Category Archives: Apologetics

Sola Fide & false idols


-by Br Ephrem Reese, OP

“When people speak of “faith alone,” it’s often taken for granted that faith is opposed to works. But the Council of Trent has dealt with this false dichotomy:

“Faith, unless hope and charity be added to it, neither unites man perfectly with Christ nor makes him a living member of His body. For which reason it is most truly said that faith without works is dead and of no profit, and in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but faith that worketh by charity. (From the Decree concerning Justification, chapter VII).”

So that opposition, faith versus works, is false. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect?” (James 2:21-22).

How about a new conception of sola fide? Think, instead, this way: faith is opposed to idolatry. If we want to speak about “faith alone,” I suggest that we look to Abraham, the “father of faith.” While not directly addressing the “traditional” dispute about faith versus works, I think this may in fact reveal a deeper understanding in Scripture and the tradition.

Abraham’s father Terah, says a Jewish commentary on Genesis, made idols for a living. Sometimes he had to leave the boy Abraham in charge of the shop. Abraham would embarrass old men who came in to buy idols: “You are fifty years old and worship a one-day-old statue!”

Even better, though: when a woman came in to make an offering to the idols, Abraham took a club and smashed all of the idols but the biggest one, then put the club in its hands. He told Terah that they were fighting over who would eat the offering, and that the biggest one destroyed the rest. The real point, the rabbinic telling implies, is that Terah would have to admit that the idols were stupid and powerless, if he wanted to blame the iconoclasm on Abraham.

Idolatry is not just a Jewish concern—in the New Testament, “idol” and related words occur at least 33 times. Although this continues the Old Testament tradition, some new aspects appear. For example, idolatry is not just foolish and immoral, it also conceals demonic powers. This helps to explain some of the sexual immorality that was very clearly connected with, even institutionalized in, traditional cults.

Faithlessness in the invisible God leads directly to worship of what is more available, what is right in front of us, even if it’s a powerless piece of wood. Falling for the one who is there, rather than the One we truly love—you can see why the Bible compares idolatry to adultery (see Wisdom 14:12).

We believe in, even testify to, a God we do not see. It is necessary to turn away from what we see all around us (ahem, screens). “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God”—this is the basic description of conversion of which St. Paul reminds the Thessalonians (1 Thess 1:9). When Paul went to Athens, the great scientific seedbed of geometry, philosophy, and democracy, “he was distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16). His speech to the Athenians puts him squarely in the prophetic tradition of Israel: God made everything, and left His traces; He wants you to seek Him; do not be distracted by the shiny things that people put before you. Finally, there will be a judgment for those who live not by faith in what is unseen but by settling for what is “made by human design and skill” (cf. 17:24-31).

The great literary critic Northrop Frye noticed that the Jewish and Christian idea of revelation as something heard but not seen has a destructive dynamic. It crushes the tyranny of the visible. “The Word not only causes all images of gods to shrivel into nothingness, but continues to operate in society as an iconoclastic force…demolishing everything to which man is tempted to offer false homage.” Abraham knew about that. As Jesus says mysteriously, Abraham saw His(Jesus’) day, and rejoiced (Jn 8:56).

We don’t see many actual idols now. But if we look around, it’s not hard to see that people are sunk, bowed down, brought to their knees, in worship of what is seen. Abraham, dutiful son, was considerate enough to discreetly destroy the local idols. Faith cast out of him any fear of the powers of this world. For his faith, God made a promise to Abraham, freeing him “to worship Him without fear all the days of his life” (Luke 1:73-75).”

Love, faith, & hope,
Matthew

Sola Scriptura


-by Br Peter Gautsch, OP

“There’s a friar I’ve known for some time now who prays frequently for the unity of the Church, a matter which is clearly very close to his heart. I’ve often been moved by this. After all, St. Augustine says in his Rule that we are to be “of one heart and one mind, in God.” He was speaking about peaceableness among religious, but it’s also true in the broader realm of faith: our many hearts and minds, in all their happy diversity, should be as one in God, one in faith.

Which brings us to sola Scriptura.

What is it? In its strictest form, it’s the Protestant doctrine that Scripture is the only source and norm of Christian faith: “Scripture alone” has authority in matters of faith. In another form, both less fideistic and less true to its name, it’s the doctrine that Scripture is the final source and norm of Christian faith: there are other valid authorities, sure, but Scripture, and nothing else, tests and judges them.

But sola Scriptura has many problems, to put it mildly. One of them is that at least one of its inescapable consequences is directly opposed to what Scripture—and in this case, Jesus himself—exhorts: “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be perfectly one” (Jn 17:22–23).

This prayer of our Lord, of course, has little to do with revelation itself and still less with where authority in matters of faith comes from. But it’s important to consider, because ultimately the doctrine of sola Scriptura necessarily excludes this unity that our Lord prayed for. This is because Scripture often doesn’t tell us how it ought to be interpreted, and, human nature being what it is, different people tend to arrive at incompatible interpretations which can’t all be true. The first form of sola Scriptura I mentioned above doesn’t appear to have anything like an adequate answer for this problem of multiple, personal interpretations. And the second form says that when there’s a conflict, we can consult other authorities, so long as Scripture has the final word. But even this only goes so far: some persons may accept the guidance of certain authorities, but other persons may reject them “on scriptural grounds.” So the problem persists, and sola Scriptura offers no real solution.

Now Sacred Scripture is the word of God in written form—on this all Christians agree. But as Catholics, we have a yet broader notion of revelation: in addition to revealing himself in the inspired books of Scripture, God also revealed Himself in his word of truth entrusted to the apostles and handed on by them to their successors throughout history, even to the present day—this is what we call Tradition (which is itself described in Scripture: e.g., Mt 28:18–20, Mk 3:13–19, Mk 16:15, Acts 2:42, Acts 10:34–43, 1 Cor 15:1–11, 2 Thess 2:15, 2 Tim 2:1–2, 2 Pt 1:19–21). Hence we always read Sacred Scripture in light of Tradition, and we read Tradition in light of Scripture. Scripture and Tradition, together, are the supreme rule of the Church’s faith—not just Scripture alone, in isolation—because they’re two modes of the one sacred deposit of the word of God that has been entrusted to the Church. Not only that, but Scripture and Tradition both show us that Christ, in instituting the apostles as the foundation stones of the Church (Eph 2:19–20, Rev 21:14) and giving them authority to teach in His name, instituted an authoritative interpreter of divine revelation. This is what we call the Magisterium, the living teaching office of the Church.

So what about that problem of interpretation? How do we deal with incompatible individual interpretations of Scripture? If it’s true that “God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), then sola Scriptura can’t be true, because it doesn’t give us the tools to arrive—together, in unity—at that knowledge of the truth. Simply put, the Catholic Church’s more robust doctrine of divine revelation is the only way. Sometimes the full meaning of a passage of Sacred Scripture just isn’t apparent to us. Thankfully, God reveals Himself also in Tradition and has given the Magisterium authority to authentically interpret divine revelation, whether in written form (Scripture) or handed on verbally (Tradition). Of course, the idea here isn’t that we should approach the Bible like automatons, mindlessly complying with arbitrary directives from a distant, unseen authority—we should read Scripture and interpret it and hear God speaking to us through it! But we don’t have to go it alone: instead, keeping in mind the unity and coherence of the whole of Scripture and the unity and coherence of the truths of the faith, we look to Tradition (e.g., what the Fathers of the Church or the liturgy teach us about a passage of Scripture) and to the Magisterium (e.g., whether the Church has given an authoritative, authentic interpretation of a passage of Scripture), and we shape our reading accordingly. We can know what Scripture means because God Himself tells us—but He tells us not only in Scripture itself but also in Tradition and through the Magisterium. Each of the three needs the other two.

But sola Scriptura protests. When Tradition and the Magisterium are invited to the discussion to help our understanding, sola Scriptura stands in the door, blocking their entrance. As a result, individual interpretation carries the day. And individual interpreters, with no authoritative guide other than Scripture itself, remain at odds with one another. And unity of belief is still not realized.

Ecumenical dialogue often points out the important affirmations of faith that Catholics and Protestants share, and rightly so: we should rejoice that we believe together that Jesus Christ truly is the Lord, the incarnate Son of God; that by baptism we truly do become adopted children of God; that Sacred Scripture truly is the inspired word of God, set down in writing for the sake of our salvation; and so on. But we simply must recognize the disunity in our beliefs as well, because unless we recognize our disunity, we can’t pray for the unity that Christ Himself prayed for.

This real disunity that sadly exists between Catholics and our Protestant brothers and sisters (not to mention the disunity that exists between the various Protestant denominations) is in large part the fruit of sola Scriptura. We simply can’t be of one heart and one mind in God, truly, if we don’t believe the same things about God and His revelation of Himself to us. In revealing Himself and His plan for our salvation, “the invisible God out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself” (Dei Verbum 2). Christ’s prayer that we may be perfectly one shows us that He also wants us to have fellowship, unity, with one another—one heart and one mind, in God—as Scripture elsewhere instructs: “all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind” (1 Pt 3:8).”

Love & unity,
Matthew

Solus Christus


-by Br Hyacinth Grubb, OP

“Salvation is found in Christ alone,” asserts the final Sola of the Protestant Reformation, Solus Christus. Of course, salvation is found in Christ, and the Catholic Church has unceasingly taught just that. You need to look no farther than the Council of Trent and its Decree on Justification, the Church’s response to Protestantism, which includes this succinct and forceful affirmation:

If any one saith that men are just without the justice of Christ, whereby He merited for us to be justified;… let him be anathema. (Canon X)

So what is the Protestant claim of Solus Christus? Like the other Solae, it affirms something true and important, but at the same time it denies an important truth of Catholic doctrine. It denies the efficacy of the human mediation of Christ’s grace and salvation, especially the mediation of a priest in the sacraments. “Christ is the true and only mediator between God and man,” it insists, and thus it asserts that any human claim to mediation can only be superstitious or idolatrous.

Solus Christus is not without scriptural support. Jesus Himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). St. Paul wrote that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). Throughout the New Testament, it is clear that salvation comes from Christ, Who became man in order to bring us to God; He is the one true mediator. The Protestant teaching of Solus Christus strongly affirms this by denying the possibility of any human action that can bring grace or salvation.

However, a more thorough exploration of Sacred Scripture reveals an image of mediation that is richer and more complex than the simple Solus Christus. For instance, preaching and giving testimony are themselves kinds of mediation by which salvation is brought to men: “For, ‘everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of Whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:13-15). St. Paul describes preaching as the link connecting and mediating between the God who sends preachers and those who will call upon the name of the Lord and be saved.

Likewise, prayer is a mediation, as we stand as intercessors before God on the behalf of other men and women. “If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life” (1 Jn 5:16). And again: “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (Jam 5:16).

Most notably, Christ Himself appointed men to be mediators of His salvation and grace in a particular and special way through the sacraments. “He took bread, and when He had given thanks He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me’” (Luke 22:19). Christ gave His apostles a command and a power: to celebrate the Eucharist established at the Last Supper. On another occasion, He gave His apostles a different command and power, saying to them, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). And finally, he gave them the Great Commission, to go and bring all peoples to Him in the sacrament of Baptism (see Matt 28:18-20).

And even in St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, in which he writes that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” we find evidence of other mediation in the same chapter. St. Paul commands “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men” (1 Tim 2:1). So, some men are acting as intercessors and mediators in prayer for “all men.” Moreover, Paul identifies himself as “appointed a preacher and apostle,” as one who mediates the word of God in proclamation and testimony, and as one who mediates the salvation and forgiveness of God in the sacraments.

Thus it becomes evident that the interpretation of Solus Christus as denying the possibility of human mediation isn’t in accord with the whole of Scripture. Yet how are we to make sense of the claim that “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus”? It is without doubt true that no merely human work could ever hope to reach God and thus mediate between the human and the divine. But how is it possible to resolve this apparent tension found within Sacred Scripture, which seems to simultaneously appoint men as mediators and to assert the absolute uniqueness of Christ as mediator?

What is necessary is a more robust understanding of the Body of Christ. Christians are not members of the Body in the same way that citizens are members of the body politic, which is extrinsic and legal. No, Christians are members of the Body of Christ in a much deeper and more intimate manner. Grace is a participation in the divine life; it is deeply transformative of the soul as Christians are configured to Christ. Recall the parable of the vine and the branches; it is not simply a pious metaphor. We are truly grafted onto Christ and the sap of the true vine flows through every aspect of our lives. Our life becomes His, “for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). And therefore the fruit that we the branches bear is, in a real sense, the fruit that Christ the vine bears.

An appreciation for the depth and intimacy of participation in the Body of Christ resolves the apparent tension within Sacred Scripture between the many examples of mediation and the truth that there is “one mediator.” When a Christian preaches the Gospel, it is Christ’s preaching, for the individual participates in Christ’s mediation of the Good News to the world. When a Christian prays, it is Christ’s prayer to the Father, for the individual participates in the mediation of grace to the world. When a priest offers the Mass or absolves in confession, he is acting in persona Christi – in the person of Christ – making present the one sacrifice and mediation of Christ our high priest.

By preaching, by prayer, by his appointed priests and sacraments, Christ acts through the members of His body, whose participation in His life has configured them to Him at the deepest levels of their being. Yes, Christ is the one true mediator. As St. John Paul II wrote, “No one, therefore, can enter into communion with God except through Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s one, universal mediation, far from being an obstacle on the journey toward God, is the way established by God Himself” (Redemptoris Missio 5). At the same time, all the baptized, and in a particularly profound way priests, are members of His body, and by virtue of their participation in the divine life of Christ, they participate in His mediation as mediators themselves. Through their actions, may the whole world be brought to the truth and the life that is Jesus Christ.”

Love,
Matthew

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

“After presenting positive proofs for the Assumption of Mary, one always has to be ready for the biblical and historical arguments often used against it. Here is one common objection and how to answer it.

Objection: No one has ascended to heaven.

No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man (John 3:13).

This text is usually cited by the Christian or quasi-Christian sects that deny the natural immortality of the soul, e.g., Seventh-day Adventists, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Iglesia Ni Cristo; however, some Fundamentalists use it, too. Here St. John was writing at a time likely long after Mary had ended her earthly life. So if he said that “no one has ascended into heaven,” the argument goes, that would include Mary.

There are at least four reasons why this text does not contradict the Assumption of Mary:

1. John was quoting words our Lord had spoken around A.D. 30. At that time Mary was still alive on earth.

2. Jesus could not have been saying that no one will ever be taken into heaven except him. If that’s the case, then what’s all this Christianity stuff about? You know, heaven and all?

3. One could also interpret John 3:13 as referring to Christ’s unique Ascension to heaven. The key here would be the word ascended. Mary did not ascend;she was assumed. Jesus ascended by his own divine power as he prophesied he would be in John 2:19–21: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up . . . he spoke of the temple of his body.” Mary was powerless to raise herself; she had to be assumed into heaven.In a similar way, all of the elect will be assumed into heaven, so to speak,at the time of the resurrection of the body, as opposed to Christ, who alone ascended into heaven.

4. There are a couple of nuances in this text that many miss. According to St. Irenaeus in the second century John wrote his Gospel with an emphasis on demonstrating the errors of the fathers of Gnosticism and the heresiarch Cerinthusin in particular, who—among his many errors—denied the divinity of Christ. Thus, in quoting these word from Jesus he intended to demonstrate that “the Son of man descended” from heaven as the “only begotten Son,” a divine person, sharing his Father’s nature.In other words “the Son of man” is the same person who was eternally with the Father in heaven and who descended to the earth in the Incarnation.

Moreover, his point was that even while Christ walked the earth with his disciples in Galilee he was in possession of heaven, experiencing the beatific vision, as true God and true man.

His human body would not be glorified until after the Resurrection, but, according to John, Christ could already “see” the Father while on earth. Thus, while we human beings must “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7), Christ did not have “faith;” he had the “sight” of God that brings about “knowledge.” Thus, Pope Pius XII would declare:

For hardly was [Christ] conceived in the womb of the Mother of God, when he began to enjoy the Beatific Vision.

Consequently, Jesus, in his human nature, had already “ascended into” or possessed heaven—the beatific vision being the essence of what heaven is—even from his mother’s womb. Because he was and is both God and man, he could say that he had already “ascended” to heaven precisely because as God “he” had brought about this great mystery by his own power. Our Lord’s words, and therefore, it was purely spiritual, not material. “And therefore to indicate that he is said to have come down in this way, because he assumed a [human] nature, he said, the Son of man came down, i.e., insofar as he become Son of man” in the Incarnation.”

“O Immaculate Virgin, Mother of God and Mother of men, we believe with all the fervor of our faith in your triumphal Assumption, both body and soul, into heaven, where you are acclaimed as Queen by all the choirs of angels and all the legions of the saints. And we unite with them to praise and bless the Lord who has exalted you above all other pure creatures, and to offer you the tribute of our devotion and our love.

“We know that your gaze, which on earth watched over the humble and suffering humanity of Jesus, in heaven is filled with the vision of that humanity glorified, and with the vision of uncreated Wisdom; the joy of your soul in the direct contemplation of the adorable Trinity causes your heart to throb with overwhelming tenderness. We, poor sinners, weighed down by a body which hinders the flight of the soul, beg you to purify our hearts, so that while we remain here below, we may learn to love God and God alone in the beauty of His creatures.

“We trust that your merciful eyes may deign to look down upon our miseries and our sorrows, upon our struggles and our weaknesses; that your countenance may smile upon our joys and our victories; that you may hear the voice of Jesus saying to you of each one of us, as He once said to you of His beloved disciple: ‘Behold thy son.’ And we, who call upon you as our Mother, take you, like John, as the guide, strength, and consolation of our mortal life.

“And from this earth over which we tread as pilgrims, comforted by our faith in the future resurrection, we look to you, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. Draw us onward by the gentleness of your voice, so that one day, after our exile, you may show us Jesus, the Blessed Fruit of your womb, O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary” (-Venerable Pope Pius XII).

Love,
Matthew

The Fullness of Grace


-by Br John Paul Kern, OP

“Do Catholics and Protestants both believe that we are saved by God’s grace?

Yes! And today many Christians are realizing that this is an essential point of Christian unity.

In 1999, the Catholic Church and Lutheran leaders signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, proclaiming together that “all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation” (JDDF, 19).

In 2006, Methodist leaders affirmed that this statement “corresponds to Methodist doctrine.” This summer, on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, leaders of the Reformed communities also accepted this common explanation of justification by grace.

What does this groundbreaking agreement between the Catholic Church and Protestant leaders mean?

After many years of harsh rhetoric and, often, misunderstandings, the Catholic Church and several large Protestant communities have been able to acknowledge together, publicly, that we both believe that Christians are saved by grace. Acknowledging such common ground is an important step toward a fuller Christian unity.

However, many Protestants remain skeptical that the Catholic Church affirms the priority of God’s grace in man’s justification, which Luther called the “first and chief article” of Christian faith (Smalcald Articles, II.1). Additionally, the Joint Declaration itself openly acknowledges and describes differences in the way that Catholics and Protestants understand how we are saved by grace.

Unfortunately, many Catholics and Protestants alike are unfamiliar with both the Catholic doctrine of justification by grace and the teachings of the Protestant Reformers. Therefore, let us explore what we share in common as well as where we differ regarding “the Gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24), to better appreciate this beautiful, saving truth in its fullness.

Common Ground: The Primacy of God’s Grace in Man’s Salvation

God, Who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)… For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. (Eph 2:4–5, 8–9)

St. Paul knew from his own conversion that salvation in Jesus Christ comes through God’s gift of grace. Therefore, he strongly emphasized this central Gospel truth throughout his writings.

Having also undergone a radical conversion by God’s grace, St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) famously rejected the error of Pelagius, who claimed man could save himself apart from grace.

The Catholic Church later employed St. Augustine’s teachings to refute “semi-Pelagianism”—the claim that man can earn the grace of justification by his own efforts—at the Second Council of Orange (529), and she continues to honor St. Augustine as the Doctor Gratiae (Teacher of Grace).

A thousand years later, Protestant theologians in the 16th century articulated their doctrine of justification sola gratia (by grace alone), which also emphasized the priority of grace.

When the Catholic Church promulgated her official response at the Ecumenical Council of Trent (1546–1563), she strongly reaffirmed the primacy of God’s grace. Once again, she explicitly rejected Pelagianism—the claim “that man may be justified before God by his own works… without the grace of God”—and Semi-Pelagianism.

Thus, the Catholic Church in the 16th century authoritatively agreed with the Protestant Reformers regarding the priority of grace in salvation. However, she was concerned that the Protestant doctrine of sola gratia greatly reduced the scope and power of the grace of justification by emphasizing God’s forgiveness apart from the effects of grace on man.

Therefore, the Catholic Church emphasized, and continues to emphasize, that God’s grace of justification cannot be understood in its fullness apart from:

  1. the role of grace in God’s entire plan for mankind;
  2. a radical transformation, renewal, and rebirth of the human person; and
  3. God’s elevation of man to partake of the divine nature and participate in divine life.

1. Grace is a Fundamental Part of God’s Entire Plan for Humanity

For Protestant Reformers, such as Luther, the central question was justification: how can a sinful person be justified before God? This is extremely important. However, a singular emphasis on this question often leads Protestants to view grace solely through the lens of “solving the problem” of justification.

Catholics, on the other hand, understand God’s grace not only as a merciful response to man’s miserable, fallen state after sin but also as a generous gift that God freely and lovingly chose to bestow upon Adam and Eve from the moment of their creation. The Catholic faith teaches that God created man in a state of grace, which allowed him to enjoy an intimate friendship with God, knowing and loving God in a way that would not have been possible without God’s grace.

After the sinful Fall, God’s grace restores man to a state of friendship with God and grants the forgiveness of sin. The Catholic Church teaches that God’s prevenient (prior) grace prepares, disposes, and moves man to freely receive the grace of justification, which communicates to man the righteousness of Christ. From beginning to end, it is grace that saves.

Starting at the moment of justification, Christian life is animated by sanctifying grace, which allows Christians to grow in holiness throughout their lives. Sanctifying grace includes the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, the heart of the Christian life (1 Cor 13:13), and the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Isa 11:2). Christians who follow the Holy Spirit through the gifts enjoy the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23), the highest of which are the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3–12).

Finally, the life of grace reaches its full fruition in the glory of heaven. It is not by man’s natural powers that he is capable of beholding the beatific vision of God but only by God’s gift of the light of glory, which is also a grace.

2. God’s Grace Has the Power to Actually Transform a Human Person

According to the Protestant Reformers, justification by grace is extrinsic to man. That is, justification describes man’s standing before God, in a sort of legal fashion, rather than the actual state of man himself. According to Luther, for example, man is justified when God graciously looks at Christ’s merit, which covers but does not destroy man’s sin, and imputes (credits) to us the “alien righteousness” of Christ, declaring us righteous by a judicial act though we remain sinners in reality. Thus, grace is simply the “undeserved favor” of God’s merciful judgment, which renders us “not guilty.”

In contrast, the Catholic faith teaches that while the wounds due to original sin still affect Christians, the grace of justification does not merely cover sin but destroys it, regenerates man to spiritual life (Jn 3:3; Titus 3:4-7), and restores his friendship with God.

Scripture recounts Jesus forgiving sins (Mk 2:1-12), casting out evil (Lk 11:14), healing (Mt 8:1-4), and raising people from the dead (Jn 11:40-44), all of which serve as powerful images for what God accomplishes in the human soul through the grace of justification.

God’s declarations match reality. God spoke the universe into being by saying, “let there be…” (Gen 1). Similarly, when God declares a person to be just and righteous, he simultaneously and actually makes that person just and righteous by the power of his grace, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

The grace of justification communicates the righteousness of Christ to man and has the power to actually transform man into the image of Christ (Rom 8:29). The Christian is reborn to a new life of grace infused by the Holy Spirit and is given a new heart (Ez 36:26–28), a new mind (1 Cor 2:16), and a new “nature” in Christ (Eph 4:22–24).

St. Paul explains, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). Thus, Christians transformed by grace have “put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col 3:9–10).

Therefore, “justification… is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man [2 Cor 4:16] through the voluntary reception of the grace… whereby man who was unjust becomes just [Rom 3:23-24], and who was an enemy becomes a friend [Jn 15:15], so that he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting” (Trent, Decree on Justification, Ch. 7).

God justifies a person by an infusion of grace, which brings about a transformation of the soul from a state of sin and injustice to a state of grace, justice, and righteousness. This conversion includes a movement of the intellect toward God in faith and a movement of the will to love God and to hate sin, and it simultaneously results in the forgiveness of sin (Summa Theologica I-II, q. 113, a. 6).

Thus, in his work of justification, God’s undeserved favor actively bestows upon us the gift of grace, which has the power to actually transform us and make us righteous with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

3. By Grace We Partake of the Divine Nature and Participate in Divine Life

The Protestant Reformers also do not emphasize what is, perhaps, the most amazing thing about grace: that God’s grace elevates Christians to share in God’s Trinitarian life of love. Luther asserted that even “the just sin in every good work” (Denzinger, 771), and “every work of the just is worthy of damnation… if it be considered as it really is” (Möhler, “Symbolik,” 22). For Calvin, even Christian acts of charity “are always defiled by impurity” (Institutes, III, 18, 5).

In contrast, St. Peter wrote, “his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness… that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:3–4).

From the very beginning, “God… freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life” (CCC 1). That is, God created us to partake, by grace, in his own divine nature and to share in the divine life of Trinitarian love (1 Jn 4:7-16)—a life that is far above and beyond what is possible by human nature alone.

Even after original sin, God’s grace restores us from spiritual death to new life in Christ (Rom 6:4). Grace allows us to share in God’s own Trinitarian life as “adopted sons” in the Son (Gal 4:4–6) and as “children of God” (Jn 1:12–13) so that through, with, and in Jesus Christ, by the indwelling and power of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), we may call God “Our Father” (Mt 6:9).

By grace, we are truly united to Christ as his members (1 Cor 12:12–27), and the life of the divine vine runs through us as branches (Jn 15:1–11), so that with St. Paul we may proclaim that it is now “Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). As God’s children in Christ, we cooperate with God’s grace to bear the spiritual fruit of good works (Jn 15:16–17; Eph 2:10), which glorify God.

This supernatural life of grace, which begins on earth, blossoms into the life of glory in heaven. There, the gift of faith will be transformed into sight as we behold God face-to-face (1 Cor 13:12). Our hope will be fulfilled as we possess God, our eternal inheritance and reward, celebrating the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-9). Yet love, the core of the Christian life, will continue, perfected, in heaven as we experience the fullness of joy praising God for all eternity (1 Cor 13:8). Thus, the life of grace will be crowned and fulfilled in eternal life.

By grace, even now, we can share in God’s life of love and, in imitation of Jesus Christ, perform the works of our Father (Jn 4:34). Let us cry out “Abba! Father!” in praise of him whose merciful love offers us, by the saving work of his Son, through the Holy Spirit, this amazing gift of grace!”

Love, & always begging for His grace,
Matthew

Atheism

Getting Rid of Bad Attitudes

Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, once said, “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.” It’s hard to honestly face criticism, but it’s the only way we can grow as human beings, since we are notoriously good at deceiving ourselves about our own competence and knowledge.

That is why I hope theists will consider shedding attitudes we might unknowingly possess that can hinder productive dialogue.

Let’s start with three bad attitudes people who believe in God sometimes exhibit.

Bad Theistic Attitude #1: “No rational person can be an atheist! Do you think we just came from monkeys or something?”

In his book Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) writes, “Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the non-believer is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world which he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole.”

Theists do their cause a great disservice by ridiculing atheists or saying that it is obvious atheism is false. If atheism were simply irrational, then why would believers have to guard against being “drowned” by unbelief? Likewise, atheists should know that many people have wrestled and struggled with the question of God’s ex- istence before they converted to religious faith. Both sides should accept each other’s doubts and journey toward the truth together in a spirit of mutual humility.

In regard to the theory of evolution, atheists will probably find an origin from monkeys to be more likely than an origin from God—because at least we have seen monkeys and know they exist. Even if a theist doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution, if he can create a case for God’s existence that does not come across as anti-science, most atheists will find that position to be more reasonable.

Indeed, scientific ignorance—real or perceived—only reinforces the negative stereotypes that atheists have about Christians. St. Augustine worried about this kind of attitude in the fourth century when he wrote:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world. . . . Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation.

There’s no need to insult someone’s intelligence just because he does not believe in God. In a debate at Cambridge University on the subject “Is God a Delusion?”,William Lane Craig said,

“[Atheists] recognize that the existence of God is a difficult question on which rational opinion can vary. Peter and I haven’t indicted our opponents tonight as being deluded. We think they’re mistaken, but we wouldn’t say they’re deluded. Why can’t they return the favor? People can disagree without calling each other names.”

Sensible atheists also have this agreeable attitude. Scott Aiken and Robert Talisse write in their book Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief:

“We think that religious beliefs are false and that religious believers are mistaken in their religious beliefs. We do not “respect” religious beliefs. We do, however, respect religious believers. We hold that religious believers can be intelligent, rational, and responsible, despite the falsity of their religious beliefs; in short, we hold that religious believers can be reasonable.”

Bad Theistic Attitude #2: “Atheists are immoral.”

Once when I was taking questions from an audience after one of my presentations, a gentleman asked me, “Why would anyone ever be an atheist? Don’t they know that Hitler and Stalin were atheists?” I told this man that saying someone is like Hitler usually starts a conversation off on the wrong foot, but there was an even more fundamental problem with this attitude. Whether Hitler was an atheist is unclear, but even if he was, so what? Maybe Hitler liked kittens and sunsets, too, but that doesn’t make those things evil by association. The immoral, even heinous, lives of some atheists do not invalidate the truth of atheism any more than the lives of immoral Christians invalidate theism. Any religion or belief system can have immoral people who hold to it. This does nothing to prove whether its beliefs are true or false.

Some theists say that if God does not exist, then what reasons would an atheist have to be good, since there is no life beyond the grave? But atheists have many practical reasons to be moral and would be offended by the idea that they are, as a whole, not morally good people. An atheist might cite her desire to make the human community more stable, or her need to follow her own conscience, or her belief in a principle like the Golden Rule as a reason to be moral. In any case, the real question we should ask is not why individual atheists would be moral, but why objective moral truths exist if God does not.

Bad Theistic Attitude #3: Failing to empathize with atheists

In her 2012 book Why Are You Atheists So Angry?, Greta Christina catalogues nearly 100 grievances atheists have against the followers of various religions. Christina’s complaints can be grouped under a few common themes:

-Atheists are compelled by the state to endorse or practice religion against their will (such as being forced to participate in public prayer).

-The state endorses a particular set of religious beliefs (like the teaching of creationism in public schools or prohibitions on marriage between people of the same sex).

-Religious people have ridiculous beliefs that cause them to hurt or dehumanize other people through acts like medical malpractice, bullying, social rejection, and even murder.

-Religious people believe things for stupid reasons.

In one example, Christina writes,“I’m angry at preachers who tell women in their flock to submit to their husbands because it’s the will of God, even when their husbands are beating them within an inch of their lives.”

Some theists will reply defensively that such examples don’t reflect their religion, or that their religion is being misrepresented as being unreasonable. But sometimes atheists don’t want to know if your religion is reasonable.

Sometimes they just want to know if you are reasonable. Aren’t you at least angry at Christians who use religion as an excuse to bully children? Wouldn’t you agree that laws related to marriage or abortion should be based on reason and not religion? Isn’t it okay to be angry when religious hypocrites hurt others? If atheists think theists are just “out to get them” and aren’t concerned by these injustices like they are, then there can be little hope for theistic beliefs to get a fair hearing among non-believers.

Likewise, atheists should realize that although theists and Christians are a majority in the United States, there are many particular places where they are the minority and can be pushed around. According to the Social Science Research Council, while only about one in five people think the Bible is a book of fables and myths, nearly three out of four professors at elite universities hold that view.

Instead of bullying, both sides of this debate should protect each other’s right to discuss and disagree without the fear of violence or persecution.”

Love,
Matthew

Why we’re Catholic

Q. What was your motivation for writing this book?

A. I can’t count the number of time someone has asked me to recommend a book to give to a Catholic family member or friend who has left the Faith or to a non-Catholic who has questions about the Faith. When I discovered that there was no book written to address this group of people, I set out to write one.

Q. Who’s this book designed for? Who’s your “target audience?”

A. The target audience is actually non-Catholics (or non-practicing Catholics), so the book is written in an inviting, simple style that explains what we believe and why we believe it. However, Catholics will benefit from reading this book by seeing different ways to share the Faith and answer objections to it.

Q. What do you recommend as a good way to present this book to someone that will get them to read it?

A. I would buy two copies and give one to a friend. You could tell him you think the book is really interesting and you would enjoy discussing even just a single chapter with him. Don’t pitch this as a book to convert him but rather as something to help him learn more about your faith and why it’s important to you.

Q. Did you learn anything about your own faith while you were writing this book?

A. I really enjoyed researching the stories about the saints I included in the book. While many I knew, I was able to go more deeply into the details, such as the story of St. Damien of Molokai who heroically served lepers in Hawaii. One story I wasn’t familiar with was that of Fr. Thomas Byle, who stayed aboard the sinking the Titanic and gave his life to hear as many confessions as he could.

Q. You touch upon twenty-five different things that Catholics believe in your book. Which of these do you think is the most difficult for a non-Catholic or ex-Catholic to accept?

A. Probably moral issues like contraception or homosexuality. These touch upon the most intimate parts of our identity. and it’s easy for us to reject arguments that run contrary to such strong desires. It reminds me of Jesus’ teaching, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21).

Q. Which Catholic teaching do you think is the easiest for a non-Catholic or ex-Catholic to accept? Would it be a good jumping off point for dialogue?

A. One teaching that can be helpful to start with is the Church’s opposition to moral relativism. In an age where almost everything must be tolerated, the Church’s clear opposition to evils (such as rape, sex trafficking, genocide) and her willingness to call such acts objectively evil, can be attractive to many people who just want the plain truth. From there you can discuss what morality is and how the ultimate standard of morality can be found in God and how the Church helps us come to know this standard of truth.

Q. Why are you Catholic?

A. I am Catholic because God gave me grace to accept the revelation of his Son, Jesus Christ, and his plan to unite his children in the Catholic Church. Through this grace I came to see that the testimony of Scripture and the early Christians supports the claim that the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of Christ is the Catholic Church.

Q. Everyone loves a good story, especially one that results in a soul being transformed. The thing I like about this book is the way you weave real-life situations together with teaching points. Did you write it this way for a reason, or is that just the way the thoughts came to you?

A. I wanted to make sure stories would be a part of this book. An argument might go over some people’s heads, but a good story can help them see a truth clearly. I included not just aspects of my conversion story but also stories about saints that will help people see that Catholicism isn’t just true, it is good and beautiful as well.

Teaching the Bible to atheists made me Catholic – Don Johnson


-by Don Johnson

“I clearly remember the moment I became a Christian. I don’t recall how old I was exactly, probably six or seven, but it was a Sunday afternoon and I had been to church that morning. Something about Sunday School must have made an impression on me, because I asked my mother to come to my room to talk to me about getting saved. She graciously led me in a prayer of repentance and faith. As we finished, I felt great joy and relief sweep over me. I knew that I was going to get into heaven because Jesus had died for me.

If you had asked me at the time what it meant to be “saved,” I’m not sure what I would have told you. However, as I think back now to the theology of my youth, several images come to mind. For one, I considered salvation as a type of fire insurance. To avoid hell, make sure you sign on the dotted line by doing whatever the preacher says you need to do (“believe,” “repent,” “have faith,” “give your life to Jesus,” etc.) and then rest easy, knowing that you are covered. Your papers are in order, and when that fateful day arrives, everything will be just fine. In more familial and relational terms, I thought of becoming a child of God as a one-time transaction in which I got a new legal guardian, but one with whom I didn’t get to live. It’s like I was an orphan who got adopted, but then had to stay in the orphanage, even though I was now assigned a new name and even guaranteed an inheritance at some point in the future.

One of the unfortunate consequences of this view was that I lived a rather pathetic spiritual life as a youth. By that I mean I wasn’t really any different from any of the unbelievers I knew. I was enslaved to the same sins, beset by the same character flaws, and guided by the same materialistic priorities as everyone else. I didn’t pursue a life of radical righteousness or intimacy with God because I didn’t think it ultimately mattered. I was going to get to Heaven regardless. God didn’t take into account my sin and worldly ambition; He only saw the “Jesus covering” He had placed on me. I may not actually have been righteous, but God saw me as legally righteous, so everything was all right.

However, as a young adult my view of salvation began to change. I became heavily involved in ministry and started to study the Bible intensely. I was particularly interested in the Gospels and their relationship to the Old Testament. As I dug into Exodus, for example, I saw how it prefigured the entire story of God’s redemption. I became convinced that legal forgiveness is only one part of the equation. God doesn’t just purchase sinners while leaving them essentially unchanged. He doesn’t just take legal guardianship of children and cover their sins. Rather, He creates new children that are in intimate union with Him. God doesn’t just look at a believer “as if” he were a new person; he is actually a new person. The old person is dead, a new person is alive.

This birth is just the start of the Christian life, however. I now saw that salvation is a process by which we strive, by God’s grace, to become ever more like him. It is not simply a legal transaction in the past, but an ongoing journey to be finished and a battle to be won. My theology had been missing these truths. As I now started to understand and live them out, my relationship with God was taken to a much deeper level. It also turned out to be my first step toward the Catholic Church.

I was interacting with many skeptics in those days, and I noticed that their objections to Christianity were often based on the false view of salvation that I had come to reject. My childhood beliefs regarding salvation, and the spiritually weak Christians it produces, are a huge stumbling block. Unbelievers, particularly, simply can’t abide the notion that God doesn’t care what kind of person you are. They can’t understand why God would forgive some people and let them into heaven ahead of those who have lived morally better lives based on something as seemingly capricious and silly as saying a prayer, intellectually assenting to certain propositions, getting confirmed, or jumping through some other seemingly arbitrary hoop. It seems terribly unjust.

As my view of salvation shifted, I found myself agreeing with these atheists. If that view of God’s plan is correct, it is unjust. However, I was now convinced that that view was false. So I started teaching my new theology through my ministry and sharing it with the skeptics. And frankly, most of them were eating it up. The Evangelical churches I was speaking at greatly enjoyed my messages, and I was making good headway with many atheists and agnostics.

But not everyone appreciated my “insights.” I faced objections on two fronts. First, I was taken to task by an individual at one church, who claimed that I was contradicting the official doctrinal statement of his denomination. Frankly, I had never read it, and no one had ever asked me to. However, when I did, I realized that he actually had a case. There, in black and white, was the proposition that salvation was a one-time legal transaction that should be understood as separate from any call to ongoing holy living.

Secondly, the skeptics I was sharing with, while generally receptive to my understanding of salvation, often ended the conversation by saying something like this: “That’s nice, Don, and if God really was how you portray Him, and if His plan of salvation actually did work that way, I might accept it. But that’s just your opinion. The pastor down the street says something different, and I can find any number of Christian leaders who would offer any variety of opinions, and they all use the same Bible you do. Why should I believe your interpretation?” I had to admit they had a point.

In response, I started to dig into church history. Specifically, I started studying the history of various local denominations and the history of the doctrine of justification. That led me directly to the Reformation. Curiously, I had never really studied the Reformation. I had just assumed that it was a righteous movement that restored the Church to its biblical roots. However, as I analyzed what actually had happened, several startling facts jumped out at me, none of which aligned with my presuppositions.

First, the understanding of salvation that I had accepted as a child but now rejected as unbiblical was actually an articulated doctrine of several Reformers. (Today it is often called “forensic justification.”) Indeed, it was a key point of disagreement with Rome and a foundational element of much of Protestantism. It was a shock to me that, in many of my sermons, I was actually attacking one of the cornerstone doctrines of the movement that led to the very churches in which I had been speaking.

So the question naturally arose: Was the doctrine of forensic justification something new with the Reformation, or was it a renewal of the early Church’s teaching? In other words, were the beliefs that I now rejected held by the early Church Fathers — in which case I would have to re-think my stance — or were they developed fresh by the Reformers — in which case I could feel justified in rejecting them.

After extensive research, the answer was clear: the idea of forensic justification was new with the Reformation. Before that, the Church had been unanimous and unwavering in its understanding of salvation as a process whereby Christ’s life makes us new, and we are formed to be like Him. My “new” understanding of salvation, based on my personal interpretation of Scripture, turned out to be simply the historical orthodox teaching of the Catholic Church.

That truth dovetailed nicely with another fact I discovered: the Reformation notion of sola Scriptura was also new, and the crisis of authority that I faced in my evangelism work was its direct result. The idea that the Bible alone should guide us had never been accepted within Christianity before 1517, and its introduction led only to doctrinal chaos. Without an authoritative interpretive guide, people could — and did — teach and believe anything.

As I now realized, Jesus never intended such confusion. That’s why He left us a Church. He didn’t drop a book from the sky and say, “Do your best to find your own way based on your own interpretation.” He appointed Apostles and gave them His authority to lead in His name. I now had an answer to the skeptics who claimed that my theological views were just my opinion: No, my views are simply the teaching of the Church that Jesus founded.

Faced with the beginning of a clear biblical, historical, and philosophical case for the Catholic Church, I started to panic. This was going to cause a huge disruption in my life! But the more I studied, the more reasonable and attractive Catholicism became. I read authors like Scott Hahn and Jeff Cavins. I even enrolled in the MA Theology program at Franciscan University of Steubenville and became enthralled with the writings of Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as well as scholars such as Jean Danielou and Louis Bouyer. One by one my various objections were answered.

The last stumbling block was the Sacraments. I had been raised in a very non-liturgical, non-sacramental church culture, and I was having trouble getting comfortable with the idea that God would use matter as a means of grace. However, here again, my study of Scripture and the Reformation, as well as my work with skeptics, was a great help.

First, I realized that the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist had been universally accepted and practiced from the early Church until the Reformation. Its rejection in the 16th century represented something novel in the history of Christianity. If the Reformers were right, it meant that everyone from the very first disciples of the Apostle John had been wrong. That made no sense to me.

Secondly, having already been making the case that the New Testament was the fulfillment of the Old, I applied this interpretative principle to passages such as John 6. What could Jesus possibly have meant, and how would His Jewish followers have understood Him? I began to understand that the Eucharist was the fulfillment of the Passover celebration and those early Christians, who were almost all Jews, would never have understood it after my gnostic manner. They would instead have understood it according to the sacramental worldview they had always held; they would have seen it as the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus.

Finally, my work with skeptics helped me to come to a revelation about the Sacraments. My approach to atheists and agnostics, especially those who tend towards a materialistic view of the world, is to suggest that there might just be more to the world than they’ve been led to believe.

I then asserted that their worldview is reductionist, and that there might be dimensions to reality that they hadn’t really taken into account. By ignoring these, they were missing out on a lot of really good, true and beautiful things that God was offering. Their skeptical worldview was a handicap for them, it was reducing their understanding of reality and constraining them from living life to the fullest.

Then, a question began to arise within my mind. What if there was more to the world than I, too, had been led to believe? What if there were dimensions to reality that I hadn’t taken into account, and that by ignoring them, I had been missing out on a lot of really good, true and beautiful things? What if, I asked myself, not only did Jesus love me and long for me to live a joyful life, but that He had made possible an even more abundant life than I had imagined by offering His very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist? Could it be that my Protestant worldview was equally reductionist and gnostic in a way similar to the atheist viewpoint?

My answer was yes. I realized that I had been guilty of unjustified skepticism towards Catholicism in the same way that unbelievers are unjustifiably skeptical towards Christianity in general. I also realized that I longed for the Eucharist and the intimacy with Jesus that it promised. That was the final piece of the puzzle, and I was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, 2015.”

Love,
Matthew

Questions from friends…


-by Trent Horn

Questions From Friends

When I was considering joining the Catholic Church I sat down with some of my non-Catholic friends to see if they could talk me out of my decision. They were Christians, but they didn’t consider themselves to be “Protestants.” Instead, they called themselves Evangelicals or just “Christ-followers.” Regardless, their response to my decision to become Catholic surprised me.

One of the girls said, “As long as Catholics believe in Jesus then I don’t think it’s a big deal.” Another chimed in, “I mean, we’re never going to know which church is the right church or even if there is such a thing, so why worry?”

That answer didn’t satisfy me so I asked them, “Don’t you wonder if one of the churches that exists today can be traced back to the Church Jesus founded? Don’t you wonder which church Jesus wants us to join?”

The First Christians

My question was met with a collective shrug and a simple recommendation that I just “believe in Jesus,” but that wasn’t good enough for me. How did my Evangelical friends know we only have to believe in Jesus to be saved? What does it mean to believe in Jesus? Do we have to be baptized to believe in Jesus? Do we have to receive Communion? If I stop believing in Jesus will I lose my salvation?

I wanted the answers to these questions so I decided to study what the very first Christians believed. These were the believers who lived just after the apostles. If there was one church I wanted to belong to, it was their church.

In the time of the apostles believers were called “Christians,” but the Church was not called “the Christian Church.” It was simply referred to as “the Church,” as is evident in Luke’s description of what Paul and Barnabas did in the city of Antioch. He said, “For a whole year they met with the Church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians” (Acts 11:26).

A few decades later St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote a letter to Christians who lived six hundred miles away, in the coastal city of Smyrna (located in modern Turkey). He said, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

An Old Baby Photo

“How can today’s Catholic Church with all of its traditions and rituals be the same the humble Church we read about in the New Testament?” It’s a good question, but it’s sort of like asking, “How can that fully grown man be the same little boy whose diaper had to be changed decades earlier?” In both cases the body being described grew and developed over time without becoming a different kind of being.

The man, for example, has many things he did not have as a baby (like a beard he needs to shave). But he also has many of the same things he did have as a baby. This includes the same DNA that guides his growth and gives him features like “his father’s nose,” which can be seen in his old baby photos. In the same way, the Catholic Church, which St. Paul calls the Body of Christ (Eph. 5:23), has the same “DNA” as the Church of the first century: the word of God. This word is transmitted both through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition and you can see its effect in one of the Church’s “old baby photos.”

One particular “photo” comes from the second century, when St. Justin Martyr wrote about how when Christians gathered to worship, they “offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all others in every place.” After that, they “salute one another with a kiss,” the presider at the service takes bread and wine and does the following:

[He] gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen.

Justin’s description corresponds to the prayers of the faithful, the exchange of peace, the offering of bread and wine, and the “great amen” that are still said at Catholic services today. Justin goes on to say that the bread and wine at Mass are not mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood, but are instead “the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.” This doctrine, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is one the Catholic Church still teaches and defends.

Here are some other examples of what the first Christians believed. Can you see the resemblance to what Catholics believe today in these other “baby photos”?

  • Submit to the bishop as you would to Jesus Christ.—St. Ignatius A.D. 110.
  • Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life.—Tertullian, A.D. 203.
  •  The Church received from the apostles the tradition of giving baptism even to infants.—Origen, A.D. 248.
  • Of how much greater faith and salutary fear are they who . . . confess their sins to the priests of God in a straightforward manner.—St Cyprian, A.D. 251.

Why We Believe: The Catholic Church

  • Jesus established a Church built on the apostles that included a hierarchy, or sacred order, that included deacons, priests, and bishops.
  • Only the Catholic Church can trace its authority back to the apostles and their immediate successors.
  • The Catholic Church has maintained in her current teachings the ancient doctrines of Christ, the apostles, and the early Church.”

Love,
Matthew

Bible study: Acts of the Apostles


-“Saint Paul”, Bartolomeo Montagna, ~1431 AD


-by Casey Chalk

“Ecumenical Bible studies: they are often demonstrations of the best and worst of Christian dialogue. In their most beneficial form, they offer opportunities for members of various Christian traditions, be they Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, or various strands of Evangelicalism, to share their own rich understandings and applications of Biblical literature. Alternatively, they can devolve into unprofitable contests of “name that Scripture verse” to support some particular doctrine — justification by grace through faith alone, Petrine primacy, infant baptism, you name it. A tendency among those Christians eager to “keep the peace” in a setting featuring divergent theological beliefs and practices is to try to find common ground, lowest common denominators, and “non-negotiables.” Such attempts can themselves be profitable, though at times the result is a conversation lacking any theological depth, the participants so frightened of controversy and of offending one another that folks reduce themselves to “this is how this Scripture verse speaks to me” comments. Better than nothing, I suppose, though certainly less than what we are called to do as Christians when approaching Holy Scripture. It’s hard to imagine St. Paul walking into a synagogue in Corinth and declaring in firm confidence to the Jews present: “You may have your own interpretations of the Torah, which may be equally true, but let me tell you what this Scripture means to me!” Is there any way for Christians of different theological stripes to bridge the gap? In this post I will propose an alternative way to read and discuss Scripture that I think offers opportunity for more fruitful exchanges between Christians.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

One of the biggest obstacles to overcome in ecumenical Bible studies is that individuals from different traditions have certain “voices” speaking to them when they sit down to read Scripture, and it’s not that we are all schizophrenics. What I mean is that no one really sits down to read their Bible in a vacuum, as if one could really isolate their reading in such a way that it was just that person, the Holy Spirit, and the text. Rather, we read Scripture with all manner of unavoidable influences: what others have told us about the text, what we have read others say about the text, what influence the text may have had on our lives (presuming we’ve read it before), what associations we have with certain words or ideas in the text, and so on. Truly, there’s no such thing as “me and my Bible” — it’s me, my middle-school youth group leader, my first “Teen Bible,” the pastor at my church, Christian radio, that course I took in college, what my significant other believes, and on and on.

To take a more doctrinal view, some Protestants will be reading their Bibles in light of doctrines prevalent in mainstream evangelicalism (say, Rick Warren or Philip Yancey), Reformed thought (say, John Piper or R.C. Sproul), or even the “emergent church” movement (think Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz or William P. Young’s The Shack). Catholics, on the other hand, will read their Bibles in light of popular Catholic thinkers like Scott Hahn or Bishop Robert Barron, and probably with various Magisterial teachings from Church councils or papal doctrinal statements floating around in the background, as well. None of these influences, I would argue, can be easily put aside in an ecumenical Bible study, because their mark on our thoughts and practices runs deep. But neither can members of different traditions just accept an opposing position, as if an evangelical would say, “fine, I’ll just put my opinions on hold for the next hour-and-a-half and act as if whatever the Pope says is true.” We do indeed need some “common ground” beyond just picking up the Bible and starting to read it together, and it needs to be more than just some overly-deferential and vapid validation of everyone’s opinions. Since the New Testament, and particularly Paul’s letters, are one of the more popular texts for Bible studies, I want to focus my attention there. In this case, I propose that reading Paul in light of another New Testament text, the Book of Acts, can reap ecumenical dividends.1

Why Acts?

Using Acts as an interpretive “lodestar” can be an effective tool for ecumenical dialogue because it itself is something everyone at the table should already agree on: it’s Scripture! There shouldn’t be any Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox asserting their defiance to the book, as if it represents some subtle means of asserting one’s particular theological tradition over the conversation. In addition to this fairly obvious point, I can identify at least three other good reasons why Acts can be an interpretive lodestar — meaning, just as certain stars in the sky, like Polaris, can serve as a guide the course of a ship, so Acts can serve as a guide or reference point for reading Paul.

The first is that Acts is history, specifically, the history of the early Church during part of the Apostolic age. Generally speaking, reading a history of a particular era shines light on the “primary texts” of that era, helping contextualize and make sense of that historical period. Consider this example: let’s say you want to learn about the American Civil War. There are many great collections of letters, diaries, and memoirs regarding this historical period: Elijah Hunt Rhodes, Sam Watkins, Mary Chestnut, etc. You could certainly pick up one of them and just start reading. But will much of the text make sense to you, especially if you have little knowledge of that period? If your goal is to answer certain broad contextual questions regarding the Civil War, like “what were its causes?,” “who were the most important people?”, “what were the most important events”?, and “how and why did it end?”, these texts will not provide a systematic or thorough answer. Indeed, they weren’t intended to, because they were occasional, meaning written in reaction to a certain occasion. Elijah Hunt Rhodes, an enlisted soldier in the Union Army, didn’t intend his journal to be a history — he was simply recording his own personal experiences. In order to have a history in the modern sense, one needs a book (or books) written by someone who has read scores of primary and secondary sources, interviewed people, and visited important sites. You need a general history.

The Book of Acts is, in a sense, exactly that kind of general history. It is an overview of the major events and themes of the early Church, beginning with Jesus’ ascension into heaven around A.D. 33, and ending when St. Paul was imprisoned in Rome (probably around A.D. 60). Of course, for us as twenty-first century readers, Acts is itself a primary source of information about the early Apostolic Church, but it would not be too much of a stretch to call it a type of “secondary source,” or maybe more accurately a “proto-secondary source.” The author, St. Luke, very explicitly says in the beginning of the Gospel of Luke that his research is a compilation of information based on eyewitness testimony. If we read Acts first, and read Paul’s letters (or any other letters in the New Testament, for that matter), in light of what we know about the Church in Acts, we are sure to reap interpretive rewards.

A second reason to understand Acts as a general history is an argument from literature. Consider this analogy: if you wanted to know about Jane Austen and her literary corpus, reading all of her literature would give you quite a few details about her: her own life, and the major themes and ideas of her writing. But it would still be incomplete, because reading Austen’s work doesn’t tell you a lot of important things about her, information that would illuminate much of her books. If you were to read other works by authors who have done research on Austen, or who have sought to compile a biography of her life, you would be able to grasp more fully what she is trying to accomplish in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.

St. Paul’s letters are themselves a genre of literature, what scholars often call epistles, a type of formal letter. If you want to understand St. Paul, his life, the themes and doctrines that defined his theological understanding, you could read only the thirteen letters ascribed to him. Yet this would be woefully incomplete, especially given that the Book of Acts contains so many details about his life and teachings. Indeed, in addition to his conversion story (related three separate times!) and his missionary activity, Acts features several sermons of St. Paul, giving an additional important aspect to interpreting his teaching. Moreover, St. Paul is the main character of the second half of Acts, so much so that he is mentioned 131 times in the entire book. If you know Acts, you will better know St. Paul.

Finally and somewhat obviously is the organization of the New Testament itself. One may know that the books of New Testament are not listed in chronological order. In chronological order, the first book of the New Testament would likely be the Gospels of Matthew or Mark, or possibly Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Then would be most of Paul’s epistles, followed by the Gospel of Luke, then Acts, possibly some more epistles, and finally the Gospel of John and Revelation. Yet in our our Bibles, we have Acts coming right after the Gospels, before any of Paul’s epistles, the other epistles, or Revelation. Why?

Remember that the New Testament canon did not arrive in the early Church overnight, nor was it easily agreed upon by all Christians. The books of the New Testament were written over a period of around 50 or 60 years, and many churches didn’t have access to all of those books for centuries. The earliest lists of New Testament books we have are from the latter half of the second century A.D. — this includes the Muratorian Canon and a list provided by St. Irenaeus of Lyon. No body of Christians (at least that we know of in the historical record) weighed in on an authoritative list of the New Testament until the four century. When these councils did vote on the content of the New Testament, they placed Acts directly after the four Gospels. This seems to have been a reasonable decision, given that the Gospels tell the life of Jesus and His Apostles up through the resurrection and ascension, and Acts picks up the story from the ascension. Possibly a bit more curiously, these Church councils separated Acts from the Gospel of Luke, which most scholars recognize was written by the same author, given the similarity of language and themes. In between the two books the councils placed the last of the Gospels, John, written almost certainly last, and also almost certainly after Acts. Why do this? Possibly because the council wanted to declare to readers: “first, know the story of Jesus; then,, know the story of the early Church; and once you know those stories, know the epistles of Paul and others.” Acts appears where it does in the New Testament because the Church in the fourth century believed it important for people to read it before reading St. Paul’s own works.

A Few Questions to Explore

I’d like to briefly move from theory to application. Bible studies often feed upon group questions for discussion. I’ll propose a few here, with the overarching theme of asking what happens if one reads St. Paul’s letters (or other Apostolic letters, for that matter) in light of Acts. I’ll also offer a few of my own reflections as I’ve sought to read St. Paul using Acts as my lodestar.

Question 1: What were the most important issues facing the early Church as recorded in the Book of Acts? Once you’ve named two or three, consider how those issues are addressed in St. Paul’s letters.

I would argue that apart from the persecution of Christians by Jewish and Roman authorities, the most pressing question facing the early Church was this: who is in the Church, and what do they have to do to be part of it? More specifically, is the Church only for Jews? If Gentiles are allowed in, do they in any sense have to become Jews? Note that the first recorded conflict in the early Church is between Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking Jews over the distribution of food to widows from their respective communities (Acts 6:1). This cultural-linguistic division becomes more pronounced when some Church leaders start sharing the Gospel with non-Jews, including an Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40), and a Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10: 1-48). Moreover, the centurion’s conversion is so controversial that when St. Peter returns to the Church in Jerusalem he is forced to defend himself against certain Jewish Christians (called “the circumcision party”), who question the decision to baptize a Roman pagan. This conflict becomes an overwhelming tidal wave by Acts 15, when certain Christian men assert that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).

The greatest controversy within the early Church seems to localize on this particular question: do Gentiles who convert to Christianity need to become Jews by being circumcised and accepting Jewish dietary laws? The Church determines in Acts 15 that no, they do not, but the question continues to dog the Church: St. Paul tells us in Galatians 2:11-21 that St. Peter, coming under the influence of the same “circumcision party,” had separated himself from Gentile believers in Antioch, for which St. Paul publicly reprimanded him. This is actually the only mention we have within the New Testament of one Apostle publicly rebuking another.

What I’ve described above suggests that this was the predominant controversy of the early Church, encompassing the entirety of the historical period during which St. Paul’s letters were written. We should thus ask ourselves how the issues cited in the Pauline epistles (including his discussion of “faith v. works”) appear when viewed as part of this particular conflict over the status of Gentile Christians.2

Question 2: How did the Apostles pursue evangelism toward Jews and Gentiles in the days of the early Church? What was necessary to become a Christian? Do we see those priorities identified in St. Paul’s letters? Is there continuity or discontinuity in St. Paul in comparison to Acts?

St. Peter gives the first sermon of the early Church, recorded in the second chapter of Acts. When his audience asks him what is necessary for them to be saved, his response is that they repent, be baptized, and “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The theme of baptism is consistent throughout the conversion stories of the early Church, repeated in Acts 8:13, 38-40; 10:44-48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; and 19:5, among others. Baptism, it would appear, is an essential feature of the missionary efforts of the Church. Moreover, baptism seems to be intimately united to the gift of the Holy Spirit, as if the sacrament in some sense actually serves as the mode by which new Christians receive the third person of the Trinity. Baptism also plays a dominant role in St. Paul’s theology, and is often united to discussion of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5, 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 1:17, 6:11, 10:2; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 2:5-6, 5:26; Colossians 2:11-12; Titus 3:5-7, etc.).

Question 3: What is the Church according to Acts? How does the Church resolve crises and conflicts? How does that compare to what St. Paul says about the Church?

The Apostles, unsurprisingly, are central to the leadership of the early Church. Indeed, Acts is largely a story of just a few key leaders: St. Peter, St. John, St. James, and St. Paul. St. Peter and St. Paul loom the largest. As noted above, the debate over the place of Gentiles within the nascent Church seems to reach its apex in Acts 15, when we read that “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (Acts 15:6). This is in a sense the very first council of the Church, with the most important leaders, including St. Peter and St. Paul, present. Indeed, it is St. Peter who seems to give the “keynote address,” while St. James confirms St. Peter’s judgment. The council, apparently representing “the whole Church,” then sends a letter to the church in Antioch with its determination and various commands, while apparently claiming to act with the authority of the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28).

The role of the Church is also central to St. Paul’s letters, emphasizing the importance of its unity (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; Ephesians 4:1-6), its holiness (1 Corinthians 6:1, 16:1; Ephesians 5:25-27), its universality or catholicity (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 3:8-10), and its apostolicity (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11:2). Indeed, St. Paul’s ecclesiology is so high, he declares the household of God, the “church of the living God,” to be the “pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).3

Conclusion

Disagreements between Protestants, Catholics, and other Christian communions over the interpretation of Scripture are inevitable. In settings like Bible studies, however, we too often try to gloss over the differences as if they weren’t there, or as if discussing them will weaken our fellowship. This only needs to be the case if we aren’t capable of respectfully listening to and considering an interpretation or belief different from our own, or of communicating our own position with humility and charity. Yet through prayer and the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can overcome our own weaknesses, and find far richer ecumenical dialogue in the process. Reading the letters of the New Testament through the lens of Acts presents one opportunity for such conversation. We will likely disagree over such issues as the role of faith and works in salvation, or the how and when of baptism, or the exact nature of Church authority. Yet rather than returning to our usual mode of defensive apologetics or proof-texting, we might all benefit from a careful study of Paul in the context of Acts. We might be surprised what we find.”

Love, & Christian charity,
Matthew

1. I am indebted here to Fr. Sebastian Carnazzo, a professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College, who provided this methodology in his New Testament course.
2. Helpful analysis of this question can be found in N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997) and N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
3. Taylor R. Marshall, The Catholic Perspective on Paul (Dallas, TX: Saint John Press, 2010), 35-46.