I went to Mass and didn’t like it: Faltering steps in my journey to the Church

The other day was the three-year anniversary of my entering the Church. And as I’ve been helping dear ones through their own conversions this year, it occurs to me that once again, I’ve left my own conversion story hanging. Here is another chapter.

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Oxford, Mississippi

The first week I moved to Oxford, Mississippi, for graduate school, I visited the Catholic Church. I guess I was thinking of Audrey and the other people I had met when I visited, and hoping to make some kind of social connection. I was desperately afraid that unless I quickly formed some kind of support system in this new town and university, I would not be able to cut it in grad school.

My thinking on the purpose of the church at that time was that it existed solely as a community for the support of the fellowship of believers. So that is exactly what I was looking for the first time I attended Mass at St. John’s in Oxford: for social connection; for fellowship with people like me who could support me and encourage me. And I couldn’t have been more disappointed and discouraged.

Packed pews

I went to the eleven o’clock Mass on what I later learned was one of the busiest Sundays of the year, the Sunday of move-in week, when the families of all the undergraduates were in town to get their children settled and off to a good start. The place was packed, standing room only, and I had no idea where to go or what to do. From the beginning, this worked against my social anxiety and my comfort level. I was further dismayed that no one greeted me, in the way I had come to expect as a Protestant. No one seemed to notice I was there. I narrowly squeezed into a seat in one of the back pews.

Several key things stand out in my memory from that visit. First, I thought the priest was goofy. He seemed not entirely put-together, dignified, or solemn as I expected a Catholic priest to be. Second, he was reading the liturgy! I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was deeply bothered by this: Much as many Protestants feel that composed prayers, as opposed to extemporaneous ones, are somehow less real and less genuine, I felt that this priest did not really, sincerely mean or even understand these words he was reading out of a book about God, Jesus, and salvation. Did he even have faith at all, or was this just the “dead religion” I had been fearing for so many years? How does reading prayers out of a book make them applicable to me? How does reading prayers out of a book serve me? It contradicted my whole understanding of what a church service was supposed to be.

Hands raised in worship

Emotion is what I grew up with.

Perhaps most important, I didn’t feel anything. I did not feel the presence of God. I did not hold this up as a standard — this focus on my own feelings had defined my existence as an Evangelical, whether and how I felt the presence of God, and I understood this had been a problem for me and one of the main reasons for my searching — but nonetheless it troubled me a lot. It wasn’t that I was closed-minded to any part of the experience; indeed, I had felt God’s presence profoundly when I had been in Catholic churches before. But I wondered that day if God was really there in the Catholic Church at all.

At Communion, I went forward to receive a blessing at the invitation of the priest. I was in the line of a lay extraordinary Eucharistic minister, a female, and I had no idea what I was doing, so I just stood there awkwardly crossing my arms. She seemed impatient and frustrated (I’ve since learned that laypeople really ought not to be giving blessings at all), and I felt unwelcome. I took a visitor card and filled it out, but had a difficult time finding anyone to give it to. I ended up giving it to the same extraordinary minister, who again acted (I imagined) as if she had no idea what I was doing there if I wasn’t Catholic.

I did not see Audrey or anyone else I knew. Not only did no one greet me, but no one really spoke to me at all. I left feeling singularly foreign and unwelcome, disappointed and unfulfilled, and more than a little disheartened and disturbed. What I came looking for — a social community — was nowhere to be found. I had been in denial for a while about my attraction to the Catholic Church, maintaining a ready collection of objections to Catholic doctrine. Now those objections were bolstered, and I added one more. This was a major setback: I would not consider the Catholic Church again until some six months later.

“Getting Saved” as a Catholic: The “Sinner’s Prayer” and Other First Steps in Grace

Getting saved by a prayer
How do you “get saved” as a Catholic? This is something I’ve had on the burner for a long time, and have started writing more than once before. Now my dearest reader asks the question and I’m motivated to come up with a concise response.

“Getting saved,” in the parlance of Evangelical Protestants, refers to the experience of salvation by faith, being regenerated and justified by God’s grace, receiving the Holy Spirit, and becoming a Christian. It’s not a term that Catholics generally talk about: In the Catholic understanding, as I’ve discussed before, salvation is not a singular, one-time event, but a journey and a process, an ongoing series of events and encounters with God’s grace, especially through the Sacraments.

Southern Baptist baptism

The reader will know from my blog how one already a Christian becomes a Catholic; but how does one who has no relationship with God at all, the unchurched sinner, become a Christian in the Catholic Church? Does one pray a “sinner’s prayer”? I was taken aback by the question; I’d never really thought about it. The “sinner’s prayer,” in the Evangelical tradition, is a simple acknowledgement to God that one is a sinner in need of His grace and salvation, repenting of those sins and asking Him to come into one’s life and heart. In the traditions my reader and I grew up in, “praying the sinner’s prayer” is shorthand for salvation, after which one is “saved”; and while many even in those traditions would admit that God continues to work in our lives through sanctification, that is generally understood to be “it,” all there is to “getting saved.” (Interestingly, even in the Southern Baptist Convention there has been a recent turn away from this attitude.)

The Baptism of Cornelius, by Francesco Trevisani

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

Generally speaking, no, Catholics do not believe that praying a “sinner’s prayer,” by itself, will “get one saved.” So if, in the Catholic understanding, salvation is a journey, how does one take her first steps? Sacramentally speaking, Baptism is the entrance into the Christian life of grace and into the Church, one’s initial justification and when one can rightly say to be “getting saved.” But generally, one must go through months of classes as a catechumen in RCIA before one can even be baptized — which seems to the Evangelical mind to be the very antithesis of evangelism and outreach, making it positively difficult, apparently, for sinners to come into the kingdom.

(The critic would raise, and he would be right, that the earliest Christians in Acts 2 didn’t have to endure through months of a catechumenate before they could receive Baptism. But St. Justin Martyr attests that by the mid–second century, some period of preparation and instruction in Christian doctrine was required. There are exceptions: Any priest can expedite the process of initiation if there is a good reason to, e.g. the catechumen demonstrates a thorough understanding of what she’s getting herself into; and in fact anyone, even a layperson, can baptize in cases of dire need, e.g. the sinner is in danger of death. Since the earliest times, the Church has understood that for the catechumen awaiting Baptism who dies in that desire, God works that saving grace anyway.)

What is the sinner supposed to do, then, who longs to know God and partake of His grace, but is told she has to wait and first be instructed? The Evangelical mode, at least, serves that immediate moment and desire — though there is then the danger of considering salvation “over and done.” And certainly there is that desire, and it can start with a moment, and in that moment and even before, God’s grace is working in the sinner’s life, calling her to repentance and faith.

I think one reason Evangelical Protestants so easily misunderstand the Catholic view of salvation, calling it salvation by works in contrast to salvation by faith, is because faith is immediate and cannot be put off. Saying that salvation begins with Baptism seems to dismiss the role of faith and place emphasis on what seems to be a work. But just as the Catholic understanding of salvation is that of a journey, the preparation for that journey is itself a journey, the journey to the baptismal font: and in those initial steps God’s grace is already working, cultivating the sinner’s faith. Marriage begins with a wedding: a pledge of faith, commitment, covenant, and espousal; but generally one does not choose to be married unless one already has faith in one’s betrothed: one’s relationship with the Bridegroom has already been building for some time. Catholics take a long and patient view of salvation; and we should: we’ve been ushering sinners down that road for 2,000 years!


I would say, now that I’ve thought about it, that something like a “sinner’s prayer” is a good first step, even for embarking on the Catholic road: not that the formulaic words themselves are efficacious or “get one saved,” but that the confession that one is a sinner and wants to make Jesus Christ Lord of one’s life is an appropriate response to what is surely the grace of God already working in one’s life and bringing one to repentance and faith. Pray a “sinner’s prayer”; better yet, make that confession out loud to God and to others. Begin reading the Bible and the Catechism and attending Mass. Talk to a priest and enroll in RCIA. Through all this, God is working in your life, building you in faith, drawing you nearer to Him; and when it does come time for you to receive the graces of Baptism and the Sacraments, you will be saved by faith.

A few words on the Blessed Virgin Mary as “Co-Redemptrix” or “Co-Mediatrix”

In some Catholic writings and documents of the Church, the Blessed Virgin Mary is referred to as a “co-redemptrix” or “co-mediatrix” in salvation through Christ. Those are words and concepts that many Protestants have a hard time with. Here are a few brief words I whipped up on that matter, in response to my new friend Eugene.

Madonna and Child, by Carlo Maratta (c. 1660).

Madonna and Child, by Carlo Maratta (c. 1660).

The term “co-redeemer” does not imply that the Blessed Virgin Mary had a role in salvation in any way similar, equal, or comparable to that of Christ. No one in the Catholic Church intends to share with Mary anything that is rightly Christ’s — rather, we think Christ’s glory is so bright that it illuminates everything around Him, including his mother. Any honor we give to Mary is just a greater way to more greatly honor Him. Jesus loved His mother, and so we do, too. And she did cooperate in a profound way with God’s plan of salvation.

Now, you have to remember that many Catholics of the past were not speaking English — they were speaking Latin. And the Latin language has different rules and conventions than the English language. One major difference, as I mentioned before, is that the Latin brain likes to put prefixes on things. In many cases where an English speaker would use a preposition, a Latin speaker puts a prefix on a noun or verb. For example, the word “convene” comes from the Latin cum + venio, to “come together.” Rather than say “we come together” as an English speaker might, the Latin speaker would say convenimus. The word “cooperate” is another apropos example. It comes from the same prefix — cum + opero, to “work together.”

Virgin and Child with Rosary, 1655 (Murillo)

Virgin and Child with Rosary (1655), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

In English we are used to the prefix “co-” meaning that people share in equal responsibilities in a job — “co-contributors,” “co-chairmen,” “co-instructors” are all people equally pitching into their jobs. But in Latin the prefix doesn’t imply that. It just means that people are doing the job “with” each other. To say that Mary cooperated (“worked together”) with salvation is quite a different proposition (in both English and Latin) than saying Mary “worked” salvation herself. Similarly to say that Mary is a “co-redemptrix,” as she is sometimes called in Latin, in no way implies that she is on the same level as Christ the Redeemer, is “another redeemer,” or shares in His glory or responsibility. There is only one Redeemer, and that is Christ. To call Mary a “co-redemptrix” only means that she “worked together” — she “cooperated” — with redemption. Remember, she herself had to be redeemed, too!

(Because of this linguistic confusion, it’s not very common for people to use the term “co-redeemer” or “co-redemptrix” in English these days. You will mainly find that in older writings, especially those that were translated directly from Latin. You will not find that term in the present Catechism or in any other recent teaching of the Church.)

Here is a recent teaching of the Church on this very question, from the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution of the Church Lumen Gentium (§62) [which speaks at length about the Catholic Church’s beliefs about Mary and her role in salvation and relationship with the Church]:

This maternity of Mary in the order of grace began with the consent which she gave in faith at the Annunciation [that is, the “Announcement” by the angel Gabriel of Jesus’s coming] and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, and lasts until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to heaven she did not lay aside this salvific duty, but by her constant intercession continued to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and cultics, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix. This, however, is to be so understood that it neither takes away from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ the one Mediator. For no creature could ever be counted as equal with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer. Just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by the ministers and by the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is really communicated in different ways to His creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source. The Church does not hesitate to profess this subordinate role of Mary. It knows it through unfailing experience of it and commends it to the hearts of the faithful, so that encouraged by this maternal help they may the more intimately adhere to the Mediator and Redeemer.

Whatever Happened to the Eucharist? Why Don’t Evangelical Protestants Celebrate It?

El Greco, The Last Supper (c.1598)

The Last Supper (c.1598), by El Greco. WikiPaintings.org)

The major topic that prompted me to delve into a series on the Sacraments was wondering why Evangelical Protestants* don’t celebrate them. How can a people who profess to base their faith on Scripture alone ignore the very things — in fact, some of the only things — that Jesus told us explicitly to do? Baptism and the Eucharist are the only two of the Seven Sacraments that Evangelical Protestants have preserved in any form — but even these are relegated to the status of marginal, symbolic acts in very many cases. I’ve already written a bit about Evangelicals and Baptism.

Now, in considering the Eucharist, the perfectionist and scholar in me wants to offer a thoroughly researched and documented treatise on the theology of the different Protestant interpretations of the Eucharist, but this topic is now pressing and I thought I would give you instead a few preliminary thoughts. The Wiki provides a decent overview if you like that kind of thing. (And good Lord I had no idea it was this complicated and fragmented and daunting.)

* I am going to start capitalizing “Evangelical Protestant” as a proper noun (even though it’s incorrect! incorrect! by the Chicago Manual of Style) to distinguish Evangelical Protestants, the ones I grew up with and complain about from time to time, from other kinds of Protestants to whom my criticisms might not apply, such as Lutherans. I do this for the sake of not confusing or alarming my dear friend.

Fra Angelio, Institution of the Eucharist (1442)

Institution of the Eucharist (1442), by Fra Angelio.

Compared to the rest of His teaching in the Gospels, Jesus gave us few direct, unambiguous commands. Among them are some of the last words he gave us before departing this earth: 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” (Mark 28:19) — an explicit imperative to baptize — and His words at the Last Supper: “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). One would think that the Apostles and the Early Church would place great emphasis on these things. And in fact they did: they were the very basis of early Christian worship, as St. Justin testifies.

The Witness of the Apostolic Church in Scripture

One would also think that Evangelical Protestants, professing to live and worship by the Word of God in Scripture, would place great emphasis on celebrating these essential Christian sacraments. For coming to faith in Christ is always, as a rule, followed immediately by baptism in Scripture. Likewise for the Eucharist: for it is clear from Scripture that the Apostolic Church celebrated it frequently, if not at every gathering:

Dürer, Last Supper (1510)

Last Supper (1510), by Albrecht Dürer.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . . And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts. (Acts 2:42,46)

On the first day of the week [i.e. Sunday, the Lord’s Day], when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. (Acts 20:7)

The word translated “as often as” in 1 Corinthians 11:25–26 is simply ἐὰν (eàn), most literally ifif you take the cup, do this — whenever you take the cup — but implying that it is something that will be done. It only makes sense in the context as an implication that it will be done frequently:

“Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:25–26)

Most crucially, Jesus tells us that He is the Bread of Life (pun intended):

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst . . . . Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:35,55–56)

The gyrations to which Evangelical commentators must go in order to evade a sacramental interpretation of Baptism and the Eucharist in these passages is rather uncomfortable to see.

The Reality in Many Evangelical Churches

Grünewald, The Last Supper (Coburg Panel)

The Last Supper (Coburg Panel) (c.1500), by Matthias Grünewald. (WikiPaintings.org)

But as my new Protestant friends have just recently attested, and as I myself saw in my wanderings, many Evangelical churches seldom celebrate the Eucharist at all — as infrequently as once a month or even once a quarter. Some have even dispensed with it altogether. It blows my mind how the celebration that Scripture plainly indicates was the central act of early Christian worship can have become so irrelevant, to people claiming to follow in the same tradition — how far down and far away the acorn has fallen.

I struggle to understand it. I would be happy if the leadership of one of these churches stopped by and explained the reasoning. But the very idea of dispensing with the Eucharist must rest on the assumption that Baptism and the Eucharist aren’t sacraments at all, but merely symbols or “ordinances.” This idea certainly wasn’t present in the theology of the better-known and revered Protestant Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, who both fully affirmed the sacramentality of Baptism and the Eucharist, and the Presence (however that Presence is understood) of Christ in the Eucharist. It was Huldrych Zwingli who first rejected the idea of the Sacraments, though it’s unclear to me (as yet) how this idea made it into modern Evangelicalism, which largely flowed out of the Second Great Awakening. The rejection of sacramentality seems to have followed in the death of any sense of the sacred at all.

Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1594)

The Last Supper (1594), by Tintoretto.

These modern Evangelicals want to avoid any suggestion of doing something “religious” or “liturgical” or “ritualistic” or — God forbid — Catholic. The idea of “sacraments,” in the Evangelical mindset, suggests that some “works” other than mere belief in Christ is necessary for salvation. The notion that “faith alone” saves, taken in this sense, rejects any idea of sacramentality before it can even begin. If we assume from the get-go that nothing else is necessary for salvation — something Scripture never shows — then any other idea, even if plainly stated in Scripture, is short-circuited.

These churches make a token of practicing Baptism and the Eucharist occasionally, just because they are plainly commanded by Christ. But they have no real meaning or efficacy. If something is merely symbolic, it must be unimportant and unnecessary. It becomes a mere “symbolic act of obedience” — read, “We do this just because He said to do it.” If it doesn’t do anything — if it in itself isn’t necessary for salvation, and doesn’t further the Kingdom of God — then why should we bother doing it? I often get the feeling that these churches feel that the Eucharist is merely gets in the way of the more important work of the church, preaching and teaching and evangelizing.

Eucharistic adoration

Not that those things aren’t important. For how are the lost to hear the Gospel without a preacher (Romans 10:14)? But the Early Church, and the Church throughout history, has understood that, as St. Paul says, the Bread and the Cup are a participation — a communion — in the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16). Through the eating of His Body and the drinking of His Blood, we abide in Him and He in us (John 6:56). It is a “remembrance,” but it is a remembrance in the same way the Passover was a remembrance of the Old Covenant: a re-presentation, “as often as you take it,” of the salvific sacrifice of Christ, our Passover Lamb — the New Covenant that saves us and sets us free. How can anyone shuffle that off as merely a quarterly “symbolic act of obedience”?

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.

Eat my flesh and drink my blood: A crucial Gospel passage, the Catholic Eucharist, and bad Protestant commentary

Fra Angelio, Institution of the Eucharist (1442)

Institution of the Eucharist (1442), by Fra Angelio. (WikiPaintings.org)

Often when it comes to the Scripture readings at Mass — especially in early morning Masses — I must confess, my eyes sometimes tend to glaze over a little and I don’t absorb them as well as I should. This is why it’s important for me to have read them beforehand, something I often don’t do in my hurry. But yesterday, in my recent commitment to greater spiritual study, I decided to take the time to thoroughly study today’s Mass readings, knowing that I wouldn’t have time in the morning. And it made an incredible difference. When it came to the Liturgy of the Word, the words of Scripture rang glowingly into my ear, like dear, familiar friends. Even in my undercaffeinated state, my mind grasped them and made connections, especially when Father Joe illuminated them in the homily.

The past few Sundays the Mass readings have focused on John Chapter 6, which culminates in Jesus’s proclamation, “I am the Bread of Life.” This is one of the most crucial passages in all the Gospels, not only for the good news of salvation, but even more particularly for the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:54-55). Catholics read this, together with the narratives of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-23), as an explicit statement of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, and of the Eucharist itself as the source and summit of our faith, the Sacrament through which we intimately encounter Christ and receive his graces.

Holy Communion

As a Protestant, of course, I didn’t read it that way. Much as I do at early morning Masses, my eyes glazed over and I saw only what I had always been taught. I could not see, despite Jesus’s best attempt to be frank and make Himself clear. Jesus saying that He is the Bread of Life is of course a metaphor. “Eating” and “drinking” Jesus just means, metaphorically, that we should consume and inbibe the Word of God. Of course He didn’t mean that we should really eat Him. The thought never even occurred to me; it would have startled me if it had — as it did the moment I first read it in the light of the Catholic explanation, at age thirty-something.

Once I saw that, there was no going back. I could never again read the passage and see anything but the obvious. I have a difficult time now even grasping at alternate, symbolic interpretations for the sake of argument. So I was taken aback to read the Protestant commentary on this passage in the study notes of my heretofore favorite Bible, the evangelical ESV Study Bible. This is by far the glibbest, most sectarian analysis I have yet found here. It exhibits either willful ignorance of the historical Christian (and Catholic) understanding, or wanton dishonesty.

Poussin, Institution of the Eucharist (1640)

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

I am hesitant to name names, but this is a matter of some import — the very underpinning of historic Christianity and of the Catholic faith. I am thankful that my ESV Study Bible at least gives ample credit to the contributors of each book’s study notes. The notes to the Gospel of John are by Dr. Andreas J. Köstenberger [1, 2], Senior Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary — someone who should know better. I do not here aim to slam Dr. Köstenberger — I cannot fault the man, or the editors of the ESV Study Bible, or the executives at Crossway, for stating an evangelical interpretation in an evangelical publication for an evangelical audience. But I am here calling him out for some flagrantly bad commentary, that doesn’t even consider — even to reject it — a prominent theological view held not only by the majority of the world’s Christians, but by the entirety of the Christian Church until the Protestant Reformation (as we have seen). It seems rather to reflect a desire to sweep the historical view under the rug, to pretend it doesn’t exist, has not been historically significant, and is not widely held to this day. This is not an uncommon evangelical tactic, but I expected higher of the ESV Study Bible and of Dr. Köstenberger.

The Bread of Life

Alvazovsky, Jesus Walks on Water (1888)

Jesus Walks on Water (1888), by Ivan Alvazovsky. (WikiPaintings.org)

This is a lengthy passage of Scripture — encompassing in its full context John 6:22-71, some fifty verses and 1,000 words. I encourage you to read the whole thing. The ESV translation of the text itself is solid, as I have found it to be elsewhere almost without exception. For the sake of brevity, I will summarize and paraphrase a bit.

This speech takes place very soon after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus fed the multitude (earlier in the chapter in John’s Gospel, John 6:1-15). The Apostles got in the boat to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus walked on water to meet them (John 6:16-21). When the crowd — the Jesus groupies — realized where He’d gone, they flocked to Him and resumed asking Him questions (John 6:22-25). Jesus answered:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” (John 6:26-27)

Rembrandt, The Supper at Emmaus (1648)

The Supper at Emmaus (1648), by Rembrandt. (WikiPaintings.org)

The crowd still had food on the brain; their own stomachs, or what they could get out of Jesus materially or temporally: how Jesus could help them in their day-to-day lives and make them prosperous and healthy (not unlike many Christians today). Jesus urged them not to work for temporal, perishable food, but the food that He will give to them, the food of salvation. The crowd asked how they were supposed to work for this food (John 6:28). Jesus answered:

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)

The crowd expected Jesus to perform a sign for them, as a prophet would, that they might believe in Him. Moses made manna, bread from heaven, fall to feed our fathers in the wilderness (John 6:30-31). Jesus answered:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:32-33)

Okay, yes, Jesus is building a metaphor here — a beautifully rhetorical one. Manna came down from heaven from God, and it gave nourishment to the Israelites. The Son of Man came down from heaven, and will give life to the whole world. And…

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

Christ (1585), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

In reading this passage and other similar passages, one should understand that in Greek, the person (i.e. first person, second person, third person) is contained in the verb. Writing only εἰμι contains the full sense of “I am.” So when the personal pronoun is added in addition (ἐγώ εἰμι, or egō eimi), it makes a strong, emphatic declaration. “Just to be clear, y’all: This bread from heaven I’m talking about? It’s me. I am the bread of life. Come to me and believe in me, and you’ll never hunger or thirst again.”

Verses 36 through 40 — containing the statements that God the Father gives Christ those who will be saved, and it is God’s will that Christ should lose none of them, and that all who believe in Christ should be saved and have eternal life — have a lot of bearing on soteriology, especially in discussion of divine election. I don’t gloss over them here to avoid that discussion, but because it’s not my point at the moment.

The Jews grumbled among themselves. “Who does this guy think he is, saying he is the bread of life and that he came down from heaven? We know his parents; he came from right down the road” (John 6:41-42).

And we come to the point of contention:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus (1602)

Supper at Emmaus (1602), by Caravaggio. (WikiPaintings.org)

And Jesus’s beautiful metaphor hit the floor with a sickening splat. What!? All this talk about being the bread of life; “believe in me and you shall never be hungry again” — and then He brought it back to the stomach, with a stomach-turning suggestion. He had so far been drawing the metaphor between the Israelites eating manna in the desert for their daily, temporary sustenance, and Himself being the true bread, with which they would never hunger or thirst again; that the work of receiving this bread is only to believe in Him. And then Jesus blew the metaphor away. “If you eat this bread, you will live forever. And oh, this bread is my flesh. That’s right. I want you to eat my flesh” (John 6:47-51). And the Jews understood His words exactly like that: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52)

Here is where I will begin addressing Dr. Köstenberger's commentary. For the above verses, he writes:

living bread. The “bread” Jesus gives is his flesh (a reference to Jesus’ death on the cross). Jesus’ statement intermingles physical and spiritual truth. Jesus is not talking about literal “bread,” but he is the true “living bread” in the sense that those who believe in him have their spiritual hunger satisfied. He becomes this spiritually satisfying “bread” by sacrificing his own physical body in his death on the cross, and in that sense he can say that this spiritual bread is my flesh.

Now, that is actually helpful. I had not thought of His “flesh” here referring to the Crucifixion; to giving of His flesh for the whole world, by which we are able to consume it. It is an important and valid point. In this sense the metaphor continues. But Köstenberger’s note does not address the more immediate point: Jesus just disgusted His listeners with perhaps the most repugnant notion possible in the Jewish world, one so unthinkable that the Torah doesn’t even address it: cannibalism; the eating of human flesh. So, presuming Jesus was speaking metaphorically, He is now going to clarify the misunderstanding, right?

No; in fact, He just made it worse:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:53-55)

Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1594)

The Last Supper (1594), by Tintoretto. (WikiPaintings.org)

“Not only do I want you to eat my flesh, but I want you to drink my blood.” The Jews have one of the most hemophobic cultures on this planet; there is little that is more disgusting and offensive to a Jew than being expected to touch blood, let alone consume it. And Jesus did not use the standard Greek verb “to eat” here when he emphasized this eating and drinking: φᾰγεῖν (phagein) is the standard, classical Greek verb “to eat,” the way humans eat a meal. The verb here instead is τρώγειν (trōgein), used especially of animals eating or feeding, most literally translated as “to bite, chew, gnaw.” The ESV translates this word above and in the following verses as “whoever feeds on my flesh.” Jesus, in explaining his proposition, was possibly being vulgar. “You must feed (as a horse feeds) — you must munch — on my body.” At the very least, His use of this word removed any doubt that He was referring to a physical eating, not a spiritual or metaphorical one. If Jesus was aiming to turn off his followers, He was doing a fine job.

Now, this verse — verse 55 — actually conceals what appears to be a significant question in textual criticism. I haven’t studied it in depth; I have a feeling a lot has been written on it, which I’d be interested to read. But where Jesus said that His flesh is “true food” and His blood is “true drink,” there are variant readings for the word translated “true.” The variation is minor, only a single letter; but it significantly shapes how the verse is understood. Is the word here ἀληθς (alēthōs), an adverb, or ἀληθής (alēthēs), an adjective? The words are of course related; but the variation means the difference between “My flesh is true food” — as modern textual critics and translators have concluded — or “My flesh is truly food” — as the texts available to the King James translators (i.e. William Tyndale) read.

"aletho" in Codex Sinaiticus

The disputed word in Codex Sinaiticus. The original text reads ΑΛΗΘѠϹ (αληθως), but note the correction: an eta (Η) written in superscript over the omega (Ѡ) — and then erased.
(Source: CodexSinaiticus.com)

(N.B. You can skip this paragraph unless you want the fine, nerdy details of the textual variant. I for one love a textual mystery!) And the disagreement is meaty. While generally the oldest and most reliable manuscripts — Codex Vaticanus (4th century) and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (5th century) being the best witnesses — give the adjectival reading, there is evidence of early confusion. Codex Sinaiticus (4th century) originally read with the adverb, but was corrected to the adjective — and then re-corrected back to the adverb. The only two papyri extant for the passage — Papyrus 66 (ca. A.D. 200, one of the oldest of all manuscripts) and Papyrus 75 (3rd century) — also show the disagreement. Papyrus 66 originally read with the adverb, but was corrected to agree with Papyrus 75, which contains the adjective. Among the oldest manuscripts, the adjectival reading appears to have won the debate. But in the longer term, the Majority (Byzantine) Text, which came to dominate and is represented by the majority of later extant manuscripts, and formed the so-called Textus Receptus used in the King James translation — received the adverbial reading. In sum: I tend to think, as an educated amateur, that the question is significant enough to at least warrant a footnote in modern translations of the alternate reading. I think there’s a possibility that the adverb — “truly” instead of “true” — was the original reading. But NA27, on which most recent Bible translations are based, selects the adjectival reading; and they know a lot more than I do.

Whether ἀληθής or ἀληθῶς — the adverb is derived from the adjective — the meaning is clear and explicit. Both the BDAG and the LSJ agree: the adjective means “true, real, genuine.” I personally think the adverb makes for a funner translation: “truly, really, actually, in reality” — because I would love to translate this word “for real.”

Jesus said, “My body is real food and my blood is real drink” — or “My body is really food and my blood is really drink.” In response to the Jews’ question, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus not only didn’t correct them, but restated his original statement even more explicitly. “If you want eternal life, you must actually eat my body and drink my blood.”

But of these verses, despite Jesus’s insistence and clarity, Dr. Köstenberger comments:

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood cannot be intended literally, for no one ever did that.

Dürer, Last Supper (1510)

Last Supper (1510), by Albrecht Dürer. (WikiPaintings.org)

What? Really? No one ever did what? Of course no one ever fed on Jesus’s flesh while attached to His frame, literally gnawed it from His bone; but Christians have been literally eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking His blood for 2,000 years. Or does Köstenberger mean, “No one ever intended (that reading)”? In either case, this statement, quite ridiculously, skirts over the many centuries of history when all Christians — every great Church Father and theologian — in fact did interpret this statement literally. In disputed passages of other books of the ESV Study Bible, the commentators give their evangelical interpretation, and then politely explain why they believe the Roman Catholic understanding is false. To comment on such a passage as this, and not even note that the majority of Christians in the world, Catholic and Orthodox, have a very different understanding of it, is misleading and a disservice to even evangelical readers, who should be aware of such an important disagreement.

Köstenberger continues:

As Jesus has done frequently in this Gospel, he is speaking in terms of physical items in this world to teach about spiritual realities. Here, to “eat” Jesus’ flesh has the spiritual meaning of trusting or believing in him, especially in his death for the sins of mankind. (See also v. 35, where Jesus speaks of coming to him as satisfying “hunger” and believing in him as satisfying “thirst.”) Similarly, to “drink his blood” means to trust in his atoning death, which is represented by the shedding of his blood.

Yes, this is the way Jesus teaches. But in this speech, He made clear that the act of “eating” and “drinking” encompasses both physical and spiritual realities. To “eat” Jesus’s flesh and “drink” His blood does indeed have the spiritual meaning of trusting and believing in Him. But if the spiritual meaning were the only one Jesus intended, why His emphasis, to the point of revulsion, on physically “eating” and “drinking”?

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

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

One of the keys to understanding Catholic theology — and one of the beauties, in its simplicity and complexity at the same time — is that just as this passage conveys both a physical and a spiritual sense, each of the Sacraments conveys both a physical and a spiritual effect. The Sacraments consist outwardly in simple, physical actions: washing with water, anointing with oil, the laying on of hands. And these actions not only symbolize a spiritual reality — the washing away of sins, the passing of authority and commissioning of duty — but they actually accomplish spiritually what they represent physically. It does what it says on the tin. Baptism not only symbolizes and outwardly represents the washing away of sins; but the physical washing with water, by the power of the Holy Spirit, actually accomplishes the spiritual washing away of sins. The consecration of Holy Orders by the laying on of hands not only symbolizes the passing of authority and binding to service; but it actually accomplishes the infusion of spiritual authority by apostolic succession.

And likewise the Eucharist, by the simple act of eating and drinking the consecrated Hosts, that have truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, not only symbolizes and represents Communion in Christ’s Body, but actually infuses us with His grace. We literally, physically, spiritually share in Christ’s Body and Blood, in His humanity and divinity, in His eternal life, as He here made plain in this Scripture.

Köstenberger again:

Although Jesus is not speaking specifically about the Lord’s Supper here, there is a parallel theme, because the receiving of eternal life through being united with “the Son of Man” is represented in the Lord’s Supper (where Jesus’ followers symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23–32). This is anticipated in OT feasts (see 1 Cor. 5:7) and consummated in the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).

Giotto, The Last Supper

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

No way! You think? What an incredible coincidence, that Jesus would speak of eating his body and drinking his blood here, and then again at the Lord’s Supper! And both here and there, this eating and drinking is how one receives eternal life! Jesus said that one must eat his body and drink his blood to receive eternal life — and then at the Lord’s Supper, he offered the Bread as His body and the Cup as His Blood. Even when I was an evangelical, I understood the John 6 passage to be not only parallel to the Lord’s Supper, but an explicit reference, a foreshadowing.

After Jesus was done speaking, his disciples said to Him, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60) “Jesus, that’s disgusting. Who wants to hear about eating your body and drinking your blood?”

But Köstenberger takes just the opposite interpretation:

It was a hard saying because they wrongly interpreted Jesus’ statements literally.

Yes, that’s the way they interpreted it; but if they wrongly interpreted His statements literally, Jesus had yet another opportunity here to correct them, when they directly challenged what He said. But instead He answered:

“Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.”

The words are not just spirit, they are also life. This reads as a continuing insistence that what He said before is what He meant. “But some of you still don’t get it.”

“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Because they are disgusted and disillusioned by what Jesus had just said. And still Jesus made no attempt to correct them, if there were some misunderstanding.

But Köstenberger seems to suggest that this statement is not even connected to His prior speech:

Many of these early disciples were not genuine disciples of Christ, for they turned back. Their initial “faith” was not genuine and they were perhaps following Jesus only because of the physical benefits he gave, such as healing and multiplying food.

This just happens to be where John notes their departure. But emphasizing that these departures are in fact connected to his previous words:

So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)

The context of this all is still Jesus’s “words of eternal life.”

Curiously, after all these explicit statements about eating Jesus’s body and drinking His blood, the Gospel of John contains no narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. All three of the Synoptic Gospels have it; why doesn’t John?

Veronese, Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples (1580s)

Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples (1580s), by Paolo Veronese. (WikiPaintings.org)

I recently read a very compelling book review that deals with just this problem. In Eucharist and Covenant in John’s Last Supper Account, Msgr. Anthony La Femina proposes that Christ’s washing of the Apostles’ feet (John 13:1-20) — the central action of John’s narrative of the Last Supper, but something none of the Synoptics mention — is in fact an analogy for the institution of the Eucharist. According to La Femina, the footwashing narrative contains all of the elements of the institution of the Eucharist — the command to repeat the action, a foreshadowing of Jesus’s death, a reference to his betrayer Judas Iscariot, and covenantal language which La Femina says echoes the language of Near Eastern treaties. It seems a compelling thesis that I would like to read more about.

But as for Jesus’s speech in John 6:22-71, there seems little question about what Jesus meant: If He did not intend for His words to suggest an actual eating and drinking of His body and blood, He would not have emphasized this statement more explicitly when questioned about it, and He would have made some effort to clarify the misunderstanding when His disciples protested, if it was in fact a misunderstanding. Dr. Köstenberger’s notes in the ESV Study Bible seem not only to present a sectarian interpretation — which is expected — but to consciously ignore and dismiss the historical understanding of the passage. At best, they present unhelpful commentary, missing and dismissing obvious connections and leading away from a thorough understanding of the text rather than toward it.

A burden for Christian unity

Giotto di Bondone. The Lamentations Over Our Lord Christ. Cappella Scrovegni a Padova.1305

I am really deeply troubled.

I can’t entirely put my finger on why, but this is the same burden that has been dogging me all weekend.

It seems very wrong, very contrary to the will of God, that even in the decadence of modern secular society — a decadence that threatens even the Church — the Church of Christ remains deeply divided against itself. We are fighting among ourselves when we should be fighting for Christ.

This was the sentiment behind the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document drafted by Chuck Colson and Fr. Richard Neuhaus in 1994. A number of prominent leaders in both evangelical churches and the Catholic Church agreed to it and signed it. More troubling, though, is the not insignificant number of leaders on both sides who attacked the document and refused to have anything to do with it.

500 years after the Reformation, there are still a large number of evangelicals who will offer no quarter to a Catholic, who will not even sit down at the table with one lest there be any appearance of compromise. They would separate themselves from all fellowship with Catholics, even deny them a place in the kingdom of God. These are not just fringe elements; these include major leaders and theologians such as R. C. Sproul. People like James White write whole books attacking Catholicism and denying that Catholics are Christian. I have run into quite a few of these people in just my short time in the blogosphere. Even my own best friends would rather fight me when it comes to discussing doctrine than seek common ground. And every time it happens I feel a burden of rejection and frustration and despair.

And I don’t understand it. There is a wide diversity of doctrine in Protestantism — yet not the same kind of unfathomable chasm. Calvinists and Arminians disagree sharply, but are willing to have conversations with each other. Baptists and Methodists can agree to disagree about infant baptism versus believer’s baptism. These are issues that go just as deeply into soteriology, the theology of salvation, as the divide between Catholics and Protestants, and yet many Protestants wouldn’t even consider a similar truce with a Catholic.

James White argues that Catholics and Protestants disagree fundamentally about what the Gospel even is. Having been both a Protestant and a Catholic, that argument is incomprehensible to me. Of course it’s the same Gospel. How can anyone deny that? I follow the same Christ I’ve followed all my life. I hope in the same salvation, the same forgiveness of sins, the same resurrection. My Protestant Baptism was acceptable to the Catholic Church; why can’t my Catholic justification be valid in the eyes of a Protestant?

Catholics and Protestants have deep disagreements about doctrine. I don’t deny that, and I don’t pretend it doesn’t matter. If we believe what we teach, then it necessarily means believing that the other side of the argument is wrong. But look at it this way: Regardless of which side is right, the other is not excluded from salvation. If it is true, as Catholics believe, that we are justified by the outpouring of God’s grace through faith, and sanctified over the course of our lives as we walk in that grace, then certainly many Protestants, who faithfully believe in Christ and from that faith follow Him and walk with Him, will be saved. Or if it is true, as Protestants believe, that we are justified by faith alone in Christ through His grace, then certainly many Catholics who have a genuine faith in Christ will be saved. The only way to exclude Catholics from salvation, as some Protestants are wont to do, is to believe that salvation is by faith in the five solas alone — that by confessing the Reformation we are saved.

I have no interest in attacking the Protestant faith. I will defend the Catholic faith, but it is deeply unpleasant to me to be forced to return polemic for polemic, as I’ve had to do in White’s case. I am glad to help any pilgrim who wishes to cross the Tiber, but even more deeply than that, I want to build a bridge, on which both sides might meet and resolve some of these rancorous disputes. I long for Christendom to be at peace.

A Breather

Marc Chagall - David, climbing Mount of Olives

Chassé de Jérusalem par Absalon de nouveau révolté, David, pieds nus, gravit la colline des Oliviers (Driven from Jerusalem by Absalom having revolted again, David, on foot, climbed the Mount of Olives), by Marc Chagall (1956).

Whew. That last post wore me out.

I am feeling very troubled and worn at the polemic tone my blog has taken the last week or two. It has never been my aim to attack Protestants or evangelicals. I was one for so long, and still share in that heritage, and most of the Christians I know are evangelicals. And I love them as my brothers and sisters in the Lord.

I just, in the fast few weeks, have encountered so much rejection and misunderstanding and prejudice of Protestants toward Catholics — denials that we are even Christians. I knew there was such sentiment out there in the world, but I thought it only existed at the extreme fringes. I had no idea such thoughts were so prevalent among Christians of Reformed stripes. I feel very tired.

My aim was to challenge these people, gently, to present a straightforward case that we are Christians, too. It comes down to grace — we believe in God’s salvation by grace alone, too. We love God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. We do not teach “works’ salvation” or “Pelagianism.” We do not “worship” Mary. But my gentle suggestions have only been met with violent response. And I have reacted violently and defensively in turn. I am very sorry.

I would not have chosen this path if I thought for a moment I was leaving behind the Gospel of Christ. I only made this decision after years of searching and praying and studying. I am not an idiot or a rube or a mindless sheep who does not understand the teachings of my own Church. Yet I am insulted again and again by people who think they know better than I do, who regurgitate lies they have been fed and are not open to any challenge.

It’s a tide I can’t turn back. I was naïve to think I could. People’s prejudices are too entrenched. If I could change just one person’s mind, I said, my efforts would not be in vain. But I feel I’m only ranting at deaf statues. They label me the enemy, just for speaking out, and they shut out my words. I guess this is what Jesus was talking about when He said some would not receive us. But it shouldn’t be this hard to speak to fellow Christians.

I’m not sure I’m going to finish this book. Not right now, anyway. I need a breather. I will try to post some light, happy, hopeful things, to you, my beloved friends. Thank you for sticking with me.

The Roman Catholic Controversy: Sola Scriptura

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The fifth post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy.

I said in beginning this review that I was prepared to give praise where it was due. It is due here: James White has constructed a really splendid and solid case in favor of the doctrine of sola scriptura — “by Scripture alone,” the cry of the Reformers, which White calls the formal principle of the Reformation. His argument is finely honed and well oiled, almost as a mathematical proof, and snaps shut like a steel trap. I must confess, it left me rather stunned.

I will, however, point out a few assumptions on which White rests his argument that I believe weaken it. But I was asking yesterday how any reasonable Christian could read the same sources from the Early Church that I am reading and maintain a Reformed system of belief. This is how: with arguments like this. I see no adequate way to refute this, assuming the premises that White assumes; so I can therefore only question the premises, which to me are indeed questionable.

What Sola scriptura is not

White begins by presenting six points of what sola scriptura is not — none of which I thought it was:

  1. Sola scriptura is not a claim that the Bible contains all knowledge (e.g. scientific, historical, political).
  2. Sola scriptura is not a claim that the Bible is an exhaustive catalog of all religious knowledge. (It’s not a catechism or compendium, as I’ve pointed out before — but, according to sola scriptura, it has everything the believer needs.)
  3. Sola scriptura is not a denial of the Church’s authority to teach God’s truth.
  4. Sola scriptura is not a denial that God’s Word has, at times, been spoken (e.g. the preaching of the prophets and Apostles).
  5. Sola scriptura is not a rejection of every kind or use of tradition (only the ones that can’t be supported by Scripture are not binding).
  6. Sola scriptura is not a denial of the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church.

Regarding the third point: White explains that there is “a vast difference between recognizing and confessing the Church as the pillar and support of truth (1 Timothy 3:15), and confessing the Church to be the final arbiter of truth itself.” “The Church, as the body of Christ, presents and upholds the truth, but she remains subservient to it.” Catholics too agree that the Church remains subservient to the truth — that is, she serves Christ and His truth and the divine revelation of God — but the Catholic Church believes that part of her service to the truth, her responsibility, is to properly interpret that truth and teach it to her people. This is as much the Church’s God-given duty and mission as it is her authority. White charges that “Rome has gone far beyond the biblical parameters regarding the roles and functions of the Church.” He needs to define, and expound from Scripture, what he believes these biblical roles and functions to be. “The Apostles established local churches. They chose elders and deacons” — and bishops too (1 Timothy 3:1-7), I must again add, if he is in fact teaching the biblical organization of the Church — “and entrusted to these the task of teaching and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Indeed they did; and invested them with the authority to teach. As any teacher knows, the truth — even Scripture — involves interpretation, breaking down ideas and conveying them to the student in an understandable way. I don’t know what White thinks “teaching” is, if not this. The “truth” he teaches in his church, too, is an interpretation. White misunderstands what the Catholic Church believes her role to be. He assumes, despite his statement to the contrary, that the Christian Church in fact has no inherent authority to teach the truth.

What Sola scriptura is

White next approaches a definition of what sola scriptura is.

  1. Scripture is the sole, infallible rule of faith (regula fidei); Scripture, and Scripture alone, is sufficient to function as such.
  2. All that one must believe to be a Christian is contained in Scripture.
  3. That which is not found in Scripture — either directly or by necessary implication — is not binding upon the Christian.
  4. Scripture reveals those things necessary for salvation.
  5. All traditions are subject to the higher authority of Scripture.

“The doctrine of sola scriptura, simply stated,” says White, “is that the Scriptures alone are sufficient to function as the regula fidei, the infallible rule of faith for the Church.” Proceeding from the very nature of Scripture as “God-breathed” (θεόπνευστος, theopneustos) revelation, Scripture is infallible and sufficient for salvation.

The Catholic Church fully agrees and affirms that Scripture is divinely inspired, inerrant, and authoritative:

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired [θεόπνευστος] and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” [2 Tim. 3:16-17, Greek text] (Second Vatican Council, Dei verbum III.11).

White’s argument that Scripture’s authority and sufficiency proceed from the very nature of Scripture itself strikes a chord with my argument from yesterday about the “actual authority” inherent in historical sources by virtue of what they are. Scripture too has this actual, historical authority, even aside from its divine inspiration.

White asserts that Scripture’s sole, infallible authority is not dependent on any man, church, or council, but proceeds from the nature of Scripture itself — for indeed Scripture attests to its own inspiration by God (2 Timothy 3:14-17), and everything God says must be authoritative and infallible. This argument does have one limitation, however: for it was the Church, by Tradition, that established the canon of Scripture, over several successive generations. It is only by the Church’s actions of collecting, preserving, and transmitting Scripture that we have an authoritative collection of Scriptures at all. It was through the discernment of the Church Fathers, guided by the Holy Spirit, that the canon of the New Testament was formed: the truly inspired books selected, and others excluded. Otherwise, we would not have a New Testament to be our “sole rule of faith.” I presume this is an issue which White will address later in the book.

White claims that Scripture is “self-consistent, self-interpreting, and self-authenticating” — and doesn’t really expound on these assertions. With these claims on their face, I have a serious problem. Nothing is “self-interpreting.” Language, by its very nature, has to be received and understood and processed mentally. As Dei verbum states, “Since God speaks in Sacred Scripture through men in human fashion, the interpreter of Sacred Scripture, in order to see clearly what God wanted to communicate to us, should carefully investigate what meaning the sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words” (III.12).

This is not even to mention that the Scriptures are written in ancient languages that are the native tongues of no one living today. Even English translations of the Scriptures must be interpreted; but to even create the English translations from the original languages requires a great deal of interpretation, in many cases when the meaning of the Greek or Hebrew words themselves is unclear or obscure, let alone the syntax and grammar. Translation is a monumental task of interpretation. To say that Scripture is “self-interpreting” undermines the hard work of both translators and teachers, and implies that the interpretation of the one making the statement is the only obvious and possible one.

Likewise, among the extant early manuscripts of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures, there are thousands of textual variants — cases in which letters, words, or whole verses were left out, added, changed, transposed, misspelled, miscopied, or otherwise corrupted in the course of textual transmission. It is only by the arduous work of textual critics and paleographers that we have the authoritative, critical texts of the Scriptures on which grounds sola scriptura is even possible. To say that Scripture is “self-authenticating” undermines their labors.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) writes of the doctrine of sola scriptura:

VI. The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and the government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

The claim that doctrines that are not themselves in Scripture, but “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture,” and still meet the demands of sola scriptura, troubles me. This statement seems a catch-all for any doctrine that Protestants want to work out from Scripture, “by good and necessary consequence.” As I have pointed out before, the five solas are themselves found nowhere in Scripture, but proceed only “by good and necessary consequence” of a certain interpretation of Scripture. Likewise, the tenets of Calvinism — total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, et al. — are not written on the face of Scripture at all, but were worked out by Calvin and his followers through a considerable amount of interpretation and exegesis; they are nonetheless, to a Calvinist, a “good and necessary consequence” of Scripture. Other Protestants whom White, I presume, would accept as orthodox, may not find these doctrines to be “good and necessary consequences” of Scripture at all. For something that is “perspicuous” and “self-interpreting,” there is a considerable degree of interpretation and even disagreement as to its meaning.

White admits that “some measure of effort must be expended in reading and understanding the Scriptures” — but apparently, this effort does not involve “interpretation.” He notes, however, because of this required “effort,” “surely many of the disagreements people have over the meaning of the Scriptures are due not to any lack of clarity in them, but to unwillingness of people to make use of ‘ordinary means.’” We Catholics could not agree more. If Protestants would only use the “ordinary means” that would put the Scriptures into the proper historical, theological, and ecclesial context — that is, Tradition — then we could resolve our disagreements.

The Steel Trap

White’s biblical proof for sola scriptura hangs almost entirely on the interpretation of a single passage — 2 Timothy 3:14-17 (this is White’s translation):

14 But you remain in what you have learned and have become convinced of, knowing from whom you learned it, 15 and that from your childhood you knew the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise unto salvation by faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction, for training in righteousness, 17 in order that the man of God might be complete, fully equipped for every good work.

White seems to know his Greek (he likes to show it off; I guess I do too), but one thing I would point out, that doesn’t particularly affect the sense of the passage, is that the main verb in the first verse, μένε (mene) is imperative — it’s a command, not an indicative statement. Most published translations read “But you, remain in what you have learned . . . ” Also, the word he translates “Scriptures” in verse 15 and the word he translates “Scripture” in verse 16 are two different words — the former being γράμμα (gramma), which can be any kind of writing (the ESV translates this phrase “holy writings”), and the latter being γραφή (graphē), which in the New Testament is only used of Scripture. In any case, the translation of this verse, so far as the words themselves, is clear.

White’s proof follows like so (I am simplifying it and presenting it as a logical proof; White does not):

  1. The Scriptures, by their very nature as God-breathed, are able to make one wise unto salvation. Scripture in itself is sufficient for salvation.
  2. The Scriptures, being God-breathed, i.e. breathed by God, have their origin in God, and therefore as the Word of God have God’s authority.
  3. The Church, in Scripture, has and hears God’s Word, which has God’s authority. Therefore the authority of the Church to teach, rebuke, and instruct is derived from Scripture itself; the Church has no authority that does not derive from Scripture (“despite Roman Catholic claims to the contrary”).
  4. Because Scripture is God’s voice, it is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction, for training in righteousness, in order that the man of God might be complete, fully equipped for every good work.”
  5. Therefore the man of God can be both saved and made complete with Scripture alone. Nothing else is necessary, or Paul would have mentioned it.
  6. Therefore Scripture alone is sufficient to make the man of God complete for “every good work.” No man of God needs anything else for the purpose of ministry.
  7. The Roman Catholic Church teaches doctrines that are not found in Scripture, either directly or by any logical deduction of implication — for example, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (the belief that the Virgin Mary was bodily assumed into Heaven at the end of her earthly life).
  8. If these doctrines were true, it would be a “good work” to teach them.
  9. Since Scripture equips the man of God to be complete for every “good work,” and Scripture does not equip the man of God to teach the Assumption, then it follows that teaching the Assumption is not a “good work.”
  10. Therefore, the doctrine of the Assumption, and other non-biblical doctrines taught by the Catholic Church, are not necessary to be taught, or Scripture would equip the man of God to teach it. These doctrines are not necessary for salvation, or Scripture, being able to make one wise unto salvation, would teach them.

And the trap clangs shut.

“Hence,” says White triumphantly, “the Protestant says the doctrine is not binding upon the Christian; the Roman Catholic, having accepted the doctrine on the authority of the Roman Church, is forced to conclude the Bible is insufficient as a source of all divine truth.”

But wait. White isn’t done there. He proceeds to another leg of his argument, based on Matthew 15:1-9:

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:

“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for following the tradition of the elders — which the Pharisees believed to be God-given and authoritative, though it was not written in the Law — even though it broke the commandments of God, what was given as the Law, and were written in Scripture. Therefore all “tradition of the elders” is subject to Scripture, and it is to be tested against the known standard of Scripture.

White assumes that Sacred Tradition is contrary to or contradicts Scripture — but it isn’t and doesn’t. I assume, though, I will hear more about this later.


These are the questions I have with White’s argument.

The Nature of Scripture – The Old Testament

First, when Paul was writing to Timothy, the Holy Scriptures he was referring to were only the Old Testament; the New Testament had neither been written nor collected. White acknowledges this much. “No one would wish to say that the Old Testament is wholly adequate and the New Testament is superfluous and unnecessary,” he admits. “The thrust of the passage is the origin and resultant nature of Scripture and its abilities, not the extent of Scripture (i.e. the canon),” argues White. “That which is God-breathed is able, by its very nature, to give us the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (‘all things necessary for man’s salvation’) and to fully equip the man of God for the work of the ministry (‘all things necessary for . . . faith and life).'”

White continues to press this argument. Even acknowledging that Timothy would have heard and been brought to faith by the Gospel through hearing oral preaching, not through Scripture at all, he asserts that “the content of the teaching Timothy has received is identical with, not separate from, that found in the Word of God.” White insists that this oral preaching of the Gospel is the same content Timothy would received in the Holy Scriptures which he “had known from childhood.” “The message he has received in the Gospel is to be found in the Sacred Scriptures themselves” — in the Old Testament. Really?

Does White really mean to say that all Scripture, being God-breathed, is sufficient and able by its very nature to bring one to salvation in Christ Jesus? Is, say, the Book of Leviticus? What about Esther, which doesn’t even refer directly to God? Every book in the Old Testament, it’s true, is laced with metaphors and types and prophecies pointing to Christ — but are these prophecies, these precursors, sufficient in themselves to bring one to faith in Jesus? How could they be, if they don’t even mention Him? I’ve never heard of someone (other than Paul himself) “getting saved” reading only the Old Testament, with no other knowledge of Christ. Doesn’t faith in Christ necessitate knowledge of Christ? For “how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14).

If Paul, referring to the Old Testament Scriptures, said “all Scripture is God-breathed” and “able to make wise for salvation in Christ Jesus” — and yet the Old Testament Scriptures aren’t able to bring one to faith in Christ Jesus — then it follows that Paul meant something else other than the way White and Protestants have interpreted this statement.

The Nature of Salvation

This raises another important point: The Scriptures are able to make Timothy wise unto salvation. According to the Protestant view, isn’t Timothy already “saved”? Isn’t justification by faith a once and for all experience, a done deal? Does this passage not suggest the Catholic view, that salvation is a process? Reading the Scriptures, then — any Scriptures, including the Old Testament (even including Leviticus, which I found illuminating) — would make the believer, who already has faith in Jesus and is already on that road, “wise for salvation.” They would add wisdom and foster spiritual growth and further him along the path — and we believe they do.

Oral Preaching and Tradition

No, in fact Timothy wasn’t brought to faith in Christ by Scripture at all, but by oral preaching. That preaching was sufficient to bring him to faith, along with every other believer during the Apostolic Age and before the New Testament was canonized. They didn’t have Scripture pertaining to Jesus. The preaching and teaching of the Apostles was transmitted orally by tradition for at least the first several generations of Christians; it was that tradition that brought the earliest believers to faith in Christ, not Scripture. And if that tradition continued — as we in the Catholic Church believe it did — would it not remain sufficient to “make wise for salvation”?

White stated earlier that “the content of the teaching Timothy has received is identical with, not separate from, that found in the Word of God.” He made this argument for the Old Testament Scriptures, to which Timothy had access, and this seems to fail on its face. But suppose White were arguing instead that the content that would be contained in the New Testament was identical with the message Timothy heard — which seems to be more logical and consistent with his thesis; that God breathed all that was sufficient for man to be saved into Scripture, and so the message Timothy heard is what God would have caused to be written. This argument, too, seems to make an unreasonable assumption. White acknowledges that God’s Word, at times, was spoken rather than written. How does White know — how can he assume — that there was no more to the message God spoke through the Apostles orally, that was not later written into the New Testament, the Sacred Tradition that the Catholic Church teaches? White assumes, by sola scriptura, that Scripture is all there is; but he cannot prove sola scriptura using sola scriptura. Scripture itself attests that not everything that was taught by spoken word was written (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

According to Protestants, Scripture contains all the Word of God that’s necessary to bring one to faith in Christ. The rest, according to their view — the other doctrines in Tradition that aren’t in Scripture — aren’t necessary. Even supposing that were true, it doesn’t necessarily follow, though, that because they are not necessary, they are not good, or are necessarily false, or should be discarded. God is a God of overabundance, not just “enough.” Why would I want only what was sufficient for salvation? Our Catholic faith is overflowing in its fullness — and every bit of it is good and worthy and “makes us wise unto salvation” — by my definition above, of furthering us along that path.

“All Good Work”

Okay, I changed my mind. I would like to take exception to one point in White’s interpretation of the Greek of the 2 Timothy 3 passage. For the Greek phrase he translates “every good work” — πᾶν ἔργον (pan ergon) — another possible reading is “all kinds of good work.” In fact, this is the reading preferred for this verse by the BDAG, the premier, most authoritative lexicon of New Testament Greek, which White himself calls to support his translation of another word. πᾶν ἔργον could, instead of every, mean every kind of or all sorts of.

White takes a very narrow, strict, legalistic reading of the word πᾶν — but Paul was not constructing a legal or logical argument here, but exhorting Timothy about doing good works. Just as we would say in English, “The Bible is useful for all kinds of things,” without meaning that the Bible is literally useful for all, each and every kind of thing, the same sense of the word πᾶν was common in Greek. While White does attempt to limit the scope of Paul’s “every good thing” to only those good things that pertained to Christian ministry, this sense isn’t at all clear from Paul’s language. But suppose for a moment that’s what Paul meant. “Scripture fully equips you for all kinds of good work in ministry.” White is very careful to make clear that the word complete (ἄρτιος, artios) is to be understood in the sense of “fitted, complete; capable, proficient; able to meet all demands.” Does Scripture literally make one fully equipped, “able to meet all demands” of “all kinds of good work” in ministry? Does it, say, teach you to preach a rhetorically good sermon? Does it provide you with a workable geography of Asia Minor? Does it teach, in plain terms, the Trinity, or the hypostatic union of Christ, or the five solas, or even its own canon? So, not quite “all kinds of things.” Paul is speaking as a rhetorician, not a logician.

Also, can Scripture be used for anything besides “good work” in ministry? Certainly. It can even be used for evil, such as justifying slavery or rape or genocide. So clearly Paul’s statement here is not meant to be taken as a legalistic, limiting, exclusive statement that “Scripture equips you for all, each and every good work you will ever need to do in ministry — and nothing else that would possibly be not so good.”

The Sufficiency of Scripture

Even if we were to accept White’s interpretation that Scripture in itself is sufficient to “make one wise unto salvation” — Scripture nowhere states, nor is it clear, that Scripture is the only thing that is sufficient to bring one to faith in Christ. In fact, as I have pointed out above, it is clear that the oral preaching of the Apostles — and its oral tradition, the passing of the apostolic teachings from one generation of Christians to the next — was sufficient to bring hearers to faith in Christ, before the New Testament was written, canonized, and disseminated.

That is not even to mention the oral preaching of preachers to this day — which also is sufficient to bring hearers to faith. White would argue that preachers today are preaching Scripture, that they are using the words of Scripture and the content of Scripture — but, since the oral teaching of the Apostles and their successors was also sufficient, it is clear that this Tradition also contained content that is sufficient for salvation.

White makes another unreasonable assumption about Scripture’s sufficiency. Paul says that Scripture is able to “equip the man of God for every good work.” According to White, if any other authority were necessary, Paul would have told Timothy. But we only have two surviving letters of Paul to Timothy. How do we know there weren’t other letters in which Paul gave Timothy other essential information? How do we know Paul didn’t impart other essential teachings to Timothy orally? We don’t have proof that he did (beyond the reception, through Tradition, of doctrines not in Scripture), but we don’t have proof that he didn’t. White assumes, because he believes Scripture is sufficient, that if anything else were necessary, Paul would have said so in Scripture. Because he didn’t, it must be true that Scripture is sufficient. White assumes his conclusion. It narrows to a tautology: Scripture is sufficient because it is sufficient.

The Authority of the Church

White denies repeatedly that the Church has inherent authority beyond the the authority of Scripture itself. “The authority of the Church is one: God’s authority,” states White. The Catholic Church agrees — the Church’s authority is God’s authority which Christ imparted to the Apostles. But White argues that the only authority God imparted was that contained in Scripture, His authoritative voice speaking to the Church and through the Church. “The divine authority of the Church, then, in teaching and rebuking and instructing, is derived from Scripture itself, despite Roman Catholic claims to the contrary.”

But Scripture itself very clearly presents a different picture. On numerous occasions, Christ Himself imparted authority to the Apostles, and charged them with a divine mission, and promised them power to fulfill it: to Peter, the authority to “bind and loose,” and the “keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16:17-19); to the rest of the Apostles, the authority to “bind and loose” (Matthew 18:18); the authority to forgive sins or withhold forgiveness (John 20:22-23); the promise that the Holy Spirit will guide the Apostles into all truth (John 16:13-15); the Great Commission (Mark 16:15-18); and the promise of power from the Spirit (Luke 24:49). This is not an exhaustive list by any means. The Catholic Church believes that by apostolic succession, the authority of the Apostles descends to today’s pope and bishops. The authority of the Catholic Church derives from the authority of the Apostles, which was imparted to them by Christ. To the Church, its exercise of authority over Scripture and Tradition is God’s own authority.

The Magisterium of the Church has the authority to interpret Scripture definitively. White asserts that Scripture is the “higher authority” of Protestants, and that the individual believer has the authority to interpret Scripture for himself or herself. White asserts that Scripture is “self-interpreting,” and yet acknowledges that individual believers may come to different conclusions. Above it all, there seems to be a “correct” interpretation — the “self-interpreting” one — to which White is appealing. To what authority is he appealing? By what authority can White claim that his interpretation is right and the Catholic one is wrong?


As I said in the beginning, my arguments here do very little to argue against sola scriptura; they merely undermine White’s defense of it. There are no doubt other defenses, and even deeper, heartfelt convictions, that maintain Protestants in the belief.

This question begins, and ultimately ends, with authority. What do we believe our authority is? If we trust in the authority of the Church, her claims to authority rest on Scripture, history, and the writings of the Church Fathers. If we trust in sola scriptura, then we trust in the Protestant Reformers — whose interpretations of Scripture and doctrines ring just as true now as they did 500 years ago.

It is incumbent upon Protestants to prove that the Early Church ever believed or taught sola scriptura, that Scripture was ever their sole rule of faith. In my opinion as an historian, there is no evidence to suggest that anyone before the Reformers ever did. Even if Scripture seems to support a system of belief built upon sola scriptura, it cannot be true if no one in the Early Church ever held it. We have a sufficient store of writing from the first generations of Christians that this question — whether they adhered to sola scriptura, or also founded their beliefs on oral tradition — is answerable.

If it wasn’t held by the Early Church, then it wasn’t taught by the Apostles, and it wasn’t taught by Christ. It seems, in my historical opinion, an unlikely doctrine to have ever been taught. If it had been, the Apostles would have been much more concerned with writing, and the Early Church would have been much more concerned with preserving the apostolic letters that were no doubt written but no longer survive.

The Apostles taught by spoken word, and their spoken word was passed on to the next generations of Christians by oral tradition. The Christian faith was transmitted in such a way for several generations. Even after Scripture was canonized, the Church would not have abandoned the tradition of apostolic teachings. Over time these were written down by the Church Fathers.

The objection by educated Protestants — as it will no doubt be of James White — is that the Early Church almost immediately fell away from the true doctrine taught by the Apostles of sola scriptura. As diligent and faithful as the Early Church was, this seems unlikely; and it presumes a position of ecclesial deism.

In the end, the question comes down to whose authority we trust more: the Church Fathers, who attest to the beliefs of the Early Church, or the Reformers, who posit that the Early Church held doctrines that cannot be attested.

The Roman Catholic Controversy: Claims of Authority

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The fourth post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy.

Come on, y’all. I am actively courting controversy here. And I’m not doing it just to talk to myself. I know there are readers out there who disagree with me and with my critiques. Please don’t be shy about challenging me. This is supposed to be a discussion, not a soliloquy.

I am getting into the meaty matter of The Roman Catholic Controversy‘s charges. In Chapter 4, “Who Defines the Gospel?,” James White brings some preliminary scrutiny to bear on the Roman Catholic Church’s claims of authority. This is leading into his discussion of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, but first he wanted to present the claims of Rome as a contrast. He raises some important questions that every believer needs to consider, regarding authority, history, and Scripture. His own answers to those questions, however, are problematic.

The Interpretation of Scripture

The Roman Catholic Church claims the ultimate (final) authority in interpreting Scripture, by her teaching authority, the Magisterium of the Church (Magisterium from Latin magister, teacher; the adjective magisterial refers to this teaching authority). The Magisterium is made up of all the Church’s bishops in communion with the pope, and the pronouncements of the ecumenical councils of the Church, drawing from the sum of the ages of Church Tradition. White, however, misunderstands both the sources of the Church’s claims to authority and that authority’s implications.

According to White, the Church “maintains that only she can properly interpret the Scriptures.” This is not quite true, and neither of the council documents which he quotes out of context (from Trent and from Vatican II) indicates this. The Church fully acknowledges that believers are capable of reading and interpreting Scripture; but the Church, through the Magisterium, is a guide, a teacher, in the interpretation of Scripture and Tradition. The Church neither excludes nor discourages individual exegetes, so long as they operate in concert with the Church. To the contrary, learned exegetes contribute to the Church’s understanding. From Dei Verbum, the same Vatican II document that White quotes:

But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God. (Dei Verbum, III.12)

The bride of the incarnate Word, the Church taught by the Holy Spirit, is concerned to move ahead toward a deeper understanding of the Sacred Scriptures so that she may increasingly feed her sons with the divine words. Therefore, she also encourages the study of the holy Fathers of both East and West and of sacred liturgies. Catholic exegetes then and other students of sacred theology, working diligently together and using appropriate means, should devote their energies, under the watchful care of the sacred teaching office of the Church, to an exploration and exposition of the divine writings. This should be so done that as many ministers of the divine word as possible will be able effectively to provide the nourishment of the Scriptures for the people of God, to enlighten their minds, strengthen their wills, and set men’s hearts on fire with the love of God. The sacred synod encourages the sons of the Church and Biblical scholars to continue energetically, following the mind of the Church, with the work they have so well begun, with a constant renewal of vigor (Dei Verbum, VI.23).

The Magisterium is a teacher, not a tyrant — a guide and a guardian, to protect the believer from falling into error, as much as to protect the integrity of the faith and the unity of the Church. It is the final authority for the interpretation of passages of Scripture that are open to dispute, that might, and have, led to schism. But the Church does not arbitrarily and dictatorally make such magisterial judgments with the aim of shoring up its own doctrine, as White implies. Every decision of the Magisterium is made in consideration of exhaustive exegesis of Scripture and Tradition, and is made transparently. Read any document of the popes and councils and you will find it abounding with citations to Scripture, popes, councils, theologians, and the Fathers.

Sacred Tradition

What does the Church mean by “Tradition”? White seems to think it means “whatever the Church says it means.” He charges that the Church claims she alone is responsible for both defining what is “tradition” and for interpreting what it means; and that there is “no external means of checking [this] authority.” He seems to misunderstand the difference between tradition (little-t) and Tradition (big-T) — that is, Sacred Tradition. Tradition with a little-t is anything that is passed down from previous generations, whether it’s music, liturgy, art, habits, folk beliefs, and almost anything else. Little-t tradition holds no inherent authority. Sacred Tradition is the authoritative tradition that has been passed down from the Apostles and the Church’s Magisterium through the ages of the Church. It is visible, traceable, and transparent through the documents of the Church — and it is authoritative not just because the Magisterium says it is, but because it has actual authority.

Actual Authority

In discussions about the Apostolic Churches (Catholic and Orthodox), the word “authority” is thrown around a lot. Protestants, I’ve noticed, tend to assume this refers to the divine, infallible authority with which the Church was charged by Christ. But it doesn’t always. In considering the Church’s claims to authority, it is important to realize that the documents, Scripture, and Tradition on which these claims are based are not just authoritative because the Church says they are, but because they have actual authority.

White accuses the Church of basing its claim to authority on circular reasoning: that the Church claims authority because Scripture and Tradition give it authority, and that Scripture and Tradition have authority because the Church says they do. This charge fails to recognize the inherent, actual authority of these documents. This is analogous to the academic, historical use of the word “authority” — in fact, it’s through considering these documents as historical documents that we realize this actual authority.

Pretend for a moment that we know nothing about Jesus. The four Gospels can be conclusively and academically dated to within several decades of Jesus’s life and ministry. Based on their date alone, even regardless of any claims of divine inspiration or canonicity or even of their truth, the Gospels are authoritative historical documents attesting to what Jesus taught and to what the Early Church taught about him. This is actual authority, which these documents have inherently by nature of what they are, not authority that had to be declared or given to them externally. Likewise, the Epistles of Paul are authoritative historical documents to the teachings of the Apostle Paul and to the history, organization, and culture of the Early Church in each of the places to which he wrote.

The same goes for the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the first generation of Christian writers after the Apostles, including men like Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch, to early Christian apologists such as Justin Martyr, and to the works of the Church Fathers in every generation. These writings are authoritative historical documents in and of themselves. They reveal to us what the Church taught in specific locations at specific dates; they attest to the presence and prevalence of ideas and doctrines. Like all historical sources, of course, they are open to interpretation and historical criticism; but provided these documents are properly authenticated, their authority stands for itself.

This actual authority eliminates any possibility of “circular reasoning” in the Church’s claims to authority. The Church’s claims to authority are not based upon themselves, but are supported by the accumulated weight of documents that are authoritative in themselves. These documents, especially the writings of the Church Fathers, are also the foundation of the Church’s authoritative interpretations of Scripture: the Magisterium’s pronouncements about Scripture are not authoritative only because the Church says so, but because they rest on the actual authority of the Church Fathers, early councils, and learned exegetes and theologians.

So White’s charge that the Magisterium’s interpretation of Scripture ignores “what the actual text says” in favor of its “tradition” and “special empowerment” fundamentally misunderstands the purpose and function of the Magisterium. As the arbiter of Scripture and Tradition, the Magisterium considers all the accumulated evidence from Tradition and from its own learned scholars — not ignoring the text of Scripture, but rather making it paramount, as the excerpts above indicate. Tradition does not contradict or compete with Scripture in the Magisterium’s judgments: rather, it is a lamp for shedding light on Scripture and a lens for peering deeper into it. It is never a case of “Scripture versus Tradition,” but rather of “Scripture and Tradition” together forming a cogent whole. The actual authority of Tradition allows us to benefit from the insight into Scripture of the Early Church and Church Fathers, who received the authoritative tradition of the Apostles’ own teachings.

Ultimate Authority

White charges that Rome, as an “ultimate authority,” “cannot be examined by a higher standard because by definition none could possibly exist.” Once one accepts Rome as an authority, “testing of all claims must be suspended.” “Rome may condescend to offer a proof here or a supporting text there,” but how can this be meaningful evidence, he asks, when only Rome can interpret the evidence she offers? He is incorrect in the charge that one must stop testing Rome’s claims: every judgment and pronouncement of the Church is open and transparent to the examination of the believer. Rather than “a proof here or supporting text there,” the Magisterium meticulously and exhaustively documents the sources of its dogma, and publishes those very sources so that they are available for anyone, from the average lay believer to the highest scholastic theologian, to pursue them and study them. In this digital age, virtually all of these documents are available online.

White is correct, though, in the sense that the Church is the highest and final authority in matters of faith and doctrine, liturgy and practice, and interpretation of Scripture and Tradition. This authority is not founded only upon itself, as I have demonstrated above, but supported and attested to by actual, historical authority from the origins of Christianity. But the claim to ultimate authority is based even more significantly on what the Church is and claims to be: the one, holy, and apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ and the Apostles, invested with Christ’s own authority and guided by His promised Holy Spirit.

White charges that Rome’s adherents follow her blindly and idealistically into unscriptural, even unhistorical doctrines, directed only to “trust Rome” against all other contrary evidence. As I have demonstrated above, Rome never asks anyone to trust blindly, but always meticulously and carefully explains her reasoning and documents her sources, proving the truth of its judgments rather than simply claiming it. It is true, however, that Rome, our Lord’s Church, is the authority to which we as Catholic believers are called to submit. If we believe that the Church is who she says she is — and if we believe that Christ is who He says He is — then we choose to submit gladly.

A number of Scriptures — most notably Matthew 16:17–19, but also Matthew 18:18, John 20:22-23, John 16:13-15, Mark 16:15-18, Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8, and others — can only be interpreted be as Jesus explicitly granting authority to His Apostles. In Matthew 16:17-19, Jesus declared the foundation of His Church on the Apostle Peter, and invested Peter with the authority to “bind and loose” and the power of the “keys.” Historically and textually, the Gospel of Matthew originated in Judea and was neither written nor preserved nor canonized by partisans of the Church of Rome, but by the entire universal Church. If we as Christians believe the Bible at its Word, then we must believe that Jesus founded a Church, declared that it would stand against the gates of hell, invested it with His authority, and gave His Holy Spirit to guide it into all truth.

White charges that it is merely a “fallible” choice to follow the Church of Rome, no more certain than the decision to follow any other faith or sect. It is true that no one can be certain beyond rational doubt of the truth of Rome’s claims — but in the same way, no one can be certain beyond rational doubt that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, or any other truth we proclaim about Christianity. Faith in Christ is not “blind,” but supported by a wealth of testimonies, experiences, scientific, historical, and textual evidences — but in the end it is still accepted on faith, the gift of God’s grace. The claims of the Church of Rome, that it is the authoritative Church that Jesus founded, cannot be proven with absolute, scientific certainty, any more than the truth of Christ can. Rome’s authority must also, similarly, be taken on faith. But it is not a blind faith by any means. We know with a fair degree of certainty, both historical and archaeological, that Christ’s Apostles Peter and Paul were the foundation of the Church of Rome. Together with the historical evidence of the Gospels, the universal acknowledgement among early writers that Peter and Paul founded the Church, the Church Fathers’ deference to her authority, and the very fact that the Roman Church came to be preeminent, all attest to the truth of Rome’s claims.

What drew me to the Roman Catholic Church was her actual, historical authority, not her claims to infallible authority. My choice was a fallible one, it is true; I made it on faith; but I based my decision on the overwhelming weight of historical evidence. I accept Rome’s claims of infallible authority — I put my faith in the Church — not blindly or idealistically, but because all the evidence supports them.

The Church of Rome has a legitimate, historical, documentable claim to her origins and authority. Rather foolishly and provocatively, White claims that “the modern Roman Church is not the historical Roman Church.” Because she has changed and evolved over the centuries, and no longer resembles exactly the Church of the third, eighth, or eleventh centuries — because the early bishops of Rome would no longer recognize her as the Church they founded — she is not the same Church, says White. But by the same token, the Founding Fathers of the United States would no longer recognize the nation they founded. The modern Catholic Church is no less the Church that St. Peter founded than the modern United States is the nation that George Washington founded.

The Great Scandal

White also charges that believers choose to put their faith in the Catholic Church, or similarly the Orthodox Church — they choose to accept the claims of an infallible Church authority — because they fear taking “personal responsibility” for their faith and want a “higher authority” to do the work of interpreting Scripture for them, to make the hard decisions for them, to dictate their faith to them. Believers follow an authoritative Church because they desire the “infallible fuzzies,” “that comforting feeling of being ‘in’ with the ancient, unchanging, all-powerful, and infallible church.”

As I’ve written before, I wasn’t even looking for authority — or at least, I didn’t know that it was what I was missing — when I stumbled upon it and everything fell into place. Giving up personal responsibility was the last thing I was searching for — it was in fact my greatest fear about the Catholic Church. I neither desired nor expected the “infallible fuzzies” — and if I now have them, it’s only because Holy Mother Church is rightly sheltering me.

Rather, I was wandering to get away from the chaos and disorder of Protestantism — from the complete disarray and disagreement among Protestants about scriptural interpretation and doctrine; from the more than 50,000 distinct Protestant denominations and sects; from the intellectual inanity and emotionalism at one end, and the rigid, heartless dogmatism at the other. I blame all of this disorder on the very Reformation and its doctrines — on the Reformers’ severing of Christianity from any form of Authority or Tradition — most of all on sola scriptura.

Sola scriptura, a well-meaning doctrine that aims to set up Scripture itself as the ultimate authority, ultimately results in the setting up of each individual believer as his own ultimate authority. White admits as much. For it is each believer’s individual, personal responsibility to interpret Scripture for himself or herself, to arrive at correct doctrine, and make his own decisions about his faith. By the “individual priesthood of the believer,”* White declares, every believer is personally responsible for his own faith. “God holds us individually responsible for what we believe and why we believe it.” This, to White, is the “Great Scandal” of the Reformation.

* I’m not the Reformation scholar yet that I should be, but is White not grossly misinterpreting the doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” — that is, the idea that all believers together are a priesthood, not each individual believer his own priest?

Of course God holds us personally responsible for our own decisions about our faith and beliefs. But that does not excuse us from submitting to the authorities that Christ established. In the Early Church, rejecting the authority and tradition of the Church to follow one’s own choices regarding belief was called heresy (αἵρεσις [hairesis], from αἱρέω, to choose for oneself). It is only by charity and a desire for reconciliation that most of us have stopped using that term of each other.

A little ironically, White steps back a moment to emphasize that this doctrine does not eliminate the need for the Church, and “does not do away with the biblically based authority of elders.” He seems to be selectively ignoring the biblically-based authority of bishops (ἐπίσκοποι) (1 Timothy 3:1-7). He declares that believers are to submit to the elders of the Church, and hold firm to the Apostles’ doctrines. So, believers are to submit to the authority of elders (πρεσβύτεροι, or presbyters — the origin of our priests) — but not a hierarchical, authoritative Church?

Sola Scriptura

In light of this “Great Scandal” — which to me, seems every bit as scandalous as White means it to be ironic — White attempts a defense of sola scriptura and the private interpretation of Scripture. He establishes that we are rational, but fallible and limited creatures, and that God entrusted to us His inspired Word in the Scriptures — and then hits the point of individual authority. “Do you really think God is shocked that human beings end up disagreeing over what His Scriptures teach?” he asks. “No, not for a moment.”

But this view seems immediately contrary to the God revealed in the very Scriptures He gave. All throughout salvation history, God installed His authority in the lives of His people, to instruct them and guide them. In the Old Testament, there was the Law of Moses; after Moses and Joshua, there were judges; then there were kings and prophets. Always there was God’s authoritative voice and leadership in the midst of His people. Then in the New Testament, God Himself came down to teach and shepherd His people, to establish a New Covenant and to enact the Gospel. And then, He left them with — a book? Open for each individual believer to interpret? With no other guidance or authority? That seems rather anti-climactic. No, Jesus never mentioned anything about a book; the Gospels do not anticipate the New Testament or a sola scriptura dependence on Scripture, let alone the individual interpretation of it. Jesus does establish a Church in the Gospels, and promise that the Holy Spirit would guide it into all truth (John 16:13).

In fact, none of Scripture was written or directed to the individual believer. Every book of the Old Testament was intended for the entire people of Israel. The books of the New Testament were meant for the whole Church (the Gospels and Catholic Epistles), for local churches (most of the Pauline Epistles), or for specific individuals (the Pastoral Epistles). When Paul addresses the collective Church, he uses the plural; he does not anticipate individual believers interpreting Scripture on their own or being their own authority.

What is more, in the Early Church, and even up until the modern age, the individual believer couldn’t read and interpret Scripture for himself. Until fairly recently, the vast majority of people were illiterate. This is not even to mention the great time and expense involved in copying the Scriptures: Very few individual believers even had private access to the Scriptures until the printing press. The Scriptures were the domain of the local church: only an entire church body could afford a copy of the Scriptures. Only in the Church could the lay believer hear the Scriptures read publicly, or could a knowledgeable teacher instruct him in their meaning. This is exactly analogous to the Jewish tradition from which Christianity descended: only in the synagogue could faithful Jews hear and be instructed in the Scriptures. When Paul wrote to Timothy and instructed him to devote himself to the Scriptures, it was to the public reading of Scriptures, and to publicly teaching them to other believers (1 Timothy 4:13), not to private study and personal interpretation; Timothy certainly didn’t have his own private copy. There was never any thought of the private ownership, readership, or interpretation of the Scriptures among the lay faithful until the days of Wycliffe and Luther and Tyndale. In the Early Church, the “priesthood of the individual believer” was not a practical possibility.

This demands the question: Would Jesus grant to His Church as its sole authority a Book of Scriptures that few could read and fewer could afford to own? That wasn’t even all written until thirty to fifty years after His Ascension? That didn’t even exist as a canon until a century or two later? Did Christ expect individual believers to take “personal responsibility” for the interpretation of Scripture for the fifteen or sixteen centuries when they had no private access to it, and when there was no reasonable expectation that they would? Did He simply abandon the majority of His faithful to be sore out-of-luck until the glorious day of the Reformers? No, this does not sound like the Jesus I know. Scripture attests that Jesus established a Church and invested it with authority to teach and guide believers, to corporately be His Body and His Bride; not to foster individualism and private interpretation of Scripture and doctrine.