Head of the Body, the Church; He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything He might be pre-eminent. (Colossians 1:18)

One Church

All Saints

Fra Angelico. The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24).

The Greek word usually translated “church” in the New Testament is ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia). Most literally it means a calling out of people into a gathering or assembly or congregation; it was a standard word in Greek for a legislative assembly. I have heard Protestants seek to argue that the New Testament only understands the church in this general sense (the “little-c” church) and not as a single, corporate, universal body (big-C Church). But the verses already cited should leave little doubt to the fact that, just as we (even Protestants) today make a distinction in English between those two usages (the local church and the body of all believers), the New Testament authors and even Jesus Himself also saw a higher meaning of the word ἐκκλησία:

“On this Rock I will build My Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)

The use of that word ἐκκλησία had an even deeper meaning for a Greek Christian: ἐκκλησία was the common Greek translation the Hebrew קהל (qahal), that appeared in their editions of the Hebrew Old Testament, commonly translated in English as assembly — the assembly or congregation of the Israelite people. The ἐκκλησία, in the mind of a New Testament Christian, was not merely a local assembly of believers: the word evoked striking imagery of the Exodus, the calling out of God’s covenant people out of bondage and into promise.

And so, Jesus’s words echo even more powerfully when He said, “I will build My Church”: not a building, not an institution, not a mere gathering of people, but a calling out of His people, a covenant people of His own. Here He laid its foundation, built on His apostles and prophets, destined to become a holy temple for the Lord (Ephesians 2:20). Here is the One Body of Christ, the Church.

Next time: “The Universal Church”: how the One Body of Christ proceeded whole and undivided; and how it came to be identified as the Catholic Church.

Why the Catholic Understanding of Justification Is Not “Faith Plus Works”

In response to a question on Facebook, after I shared this article from Catholic Answers.

I might say that “faith plus works” can be a valid but misleading generalization — but not “grace plus works” (even though the article does clumsily put those side by side). Catholics do (and the Council of Trent did) fully affirm that salvation is by grace alone. Because everything is grace, even the works we do, since it is only by grace that we can work at all or even will to do good (Philippians 2:13, John 15:4). Even in that case (“faith plus works”), we are not saying that “works save us,” and in no sense do we mean works can “earn” salvation, or that anything must be added to the cross of Christ — which is why I generally disagree with the characterization “faith plus works.”

Catholics fully affirm that our initial justification — our initial rebirth in Christ — is entirely by faith alone through grace; it cannot be earned or deserved by anything we do or are. Since Protestants tend to compress the whole salvation experience into that initial justification, it’s easy to get the wrong idea when Catholics say that anything more (and “works” at that!) is required. But Catholics understand salvation as an ongoing process (so does Scripture: e.g. Philippians 1:6, 2:12–13, etc.), and roll into a part of “justification” what Protestants call “sanctification,” the ongoing process of being converted and conformed to Christ. And that — and most Protestants would agree — is wrought by “faith working in love” (Galatians 5:6, James 2:24).

Salvation is more than just being once forgiven; it’s being healed, renewed, and transformed by the love and grace of God. And God has designed to make us participants in that life of grace; we are not just passive recipients, but we receive that grace and bear fruit (John 15:1–4). Protestants say that good works are a fruit of grace, and Catholics agree. And just as Protestants say that a Christian who isn’t bearing any fruit possibly isn’t really “saved,” Catholics would likewise agree — only we would say that bearing that fruit is part of the ongoing process of being saved, being renewed and transformed in His image — which begins when we first receive His grace, and ends when we see Him face to face.

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

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

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

Many Churches

Paul Preaching in the Areopagus, Sir James Thornhill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Mind

Anthony Van Dyck, The Crucifixion (c. 1622)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time: “One Body in Christ”

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

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

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

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

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

Not Dictating Sin, but Labeling Sin

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Batoni

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

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

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

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

“Missing Mass is a Mortal Sin”?

Jesus and the Eucharist

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

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

Missing the Lord’s Banquet

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Alterpiece: Adoration of the Lamb

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

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

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

Offering the Lord’s Offering at the Appointed Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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