Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 3: An Authoritative Church

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

An authoritative Church

Rome from the dome of St. Peter's.

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

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

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

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

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

St. Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán

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

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

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

The Magisterium

Four Doctors of the Western Church

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

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

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

The Good Shepherd, Bernhard Plockhorst

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

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

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

Not a Tyrant

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus

Augustus Caesar as Pontifex Maximus (Wikimedia).

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

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

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

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

Too Many Teachers

Martin Luther

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

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

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

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

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

“Other Things”

Infant baptism by immersion

Baptism.

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

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

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

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grappling with Sola Scriptura, Part 2: Sources of Authority

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

Santa Maria Maggiore, interior

Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Roma (Wikimedia)

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

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

An argument from history

Douay-Rheims New Testament (1582)

Douay-Rheims New Testament (1582) (Wikimedia)

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

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

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

sky-earth-galaxy-universe

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

Sources of authority

Clio, Mignard (Muse of History)

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

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

Chained Bible

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

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

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

St. Augustine

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

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

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

There is still more to come!

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.

We’ve moved! My new WordPress site

Marc Chagall. Joseph, A Shepherd. 1931.

Marc Chagall. Joseph, A Shepherd. 1931.

How now, Brown Cow?

Sorry I’ve been silent for a few weeks. I’m still around. And one of the major projects I’ve been working on has been transferring my blog from WordPress.com to its new home on its very own shiny new site. Behold, the new LonelyPilgrim.com!

If you’re reading by subscription, via RSS or email, then you ought not to see any difference at all from your end. If you continue receiving my posts as before, then all is well. If you don’t — then you probably won’t receive this one. But if you happen to notice any interruptions or problems, please let me know.

I’d like to draw your attention to my shiny new gizmo, the primary reason why I finally decided to move to a self-hosted WordPress installation: a plugin that generates Scripture tooltips upon hovering over Scripture references. One of the most tedious aspects of my blogging was having to manually link every Scripture reference to some Bible site or another. From my end (and from your end, too, as commenters!), all I have to do is refer to a Scripture — for example, Matthew 16:18 or John 3:5 — and the plugin dynamically tags the reference. From your end as readers, if you are reading on LonelyPilgrim.com, all you have to do is hover over the tagged Scripture reference, and the text will appear! Try it out! I call it Sacred WordPress, and after a little more tweaking, I hope to be able to share it with other WordPress users.

My only regret is leaving the close-knit WordPress.com community. The WordPress.com Reader has been the source of many interesting random encounters, and I’m going to miss those. But new readers can still follow me, and read my posts in the Reader! And I will continue following all the wonderful blogfriends I made on WordPress.com.

I hope to resume my regular blogging soon. May God bless you all, and His peace be with you!

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).

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Witness of the Early Church, and Three Important Lessons He Can Teach Us

Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch

Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop and Martyr. St. Ignatius was born in Syria ca. 50, and is believed to have been a disciple of the Apostle St. John. He became the third Bishop of Antioch, following St. Peter and St. Evodius, in ca. 69. In about 108, on the authority of the emperor Trajan, St. Ignatius was arrested and condemned to die for his faith before a Roman audience.

It is at this point that he becomes for us one of the greatest μάρτυρες (martyrs) of the Early Church. A martyr in Greek literally is a witness, one who gives testimony — and in his death, St. Ignatius not only bore great testimony for his faith in Christ, but he bears great testimony to us in this day of the faith, beliefs, and practices of the Early Church. For on his way to Rome, he wrote seven letters to the Churches of Asia Minor, exhorting them to remain firm in their faith, and to the Church at Rome, admonishing the believers there not to intervene and prevent him from giving his ultimate witness.

Martyrdom of Ignatius

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch

A.D. 108 — this is scarcely two generations from the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, at the very closing of the Apostolic Age: the Apostle John is believed to have died as late as ca. 100. Ignatius of Antioch lived early enough to have known several of the Apostles and heard their teachings. He was held in high esteem by the entire Church, a well-known, respected, and authoritative bishop and teacher. He was notorious enough even outside the Church for Trajan to have made an example of him. So we have every reason to trust Ignatius’s testimony regarding the faith of the Christian Church of his day — the faith received from the Apostles.

What Ignatius can teach us

The Authority of the Bishop

Bishops' Croziers

The crozier, one of the symbols of the episcopate.

There has been considerable debate among historians about the development of the episcopacy and at what point in the growth of the Church the office of bishop came to mean what it means to the Church today. Bishops (or overseers — the Greek is ἐπίσκοποι* [episkopoi]) are described in the New Testament (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:7), but it appears that in the earliest days of the Church, the offices of bishop and presbyter (πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], or elder — the presbyters of the Church became what we call priests) may have been to some extent synonymous. (For example, in 1 Peter 5:1, St. Peter refers to himself as a fellow presbyter†; in the above passage in 1 Timothy 3, St. Paul describes the offices of bishop and deacon but not presbyter.) The governance of the local church by only one monarchical bishop, as came to be the model and continues to be the model, is known to historians as the monoepiscopacy — with some liberal scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, suggesting that it was not established until well into the second century. This has particular bearing on the claims of the Church of Rome — for its bishop is also known as the pope, and as the successor of St. Peter, claims primacy over the whole Church.

* See “Bishops and Priests” for a lengthier discussion of the Greek for this terms.

† In the Church to this day, however, all bishops are presbyters (priests), but not all priests are bishops.

St. Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Clement), dated ca. 95, does not give explicit evidence of the monoepiscopacy (neither does it contradict it). But St. Ignatius’s letters, dated ca. 107, give absolute and undeniable evidence of the monoepiscopacy, and he asserts it as a known and established fact, not as a recent institution:

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery [i.e. the priests] as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8)

Not only does the bishop have absolute authority in the local church, but neither baptisms nor the Eucharist are valid without the ministry or approval of the bishop. This establishes definitely the monoepiscopacy, the subordinate roles of presbyters and deacons, and the authority of the bishop over the Sacraments of the Church. Ignatius compares the office of the bishop in every community of believers to the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist — Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. (This is also the earliest known description of the Church as Catholic, or universal.)

The Belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

Eucharistic adoration

The Catholic Church believes that in the Eucharist, the elements of bread and wine become in reality the Body and Blood of Christ. Many Protestant detractors argue that this doctrine is a later development and not a true apostolic teaching (despite clear statements in Scripture, e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:27-29). St. Ignatius, however, attests firmly to the Church’s belief in the Real Presence in the first decade of the second century — a much earlier time than Protestants would like to admit, and too soon after the Apostles for such a doctrine to have been “invented”:

But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh (σάρξ) of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6–7)

The Compilation of the New Testament

Codex Vaticanus

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

Third and finally, Ignatius’s writings demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the New Testament Scriptures, and he quotes from them as if from memory — it is unlikely that he would have been traveling to his death with a full church library. Working from the citations labeled by the editors of the texts at New Advent, I find:

  • Matthew
  • John
  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • James
  • 1 Peter
  • 1 John

Considering the contemporaneous Martyrdom of Ignatius, believed to have been written by eyewitnesses to Ignatius’s death — probably the believers who accompanied him to Rome — adds Acts and 2 Corinthians to the list above.

NOTE (2013/10/30): I may have to review this argument. It seems the editors of the Ante-Nicene Fathers may have been a little overzealous in their citations, and marked as Scripture references passages and phrases that were not explicitly Scripture references. I withhold a verdict at this time, until I can study the problem more deeply.

That makes for a fairly comprehensive collection of New Testament documents. Ignatius was familiar with the writings of St. Paul, St. Peter, St. John, and St. James, as well as the Gospel of Matthew — the citations ascribed to which, I suppose, might include references to the other Synoptic Gospels also. For a date mere decades after these documents were written — and these documents having been written in diverse parts of the Christian world — the Church seems to have very quickly assembled the collection known as the New Testament nearly in its entirety. And what’s more, Ignatius quotes from the New Testament with the same authority as he quotes from Old Testament Scripture — certainly the Church in Ignatius’s day considered the Gospels and apostolic letters holy, inspired writings. By the first decade of the second century, the Church had nearly (if not fully) assembled intact the body of Scripture that has been handed down to the Church today.

Sacraments and “Works”: Where Protestants get it wrong

Theophany Icon

An icon of the Theophany, the Orthodox celebration of the Baptism of Christ, when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove.

It occurred to me today, I think, the real reason why Reformed and evangelical Protestants reject the Sacraments and any belief in the idea of sacramentality.

St. Paul writes (Ephesians 2:8-10):

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Baptism, Catacomb of St. Callixtus

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

In the Protestant mind, Baptism and the other Sacraments are “works.” The idea of sacramentality is incompatible with the doctrine of sola fide because, by the Protestant interpretation of Paul, one’s salvation is accomplished by faith alone. To grant that the act of Baptism itself, a “work,” has any sacramental power at all, that it washes away one’s sins and gives one a new birth in Christ, is to admit that some other action beyond faith alone is necessary for salvation.

Therefore, in order to make sola fide work, they dismiss Paul’s clear testimony elsewhere in Scripture regarding the efficacy, sacramentality, and necessity of Baptism (Titus 3:4-7):

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

How can this be? How can Paul say that God saved us not because of works, and at the same time that He saved us by the washing of regeneration (διὰ λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας)? Clearly, Paul speaks of “works” here in a different way than Protestants suppose.

We are saved not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy. Certainly, we are saved only by God’s mercy and grace — no works we do can ever earn our salvation. But that doesn’t mean — and Paul never says — that we are saved by faith alone — that we don’t have to do anything. Baptism, and the other Sacraments, are not “works” by which we try to earn God’s favor or earn our salvation, but the God-given and Christ-instituted means by which we receive His grace.

Missing Information: The Historical Limitations of Sola Scriptura

(This little essay originated as a comment in another blog just now, and I thought it might be worth sharing.)

Bible

As a historian — and this is one of the things that led me to Catholicism — I feel like it’s a fallacy of the doctrine of sola scriptura to presume that we have all the sources and aren’t missing any information. We have to remember that there were twenty, thirty, maybe forty years between the events of Christ’s earthly ministry and the writing of the earliest Gospel. For those decades, the Church wasn’t just sitting around waiting patiently for God to give them the New Testament so they could begin preaching the Gospel. The original mode of transmitting the Gospel was by oral preaching and teaching, by the Apostles going out into the world and spreading it by word of mouth. The churches they established were many and far-flung, but they were in touch with each other, by believers traveling among them, by the Apostles returning to visit the churches like Paul wrote about, bringing news and teaching.

We have to accept that we just don’t have all of that from Scripture. The writers of the New Testament didn’t record absolutely everything that happened or was going on between the churches. The Gospels, by their own admission, aren’t even a full account of everything Jesus said and did (John 21:25) — and such a thing isn’t even possible. No writer can record everything, not even a divine one — because He’s limited by the very earthly medium of paper and pen. The books of the New Testament very frequently refer to events we don’t know about and can only infer, to people we don’t know, even to letters we don’t have (1 Corinthians 5:9, 7:1).

Now, Protestants believe that everything they need for salvation is recorded in the Scriptures — and I like to think that God really did give them enough to get them into heaven, since He surely knew ahead of time that they were going to bolt. But that doesn’t mean that everything is in the Scriptures. On many points, the Bible is silent. That doesn’t mean, however, that there necessarily aren’t answers. The Tradition handed down by the Church — not vague, amorphous “traditions,” but historically documented testimony to the Church’s beliefs from the earliest ages — can shed light in many places, and complete our incomplete picture of the Early Church.

It’s very compelling to me to study the Bible and discover all I can about the people and places in it — but my salvation doesn’t hinge on which Mary was which or whether Jesus’s “brothers” were Apostles or even whether they were His brothers. Not even Tradition offers definite answers to many questions. Since I know I don’t have all the facts — not about the Early Church and certainly not about God — I’m content to just let some things be mysteries, things I wonder about but won’t know until I get to ask. I believe and have faith in the things I know for sure, and that’s that the Gospel is true and Jesus is my Savior.

Baptism: Symbol or Sacrament?

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

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

Why do Protestants, especially evangelicals, reject the Sacraments, and the concept of sacramentality in general? Even Baptists, who per the name, are very particular about Baptism, consider Baptism merely “a symbolic act of obedience” (“Basic Beliefs,” Southern Baptist Convention). The Early Church, from the Apostles at the Day of Pentecost, down through all the ages, clearly and explicitly believed that Baptism was much more than a symbol — that it, done in repentance, was εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ὑμῶν (“for the remission of your sins”) (Acts 2:38). The Apostles and the Early Church emphasized Baptism to such an extent that it was literally the first thing one did, the first thing one even thought about, after coming to faith in Christ. Baptism, for the Early Church, was the act of becoming a Christian — the new birth into Christ that He commanded.

So how did Baptism become merely a symbol? How did Protestants, who place such absolute authority in Scripture, come to reject the clear scriptural testimony of its efficacy and sacramentality — and its absolute necessity? There is not a single instance* in the narrative of the New Testament when one’s coming to faith in Christ was not followed immediately, as if part of the same thought, by Baptism. Per the very Word of Christ, only those who “believe and are baptized” will be saved (Mark 16:15-16).

* Edit: Okay, there’s only one (see below).

Indeed, Baptism for many Protestant communities has become not merely symbolic, but optional. In my church growing up, Baptism was performed maybe one Sunday out of a month, if that often. This past Easter, thanks be to God, they had a mass baptismal service in which the hundreds who had come to Christ over the years but had never been baptized were dunked in the manner of an assembly line. I have often complained about the selectiveness of sola scriptura Protestants in what Scripture they choose to read and what they ignore — and there’s not a clearer case in point than this.

Giotto, The Baptism of Christ (c. 1305)

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

Is it, as my Lutheran friend Ken suggests, that the idea of efficacious sacraments is “too Roman Catholic”? In breaking away from the Catholic Church, were the Sacraments thrown out with the rest of the dirty bathwater? The Lutherans and Anglicans, generally, still affirm sacramentality in some forms; so it’s apparently more a Calvinist and evangelical thing (Calvinists were, after all, far more iconoclastic). Or is it, as I’ve often suspected, a tendency to reject the supernatural — which is a little ridiculous, since evangelicals otherwise affirm that the Son of God was born to earth of a Virgin, traveled Palestine healing the sick, died for the sins of humanity, rose again from the dead, and ascended to Heaven. My bunch, too, is quite ardent in their belief in miraculous gifts of healing and prophecy even in our day. There’s very little about Christianity that’s not supernatural — that’s the very idea. But does the idea of sacramentality — the idea that washing in water in Jesus’s name could literally wash away one’s sins — smell too much of “magical” thinking or “superstition” (which, I guess, smells to them a lot like Roman Catholicism)?

I will dig a little deeper at Baptists — they brought it on themselves by calling themselves “Baptists.” Thanks to this helpful site for a detailed and explicit summary of Baptist beliefs (emphases mine):

Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism is important but not necessary for salvation. For example, the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), Saul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-18) and the people gathered in Cornelius’ house (Acts 10:24-48) all experienced salvation without the necessity of baptism. In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter urged those who had repented and believed in Christ to be baptized, not that baptism was necessary for salvation but as a testimony that they had been saved (Acts 2:1-41).

Tintoretto, The Baptism of Christ (1581)

The Baptism of Christ (1581), by Tintoretto.

As I pointed out above, that’s not quite what Peter said: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins.” This article seems to reject the idea of Baptism as a legalistic requirement — which, to my thinking as a Protestant, was how Roman Catholics viewed it. But we don’t; not at all. Baptism is necessary not because it’s a legalistic requirement, but because it’s how one is born again in Christ — how Jesus taught us that our sins are forgiven. There’s no legalistic requirement, of course, that one take occasional baths — but it’s what one has to do if one wants to be clean.

As the article points out, yes, there are examples, such as the repentant thief on the cross, of a sinner being saved without having been baptized. But the thief is certainly an exception, saved by the very divine fiat of Christ: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The other two examples it cites are explicit in declaring the necessity of baptism. The very first thing Saul did after having his sight restored to him was “he rose and was baptized” (Acts 9:18). And the very first thing Peter commanded Cornelius and his friends to do was “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48). The Baptist text, as evangelicals so often do, interprets “being saved” in a very narrow way, as the moment when one comes to faith in Christ. Yes, these believers, such as Saul and Cornelius — such as every believer ever — came to faith in Christ first, and then were baptized. One generally has to take off one’s clothes (i.e. repent of one’s sins, humble oneself before Christ, and believe in faith) before one takes a bath.

Thus, baptism is symbolic and not sacramental. Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism symbolizes that a person has been saved and is not a means of salvation. Baptism is not a means of channeling saving grace but rather is a way of testifying that saving grace has been experienced. It does not wash away sin but symbolizes the forgiveness of sin through faith in Christ.

This couldn’t really have been phrased any more explicitly to reject any idea of sacramentality in Baptism. I would be interested to hear a Baptist exposit to me just how he believes the Bible teaches this. Every reference to Baptism that I can find indicates just the opposite. Neither Jesus, nor Peter, nor Paul, nor any of the other Apostles ever once said “be baptized as a testimony to your faith.” They were instead very insistent and urgent — “repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.”

Baptists are very particular, as this article states, about when and how one should be baptized: only for adult believers and only by immersion. But if Baptism is ultimately nothing more than a symbol, why should the manner of it matter? It is, I suppose, only worth anything as a symbol of believing faith if it’s done deliberately by someone with a genuine and abiding faith in Christ. But why should it matter whether one is dunked in a baptistery, or in a river, or in a bathtub, or sprinkled from a baptismal font, or from a watering can, or from a Dixie cup, if the act has no efficacy?**

** For what it’s worth, the Roman Catholic Church would accept Baptism by any of those methods as valid.

While baptism is not essential for salvation, it is a very important requirement for obedience to the Lord. Christ commanded his disciples to baptize (Matthew 28:19) and therefore baptism is a form of obedience to Jesus as Lord. Baptism is one way that a person declares, “Jesus is Lord.”

Yes, we should be baptized in obedience to the Lord, because that’s what He explicitly taught. But why would Jesus and the Apostles be so insistent about it if it were just a symbol; if it had no real purpose or power? Why would Jesus command us that we have to do something unless there were a reason for it? Elijah commanded Naaman to be washed in the Jordan (2 Kings 5) not as a public symbol that he believed he was going to be healed, but because being washed in the Jordan was going to cleanse his leprosy. The act of doing it in faith, even though he was skeptical, even though he was angry, is what brought about his healing. Likewise Jesus commands us to be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins — not because we believe in Jesus and want to show our friends at church — but because being baptized is how He washes away our sins and gives us a new birth in Him.

And yes, that message of love and hope I promised is still coming. Even this criticism is given in hope and love.

Baptism: The Sacrament as Clear as Water

Tintoretto, The Baptism of Christ (1581)

The Baptism of Christ (1581), by Tintoretto. (WikiPaintings.org)

In my RCIA class, Father Joe posed the question of which of the Sacraments is the most universal Christian sacrament. I guessed the Eucharist; just about everybody practices the Lord’s Supper, I figured. But no, the answer is Baptism, he said. My church growing up didn’t place much emphasis on Baptism, so I often tended to overlook it or underestimate its importance. But for the Catholic — for the historic Christian — Baptism is fundamental.

In Catholic theology, Baptism, Confirmation, and finally the Eucharist are called the Sacraments of Initiation. Through Baptism, the old life of the sinner is laid down and he is born anew in Christ. His sins are washed away; the very stain of original sin is erased. Baptism is the first and most important mark of initiation into the Christian community: The Christian initiate, or catechumen, is regenerated — becomes a new creation, washed clean and set apart — and he or she is prepared to share in the Body and Blood of Christ though the Eucharist. Since the earliest days of Christianity this has been the rite of passage into the Christian life. Even in Scripture, the absolute first thing that anyone did after coming to faith in Christ was to be baptized:

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. . . . So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:38-41)

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:34-38)

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized. (Acts 9:17-18)

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

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

Even for St. Paul himself, the first thing to do upon believing in Christ was to be baptized. Baptism was clearly very important to the Apostles and to the earliest Christians, such that becoming a Christian and being baptized were intimately and inseparably joined. Being baptized into Christ is the act of becoming a Christian. For as Paul wrote, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).

So why was Baptism so crucial to the Apostles, from the very beginning, that they knew innately that it was the mark of becoming a Christian? Certainly, of all the Sacraments, it is the one most clearly taught by Christ:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-5)

The Baptism of Clovis

The Baptism of Clovis (ca. 1500), by the Master of Saint Gilles.

Perhaps it is because it Jesus taught it so explicitly in Scripture that Baptism is so universally recognized by most Christians. But the Apostles evidently had a fuller understanding of what Baptism entailed — “the forgiveness of sins” — from the very first day of the Church. They understood its necessity and importance. This is one of the more obvious examples of Jesus clearly having taught the Apostles in greater detail during his earthly ministry than any of them ever wrote in Scripture. They passed this knowledge down to their own disciples — the beginning of Sacred Tradition.

Evangelicals have recently appropriated the term “born again,” but the Church from its very earliest days understood this new birth by water of which Jesus was speaking to be Baptism, and the Early Church practiced sacramental Baptism, the rite of initiation into Christ and into the Church, as St. Justin vividly attests:

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ . . . They [catechumens] are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Unless you be born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5).

—St. Justin Martyr
First Apology 61 (ca. A.D. 150)

In this sense, every Catholic is a “born again” Christian.

I am sure I am preaching to the choir about the importance and sacramentality of Baptism. But I know in many Protestant communities, such as the one I grew up in, Baptism was relegated to a side show, a mere “public profession of faith” that was performed maybe one Sunday night out of the month, if that often. For so many Protestants, the efficacious Sacraments taught by Christ and the Apostles have become mere symbolic gestures, devoid of any real power and therefore of any real necessity. And some of them dare accuse Catholics of practicing “empty ritual”! This is running a bit long — but now that I’ve provided a scriptural foundation for the Sacrament of Baptism, I can move on next time to what I really wanted to talk about: Why have Protestants downplayed or even rejected the Sacraments? How can Protestant Christians be saved in these communities? No, I am not going to go off on a polemic again. I may be critical, but I intend to share a message a hope and mercy and love.