Justification, unity, and papacy: A blind spot

Catechism of the Catholic ChurchOne of the most frequent charges I hear, when I point out the inherent chaos and disunity of Protestantism, is that “there is a lot of disagreement in the Catholic Church, too” — that somehow disagreements within the Catholic Church are equivalent to, or excuse, the fundamental doctrinal disagreements between diverse Protestant churches. In particular, opponents point out the large number of self-identified Catholics who practice artificial birth control or support abortion or same-sex marriage in contradiction to the teachings of the Church. My response is that there is a fundamental distinction between what the Church teaches — the one, consistent, unified and unambiguous teaching of the Church’s infallible Magisterium, as summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church — and what individual Catholics do and believe, the doings and failings of fallible people who may make mistakes and stray from the flock. Even if a large number of people should disagree, sin, or fall away from the truth, it does not change the truth that is taught or besmirch the teacher.

The leading charge of the Protestant Reformation is that the Church had fallen away from a true understanding of the doctrine of justification as taught by St. Paul — that in contrast to the claims of Protestants, that justification is “by faith alone” (sola fide), the Catholic Church taught a doctrine of “works’ righteousness,” that somehow by our own working we can deserve or earn our own salvation. I have written a lot on justification and presented frequently here that this is not what the Catholic Church actually teaches. I have attempted to make the distinction before, and I have a new post in the docket in which I want to explore the point further: Catholics do believe in justification by faith and not our own efforts; where Protestants disagree is only in proposing that no human response at all is necessary.

Antonio Rodríguez - Saint Augustine

Antonio Rodríguez, Saint Augustine (Wikimedia).

It’s clear from history that the Church has never actually taught a doctrine of “works’ righteousness,” the thesis that man, by his own effort, can in any way save himself. This is the heresy of Pelagianism, which the Catholic Church has always and consistently condemned. Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and other monuments of Catholic theology consistently maintain that justification is only by the grace of God through faith and not human effort. Alister McGrath, in his brilliant Iustitia Dei: A History of the Doctrine of Justification, demonstrates convincingly that even throughout the rigorous scholastic debates of the Middle Ages, the teachers of the Church never abandoned the orthodoxy that no effort or merit of man can save him apart from God’s grace. The teaching of the Church, then, I’ve believed, was always consistent in teaching justification by God’s grace alone: what the Protestant Reformers charged and challenged was nothing new and nothing needed.

A blind spot

Gentile da Fabriano, Thomas Aquinas, detail from Valle Romita polyptych, c. 1400 (Wikimedia).

In my recent forays into the history of the Reformation era, I’ve come to realize that in this I may have had a blind spot. Despite the Church’s consistent condemnation of Pelagianism (“works’ righteousness”); despite the clear teachings of Augustine and Thomas and other theological lights; the situation among the Catholic faithful and even many clergy in the late Middle Ages and early modern era prior to the Reformation may have been much like the situation today — with many believing something that wasn’t true, something that was contrary to the actual teachings of the Church. And this idea of the “actual teachings of the Church”: to presume the kind of monolithic unity that we have today, to be able to point at a single compendium of doctrine, the Catechism, and say, “This is the one, consistent teaching of the Catholic Church” — may be projecting an anachronism onto that era. There was no such book in the sixteenth century; there were few printed books at all, at the dawn of the age of printing, and the vast majority of the faithful were illiterate. The “one, consistent teaching of the Catholic Church” was scattered among myriad tomes, among the writings of numerous Church Fathers and the canons of numerous councils; and though it was one and consistent, it was not digestible in a form that any but the most learned academic could grasp. In practice, the actual teaching of the Catholic Church was what individual bishops and priests actually taught the faithful, and the truth is, in very many cases this was pretty shoddy.

John Calvin

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

For Protestants, the doctrine of justification is the very core of the Gospel, the fundamental essence of the truth, the sine qua non of salvation. This emphasis on justification may be myopic: Sacred Scripture devotes only a few words in a few passages to the idea of justification — much more pervasive ideas being the love and mercy and grace of God. Prior to Augustine in combating Pelagianism, no Christian author paid much attention to the doctrine of justification; in him, both Catholics and Protestants find the foundations of their doctrines. In Eastern Christianity, justification has never been a major focus, let alone the cornerstone of the Gospel. In the West, between the times of Augustine and the Council of Trent, the mechanics of justification were mostly a subject for scholastic exposition and debate, not “the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls.” So I think Protestants too have something of a blind spot in this regard.

But I concede that a lack of emphasis on justification and grace by the teachers of the faithful in the early modern era may have led to poor understandings by many about something that is crucial: how we can have a relationship with God, and how we can be saved. When Protestant preachers arrived on the scene in the sixteenth century, in many cases the idea of justification by faith alone caught on like wildfire, to those who felt they had been striving in themselves for salvation. Even if this belief in human effort leading to salvation was an incorrect understanding of what was in fact the true and orthodox Christian doctrine, it was the failure of the Church, in her individual pastors, to teach that truth. As much as we may deplore the breakdown of Christian unity that followed in their wake, in this even Catholics owe the Protestant Reformers a debt of gratitude, in returning the focus of Christian teaching to the grace of God.

The failure of the papacy?

Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation

I recently read a review of Brad S. Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation by Reformed author Carl Trueman. In Gregory’s book, he argues that many of the foibles of modernity, in secularism and postmodernism, were the unintended fruits of the Protestant Reformation’s denial of authority, and the resulting diversity of Protestant interpretations of Scripture and inability to affirm one, unified truth. Trueman’s response is essentially, “That may be so, but what you offer is even worse.” “Perspicuity [the belief that the Scriptures themselves teach a single, clear truth] was, after all,” Trueman writes, “a response to a position that had proved to be a failure: the Papacy.”

Alexander VI

Alexander VI (Cesare Borgia), one of the more notorious Renaissance popes. (Wikimedia)

I was taken aback to read this. The papacy — a failure? Honestly, in all my years, even as a Protestant, I don’t think such a thought ever crossed my mind, that the institution of the papacy was a failure. Trueman presents several respects in which he thinks the papacy was a failure: the medieval papacy was corrupt and caught up in politics and worldiness; the Western Schism of the papacy was such a mess that it took several councils just to sort out who the pope was; the early modern papacy failed to reform the Church with due speed and diligence following the Fifth Lateran Council even when many corruptions and failures were known. Yes, these things are all true. I would add my own: many popes of the medieval and early modern papacy failed to make the pastoral care of souls their chief concern; failed to make teaching the doctrines of the faith the heart of their work; failed to appoint bishops who would do the same. There was a breakdown, and yes, reform was desperately needed. But was the breakdown, the failure, in the office of the papacy, or in the men who held it, who allowed the world to pull their focus from what it should be?

Perhaps the most central concern is whether the papacy is a failure for what we maintain Christ intended it to be: as a guarantor of the truth and unity and orthodoxy of the faith. Yes, some men who held the office of the papacy were failures in some respects: they failed to be “good Christians,” perhaps even good pastors; they failed to keep the heart of the gospel, the salvation of souls, at the center of their concerns. Perhaps they even failed as teachers, in that they could have taught the truth, and overseen the teaching of the bishops, with much better clarity and focus and consistency. But we look to the papacy as the final safeguard between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, the one to whom all other bishops must guide in teaching the truth, to ensure that error is not taught. In this respect, the only way that the institution of the papacy could be a failure is if the pope in fact taught error with regard to doctrine or morals. As near as I can figure, this has never happened. In contrast to the to multiplicity of contradictory interpretations from “perspicuous” Scripture alone, the papacy has taught a single course of doctrine.

The triumph of the papacy

The Council of Trent

The Council of Trent.

So some men of the papacy failed, for a time, even for centuries. Perhaps if popes had done better at keeping the Church on the right course, if they had been reforming the Church all along, then the violent upheavals of the Protestant Reformation might never have occurred. But I maintain that in its essential purpose, the papacy never failed at all — not the way dependence on the “perspicuity” of Scripture has failed. And even the men of the papacy did not fail forever. I would argue that the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation, the way that, by God’s grace, the Catholic Church reformed itself, reaffirmed her doctrines, and has driven forward into modernity with a renewed heart and focus, is the greatest triumph of the papacy. I would argue that many modern popes — for example, Pius V, Pius X, and even the popes of recent memory, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, do present to the world the gospel of Christ the way a pastor and successor of Saint Peter should. Having divested itself of political and temporal encumbrances, and gained the publicity of mass communications media, the papacy of today, rather than being a “failure,” is succeeding in its mission of maintaining the unity of the faith and guiding the Church toward the gospel and salvation of Christ, perhaps better than it has in many centuries.

On life, apologetics, and Reformation

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted, so I wanted to give you an update.

Hamster

Finally free from the wheel!

I graduated in December with my latest degree, in computer science. I’ve gone to work as a research scientist in information technology for a research center at my university. For the first time in my life, I consider myself gainfully employed, and it’s a good feeling. Work keeps me busy, not in the same, 24/7, constant-crisis mode of being in school, but in a consistent, rewarding manner that brings new challenges and opportunities to research and learn every day. I really love my job. I’m engaged to be married. Life is moving forward, after years of feeling like I was running in a hamster wheel.

The Great Courses: The History of Christianity

As part of my daily commute, I started listening to audiobooks a year or so ago. I listened to Stephen King’s epic The Stand three times in a row — it being the only book I had at the time and an enthralling one. Then I subscribed to Audible.com, where I can get new books every month. After a couple of abortive forays into other fiction, I began listening to audio courses in history through Audible and The Great Courses. I listened to an outstanding history of Christianity by Professor Luke Timothy Johnson; now I’m about halfway through another great history of Christianity in the Reformation Era by Professor Brad S. Gregory. What I have learned is inspiring and challenging.

The Great Courses: The History of Christianity in the Reformation Era

The truth is, even with my history degrees, I’ve felt my foundation in the history of the whole of Christianity was weak, especially in the Reformation era. I took one survey course in the history of Christianity years ago with Dr. G, and it was life-changing, but it stopped short of the Reformation. I took several other courses in medieval European history, but never took Dr. G’s Renaissance and Reformation course, which I’ve always regretted. I had one graduate course in early modern European historiography which touched on some Reformation topics. Beyond that, my only contact with Reformation history as a whole was in the broad European survey courses I took as an undergraduate and helped teach as a graduate.

St. Augustine, Lateran fresco

The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome. (Wikimedia)

I’ve written here how history guided me to the Catholic Church. It’s true, what I learned of the Catholic Church in especially Dr. G’s surveys, and of the great Church Fathers, bishops, popes, and theologians, was something to fall in love with. As I approached the Church later, what guided me most was my own study of the Church Fathers — realizing that the faith and Church of the Fathers did not at all resemble anything in the Protestant world, but rather instead gave the foundations and antecedents of the Catholic Church. This was enough to convince me that this course is right, but it gave a rather lopsided view, especially coupled with my immersion in Catholic apologetics.

My reengagement with history has been sobering. Rather than the triumphalism of apologetics, I am coming to see that the Church has had many faults and foibles. Christians have done wrong, committed sins, or otherwise fallen short of the glory and calling of the Gospel of Christ. Doctrines and traditions have accreted, built up and calcified in not a glorious way, but at times a constrictive way, impeding people from coming to Christ rather than bringing them to Him more ably. I see that reform was desperately needed — as it is always needed. Just as in our individual lives, we must constantly reform ourselves and turn again toward Christ, so as a Church we must constantly be reformed and refreshed and renewed. There were glories of the medieval Church, but there were also failures. Semper reformanda.

Protestant iconoclasm

Protestant iconoclasm.

That is not to say that I’m a fan of the Protestant Reformation, either. From chapter to chapter, my emotions have ranged from disgust and revulsion, to horror, to deep depression at the extreme actions and reactions of Protestants. Yes, reform was needed; yes, the institutional Church was slow to embrace it; but no, not only Protestant theology, but especially the way in which Protestant reforms were carried out, was deeply wrong and destructive. Daily I struggle to understand how so many Christians raised up in the traditions of the Church, even those educated as ministers, could so vehemently, viciously, and hatefully turn against her and reject her.

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

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

More than anything, I am seeing how it is only by the grace of God that we have a Church at all; how He holds us up, even in our weakness and failures. Triumphalism in apologetics bothers me almost as much as falsehood. It is misleading to present that the Church was always right and that Christians have never made mistakes, or that the way things are now is the exact same way they have always been. I have struggled for a long time to understand Protestant arguments, to understand how, presented with the same Catholic arguments that I have found so convincing, others do not. I’m convinced now that a good apologist must acknowledge faults, but present how even despite them, God has used the Church. The strongest argument of all to me, now, is that despite all the ways humans have screwed it up, despite the “idolatry” and “apostasy” the Protestants who abandoned her charged, God did reform the Catholic Church and continues to use her, even more ably than before, as a vessel of salvation. It’s a testimony, too, that the Protestant enterprise was not wholly corrupt, but that Protestants and Protestant churches have continued to be used for God’s glory, and that they too can change, be tempered, and be reformed. The greatest truth, I’m convinced, lies somewhere in our reconciliation and reunion.

May we all be reformed and renewed in this journey of Lent toward the Resurrection. I hope to write more about these reflections soon.

[Oh, by the way, my site (and my whole hosting account) was recently hacked. I believe it’s fixed now, but please let me know if you see anything suspicious.]

Reformation Day: Reflections on the Heritage of the Protestant Reformation

Ferdinand Pauwels, Luther Posting the 95 Theses (1872)

Ferdinand Pauwels, Luther Posting the 95 Theses (1872).

Today, October 31, is the 499th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, the day Martin Luther is said to have nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church door, the beginning of the “protest” — celebrated as, in Lutheran and Reformed churches, Reformation Day. Yesterday was known in those churches as Reformation Sunday. I, for one, celebrated Reformation Sunday by welcoming a Protestant brother into full communion with the Catholic Church. And today I am reflecting on the troubling celebration of “Reformation Day,” on the heritage of the Protestant Reformation, and on my own Protestant heritage.

Confirmed in Faith

Joseph Richardson, Jason Parker, Bishop Baker

(Left to right) Joseph Richardson, Jason Parker, Bishop Robert Baker.

Yesterday my friend Jason Parker was confirmed in the Catholic Church by our bishop, the Most Rev. Robert J. Baker of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Huntsville. Jason was raised Southern Baptist, but as I was, had been being drawn for a long time to the history and liturgy of Catholic Church. I met him about a year ago, working at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, where he has been my officemate. I can’t take much credit for converting him: he was already very far along his journey when I met him, and only had some nagging questions I was able to help him through.

Jason’s Baptist family, by all appearances, was remarkably supportive of his decision. About half a dozen of them turned out for the Confirmation Mass — a Tridentine High Mass, at that — including parents and grandparents. It testifies to me, and rightly so, that faith in Christ is the highest treasure, whatever form that faith might take. My own family and friends have also been very supportive of me. On my own road to the Catholic Church, the friend whose opinion I was most concerned about was my good Baptist friend Josh’s — but when I confessed my inclinations to him, he most graciously told me that wherever God was leading me, he would support me.

Protestant Heritage

There were some moments, during my own journey, when I felt real concern for what my ancestors must think of me. As someone very close to my roots who has been involved in researching my genealogy for the past twenty years, I often feel I know my ancestors personally, and it is easy to think of them looking down on me. And it is a certain fact that especially in generations past, Protestants viewed Catholicism with even more suspicion and mistrust than they do now, if not outright judgment.

Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Mobile, Alabama

Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Mobile, Alabama (Wikimedia).

What would they think of me, these men and women who lived their whole lives believing in Protestant churches? Was I betraying my heritage? Was Protestantism in my blood, a part of who I was, the religion of my people and region and culture? Growing up in the Southern United States, I thought, and there is still the perception to some, that Catholicism is a “Yankee” phenomenon. And it is true, thanks largely to Irish immigration in the nineteenth century, that there tends to be a higher concentration of Catholics in the northern states. But the truth is, some of the earliest beachheads of Christianity in America were Catholic and in the Southern U.S., at New Orleans and Natchez and Mobile and Pensacola and St. Augustine. Catholics are much more of a minority in the upland South from which I hail, but even in my own backyard, German immigrants established a Catholic stronghold in North Alabama at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman; and Mother Angelica built a global fortress at EWTN in Irondale. Catholics have been making inroads here: in every parish of which I’ve been a part, we have seen a bumper crop of new converts in RCIA. And it so happened that I stumbled into perhaps one of the most proudly Southern Catholic parishes around: St. John the Evangelist in Oxford, Mississippi, home of “Ole Miss,” the University of Mississippi, and Southern Fried Catholicism.

Rev. William Warren Aldridge (1861-1958)

Rev. William Warren Aldridge (1861-1958), my great-great-grandfather, a Methodist minister.

I have some half a dozen Protestant ministers in my ancestry — four Methodist and one Baptist that I can think of, off the top of my head. They seem to have been good men full of faith. One of them, through a weird trick of God’s Providence, is buried in the cemetery of my Catholic parish today. That fact, more than any other, confirms me in the conviction I eventually came to: that if it is true, as I believe, that the Catholic Church teaches the fullest, clearest, most faithful presentation of the truth of Christ, then my loved ones in heaven, my faithful ancestors, surely now understand the truth. Coming to perfect knowledge in death, believers are surely undivided in Christ in heaven.


Gloating in Division

Georg Heinrich Sieveking, Execution of Louis XVI (1793)

Georg Heinrich Sieveking, Execution of Louis XVI (1793) (Wikimedia).

One of the things that bothers me most about “Reformation Day” celebrations is the triumphalism: the proclamation, even in this day, that the Reformation was about “the rediscovery of the Gospel from the darkness of man-centered righteousness!,” to quote a friend’s Facebook post. This is the popular narrative, seemingly immutable, in some Protestant churches, especially those of the Reformed variety. It amounts, in my view, to dismissing the Catholic Church as a dead and lifeless corpse, gloating in our division of the Body of Christ, and laughing mockingly on the gallows of our matricide.

I strive to point out, to anyone who will listen, that the idea of the Catholic Church as having “lost” the gospel or of teaching a “man-centered righteousness” is mostly an historical and theological myth, rooted almost solely in the polemical writings of the Reformers and in the continued distortion and misunderstanding of Catholic theology. The Catholic Church does not teach, and has never taught, that our righteousness or our salvation is based on our own works.

St. Augustine

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

The suggestion that the Catholic Church had “lost” the gospel is deeply troubling, and it is bandied around without appreciation of its implications. Did Christ really allow His Church to fall into apostasy? The gates of hell to prevail against her? The light of truth to depart from the world? Did He really allow generations of believers to believe in vain and to be condemned? These charges of a “lost gospel” are usually not fleshed out. What is it, precisely, about Catholic teaching that allows the gospel to be “lost”? For how many centuries was the earth without the gospel? It is a polemical, divisive, and ultimately unjustifiable point.

Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, Luther as an Augustinian Monk (after 1546) (Wikimedia).

Of course, in Protestant mythology, the idea is that the Catholic Church was never the One Church of Christ at all, that it was merely a human institution and usurper to the name “Church,” that the true Church exists as an “invisible” body in the hearts of true believers, and that there have always been “true believers” apart from the Catholic Church. Thinking thus, the idea that the “Roman Catholic” Church could “lose” the gospel is not so profane a thought. Such thinking invariably requires believing facts not supported by the historical record, or else ignoring the historical record altogether.

The schism of the Reformation happened. I don’t believe it was God’s will (although God has made the most of it, despite our human failures). We allowed petty human disagreements and politics to rend the Body of Christ, when Christ prayed “that we might all be one, as He and the Father are One” (John 17:21). Yes, there were some corruptions in some sectors of the Catholic Church — as there almost always are, where sinful people are involved. Yes, the Church is always in need of spiritual renewal and revival. But the tactics of various Reformers, a wanton disregard for Christian unity or reconcilation, did much more harm than they possibly could have done good. Reform was possible without schism. Regardless of Protestant insistence that Luther and other Reformers were seeking reform within the Church and did not seek to found their own churches, Luther made little if any conciliatory effort toward the established order of the Church: If he was seeking reform on his own terms, then schism is what he actually sought, and schism is what he got.

The Heritage of the Reformation

I do become angry and indignant at such arrogant assertions as these. But as I’ve said many times before, I’m very thankful for my Protestant upbringing and for my Protestant heritage. There have been positive fruits of many of the various Protestant traditions. I would like to briefly recall a few.

Scripture Study

Codex Vaticanus

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

It is true, I believe, that the Protestant Reformation brought about a much-needed renewal. Its emphasis on the written Word of Scripture — combined with, and fueled by, the recent invention of movable type — certainly put the Bible in the hands of many believers who previously could not read it for themselves, and in the vernacular languages known to them. There is a lot of Protestant mythology, too, about the Catholic Church striving to keep the Bible from the hands of believers, which simply isn’t true. But the wide availability of Scripture in vernacular languages, and the ability for believers to draw closer to God through Scripture study, is certainly in part a fruit of the Protestant Reformation.

Reform of Corruption

Sale of indulgences

The sale of indulgences.

Some of the charges of the Protestant Reformers, about corruption in the Catholic Church, were on target. I do not believe, and the historical record does not support, that such corruption was as pervasive or widespread as the polemics of the Reformers would have us believe. But it is true that many pastors and even bishops were ignorant or uneducated and not equipped to faithfully teach the truth of salvation to their flock. The true teaching of the grace of Christ, then, may indeed have been neglected from the popular piety of many. There was certainly political corruption, especially in the leadership of the Church, in simony, the buying or selling of ecclesiastical offices or benefices; pluralism, the holding of more than one church office, and not doing any of them very effectively; and absenteeism, the holding of a church office, but not living in or being involved with its ministry. There were indeed abuses of indulgences, that had been known for a long time but little had been done to correct them. These and other matters were certainly reflective of a need for reform.

Renewal

Burglechner, The Council of Trent

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

Perhaps it is true that the Church was slow to reform herself — but these and other matters of concern raised by the Protestant Reformers were dealt with at the Council of Trent and implemented by the Catholic Reformation. The Protestant Reformation did eventually spur this reform — but the way it was carried out put the Church into an immediate crisis mode and probably delayed meaningful reform by a generation. A more graceful and patient reformer, I believe, could have worked within the Church to bring about this reform without schism.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897)

St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897): “Everything is grace.”

I also suspect, having come from the Protestant camp, that Catholic doctrine, worship, and practice has benefited a lot from its interplay with Protestantism. Prior to the Reformation, Catholic theology certainly held that salvation was by grace, through faith. Luther “discovered” nothing, except a novel and unprecedented interpretation of Pauline theology. But in the Catholic teaching of grace, its immediacy and intimacy may have been obscured by endless, scholastic, theological inquiry and speculation. I don’t know much about what would have been taught to lay believers in parishes at this time: but I am sure that the concerns of the Protestants did bring about a renewed focus and a reemphasis on grace.

I am glad, personally, for the emphases in my faith that my Protestant upbringing taught me. I am glad for the emphasis on an intimate relationship with Christ (though this is certainly not unique to Protestantism); I am glad for the emphasis on personal Bible study. I am glad for the faith of my parents and grandparents that brought me to know the Lord. But I pray every day that divided Christians can draw closer together, come to better understandings of one another and forgive each other, and take steps toward working together for the gospel of Christ, and ultimately toward the restoration of the united Body of Christ. “Reformation Day” can be useful to celebrate the heritage of the Protestant tradition, but as a celebration of disunity I find it only harmful.

Towards the Truth

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

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

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

Deep in history

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

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

St. Gregory the Great

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

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

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

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Climax: The Reformation

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

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

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

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

The church I was looking for

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

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

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

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

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

Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez.

Into sacred spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where does sola scriptura come from? A begged question

Calvin with books

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

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

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

Perspicuously taught?

Scripture illuminated

Scripture was illuminated a long time before Protestants came along.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke writes, in the Acts of the Apostles:

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

Paul to the Bereans

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

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

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

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

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

Paul ordaining Timothy

Paul ordaining Timothy bishop of Ephesus.

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

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

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

True Scriptural Authority

The Council of Trent

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

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

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

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

Sola scriptura is self-refuting

Martyrdom of Ignatius

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch

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

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

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

Duccio, Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (1311)

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

The broken WordPress app misdated my last entry, and rather than break all the links I’ve already made, I thought I would share a link to it. When Protestants read the history of the early Church, do they understand the faith of those early Church Fathers to be the fruit of the Apostles, or rather the sign of a very early falling away from the truth of Christ? Examine with me the implications of these statements:

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

 

 

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

Duccio, Appearance of Christ to the Apostles (1311)

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

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

An Un-Protestant Church

El Greco, St. Paul and St. Peter

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

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

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

Looking for Proto-Protestants

Saint Augustine in His Study, by Botticelli.

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

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

A Gradual Decay

St. Vincent de Paul

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

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

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

The Work of Christ, an Abject Failure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sola Scriptura, now a major motion picture!

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

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

Titian, Pentecost

Pentecost (c. 1545), by Titian.

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

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

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

sinking ship

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

Sola Scriptura and Authority: What authority does your interpretation of Scripture have?

Saints Peter and Paul, by El Greco

Saints Peter and Paul (between 1605 and 1608), by El Greco.

(I shouldn’t write much today. I stand poised to wrap up a draft of the last chapter of the thesis. But I know it’s been a little while and I wanted to share a little bit lest you forget about me. I have a bit of previously written material I may share over the next week or so.)

One thing in particular I’ve been thinking about lately is how knowledgeable Protestants can tenably defend their doctrines; how anyone, reading the writings of the Church Fathers, can honestly contend that the tenets of the Reformation were anything but a sixteenth-century invention, a novel interpretation of Scripture unsupported by any authority other than the interpretation of the Reformers — but trumpeted as “the authority of Scripture.” I’ve got news for you: despite your constant assertions to the contrary, your interpretation of Scripture has no inherent authority; it has only the authority you yourself give it and others might or might not accord it. If it did have a universal and absolute authority — if your interpretation of Scripture could be equated with Scripture itself — then it could not but be universally recognized, and could not fail to settle every doctrinal dispute and end every schism. If Scripture could indeed speak for itself, with a clear and perspicuous voice, then it would indeed be the ultimate authority, for it is God Himself speaking.

Gutenberg Bible

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

But Scripture does not speak for itself; it does not edit itself; it does not translate itself; it does not interpret itself. Any reading of Scripture involves the apprehension and comprehension of the human mind; and any reading of Scripture in English involves reading what has already been apprehended and comprehended and reproduced by quite a few people before it came to you. As it stands, under the doctrine of sola scriptura, no matter how one formulates it, the authority of Scripture must always stand upon the authority of someone’s interpretation — be it your own, your pastor’s, your presbytery’s, your church’s, or the Reformers’. The question necessarily becomes not what authority Scripture has but what authority your interpretation has.

St. Thomas Aquinas (Crivelli)

St. Thomas Aquinas (15th century), by Carlo Crivelli. (Wikimedia)

So it is also in the Catholic understanding also, of course: our understanding is built on an interpretation, also. We ask, too, what authority our interpretation has; and rather than looking to ourselves, or to any single man or group of men, we look to the amassed weight of the whole of the Christian tradition, to the interpretations of those who first received Scripture, who understood it in its time and context, and to the many pastors and teachers and exegetes and theologians who have taught on it, thought on it, commented on it, and carried it forward through time to us. This tradition has authority in itself, supported by the very pillars of history. But even beyond that, we look to the voice of the combined Church, to the agreement of the whole people of God, and to the consensus of her bishops, invested with the authority of the Apostles from Christ Himself: to the Church to whom He promised the Holy Spirit, Who would lead her into all truth (John 16:13), to the Magisterium, which speaks with His authority (Luke 10:16).

This screed is not what I set out to write today. Oops. But sola scriptura and the question of authority has certainly been at the forefront of my thought recently, and I expect to be writing a bit more on it in the near future.

The Baptist View of Baptism: Symbol or Sacrament? (Series on Baptism)

Painting of infant baptism from the Catacombs

A painting of the baptism of a child from the Catacombs of Rome.

(Part of an in-depth series on Baptism. Part 1.)

In this and ensuing posts I will examine in particular the view of Baptism held by Baptists and other evangelicals in their tradition: that Baptism is not sacramental but merely a symbol. I want to make every effort to be fair and consider the Baptist arguments in full; so I would very much like any comments supporting the Baptist view. I am curious, and will listen and not argue.

The first major difference of opinion among Christians regarding Baptism is whether or not Baptism actually does something — whether Baptism regenerates us; whether it is efficacious in applying the grace of God through faith, as Catholics, Orthodox, and some Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, and Reformed believe; and among evangelical Christians, the Churches of Christ.* I will call this the “sacramental” view, though I know not everyone embraces that term — what I mean is that we believe in baptismal regeneration.

* And well, I am starting to get lost in the denomination soup of who believes what. I think I may need to order the newest edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States after all, as mine is now over a decade old!

We Catholics define a Sacrament as an outward sign that symbolizes as well as actually accomplishes an inward grace: in the case of Baptism, the washing with water brings about the washing away of our sins; being placed under water represents our burial with Christ and rebirth in His Resurrection (Romans 6:3–5). We will return to this later.

The Baptist View: Origins

Believer's baptism

Beliver’s baptism (From here).

On the other hand, in what I will call the “Baptist” view — since in modern evangelicalism, it seems to have descended from the Baptists — Baptism is understood as merely a symbol, a sign, a public profession of the grace and regeneration that has already taken place in the believer’s life by faith alone. In addition to Baptists, my Pentecostals and many other groups of evangelicals follow this understanding. The symbolic view of Baptism appears to be Zwinglian in origin, though the history of the Baptists themselves is more difficult to follow. Historians are divided about their origins, some claiming influence from the radical Anabaptists. But the belief was stated clearly as early as the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith:

Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him; of remission of sins; and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3–5; Colossians 2:12; Galatians 3:27; Mark 1:4; Acts 22:16) (1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith §29.1).

[Many thanks to ReformedOnTheWeb for the links to early Baptist confessions of faith, without which I would have been lost without a map.]

Ulrich Zwingli, by Hans Asper (ca. 1531)

Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), by Hans Asper (ca. 1531) (Wikimedia). I really like this portrait of Zwingli more than any other I’ve seen.

Like so much of the movement of the Reformation, the rejection of Baptism’s sacramentality and of sacramentality in general seems to have been in part a reaction against the “sacerdotalism” of the Catholic Church, that the work of God’s grace was only administered through the hands of priests. Many other proponents of sola fide, justification “by faith alone,” including Luther himself, even though they rejected the sacerdotal priesthood, affirmed that the sacraments of the Church, in particular Baptism and the Eucharist, were the “means of grace” through which the Holy Spirit worked. But this thread of Protestant thought rejected the Sacraments in the view that they were “works” — and that justification “by faith alone” excluded the idea that any other action was necessary for salvation. This seems, more than anything else, to have been the origin of the interpretation.

In Scripture

The Apostle Paul

The Sunday school Paul returns!

I have searched high and low for an argument from any particular verse of Scripture that is used to support the Baptist view, and found only this: Rather than any specific verse that supports a purely symbolic understanding, the view stems from a general interpretation of all Scripture referring to Baptism as symbolic.

Is this justified? Certainly Scripture describing Baptism, especially in the words of Paul, is rich with symbolism. Paul describes Baptism as burial with Christ in death and resurrection in His new life:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3–5)

We Catholics agree that Baptism is symbolic; but it isn’t only symbolic. In actually accomplishes the grace it represents: we, buried with Christ, are raised from being dead in sin and given new life in the Holy Spirit.

Beyond this interpretation, the only basis I have found for the belief that Baptism is purely symbolic, and thus not necessary for salvation, rests on the fact that in three noted cases in the New Testament, the regeneration of sinners seems to have been accomplished apart from Baptism: (1) the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), (2) Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), and (3) the fall of the Holy Spirit on the gathered Gentiles at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:24–48).

Next time, I’ll take a close look at these passages and consider what support they give to the Baptist view. Are they indeed indicative that regeneration is apart from Baptism and Baptism is not necessary for salvation? Does the rest of Scripture support this view? For now, I will step back — partly because I would dearly like the input on my Baptist friends, to share with me whatever other support they find in Scripture for their views, and partly because this post is just far too long already.