A Pentecostal Discovers the True Working of the Holy Spirit

[I outlined this post a few Saturdays ago but got busy and didn’t finish it. It refers to the day’s prayers at Mass. For the record, they are from Saturday, March 18.]

worship concert

Growing up as a Pentecostal youth, pretty much the sum of my Christian experience was in waiting for, proclaiming, or savoring the presence and working of the Holy Spirit. High-powered, emotional worship services were all about experiencing the Holy Spirit through ecstatic detachment, “getting lost” in Jesus. I’ve written before about how this emotional experience of God was difficult to maintain, especially for a teen who struggled with depression and anxiety, and how ultimately it lacked a lot of substance in terms of real commitment or intellectual depth. It was about momentary excitement and stimulation, but after the emotion was passed, this didn’t always amount to a real change.

Whether it lasted or not, core to my faith in God was the belief that Holy Spirit is immanent in the Church and in our lives; that He works in us and through us daily; that He moves in us powerfully, inspires us, changes us, heals us. I believed in miracles, both in wondrous physical healing and in changed lives through spiritual transformation.

Holy Spirit

None of this faith was lost when I became Catholic. Though it’s true I’ve grown more skeptical of the sensational and the ecstatic, I still believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in us and in the Church, and that He has the power to change us and to heal us. I’ve often heard the complaint that the liturgical approach to experiencing God feels regimented, constricted, and limiting; that it “quenches the Holy Spirit” and does not allow Him to work; that unless we are free to “get lost” in worship, we are not giving God the freedom to move in us.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Though at times it may seem, as it did to me early in my journey to Catholicism, that Catholic practice marginalizes the Holy Spirit or downplays His work (I once suggested here that Catholicism made the Holy Spirit a “tag-along”), in fact the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to everything the Church does and Christians do, to all our prayer and all our liturgy, to every work of God’s grace that we do and that God does in us, most of all to the Sacraments.

Come, Holy Spirit

Antiphon Veni Sancte Spiritus

A key difference that I observe between the Catholic approach to the Holy Spirit and the Pentecostal or Charismatic one is that the Catholic approach to the Holy Spirit is introspective, focused on the work of the Holy Spirit in us, while the Charismatic approach tends to focus on outward signs and manifestations. This is evident in the very ways in which we invoke the Holy Spirit. Charismatics very often speak of the Holy Spirit “filling this place” like an atmosphere, or “feeling the Holy Spirit here” as something external, as “the presence of God.” A popular song implores:

Holy Spirit, You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for
To be overcome by Your presence, Lord

The presence of the Holy Spirit, for the Charismatic, is about “God showing up and showing out” — as I often heard. It is something that manifests itself most of all in a show of power and wondrous signs; something that overpowers the senses and overcomes the person.

The differences in the Catholic view can be seen in our own hymn, Veni, Sancte Spiritus (“Come, Holy Spirit”):

Veni, Sancte Spiritus,
et emitte caelitus
lucis tuae radium.
Come, Holy Spirit,
send forth the heavenly
radiance of your light.
O lux beatissima,
reple cordis intima
tuorum fidelium.
O most blessed light,
fill the inmost heart
of your faithful.
Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod est aridum,
sana quod est saucium.
Cleanse that which is unclean,
water that which is dry,
heal that which is wounded.
Flecte quod est rigidum,
fove quod est frigidum,
rege quod est devium.
Bend that which is inflexible,
fire that which is chilled,
correct what goes astray.
Da tuis fidelibus,
in te confidentibus,
sacrum septenarium.
Give to your faithful,
those who trust in you,
the sevenfold gifts.

For the Catholic, the coming of the Holy Spirit is not so much about “filling this place” as about “filling our hearts“; not about outward displays or manifestations so much as about inward sanctification, healing, and transformation.

The Holy Spirit in the Sacraments

Holy Spirit EucharistThe essential ground of the Holy Spirit is the Sacraments. When I was first becoming Catholic, I was so accustomed to looking for the Holy Spirit in outward signs and wonders that I mistook that He was missing or absent from Catholic life altogether. Far from being absent, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God on the earth, and is present in the Church, in everything we do, and most of all in us. In each of the Sacraments, God works in our lives and communicates His grace to us through the Holy Spirit.

In Baptism, we are “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5-7); we are washed, regenerated, and renewed (Titus 3:5) — and the agent is the Holy Spirit. In the sacrament of Confession, it is the Holy Spirit Himself who forgives our sins and accomplishes the same cleansing (1 John 1:9). And most powerfully and intimately in the Eucharist, it is the Holy Spirit who makes present the reality of Christ’s Body and Blood in His Paschal mystery. I was struck today by how the Mass’s prayer after Communion highlights the work of the Holy Spirit in us:

May your divine Sacrament, O Lord, which we have received,
fill the inner depths of our heart
and, by its working mightily within us,
make us partakers of its grace.
Through Christ our Lord.

In a real way, both physically and spiritually, the Sacrament fills us — but it is the Holy Spirit Who through it, fills the innermost depths of our heart and works mightily within us. I don’t think I had made this connection before, between the reality of the Lord’s Presence in the Eucharist and the presence of the Holy Spirit as worker. But certainly I had always felt this innately.

From the very first time I received the Lord in the Eucharist — and every time since — I have felt this powerfully and viscerally: the Lord Himself working powerfully in my heart, more intimately than I had ever experienced before — an overpowering sense of being touched, inhabited, seized from within. This working is transformative: Coming to the Sacrament from the greatest places of darkness and despair, it has never failed to bring light to my heart; from the deepest hurt, it has brought healing and restoration; from the brink of the greatest temptation, it has brought strength and respite; even from moments or boredom, disinterest, and not wanting to be there, it has brought, unexpected and unlooked for, a renewed focus and friendship with the Lord. In the truest sense, I am overcome by the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist, in my encounter with Him.

The Bread of LifeJesus worked His miracles through physical touch, visiting His people in the flesh and impacting their lives by direct and physical interaction. He gave us the Eucharist using the same physical language of encounter: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51) As He invited sinners throughout his earthly ministry, He invites us to sup with Him and share a meal with Him (Revelation 3:20). After He ascended bodily to Heaven, and sent His Holy Spirit to be our Paraclete, He nonetheless left us with the possibility, in that meal and through the Spirit, of such an intimate encounter with Him. As He touched us physically during His earthly ministry, through His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, he continues to touch us physically in the most intimate communion, and through that touch to work powerfully in our hearts and spirits. The Sacraments are the means by which the Holy Spirit enters, is poured into our lives. He literally fills us and transforms us.

Key to Protestant misunderstandings

Hudrych Zwingli (1484 - 1531).

Hudrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531).

It occurs to me that understanding of the Holy Spirit’s central role in the Sacraments is the key to several Protestant misunderstandings. Of the Eucharist in particular, it is easy for the mind to trip over the physical claims about the real presence of the Lord, when the truth is not one of material at all but of encounter and indwelling, concepts Protestants readily understand in speaking of the Holy Spirit.

Even more important, Protestants routinely charge that Catholic claims about receiving grace through the Sacraments amounts to a system of “works’ righteousness,” that somehow we are subjecting the reception of grace to what we do or to human working. It is only in the understanding that each of the Sacraments is solely the work of the Holy Spirit, given to us in grace, that this myth can be dispelled. Where is the “human work”? In requiring that we do something? Humans need only be there, to receive the grace. In placing the Sacraments at the hands of a priest? The priest is only a servant, a vessel, a tool; it is only the Holy Spirit who accomplishes the work. Is it in making grace about something more than “faith alone”? It is only the most radical misreading of Paul that presumes even the Sacraments of the Church to be “works done by us in righteousness” (Titus 3:5, which is one of the most explicit references in Scripture to the efficacy of Baptism as “the bath of regeneration” by the Holy Spirit). In neither the views of Jesus or of Paul does “faith” exclude action: Jesus asks His listeners to step out in faith in order to receive their healing (e.g. Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 17:11-19; John 9:1-7); Paul, as above, holds forth sacramental means of grace (et. e.g. Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3-6; Galatians 3:27) rather than a bare “faith alone” — which threatens, as much as any charge against Catholics of “works’ righteousness” to make grace subject to the action of the person (having faith) rather than the working of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the glue of our faith: In a Trinitarian sense, neither the Father nor the Son, but the Spirit of God that proceeds from both. He is the medium of grace, the means, the actor and worker in our lives and in the Church, by which we are filled, renewed, healed, and transformed. It is in the Holy Spirit that we are bound to God and to each other in communion. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God on earth, the person through whom we encounter God and Christ — and that encounter, the place of our God entering our lives and working in our hearts, is most viscerally and tangibly in the Sacraments.

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.

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!

Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 1: Paralysis

In this post, I relate how, as a Protestant journeying to the Catholic Church, I came to terms with the doctrine of sola scriptura. I have been trying to write this post for months, and have started over from scratch several times — mostly because it rambled at too great length, or strayed into trite polemic. Catholic apologists tend to repeat and rehash the same complaints — “sola scriptura” isn’t scriptural! The Early Church functioned just fine for a period of decades before the New Testament was written and compiled! No Christian held to such a constraint prior to the Protestant Reformation! — and though I do think these arguments are persuasive now, I was not even aware of them then, and they played no role in my own convictions.

This post proved to be really long, so I split in into two. I will post the second half soon.

Part of my ongoing conversion story.

Approaching the Church

Pannini, Nave of St. Peter's Basilica (1731)

Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Nave of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome (1731). (Wikimedia)

At last, I had stumbled my way into the Mass, and found in it something glorious and transcendent and compelling. I began to attend Sunday Mass on a weekly basis. All the fragments that had been circling around me my whole life seemed to be falling into place. I felt peace. But this is still not yet the end of the story. I had some final hurdles to overcome, confronting Catholic doctrine head-on as it came to bear on what I held as a Protestant.

I hadn’t been attending Mass very long at all, perhaps only about a month, before one day I happened to speak to Father Joe. I had not sought him out; Audrey and I had been standing there outside the church chatting, and he asked me what I thought so far. I blurted out that I liked it and was thinking about joining the RCIA class. I was alarmed to hear myself say it; I don’t think I had even articulated the thought before that. I understood that this didn’t mean I was making a commitment; that there was still plenty of time to learn and change my mind; but as I had at so many moments before, I felt a sinking feeling that I was approaching a point of no return.

This was still early in the year, about March. The next RCIA class would not begin until September. So over the next six months, I committed myself to reading and learning as much as I could, and to experiencing as much of the Mass and of the Church as I could. I began attending daily Mass also at every opportunity I could. At St. John’s they offered Mass every weekday, and being just on the edge of campus, I could run over almost anytime. My reading took on a new focus. Up to this point, I had still not read any “Catholic” book. I had not read any of the Catechism or any apologetic work. I had not read any of the great body of conversion literature, the writings of other Protestants like me who had made their way to the Catholic Church. Rather than the end of my journey, I was really only beginning my approach in earnest. I was just beginning to consider the Catholic Church with an open and discerning mind. I did not jump in head first. As it should have, my exploration of the Catholic Church soon came into confrontation with my convictions as a Protestant.

Sola Scriptura

(Source: peachknee on Pixabay)

(Source: peachknee on Pixabay)

I was no dummy. I understood that to embrace Catholic doctrine entailed a renunciation of what was has been called “the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation”: sola scriptura, the thesis that Scripture alone is to be the sole source of divine truth for the Church and for Christians. I knew well, as all Protestants know, that this is one of the fundamental disagreements between Catholics and Protestants: that Protestants hold as authoritative the Bible alone, while Catholics deny this and add other things.

But looking back, I don’t recall ever having much of a serious struggle with sola scriptura. On the contrary, it seems to have folded quite readily and early on in my final approach to the Church. Why? Could it be true, as some have charged, that I never had a firm commitment to Protestant principles in the first place? Or were there other forces at work in my life, under the surface and behind the scenes, preparing the way before me and making it straight to the Church? The truth is, whether I openly acknowledged it or not, that I had been struggling with sola scriptura for years. I can think of several factors underpinning the idea of sola scriptura that I had already been dealing with, and that had already weakened that foundation, long before this point.

A Flimsy Default

Open Bible with coffee

(Source: mnplatypus on Pixabay)

If I had ever been asked about the source of my Christian doctrine as a Protestant, I would simply have pointed to Scripture. Because what else was there? This was the default position, what Protestants did, the only thing I knew. Where else would one possibly look? But if I had been asked to explain why, I would have been a little dumbfounded. Because it’s the Word of God, God’s message to mankind? Obviously, when one is looking for source material about God and Christianity, the Bible is your source. This seemed to be a reasonable proposition at the time.

But why did I believe that? Why Scripture alone? How did I know? I would have been hard-pressed to defend it. The only thing I knew, the only thing I recall ever hearing, was that Martin Luther proclaimed sola scriptura in opposition to the “unscriptural doctrines” of the Catholic Church. Did the doctrine really only exist as a negative? Was there no positive reason for it to stand on its own? It is possible that some Protestant apologetics might have shored up the position for me, but generally I have found Protestant apologetics on this matter unsatisfactory. Every Protestant argument I have read in support of sola scriptura inevitably begins with or returns to the point that “the Catholic Church believes unscriptural doctrines.”

“Unscriptural doctrines”

Juan de Juanes, Christ and the Eucharist (16th century)

Juan de Juanes, Christ and the Eucharist (16th century) (Wikimedia)

The rote line of Protestant lore, what I recall hearing all my life, is that Martin Luther proclaimed sola scriptura in opposition to the “unscriptural doctrines” in the Catholic Church. It was often told, even in my mostly ahistorical corner of Protestantism, how Luther discovered the truth of God’s grace and salvation by faith alone by reading Scripture — the implication being that Catholics did not read Scripture, that the Catholic Church had entirely thrown the Bible out the window. I believed this because I knew nothing else.

But by the time I was in my thirties, having spent all my life as a Protestant, and for several years having exerted a lot of effort trying to attain a more academic grasp of Christian theology, starting from scratch, I had become inured to this charge of “unscriptural doctrines” — since the sad truth is, many Protestant sects accuse each other of believing “unscriptural doctrines,” even those who proclaim sola scriptura — the fact of the matter being not that these believers didn’t read Scripture, but that they read and interpreted Scripture differently. I had struggled mightily for years to sort out the truth among many such competing interpretations, ultimately concluding that in most cases, these couldn’t be called “unscriptural doctrines” at all, but the result of ambiguities in Scripture and good-faith differences of opinion.

And I came to realize that Catholicism was probably the same way. I knew, from studying the history of Christianity in school, that Catholics believed that the bread and wine in Communion actually became the Body and Blood of Christ — and reading Scripture for myself, I could see how that could be a defensible reading: Jesus did say, “This is my Body,” and it is only by assuming premises not in Scripture, that He was speaking symbolically or metaphorically, that one concludes otherwise. I came to expect that the same might be true for other supposedly “unscriptural” Catholic doctrines: what if they were only as “unscriptural” as what Protestants accused each other of? And if that was the case — what was the cry of “sola scriptura” really all about?

Paralysis

Protestant church divisions

Protestant church divisions

Perhaps the strongest argument against sola scriptura, the reason that led to the doctrine’s downfall in my mind more than any other, was my growing conviction that sola scriptura just doesn’t work. I probably would not have put it in those terms as an Evangelical — such would have seemed heresy — but the fact of my experience is that I found myself completely unable to discern between the claims of competing denominational camps to have the exclusive, correct interpretation of Scripture. Sola scriptura — relying on Scripture alone — proved unable to bring me to any conviction of the truth, so far as any certainty or precision of doctrine or theology was concerned. Historically, it had proved unable either to unite the Protestant cause or to preserve any degree of unity at all in the Church. If anything, the doctrine of sola scriptura itself is the single most culpable culprit for the continued fragmentation and division of Protestant churches, both historically and contemporarily — since any believer with his own divergent interpretation of Scripture feels entitled to break away and found his own sect.

The Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Pentecostals, all came to different, sometimes radically different, interpretations of the very same passages of Scripture. And I found myself completely unable, in many cases, to choose one over another, to declare one right and another one wrong. And this was not on account of any ignorance or lack of preparation on my part (though a lack of indoctrination into a particular interpretive tradition, I suppose, could be credited): I had studied the original languages and trained in translating ancient texts; I had studied history and the historical contexts of the Early Church and the ancient cultures in which it dwelled. If anything, it was on account of that preparation that I had less confidence than some of my peers, who were able to affirm their churches’ particular interpretations with conviction. Such people and churches could make strong, valid arguments for their positions — but so could all the others.

I was forced to conclude that in many cases, Scripture was not “perspicuous” at all, but that in many locations the text was ambiguous enough to allow more than one valid interpretation. To weigh between multiple, valid interpretations of the words requires something more than the words themselves: it requires a consideration of the wider textual context, both in the same text and in other texts. It requires a consideration of the historical and cultural contexts, and an understanding of the way the text was received by its earliest recipients. And ultimately, it required having an opinion, and being willing to draw conclusions based on it — and though I did have opinions, they were neither strong enough nor certain enough for me to stake my eternal life or death on them with anything like security. I realized that scriptural exegesis is not an exact science, and the “right” interpretation is often not clear from the text at all, as the popular view of sola scriptura would lead me to believe: it ultimately, and inevitably, involved making my own understanding the final authority in interpreting Scripture.

There is a lot more to come! You can expect the next post in a day or two.

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.

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.

“He taught them as one having authority”

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

Jesus teaching in the synagogue

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

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

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

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

The Prior Authority of Tradition

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

James Tissot, The Lord's Prayer, 1896

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

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

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

James Tissot, The Sermon on the Mount, 1896

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

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

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

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

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

Le Sueur, The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Vatican Council

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

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

John Calvin, by Titian

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

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

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

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

Codex Sinaiticus

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

Is “Sola Scriptura” in Scripture?

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

Gutenberg Bible

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

The canon of Scripture: “Self-authenticating”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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