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

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

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

Many Churches

Paul Preaching in the Areopagus, Sir James Thornhill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Mind

Anthony Van Dyck, The Crucifixion (c. 1622)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time: “One Body in Christ”

The Sovereignty of God, or, My Brush with Calvinism, Part 2: A Crisis of Faith

The next post in my spiritual autobiography, and the conclusion(?) to my account of my struggle with Calvinism. I don’t know; maybe there will be more. I thought I would nudge a couple of Reformed friends in case they might be interested in my thoughts.

John Calvin, by Titian

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

I grew a lot as a person and as a Christian over the next few years — though still in short spurts, leaps, and sometimes stumbles. Over the last couple of years of my undergraduate career, I continued to have occasional flirtations with Calvinism. I hung out a few times with the fledgling RUF group on our campus, and attended the nondenominational Campus Crusade from time to time. But I struggled to feel that I fit in in any meaningful way. I visited the churches of several friends, but for reasons I don’t entirely understand looking back, I never settled down. I remained restless, insecure, and lonely.

In the spring of 2009, thanks be to God, I finally graduated. Over the next summer I flailed around uselessly looking for a job — and then, in one of the clearest manifestations of God’s providence that I’ve experienced, one came to me. One day my friend Gloria, who had been one of my dearest Christian friends in school and always an example to me of how to live one’s faith on campus, wrote on my Facebook wall. “Hey, Joseph, would you like to teach Greek at a Christian school?”

The Trivium

The Trivium.

Would I! I don’t think there could have been a more perfect job for me at that time if it had been custom-tailored. All through my undergraduate degree majoring in history, I had never given any serious thought to teaching or pursued teaching credentials — but to my great surprise and joy, I loved teaching more than anything I’d ever done. My year at Veritas Classical School, teaching history, Latin, Greek, and English grammar and vocabulary to grades seven through twelve, was a monumental landmark in my journey as a student, teacher, and Christian.

But more on that later. In coming to Veritas, my road brought me face to face with Calvinism.

That year also — not coincidentally — brought my walk with God closer than it had been in many years. Becoming a teacher, I felt an obligation to be a model and example spiritually, a mentor and tutor and protector as well. I prayed for my students before I even met them, and for myself that I would be worthy to stand before them. For the first time I read the whole New Testament with an eye to serious Bible study. For my thirtieth birthday I bought myself a new Bible — the Reformed-friendly ESV Study Bible. It was a time of great growth, and I felt that that — towards the Reformed — was the direction my faith was moving in.

Calvin with books

As it turned out, the teacher I was replacing at Veritas was Megan, whom I had known years earlier as a member of the Society. (The pool of students in North Alabama trained in classical languages being small, this was not as big a coincidence as one might think.) She had recently had a baby and was leaving the school to be a mother. In my preparation that summer, I visited Megan’s home a couple of times to discuss curricula and planning. I was immediately impressed with the bookshelves of Megan and her husband: tome upon tome of Christian literature, particularly Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and other works of the Protestant Reformers. Could this be the intellectual foundation for my faith I’d been looking for? In talking with Megan, I was struck with a major emphasis of her teaching: history as a product of God’s sovereign will.

Veritas met in the building of a small Presbyterian church, and though at the forefront I’d been told that its reach was ecumenical — that I would have students of all different Christian traditions, and that no particular doctrinal position was expected of me — I learned very quickly that in its wider affiliations, Veritas was by and large Reformed. Toward the end of that summer, I attended a few days of workshops with the founders and leaders of the Veritas organization, at a large Presbyterian church in the Atlanta area.

The Apostle Paul

(This is the Protestant Paul.)

It must have been the will of God that I would be reading Paul’s Epistle to the Romans that week, that specifically I would have arrived at Romans 8, 9, and 10. It wasn’t the first time in recent months that I’d read a passage of Scripture and had the nagging thought, What if the Calvinists are right? But the morning of the first day of workshops, I remember sitting in the beautiful garden of the home that had so graciously hosted us, reading those chapters. I remember the sinking feeling in my stomach, the rising panic, as the words seemed to confirm what I feared: “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?” (Romans 9:21–23). As I review my notes from that day (I kept a journal of my studies), I see that I made a surprisingly sharp exegesis then — which I can only credit to the Holy Spirit — as my mind reeled, clawing for an understanding of the passage that didn’t entail what it appeared to entail.

Over the next several days, as I was pondering these words, I found myself cast into an increasingly alien and uncomfortable situation: Veritas seemed to be an overwhelmingly Reformed phenomenon; every teacher whom I met was motivated by a Calvinistic outlook on faith, on education, and on history. Not only that — but I’d had up till that point only marginal contact with homeschooling and its mechanics and philosophy and culture; here I was thrown into the thick of a stirred pot in which everyone around me was a native and veteran and I was a lost foreigner, not knowing the terminology or concepts or attitudes. I heard lecture after lecture on incorporating a Christian worldview into education, and on that worldview’s inherent opposition to my whole, secular, academic educational background; how the whole world I had known, everything I’d been taught, was opposed to God and the Christian formation of young people. I wrote in my journal, amid my lecture notes and observations, God, I’m scared. God, I’m so terrified. A page or so later: More and more horrified. I can’t do this. I have absolutely nothing in common with these people. By the second day of this, I had all but resolved that I would resign my position at the first opportunity.

Van Gogh, Man with His Head in His Hands

Man with His Head in His Hands (1882), by Vincent Van Gogh (WikiPaintings).

As these ideas worked through my head, and my reflections on Romans 9 continued to mushroom, I felt more and more alienated and alone: and this brewing storm soon blossomed into a full-brown crisis of faith. I began to seriously question whether I was even a Christian, if I even knew God at all. I remember sitting at a table there at that Presbyterian church, feeling more alone than I ever had, as the thoughts I’d been collecting finally coalesced: How could a loving God, a God who is love, create some flesh with no other purpose but to be damned? That rather than loving every creature, He only “endures with much patience” those “prepared for destruction” whom He doesn’t love at all, they existing only to “make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy,” those predestined for glory? How could a loving God deliberately and arbitrarily consign some on His creations to hell and save others, based on no merit or fault or choice or action of either? How could it be that many of the people around me, those whom I knew and loved — the very neighbors whom Jesus commanded us to love and serve, for whom he called us to give ourselves wholly — were “objects of wrath,” of mere tolerance in God’s eyes, and not of love? were hopelessly damned from the beginning of the universe? were bereft of any hope at all of salvation? The notions I had understood seemed to undermine the whole gospel of Christ as I knew it, to reject the essential dignity of all men and women, to call into question my entire moral fabric: if some men are not worthy even of the love of God, then why love the hurting or seek the lost? why feed the hungry or clothe the poor or bind up the brokenhearted? I began to understand, I thought, so much of what I saw in the world around me, why so few Christians in America seemed to care about the plight of the least of these: they are not “of us,” so they must be “vessels prepared for destruction.” As my horror reached it peak, I came to a conclusion: If this is the God I’m being asked to serve, then I want no part of that god.

Of course, so much of this was overreaction, and the fruit of everything else I was feeling at that time. These thoughts are not fair representations of the ideas or formulations of well-minded people of the Reformed faith. But I still feel truthfully that these are the logical implications and consequences of Reformed propositions.

Crossroads

As I went home after three days in Atlanta, I had come to a sense of peace. I don’t remember even acknowledging it consciously, but my conclusion had reduced to an absurdity: That couldn’t be the God I love and serve, therefore the premises from which I was proceeding must be false. The Calvinist understanding of Romans 9 must be mistaken: for it otherwise contradicts all the rest of Scripture and revelation. Over the coming weeks, I devoted myself more and more to Scripture study and prayer. I delved into Paul’s meaning and context, and at last came to understand; looking back, my notes upon my reading that first day were pretty dead on. It was an epoch in my journey: I never again seriously considered Calvinism as a valid theological option or the Reformed faith as a destination for my pilgrimage.

In the end, I stuck with Veritas. The director of our school was so very reassuring and so supportive. He restored my faith in my own calling and gifts, and in the promise of Veritas. He never asked me to teach in a way with which I wasn’t comfortable, and stood behind me through my entire year there. And the students and the parents and the environment made the most loving, nurturing, enriching educational experience I’d ever been a part of. I loved teaching more than I ever could have known, and loved my students with all my heart. I left convinced of the merits of classical education and homeschooling — but more on that next time.

Justified by Faith: Paul and Baptism (Baptism in Depth)

Guido Reni, The Baptism of Christ (1623)

The Baptism of Christ (1623), by Guido Reni.

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

A few days ago, I had a startling realization about St. Paul.

I’ve always been frustrated by Paul’s lack of emphasis on Baptism. If Baptism is what saves us (1 Peter 3:21), why does Paul so seldom mention it in conjunction with salvation? Reformed Protestants are quick to point out that according to Paul, we are saved “by grace through faith … not because of works” (Ephesians 2:8–10) — and Baptism, according to them, is a “work”; and they stand on this to the exclusion of all other Scripture, even the words of Jesus Himself, demonstrating the necessity of Baptism (Mark 16:16, John 3:5). Many times I’ve had niggling doubts: What if the Protestants are right about Paul — about “salvation by faith alone” (sola fide)? What if the critics are right about Paul, that he teaches a different message than Jesus?

But then the other day, it hit me like a Roman chariot:

Paul takes for granted that all of his readers have already been baptized.

de la Tour, St. Paul (1620)

St. Paul (1620), by Georges de la Tour.

Of course! Just as Jesus exhorted us to believe and be baptized, believing and being baptized formed two inseparable halves of the same thought and action for the earliest Christians. In the Acts of the Apostles, Baptism immediately followed a believer coming to faith in Christ in every single case of conversion, as I showed yesterday. Believing and being baptized were so inextricably connected in the apostolic mind that one even came to imply the other. The idea that a believer could come to believe in Christ and not be baptized was unthinkable.

Each of Paul’s letters presume a Christian audience. They are not evangelistic in nature, but written rather to existing Christian communities to counsel, instruct, and correct. Therefore Paul assumes that all of his recipients are baptized Christians:

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:25–27)

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. (Romans 6:3–4)

Rembrandt , The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626), by Rembrandt.

For St. Paul, just as for St. Luke in the Book of Acts, believing and being baptized were inextricably connected. Just as being baptized implied that one had come to believe, believing entailed that one had been baptized.

And so it is only with this crucial context that Paul’s declarations regarding salvation by faith can be properly understood:

We ourselves … who know a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. (Galatians 2:15–16)

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. … God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith. (Romans 3:28–30)

The essential response to having faith in Christ is being baptized. Paul understood that his recipients had already come to faith in Christ and been baptized. The two are inextricably connected — and so a crucial component of being justified by faith, the operative component, is Baptism.

St. Paul on prayers for the dead

The Apostle Paul, by Andrei Rublev (c. 1410)

The Apostle Paul (c. 1410), by Andrei Rublev. (WikiPaintings.org)

Okay, so the plan is to whip up a brief post here and there and maybe even queue up a few at a time. Can I do that? Can I be brief?

Waking up this morning [now a couple of days ago] the question nudged at me: What is the earliest evidence we have in the Church of prayers of living Christians for those Christian brothers and sisters who have passed over into death? So rolling out of bed, before I’d even had my coffee, in an uncaffeinated stupor, I set about to find out. That’s how you know it’s the Holy Spirit working — that same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, quickening my mortal body to do good works, though the mind be absent.

In very little time, I was led to this verse (2 Timothy 1:16–18; credit be to Wikipedia):

May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me — may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day — and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.

Onesiphorus, it should be clear, is dead. St. Paul speaks of him in the past (aorist) tense. He was not ashamed of Paul’s chains, a simple action in the past, not an ongoing one. Since Paul is still in chains (2 Timothy 2:9), and Onesiphorus’s not-being-ashamed is not ongoing, and he is not still refreshing Paul, it is evident that Onesiphorus is no longer living. Paul first asks God’s mercy for the household of Onesiphorus, not Onesiphorus himself. Regarding Onesiphorus, Paul prays that he find mercy from the Lord on that Day. On that Day (this is the capitalization shown in the RSVCE and ESV) has a very clear eschatological connotation: this is the last day, the Day of the Lord. Paul is asking for God’s mercy on Onesiphorus before the throne of Judgment.

Now, against Protestant objections: why would Paul ask for God’s mercy on someone before the Judgment Seat, when that person was still living? Whoever says, “May God have mercy on your soul — that is, when you die”? Onesiphorus is quite dead. And the fact that after his passing, Paul still prays for God’s mercy on him is a clear, scriptural indication that in the view of Paul, the Apostle, the inspired writer, such prayers for the dead are beneficial. As Scripture says elsewhere (and as Protestants conveniently reject), “it was a holy and pious thought [to make] atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” (2 Maccabees 12:45, RSVCE)

Some Answers to Common Protestant Objections to Peter’s Ministry as Bishop of Rome

St. Peter

Peter Paul Rubens. St. Peter. c. 1611. Oil on canvas.

Hi. I am sorry that I’ve been such an absentee tenant lately, but I’ve been swamped in the mud bog of my thesis. Today has been a new day of positive meetings with my professors and friends, so I hope and pray I can put some step back into it.

I am thrilled by the election of Pope Francis to the See of Peter, and already love him dearly. Even many Protestants have been caught up in the worldwide excitement that he has elicited (SatelliteSaint has some thoughtful words on “that feeling”) — for both better and worse. While many, with the rest of Christendom, have been filled with great joy and fascination, others, as if to actively reject and deny that joy, have seized the opportunity to lash out in scorn and prejudice and carve even deeper the sad divisions in the Body of Christ.

Consequently, I have been having some random apologetic discussions here and there, and today I wrote a brief response (inspired by this post) to some common objections I’ve often heard from Protestants with regard to the Apostle Peter’s ministry in Rome as its first bishop — the foundations of the papacy. Since I’ve already written it, and thought it a direct and concise argument, I thought I’d share it with you.

Saints Peter and Paul, by El Greco

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

Scripture clearly states that Christ called Peter to be the Apostle to the Jews, and Paul to be the Apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7–9, 2 Timothy 1:11, Romans 15:16–18). Therefore Peter would never have become bishop of Rome, a city of Gentiles.

Peter’s primary calling was to the Jews, just as Paul’s primary calling was to the Gentiles. But Peter’s ministry was not limited or restricted to the Jews, any more than Paul’s was restricted to the Gentiles: In fact Paul preached to Jews everywhere he went; his first stop was always the local synagogue (Acts 13, 14, 17, 18, etc.). Peter likewise ministered to the Gentiles: in fact it was to Peter, not Paul, that Christ gave the definitive vision that salvation was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews, and Peter is responsible for the first prominent Gentile converts in the family of Cornelius (Acts 10). To quote Peter himself at the Council of Jerusalem:

Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. (Acts 15:7)

This is not even to mention that there was a large and prominent population of Jews in Rome which Peter pastored: as many as the first ten popes are believed to have been Jewish Christians.

El Greco, Apostle St. Paul

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

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, writes of “imparting a spiritual gift” to the Roman Christians, that they may “be established” (Romans 1:11); so the Church at Rome was not established at the time of Paul’s writing and could not have been founded by Peter.

Nobody claims that Peter or Paul are responsible for the first Christian converts in Rome; Paul’s letter very well indicates that there was already a Christian community there. Also, nobody claims that Peter single-handedly founded the Roman Church: the Church teaches that the early ministries of both Peter and Paul, through Christ, laid the foundations of the Church, the pillars upon which the Church was built. By analogy, George Washington didn’t “found” the U.S., but he was nonetheless its first president and is called a “Founding Father,” even though many men had worked for the cause of revolution and independence before him. Likewise Peter and Paul are the “Founding Fathers” of the Roman Church.

Paul never mentions in any of his letters that Peter was in Rome, especially not in Romans 16 when he offers greetings to the people of the Church there, or in the accounts of Paul’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28). Therefore Peter was not there in Rome.

He wasn’t there yet. Paul likewise hadn’t set up permanent residence in Rome yet, but we know that Peter and Paul ministered there at the same time and both died there. Tradition holds that Peter ministered in Antioch (where he was also the first bishop) before coming to Rome, and together with Paul, in Corinth. All of this would have taken place after the Epistle to the Romans, the Acts of the Apostles, and many other New Testament documents, were written.

At the end of Paul’s life, in his final letter, Paul states that “only Luke is with me” in his final imprisonment in Rome (2 Timothy 4:11) — therefore Peter was not there.

Paul’s statement that “only Luke is with me” is not a statement that there were no other Christians in Rome — in fact there was a thriving Christian community by that time, or else there wouldn’t have been a letter to them. Certainly he meant “only Luke is with me” by his side, in prison, or in his house arrest.

Caravaggio, Crucifixion of Peter

The Crucifixion of Peter, by Caravaggio

Paul’s statement also that at his trial “all deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:16) likewise does not entail that “all” of the Church, or Peter specifically, deserted him, or were not in Rome at all. Certainly there was a substantial Church at Rome, as history records the first bloody persecutions of a great number of Christians under Nero around that time, during which both Paul and Peter met their martyrdom. In the context of this statement, Paul is clearly not referring to his desertion by the leaders of the Church, but by men of high rank or influence with whom he’d become acquainted whose testimony might have made a difference in his trial.

In fact, Peter himself tells us that he was in Rome:

She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. (1 Peter 5:13)

Certainly Peter was not literally writing from the ancient “Babylon,” which had lain in ruins for centuries, but from the modern Babylon, the great whore that John describes in the Revelation — Rome itself.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is the interpretation of the editors of the well-respected Protestant ESV Study Bible:

1 Pet. 5:13 She who is at Babylon, who is chosen almost certainly refers to the church in Rome, not a literal woman (cf. “elect lady,” 2 John 1, 13). Although the Babylon of the OT was in ruins, the reference resonates with the OT, where “Babylon” represents a center of earthly power opposed to God (cf. Isaiah 13:14; Jeremiah 50:51; see also Revelation 17:18), and in Peter’s day that city would be Rome. The language of “Babylon” and “chosen” forms an inclusio (a literary envelope) with the first verse of the book: the OT background to “Babylon” reminds believers that though they are exiles, they are “elect exiles” (1 Pet. 1:1) who will receive the promised inheritance. Mark is the same John Mark who traveled with Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (cf. Acts 12:25; 13:5, 13; 15:36:39). Though he left Paul and Barnabas, he was later restored to his former usefulness (Col. 4:10; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philem. 24). Peter would have known Mark from the earliest days, because the church met in his mother’s home (Acts 12:12). In addition, this verse shows a close relationship between Peter and Mark (my son) and is one indication of the validity of the early church tradition that Mark wrote his Gospel at Peter’s direction.

These are only a few of the common Protestant objections to the claim of Peter’s ministry in Rome; but the facts speak for themselves, through incontrovertible biblical, historical and patristic, and archaeological evidence. The See of Peter can only be denied by denying these truths on their face.

When Church is Good

Giotto, The Last Supper

The Last Supper (1306), by Giotto. Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua.

Every week when my parents get home from their church and I get home from my Mass, they ask me “how church was.” Growing up Protestant, this was a common way of talking. “Church sure was good.” “That was a good service.” Just yesterday, they came home telling me how “good” their church was. Now, as a Catholic, I’m struck by how foreign this mode of speech has become, and I’m never quite sure how to respond.

They mean, of course, that the sermon was good, edifying or inspiring, or that the worship was stirring or emotional. Which are good things. That’s why Protestants go to church — to hear good preaching, or experience good worship, or have good fellowship.

Eucharist

But that’s not why Catholics go to Mass. We go to Mass for the Eucharist — to partake in the intimate communion of Holy Communion; to share in the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ; to receive Him in person, in our person and in His person. And that is always good — beyond good; it is divine.

So asking a Catholic if “church was good” is like asking if Jesus is good. Why yes, of course it was good. The homily could have been dull, and the music could have been grating; but Jesus was there in the Eucharist. He came to meet me, to touch me and be with me. How can that be anything but good, wonderful, awesome, overwhelming? Evangelicals like to brag that their faith is not a religion, but a relationship, and yet they only experience Christ in the abstract in their services, through their singing and someone else’s preaching.

Poussin, Institution of the Eucharist (1640)

Institution of the Eucharist (1640), by Nicolas Poussin.

It strikes me, too, that I never really understood what “Communion” was about as a Protestant. Who is it that we were supposed to be having “Communion” with, and in what way? I guess many Protestants think of it as a meal in common, a symbolic gesture of unity, a sign that the church is together in following and serving the Lord. They are sitting down to a meal, symbolically, with each other and with Jesus. But the very term Communion evinces something much deeper and more intimate, and I can now see why many Protestants shy from it, calling it instead only the Lord’s Supper. But St. Paul himself testifies to what it is:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a communion [Greek κοινωνία (koinōnía), often translated participation or sharing] in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
(1 Corinthians 10:16–17)

The Authority and Reliability of Paul: More historical thoughts on Early Christianity

Ribera, Saint Paul (1637)

Saint Paul (1637), by Jusepe de Ribera.

[Continuing my thoughts from last night, about the historical reliability of early Christian testimonies, in particular the biblical texts, and the argument that the “orthodoxy” we see today only stemmed from this faction being the victor among many competing early sects. This is Part 2, and it nearly doubled in size from what I started with tonight.]

My friend challenges that the New Testament texts themselves reveal fault lines and factions within early Christianity. Does this argument have merit?

It is true that Paul describes his conflicts with the Judaizers, early Christians who insisted that Jewish Christians should continue to observe the Mosaic Law, in effect, according to Paul, nullifying Christ’s atoning sacrifice by the argument that salvation was only possible through the works of the Law. (See especially Galatians and Romans.) 1 John 4:2–3 seems to reject the doctrines of the Docetists, who argued that Jesus never truly came in the flesh but was instead a kind of divine phantasm. 1 Timothy 6:20 may mark an rejection of early Gnostic thought, which argued that some secret and esoteric knowledge (γνῶσις or gnosis) was necessary for salvation. So yes, there is evidence of some early disagreement; this is not a great surprise, given human free will.

But what was the nature of these disagreements? How widespread were they, and what following did these alternate viewpoints have? We don’t have that information, since these mentions in the New Testament itself are the only sources we have even attesting to their existence at this early date, just as the New Testament documents are the only testimonies we have to the first-century Christian Church.

The Apostle John is traditionally held to have been really old when he died, around the turn of the second century.

The Apostle John is traditionally held to have been really old when he died, around the turn of the second century.

Even more important: how early were these disputes? The first epistle of John (1 John) is believed to be one of the latest documents of the New Testament, written as late as the final decade of the first century. By that time, those who had personal experiences of Jesus had nearly all passed away. Paul’s first epistle to Timothy (1 Timothy) is generally believed to have been written toward the end of Paul’s ministry and life, between A.D. 62 and 67, also nearly a generation after Christ. A setting in which the firsthand witnesses to Jesus’s life and ministry were passing from the scene would have been ripe for the rise of new interpretations and viewpoints.

But of course, the rigorous skeptic would ask, how do we know which is the original viewpoint, and which are the alternative ones? In addition to examining the dating of the extant documents — the oldest texts, especially those written mere decades after Christ’s ministry, having at least the greatest authoritative claim — we should examine the authors of these texts, and question their claims to authority. In a similar way, in judging the reliability of ancient historians, we consider who they were and how they would have obtained their information. Thucydides, for example, is generally accepted as a reliable authority on his subject, he being a contemporary and firsthand participant in the Peloponnesian War.

Valentin, Paul Writing

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles (ca. 17th century), by Valentin de Boulogne (1591–1632).

To begin, let us consider Paul, the largest target, he being the author of the greater part of the New Testament. It is reasonable to accept that there was in fact a Christian leader named Paul who wrote a series of letters in the first century. It is also reasonable to accept that at least some of the letters we ascribe to Paul were in fact written by Paul. If this weren’t the case, we would have to ask why this Paul character had such authority if he never wrote anything authoritative. It is reasonable to accept, from the fact that his letters were accepted as authoritative, that Paul’s teaching and influence covered a fairly wide geographic area for the time, with Pauline letters being addressed to Christians in places as diverse as Philippi, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. We have no reason to question that Paul actually visited these places and taught those Christians in person: otherwise, no one would have accepted his letters as authoritative. These letters, if authentic, can be reasonably dated to the A.D. 50s and 60s, based on internal evidence.

Shakespeare

Or, Shakespeare could have written St. Paul.

Of course, it is conceivable that “Paul” himself could have been an elaborate hoax perpetrated by someone writing in the second or third century, planting and disseminating Pauline letters around the Christian world (by that time vast). Perhaps Paul never existed at all, let alone visited any of the places he is supposed to have visited, and the supposed recipients of his letters never received them at all. ― But this line of reasoning presses “rigorous skepticism” to the point of the ridiculous.

Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch

We know with reasonable certainty that Paul did exist; we know that his letters were disseminated among Christian communities fairly rapidly. Nearly all of the canonical Pauline letters were in circulation and were accepted by Christians by the end of the first century — by the testimony of Ignatius of Antioch, who quoted most of them explicitly in the letters he wrote to Christian communities around Syria and Asia Minor and to Rome. We can draw from Ignatius’s quotations both that he had access to the many New Testament documents he quotes — and probably knew them by memory, since it seems unlikely he would be traveling to his death carrying a full library — and also that the communities to which he was writing would have understood his allusions and their context also, having access to the same documents themselves. Also tellingly, he did not quote or allude to any other documents that were later rejected from the New Testament canon.

So it seems reasonable to conclude that Paul was widely accorded authority by at least some Christians as early as the A.D. 50s and 60s. These Christians were spread over a wide area, to nearly every corner of the world that the Christian message had then advanced — since, at least according to “orthodox” accounts, Paul was the one advancing it. The fact that he was accepted by Christian groups in many places and not by isolated sects is an argument in favor of his authority and reliability as an historical source. Organized, dissenting sects would have had identifiable leaders — just as we know the names of the major proponents of nearly all of the later “heresies.” Here there is no evidence at all of such organized sects during Paul’s lifetime — neither through literature of their own, nor through rigorous opposition that would have been evident in the surviving “orthodox” documents.

[There’s more where that came from! Stay tuned!]

“Rigorously skeptical”: Historical thoughts on the Christian faith

Hans Memling, Christ Giving His Blessing (1481)

Christ Giving His Blessing (1481), by Hans Memling.

[This is a post that ballooned into about three posts when I sat down to write it. So I split it up, rather than giving you far more than anyone wants to read.]

Once again, my plans for what I was going to write about today have been disrupted. I had a heated discussion with a dear friend today that has set me to thinking. My friend is a self-proclaimed atheist, but a former Christian who has been deeply wounded. He is a thinker, a philosopher, and his mind works in ways that mine cannot. But I wanted to do my best to address his questions in a more thoughtful way, not in the heat of a moment.

To preface, I will say that though I’ve had some academic training, I am not an academic. I have not read deeply of the academic historiography of the early Church. I am a man of faith, and my faith informs everything I do. But my friend challenged that the historical claims of the Christian Church do not stand up to a “rigorously skeptical” examination; that they cannot be accepted without presuming that the claims of the Church are true, resulting in a circular argument. I disagree.

Darius the Great

Darius the Great of Persia.

First, what is reasonable to expect in holding historical claims to a “rigorously skeptical” standard? Aren’t there many things in history that we accept as fact based on little and imperfect evidence? My friend has a background in ancient history, and though I’ve dabbled in that some, that has never been my bag; so I admit I am arguing from something I don’t know much about. But don’t we generally accept the narrative of the Persian Wars of Greece given by Herodotus and Xenophon, though neither was a contemporary, or Livy’s account of the early Roman republic, though he only saw the end of it? In the absence of any other testimony, it seems, historians treat theirs with reasonable skepticism, but nonetheless accept them as the best sources we have. Early Christianity and the historical testimonies to it should be held to the same standard.

So let’s take a look at early Christianity. My friend argues, as is widely accepted by secular academics, that there was no Christian orthodoxy in the beginning, and that what we today accept as “orthodoxy” is only the victor of a battle for supremacy among many competing Christian sects. All of my arguments, he challenges, rest on the assumption that the “orthodox” account of early Christian history today is true. He challenges that there are contradictions and inconsistencies in the New Testament that evince this early factiousness.

Codex Vaticanus

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

I accept, with every reasonable textual scholar, that there are certain problems and inconsistencies in the text of the New Testament; but these, I argue, are minor, involving only details and chronologies, and do not affect the substance of any Christian doctrine they teach. These inconsistencies show only that the New Testament documents were written by different people at different times in different places, and that the authors weren’t all in constant communication with each other, to compare their notes and get their facts straight. To me, these inconsistencies are an argument in favor of the historical reliability of the New Testament rather than against it: we have several different people telling a story that is substantially the same.

Doctrinally, the documents of the New Testament demonstrate an even more telling consistency. Despite differences in emphases, each of the half-dozen or so writers of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, James, Jude — even more if one argues that John the Evangelist and John the Presbyter and John the Revelator were different people) expresses the same basic doctrines about Christ: that he was the Jewish Messiah, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies; that he was the divine Son of God, to be identified with God Himself; that he died, was resurrected, and would come again in glory.

[It feels so unsatisfying to cut it off there. But that just gives you something to look forward to tomorrow.]

The Damascus Road

Caravaggio, Conversion of Saint Paul (1600)

Conversion of Saint Paul (1600), by Caravaggio. (WikiPaintings.org)

My wandering had come to running and rebellion. My soul was crying out — I was lost, and could not find my way — but I was hurt, angry, fighting, and unwilling to humble myself before God, to lay down myself and seek in Him the guidance I needed.

Thank God for a praying mother — God’s messenger in my life, who would not let me go. She harped on (so I called it then) my need to get back in church and to get right with God — and I resisted. I said some cruel and terrible things to my dear mother during this time. But I remember one moment in particular when I retorted, not so much in annoyance as in desperation, “If God wants me to turn my life around, He should stop me in the road like he did Paul.” If only I had the certainty of such a direct encounter, I thought.

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
Acts 9:1-8
Accident scene overhead

A satellite view of the accident scene. (Google Maps)

In August 2006, I set out on a misguided errand of mercy, one with good intentions but ultimately selfish, sinful motives. The insane plan was to involve a major road trip and multiple hops by plane, flying out of Cleveland, Ohio — only I never made it to Cleveland. A few miles north of Columbus, while attempting to make a U-turn in the middle of a two-lane highway, my car was broadsided on the driver’s side by a dump truck loaded with concrete going some 50 miles per hour.

Accident report: Damage area diagram

The damage area diagram from the accident report. My car (bottom) versus the dump truck.

I have no memory of the accident. I don’t know by what mercy — whether angels, or saints, or gifted safety engineers — my body was spared being crushed with the rest of the driver’s side of my car. I was airlifted from the scene to Ohio State University Medical Center with severe head trauma. Arriving in the emergency room, I was completely unresponsive — I bottomed out with a 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale, indicating deep coma or death. “A brick or a piece of wood has a Glasgow Coma Score of 3. It’s dead,” says a recent report.

It was August 15 — the feast of the Assumption.

When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”
Matthew 8:5–9
Accident report: Crash diagram

From the accident report, the accident reconstruction.

I know that there were dozens if not hundreds of dear people praying for me from the moment of the crash — many even whom I did not know, thanks to prayer chains in half a dozen different churches. But most of all my beloved family — my parents and brother and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins — were standing with me in prayer. And I have no doubt that my family in heaven, all my dearest saints, were praying for me, too. My parents came to my side as quickly as they could, and didn’t leave until I was home.

Wrecked Honda Civic

The remains of my car.

Somehow, I was still alive, but I remained insensible. The doctors offered no immediate prognosis. Given the elasticity and unpredictability of the brain, the best they could offer was “wait and see.” The only other injuries I suffered, incredibly, were a few broken ribs; a cracked sacrum; a nasty, black-and-blue bruise on my left hip, where the imploding car door had hit me; a sprained left wrist, which I tend by habit to thread through the handle of the steering wheel; and just a few deep cuts on my forearms and the left side of my face where I had been struck by flying window glass. My car, a 1998 Honda Civic (may she rest in pieces), had no side curtain airbag, but the driver’s side frontal airbag did deploy.

When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.
Matthew 8:10, 13
El Greco, Christ Healing the Blind (1578)

Christ Healing the Blind (1578), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

I remained out of my senses for about a week. Then, gradually, I began to return. My memories from this time are very foggy, like a half-remembered dream fading in the light, or like my earliest memories of childhood. Just as my brain was still forming as a child, my brain then was snapping back from a major traumatic injury. The world seemed so unreal; it was another few days before I could admit that this had really happened.

Even after I regained consciousness, my prognosis remained doubtful. It would be a long road to recovery, the doctors said. I would most likely suffer long-term deficits. I was little aware of this at the time. I have little memory of my time in the hospital now at all.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah 53:4–6
The Assumption (Murillo)

The Assumption of the Virgin (1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. (WikiPaintings.org)

Some week and a half after the accident, I was released from the main hospital, but was still in no shape for travel. I was moved to the Dodd Rehabilitation Hospital on the OSU campus. After a week and a half there — with time spent with physical, occupational, and speech therapists — I was released to go home. Against medical advice, I returned to school, to the semester whose start I’d just missed, to hobble through a course I wanted to take, whose professor was about to retire. Within three months, I was back to driving and getting around on my own. The only lingering effects of the accident were a slight and occasional stutter or slurring of words, a minor impairment of my short-term memory, and an inability to process alcohol.

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
James 5:13–16
Brain scan MRI

An MRI scan of the brain (not mine).

Medical professionals are reluctant to label miracles; the most anyone would say was that I made a remarkable recovery. But over the next months, seeing rehab doctors for periodic checkups and reading literature online, it dawned on me just how remarkable it was. Only some 20 percent of patients with initial scores of 3 on the Glasgow Coma Scale survive. Of these, less than half have what is termed a “good outcome” (a 4 or 5 on the Glasgow Outcome Scale); the gross majority remain in a persistent vegetative state or have permanent, severe disabilities. Even of those who do well, most face years of painful and difficult recovery, and never regain full function. A recovery as complete as mine, in the brief time in which I made it, is virtually unheard of.

As I was leaving the hospital, I signed up for a long-term medical study of traumatic brain injury outcomes. Every year or two, someone from Dodd calls me to ask how many hours a day I’m able to be out of the house, how much assistance I require getting dressed or using the bathroom or walking, if I’m able to drive a car or operate heavy machinery, etc. I think my answers — that I suffer no functional impairment at all — are entirely anomalous to their expectations and probably skewing their results. And I’m reminded just how blessed I have been.

Saints Damian and Cosmas, icon

Icon of Saints Damian and Cosmas, physicians used by God and martyrs to the Christian faith. (Wikipedia)

The fact that I even survived the impact of the accident; the fact that I sustained such a severe injury to my brain and lived; the fact that I recovered as completely as I have, in such a time as I did — convinces me with certainty that my survival was a divine miracle. I believe that God, more often than through extravagant or ostentatious wonders, works His healing and mercy through the mundane, through natural processes, through the hands of physicians and through medicine (Sirach 38:1–15). I know that my healing was for me, and that my testimony will not convince anyone else; but as a pivotal juncture in my road to Rome — as the turning point of my life — I am compelled to share it.

O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O LORD—how long?
Turn, O LORD, deliver my life;
save me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who will give you praise?
Psalm 6:1–5
1998 Ford Louisville dump truck

A 1998 Ford Louisville (L-Series) dump truck, the make and model of my fateful messenger.

Since my childhood, I’ve felt a close affinity with the Apostle Paul. I asked for his lot — and that, I believe, is what I got. I don’t know what I saw in the road that day — whether there was a literal flash of light, or whether a big blue dump truck was the message meant for me — but I was halted in my reckless path. I believe St. Paul was interceding for me even then.

Looking back today, I can only give all the glory to God. I have no doubt that I am here today as a testimony to His overpowering mercy and healing. I did not deserve this, by any merit of my own or due to any faith of my own. I am not even sure that if I’d died that day, I could have been saved. But the Catechism teaches that God heals the body when it is conducive to the healing and salvation of the soul: I was certainly in need of such healing. I can only credit the faith of the many who prayed for me — my parents who would not let me go — and the overabundant mercy of my God.

In the days and months that followed, as I fully grasped what had happened, the question began to eat at me: Why? Why had I survived when so many people die? Why had I been healed, when so many others are not? Why should God be so faithful to me, when I had all but abandoned Him? Who was I to deserve such a gift? My parents insisted that I owed my life to God — but rather than grateful, I was confused, even troubled. I did not have a true grasp of His grace and love and mercy. As I recovered, and yet continued my stubborn refusal to turn my life to God, my mother grew frustrated — and I grew angry. The accident had brought me to my knees, but I had not yet laid down the fight. There was yet one more showdown.

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.