The Catholic View of Grace and Justification

Part three of a longer thought on grace and justification and “Falling from Grace.” [Part one. Part two. An aside.]

Murillo, Christ on the Cross (1665)

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Christ on the Cross (1665) (WikiArt.org).

So, then, is justification merely a forensic declaration acquitting the sinner of sins, as the Protestants say? Or is it, as the Catholic Church teaches, an actual infusion of grace that cleanses and purifies the soul, obliterating sin and making the sinner not sinful? To ask an even more basic question: Is grace an actual thing, an objective gift that is actually given by God and received by the sinner — “God gives grace to the sinner”? Or is it an abstract concept, like favor, merely describing God’s disposition toward the sinner — “God is gracious to the sinner”? Is the sinner justified because God changed the sinner, making him acceptable, or because God changed His attitude toward the sinner, who has not objectively changed?

In the latter, Protestant view, man is justified because God assumes an objectively different disposition to the sinner. He no longer sees a sinner at all, but sees only the righteousness of Christ; and future sin cannot affect or alter this new disposition. Given this understanding, the idea of a Christian confessing future sins (1 John 1:9) seems almost superfluous. A standard Protestant view seems to be that even though his sin is covered by the Blood of Christ, a Christian is nonetheless obligated to obey God and to seek His forgiveness when one fails. I have even read some Protestant commentary seeking to draw a distinction between God’s divine judgment upon the unjustified sinner and His paternal chastisement upon a wayward Christian.

Sacred Heart

Pompeo Batoni. Il Sacro Cuore (The Sacred Heart) (1740).

In the Catholic view, on the other hand, grace is an actual thing that is given by God to the sinner, in the form of love poured into His heart and the gift of the Holy Spirit, such that it fills him, cleanses him, and transforms him. The concepts of regeneration, justification, and sanctification are difficult to separate in the Catholic understanding: though they describe different effects of grace, they are all effected by the same grace poured into the soul, often worked at the same time. This grace is called sanctifying grace, because in addition to the forensic aspect of being made right in God’s sight, this grace actually makes us holy, turns our hearts toward Christ, and begins the process of transforming us in His image (2 Corinthians 3:18) — that we might become the righteousness of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The response to sin

Diego Velazquez, The Crucifixion (1632)

Diego Velazquez, The Crucifixion (1632).

In the end, these distinctions profoundly affect the way a Christian views sin and grace. The Catholic response to serious sin is to repent and confess the sin and seek God’s mercy and forgiveness — which is always freely given, without limitation, a gift of His mercy and grace and a work of His healing. He picks us up, mends our wounds, and sets us back on the road. Protestants may or may not even see the need for the confession of sins: since in many views, the grace of God’s justification has already been given in full, there is, in a practical sense, no more comfort to be offered; only the assurance (false assurance, the Catholic might say) that all one’s sins are already forgiven.

I will leave much more to say here for our discussion of the Sacrament of Confession, but let me briefly say this: Only God forgives sins. Catholics do believe that a sinner can be forgiven his sins without the benefit of sacramental Confession, if he is truly repentant and contrite for his sins. Confessing sins, as Scripture teaches, whether to a minister, before the church, one to another, or even privately to God, places one in a much better position toward one’s sin than not, since it expresses that contrition.

Both the Catholic and Protestant views can be defended scripturally (the Catholic view, in my judgment, being more consistent with the whole of Scripture, not to mention Tradition). Is one “more Christian” than the other? Protestants today, in my experience, are much more likely to charge that Catholics have a mistaken understanding of grace than vice versa. But any view that understands God’s love and mercy as abundant and freely flowing, and His redemption and salvation as a free gift of grace by the Cross of Christ, cannot miss the mark entirely.

Next up: Falling from Grace, and God’s Mercy and Forgiveness

Catholicism and Assurance of Salvation

My next post in the current series is already queued up and scheduled; but I think I’m going to delay it for a timely reflection that turns out to be quite apropos. [Part one. Part two.]

Baptism in Kansas (1928), by John Steuart Curry

Baptism in Kansas (1928), by John Steuart Curry (WikiPaintings).

Last night I gave my testimony to a room full of Baptists. On Wednesday nights I attend a home care group at the home of my dear friends Josh and Wendy, ardent Christians and faithful Baptists. I grew up, and my faith was formed, among Baptists, and even now as a Catholic, I have a great and growing love for the Baptist tradition. And last night, we went around the circle as each member of the group shared his or her Christian testimony. As I closed mine, apologetically thanking my friends for their love and acceptance of me, “even though I’m a Catholic now, in a room full of Baptists,” one man spoke up and noted that we were a room full of Christians.

First Baptist Church, Lincolnton, N.C.

There’s one note that was a refrain through many of the testimonies of my Baptist friends, and I don’t wish to speak critically of it, but it made me thoughtful, and I thought I would comment on it from my own testimony: the quest for “assurance of salvation.” Baptists believe one can have assurance of one’s eternal destiny, “eternal security,” a faith that one’s eternal salvation is certain and cannot be taken away. But it seemed that for several of my friends, the search for this assurance was a struggle with uncertainty and doubt, until finally each received a confirmation. Several of them were raised in Christian homes and in church, and grew up knowing of the gospel; several of them had journeys of faith, even serving in the church, only to drift away or fall into sin, or later otherwise realize that they were “lost.” They then had dramatic moments at which they were “saved.”

Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul (1600)

Conversion of Saint Paul (1600), by Caravaggio.

But I know well, from my own life, the inconstancy of human flesh. I too was raised in a godly home, by godly parents, in a godly church; I knew the Lord from an early age; I grew up walking with Him; as a young man I was “on fire” for Him; and though I was immature and there was much I didn’t understand, I can say with fair certainty that I did know the Lord, that I trusted in Him and followed Him, and in the manner of speaking of Evangelicals, was “saved.” And yet I did fall away; I fell into serious sin; I walked away from God for a number of years. Was what I had before, then, as a young man, not real? Later on God called me back, and I did have dramatic conversion experiences, more than one of them; and yet that wasn’t the end of the road for me, either. I still struggled with sin, even fell in deeper than I ever had before, until I had an even further and deeper conversion to the Lord: not a single moment, but a highway landmarked with monuments of faith.

The road to Rome

So it presents a number of questions: When was I “saved”? Did I “lose my salvation” those times I fell away? Did I never have “assurance” to begin with? My friends’ stories were each framed around the premise that there was a single moment at which they were saved, at which they received assurance; and yet I heard evidence that these people were following and serving the Lord even before those moments. And I seriously wonder that if any of them were to fall again into serious sin — a danger that I am sure they would admit — if they should “backslide” or fall away from the Lord — that they wouldn’t then have further and later moments, and that they wouldn’t then frame their testimonies around them, supposing that that time is when they were truly “saved,” or “recommitted” their lives to Him. Even the language and narrative of Evangelicals seem to admit that “salvation” is a journey, an ongoing conversion, even despite their conventions and focus on single moments.

Despite any assurance of salvation that one might hold at any given moment, it is possible that that person might backslide or fall away — and if he were then to die, at that point there would be uncertainty among those who knew him: Was he truly saved? Did he ever really have a saving faith? One camp, the Reformed, would say that his falling away was evidence that he didn’t; and whatever assurance he had at one time would seem to count for very little. Others, more Evangelical-minded, might say that because he did have assurance of a saving faith at one time, he must have been saved in the end. And yet that saving faith was not saving him toward the end of his life or bearing fruit.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Smith Catholic Art

Sacred Heart of Jesus, by Smith Catholic Art (prints available).

The standard Evangelical evangelistic question is, “If you died tonight, are you absolutely certain that you would go to heaven and be with Jesus?” I am glad that nobody asked me that question last night, because as a Catholic, they wouldn’t have liked my answer. No, I don’t have absolute assurance; but I stand in good company, and answer with the words of Paul: “I do not even judge myself; it is the Lord who judges me” (1 Corinthians 4:3–4). I trust in the promises of my Lord: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). “He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54). I know Him and trust in Him and have faith that “He who has begun a good work in [me] will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). I have assurance that my Lord “will never leave [me] nor forsake [me]” (Hebrews 13:5, etc.); if there is any doubt, it is not in the Lord, but in my own fragile humanity. He gives us the grace in Him to stand and to abide; but He also gives us the free will to stand with Him or to walk away, to choose sin and death or His eternal life (Deuteronomy 30:19, Sirach 15:17).

Much ink has been spilled over the centuries over the question of whether we can be certain that we are in a state of grace, that we are justified and forgiven of our sins; and this doubt coincides with the doubts of “assurance” that I heard from my friends last night. But faith is from the Lord (Ephesians 2:8–10), and He does give assurance and confirmation in that faith that we are in Him. In that faith, I know that it is never God who will let go of me; and I can say with abiding faith that I will not let go of Him between now and the moment of my death, especially were that to come tonight. Now, then, and always, I can only throw myself upon His boundless grace: “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Catholicism and Being “Born Again”

Part two of a longer piece on “Falling from Grace.” [Part one.]

Catholics: Salvation is a Journey

Baptism of Christ, from Mariawald Abbey

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

So then, Catholics view salvation not as a single, momentary event, but as a road, a journey, a pilgrimage, a race (Hebrews 12:1). We have not yet arrived at our destination, the heavenly Jerusalem. There is certainly, in the Catholic mind, a sense in which we have been saved: at our Baptism, we are born again in Christ (John 3:3,5). We are buried with Him in death and raised to newness of life in His Resurrection (Romans 6:3–6); the old has passed away, and we are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Catholics do not often speak of being “saved” in the present tense or of “getting saved” as a momentary event, as especially Evangelical Protestants do — for this we are often criticized. “Catholics don’t believe in being ‘saved’! They say they will not know if they are ‘saved’ until the end of their lives!” That isn’t quite true. We know that we have been saved from our former life and given a new life in Christ; whether we will be saved in the end is something that not even Paul could state with certainty (1 Corinthians 4:3–5).

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ (The Kiss of Judas), c. 1306

Giotto, The Arrest of Christ (The Kiss of Judas), c. 1306 (WikiArt.org).

Why could Paul not, and why can’t we, know our final salvation for certain? Paul himself tells us that although he knows of nothing against himself, it will ultimately be God Who judges him, “[when] the Lord comes” — and that he is, in his belief of his own innocence, not thereby acquitted — οὐκ δεδικαίωμαι [ouk dedikaiōmai], from δικαιόω [dikaioō], the same verb that is more commonly translated justified. Protestant apologists readily stress that δικαιόω, “justify,” has a primarily forensic meaning, of acquittal — which it does — but they are quick to gloss over instances such as this that do not fit their interpretation of a “once and for all” event. Paul, then, understands that his present and future sins can still be held against him, even the sins of his heart (v. 5); and he knows the danger of falling away — of which Jesus often warned (e.g. Matthew 24:10; Mark 14:27; Luke 8:13; John 16:1). Frequent, too, are the warnings, even from Paul, against falling into sin (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10:12; Galatians 5:21; 1 Timothy 3:6, 6:9–10; Hebrews 10:29; James 5:12; 2 Peter 1:10).

Being “Born Again”: Renegeration and Conversion

Painting of infant baptism from the Catacombs

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

Many Protestants, particularly Evangelicals, object to the Catholic identification of Jesus’s call to be “born again” with Baptism — despite the fact that this was historically the universal understanding of the Church in interpreting John 3:3,5, even in Protestant traditions, dating from the earliest times (see especially Justin Martyr, First Apology LX, quoted in this post). The objection that this “new birth” refers to a spiritual rebirth and renewal, not only to a physical washing, reflects a misunderstanding of the concept of sacramentality. A sacrament is an outward and visible manifestation that both represents and actually accomplishes an inward and spiritual grace: so in Baptism, the outward washing and covering with water both represents an inward spiritual cleansing (Ephesians 5:25–27, Hebrews 10:19–22) and a burial and resurrection with Christ (Romans 6:3–10, Colossians 2:11–15), but also actually accomplishes the grace of the washing away of sins (Acts 22:16) and spiritual regeneration (Titus 3:3–5).

Benjamin West, St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost

St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost, by Benjamin West (1738–1820) (Wikimedia).

But it is indeed a truth that there must be a genuine, inward conversion to Christ, a renewal in faith and turning toward Him, in the believer’s life. Catholics, in affirming the efficacy of Baptism in regeneration, in no way detract from this necessity. Especially in adult believers, regeneration in Baptism generally coincides with a faithful conversion to Christ — but it is not necessarily the same thing. The most strident objections come from Baptists and other opponents of “Paedobaptism” (the Baptism of infants), who argue that infants have no faith and cannot truly convert to Christ, and therefore cannot be regenerated: but it is not our faith alone that justifies us or regenerates us, but the working of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit; and He can work no less ably in the life of a child than in anyone else’s. For children, this regeneration in Baptism must be followed by growth in faith and conversion; and the good faith of the child’s family, his or her parents and the Church, in pledging to raise the child as a Christian, is a surety in this.

We must be born again. This is as true for our rebirth and regeneration in Baptism as it is for our sincere and faithful conversion to Christ. Catholics believe this as surely and certainly as do Evangelicals or any Protestants. We may not always have stories of sudden, life-changing “conversion experiences” — though very many do. Consider St. Augustine, St. Francis, or St. Ignatius of Loyola! For my part, my conversion to Christ has been a lifelong and ongoing journey. I can say that, being raised by godly parents in a godly church, God has always embraced me; and over the years, as I’ve learned and matured, I’ve grown in faith, and never converted to Him so wholeheartedly or passionately as I have as a Catholic.

Next up: An aside on Catholicism and Assurance of Salvation. Then, The Catholic View of Grace and Justification.

Justification Is Not the End of the Road

Part one of a series on “Falling from Grace.”

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1665), by Rembrandt.

Lately the Lord has been putting it on my heart to begin a series on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, also known as Confession. But first there are a few prickly issues which, approaching the subject from a Protestant perspective, I felt I needed to address beforehand. Of most importance are significant differences in the Catholic and Protestant modes of thinking about sin and grace, which stem from fundamentally different understandings of the justification of sinners. The question in focus: Can a Christian fall from grace through sin?

This has been an exceedingly difficult post to write. In making a sincere effort to be fair to the diverse Protestant points of view, I’ve started this post over from the beginning several times. Trying to synthesize a single, coherent presentation of “the Protestant understanding” of justification is a lot like trying to eat an elephant whole. If I still miss the mark, please call me on it.

(This also proved to be quite long. So I think I will give it to you in three or four pieces.)

Justification: A Moment or a Process?

Perhaps the most basic, practical difference between the Catholic and Protestant modes of thinking about justification — the work of God’s grace by which we are exonerated of our sins and made to be righteous in His sight — is that in the Catholic way of thinking, justification is generally understood to be an ongoing, continuous process, while it seems to be a hallmark of Protestant theology that justification is a moment — a single, instantaneous, and total action.

This is the fruit — and the end — of two fundamentally different understandings of the mode of justification. The traditional, Augustinian, Catholic understanding is that justification is an infusion of God’s grace into the sinner’s soul, a pouring of God’s love into his heart (Romans 5:5) that obliterates sin and not only makes him right before God, but actually sanctifies him and makes him righteous. The Protestant view, beginning with the teachings of Luther and other early Protestant Reformers, conceives of justification as a purely forensic declaration by God as judge, declaring the sinner righteous in God’s court by an imputation of his sins to the sinless Christ and an imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness to the sinner — not actually, in this act, affecting the sinfulness of the believer, but merely covering his sins.

The Protestant view of Justification

Martin Luther

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

Because, in the Protestant view, God declares the sinner righteous in this once-and-for-all, forensic, judicial declaration, he is then held “not guilty,” in God’s judgment, of all his sins — in most conceptions, all the sins he has committed in his past life and even all he ever will commit in the future. In this idea of imputation, a “swap” or substitution is accomplished, an exchange of accounts: the sinner’s hopelessly bankrupt debt is cancelled, and Christ’s perfect and infinite righteousness is credited to him. Because of this credit, all the sinner’s eternal debts are paid: even if he sins in the future, no sin of his could compare or counter the payment Christ gave on the cross for the sins of all humanity. The sinner’s every sin, from then on, is covered by the blood of Christ.

So in the Protestant conception, the idea of “falling from grace” is nonsensical. For one thing, the notion of a “state of grace” — let alone falling from it — is not generally in the Protestant vocabulary. For another, because justification is understood as a once-and-for-all event, “justification” is often effectively equated with “salvation” — with the result that “falling from grace” sounds to Protestant ears as “losing one’s salvation.” This is not how Catholics understand it.

“Lumping” and “splitting”

What appears at first to be a stark contrast between the Catholic and Protestant views is ameliorated when one takes a broader view of the situation. I’ve written before about “lumpers and splitters” — Catholics having a tendency to lump concepts and terminology together and Protestants tending to split them. Here is another case of that. Even in the Protestant view, justification is only one step in a larger process, one of the initial steps. They split into a separate action the process of sanctification — by which God’s grace makes one actually holy. On the other hand, in the Catholic understanding, justification and sanctification are so closely related as to be part of the same action.

This is the source of much confusion. Many of the Protestant charges that Catholics believe in “justification by works,” I believe, stem from the fact that when Catholics speak of works being involved in justification, they usually are referring to what Protestants would call sanctification, the process of growing in grace and being made holy — which even many Protestants will admit does involve works of charity. Likewise, many Catholic apologists caricature the Protestant position on justification by claiming that it merely casts a cloak over a man’s wretched, festering, sinful state, and doesn’t actually effect a change in his soul or his holiness; but they often overlook that sanctification is a closely bound concept even for Protestants that follows necessarily upon a sincere conversion to Christ, and regeneration is another important event that does accomplish a real change in the soul through God’s grace.

Justification is not the end of the road

El Greco, Apostle St. Paul

Apostle St. Paul (c. 1612), by El Greco.

But what about “falling from grace”? How can one, in the Protestant view, conceive of such a thing? Well, it is important for the Protestant to realize that Catholics take a much broader view of salvation than many Protestants do. While in the minds of many Protestants, “salvation” is the moment when one accepts and converts to Christ — accomplishing (and this is a flattening or lumping) regeneration, justification, and conversion all at once — that is not the end of the road, even for Protestants. “Salvation” implies being saved from something; and while this initial regeneration and justification may have saved the sinner from his sins — even, in the Protestant conception, from the eternal consequences of them — there is still much to be saved from before the end: many sins, dangers, and temptations, and from death itself. The believer still must live the life ahead of him, yielding good fruit (Philippians 1:11, Colossians 1:10) and being sanctified (1 Thessalonians 4:1–8, Romans 6:22). Even Paul in the Scriptures speaks of having been saved not only in the past tense (e.g. Ephesians 2:8–10), but also in the present tense, how we are being saved even now (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:18, 2 Corinthians 2:15), and we shall be saved, future tense, on the Day of Jesus Christ (e.g. Romans 5:9–10, 1 Corinthians 5:5, cf. 1 Peter 2:12); and this future tense is by far the most common mode of speaking of salvation in the Gospels (e.g. Matthew 24:13, Mark 13:13, Luke 13:23, John 6:54): “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13, etc.).

Next time: the Catholic view of Salvation as a Journey.

Some Early Testimonies to the Authority of Apostolic Tradition

Part of an ongoing discussion at Reformation500.

The Sermon on the Mount (1877), by Carl Heinrich Bloch

The Sermon on the Mount (1877), by Carl Heinrich Bloch (Wikimedia).

As I’ve been arguing, I think Protestants, in thinking about “Tradition,” fail to see the forest for the trees. You (and I presume these historians) are looking for “traditions,” “hidden doctrines,” something concretely novel or different from the Word of God in Scripture — but given that, according to the proposition, this “Tradition” came from the very same source and same revelation as Scripture, that isn’t something we should expect to see. You are looking for some separate, concrete body of knowledge which the Early Church hailed as authoritative — some esoteric, “secret” store of privileged revelation — which frankly reeks of Gnosticism. But that isn’t the sort of thing I am talking about at all.

Christ Preaching (1652), by Rembrandt.

Christ Preaching (1652), by Rembrandt.

What I’m talking about is simply the whole teaching of Christ to His Apostles, and of the Apostles to their disciples, and henceforth. In the main, this would have been no different than the content of the New Testament; and yes, we can have faith that God caused the most important points to be written down. But no document of the New Testament purports to be a catechism or compendium of Christian doctrine. In the teaching of the faith, from Jesus to the Apostles, from the Apostles to their disciples, and with each successive generation, even to today, Christian teachers do not simply hand the Bible to new converts and expect them to learn from it alone; Christian discipleship is accompanied by instruction in how to understand Christian Scripture and doctrine and how to live the Christian life; how to do the things Christians do. By nature of what it is, this teaching carries content not found in Scripture. And the Apostles would have passed on as fully as they could the teaching they received from the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:23), and instructed their own disciples to do likewise (1 Corinthians 11:2, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 2 Timothy 2:2). Thus, this body of “Tradition” (παράδοσις [paradosis], lit. teaching that was handed over) was immediately apostolic in origin, if not from the very mouth of God Himself.

Baptism, Catacomb of St. Callixtus

A third-century representation of Baptism from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome.

I’ve been pointing out a few visible examples of this. Arguably, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the sacramental efficacy of baptism — i.e. baptismal regeneration; the understanding that the water of baptism washes away sins and gives rebirth in Christ — are clear enough from Scripture itself; but the fact that many Protestants have disputed these doctrines demonstrates either Scripture’s lack of perspicuity or the necessity of Apostolic Tradition: because from the earliest times, as witnessed by diverse Church Fathers, these understandings were universal and unambiguous throughout all the Church, evidently from the teaching that all the churches had received. Likewise, from the earliest times, universally, even in most Protestant traditions, the Church has transferred the Old Testament Sabbath observance to Sunday, the Lord’s Day, in honor of His Resurrection; and the annual commemoration of the Resurrection has been kept in conjunction with the Passover — but neither is taught by Scripture. The outlines of the liturgical celebrations of baptism and the Eucharist in all churches everywhere appear to stem from the same apostolic tradition. Likewise the testimony to a successive, singular episcopal office is universal. These things complement and guide the practice of the Church, and inform and fill out her doctrine, confirming and supporting the Word of God in Scripture, not contradicting it.

The Four Doctors of the Western Church

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

I could cite numerous testimonies to this παράδοσις of the Apostles from the Church Fathers, but I will pick out only a few of the earliest. I hope these examples will indicate the kind of doctrines and practices which the Church has always held by Tradition. Some of the earliest unambiguous references, appropriately enough, appear in the context of combatting the teachings of heretics, who twist the Scriptures to their own interpretations, arguing that they had received an esoteric tradition of secret knowledge (γνῶσις) — a charge not unlike Protestant caricatures against Catholic teachings about Apostolic Tradition. These people, Irenaeus argues, reject Scripture:

Irenaeus

Irenaeus of Lyon (ca. A.D. 120–200).

When, however, [the heretics] are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce: wherefore also Paul declared, “But we speak wisdom among those that are perfect, but not the wisdom of this world” (1 Corinthians 2:6). And this wisdom each one of them alleges to be the fiction of his own inventing … (Against Heresies III.2.1)

On the other hand, Irenaeus says, the same heretics also reject apostolic tradition:

But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the Apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the Apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. … (Against Heresies III.2.2).

The key for Irenaeus, therefore — the only sure means by which the heretics can be refuted — is not by Scripture alone, but by Scripture informed by Tradition, verified by Apostolic Succession:

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the Apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the Apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. (Against Heresies III.3.1).

This tradition is demonstrated clearly, he continues, by the continuous testimony of all the churches of the world in agreement with one another (Against Heretics III.3.2). And as a personal testimony of this tradition, Irenaeus shares:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by Apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by Apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departing this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the Apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true. To these things all the Asiatic Churches testify, as do also those men who have succeeded Polycarp down to the present time,—a man who was of much greater weight, and a more stedfast witness of truth, than Valentinus, and Marcion, and the rest of the heretics (Against Heretics III.3.4).

Tertullian

Tertullian of Carthage (c. 160 – c. 225).

Tertullian actually speaks to the impotence of Scripture alone in refuting heresies:

But with respect to the man for whose sake you enter on the discussion of the Scriptures, with the view of strengthening him when afflicted with doubts, (let me ask) will it be to the truth, or rather to heretical opinions that he will lean? Influenced by the very fact that he sees you have made no progress, whilst the other side is on an equal footing (with yourself) in denying and in defence, or at any rate on a like standing he will go away confirmed in his uncertainty by the discussion, not knowing which side to adjudge heretical. For, no doubt, they too are able to retort these things on us. It is indeed a necessary consequence that they should go so far as to say that adulterations of the Scriptures, and false expositions thereof, are rather introduced by ourselves, inasmuch as they, no less than we maintain that truth is on their side. (The Prescription against Heretics I.18)

Rather, one should ask, “With whom lies the very faith to which the Scriptures belong?” And how is this rule of faith known?

Our appeal, therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough. But even if a discussion from the Scriptures should not turn out in such a way as to place both sides on a par, (yet) the natural order of things would require that this point should be first proposed, which is now the only one which we must discuss: “With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong. From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule, by which men become Christians?” For wherever it shall be manifest that the true Christian rule and faith shall be, there will likewise be the true Scriptures and expositions thereof, and all the Christian traditions. (ibid, I.19)

It is this tradition, Tertullian argues, that distinguishes the true Apostolic Churches:

[The Apostles] founded churches in every city, from which all the other churches, one after another, derived the tradition of the faith, and the seeds of doctrine, and are every day deriving them, that they may become churches. Indeed, it is on this account only that they will be able to deem themselves apostolic, as being the offspring of apostolic churches. … Therefore the churches, although they are so many and so great, comprise but the one primitive church, (founded) by the Apostles, from which they all (spring). In this way all are primitive, and all are apostolic, whilst they are all proved to be one, in (unbroken) unity, by their peaceful communion, and title of brotherhood, and bond of hospitality,—privileges which no other rule directs than the one tradition of the selfsame mystery. (ibid, I.20)

Tertullian again speaks, presciently, to the situation so often separating Catholic and Protestant churches: Why should anyone accept practices not found explicitly in Scripture?

And how long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down? Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted. Certainly we shall say that it ought not to be admitted, if no cases of other practices which, without any written instrument, we maintain on the ground of tradition alone, and the countenance thereafter of custom, affords us any precedent. To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. (De Corona 3)

I gave the same example above before I’d even discovered this passage. He elucidates:

When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the Gospel. Then … we are taken up (as new-born children)… (ibid.)

This description very much resembles the rite of baptism in Catholic, Orthodox, and even Protestant churches, to this very day — thus is the authority and staying power of Tradition. And yet the details of this rite are not described in Scripture. Tertullian goes on to enumerate a number of other traditions, several of which are still very familiar in the Catholic Church, including the Sign of the Cross. Regarding these practices, Tertullian continues:

If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer. That reason will support tradition, and custom, and faith, you will either yourself perceive, or learn from some one who has. … If I nowhere find a law, it follows that tradition has given the [practice] in question to custom, to find subsequently (its authorization in) the apostle’s sanction, from the true interpretation of reason. (Ibid. 4)

Origen

Origen (184–254).

Origen, to add the voice of Alexandria to those of Gaul and Asia Minor (Irenaeus) and Africa and Rome (Tertullian), concurs:

Since many, however, of those who profess to believe in Christ differ from each other, not only in small and trifling matters, but also on subjects of the highest importance, as, e.g., regarding God, or the Lord Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit, … it seems on that account necessary first of all to fix a definite limit and to lay down an unmistakable rule regarding each one of these, and then to pass to the investigation of other points. … So, seeing there are many who think they hold the opinions of Christ, and yet some of these think differently from their predecessors, yet as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. (De Principiis, Preface, 2).

A few more brief quotes from later Fathers, in both the East and the West:

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330 – c. 395).

Let no one interrupt me, by saying that what we confess should also be confirmed by constructive reasoning: for it is enough for proof of our statement, that the tradition has come down to us from our fathers, handled on, like some inheritance, by succession from the apostles and the saints who came after them. (Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius IV.6)



Basil of Caesarea

Basil of Caesarea (329–379).

Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the Apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay;—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? (Basil of Caesarea, On the Spirit 66)

Basil proceeds to name, like Tertullian, a great list of authoritative traditions held by the whole Church.

John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom (c. 347–407).

Hence it is manifest, that [the Apostles] did not deliver all things by Epistle, but many things also unwritten, and in like manner both the one and the other are worthy of credit. Therefore let us think the tradition of the Church also worthy of credit. It is a tradition, seek no farther. (John Chrysostom, In 2 Thess. hom. IV.14, commenting on 2 Thess. 2:15)

[The Scriptures] need examination, and the perception to understand the force of each proposition. But Tradition must be used too, for not everything is available from the Sacred Scripture. thus the holy Apostles handed some things down in Scriptures but some in traditions. (Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion LXI.6.4)

Saint Augustine in His Study, by Botticelli.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430).

[I believe that this custom (i.e. of not requiring the rebaptism of heretics)] comes from apostolical tradition, like many other things which are held to have been handed down under their actual sanction, because they are preserved throughout the whole Church, though they are not found either in their letters, or in the Councils of their successors. (Augustine of Hippo, Contra Bapt. Donat. II.7.12)

So I’ve shown that the Church did possess an Apostolic Tradition, “passed down and preserved by all the churches” — and it is their agreement that makes it manifest. But of what authority was this tradition? Was it “infallible”? As John [Bugay] rightly pointed out — “infallibility” is not a concept or category that anybody in this age of the Church would have understood or thought about, and I’m not sure it’s helpful for this conversation. Certainty Christians considered Scripture of the highest authority — there’s no disputing that. But if a doctrine came from the very same source as Scripture, from the mouths of Jesus and the Apostles, would they have accepted it with any less authority, simply because one was written down and the other wasn’t? No less than Paul himself suggests that this distinction wasn’t so important as Protestants have sought to make it (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Why, within living memory of Paul, would anyone have drawn a distinction between what Paul taught by word of mouth or by letter? It is plain that the Early Church did not. Certainly Tradition is not Scripture, which is the very, written Word of God; but with legitimate evidence of its apostolic origin and belief throughout the ages, in all the churches, we can see by the testimony of these Fathers that the Church accepted it as authoritative. Several of them even declare that Tradition is held as of equal weight as Scripture. The fact that with regard to so many of these traditions, the Church everywhere has maintained them to this day, testifies to the authority in which they have been held.

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).

Oxford

Part of my ongoing conversion story.

The Lyceum, the University of Mississippi

The Lyceum at the University of Mississippi.

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

The Grove

The Grove.

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

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

Audrey's Cup of Soul

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

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

Baptism with the Holy Spirit or Fire?

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

Titian, Pentecost

Pentecost (c. 1545), by Titian.

In my last post on Baptism, a commenter raised an important question that I had overlooked: When John prophesied that the Messiah would “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire,” did he refer to an efficacious Sacrament of Baptism in water, by which believers would be immersed in the Holy Spirit and filled with His fire; or was this merely a figure for the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost, with no implications for the Christian Sacrament? In short: Is Water Baptism the “Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” prophesied by John?

I conclude that “Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire” refers to an efficacious Water Baptism — but the fire of Pentecost itself is also an image of this. These events are essentially connected. It was the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, manifested in tongues of fire and miraculous signs, that most visibly marks the greater miracle that coincided that day spiritually: The spiritual regeneration the Spirit wrought in the waters of Baptism; the washing away of sins, and the burial of the sinful man in Christ’s Death and Resurrection in His new life. Certainly it is this redemption and rebirth, the greatest work of Christ, to which John referred in his prophecy. The charisms of the Holy Spirit in tongues and wonders are only a visible effusion of the fire within.*

* This is reminiscent of the Pentecostal doctrine I grew up with. In fact, it is a plank of the “fundamental truths” of the Assemblies of God that the charism of speaking in tongues is the initial physical evidence that a believer has been fully immersed in the Holy Spirit (“baptized in the Holy Spirit”).

There are several key verses that point to this interpretation, that necessarily connect John’s prophecy to Christian Baptism. Prior to His Ascension, the Lord told the Apostles:

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

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

And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:4–5)

Certainly this is — and the Apostles understood it as — a promise of the descent and outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They thus entered the Upper Room to pray, and then:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:1–4)

And it followed that all those who came to believe were commanded to repent and be baptized in water (Acts 2:38).

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

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

But the prophecy of John and of the Lord were not limited to this. For after the Holy Spirit came to Cornelius and the Gentiles, Peter reported to the other Apostles and brethren:

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:15–18)

Peter specifically relates the falling of the Holy Spirit on these Gentiles to His falling on them at Pentecost — which was prophesied by Our Lord’s prophecy, and before that, John’s. The gift He gave to [the Apostles] was the Holy Spirit; and He has here given it also to the Gentiles. But note the key here: In this passage, the gift of the Holy Spirit promised in the prophecy is definitively connected with repentance unto life — that is, with salvation. And in the initial narration of the story, that repentance unto life was marked by Baptism:

While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:44–48)

The Baptism of Infidels, by Gustave Dore

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

Repentance unto life: John preached a Baptism of repentance, but Christ’s Baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire — also marked by repentance and a washing away of sins (Acts 2:38, 22:16) — brought new life (John 3:3–5). It is with this same language of immersion into life that St. Paul described Baptism:

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. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. (Romans 6:3–8)

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 “Great Apostasy” Narrative

Duccio, The Last Supper (c. 1311)

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

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

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

St. Clement of Rome

St. Clement of Rome.

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

Codex Sinaiticus

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

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

Major claims of this “Great Apostasy” thesis include:

    The Council of Nicaea

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

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

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

  3. Idol worship?

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

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

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

  6. Cybele

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

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

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

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

  10. Spanish Inquisition

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

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

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

  13. Chained Bible

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

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

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